The following post was originally used as a sermon at a Service of Commemoration for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The past days have been strange and unsettling for everyone in the UK, and for many people around the world. Her Majesty the Queen was not only a monarch and public figure, she was also an example and an inspiration. Her humility, kindness and service shone through in all she did, born out in the many tributes paid to her over recent days. She was for the nation a very real sign of continuity and stability. For many of us, she has been the only monarch we had ever known.
It is not surprising, therefore, that her death has been felt so deeply. Many people have found themselves surprised by their emotions and grief. And naturally in such circumstances we wonder where we can turn with our feelings of grief and loss.
Speaking at the end of 2001, a year which saw the terror attacks of 9/11 whose anniversary is also today, Her Majesty said these words: “As so often in our lives at times of tragedy - just as on occasions of celebration and thanksgiving - we look to the Church to bring us together as a nation or as a community in commemoration and tribute. It is to the Church that we turn to give meaning to these moments of intense human experience.”
It is to Bible passages such as the ones we had read that we turn at these times to find both hope and meaning. They express our emotions but also transform them.
Psalm 121, for instance, begins with a question that I am sure we have all asked and perhaps have asked again over recent days:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?” (v1)
Those words were probably sung by pilgrims as they travelled up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. That journey to Jerusalem was not an easy one. The hill country that surrounded that area was a place of thieves and robbers. They would use the terrain to conceal themselves, lying in wait to seize upon an unsuspecting traveller. As the travellers saw those hills and mountains, they would be forced to ask themselves, “Where does my help come from?”
Fortunately, the psalm not only asks the question, but also answers it:
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (v2)
God is our helper. The maker of heaven and earth is also the helper of ordinary human beings like you and me.
This was something that Her Majesty the Queen knew personally. In an address on her 21st birthday, she pledged herself to a life of service of the people of the UK and the Commonwealth. But she knew she could not do it alone.
At the close of her speech, she said: “God help me to make good my vow”. She repeated the same sentiment in her Christmas address of 2002, saying:
I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right and to put my trust in God.
Our late Queen had a great deal of power, influence and resources at her disposal. Yet she knew that she needed the help of Almighty God in good times and in painful times. She knew that her help came from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
The psalm continues to strength us by telling us how God helps us. He does so by watching over us.
“The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand … The LORD will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life;” (v5–7)
In the ancient world, cities would be protected by city walls. They would surround the people’s homes and help them to feel secure. But the walls themselves would not be enough to protect against attack.
Cities would post watchmen on the walls to look out for invading armies. The people in the city would be able to sleep soundly because the watchmen were watching over them.
That is the image of God that the psalm wants to understand. God is our watchman, watching over us to keep us safe. We can rest because God is looking out for dangers. We can sleep, because God does not sleep. He never slumbers or sleeps but continually watches over us to keep us safe.
Back in the nineteenth century a story is told of a captain of an ocean liner from Liverpool to New York. The captain had his family on board and during the night when everyone was asleep a huge storm came upon them. It threw the ship around and woke everyone up. Soon the whole ship was awake and expecting the ship to sink.
The captain’s eight year old daughter was on board and, of course, she was woken up as well. She found someone and asked them, “What’s going on?” “The ship has hit a furious storm,” they answered. “Is my father on deck?” replied the girl. “Yes, your father is on deck” came the answer, at which the girl dropped herself back into bed and resumed sleeping in spite of the storm.
So too with us. Where does our help come from? It comes from our father God, watching and keeping us from harm.
As we draw comfort and strength from the character of God in these verses, we do have to ask a difficult question. Does God really keep us from all harm. After all, we will have known harm and difficulty in our lives. Neither was our late Queen immune from tragedy and grief. From the burning of her beloved Windsor Castle, to the loss of loved ones such as her own mother and her dear husband, Phillip, her ‘strength and stay’.
We need, I think, to turn to the end of the Psalm and the final verse:
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore. (v8)
God watches over our steps day by day. But most of all, God watches over the coming and going of ourlife. He watches over our entry into this world, and our going from it, what our new King called the Queen’s ‘last great journey.’
God does not promise that we will never face difficulty here and now. But he does promise that he will keep us and watch over us through this life and into eternity.
The solid hope that makes this more than wishful thinking is the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Her Majesty reflected on this truth in her Christmas message as the turn of the millennium:
[Jesus’] ministry only lasted a few years and he himself never wrote anything down. In his early thirties he was arrested, tortured and crucified with two criminals. His death might have been the end of the story, but then came the resurrection and with it the foundation of the Christian faith.
The foundation of the comfort and hope of the Christian faith is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That Jesus lived, died and then rose again. It is the reason why we can know confidently that God can keep us secure in our coming into and going out of this life. It was the truth that Her Majesty the Queen built her life upon:
“Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them” (2016)
Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered from many things. Her dedication to a life of service; her example of humility; her mix of professionalism with good humour. And for her unwavering trust in Jesus Christ. It is what gave her hope and strength even in the darkest of times. It is what can give us hope and strength too, even in the face of death.