Lent 2: Children of Abraham

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Readings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (NLT)

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.”

At this, Abram fell face down on the ground. Then God said to him, “This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!

“I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.”

15 Then God said to Abraham, “Regarding Sarai, your wife—her name will no longer be Sarai. From now on her name will be Sarah. 16 And I will bless her and give you a son from her! Yes, I will bless her richly, and she will become the mother of many nations. Kings of nations will be among her descendants.”

Mark 8:31-end (NLT)

31 Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. 32 As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things.

33 Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”

34 Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Homily by the Rev’d Jo Joyce

Last week we were thinking about the story of Noah. This week the covenant we are thinking about is the one God made with Abraham.

This story is both the one of Abraham and Sarah’s personal journey with God, but also of God’s wider promise to them about their descendants and who they would become, and ultimately how all people are drawn into that.

Abram’s story occurs before the start of the 12 tribes of Israel were formed. He was from Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. Its likely that he had worshipped many gods as was the custom there. The bible doesn’t tell us when he came to understand that there was one God, or when he began to worship God. Rather, we see him here in very old age here talking with God. God tells him to serve him in return for a covenant, or promise, that he would give him countless descendants. Now at the age of 99 and with a wife well into the menopause, its unsurprising that he had given up hope, but his response is to worship. And God promises that among his descendants would be kings, that this was to be an everlasting promise, and God reiterates that promise for Sarai, she is to be the mother of many. God gives them both new names;

Abram, ‘exalted father’ becomes Abraham, ‘Father of multitudes’

Sarai ‘argumentative princess’ becomes Sarah ‘princess’

Their names symbolise the changes God is making in their lives and their temperaments, who they are, because although their story echoes down through the ages, it is first and foremost their own story. The tale of how God brought about a miraculous change in their fortunes, removed the stigma of childlessness and began the building of the nation of Israel. Now, they are both far from perfect. We read earlier in Genesis how Abram lied about his relationship to Sari to deceive the King and protect himself – note not protect Sari! We read later of Sarah’s jealousy at Hagar, her servant’s pregnancy, driving her away from her home.

The miracle of their impending childbirth doesn’t make them better people, but it does start that link, the promise between God and Abraham, and eventually his sons and grandsons who became the 12 tribes of Israel, among whom numbered kings, including David and eventually Jesus, and also incidentally included Ishmael, his son by Hagar, Sarah’s servant, from whom it’s believed the Ishmaelites, the Arabs descended, and who became one of the Patriarchs of Islam.

God’s promise with Abraham is then in this way a promise not just to those early Israelites, but to all his descendants. God promises that he will always be the God of the descendants of Abraham, he promises that his firstborn to Sarah, Issac, would become this great nation, and his son by Hagar, Ishmael would also become a great nation, but that the covenant would follow the line of Issac. As a sign of this covenantal promise, all the men were to be circumcised. A physical reminder of a promise with God, something that all the Israelite men were to observe down the ages, or face being cut off from that promise, and so in this way the physical and spiritual sign of their faith became linked.

So, what does this story from so long ago, a time that in this country was known as the bronze age, mean today? How can we relate to the story of someone who lived 4000 years ago?

I think several things are important, that it is to Abraham that the three largest monotheistic religions in the world can trace their heritage, Judaism, Islam and Christianity all look back to him. In him we see the start of an understanding of one creator God, rather than a number of gods who ruled different aspects of life. God’s covenant with Abraham is a sign of the link between the creator God and us as God’s people. A sign of the promise of relationship down the ages, he would be their God and they, and eventually we, would be his people, drawn into a relationship that is more intimate than that of purely worship, Abraham talked with God, even bargained with him sometimes, and God was intimately involved with his life, ultimately enabling him to have the descendants he longed for. Most importantly for us in this line of descendants came Jesus, who opened that covenant to all people, not just those who descended from Issac. Abraham’s story is one of faith, of walking with God, of being changed and challenged by God, but holding firm. In the promises God made to Abraham we can have hope, that we too can be counted among his descendants and we too can become a part of this age-old story.

Prayer

Lord, you ask us to follow you: may we follow you as bread. Knead us and rest us. Raise us, bake us and break us. Set us at the centre and disperse us. Let us be absorbed by others and multiplied in their hearts. Let us be collected as manna or as leftovers. Let us be in twelve baskets when your work is done. For you are the bread of life: we trust you to feed us each with just a fragment apiece, and to fill us with the smallest crumb. *

Lord, when we wander astray, guide us with the light of your truth: in your mercy, hear our prayer

Lord, may the nations of the earth recognise their common humanity, and cease from all hostilities. May the people of the book, the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, learn to share so much in our faiths which unites us and make the holy city of Jerusalem a shrine which we can all share. Restore, we pray, among our leaders, the wisdom to govern in a spirit of service to the common good, free from the all-consuming desire for material gain.

Lord, when we wander astray, guide us with the light of your truth: in your mercy, hear our prayer

Lord, foster in us that questioning interest we feel when we see a new face or hear a new name, when we give attention to someone unknown. And may that interest become respect, and respect flower as reverence in the face of whatever triumphs and wounds, hurts and mistakes, make this stranger unknown and yet knowable, unlikely yet likeable. Lord, many found you to be strange and yet the most vulnerable found healing and peace in your presence. Make friends of us, that we might be ready friends to strangers as strange as ourselves. **

Lord, when we wander astray, guide us with the light of your truth: in your mercy, hear our prayer

Lord, you told us to take up our cross and follow you: we are humbled by your example as you were broken on our behalf. The pain of the cross takes many forms, and we pray for those who are finding it hard to bear. May we neither fall into the error of clinging to our pain when it is futile, nor refusing to embrace the cost when you require it of us. May we be strengthened and comforted by your promise that in losing ourselves for your sake, we may be brought to new life in you.

Lord, when we wander astray, guide us with the light of your truth: in your mercy, hear our prayer

Lord, we pray for the departed of all the ages, who have heard your promise and followed your calling. As we are their descendants on earth, grant that we may share with them the life of heaven.

Lord, when we wander astray, guide us with the light of your truth: in your mercy, hear our prayer

(Prayers from http://www.layanglicana.org/blog/2015/02/25/intercessions-for-second-sunday-of-lent-year-b-1-march-2015/?doing_wp_cron=1614351222.6970300674438476562500 )

Closing Worship

Lent 1: The Journey to the Cross

Image by falco from Pixabay

Opening Prayer

Heavenly Father,
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Genesis 9:8-17 (NLT)

Then God told Noah and his sons, “I hereby confirm my covenant with you and your descendants, 10 and with all the animals that were on the boat with you—the birds, the livestock, and all the wild animals—every living creature on earth. 11 Yes, I am confirming my covenant with you. Never again will floodwaters kill all living creatures; never again will a flood destroy the earth.”

12 Then God said, “I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. 13 I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. 14 When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, 15 and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures. Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life. 16 When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.” 17 Then God said to Noah, “Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth.”

Mark 1: 9-15 (NLT)

One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him[a] like a dove. 11 And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”

12 The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, 13 where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.

14 Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News.[b] 15 “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”

Sermon

So, today is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin our journey towards the cross with Christ.  But where does the journey to the cross begin?  Does it begin with Mark’s breathless account of Jesus baptized, tempted and then beginning his public ministry?  Is that where we begin. 

Or does it go further back?  You could say that Lent and the journey to the cross begin in the same place – with dust.  God took dust and blew life into it and so the human story, with all its joys and failures began.  Our freedom to think and live and love as we chose meant we also had the freedom to sin and that sin deserved judgement.  On Ash Wednesday we remember the dust from which we come, and surely the journey to the cross in some ways started the moment God took that dust and gave it life?

However, the cross was not the obvious outcome.  God tried something else first. 

It always amazes me that we tell Noah’s story as a children’s tale.  Lots of cute animals and a colourful rainbow have their appeal, but I remember as an adult to three children with enquiring minds dreading the question “But what happened to all the other people, Mummy?”  The tale of Noah is cataclysmic and tragic and terrible – the entire known world blotted out by an unprecedented flood.

Now some say, well it is only a tale, a myth, it didn’t really happen…  I think it is probably more complex than that.  Other Near Eastern ancient civilisations have similar flood tales.  I guess that there might well have been a catastrophic flood in pre-history, which was interpreted and understood in different ways by those who survived it.  The Judeo-Christian tradition have – inspired by the Holy Spirit – understood this calamity in the life of the world in a terrifying yet ultimately hopeful way.

So back to God’s problem of sin.  God made the world and loved it dearly, but oh the agony God must have endured watching people inflict pain and injustice upon one another.  Finally, God could bear it no more and decided to give the world a fresh start.  God would wipe out all the sin and reset creation. Noah was a righteous man, so God called him and his family to build the ark, preserved them and the animals they travelled with through the flood and began again with them.  In the verses before the reading we heard today, God commissions Noah and his family much as happened with Adam and Eve: God tells them to enjoy and steward the earth, to be fruitful and multiply and to remember that every human being bears God’s divine image.

Then God does something new.  God institutes a covenant.  Now a covenant is a bit like a contract or a treaty of a will.  It establishes a relationship between two people or groups, and there are usually rights and obligations on both sides.  God makes several covenants with people throughout the Bible and we will hear more about some of them as Lent progresses. But this first one is unique.  Firstly, the covenant is between God and Noah’s descendants (which, given the story assumes that Noah and his family are the only people left on earth, means all of humankind) and every living thing.  It is a covenant between God and all God’s creation.  Secondly, it is a one-sided covenant.  God asks nothing of creation – God commits to a particular way of behaving towards creation for eternity.  And thirdly, the sign of the covenant is a rainbow.  Back to that in a moment.

In the commitment God makes towards creation, God promises that never again will he destroy the world by a flood.  Now some people have taken that very literally – that God will never again send a massive flood.  I think that it is more interesting than that.  God has tried dealing with sin by wiping out humanity once, and for whatever reason, God decides never to try this again.  Before humanity have a chance to sin again – and indeed a few verses on we find Noah drunk and undressed in a vineyard – God has decided that the final cost of sin will not be borne by creation.  The one who will bear the cost of sin will be the Creator.  God will pay the price of our sins.

Back to the rainbow – a apt reminder to a traumatised ancient world that the rain will always end.  Some say that the rainbow is like a warrior’s bow at rest – a bow and arrow laid down. God is no longer at war with creation.  Judgement has been postponed.  But a lovely Old Testament scholar who once taught me made the interesting observation that the bow now points towards heaven.  The arrow of judgement is pointed to the very heart of God.

And so, the journey to the cross begins here.  God has decided that humanity cannot bear the cost of its sin, and so there is only one alternative.  God will bear it.  In our gospel reading we hear how God begins to do this – God becomes one of us.  He goes through the waters as all creation has, he spends time in the wilderness which is both exodus and exile as Israel has and God is ready to begin.  One of the things I love about this story is that it begins with being beloved.  Creation was beloved.  Adam and all his kin are beloved.  The second Adam who comes to rescue us from our sins is beloved.  It is and always has been about love.

But before I finish, let us turn for a moment away from the cross and look again at the rainbow.  Isn’t it amazing how old symbols keep their power?  In a largely post-Christian world, when something truly terrible happened, the symbol of the rainbow swept our country – a simple image of hope.  A reminder that the rain will always stop one day.  A reminder that there is a God for whom all creation is beloved.

I don’t know where you are in your relationship with God.  Sometimes remembering that you are beloved is the hardest thing in the world.  I think it can be easier for humanity to imagine judgement than love.  And that is why this story matters.  I often wonder if the events of the Old Testament are more to help humanity understand God than for God to understand Godself.  Perhaps God had always chosen the cross.  Perhaps God just needed us to know it was a conscious choice.  Because God loves us.

So if you are one of the people struggling with belovedness today, and after a year of pandemic and everything else life throws at us you won’t be alone, know this.  God loves you.  God wants no sin or mistake or failure to come between you and God’s love.  And so that is possible, God chose the path to the cross.  Again and again and again.  God chose it.  For you.

Prayers

Lord God,
through Noah you gave us the rainbow
as a sign that you would never separate Yourself from us again
and through Christ you gave us the cross
as a sign of your everlasting mercy and grace
In these signs we recognize and acknowledge your love
and how that love is present to us to sustain us and guide us each day.
Truly in you we live, and move, and have our being.
By you alone do we receive the strength and hope we need for each day.
We thank you Lord,
and we promise as your covenant people,
to follow in your ways.
Help us, we pray, to do so…
Lord, hear our prayer…

Loving God
you promise to your people a full and abundant life in Christ.
Sometimes in that life you call us into the wilderness –
into those places where we must rely totally upon you for our survival –
at other times your Spirit drives us into those places,
and each time we have entered those places we have been tempted and tested –
tempted to turn back before the time is right for turning back,
tempted to give up before the time you have appointed for our testing and for our growing is over.
Help us, Lord, should this be a time in our lives when we feel alone –
a time in which are struggling to trust in our belovedness –
help us to remember you travel with us in the middle of the wilderness –
lead us on our journey – and bring us safe to the other side….
Lord, hear our prayer…

Lord God, you are our strength.
When the battle of good and evil rages within and around us,
keep your Church steadfast in your Word
and, when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Christ Jesus…
Lord, hear our prayer….

As we have prayed, O God, for ourselves and for your people,
so too we pray for those you have placed upon our hearts and minds this day.
Bless, heal, and strengthen all whom we hold before you now……
We pray to you, O God, through Jesus, our brother, our Saviour, and our Lord,
he who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, both now and forevermore.
Amen

adapted from http://www.spirit-net.ca/sermons/b-le01su.php

Closing Worship

Love – Sunday Before Lent

Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

Opening Prayer

God of love
who asks no sacrifice
of animal or outcast:
turn our heart and mind
to love all creatures
and you, the source of life,
that we might find our strength
in the kingdom’s open feast;
through Jesus Christ, the high priest of heaven.
Amen.

From Prayers for an Inclusive Church by Stephen Shakespeare

Readings

1 Corinthians 13: 4-7,13 (NLT)

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance…13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

Mark 12:28-34 (NLT)

28 One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] No other commandment is greater than these.”

32 The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. 33 And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.”

34 Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Sermon by Colin Udall

A Facebook friend of mine is the orthodox Jewish writer, producer and comedian Ashley Blaker.  I have never actually met him, though, as it turns out we have a couple of acquaintances in common.  You may have heard him on the radio as he does an occasional series on Radio 4 about Jewish laws.  He jokes that it is a job for life because the Jews say there are 611 laws given to them directly from God. However, by the time you get to the New Testament times of Jesus you will find it depends on how they determine the number. Some believe there are 611 in Hebrew Scriptures and 1,050 laws in the Greek Scriptures. But some have said there were over 3,000 if you count all of them in both testaments.

But that is for the Jews.  For us, along came Jesus.

As we have just heard, Jesus was in discussion with some that were trying to entrap him. During this discussion a lawyer spoke up and asked Jesus a question.

 “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”

The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other and I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbour as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.”

Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

If we read any of the Gospels, we can see that as Jesus teaches, there is change going on amongst his followers.  People are coming from near and far to hear him speak and watch the miracles he performs.  We read of those who are sick yet believe in him so much that they only have to touch his cloak to be healed. One of the changes that we see is that Jesus challenges the Law a number of times and asks people to think about love and forgiveness, rather than punishment.  He points out that none of us are blameless; we have all done something wrong.  Look at the story of the woman caught in adultery, they are all there challenging Jesus to carry out the law and stone this woman to death.  “OK”, he says, “let the one of you who has never sinned cast the first stone.”  And of course, they all drift away.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who was mayor of New York City during the 1930’s and 40’s. He was known to take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. 

One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighbourhood, your Honour.” the shopkeeper told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.” 

The Mayor then reached into his pocket, took out a $10 bill and said, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now pay; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.” And he told the Bailiff to collect the fines and give them to the grandmother.  The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 (about $700 in today’s terms) was given to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

1 Corinthians 13:13 tells us “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

In a similar vein to the previous story, there is a Facebook video page called “Caught in Providence”.  It shows the court cases of Judge Frank Caprio in Providence, Rhode Island.  It’s mostly traffic violations.  However, in the ways of LaGuardia, people who have watched the videos send in cash or cheques to pay other people’s fines, either because they were given a break somewhere, or they just do it out of love for someone, unknown to them, but could do with a bit of slack themselves.  Paying it Forward if you like.  Caprio certainly seems to feel that the letter of the Law can only go so far.  The Love of one human being shown to another, even by a complete stranger, can go so much farther.

In the first letter to the church in Corinth we hear Paul’s great definition of what God’s love is and therefore what human love can be.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.  If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

St. Valentine’s Day is a day for showing and telling people closest to you how much you love them.  As Christians, however, we are called upon to share God’s love with as many people as possible.  In these times of isolation, sickness and sometimes loneliness, as well as continuing hardship or new hardship through loss of a job, let us share God’s love in as many ways as possible with complete strangers.

Amen

Prayers

Lord on this St Valentine’s Day we come before you with our prayers and rejoice in the wonder and power of your never ending love for us, and our love for you, and we now read from St Paul’s letter  to the Corinthians.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Lord, because love is patient
Help us to be slow to judge others, but always quick to listen.
Make us hesitant to criticize, but always eager to encourage, remembering your endless patience with us.

Because love is kind…
Help our words to be gentle on those we meet  and our actions to be thoughtful.   Remind us to smile and to show courtesy to friends, to strangers to  say “Please” and “Thank You” because those little things often mean so much.

Because love does not envy or boast, and it is not proud…
Help us to have heart’s which are humble and which always look for the good in others.  May we celebrate and appreciate all that we have, and all that we are, and be ready to share what we have with those around us.

Because love is not rude or self-seeking…
Help us to speak words that are easy on the ear and on the heart. When we are tempted to get wrapped up in our own little world, help us to remember the vastness of the world around us with still so many needs, hurts and conflicts.

Because love is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs…
Help us to forgive others as you forgive us.  When we hold onto a grudge, gently help us to release it so that we can reach out instead with a hand of love and friendship.

Because love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth…
Help us to stand up for what is right and good. May we defend the defenseless, and help the helpless. Show us all how we can make a real difference to the lives of others, however small or insignificant this may sometimes seem.

Because love always protects and always trusts…
Help us to be strong and a refuge for those around us . When the world outside is harsh and cold, may our hearts always be open, a place of acceptance and warmth. May we always strive to help those who are sick, lost lonely or in despair.

Finally, because love always hopes always perseveres…
Help us to see each new day as an opportunity to give ourselves to your service. Help our hearts to always beat with love for you and others. Lord we thank you for this day when we celebrate love in all its glory and for showing us the true meaning of the word which is your will for us.

Amen

adapted from prayers written by Ian Farthing at http://www.thisischurch.com/prayer_worship/intercession/valentinesundayprayers2010.html

Closing Worship

2 Before Lent – Wisdom

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Opening Prayer

Lifegiving God,
whose wisdom speaks to us
in light and breath,
in earth and flesh:
may we share her delight
in all that has life
and proclaim your incarnate word,
the lover of all creation;
through Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together.
Amen.

Reading

Proverbs 8:1,22-31 (NLT)

Listen as Wisdom calls out!
    Hear as understanding raises her voice!

“The Lord formed me from the beginning,
    before he created anything else.
I was appointed in ages past,
    at the very first, before the earth began.
I was born before the oceans were created,
    before the springs bubbled forth their waters.
Before the mountains were formed,
    before the hills, I was born—
before he had made the earth and fields
    and the first handfuls of soil.
I was there when he established the heavens,
    when he drew the horizon on the oceans.
I was there when he set the clouds above,
    when he established springs deep in the earth.
I was there when he set the limits of the seas,
    so they would not spread beyond their boundaries.
And when he marked off the earth’s foundations,
     I was the architect at his side.
I was his constant delight,
    rejoicing always in his presence.
And how happy I was with the world he created;
    how I rejoiced with the human family!

Homily

I wonder if there are any phrases that your parents used that you swore that you would never say? Eat your crusts – they’ll put hairs on your chest! I mean what eight year old girl WANTS hairs on her chest?! Or, don’t go out with wet hair – you’ll catch your death of cold! Even after I had a medical degree, and I had explained to my mother the science behind how one contracted viruses, my mum would still come out with that one. But my least favourite one was all brains and no common sense. As a child, I was what my peers would call brainy. I was a bookworm and read everything from the cereal packet to my Dad’s Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia. I had a remarkable memory – since lost – for random information, and was definitely the sort of person you wanted on your Trivial Pursuit team. I could remember the name of the first man to reach the North Pole, details of his life and what he looked like, but ask me to heat up a microwavable meal and something would probably go wrong. Send me for the shopping and I would come back with the wrong things. Ask me to do some basic housework and catastrophe would at some point ensue. My longsuffering parents would clear up the chaos and mutter “all brains and no common sense…”

I swore I would never say that to my children, but now I am a parent to teenagers and I will confess this phrase has come back to haunt me. My children are sparky individuals but some of the mistakes they make…well… But that is because common sense – working out the best thing to do in an unknown situation – is nothing to do with intellect or knowledge, and everything to do with lived experience. It is nothing to do with GCSE subjects and diplomas. It doesn’t come with instructions. It is simply that steady accumulation of instinct that comes from living life, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and trying again next time. My teenagers just haven’t made enough mistakes yet. Heaven help us!

In some ways, wisdom is a spiritual sort of common sense that comes from walking with God. It isn’t something you can read in a book. You don’t get it at university. It is different to knowledge – as the joke goes, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

For me, wisdom is something to do with attentive living – paying attention to the ways and wonders of God which infuse creation, are reflected in the lives of people at their best and are interwoven in this ancient and varied book we call the Bible. It enables us to see our world, our society and our relationships more as God would see them – with an open-eyed honesty and with creative hope.

The Bible has a lot to say about wisdom. Earlier in the book of Proverbs, it tells us that the fear – the respect and worship – of God is where wisdom starts and that wisdom brings great blessing. In James chapter 1 verse 5, it tells us that wisdom is a gift from God – we simply need to ask for it. We are told in the first book of Kings that Solomon is commended by God for seeking wisdom. Our reading today, shows that wisdom is one of the fundamental foundations of the universe. It was in wisdom that God creates the cosmos: wisdom is creative, life-giving and joyous.

And we need wisdom so much to live well in our world. There are so many things shouting “This matters – this matters – this matters…” Whether it is the adverts on our television, the articles in our newspapers, the opinions of our friends on social media. It can be exhausting, bewildering and frightening. We need God’s wisdom to know what truly matters – to understand what we are called to be and do in this world of confusion and noise. But more than that, wisdom as a gift of God is to do with love. Loving those God has put around us requires great wisdom – how do we love and parent teenagers in a muddled world? How do we love the friend who is grieving and lost? How do we love the family member who is behaving badly and causing hurt to others? How do we love the person who means most to us in the world? How do we love our world and do our best to contribute to its joy and its justice, its healing and hope? There is no one answer to those questions – each person, each situation is unique, and needs its own creative, life-giving and hopeful wisdom.

So how do we become wise? The good news is that you don’t have to wait until you are one hundred. I want to suggest three steps to becoming wise, and handily, they all begin with the letter A! The first is to ask – recognise that wisdom is a gift from God, and so we simply need to ask. Dear Lord, give me wisdom in this situation I am facing in my family! Give me wisdom as I start this new project! Give me wisdom as I love this friend… God delights to give good things to God’s children. You probably won’t get a list of instructions by angelic messenger, but you will find God helps you find a way through.

The second A is attend – pay attention to God’s work in the world around you, in the people around you and in your heart. You can tune into God’s work through prayer and bible reading. One of the best things to do is just sit every so often – once a day, once a week, once a month and pray asking God to show you where you have met God in your life recently. Then with the Holy Spirit guiding you, think back over the events of that day, week or month. What stands out in your memory? What is God inviting you to notice. How might you respond to this noticing? It is a remarkably simple yet powerful thing to do.

The final A is act. Wisdom is given to us so we can live more as God’s people in the world. The only way to grow in wisdom is to act on what you believe to be wise, godly and true and learn from the adventure. As we act to live wisely and pay attention to how that goes, always asking God to guide us, we will develop more wisdom and share the fruits of wisdom with all around us: creativity, life and joy!

Prayers

God of bright truth, we thank you for your Holy Spirit who teaches us, guides us, and grants us wisdom and faith. We thank you for your gift of wisdom, which helps us to see with God’s eyes and to love with God’s heart. You have sent us holy wisdom to guide us and instruct us, and above all to teach us how to nourish and cherish the holy and divine life that lives deep down in all creatures and all things.

Loving God, each and every one of us here this morning needs more of your wisdom. Lord, help us to slow down and listen when wisdom calls to us. Help us to have sensitive hearts and a teachable spirit. There is no one who is wise until we are enlightened by your Holy Spirit. So come, Holy Spirit, and make us children of the truth.

Loving God, we pray for your wisdom in our church. Teach us how to better serve one another and the world.

Loving God, we pray for your wisdom in our streets and homes and neighbourhoods. Teach us to seek your truth and embody your compassion with all we meet.

Loving God, we pray for your wisdom in our treatment of your earth. Teach us to be better caretakers of our planet and its beautiful animals and plants.

Loving God, we pray for your wisdom for our world. Teach all of who belong to a Christian community to show greater tolerance and love to Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Lord, teach us compassion and understanding, so that all of your children may share this world in peace.

We pray for those ill and injured in our community, especially (…..). Loving God, touch them with your tender care, reassuring them of your presence, and speeding their journeys to wholeness and wellness

God, your love is true and bright, and guides us on our way. May we go forth from here with new wisdom, new joy, and a new hope. Give us this week the grace of your presence and your love, to carry us through our days.

AMEN.

Prayers adapted from this liturgy: https://jesusscribbles.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/wisdom-call-to-worship-prayers/

Closing Worship

Candlemas – The Feast of the Presentation

Image by Dorothée QUENNESSON from Pixabay

Opening Prayer

Almighty and ever-living God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple,
in substance of our flesh:
grant that we may be presented to you
with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Reading

Luke 2:22-40 (NLT)

22 Then it was time for their purification offering, as required by the law of Moses after the birth of a child; so his parents took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. 23 The law of the Lord says, “If a woman’s first child is a boy, he must be dedicated to the Lord.” 24 So they offered the sacrifice required in the law of the Lord—“either a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him 26 and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, 28 Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace,
    as you have promised.
30 I have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared for all people.
32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations,
    and he is the glory of your people Israel!”

33 Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”

36 Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. 37 Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. 38 She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.

39 When Jesus’ parents had fulfilled all the requirements of the law of the Lord, they returned home to Nazareth in Galilee. 40 There the child grew up healthy and strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.

Sermon by Rev’d Jo Joyce

The story of the presentation of Jesus is filled with symbolism. Here there are parallels with the ancient themes of the prophesy from Malachi of a messenger and the Lord coming to his temple, alongside judgement. In our gospel reading Jesus is brought faithfully by Mary and Joseph, following their customs and traditions that all firstborn boys would have gone through, and yet the events that day were quite different.

Simeon was in the temple worshipping. He was someone who was filled with faith and was expectant for God to do things. He was led by the Holy Spirit to meet Jesus. When he sees him, he speaks the words now known to us through the order of night prayer and the funeral service – the song of Simeon,

‘Master now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

Here in this tiny baby is salvation, not just for those who already know God but for the Gentiles, for those who don’t know God, for all people. And that is the miracle of Christmas and of the incarnation. As today we mark the end of that season and moving onwards we are prompted to look back to the reality of Christ become flesh for all people. And yet Simeon’s blessing brings a word of warning, here he talks of opposition and the pain that Mary will feel. And our eyes are cast forward this time to the pain of crucifixion and the sadness of Holy week.

St Luke doesn’t tell us what Anna says, other than she praised God. She too reiterates that Jesus is someone who will do great things. St Luke often does this in his gospel, pairing the story of Jesus with the testimony of both men and women. Here is a saviour to be spoken of not just by the men, but to break with tradition and be proclaimed by women too. There is a sense that in all of this the witness of men and women is equal. Jesus is breaking the mould. Someone to be considered afresh, not just a messiah to speak to the Israelite people of God, but to speak to all people.

So how does this all become the festival of Candlemas that we know today? Well, following Leviticus 12 a woman would be purified at the temple by presenting a sacrifice 33 days after a boy’s circumcision. This traditionally marks the 40th day of the Christmas /Epiphany season, and the end of that festival. It was often marked in the past by people bring their candles to church, and all the candles used in church being gathered together and blessed, then when they were used, they were sent out, to take the light of Christ, seen in the incarnation, into the world. If you have ever been to a baptism you will remember that at the very end of a service those who have been baptised are given a lit candle to take out from the service, symbolising the spreading of the light of God’s love.

There is a sense in the story of the prophesy of Simeon and Anna that they too see the light of Jesus and proclaim that to the world, and so I encourage you today that the next time you light a candle or turn on a lamp to think of the love of God shining brightly for all to see. And use it as a symbol to remind yourself of that love, and as a prompt to remind you of the love God has for you, and to think back to Simeon and Anna and the joy they shared when they saw Jesus for the first time.

Prayers

Jesus, Light of the world, shine in our darkness

We are all companions on a spiritual journey
As we travel together, let us pray

Almighty God, we give thanks for the welcome given to the child, Jesus, by Simeon and Anna, seeing that in his life there would be joy, sorrow and suffering, and for the example they have set us.

As we remember the older and retired people in our churches, we thank you for their faith, their prayers and their service. We pray your Holy Spirit may inspire them to use and share their experiences of life with wisdom, humility and gladness.
Jesus Light of the world, shine in our darkness


Lord, we pray that world-wide churches may always be ready to travel along your way and in your direction.
Bless and guide our ministers and leaders
As we enter the Lenten season of penitence and discipline, help us to be alive to your Spirit, who searches all our hearts and renews our lives as we offer our faith and obedience.
Jesus Light of the world, shine in our darkness


We pray for nations and leaders as they live through challenges not just of a pandemic, but also climate change, conflict and economic downturns.
We remember those places where troubles combine in the most catastrophic of ways, especially remembering Yemen where war, poverty and illness cause so much suffering.
We pray for all those people sacrificially working to bring aid and help where it is most needed.
Jesus Light of the world, shine in our darkness

We pray for the families and communities we represent asking that we may have a spirit of generous love, understanding and respect for those who are different from us.
We pray for all finding their life-journey tedious, lonely or uncertain,
those who are ill or vulnerable, Be their strong comfort in times of need.
Bless and protect their families and their carers.
Jesus Light of the world, shine in our darkness

Lord, we pray for those who have died and those who miss and grieve for them.
Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a light which no darkness can quench.
We hold them in the light of your love.
We think of…………………………………………..
You turn our darkness into light, in your light shall we see light.
Grant us and all who have known you in their hearts a share in your eternal kingdom.
Jesus Light of the world, shine in our darkness


In the silence of these moments, we make our particular concerns known to God.

Open our eyes, Father
To the light of your glory
In the world you have made
In the people around us
And in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

(Prayer adapted from Intercessions for Candlemas by Mrs Mary Stubbs, February 2008 http://www.thisischurch.com/prayer_worship/intercession/candlemas2008.htm)

Closing Worship

Epiphany 3: The Wedding at Cana (and the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul!)

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Opening prayer

Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Readings

Acts 9:1-9 (NLT)

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.

John 2:1-11 (NLT)

The next day there was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.”

“Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

But his mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Standing nearby were six stone water jars, used for Jewish ceremonial washing. Each could hold twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” When the jars had been filled, he said, “Now dip some out, and take it to the master of ceremonies.” So the servants followed his instructions.

When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. 10 “A host always serves the best wine first,” he said. “Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!”

11 This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

Homily

Recently, one of my daughters and I watched a classic Christmas movie together – Die Hard! My daughter enjoyed it, but what she enjoyed even more was working out where motifs and allusions from one of her favourite american police comedy shows came from. “Oh, THAT’s why they did that!” and “Oh, THAT’s why they say that!” And when you get to the (spoiler alert) Christmas tape stunt at the end, she was literally jumping up and down in her seat shouting “I know what happens! I know what happens!” Love it or hate it, Die Hard has become such a classic on our cultural landscape that other shows borrow from it, and once my daughter had seen the film she could appreciate her current shows all the more.

Our Gospel reading today is a bit like that. In itself, it is an engaging tale and reveals Jesus’ glory. That is why we tell it at Epiphany – the time when we recognise, alongside a whole host of other characters in the Bible, that the baby in the manger is so much more than he seems.

However, for Jews steeped in the Hebrew (as we call them, Old Testament) scriptures and immersed in the culture and theology of the day, this simple – if startling – story would be a bit like my daughter rewatching her police comedy after seeing Die Hard. I know why they say that, I know why they do that, I know what happens next…

This short punchy tale is full of allusions and references to the bigger God story. There isn’t an unnecessary detail. On the third day – echoes back to the Genesis tale of creation, just as the opening words of John’s Gospel do – and tell us that with Jesus begins a new creation. We have a new Adam and Eve – Paul in his letters calls Jesus the second Adam who brings life when the first Adam brought death. Mary is the new Eve whose urging leads to Jesus acting in glory and grace, instead of the first Eve who shared the apple with Adam in disobedience and sin. The setting is a wedding, something which for the people of the day always spoke of God relationship with God’s people. The Old Testament is full of metaphors where God is husband to Israel and they long for the day when God’s people will truly be wedded to God as joyfully as a loving wife is wedded to her husband. Jesus, himself, uses wedding stories to speak of the end of days and in Revelation, heaven is described as the wedding banquet of the Lamb! The longing is about to be fulfilled. The stone jars used for purification allude to the purification from sins and evil which the Messiah alone will bring, and the new wine, better than anything served before, is the new wine of God’s Kingdom. God’s glory is HERE!

Boom! It is quite a story. Jesus isn’t just a handy chap to have at a wedding when the drink runs out. Layer upon layer, sentence by sentence, John is showing that God is HERE. But interestingly, the only ones who know what has happened are Mary, the disciples, the steward and the servants at the wedding. In this tale too, we see the sort of God Jesus is – not one who demands centre stage and dominates proceedings, but one who acts quietly, in the background, amongst the ordinary folk.

And that is where the story for all its grandeur and glory, is still quite simple. God, the God of creation, the God who brings freedom from sin and death, the God of time and eternity still works amongst the ordinary efforts of ordinary folk, transforming them into what is most needed, making them more than they could ever have expected. Because of God, the quiet, well-worn yet heartfelt words Jo and I have offered at the funerals we have conducted this week will have brought comfort and meaning to families in grief. Because of God, some simple groceries picked, parceled and distributed with respect and a friendly smile from the Foodbank, will have communicated dignity and care and hope to people in crisis. Because of God, a bag full of crafts and some friendly videos will have cheered up families frazzled with home-schooling and lockdown and shown them a little of God’s love. Because of God, a kindly phone call or quiet prayer offered or simple note posted will have been a blessing. Because that is how God works. Jesus in the first sign of his glory chose to work amongst the serving staff whose unseen work behind the scenes made everything else possible.

Recently there was yet another letter in a major newspaper bewailing the fact that churches are closed. This could have been the churches’ time to be seen, it remonstrated. What the writer fails to see is that wherever God’s people are quietly and faithfully praying and serving, the Kingdom of God is at work, the church is being church. As Desmond Tutu said: Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. Do your little bits of good and trust that the God who is over all the universe and yet was content to perform his first miracle for the benefit of servants will take your efforts and transform them for his glory. Amen.

P.S. And as I cannot finish without a quick mention of St Paul, whenever think that you are too useless or unworthy for God to use you, remember that he used Paul (Saul) who had been an accessory to the murder of St Stephen and was actually trying to squish the early church out of existence to share God’s love with most of the ancient Western world. God can use anyone – let him use you.

Intercessions

God of life, you have created every human being in your image and likeness.
We sing your praise for the gift of our many cultures, expressions of faith,
traditions and ethnicities. Grant us the courage always to stand against
injustice and hatred based on race, class, gender, religion, and fear of those not
like ourselves.
God of peace, God of love, in you is our hope!

Merciful God, you have shown us in Christ that we are one in you. Teach us to
use this gift in the world so that believers of all faiths in every country may be
able to listen to each other and live in peace
God of peace, God of love, in you is our hope!

O Jesus, you came into the world and shared fully in our humanity. You know
the hardships of life for people who suffer in so many different ways. May the
Spirit of compassion move us to share our time, life and goods with all those in
need.
God of peace, God of love, in you is our hope!

Holy Spirit, you hear the fury of your wounded creation and the cries of those
already suffering from climate change. Guide us toward new behaviours. May
we learn to live in harmony as part of your creation.
God of peace, God of love, in you is our hope!

(from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity resources 2021)

Closing Hymn

Epiphany 2: Come and See!

Opening Hymn

Reading

John 1:35-end (NLT)

35 The following day John was again standing with two of his disciples. 36 As Jesus walked by, John looked at him and declared, “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” 37 When John’s two disciples heard this, they followed Jesus.

38 Jesus looked around and saw them following. “What do you want?” he asked them.

They replied, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

39 “Come and see,” he said. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him to the place where he was staying, and they remained with him the rest of the day.

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of these men who heard what John said and then followed Jesus. 41 Andrew went to find his brother, Simon, and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means “Christ”).

42 Then Andrew brought Simon to meet Jesus. Looking intently at Simon, Jesus said, “Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas” (which means “Peter”).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Come, follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, Andrew and Peter’s hometown.

45 Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

46 “Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.

47 As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.”

48 “How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”

49 Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”

50 Jesus asked him, “Do you believe this just because I told you I had seen you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” 51 Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”

Homily

I have to confess having a bit of a soft spot for Nathanael. I have known many Nathanaels in my life – straight-talking sorts who aren’t afraid to call a spade a blooming shovel. They don’t do it out of any sense of badness, but just with that good-humoured, good sense that seems to see the world as it really is and doesn’t get bitter. I am sure you have all met the sort, and can imagine the scene as his friend comes jogging up to him, breathless and excited, spouting news of a Messiah…

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” scoffs Nathanael, much as an Nuneatonite might joke about Hinckley and vice versa. But he has a point. The Scriptures all say that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, not this scrubby Galilean backwater, so Philip has clearly got the wrong end of the stick. You can almost see Nathanael roll his eyes. But Philip neither loses his belief that he has encountered something special, nor does he get defensive. He doesn’t need to. Nathanael just needs to encounter Jesus for himself. “Come and see!” Philip tells his friend. And like those good-hearted if somewhat bluntly skeptical folk we all know and love, Nathanael doesn’t actually need much to convince him. He doesn’t need fireworks and angel sky writers or even to see Jesus in all his glory. Jesus’ simple words and welcome are enough to convince this bloke that he is the real deal. A little authenticity goes a long way. Nathanel, who makes a art form out of seeing the worst, recognises a good thing when he sees it. Skepticism is out the window. He’s following Jesus now…

So often, we make sharing our faith so difficult, but it is as easy as “Come and see!” It is about living authentic lives as followers of Jesus and having the courage to ask those around us to share it. It is about daring to believe that in our worship and small groups and Christian living, our friends and family might spot something real, something of Jesus. This is, of course, made a little more difficult when we cannot invite friends or family to physical church events or to share the hospitality of our homes. However, on another level, it has never been more simple to invite someone to join in. Anyone with internet access can pop into one of our services and see what we are up to. Anyone with a phone can call our telephone service and hear a little of what we believe.

Now this is a little daunting as our tech isn’t swishy, the sermons aren’t always engaging, most of the participants have lockdown haircuts and many have their devices at interesting filming angles, but people aren’t primarily looking for high production values. They are looking for something real. And as long as we offer our worship in faith and love and with prayer, so long as by God’s grace, God’s Spirit is amongst us, and she is, what we share together week after week will be real. People don’t need fireworks and miracles and glory (although because God is generous, we do get glimpses from time to time) – people need to meet Jesus, the authentic Jesus who joins us in the ordinariness of life and transforms it.

I will be completely honest – I have found this week something of a struggle. My Covid recovery still isn’t complete and it is frustrating to need to rest when there is so much to be done. The news from both our country and beyond is enough to make me weep. While the vaccination programme brings some hope, it is against a background of such a tide of illness and death, that it is difficult to rejoice. And as my Mum, my daughter and I all celebrated our birthdays this week, the long wait to be together as a family seems interminable.

The one thing that keeps me going is the sense that God is in all this somewhere. There is work to be done, love to be experienced and shared, hope to be proclaimed because all things matter to God. The God who did not shy away from the ordinariness and struggle of a normal human family, who spent 30 years in a less than salubrious Galilean town, will not shy from joining us in all the unseen hopes and heartaches, strains and struggles of this year. This I believe with all my heart. This is real.

So don’t be afraid to invite your friends and family to share in what you believe. It doesn’t need to be swishy. It just needs to be real. And if you are someone who is a bit skeptical about all this stuff, a bit like Nathanael, well, firstly, keep being real! But anytime you want to come and see what we are up to and why, you are welcome. We truly hope that you will catch a glimpse of Jesus.

Intercessions

We pray that Christ may be seen in the life of the Church.
You have called us into the family
of those who are the children of God.
May our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ
be strengthened by your grace.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy hear us.

You have called us to be a temple
where the Holy Spirit can dwell.
Give us clean hands and pure hearts
so that our lives will reflect your holiness.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy hear us.

You have called us to be a light to the world,
so that those in darkness come to you.
May our lives shine as a witness
to the saving grace you have given for all.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy hear us.

You have called us to be members of your body,
so that when one suffers, all suffer together.
We ask for your comfort and healing power
to bring hope to those in distress.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy hear us.

You have called us to be the Bride,
where you, Lord, are the Bridegroom.
Prepare us for the wedding feast,
where we will be united with you for ever.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy hear us.

Jesus, Lord of the Church,
you have called us into fellowship with all your saints.
We unite our prayers with theirs
and ask for grace to serve you with joy
where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for all eternity.
Amen

Closing Prayer

Epiphany

Image by sebastiano iervolino from Pixabay

Opening Hymn

Reading

 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
    are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
    who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

Sermon by Rev’d Jo Joyce

Wise men coming from afar marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas. Yet these men who travelled from a foreign land were almost certainly the first gentiles to meet Jesus. Astrologers bringing with them the gifts of their country. Gold, frankincense and myrrh they would have had plentifully as rich people from Arabia or Babylonia, their exact origin is unclear. 

This story is again part of Matthew’s plan to present Jesus as the true Messiah. The rightful King, unlike Herod who colluded with the Romans. The story of the Magi (the wise men) echoes back to a similar story in 1 Kings 10:1-13 of the visit of a foreign dignitary to King David – and of course Jesus was seen as his successor by his Jewish followers at the time.

Indeed, in other literature of the time it’s noted that Magi went to visit the emperor Nero in AD 66, so the visit is not unusual, beyond their tale of following the star, and of course of going to see an infant rather than an acknowledged king.

‘Magi’ was originally the name of a Persian priestly class but came to mean all astrologers. Matthew may have included the details of the star thinking back to the prophesy of Ballam in Numbers 24:7. We can’t be sure what star they saw either, Halley’s comet would have been too early, it could have been the conjunction that was visible here just before Christmas, of Jupiter and Saturn to form the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ as it’s known, or maybe something else.

It strikes me though that the important thing that Matthew was trying to communicate was not just the details of the story but rather the implication of who they point to, and the question it asks of us all. Who do you think Jesus was? Was he a King in the line of David as the wise men implied? Was he someone for us all to take notice of, not just another leader seeking to be the Jewish messiah his people longed for?

The gifts of course are symbols of wealth and kingship, or worship and of death, but they are also just expensive presents that could be brought by rich men from their homeland and were certainly available in both Arabia and Babylonia. The other question, the key question, that this story begs of me is what might I bring? If I were to follow in their footsteps, what would symbolise who Jesus is to me? And maybe that’s something to reflect on as we think over this ancient story once more this week.

Prayers

The wise men knelt before our Saviour.
Let us also kneel to worship him with great joy,
and to make our prayer to his heavenly Father.

Father, the wise men came from the east to worship your Son:
grant to Christians everywhere a true spirit of adoration.
Lord, in your mercy
All   hear our prayer.

Father, your Son is the King of kings and Lord of lords:
grant an abundance of peace to your world.
Lord, in your mercy
All   hear our prayer.

Father, the Holy Family shared the life of the people of Nazareth:
protect in your mercy our neighbours and families,
together with the whole community of which we are part.
Lord, in your mercy
All   hear our prayer.

Father, your Son was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor:
show your love for the poor and powerless,
and strengthen […and all] those who suffer.
Lord, in your mercy
All   hear our prayer.

Father, the wise men presented to your Son gold, incense and myrrh:
accept the gifts we bring,
and the offering of our hearts at the beginning of this new year.
Lord, in your mercy
All   hear our prayer.

Father, you are the King of heaven, the hope of all who trust in you:
give to […and all] the faithful departed
the wonders of your salvation.
Lord, in your mercy
All   hear our prayer.

Rejoicing in the fellowship of wise men, shepherds and angels,
and of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph,
we commend ourselves and all Christian people
to your unfailing love.

Merciful Father,
All   accept these prayers
for the sake of your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

From Common Worship Times and Seasons (c) Archbishops Council 2000

Closing Hymn

Second Sunday of Christmas

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Opening Hymn

Reading Ephesians 1:3-14 (NLT)

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. 10 And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. 11 Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

12 God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God. 13 And now you Gentiles have also heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. 14 The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him.

Sermon by Colin Udall

A man’s car stalled in the heavy traffic as the light turned green. All his efforts to start the engine
failed, and a chorus of honking behind him made matters worse. He finally got out of his car and
walked back to the first driver and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to get my car started. If you’ll
go up there and give it a try, I’ll stay here and blow your horn for you.”

There is also the old Jewish story of a man talking to God. “God is it true that a sack of gold is like
a penny to you and that a thousand years is like a minute to you?” God replies, “Yes, son, it is
true”.
The man says “God, can you give me a penny?”
God says, “In a minute.”

If we look at a picture in a gallery, we have to stand back. Perhaps, like me, you have been doing
jigsaws over Christmas. Certainly I’ve seen pictures on Facebook of friends who have proudly
finished their puzzles. When you are working on a jigsaw, you only see the portion of the puzzle
you are working on. You keep in mind other colours and lines that you might need elsewhere, but
you are focussed on the piece in your hand and where it might fit. It is only when you have
finished that you may stand back and look at the whole picture and reflect on the ease (or
otherwise) with which it came together.

If you look at a painting of a family picnic where dogs and children are playing whilst the adults are
sitting on the blanket by the picnic basket, you can see different things as you focus on parts of the
painting. If you do this, you see a painting of children playing or a dog worrying at a stick. You
might see a picture of a couple romantically having a picnic in the park or you may see a painting
of a tree with a canopy of blue sky. It is only when you stand back that you see the whole picture
of the family, not several pictures on one canvas. But these several portions make a whole
painting.

Our Bible can be similar to this. We can read a story of Joseph and his multi-coloured coat. We
can read another story of an old man called Abraham who finally has a miracle baby with his old
wife, Sarah. We can read another story about a great king called David, who started as a
shepherd boy, had a very troubled and conflicting relationship with God and people around him,
yet it was from his descendants that God promised a great one who would change the world. And
then we can read of this Son of God who did indeed, change the world.

These stories are all contained in one book. But these stories didn’t all take place at once.
Imagine Abraham having to wait 25 years between the promise God made of him having a child
with Sarah and that promise coming true. There was 1000 years between King David and Jesus.
We have to stand back and look at the whole picture, the whole Bible and see where the pieces,
these separate stories fit into the whole story of God and His people.

The disciple Peter in his letters seems to get impatient with God because Jesus said that he would
come again, and some 30 years after Peter has witnessed the resurrection and Jesus’ promises in
person, his second coming hasn’t happened. He has to remind himself and others who are
impatient too, that God keeps his promises, but they don’t all happen immediately. God’s minute,
we are reminded in the earlier story, can be 1000 years. The gap between David and Jesus was
only a minute to God. God was being patient with His promises and He expects us to be patient,
too.

As we start a new year, I am currently back on furlough because the tier 4 restrictions mean that
people should not be leaving home and so fewer people are visiting the place where I work. Tier 4
restrictions mean that St. Paul’s PCC have taken decisions about closing the church to encourage
people to stay at home. Our neighbouring church at Astley have taken the decision to close until
the vaccine programme takes affect. Each of these things impacts us as individuals, but we have to step back and see the wider picture of where we as individuals and as a Christian community sit
in the wider world of coronavirus, infection rates and Government rules. Just because we can
open our church doesn’t mean that we should.

As we start a new year, we see the headlines about a vaccine for the Coronavirus and our
expectations are set for an early return to normality, whatever a new normality might be for us after
such a catastrophic world-wide pandemic. Things may change over time to a new way of living.
Those of us that fly to our holidays think nothing of the normality of having our bags screened and
searched, of having to take off shoes and belts, of not taking drinks onto the planes and so on. But
only a few years ago, this new normal at airports and flight protocol wasn’t heard of. It took the
catastrophic events of 9/11 to change that. So, things may change; some of them quickly, others
may take time. We should be patient. The vaccine may take a long time to get to some of us. My
dad had his first jab yesterday. I may not get mine for the foreseeable future. My sons may have
to wait a long time. Whatever the promises of getting 2 million vaccines a week by spring, there
are many logistics that have to be put into place and there are variations of the vaccine that may
come into play.

God shows us patience. God works in the much wider picture that we have to stand back and see.
We can be like the child in the back seat of a car, continuously asking “Are we there yet?” and we
give our appropriate response, with a smile on the first time of asking, maybe less of a smile on the
twentieth, but still imploring patience. If we ask God, maybe the conversation would go along the
lines of:
“Are we there yet?” No – you need to learn to trust My control more.
“Are we there yet?” No – you need to understand that life isn’t always smooth.
“Are we there yet?” No – you still don’t rely on My strength.
It’s all about patience … waiting well each and every day.
Are you willing to do that?

I’m not one for making New Year Resolutions, but I do resolve to be patient as God shows us the
bigger picture.
Amen

Intercessions written by St Padarn’s

Trusting in God’s care for his children,
we pray in the name of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For those who are sick
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Psalm 36:5

We pray for those who are unwell due to the coronavirus:
in your compassion, grant them strength and healing.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For our health workers
In the day of trouble you answer us, O Lord, and you protect us;
you send us help and give us support.
Psalm 20:1-2

We pray for all who minister to the sick throughout our health service,
that they may renew their strength in you
and be channels of restoration and renewal for those who suffer.
Lord, in your mercy:

For the anxious
You are near to the broken-hearted, O Lord,
and you save the crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:18

We pray for all who are anxious about loved ones, friends and neighbours:
enable them to trust in you and be steadfast in hope.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For the lonely and the isolated
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me.
Psalm 23:4

We pray for all those who feel isolated or alone,
that they may experience your loving presence.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For the strong and the vulnerable
Lord, you raise the poor and lift the needy.
Psalm 113:7

We pray that you would inspire those who are strong
to care for the vulnerable
and to serve them in love.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For the Church
How can we sing your song, O Lord, in these strange times?
(cf. Psalm 137:4)

We pray for your Church who longs to praise you
throughout this strange and confusing time;
through your creative Spirit
fire our imaginations to proclaim your unchanging love in new ways.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For those in authority
We cast our burden upon you, O Lord,
and you sustain us.
Psalm 55:22

We pray for all in authority who face difficult decisions
that affect the lives of many;
grant them wisdom and courage.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For those engaged in research
O Lord, you are great and abundant in power;
your understanding is beyond measure
Psalm 147:5

We pray for all engaged in research,
who are seeking to develop a vaccine and remedies for coronavirus:
grant them wisdom, understanding and effectiveness in their endeavours.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For traders and employees
Lord, you are our light and our salvation; whom shall we fear?
You are the stronghold of our life; of whom shall we be afraid?
Psalm 27:1

We pray for traders and employees who are fearful of the future,
that businesses may be secured, jobs protected and families supported.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For those who face hardship
The eyes of all look to you
and you give them their food in due season.
Psalm 145:15

We pray for all those facing financial hardship
that you would support and sustain them.
We remember also those who seek to fulfil Christ’s command to love one another
through the work of foodbanks and charities
and through acts of simple kindness.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For those in education
Lord, you give strength to your people
and you bless them with peace.
Psalm 29:11

We pray for all in education at this uncertain time:
inspire those who feel bored or directionless,
protect the vulnerable
and give fresh hope to the dismayed.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For the departed
Lord, you show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
Psalm 16:11

With sadness, we remember those who have lost their lives due to the coronavirus.
Give us thankful hearts for the privilege of knowing them
and strengthen our faith in your Son who died for us
and rose again in glory
that we might share in his victorious life.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

For the grieving
O God, for you alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from you.
You alone are my rock, my salvation and my fortress.
Psalm 62:5-6

We pray for those who weep and mourn,
that they may find comfort and hope in you.
Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

Lord of life,
in this time of crisis for our families and communities,
our nation and our world,
we turn to you in faith,
to seek your guidance
and receive your blessing,
knowing that nothing in all creation can separate us from your love
made known to us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We ask this in the name of him
who took our infirmities and bore our diseases,
who suffered the cross and rose again triumphant,
for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
ever one God, world without end.
Amen.


COPYRIGHT
Quotations from the Psalms are taken from The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989,
1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United
States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved

Closing Hymn

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

Opening Hymn

Readings

Psalm 89:1-4,19-26 (NLT)

I will sing of the Lord’s unfailing love forever!
    Young and old will hear of your faithfulness.
Your unfailing love will last forever.
    Your faithfulness is as enduring as the heavens.

The Lord said, “I have made a covenant with David, my chosen servant.
    I have sworn this oath to him:
‘I will establish your descendants as kings forever;
    they will sit on your throne from now until eternity.’”

19 Long ago you spoke in a vision to your faithful people.
You said, “I have raised up a warrior.
    I have selected him from the common people to be king.
20 I have found my servant David.
    I have anointed him with my holy oil.
21 I will steady him with my hand;
    with my powerful arm I will make him strong.
22 His enemies will not defeat him,
    nor will the wicked overpower him.
23 I will beat down his adversaries before him
    and destroy those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and unfailing love will be with him,
    and by my authority he will grow in power.
25 I will extend his rule over the sea,
    his dominion over the rivers.
26 And he will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,
    my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’

Luke 1:26-38 (NLT)

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you!”

29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favour with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”

38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

Homily by Rev’d Jo Joyce

‘Let it be to me according to your word.’

How do you think of Mary? Young, innocent, trusting perhaps? Maybe naïve, a small figure dressed in blue, who seems meek and obedient. And yet…

‘Let it be to me according to your word.’

Those must be some of the most daring words in scripture, brave and determined, courageous. I wonder how many teenagers you know that you would trust with such a momentous event, and yet she proves the doubters wrong. She faces the wrath of her fiancée and more than likely her family – who is ever going to believe a pregnancy that happened in this way, and still she goes ahead.

‘Let it be to me according to your word.’

Mary gets somewhat of a raw deal in the Anglican tradition. Often, she is airbrushed out of things, a brief mention at the nativity, a silent, compliant figure barely known beyond the words of the Magnificat, which is a shame because we have so much we can learn from her. In Mary we have humanity at the very heart of God. For the Orthodox she is the Theotokos – the God bearer, mysteriously connected to the Trinity through being the mother of Christ. For Catholics she intercedes on our behalf, lifting our prayers to God. It is worth thinking on. What would our faith be like with a greater appreciation of her story?   

‘Let it be to me according to your word.’

Perhaps if we reflect a little on her story, we will start to get some appreciation of just how momentous and courageous she was. I wonder too if we need some of the faith that she had – unsullied by the cynicism of age, trusting and confident – God has spoken so it will be, rather than ‘did God really say?’ Perhaps we need to move beyond the meekness of the figure in blue giving birth in a stable, to the joy of the Magnificat, the wonder of the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth, her faith at the wedding in Cana, the rebuke of her son, or the vigil at the cross. It is not just her pregnancy and motherhood that is remarkable, it is her presence alongside our Lord throughout his life. Her hopes for her new-born, her pondering in the temple.

Sometimes people criticise the song ‘Mary did you know’ as mansplaining at its worst, but I like it because it voices for me those things about her that I wonder at. How much did she know as a young girl, saying yes to the angel of what was to come? Did she have any inkling of the story that was to unfold? Was it one moment of faithfulness and lifetime of trying to work it out – or did she indeed know deep in her heart that this miraculous birth was going to go on to be something far greater? My prayer is that as we reflect on her story, we too may have a little of the courage she had, and that by the grace of God we too will be able to say:

‘Let it be to me according to your word.’

Prayers

To all who wonder about the Divine,
who grasp at the words of this season
with hope.
Come, Lord Jesus.

To all who live with confusion and uncertainty
praying for insight and understanding.
Come, Lord Jesus.

To all who would tread gently, cautiously,
On a tenuous, fragile path,
but who long to be brave.
Come, Lord Jesus

(written by Rev’d Wendy Bray)

Closing Hymn