Misunderstanding Canute: Celebrating H.M. The Queen`s 90th Birthday

Perhaps like me you can recall being told the story of King Canute… ? Well I remember it as a story about a man who has gone down in history as the rather foolish king who, flattered by his courtiers thought that he could hold back the waves on the beach. And of course it`s his story that`s in the background whenever we use that expression: “You can`t hold back the tide”.

But (perhaps to my shame) it was only fairly recently that I learnt that poor old Canute has been much maligned… and that what Canute actually wanted to do was demonstrate to his flattering courtiers that on the contrary… he couldn`t hold back the tide. No…..even though he was the King there were appropriate limits to his power and authority… King Canute wanted to make the point that even he… especially he stood subject to the authority of God.

Now, I suspect that (like me) many generations of people have miss-heard this tale and it will probably continue to go down as an example of hubris and vanity rather than holiness… In fact some folk will probably prefer this miss-telling of the tale because they would say that it stands as a lesson to those who lead us nowadays; those who all too easily make us cynical by their pretensions, posturing and empty promises.

But having said all of that I warm to this discovery about Canute. I`m attracted by this notion of someone who was not only appropriately humble but who tried to point folk in the direction of something; some-one bigger than themselves. And I think it`s this particular characteristic … this special gift which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has given to us throughout her reign. This, I want to suggest is the principle cause for our gratitude today.

That`s not to say that we couldn`t spend some considerable time reflecting on her exemplary service to the nation… of course we could; and I hope you`ll find much of that captured in that commemorative booklet which I hope you received as you arrived today.

No, I asked myself if there was ONE particular thing we might reflect on and as I say I think it`s the way Her Majesty`s faith has been both the mainstay of her life and something which (like her predecessor King Canute) she has sought to place before us from which we will learn the most. In short, we might say that she has borne her (yes, constitutional) authority very lightly….. and continually pointed us to something bigger than ourselves.

And this is one of the themes which the two Bible readings we`ve heard today have in common. The first, from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Chapter 12) was among the last of the Old Testament Books to be written and putting it simply, it`s a very sober affair.

Now I say that quite deliberately because my College Tutor once said that the Jewish people used to read Ecclesiastes at the time of the grape harvest….. It was, in other words a text for those who had a bit of a hangover…..! And sure enough there is a great deal of sobriety, a great sense of perspective woven into the text.

We hear for instance, how the passage of our lives and our many preoccupations are summed up in those familiar words: “Vanity of vanities, says the teacher; all is vanity”… And as if to drive the point home I again recall my Tutor telling me that the Hebrew word for `vanity` is here best translated as “Bubbles”…. “Everything is Bubbles”.

But the point is that this would indeed come across as a somewhat cynical and even despairing document if all we had to focus on was this sense of life as transitory and wearisome. But the writer doesn`t leave us wallowing. To the young he says: Remember your creator in the days of your youth” and to us all he says: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”. The wise come to see the whole of life undergirded by the providence of God….

And it`s in this same direction that Jesus takes us in our Gospel Reading. (Luke 12: 22-31) I find it really interesting to hear how people react to these words of Jesus.


He says: ‘Therefore I tell you,

do not worry about your life, what you will eat,

or about your body, what you will wear.

For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap,

they have neither storehouse nor barn,

and yet God feeds them.

Of how much more value are you than the birds!

And can any of you by worrying

add a single hour to your span of life?

If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that,

why do you worry about the rest?

… and so on and so forth….

I mean, if we pause for a moment ……….we know full well that he`s tapping into an anxiety and a dis-ease which ALL of us experience to a greater or lesser degree. But the question is `how we`re going to respond? And it seems to me that there are two paths we can take.

The first… I say respectfully… is that we can just dismiss Jesus as if he were a deluded idealist. Yes, we do need to bear in mind that he was speaking to a gathering of people who were living (in our terms at least) lives that were very vulnerable and where getting even one meal a day would have been deeply appreciated. But we could, just regard him as `too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use`.

But if we don`t dismiss him out of hand we could always reflect on what the writer Dallas Willard said many years ago. He said: “What did Jesus know?” I found that a fascinating question. He was suggesting that we just take a moment to suspend our cynicism and ask, “Do you think Jesus might really be on to something here?” I mean don`t you think he`s right in exposing the futility of our attempts to go against the grain of our creation…. Our hubris in trying to play the Canute who thinks he can hold back the tide of life….

I heard somebody say recently that the mild (to say the least) panic that we seem to be going through regarding the health service these days is really because somewhere, subconsciously we think that with the right treatment we might get out of life alive…… ! A fantasy that medical science is all too happy to go along with.

But Jesus says: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” No, the important thing to note is that Jesus isn`t advocating either fatalism or a counsel of despair…. Just learning to live with the truth of our creation. Again, far from leaving us resigned to our fate he lifts our horizons….he says there IS something positive we can do …. He calls it “striving for God`s Kingdom”.

Which means getting things the right way round; it means learning to live each day in the recognition that it is a gift and not an opportunity for more anxiety. It means learning that the universe is a far friendlier place to be than we realise; that we have been loved into being by the one Jesus teaches us to call `Father` and that those around us are not competitors but companions.


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