Archive for the ‘Epiphany’ Category

We come to this moment in time instead of a “place” expecting to hear the divine voice of God. We hope for new and deeper understandings of God and the ministries to which God calls us. We hope to experience a broader understanding of what it means to live the Way of Jesus. May our eyes be opened to new understandings. May our hearts have courage to listen to the voice of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Reading from the Psalms
Psalm 50:1-6

From the rising of the sun to where it sets,
God, the Lord God, speaks,
calling out to the earth.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines brightly.

Our God is coming;
he won’t keep quiet.
A devouring fire is before him;
a storm rages all around him.
God calls out to the skies above
and to the earth in order to judge his people:
“Bring my faithful to me,
those who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
The skies proclaim his righteousness
because God himself is the judge.

Song of Praise
We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding
Author: Carl P. Daw
Tune: PLEADING SAVIOR (Joshua Leavitt)

We have come at Christ’s own bidding
to this high and holy place,
where we wait with hope and longing
for some token of God’s grace.
Here we pray for new assurance
that our faith is not in vain,
searching like those first disciples
for a sign both clear and plain.

Light breaks in upon our darkness,
splendor bathes the flesh-joined Word,
Moses and Elijah marvel
as the heavenly voice is heard.
Eyes and hearts behold with wonder
how the Law and Prophets meet:
Christ, with garments drenched in brightness,
stands transfigured and complete.

Strengthened by this glimpse of glory,
fearful lest our faith decline,
we like Peter find it tempting
to remain and build a shrine.
But true worship gives us courage
to proclaim what we profess,
that our daily lives may prove us
people of the God we bless.

Call to Worship


Creativity and light
belong to God
LET ALL THE EARTH REJOICE

Justice and glory
belong to God
LET ALL THE EARTH REJOICE

Wisdom and wonder
belong to God
LET ALL THE EARTH REJOICE

When we get it amazingly wrong
GOD LOVES US

When we get it superbly right
GOD LOVES US

When we have no idea at all what is happening
GOD LOVES US

When we walk with God
WE DO NOT NEED TO BE AFRAID

JESUS SAID: I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
Listen to him and walk in his way.

JESUS SAID: STAND UP AND DON’T BE AFRAID.
Listen to him and walk in his way.

JESUS SAID: YOU ARE MY FRIENDS.
Listen to him and walk in his way.

JESUS SAID: I AM ALWAYS WITH YOU.
Listen to him and walk in his way.
AMEN

Prayer
Let us pray:


God, we come to the mountaintop to be covered in your presence.
We are comforted by your holiness and your glow;
we are comforted by the hope of the mountain top,
where you are so close,
so accessible,
where there is no doubt of your glory
The mountain top reminds us why we worship you.
We witness your bright power,
and your plan for the nations of the earth.
As we prepare for worship,
God bring us to the mountain top;
bring us to the mountain top
so that we may be inspired to do your work
in the valley below.
Amen

Song of Praise
Ka mana’o ‘I ‘O (Faithful is our God)
Author and Composer Joe Camacho

“Kamana’o ‘I ‘O
O ko kakou Akua.
Faithful, faithful is our God.

In love there is no one more faithful than our God,
Who brings the light into our darkness.
The God who shares the breath of life with you and me,
All living things upon the earth.

In quiet moments God whispers tenderly
The mystery of unending love.
For God is good, and holds us as we sleep,
To wake us to the morning light.

The mercy of our God we seek to share each day,
To help each other on our way,
To be God’s hands and heart with tenderness and care.
God’s faithfulness is always there.

When we share love, we share respect and care,
The gifts and bonds of human kindness.
And in our journey, may love lead the way.
To be God’s living, sing this day.”

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Common English Bible

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are on the road to destruction. The god of this age has blinded the minds of those who don’t have faith so they couldn’t see the light of the gospel that reveals Christ’s glory. Christ is the image of God. We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Prayer for Others
Let us pray,

God of light and glory,
we look at the world you created and we rejoice.
We rejoice in the sunshine and winter birds,
the taste of coffee, hot chocolate, and warm winter stews,
the scent of woodfire stoves and evergreen trees,
the feel of the cold wind on our faces and the wet snow in our shoes.
In the face of the busyness that crowds our lives,
keep us attentive to the beauty around us,
fashioned and illuminated by your love.

God of light and glory,
we look at the way we live in the world and we weep.
We weep for the life threatening political instability in Myanmar and Haiti,
for workers in illegal underground factories in India
for the fighting in Yemen
for the loss of life and loss of trust,
for a fallen, broken humanity
and our persistence in pursuing our own interests
at the expense of others’ needs.
Through the darkness and tears of those who are
wounded, bereaved, and afraid,
shine your healing, restoring light.

God of light and glory,
we remember before you those we know who are in need.
We think of those who are in nursing homes, hospital, and hospices
and those who care for them.
We think of the emergency services,
who come to our aid when our pastimes falter and turn to pain.
Strengthen and comfort them with your loving presence.

God of light and glory,
we thank you above all that in Jesus you have revealed yourself to us,
and that through the Holy Spirit you are with us still,
a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns
and the morning star rises in our hearts.
Amen.

Anthem
Gather Us In
Words and Music by Marty Haugen

Here in this place new light is streaming
Now is the darkness vanished away
See in this space our fears and our dreamings
Brought here to you in the light of this day

Gather us in, the lost and forsaken
Gather us in, the blind and the lame
Call to us now and we shall awaken
We shall arise at the sound of our name

We are the young, our lives are a mystery
We are the old who yearn for your face
We have been sung throughout all of history
Called to be light to the whole human race

Gather us in, the rich and the haughty
Gather us in, the proud and the strong
Give us a heart so meek and so lowly
Give us the courage to enter the song

Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters
Call us anew to be salt for the earth

Give us to drink the wine of compassion
Give us to eat the bread that is you
Nourish us well and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true

Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some heaven light years away
But here in this place the new light is shining
Now is the kingdom, now is the day

Gather us in and hold us forever
Gather us in and make us your own
Gather us in, all peoples together
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones
Fire of love in our flesh and our bones

Mark 9:2-9
Common English Bible

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

You know that if we were not in the middle of a pandemic, we would be taking a hike today after church. Jeffrey and I would take you up on the Parkway to Black Balsam.  We would walk that well worn path through the groves, then along the rocky path up into open meadows, all the way to the top of the Knob. And there we would sit wind blowing in our face and look out over these beautiful mountains. For that’s what Jesus did with three of his disciples.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the top of a high mountain. Mark’s gospel implies Jesus just wants to just get away from everything and everyone.  We have no idea which mountain this might have been. Mark only says that it was “high.”  But you know from experience, when you stand at the top of any high mountain, you can look out and see the world without anything blocking your view.  And this is exactly what happens in the gospel story, both literally, figuratively, and spiritually. The disciples are not only able to see the vastness of the world, but they are about to see clearly the vastness of their Teacher, Jesus. 

After climbing up to the top of a high mountain, there in that moment, Peter, James, and John see Jesus transformed. The first thing that catches their eyes are his clothes. Now Jesus clothes were not white. He wore ordinary clothes, a knee length tunic along with a wrap on top that was called a “mantle.” Both were made from undyed wool. The cloth would have been cleansed of dirt and excessive oil, but no amount of washing could have created the glistening intense white Jesus’ clothes became in that moment. The transformation of Jesus changed his clothes too. Imagine light shining through a translucent, colorless diamond. That’s how I imagine Jesus in that moment. Jesus becomes such an amazing bright light, that his clothes appear a pure and clean.

Jesus has not only  brought Peter, James, and John up to an unhindered view of the world, but Jesus has also brought them up to an unhindered view of God. In their midst shines the radiant light of God.  The boundary between the Human One and the Divine One is pulled aside. Peter, James, and John catch a short glimpse of God’s new work in the world. This “person” whom they chose to follow not so long ago is not merely another great prophet or teacher or a really dynamic speaker or a smart cookie or just a worker of miracles. In this rare moment, God pulls back the curtain, uncovers what has been hidden from human understanding and perspective and allows them to see the Divine God in human form.

That would have been enough, but there is more. The three and Jesus are joined in the moment by two well known Old Testament peeps:  Elijah and Moses. Most religious folk believed that when the time came for God to set the world aright again, Moses and Elijah would reappear. Moses represents the laws of God. Elijah represents the prophets. Two expressions of God’s love and care and order of this world. And now both are here with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just represent the Law. Jesus doesn’t just represent the prophets. No, Jesus is God; Jesus is  the fulfilment of the Law and the hope of the prophets. The company Moses and Elijah bring to Jesus is unique, for they understand what Jesus’ disciples cannot comprehend. They meet Jesus in that moment offering comfort and encouragement.

Peter doesn’t know what to do. Neither do James nor John. But Peter feels that something must be done. Minds blown, terrified to the bone, Peter cannot sit still nor keep silence.  He starts babbling,  “Teacher, let’s build three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter wants to do something to acknowledge their presence, to mark this moment, to set the place apart.  Peter is scared out of his wits, but he thinks the magnificence display will last forever. Here, finally,  is the sign of the reign of God coming to earth. Jesus is radiant. Moses is here along with Elijah!  The time has come for God to rule the world! So let’s build some shrines for this awesome work of God! 

However, it doesn’t last. The radiance, the power, the pureness, the amazing joy, the terrifying moment is dulled by a cloud. All of us who have hiked these Blue Ridge Mountains know what this is like. You have relatives come in from out of town, pre-COVID, of course. They’re from Florida or Texas and haven’t seen mountain top vistas in real life, only on screensavers. You pack the car with the people and a picnic lunch and you head up to the Parkway. But the higher you go, the “foggier” it gets. However, it’s not fog, it’s the clouds. And the beautiful view of the mountains and the rolling valleys is nothing more than a tv screen from the 70’s looked like when it lost its signal. The clear unobstructed view of the world, of Jesus and Moses and Elijah is overshadowed by a cloud.

No longer able to see the Divine with their eyes, their ears now hear the voice of God speaking directly to them. “This is my beloved Son,” God says, “to whom you need to listen.”  The voice of God doesn’t say anything else. Then suddenly, all at once, without any warning, everything changes back to how it had been. Moses and Elijah gone. The radiant light of Jesus gone. His clothes become ordinary again. They can still see the world below them. And that’s where Jesus leads them, back down the mountain to join the others.  For there is more to God’s goodness and love and grace than just this burst of radiant glorious light. Now as they make their way back down the high mountain Jesus orders them not to tell anyone what they just saw. They will need to wait until Jesus has risen from the dead. This was an experience for their future good and ultimately for the good of the world.

The story of the  transfiguration lies central to the gospel of Mark. It is placed halfway between Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ resurrection. Right before the three disciples climb the mountain with Jesus, Jesus plainly told the disciples what the future looked like. He was going to have to suffer many things. He would be rejected by the religious authorities and leaders. He would be killed and then after three days, he would rise from the dead. Peter didn’t like what Jesus was saying. In fact, he took ahold of Jesus by the shoulders, looked him in the eye and scolded him. He was correcting Jesus giving him the pep talk. “You’re not going to die. We are here with you and we won’t let that happen. The authorities can’t lay a hand on you.” You can imagine what you would be saying to the one to whom you have pledged your life and all your ears hear is that they are going to be defeated. For that’s all that Peter could hear. He was focused on himself and this worldly life. Jesus told Peter and tells us, “You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”  You see, there is more to God’s goodness and love and grace than just the portion of our lives we live here on earth. Jesus tells all of them that this earthly life portion is just a portion. It is not by any means the full picture of life we have in God. The end of this portion of Jesus’ life on this earth won’t be pretty. He is going to be judged a criminal; he will be crucified, nailed to a cross, he will die hanging there. Jesus didn’t deserve such an ending. To our eyes and to our ears it appears that Jesus lost, that Jesus was defeated, or even that Jesus gave up. But this earthly portion of our lives coming to an end is not a punishment, nor a defeat, nor a resignation. It is just a part of the fullness of life that we have from God through Jesus Christ. Death of this earthly life is not the end, and the transfiguration of Jesus Christ so powerfully reminds us of of this very gift.

Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven eventually and inevitably provoked the powers of evil.  Fear, hatred, greed, and despair reared their ugly heads as Jesus lived out God’s righteousness and God’s love. When fear, hatred, greed, and despair invade our mind and our hearts, our thoughts and ideas become distorted, far removed from the thoughts of God. Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they tempt us to create falsehoods and lies to cover up things. Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they lead us to commit violence. Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they push us to oppress others.  Fear, hatred, greed, and despair, they lead us to murderous responses to others, both literally and figuratively. Now if Jesus’ devotion to  God’s reign here on earth led to the uprooting of these powers, don’t you believe as we live here to bring God’s reign here on earth we too will be uprooting these powers.

Six verses before our reading for the morning, Jesus calls a crowd to gather. Here’s what he says to them in Mark 8:34.  “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus does not call us to live passive lives of love. Jesus does not call us to live good lives, make good choices, and to avoid evil. Living the Way of Jesus is not a private bearing of your personal woes for the sake of Jesus. Living the Way of the Jesus is an active pursuit of God’s reign now. Living the Way of the Jesus means pursuing God’s love for the world. Living the Way of Jesus means living out God’s love in the here and now.  Living the Way of Jesus means refusing the power games of domination, exploitation, and deception.

Throughout the gospel story, Jesus teaches us how to live in and under the reign of God wherever we are. And this powerful good news causes us to change what we think and how we live no matter who we are.  The voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son to whom you should listen.”  If we listen, we will hear about that blessed abundant full life God offers us always. For God’s goodness and love and grace is more than just a burst of glorious light. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair
Author: Sarum Breviary, 1495. Trans. John Mason Neale
Tune: OLD HUNDREDTH LM (Louis Bourgeois)

1 O wondrous sight, O vision fair
of glory that the church shall share,
which Christ upon the mountain shows,
where brighter than the sun he glows!

2 From age to age the tale declare,
how with the three disciples there,
where Moses and Elijah meet,
the Lord holds converse high and sweet.

3 The law and prophets there have place,
two chosen witnesses of grace;
the Father’s voice from out the cloud
proclaims his only Son aloud.

4 With shining face and bright array
Christ deigns to manifest today
what glory shall be theirs above
who joy in God with perfect love.

5 And faithful hearts are raised on high
by this great vision’s mystery,
for which in joyful strains we raise
the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image comes from JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved February 8, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
  • The psalm was read by Stone from the Common English Bible.
  • We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding was played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy.
  • The Call to Worship was posted on the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women website of the United Methodist Church.  It was read by Tonya, Alizabeth, Carmen, and Wren with the video compiled by Tonya.
  • Ka mana’o ‘I ‘O was sung by Mindy who accompanied herself on the ukulele and recorder.
  • The prayer for others was adapted by Tonya from a prayer written by Cally Booker printed in The Feast of the Transfiguration, Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, © 1988. It was read by Tracy.
  • The anthem was sung by Ally, Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, Michelle and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano and Michelle on the guitar. Laura sang the opening solo and Ally sang the third verse solo.
  • O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair was played by Tracy on the organ and sung by Mindy.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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Coming through….
The limitlessness of God’s love and work is revealed through Jesus. This Sunday’s scriptures remind us to reach out to God through prayer and reflection as we work to stay focused on being God’s children which means we serve the world.

Faith in Christ sustains and restores us.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship

When we are stretched thin, challenged and doubting,
We walk with God.
When we are in the midst of the life-giving, the exciting and the nourishing,
We walk with God.
When we question every decision and when we are truly certain,
We walk with God.
When we walk with hesitancy or dance with enthusiasm,
We walk with God.
In the simple act of stilling minds and hearts for worship,
We walk with God.

Prayer of Adoration
Let us pray:

God of light and love,
warming February’s chill,
tempering the winds,
peppering hard ground
with early shoots of green
and hints of blossom,
we lift to you
the cold bones of winter
and hearts aflame with hope.

We praise you
for the Light
that has arrived with Jesus,
shining in the darkness,
unquenchable and true.

We praise you
for the hope of his presence,
guiding our feet,
lighting our pathway,
casting warming rays
and the glow of fulfilment.

We praise you
for the discomfort
of his searchlight beams,
concealing nothing,
truth-telling,
life-changing.

Examine us and know us, O God.
Drive out the darkness,
turn our hearts to you
and fill our souls
with the song of salvation,
with the message of your love.

Holy God, we worship you!
We sing your praise
now and forever.
Amen

Song of Praise
Praise the One who breaks the darkness
Author: Rusty Edwards
Tune: NETTLETON (anonymous)

1 Praise the One who breaks the darkness
With a liberating light.
Praise the One who frees the pris’ners,
Turning blindness into sight.
Praise the One who preached the gospel,
Healing ev’ry dread disease,
Calming storms and feeding thousands
With the very bread of peace.

2 Praise the One who blessed the children
With a strong yet gentle word.
Praise the One who drove out demons
With a piercing, two-edged sword.
Praise the one who brings cool water
To the desert’s burning sand.
From this well comes living water,
Quenching thirst in ev’ry land.

3 Praise the One true love incarnate:
Christ, who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose for many
That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
Seeing what our God has done.
Praise the one redeeming glory;
Praise the One who makes us one.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Common English Bible

Praise the Lord!
Because it is good to sing praise to our God!
Because it is a pleasure to make beautiful praise!

The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering up Israel’s exiles.
God heals the brokenhearted
and bandages their wounds.
God counts the stars by number,
giving each one a name.
Our Lord is great and so strong!
God’s knowledge can’t be grasped!
The Lord helps the poor,
but throws the wicked down on the dirt!

Sing to the Lord with thanks;
sing praises to our God with a lyre!
God covers the skies with clouds;
God makes rain for the earth;
God makes the mountains sprout green grass.
God gives food to the animals—
even to the baby ravens when they cry out.
God doesn’t prize the strength of a horse;
God doesn’t treasure the legs of a runner.
No. The Lord treasures the people
who honor him,
the people who wait for his faithful love.

God hasn’t done that with any other nation;
those nations have no knowledge of God’s rules.

Praise the Lord!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
This Little Light of Mine
Arranged by George Mabry

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Every day, I’m gonna let my little light shine.

On Monday, he gave me the gift of love,
On Tuesday peace come from above.
On Wednesday, told me to have more faith;
On Thursday, gave me a bit more grace.
On Friday, told me to watch and pray;
On Saturday, told me what to say.
On Sunday, gave me power divine,
Just to let my little light shine.

Mark 1:29-39
Common English Bible

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them. That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him. Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!” He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Let me begin with a confession. I have been avoiding some of the lectionary readings from the Gospels that have healing stories. We are, after all, still in the throes of a global pandemic where almost 500k people have died because of the coronavirus in the last 13 months. I have avoided these healing stories not because I feel a need for us to ignore what they say but because they are often misused in ways that I don’t think Jesus intended. Today I will venture into the healings in Mark 1 convinced that we need a better way to think about prayer, healing, and death given our global pandemic.  

At our Wednesday night online Bible study this past week, we were discussing James 4:4 in which James (whoever he is?) warns against friendship with the world which can lead to becoming “God’s enemy.” It is a strikingly brash statement that needs some context to understand. It seems clear that in the 1st century when the book of James was written, Christians were a small and insignificant minority of citizens in the larger Greco-Roman Empire that considered the pantheon of gods and goddesses as the “normal” understanding of religion. In that context, it is easy to imagine that James is teaching the same kind of distance from pagan gods and idols that other writers of the New Testament also required. In other words, for Christians in the first century, “friendship with the world” likely meant keeping the traditional idols of your family’s favorite goddess, or participating in the local festival to the patron god of your city, or thinking of Jesus as being like all the other sons of Greek gods as though he were somehow like Perseus who was half-human and half-god because his father was the god Zeus and his mother was a woman named Danaë.  

If that’s part of the caution James is offering Christians back then, what does it mean today for us to be warned about being a friend of the world and possibly becoming God’s enemy. Or to say it differently, how are we tempted to be friends of the world and end up embracing ideas that are counter to a Gospel-centered faith? Other people likely have some good answers to that question. I want to put forward these three things, from my perspective, that we have let our “world” define for us that are simply out of line with Jesus’ teachings. We have adopted too much of the world’s teaching on wealth, race, and health.  

To be honest, Christianity’s struggle with wealth has been a problem for millennia. But it’s also the easiest to critique. The biblical teaching is that no one is defined as more holy because they have more money. No one is cursed by God because they are poor.  Any reading of what Jesus says about the poor, his criticism of wealth, his focus on generosity and giving…these are clearly at odds with the American ideal of having mounds of money and living in luxury. The Gospel highlights generosity, the American Dream encourages greed. James thus warns us to consider that our money may be making us an enemy of God. Some money is necessary; too much desire for money makes us enemies of God. 

Likewise the Gospel is clear that one’s race, as defined by one’s country of origin, or language, or citizenship status, or family has nothing to do with God’s preference for any one group. The starting point for this conversation in the New Testament is the dividing line between Jew and Gentile. Over and over and over again the Bible denies the “racist” idea that God privileges Jews over Gentiles. From John 3:16’s “for God so loved THE WORLD…” to Peter’s clear confession “God shows no partiality…” but accepts “anyone from any nation…” (Acts 10:34-35) the Christian scriptures in no way supports any teaching that one race is more blessed, entitled, holy, or beloved of God. It should be clear to all Christians, that racism as well as race privilege are actively taught to us by our culture and will make us an enemy of God. 

But then we come to the subject of health, and here it may seem that the way is less clear. Our current pandemic and its firestorm through the US sets us on edge. It is like we have been on a year-long airplane flight. Perhaps like me you have that feeling, every time you board a plane, that it is possible that this plane will crash and we will all die. The odds are low, but it is not impossible; the fear is not debilitating but it should be acknowledged. Really faithful Christians are not immune to airplace accidents. I know this to be true in part because my first cousin was on the US Air flight that crashed while attempting to land in Charlotte in 1994. Facing the pandemic has the same effect. For the last year, every fever might be COVID, every face-to-face meeting might share a viral load that is infectious, every trip to the grocery is a possible transmission encounter. These are not irrational, in fact the exact opposite is true—they are both logical and proven as evidenced by the 27 million times it has happened in the US in the last year. Given our new context for disease and health, we are today in a new environment for understanding the relationship between faith and health, or in this case between Jesus and healing. With this in mind, let’s consider our story today from Mark 1:29-39. 

Jesus is in Capernaum with his first apostles. When he goes to Simon’s house, it turns out that Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever. No big deal, it’s just a fever, or so we used to think. Just take some Advil or Tylenol, maybe the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic, and the fever will go away. In Jesus’ day they had no medicine and physicians only treated illnesses with no real expectation that they could heal any fever. It is not difficult, then, to imagine the people in Capernaum living with the concern that a simple fever may in fact lead to death. So when Jesus enters Simon’s house and he discovers that this woman has a fever, this healing story becomes a way for Mark to tell us something about Jesus. Since Mark has no Christmas story, he identifies Jesus’ divine nature in chapter 1 this way: no one can heal a fever but God; no one can cast out a demon but God; no one can cure leprosy but God. Since Jesus healed a woman with a fever, and cast out demons, and cured a man of his leprosy, he is, therefore, divine. In other words, Mark’s healing stories here are to identify something about Jesus. What they say about our health in general is not the main part of the story.  

Look with me at what Jesus does after a few healings in Capernaum. Verses 35-39 read, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, ‘Everyone’s looking for you!’ He replied, ‘Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.’ He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.”  

What these verses tell us is that Jesus left many people in Capernaum un-healed. In our contemporary lingo, Jesus takes some “me time” and goes into the wilderness. For Jesus this is a spiritual retreat and not just a stress-relieving hike. He goes away alone to pray. He recognizes that spiritual fitness is an exercise more important than what we find at the gym or track. I’m not going to tell you that this means God wants us to all get up before sunrise to pray and this is the preferred method for any real Christian to have a meaningful devotional life. What is important here is not Jesus’ method or time of prayer, but the intentionality of prayer and the purposeful practice of a healthy spiritual life.  

In this way, our current times have led us away from a biblical understanding of health. We are easily led to believe that physical health is more important than spiritual health. We want people to pray for us when we’re sick (and this is a good practice and something we encourage) but we don’t often admit even to ourselves when we are spiritually unhealthy. And when we do, we find little help from the world. When society takes on spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, they become defined by secular purposes and outcomes. In other words, spirituality does not have a spiritual outcome or deepen a relationship with God. Instead we tend to create a measureable productivity even for prayer. That’s a problem. To use a cultural example, it has become common to teach “mindfulness” in schools, which is an adaptation of a Zen Buddhist practice. The purpose for school students has no spiritual goal even though its only purpose in Buddhism is spiritual. For students, however, it has an educational aim. As one advocate for mindfulness states, its purpose is to help school students “flourish academically, socially, and emotionally”. Hear me clearly: I’m not opposed to teaching mindfulness in schools to children even if it comes from Buddhism. I am emphasizing, however, that spiritual practices in our Christian faith are ends to themselves. To spend time in prayer or some other spiritual practice is not necessarily assessed based upon measurable outcomes. In this way, prayer is a “waste of time” to borrow a phrase from Marva Dawn. The purpose of prayer is not to lower my blood pressure, or to help me relax. Prayer is not one of the “5 Steps to a Healthy You.” It is to encounter God personally and genuinely.  We are called to pray for the sake of praying, to have time to hear and listen to the Holy Spirit of God so that we’re not just hoping for a selfish dream. Or as the great Thomas Merton said, to intentionally “entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God—to pray for your own discovery [of God],” as Thomas Merton said. If we want an outcome to prove prayer effective, that goal is immeasurable and by our world’s standard a “waste of time.”  

If we go back to the book of James chapter 4 again, he says that prayer is wasteful in a different way. He warns that prayer that seeks to fulfill our own “cravings” (in the CEB), or prayer that is from “evil intention” are wasted. This time, James calls prayer a waste because it fails to seek God but rather is used as a tool to pry something out of God for our own end. It puts our desire first, our need takes priority, our craving seeks to be satisfied at God’s action in response to our prayer. Prayer that seeks to convince God to give us what we want is not prayer but trying to bend God’s will to ours. Every prayer to win the lottery or the Superbowl is, in James’ words, a waste. That’s prayer that displays our attempt to control God when instead, genuine prayer begins with humility and a hope to participate in God’s Way rather than ours. That’s why in the Lord’s prayer Jesus tells us to pray “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” to “hallow” God’s name and not ours, to forgive because God forgave us. Prayer’s origins and hopes are to know God better long before it is ever to be healed or blessed. Prayer is meaningful, Jesus seems to be teaching us, when it comes as a result of our reliance on God, when it seeks a deepened relationship with God so as to better live God’s Way in this world. At least it is easy to infer that is why Jesus retreats to pray in Mark 1.  

We must recognize, however, that in heading out of town in the dark of the morning, Jesus left some people behind still sick. Someone in Capernaum likely died after Jesus left and went on to the other cities. It turns out that Jesus did not heal everyone. Why? Jesus certainly healed some people who were sick, but his purpose was not to come to Earth and be a physician alone. He is becoming famous in the Gospels for his healing, so much so that I think he left Capernaum so that the emphasis would not be on his healing but on his teaching about salvation. Jesus is our Savior always, but not our medicine for good health. If the only reason we become a Christian is because we think it will make us “healthy, wealthy, and wise,” then we need a course correction to our Christian journey through life. Faith is not a protection against illness. Following Jesus is not a guarantee of health. Just praying that we won’t end up with COVID is not an exercise in faith in God. It’s a reckless attempt to test God based upon a flawed understanding of faith that has been defined by the world around us rather than the Bible.  

From the very beginnings of Genesis to the book of Revelation, hundreds of examples of faithful God-serving neighbor-loving people die too soon, experience serious illness or crises, and suffer in this life. In Genesis just after the Garden story, the son of Adam and Eve who most pleased God in worship, Abel, was killed. He had more faith than his brother, and he died. Jumping to the end of the text, Revelation tells us that faithful Christians who hold their faith will likely die, but they should be faithful anyway because the emperor can kill but he cannot take away our salvation. What it says directly is this: “Don’t be afraid of what you are going to suffer… Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). 

People who think they can pray “a hedge of protection” around those who are sick are often  reflecting an American cultural understanding of health and not a biblical one. This kind of thinking reduces health to a faith-test or an effective prayer exercise. It teaches us that to pray and have faith is to protect us from illness. That’s not a Christian truth. It is both not biblical and likely sinful. I sigh when I read about a popular study in which the writer describes prayer as “storming the gates of heaven” in order to, as the marketing for her book says, learn the “secret to praying prayers that really ‘work.’” These are disappointing because they equate good health with good faith. They dilute prayer into its measurable result. That’s not just a waste, it’s dangerous. This kind of theology puts every Christian with a chronic illness, every parent who loses a child to disease, every family member reeling from a sudden deadly accident, every Christian and/or caregiver of someone with cancer or Alzheimer’s or MS, each of the 500k families who are grieving death by COVID… it puts them all either in the category of “God caused your illness/death” or “you don’t have the right faith” or “your prayers are not effective because you are not praying right.” No —  a thousand times, no.  

Why does Jesus not heal everyone, either in the Gospels or now? I don’t know and neither do you nor does the person who writes the books we read. Whether we remain sick or become healed, our hope is in God’s salvation rather than our physical health and longevity. We can take comfort that the fragility of health and life is not a human weakness in the eyes of God. Disease is not God’s judgment on a lack of faith or the presence of sin. Death is neither a failure of faith nor an end – it is another beginning of life with God that is unfiltered by our human limits.  Jesus understands that healing illnesses is not more important that bringing salvation. That leaves those who live with illness and caregiving and grief with a hope beyond this present suffering. The miracle of wholeness and healing is God’s salvation. If we put our hope in medical care and treatment, it will one day let us all down.   

So at the end of this story in Mark, Jesus leaves Capernaum to go to other cities — not to heal more people but to preach the good news. He leaves behind some who are sick knowing that illness is not an impediment to salvation. Disease is not a judgment against someone’s faith. Healing when it does happen does not come because that sick person had more faith, prayed the right prayers, or somehow trusted more and sinned less. Our human mortality does not offer a commentary on God’s justice or our faith. Were that the case, then those 500k people who have died from the coronoavirus would not include any “real” Christians. Try saying that, and defending it without giving up practically every dimension of Christian teaching. You can’t. 

Please keep praying for people with COVID, those in the hospital, our family who have long-term chronic diseases. Pray for their comfort. Pray for their hope. And, yes, pray for their healing. Just know this: whether healing comes or not, it is not bestowed as an act of God’s preference, nor is it a commentary on God’s love, nor does the ongoing disease in any way diminish the certainty of our salvation. Anyone, literally anyone, who tells you otherwise is speaking as one who is not God’s friend.  

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Guide My Feet
Tune: GUIDE MY FEET
African American Traditional

1 Guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

2 Hold my hand while I run this race,
hold my hand while I run this race,
hold my hand while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

3 I’m your child while I run this race,
I’m your child while I run this race,
I’m your child while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

4 Stand by me while I run this race,
Stand by me while I run this race,
Stand by me while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

5 Search my heart while I run this race,
Search my heart while I run this race,
Search my heart while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain!

6 Guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
guide my feet while I run this race,
For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image is a photo taken by Stefan S uploaded to Flickr on April 8, 2018.
  • The call to worship was written by Fiona Barker printed in Winter Liturgical Resource for November, December and January, ed. by Ruth Burgess. Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, © 2016.
  • The opening prayer was written Louise Gough printed in Spring Liturgical Resources for February, March, and April, ed. by Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, © 2019.
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy and accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The anthem was sung by Ally, Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano and Mindy on the cowbell.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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Who’s in charge? To what authority will you defer? After which authority will you follow? These are the questions upon which we reflect in worship today. May the following prayers, scripture readings, music, and reflections serve as a guide in your worship of God today to help you focus your heart on the Lord.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. Genesis 8:22

The trees of the wood await spring’s re-clothing;
the branches will be green again:
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

The sun will rise higher in our skies;
its light will be warm upon our faces once more.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

The days will grow longer;
light will push back the darkness.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

Seeds will germinate and grow;
the flowers will bud and bloom.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

The ears of the wheat will form and ripen;
the grass will grow to feed the cattle.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

Swallows will return and fill the skies;
birds will fill the land with song.
This we affirm: God is faithful and true.

Opening Prayer
Let us pray,
As the days lengthen
Alpha and Omega, you were there at our beginning
and you will be there at our end.
Coasts and islands wait for the dawn,
the dark sea surrounds us like waters in the womb,
like the last river we have to cross.
We wait, trusting, seeing the sky lightening, horizons opening up,
colours of dawn dancing across restless waves.

Spirit of God, in Jesus, you shared our birth and our mortality,
and you are present with us now. We wait.
The clouds become bright, the rocks glow,
our hearts catch fire with sudden joy – the sun rises.
Rise in our hearts, we pray, today and every day.
God of creation, you greet us every new day,
and, as the days lengthen, we see green shoots of spring;
snowdrops, faithful in their presence year by year;
lengthening days and sunlit moments,
all these speak to us of your love.
We praise you for these signs of your life-giving Spirit
and for Jesus, who embodied that love,
who came to share our human lives,
calling men and women to follow him,
and to be salt and light in their communities;
Jesus who listened and shared meals, taught and healed,
walked country tracks and city streets in the land that we call Holy;
who kept the faith and challenged apathy and abuse of power;
who was rejected and reviled, tortured and nailed to a cross.
Who died.
And who rose again, like the sun in the morning,
so all the world can see that your love is stronger than death.
We praise you now in the power of the Spirit,
enlivening, encouraging – and present with us now. Amen

Song of Praise
God of Grace and God of Glory
Author: Henry Emerson Fosdick
Tune: CWM RHONDDA

1 God of grace and God of glory,
on your people pour your pow’r.
Crown your ancient Church’s story,
bring its bud to glorious flow’r.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour.

2 Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn your Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us,
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

3 Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.

4 Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.
Let the gift of your salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving you whom we adore,
serving you whom we adore.

Psalm 111
Common English Bible

Praise the Lord!
I thank the Lord with all my heart
in the company of those who do right, in the congregation.
The works of the Lord are magnificent;
they are treasured by all who desire them.
God’s deeds are majestic and glorious.
God’s righteousness stands forever.
God is famous for his wondrous works.
The Lord is full of mercy and compassion.
God gives food to those who honor him.
God remembers his covenant forever.
God proclaimed his powerful deeds to his people
and gave them what had belonged to other nations.
God’s handiwork is honesty and justice;
all God’s rules are trustworthy—
they are established always and forever:
they are fulfilled with truth and right doing.
God sent redemption for his people;
God commanded that his covenant last forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name!
Fear of the Lord is where wisdom begins;
sure knowledge is for all who keep God’s laws.
God’s praise lasts forever!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
Undivided Mystery
Author: Bev Easterling
Composer: Mark Schweizer

Holy Father, Saving Son,
Blessed Spirit, Three in One:
Undivided mystery,
Author of eternity.

Loving God, Anointed Son,
Eternal Spirit, Three in One:
Word Incarnate, Well Beloved,
Heav’nly King and Lord of Love.

Mighty God, Redeeming Son,
With the Spirit, Three in One:
As the sacred Trinity
Alpha and Omega be.

Mark 1:21-28
Common English Bible

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.” “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out. Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen to Tonya’s reflection or read below.

The gospel of Mark demonstrates the power of the ministry and mission of Jesus through the telling of the story of Jesus.  Through each story we see and hear the kin-dom of God breaking into our world. Mark offers no explanations or dogmas or theories. Mark doesn’t outline theologies or rules and regulations. Instead Mark writes down the story of Jesus knowing that the stories themselves are full and meaningful enough to attest to the amazing ministry and mission of Jesus. This is a quick paced gospel with exciting news. We are invited on an adventure into the amazing revelation that God is interested in us, God has come among us, and God offers free grace to everyone!

One of Mark’s favorite words  to use is the word immediately.  Just in chapter 1 alone Mark uses immediately 11 times and the passage for this morning contains three. Mark uses this word like a drumbeat. It emphasizes moments and increases the momentum of the story moving forward into more momentaneous moments. This aural drumbeat gets lost in translation. Did you catch how many times I used a form of the word moment in the previous sentence?  In English composition classes we are taught not to use the same word over and over again.  Repeating the same word too often is poo-pooed. So translations clean up Mark for our English ears and eyes. “Immediately” becomes “then” or “at once” or “when” or “just then” and yes, sometimes “immediately.”  However, if the same word is translated multiple ways, we don’t lose the meaning of what is being said, but we do lose that insistent gospel drumbeat. So let’s “immediately” turn our hearts and minds to the gospel this morning.🙂

In this Sunday’s passage, Jesus and his newly called disciples travel to the village of Capernaum. Capernaum was a town or village of perhaps 600 people. “Immediately on the Sabbaths” Jesus goes to the synagogue and he teaches. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is teaching. Mark doesn’t share with us any information about the audience. But we do know Jesus’ teachings blow their minds and astonish them. Jesus’ teaching is different and they are amazed by it.

Synagogues were stone block buildings a little bigger than the footprint of our the concreate area behind the church where we have held outdoor worship (80 by 60 feet). Synagogues were something akin to community centers. The building functioned as court, and as places for political discussions. Archives were stored in synagogues. Children were educated there. And of course this was the place where the Torah was read aloud and taught by rabbis, and it was a place of prayer. Regular meetings were held in the synagogues on the Sabbaths.  No work was done on the Sabbath out of respect and honor to God. It was a day set apart as holy unto God as defined by the 10 commandments. Back then there were two sure signs of your Jewish faith and your commitment to God–circumcision and keeping the Sabbath.

Without hesitation (think “immediately”), Jesus attended synagogue services while in Capernaum. And he was called upon by the synagogue officials to teach. That he was invited to teach is not surprising to the people of Capernaum. But what surprised everyone was the manner in which Jesus taught. The lessons Jesus shared with them set him apart from everyone else. Normally, rabbis taught by sharing the words of the Torah and then explaining them by referencing the teachings of other rabbis.  The teachers of the law (also called “scribes”) were professional experts in the Torah. They studied, explained and applied the Torah to specific situations. But Jesus did not teach this way. Jesus didn’t reference other rabbis nor was he a trained professional expert in the law.

Instead, Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus is Divine come to live among us. Jesus is a part of that undivided Mystery of which the choir sang. This revelation of the Undivided Mystery, this Jesus does not need to consult any human authority to bring truth to those who listen. Jesus speaks on the basis of his own authority.  Nothing less could happen than they be profoundly impacted by this experience, for it is with Jesus–with God. Were they astounded because the teaching was extraordinary? Or were they astounded because the teaching was bold, true, and prophetic? Were they astounded because Jesus was teaching them something new, something they had never considered before? Or were they astounded because Jesus’ teaching challenged their safe sanitized understandings of God forcing them to rebirth their imaginations about God? I would say, all of the above is possible.

What if Jesus were to come literally and physically among us and teach us today? What would astound us? Would we be astounded merely by God being present with us? Would we be astounded because we were hearing something we had never heard before?  Would we be astounded because Jesus’ teaching was redirecting our ideas about truth, justice, compassion, and love? Yes, all of the above is possible.

In the midst of  teaching, an impure spirit interrupts Jesus.  (An impure spirit or  unclean spirit is synonymous with demon.)  It wasn’t the man that cried out, it was the impure spirit. The influence of the impure spirit is at odds with a liberating God who came, in no small part, to set the captive free. This impure spirit has a hold on this man–mind, body, and/or soul. And this human needs to be set freed from its grip. This kind of work is central to the gospel — setting people free from whatever keeps them away from God and restoring God’s vision for all humanity.  The action does not happen without opposition. The unclean spirit identifies Jesus by name and place, and as the “Holy One of God.” The first thing Jesus does is silence this enemy of humanity. Jesus takes away the voice of the enemy and the grip loosens. Then Jesus demands the spirit to come out and the man is set free. The kin-dom of God which will come one day in all its fullness, this kin-dom has broken into the world and the captives are being set free. In the words of Zechariah 13:4 , On that day I will remove from the land the unclean spirit.  This day has come with Jesus Christ.  When Jesus commands the impure spirit to come out of this man here at the very beginning of the story of Jesus, it is like a flag for the kin-dom of God has been staked on earth. The territory claimed was not Capernaum or even the synagogue, but the territory claimed is the person who is possessed, oppressed, who is suffering, who is pulled away from God. And in this act, Jesus reclaims the holy place of humanity. 

If Jesus were to come to be literally and physically among us today, what impure spirits would he silence, rebuke and exorcise? What powers would Jesus silence? From what evil grip would Jesus set us free? What impure and unclean spirits torture us, overshadow us, overwhelm us? What evil is attempting to stand between you and God?  What addictions, habits, apathies, or attitudes are holding us back, pulling us away from the kin-dom of God? What evil powers among us would Jesus command to leave?

I’ve led us astray a little bit for I’ve seemed to imply that Jesus being among us is something like a dream or a distant hope instead of a present reality. Jesus has full authority over heaven and earth. But that authority is not something in the past only or only for the future. That authority is present now. God is interested in people. Jesus’ life shows us this. God cares about us, loves us, seeks us out to save us. A flag has been staked, a kin-dom is being built where we will live with God forever. And that life is not in the past or only in the future, that life is for today. God is at our side and all that causes us pain and suffering is painful and alien and antithetical to God. God in Jesus enters our sufferings. Jesus’ ministry shows a defiance of the destructive powers that enslave humanity. God doesn’t like them and God is against all that would rob us of the fullness of life God would have us experience. So I need to change the questions. What astounds you today about Jesus’ teachings? And what impure spirits today are keeping you away from God?  Jesus is still teaching us. Faith is not to be a static part of our lives, but something that should be growing deeper day by day. And yes, there are still impure spirits getting in the way of us living the Way. As in the 1st century as is today and will be tomorrow, Jesus will silence them, rebuke them and cast them away so that we might know that God loves us and is always at our sides.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love.
Please help our church family grow
deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come
Author: Fred Pratt Green
Tune: CANONBURY LM (Schumann)

1 O Christ, the healer, we have come
to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored,
when reached by love that never ends?

2 From every ailment flesh endures
our bodies clamor to be freed.
Yet in our hearts we would confess
that wholeness is our deepest need.

3 In conflicts that destroy our health
we recognize the world’s disease;
Our common life declares our ills.
Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

4 Grant that we all, made one in faith,
in your community may find
The wholeness that, enriching us,
shall reach and prosper humankind.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image is from Our Lady of Mercy Lay Carmelite Community website.
  • The call to worship was written by Simon Taylor printed in Winter Liturgical Resource for November, December and January, ed. by Ruth Burgess. Wild Goose Publications.
  • The opening prayer was written Jan Sutch Pickard printed in Spring Liturgical Resources for February, March, and April, ed. by Ruth Burgess, Wild Goose Publications.
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The anthem was sung by Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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This week’s readings make compelling arguments for us to drop everything when we are invited to a deeper relationship with God. It can be challenging to leave behind what we once found reliable. Thankfully, God is persistent!

May the following prayers, scripture readings, music, and reflections serve as a guide in your worship of God today to help you focus your heart on the Lord.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
The invitation is given to every person by Jesus Christ:
“Come to me! Follow me! Be my disciples!”
We come to this place, to this time,
at the invitation of Jesus Christ.

In the name of Christ,
we accept the invitation to discipleship.
In the name of Christ,
as his disciples, we worship and praise God
.
In the midst of a world where cruelty abounds,
we proclaim the God of Compassion.
In the midst of despair that threatens to swallow up
whole lives, whole peoples,
we proclaim the God of Hope.

In the midst of indifference and apathy,
we proclaim the God of Love.
Come, let us worship together
and share our witness of God’s living presence in the world.

Opening Prayer
In you alone we put our hope,
God the Father, Creator and Sustainer,
who gives all good things
seen and unseen.

In you alone we put our hope,
God the Son, Saviour and Redeemer,
who died for our sins
and rose again.

In you alone we put our hope,
God the Spirit, Teacher and Comforter,
who moves us to sing
“Our God reigns!”
In you alone we put our hope.

Song of Praise
Let Us with a Joyful Mind
Author: John Milton; Adapt. Thomas Troeger
Tune: INNOCENTS (The Parish Choir)

Let us, with a joyful mind,
praise our God forever kind,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Newmade earth was filled with light
through God’s all commanding might,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Dazzling bright the sun obeys
God who shines with brighter rays,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Stars and moon that spangle night
all depend on heaven’s light,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Creatures of the sea and land
all are fed by God’s own hand,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Therefore with a joyful mind,
praise our God forever kind,
Rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Psalm 62:5-12
Common English Bible

Oh, I must find rest in God only,
because my hope comes from him!
Only God is my rock and my salvation—
my stronghold!—I will not be shaken.
My deliverance and glory depend on God.
God is my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
All you people: Trust in him at all times!
Pour out your hearts before him!
God is our refuge! Selah

Human beings are nothing but a breath.
Human beings are nothing but lies.
They don’t even register on a scale;
taken all together they are lighter than a breath!
Don’t trust in violence;
don’t set false hopes in robbery.
When wealth bears fruit,
don’t set your heart on it.
God has spoken one thing—
make it two things—
that I myself have heard:
that strength belongs to God,
and faithful love comes from you, my Lord—
and that you will repay
everyone according to their deeds.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
Lead Gently, Lord
Author: Paul Laurence Dunbar
Composer: Clif Cason

Lead gently, Lord, and slow,
For oh, my steps are weak,
And ever as I go,
Some soothing sentence speak;

That I may turn my face
Through doubt’s obscurity
toward thine abiding-place,
E’en tho’ I cannot see.

For lo, the way is dark;
Through mist and cloud I grope,
Save for that fitful spark,
The little flame of hope.

Lead gently, Lord, and slow,
For fear that I may fall;
I know not where to go
Unless I hear thy call.

My fainting soul doth yearn
For thy green hills afar;
So let thy mercy burn-
My greater, guiding star!

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Common English Bible

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.) Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

Mark 1:14-20
Common English Bible

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I admit to being an optimist. Those who know me well are aware of the parent from which I inherit this disposition. As an optimist, then, I hear people state “Murphy’s Law” — “anything that can go wrong will” — as a call to preparation rather than defeat. If we are told something will fail eventually, then we can prepare for its failure, or not trust its permanance, or not pity ourselves at its loss. Every new car will eventually need to be repaired and later replaced. We will dread its unreliability at the end and likely hate this thing we once loved. Knowing that ahead of time helps us balance our expectations and desires. Murphy’s Law can apply in this way to everything from tech devices to careers to pets and even friends. 

Yet as a true optimist, I am aware of Murphy’s Law’s reverse truth, sometimes referred to a Yhprum’s Law (“Yhprum” being “Murphy” spelled backwards) which states that “if anything can go right it will, eventually.” This maxim too is a call to preparation. It allows us to consider lost opportunity as a one-time failure but not a final sentence of doom. All it takes is one person who wants to hire me, just one manager’s email that begins with “I’m delighted to offer you the job.” It will happen one day so prepare for it. 

I want to apply this same principle, optimistic though it may be, to our readings from Jonah and Mark today. Here’s what I hope you take away from this sermon: One day God will speak to you. It will happen. Eventually. Be prepared to hear and respond. In fact, since we don’t control what or when or how God speaks, the only thing we can control is how we respond. So be ready to say “yes” even though it will change you.      

Jonah 

Jonah heard the word of God. I honestly don’t know how. I can’t explain how the prophets heard God, whether they experienced an audible voice or not, but it was understandable and seemingly without doubt from God. “Go to Nineveh and speak these words,” is what Jonah understands God to say. Jonah hears and then has a choice to make. Honestly, his first choice was to do the opposite of what God said. That’s why after Jonah boarded the boat headed away from Nineveh God sent the storm at sea, and the great swallowing fish. Neither of these (the storm or the fish) were God’s punishment of Jonah but instead became a way for God to give Jonah a second chance. When we start reading Jonah’s story in chapter 3, God’s message hasn’t changed, and Jonah hears it again and still has a choice to make. This time he follows the divine request to go to Nineveh and tell. Given what we hear about him in chapter 4, it’s clear that he’s not enthusiastic about his brief career as a prophet. In fact, if I had to describe Jonah’s attitude I would call him petulant and boorish. Yet he fulfills God’s request and in that way furthers God’s work in Nineveh. Always remember that the substance of God’s word and God’s way are of more importance than the personality or proclivities of the prophet or preacher or disciple. Because Jonah lets the words of God move him to action, the people of Nineveh expand our concept of “children of God.” Though they are not Jewish, though they live in a “foreign city,” though they haven’t heard the Torah or the preaching of the prophets, God loves them whether Jonah does or not.  

The People of Nineveh 

Like Jonah, the people of Nineveh hear the word of God. This time we know how God spoke and how they heard it. The voice of God came out of Jonah’s mouth as it uttered God’s message. What prophets have in confidence the rest of us must make up for in trust. The prophets are certain of God’s message knowing its origin, while we have to test to see if the words we hear as proclamation are God’s words or not. Some people find, through prayer and scripture, words to speak that help us hear God’s call, and others can unknowingly tell us what God wants us to hear. The people of Nineveh hear God’s word through Jonah and then have a choice to make. They willingly make the right choice.   

The people of Nineveh in many ways represent us. We are not Jewish nor born in the Promised Land. We are foreigners and Gentiles. At the same time, we are heartened that God’s beloved community of saints is not defined by looks or language or location. The only restriction on God’s call is either to refuse to hear it, or defy any meaningful response. Although Jonah was not from Nineveh, his meager message was received with enough truth from God that the people responded. We don’t know the sins they confessed or the prayers they uttered before God. Yet fast and pray they did. They all did. From the king of Nineveh to the domesticated livestock, from the head to the herd. They sought God’s forgiveness with utter humility – sackcloth for clothes, ashes on their heads, no food or drink to bring them comfort. They felt the burden of their sin and each itch of skin or grumble of the gut poked and proded at their need for God’s forgiveness. They heard God’s word through Jonah and responded – not to Jonah but to God. God not only heard their prayers but read their hearts. The people prayed, yes, but they also changed. We would say they repented. The translation we have of verse 10 simply says “they ceased their evil behavior.” That’s repentance. Again, the people heard God and made a choice. Their prayers were not words that they simply said in order to either trick God or make a demand of God. A single prayer spoken lacks substance by itself. We don’t speak magic when we pray to God. And we don’t cross our fingers behind our back, even figuratively speaking. “God forgive me” is a great prayer unless we don’t really intend to end our sinful behavior. “God I’m sorry” is meaningful except for when it actually means, “God I’m sorry I was caught and now let me convince you to forgive me so I won’t feel guilty.” The people of Nineveh are not giving us any “method” to achieving forgiveness from God. Instead, they demonstrate where a genuine response to God leads. They will not stay in sackcloth for long, they will eventually eat and drink again, but they seem truly to have turned from their evil ways to God’s Way. They can go back to farming and blacksmithing and shepherding and cooking. But they have chosen not to go back to sin, or evil, or life before God’s word moved them to action. 

Peter and Andrew, James and John 

If we jump ahead in time historically to the Gospel of Mark’s story of Jesus, we find that some of the people who hear Jesus speak believed that they heard God’s words. Isn’t it so much more certain that we hear God’s words through Jesus than wondering about a transcendent divine appearance. Divine encounters on this side of the thin veil between the physical and the spiritual will sometimes come, but in the meantime, the words of Jesus say things we must hear as the words of God.  

Simon and Andrew are at work and they hear God’s voice in this Jesus from Nazareth. They were fishermen, rowing their boats and casting their nets as a business that supported their families and fed many others. The Sea of Galilee was the primary source of meat and protein for thousands of people so long ago. The heat and weather of the Middle East meant that herds were less profitable than fishing, although, to be sure, sheep and goats played their economic role. The lake was, nevertheless, a reliable source of fish in all seasons and therefore both nutrition and income. So when we hear of Simon and Andrew, and add to that the story of James and John, consider that they were not fishing on their day off – it was not a hobby or a relaxing weekend on the water. They were at work and heard God’s word through Jesus’ call and they had a choice to make. That choice changed them—they left their jobs and hometowns and reasonable comfort. Fortunately, it seems they were prepared to respond. Unlike Jonah, these disciples didn’t need a second calling. Maybe they had heard John preaching by the Jordan, and they remember their Jewish teachings about the Messiah, and they were prepared to choose to follow should they have the chance. Well, the opportunity came, Jesus spoke their names, and they responded by leaving their jobs, and their father (in the case of James and John) and went with Jesus. These disciples don’t pray and fast about their decision, perhaps because they had already committed to God in prayer that, given the opportunity to hear God’s voice, they would say “yes.” They were, in this way, prepared disciples already. Maybe one morning as they were putting away their nets, James said to John, “I pray that God will send the Messiah soon. And if I have the chance, I will follow God’s Servant. I will not let wealth and work prevent me from participating in God’s Way. I sincerely hope I can see that day and hear God’s voice. One day, maybe. If not me, then I pray it will be you. If possible, maybe it could be both of us.” Well, James, if anything can go right, it will, eventually. God called and you responded.  

The Rest of Us 

Like Jonah, and the people of Nineveh, and the apostles of Jesus, one day we will hear God’s word. It will happen or perhaps it already has. Certainly most of us have heard the call to repent, believe, and be baptized. Yet if that is the end of what we hear from God, then we are less than God intends for we, too, hear God’s words and have a choice to make. Do we follow them? Do we change our actions, our choices, our desires, our hearts? Do we leave behind what we once thought defined us? Do we pray and fast, or just pray and pretend? Just like it is impossible to explain how Jonah heard God’s words, it is unpredictable how any one of us will hear God next. Perhaps we will hear the very voice of God, either “still and small” as the Psalm describes, or startling and courageous as a Wild Goose as the Celtic Christians described the Holy Spirit. Like the people of Nineveh, we sometimes hear God’s words in each other’s messages when they reflect and resemble the heart of God. And we all have the Gospels to help us hear the words of Jesus, which are no small wonder and certainly not to be ignored by those who call ourselves Christian. So hear this one and all, not because I think I’m speaking God’s word but because it is what I hear this day from the Gospel – be prepared to hear God’s words and make a choice to follow them. Whenever they come and whatever call they make. God’s words will come to you and me. Eventually. For God still calls disciples to follow, and to love, and to offer grace, and to be kind, and to reconcile differences, and to make peace, and to overcome injustice, and to heal and pray and hope and care. Be ready to respond, for we will hear God’s voice. Maybe even today. Amen. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
You Walk along Our Shoreline
Author: Sylvia Dunstan
Tune: SALLEY GARDENS (traditional Irish melody)

1 You walk along our shoreline
When land meets unknown sea.
We hear your voice of power,
“Now come and follow me.
And if you still will follow
Through storm and wave and shoal,
Then I will make you fishers
But of the human soul.”

2 You call us, Christ, to gather
The people of the earth.
We cannot fish for only
Those lives we think have worth.
We spread your net of gospel
Across the water’s face,
Our boat a common shelter
For all found by your grace.

3 We cast our net, O Jesus;
We cry the kingdom’s name;
We work for love and justice;
We learn to hope through pain.
You call us, Lord, to gather
God’s daughters and God’s sons,
To let your judgment heal us
So that all may be one.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image comes a stained glass window created by George Walsh in 2005 at the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, Tullow, County Carlow, Ireland to celebrate the bicentennial of the church (1805-2005) and depicts an ichthys (Jesus fish) in combination with a cross. The image was taken by Andreas F. Borchert in 2014.
  • The call to worship comes from the On Earth Peace website. http://www.onearthpeace.org/
  • The opening prayer was written by John Birch, and posted on the Faith and Worship website. http://www.faithandworship.com/
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The anthem was sung by Mindy, Elizabeth, Laura, and Tonya, accompanied by Tonya on the piano.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, and posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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The forecast for the week ahead of those of us who live in the United States appears to be one of potential turmoil and uncertainty, sickness and death. Just south of us in Greenville County, SC the number of COVID cases is soaring with a positivity rate of almost 40%. Even with the two major healthcare systems in the county pleading with residents to wear masks and social distance, we see South Carolinians in the upstate heed the hospitals — the very people who will care for them when they are sick — with deaf ears. The US inaugurates a new president this week, but rumors of hate and potential violence swirl in response. On Monday the US celebrates the birthday of civil rights leader and Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King reminded us to meet anger with compassion in order to heal hurts, right wrongs, and change society. All these events create a stage upon which we have the opportunity to “display” our faith in God and the hope we have through Jesus Christ that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So do not flag in zeal in your faith and in your hope in God! In Joshua 24, Joshua challenges the people to be faithful to God. “Serve the Lord honestly and faithfully,” says Joshua. “Focus your hearts on the Lord.”

May the following prayers, scripture readings, music, and reflections serve as a guide in your worship of God today to help you focus your heart on the Lord.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
based on Psalm 139

 O God, you know us inside and out,
         through and through
You search us out
        and lay your hand upon us.
You know what we are going to say
         even before we speak.
We praise you, O God, 
         for the wonderful knowledge that
whoever we are and wherever we go,
         you are with us.

Opening Prayer
Insistent God,
by night and day you summon your slumbering people,
So stir us with your voice
and enlighten our lives with your grace
that we give ourselves fully
to Christ’s call to mission and ministry.
Amen.

Song of Praise
We Are Marching in the Light of God
Author: South African Traditional Song
Tune: SIYAHAMBA

We are marching in the light of God.
We are marching in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are marching. We are marching.
We are marching in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

We are singing in the light of God.
We are singing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are singing. We are singing.
We are singing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

We are dancing in the light of God.
We are dancing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are dancing. We are dancing.
We are dancing in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

We are praying in the light of God.
We are praying in the light of God.
(Repeat.)
We are praying. We are praying.
We are praying in the light of God.
(Repeat.)

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Common English Bible

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was. The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said. Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did. Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.) A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been. 10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
What Star is This?
Author: John Chandler
Tune: TALLIS CANNON (Arranger: Richard Shephard)

What star is this, with beams so bright,
More lovely than the noonday light?
’Tis sent announcing a new King,
Glad tidings of our God to bring.

’Tis now fulfilled what God decreed,
“From Jacob shall a star proceed”;
And lo! the Eastern sages stand
to read in heaven the Lord’s command.

While outward signs the star displays,
An inward light the Lord conveys,
And urges them, with force benign,
to seek the Giver of the sign.

O, while the star of heavenly grace
Invites us, Lord, to seek Thy face,
May we no more that grace repel,
Or quench that light which shines so well!

To God the Father, God the Son,
And Holy Spirit, Three in One,
May every tongue and nation raise
An endless song of thankful praise!

John 1:43-51
Common English Bible

The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.” Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” Philip said, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

One of the choir’s favorite hymn writers is John Bell. Not our John Bell of Cullowhee, but the John Bell  of Scotland. One of our many favorites is the hymn called The Summons. It begins with Jesus asking

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

The hymn ends with the people responding to God
Lord, your summons  echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and breath in you, and you in me.

Over the past couple of weeks here in the United States, we have seen a lot of  examples of “following.”  It has highlighted the fact that who you follow matters. It matters not only in the physical world but in the virtual world too. We know that when protesters rallied in Washington over a week ago, not everyone was dead set on violence. Not everyone circumvented barricades. Not everyone pushed law enforcement aside. Not everyone broke a window. Not every busted down a door.  Not everyone screamed hateful language. Not everyone murdered. But did you see how many people followed?  Who you decide to follow matters.

The gospel reading for this 2nd Sunday of Epiphany takes us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has been baptized by the Holy Spirit through the baptism of John. And now he is making his way back to the region of Galilee and he is calling disciples to follow him. Our reading begins with Jesus calling Philip. As Jesus sets out on the road to Galilee, making the journey home after being baptized, Jesus finds Philip on that same road. Philip being from Bethsaida, the same hometown of other disciples, Andrew and Peter.  And as Cullowhee means Judiculla town, Bethsaida means Fisher town. Anyhow, along the road to Galilee, Jesus meets Philip and invites him to join the company of his followers. Two simple words tell the story. With a note of authority Jesus says, “Follow me” and Philip does.

There’s no record of what Philip says in response to Jesus’ invitation, but we know that he follows, for the gospel tells us that Philip goes to find Nathanael to share the good news about finding Jesus. Philip says to Nat, “We have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote! His name is Jesus. He’s the son of Joseph of Nazareth.”  Why include the father’s name and the hometown? That’s just how they did it back then. Like, “here is Stone, the son of Mike of Cullowhee.” But it wasn’t the name that mattered, it was who they had found that mattered. Philip was saying to Nathanael, “We have found the Lord’s anointed one. The one about whom the prophets wrote. The one who will bring and establish worldwide righteousness. The one who will bring peace to everyone along with the fear and knowledge of God.” Let that sink in for a minute. Imagine how Philip must have felt. The excitement. The awe. The amazement. The overwhelming sense that here is the One. Here is the One whom the prophets foretold. Here’s the One whom Moses spoke of. What we have been taught, Nathanael, what we have come to believe and hope for, here is God’s anointed One among us.

Nathanael isn’t impressed at first. News of finding the Messiah, or the Anointed One is exciting, but who cold imagine the messiah coming from Nazareth. Just to be clear, Nazareth was  not an important place before Jesus came along. Jesus is the one who put Nazareth on the map. Nazareth was a village of maybe 300 people. (And we thought Cullowhee was small.) The Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, doesn’t mention Nazareth at all. It was too common a place for the Messiah to come from. It was just a small little hole in the wall village. Not a place of origin fit for the Anointed One of God. You can hear the doubt in Nathanael’s voice. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s like saying, “Philip, you’ve made a mistake. Nazareth cannot be the origin of the Anointed One of God.” A simple Jew from an insignificant village in Galilee. Surely the Messiah would come from a more significant town and family. Well, the best way to figure something out is to see it for yourself. And that’s what Philip invites Nathanael to do.  “Come and see,” he says.

Now this interaction between Nathanael and Jesus is a curious one. It seems to be one of the longest recorded conversations Jesus has with the calling a disciple.  Most of the time the gospels just record Jesus saying, “Follow me.” And people drop what they are doing and they start tagging along. But not with Nathanael. There’s a few background stories playing out in the exchange between Jesus and Nathanael. I figure if it was important enough for the writer of John’s gospel to put it down this early in story of Jesus, then there must be some to it.

First off, Jesus greets Nathanael as if he had known him quite well.  Jesus says of him, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This isn’t a quiet reflection like Jesus is pondering something. Jesus says this with an exclamation point at the end of the gospel sentence. To better understand Jesus’ loudly proclaimed compliment of Nathanael, we have to go back to the Hebrew story of Jacob. 

You recall the story of the brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the older brother, and therefore in line for the family blessing to be given him by their father Isaac. However, Jacob tricks Isaac, their daddy, into giving him the family blessing. Isaac is almost completely blind and Jacob takes advantage of the weakness. He dresses up like his brother Esau and pretend to be him. He sits down with his father and receives the family blessing. The blessing cannot be taken back. Once it was given back then, it was given. And it mattered back then who physically receives the words. You can imagine how upset Isaac is finding out that Jacob has deceived him. Isaac breaks the news to his son Esau by saying, “Your brother came with deceit and has taken away your blessing.”  That word deceit in the Hebrew scriptures is the same word deceit in John’s gospel. One more thing to note. Later on in the life of Jacob, he gets his life turned around and at that point God gives him a new name, Israel.

So with those reminder, you can hear better the compliment from Jesus to Nathanael. It is like Jesus says, “You are a true Israelite, but not like Israel was when he was full of trickery and deceit.” Jesus says of Nathanael, “Here is one who is honest and dependable, who is trustworthy and sincere, who is decent and good.”
Nathanael forgets to say thank you. Instead he seems to be shocked and asks, “How do you know me?” Jesus merely says, “I saw you standing under the fig tree.” Well that clearly explains it. Surely only true Israelites stand under fig trees, right? Who knows. We can only guess at the significance of the fig tree. Did it imply a place of meditation? Was it a figure of speech to imply one knew  accurately about a person’s whereabouts and thoughts? Or was it merely a place of relief from the heat of sun? Whatever is meant by the phrase, “I saw you standing under the fig tree” it clears up any and all hesitations and doubts that Nathanael might have had towards Jesus being the Messiah. The word spill out of Nathanael’s mouth. “Rabbi, you are God’s son, you are the king of Israel.”  Now “Rabbi” means teacher. But “God’s son” and the “king of Israel” are Messianic phrases.You can call anyone a teacher, but you only call God’s Anointed one, God’s son or king of Israel. The words from Psalm 2 fill Nathanael’s heart and head: for the LORD says of the Anointed One, the Messiah, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill….You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

Whatever the “standing under the fig tree” language implied, Nathanael is persuaded. This is the Messiah, the One of whom Moses spoke and the prophets proclaimed. Jesus is amused by Nathanael’s quick change of heart and mind. And Jesus goes on to promise Nathanael that he will see greater things than this. Just wait and see what is about to happen. “Amen. Amen,” says Jesus. “You will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.” Okay, again, we need to turn back to the story of Jacob to better understand what Jesus promises to us here.

If you remember after Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, he left the family to go back to his mother’s hometown to find a wife. One night along the journey back he had a dream. He was sleeping out in the open using a stone as a pillow (And we thought the National Guard had it rough sleeping on the tiled floor of the Capitol. At least most of them have a backpack they can use for a pillow.) Well, as Jacob slept with is head on a rock, he dreamed of a ladder or a ramp propped up on the earth that went into heaven. On that ladder the angels of God were coming up and going down; coming down and going up.  As he watched the angels of God going up and down, the LORD stands beside him. The LORD tells him that he, Jacob, and his descendants will become a blessing to all the families of the earth. (Reminds me of what God told Abraham.) When Jacob wakes up he considers the place he this first, this surely is the gate of heaven. He recognizes that he was in the very presence of God. And he renames the place Bethel, meaning “the house of God.” [Now I cannot move on without making the note, after this Jacob says, if God will be with me, keep me, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and the ability to see my father’s house again in peace, then this God will be my God…. and by the way, all that you give me, I will give back to you 1/10th. Anyhow, back to Jesus.] 

Jesus points back to the story to make a point. The wonder of Jesus’ special knowledge about who Nathanael is, this is of little importance compared to the wonder of God’s using Jesus as the One who comes from heaven, meets us in human form, and returns to heaven again. Jesus is not merely a messenger from God, but Jesus is the Human One by which we human beings can have an encounter with the divine. We are heirs to this promise. Jesus is the Human One by which we can encounter God. And most importantly, the greatness of God always exceeds what we have already seen and what we can imagine!

So let’s return back to that idea of following. First off, God has already chosen us. We are invited to chose God and follow. God has blessed us with God’s presence literally among us by coming to be with us as one of us as Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the one anointed by God to be the living Word of God among us. It is a gift. We have this great gift, the gift of the presence of God, for all times and every place. But this gift is not like a prize. You put a prize on a shelf. This gift is not an award we post that we have received. This gift is not a reward for our good deeds or a perfect life. It is not a badge of honor or a blessing that makes us untouchable, unstoppable, or unshakeable. This gift of God’s choosing, of God’s constant abiding presence, it is to become a way of life for us.

We follow the One who sees us under the fig tree–the one who knows us through and through. Just as Jesus knew Nathanael, Jesus knows us. There is a blessing to be found in that. That the one who is always with us, knows us. God understand us. We are not alone. God knows the truest depths of our hearts and God can help polish us, and make us into the beautiful person God created us to be because God knows us.

Now, Nathanael showed that he would follow Jesus by calling Jesus “God’s son” and the “king of Israel.” He also called him “Rabbi” or “teacher” too. So that makes me give pause to ask, what names do we give Jesus to show we follow Jesus? Some might be Best Friend or Great Teacher. Sometimes it’s Savior. Sometimes it is Radical Revolutionary. Sometimes it is Word of God. What kind of name are you calling Jesus by? How are you following Jesus? The way you follow gives Jesus that name.

And never, ever lose hope in the promise Jesus made that day to Nathanael and to those around him. In fact the “you” is plural there. “You [all] will see greater things than these!” That promise, that word, that commitment Jesus gave that day to Nathanael and those around him is a commitment that comes down through the ages all the way to us. You will see greater things. As you follow Jesus, don’t limit the way or the road you walk with God to such a small view. The love of God, the reach of God, the embrace of God, the creativity of God is far greater, far greater than we could ever imagine. Hold on to that.

Jesus asks of us,
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Jesus Calls Us, o’er the Tumult
Author: Cecil Frances Alexander
Tune: GALILEE

Jesus calls us, o’er the tumult
of our life’s wild, restless sea;
Day by day that voice still calls us,
saying “Christian, follow me.”

2 As, of old, Saint Andrew heard it
by the Galilean lake,
Turned from home and toil and kindred,
leaving all for Jesus’ sake.

3 Jesus calls us from the worship
of the treasures we adore,
From each idol that would keep us,
saying “Christian, love me more.”

4 In our joys and in our sorrows,
days of toil and hours of ease,
Jesus calls, in cares and pleasures,
“Christian, love me more than these.”

5 Jesus calls us! By your mercies,
Savior, may we hear thy call,
Give our hearts to your obedience,
serve and love thee best of all.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements:

  • The image was taken by Peter Trimming. Source= flickr.com/photos/peter-trimming/5649252218/
  • The opening prayer was posted on Thematic, Intercessory and Scripture Prayers for the RCL, Vanderbilt Divinity Library, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/.
  • The opening hymn was sung by Mindy, accompanied by Tonya on piano and Kendall on percussion.
  • The anthem was sung by Mindy, Elizabeth, Kendall, Laura, and Tonya; accompanied by Tonya on the piano, Kendall on the marimba and kalimba, and Jeffrey, Ally, and AJ on the handbells.
  • The closing hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Tracy on the organ.
  • The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, posted on The Painted Prayerbook website.

    Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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Invitation. Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. In one of my worship resource books, Winter (ed. Ruth Burgess; Wild Goose Publications) there’s a poem about Jesus’ baptism titled Pirate Jesus written by Thom Shuman. The poem ends with these words

but you come
to me,
dripping wet
with that dove
perched on your shoulder
(like a pirate
with his parrot)
and grabbing me
by the hand
you count, ‘1, 2, 3!’
and together
we jump
faith-first
into
grace.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God encouraging you take the hand of Jesus and jump “faith-first” every day.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
The heavens open. The Spirit descends.
Jesus emerges from the water.
And a voice echoes through the blue expanse.
“This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Jesus is named. Claimed.
We come to the water. We remember we are named. Claimed.
Can it be so? What a thing to be named. Claimed.
Let us worship the one who names and claims us still.

Opening Prayer
We come before you God in prayer today seeking your calm and peace after a week of shame, disappointment, fear, anxiety, and visual hate. We turn our hearts to you today. Shine your light upon us as we worship you. Wash our emotions, hearts, and minds with your love so we might better praise and honor you. In the name of the One in whom we have placed our trust, Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Song of Praise
All Things Bright and Beautiful
Author: Cecil Frances Alexander
Tune: ROYAL OAK

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

1 Each little flower that opens,
each little bird that sings,
God made their glowing colors,
and made their tiny wings.

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

2 The purple-headed mountain,
the river running by,
The sunset, and the morning,
that brightens up the sky.

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

3 The cold wind in the winter,
the pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
God made them every one.

Refrain:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
our dear God made them all.

Genesis 1:1-5
New Revised Standard Version

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from god swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Song of Praise
God, Your Almighty Word
Author: John Marriot
Tune: ITALIAN HYMN

1 God, your almighty word
Chaos and darkness heard,
And took their flight:
Hear us, we humbly pray,
And where the gospel-day
Sheds not its glorious ray,
Let there be light!

2 Savior, you came to give
Those who in darkness live
Healing and sight,
Health to the troubled mind,
Sight to the inward blind:
Now to all humankind
Let there be light!

3 Spirit of truth and love,
Life giving, holy dove,
Speed on your flight!
Move on the water’s face
Bearing the lamp of grace
And, in earth’s darkest place,
Let there be light!

4 Holy and blessed Three,
Glorious Trinity,
Wisdom, Love, Might!
Boundless as ocean’s tide,
Rolling in fullest pride,
Through the world, far and wide,
Let there be light!

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
This Baptizing Day
Author: William Allen Pasch
Based on Martin Luther’s Christ Our Lord to Jordan Came
Tune: DOWN TO THE RIVER TO PRAY (American Folk Hymn)

Jesus went down to the river one day,
his Father’s calling to obey.
Then John baptized him, and the Lord God said,
“This is the way!
This is my own dear son,
Follow him; his work’s begun.
Sin’s drowned, the victory’s won!
River, wash guilt away!”

This water flows as the river of grace
for all God’s children in this place,
It’s not our doing; Christ has done it all.
Give God the praise!
Now let this flood of love wash us clean,
all fear remove.
From earth and heaven above,
loud thanksgiving we raise!

When I go down to the river to pray,
thinking on my baptizing day,
the Holy Spirit tells me I’m newborn,
Old sin, away!
My Savior died for me.
Resurrection sets us free,
Grace reigns eternally,
through this baptizing day!

Mark 1:4-11
Common English Bible

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Reflection on the Gospel
Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

This past Wednesday we celebrated as a man stood in front of a crowd of people to address them. They had come from out of town specifically to see and hear him. He was, some claimed, a prophet of God. The words he said to them mattered. They had consequences. Those who listened to his words were moved to action. And shortly after he spoke, they responded.  

This celebration was Epiphany and the man I’m referring to is John the baptizer, cousin of Jesus, who was out near the Jordan. With his words he issued a call to seek forgiveness from God, to admit to sin, to have hearts changed from selfishness and greed and power and desire to the holy pursuits of God’s children, principally these two: forgiveness and humility. The people responded by marching toward the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. In the words of Mark 1 that I just read, “they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” God’s pleasure that day did not only rest on Jesus, but on these other children of God with whom God found happiness. 

This past Wednesday another man also stood before a crowd of people to address them. They, too, had come from out of town specifically to see and hear him. He was, some claimed, a prophet of God. But let’s stop right there! I care far too much about Christianity and the Gospel of God to let anyone claim that Donald Trump is God’s messenger. To do so is to ignore the entire sweep of the biblical story which calls for the kind of holy virtues that have not in any way been evident in what he has said or done, either before or after he became President of the United States. He called for force; Jesus praises weakness. Trump wants what is best for himself; Jesus asked us to care for others. Trump demands loyalty to himself; Jesus constantly turned people toward the poor and powerless, and toward God. Trump claims himself to be the best president in history; Jesus praises the humble. Trump says if someone hits you then you should hit them back ten times harder; Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Trump praises his riches; Jesus said blessed are the poor.  Trump uses lies and dishonesty on a daily basis; Jesus said the truth will make you free. Trump boasted in an interview that he doesn’t ask for forgiveness from God; Jesus and John and Paul and Peter and practically every Christian text begins the Way of faith with confession and forgiveness. As an American citizen or an international onlooker or a member of our church, you can have any opinion you want regarding Trump’s politics. I am uninterested in whether you think he’s a good president or who you voted for in November. But as an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I will not stand by quietly if someone claims that Mr. Trump represents Jesus, or promotes Christianity, or is a prophet of the holy God. He is not and to say so is blasphemy.  

I heard someone say this week that when George Orwell was writing his dystopian novel 1984 Orwell said that when things are at their worst it is time to restate the most basic principles. Fortunately for us, Mark’s story in chapter 1 of John’s preaching in the wilderness is a call back to the foundational basics of a life of faith. If we assume an appropriate understanding of God, then the first movement toward becoming a faithful worshipper of God and follower of the Gospel is forgiveness. The second, is a willing exercise of humility. Forgiveness requires confession. Humility requires trust. John gives voice to both of these, and Mark’s story of John puts them on display at the beginning of Jesus’ story. 

The Gospel of Mark was written 20 years before either Matthew or Luke wrote their account of the things that Jesus said and did. For centuries, the beginning and ending have remained the two most surprising elements of Mark’s Gospel. We know that Mark’s last chapter is uncertain, its actual text missing from any historical document we have. What came after Mark 16:8 we simply do not know. Likewise, something is missing from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, but not because we lost a text but rather because Mark doesn’t say anything about it—that is, Mark’s Gospel contains no Christmas story. Gabriel doesn’t appear to anyone, Jesus is not in a manger, and no wise men travel to worship at the home of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Bethlehem. Mark begins with Jesus all grown up and ready to go. 

I have noted before, in both sermons and Bible studies, that by the time we finishing reading the entire first chapter of Mark, this Gospel leaves us with as much evidence of the incarnation of God in Jesus as any Christmas story. In this first chapter, Jesus is approved by God with a direct voice from heaven, surrounded by Jewish disciples, casts out an evil spirit, heals a woman with a fever, and cleanses a man of leprosy. Any one of these stories would generate hopeful gossip about the possibility Jesus may be the Messiah. All of them together in this first chapter means that one keeps reading the Gospel of Mark with the identity already revealed – Jesus is the Messiah.  

So let’s look at the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel more closely. If these are the first things written about Jesus, what do they tell us about being a follower of this One? Here is where we turn to the two basic principles of faith: forgiveness and humility. 

First, forgiveness is arguably the most central idea in Christianity. I say “idea” but really I think of forgiveness as a self-reflected outlook, a way to see ourselves and God and the world through the lens of our faith. I really like the way the Common English Bible translates verse four: “John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” John didn’t invent baptism as it was already a Jewish ritual associated with spiritual cleansing, but he is the one who attaches the practice of baptism with forgiveness. This biblical baptism story doesn’t spend much time telling us about the “how-tos” of baptism. We do hear that Jesus was “coming up out of the water” which presumes a full immersion perhaps. But we miss the point of the baptism if we focus on how it’s done, or when, or where. The point of the baptism is that people “were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” Without that willfully chosen change, Christianity is unable to be discerned in anyone’s life. Unless we know our need to ask God’s forgiveness, confess our sin, and move to a Way of life exemplified in the grace and mercy of God, then we will be Christians in name only and in no way “followers” of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will say, “Many people call me ‘Lord’ … others will say “I preached in your name” … some will claim to have done great things for God in the name of Jesus … but it will be as though I don’t know them.” [my paraphrase of Matthew 7:21-23.]  Christianity begins with forgiveness in the same way that writing a novel starts by learning ABCs in kindergarten.  

Second, Christianity as heard in John’s words and seen throughout the actions of Jesus in the Gospels rests on humility. Consider John’s popularity. Rumors must have flown throughout the country that a new Jewish prophet was out by the Jordan. He sounds like Elijah of old. He’s in the same place where Elijah went to live after confronting King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He’s dressed like a prophet of God and sounds like one too. If John had been in contemporary times, he’d be selling out stadiums of people who applauded his words and started fan clubs. And yet, John has perspective. He is not the important one. These people should not be his followers. He’s not interested in saying something that sounds wise and will find approval for himself. His words, his actions, his popularity, his audience…he seeks to turn all of these things toward Jesus.  

Humility is not the same as self-deprecation. John does not think himself incapable, nor lack esteem, nor is he without motivation to achieve what is in his capacity to do and say. His genuine humility means he knows that, in his own words, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8). John is not the savior. John is not the incarnation of God. And he won’t pretend that he is, either by lying to himself or to others.  

Even looking at John suggests a lack of vanity and pride. Here is a person not defined by material comfort. His humility extends even to the way he dresses and eats and lives. We are told that John wore camel’s hair clothing and ate the diet of a desert ascetic not because we are all called to be monks or nuns, but to note that possessions are often distractions from spiritual awareness and trust in God. John exemplifies and Christians are taught that God is not reflected in the outward appearance or possessions or wealth of a person. In fact, since John serves as a first-glimpse of discipleship, Christians are called to consider the value of voluntarily forsaking materialism for simplicity. The comfort of wealth and possession and fashion and beauty and abundance are not a measure of spiritual virtue and may, in fact, hinder our relationship with God. We can debate about whether discomfort (or suffering) is required for spiritual growth (I expect to hear from Dale Melton on this one!) but it seems undeniable that prosperity is an impediment to our spiritual health and that chosen simplicity and intentional asceticism can help our ability to recognize God’s Way in the world. What might this mean in real terms? Perhaps we emphasize “going to church” too much and have neglected private prayer, personal devotional practices, or individual exercises of spiritual discernment. Worship at home has been a practice of spiritual discipline rather than social connectivity. It is therefore an act of humility. The worship of God that we practice when no one knows about it or sees us necessarily grows from an intrinsic acceptance of the value of worship that only God acknowledges rather than that which is motivated by social participation that seeks group approval.   

Humility also requires us to recognize that God has authority over us while knowing that humility is exercised in our relationships with other people. Jesus talked as much about loving someone other than ourselves as he did about loving God. It may be easy for Christians to willingly seek to be humble before God, but the Gospel also calls us to humility with other people. “Don’t think too highly of yourself” is a direct teaching from Romans 12. “When you cared for these people others consider unvalued and poor and overlooked, you cared for me” Jesus said in Matthew 25. “If someone asks you to go one mile, go two” he said in Matthew 5. “No one shows greater love than to give up your own life for someone else” he said in John 15. And in 1 John 3 the New Testament tells to that loving others is exactly the same as and begins from a love for God. All of these holy acts of obedience to God begin with an actual personal understanding of healthy humility. Recently on the news a South Carolina politician said that Americans don’t like to be told what to do. He also said that Protestant Christians don’t like to be told what to do. That reasoning was used as an explanation as to why Baptists in South Carolina don’t wear masks – because someone told them they had to do so. Stubbornness is not a substitute for Christian humility. Pride does not justify disobedience of a biblical teaching. Personal preference is often the opposite of care for others. Jesus’ understanding of being a servant to others, a call to humility that every real-life servant knows, does not allow for Christianity of any kind to justify the endangering of another person for my own personal preference. In fact, it is hard to identify an act of individual convenience as in accord with the Gospel of Jesus if it diminishes or threatens the life of another one of God’s beloved children.  

See, we are tempted read the story of John in the wilderness baptizing Jesus with crowds watching and the voice of God descending from heaven and we think, “wow, what an event—I wish I had been there to post it on my social media account.” Instead, we should read Mark 1, hear John’s story, listen to his words, and consider his example. Confession to seek forgiveness cannot be faked. God will always know the truth of our heart. And genuine humility will always be exercised in relationship with other people so that it is evident to ourselves and others.  

The baptism story in Mark 1 ends with Jesus coming up out of the water and God’s Spirit coming down from the heavens. Imagine the scene. Consider this approval of God upon Jesus that was not called down by any person or affirmed by any observer. It was only made manifest by God’s initiative. These words of God, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness” were said about Jesus. And through Jesus, every single creation of God has the capacity to be God’s delight. That includes you and me as well. May that goal guide our life of faith as we take daily steps toward the practice of forgiveness and humility.  

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Mark How the Lamb of God’s Self-Off’ring
Carl P. Daw, Jr.
Tune: WAYFARING STRANGER

Mark how the Lamb of God’s self-off’ring
Our human sinfulness takes on
In the birthwaters of the Jordan
As Jesus is baptized by John.
Hear how the voice from heaven thunders,
“Lo, this is My beloved Son.”
See how in dovelike form the Spirit
Descends on God’s Anointed One.

From this assurance of God’s favor
Jesus goes to the wilderness,
There to endure a time of testing
That readied Him to teach and bless.
So we, by water and the Spirit
Baptized into Christ’s ministry,
Are often led to paths of service
Through mazes of adversity.

Grant us, O God, the strength and courage
To live the faith our lips declare;
Bless us in our baptismal calling;
Christ’s royal priesthood help us share.
Turn us from ev’ry false allegiance,
That we may trust in Christ alone:
Raise up in us a chosen people
Transformed by love to be Your own.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: The image was taken by Emily Burttram. The Call to Worship was written by Caela Wood, Pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Manhattan, Kansas. The prayers were written by Tonya. The Opening Hymn was sung by Mindy accompanied by Ally on the piano and Tessa on the flute. The Song of Praise was sung by Mindy and accompanied by Tonya on the piano. The anthem was arranged by Tonya; sung by Mindy, Laura, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth; and accompanied by Tonya on the piano and Michelle on the guitar. The Closing Hymn was arranged by Tonya, sung by Mindy, and accompanied by Michelle on the guitar and Tonya on the piano. The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, posted on The Painted Prayerbook website. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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Invitation. Today we celebrate Epiphany–the coming of the magi to worship Jesus! The “official” date for the Epiphany is this Wednesday, January 6, twelve days after Christmas Day! Wednesday looks to be an interesting day in the life of United States politics, but look beyond this sure to be distraction. Watch the international news for how Christians around world celebrate the day when God Incarnate shines through all the boundaries with which we might restrict God.

May the following serve as a guide in your worship of God.

The Worship of God

Passing the Peace 
Say to one another, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
And reply, “And, also with you.”

Call to Worship
People of God, arise, shine,
for your light has come!
The light of Christ has come into the world.
Immanuel.
God with us.

So arise, shine, for your light has come!
And we will follow the light–
when it shines brightly in the night sky
when it glows dimly on the horizon.

We will follow the light–
when it leads down familiar paths to expected destinations
when the road is unfamiliar
and the star rests above a dubious-looking home.
We will lift up our eyes and look around.
And when we see the Christ child,
may our hearts be overwhelmed with joy.

When we are in the presence of Immanuel,
may our knees bend in worship.
When our journey brings us, finally, to the heart of God,
may our hands open in generous sharing;
may our mouths open in generous praise.

Opening Prayer
Lord of yesterday, today and tomorrow,
we gather here this first Sunday of the New Year,
in a mixture of hope, anticipation, fear, excitement, and expectation.
We do not know what the year holds for us.
There are things we are afraid of:
worries about health and family, job security and finances.
There is much to look forward to –
weddings or anniversaries or baptisms,
holidays to enjoy,
friends to laugh with.

Lord God,
the coming year is full of uncertainty and hope.
Whatever the year holds for us, though,
we trust You, and we place every day of this year in your care
knowing that, as in the past, You are with us,
caring for us with constant love.

And so Lord, we place ourselves into your keeping
and dedicate our lives to your service
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour. Amen.

Song of Praise
Arise, Your Light Is Come
Author: Ruth C. Duck (1974)
Tune: FESTAL SONG

1 Arise, your light is come!
The Spirit’s call obey;
show forth the glory of your God
which shines on you today.

2 Arise, your light is come!
Fling wide the prison door;
proclaim the captive’s liberty,
good tidings to the poor.

3 Arise, your light is come!
All you in sorrow born,
bind up the brokenhearted ones
and comfort those who mourn.

4 Arise, your light is come!
The mountains burst in song!
Rise up like eagles on the wing,
God’s power will make us strong.

Ephesians 1:3-14
New Revised Standard Version

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Prayer for Others
Pause after each paragraph to give voice to prayers as prompted.  Let us pray,

Merciful God, who shelters us and guides us,  
we give you thanks for…. 

God who comforts,  
receive those who are fearful and lonely…. 

God whose love is steadfast,  
be refuge for the ill, the dying, and those who care about them.… 

God of righteousness,  
we ask for your wisdom and ways of justice to prevail  
in our community, this nation, your world…. 

God who seeks our trust, grow us and guide us in your ways
that are life-giving in your world.  Amen.

Anthem
The Stars Looked Down
Composer: Mark Schweizer
Poem by G.K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen and/or read along to Tonya’s reflection and the scripture being read.



Happy New Year! Like you, I’m determined for this year to be a joyful one!  Although a microscopic fuzzy virus has overshadow our lives and our world, altering and changing the way we interact with one another, its shadow does not stand a chance against the joy of the Lord in our lives and world. You recall Romans 8:38 which says that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love is the source of our being and God’s love is the source of our joy!  All the moments of 2021 may not be “happy” but they are guaranteed to be joy-filled when each moment is placed and held in the hands of the Creator God.  It will take courage on our part, along with persistence and determination for the joy of the Lord to overshadow our lives, but the possibility is real.  Now is the time for all of us who are gifted with “stubbornness” to lift up your voices and hearts to encourage the world in our faith in God, the source of our joy. Stubborn persistence can get us in trouble sometimes, but it can also be turned into an awesome blessing.

We see that gift of persistence, courage, and determination in the gospel story of the magi from Matthew 2. Read along with me or listen again the story of their faith, courage, and hope on this first Sunday of 2021. 

Matthew 2:1-12
Common English Bible

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,       
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,           
because from you will come one who governs,           
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.


Who in the world were these travellers and from where did they come? 

Unfortunately, the gospel of Matthew doesn’t give us much to answer these questions, but here’s what we do know. Matthew calls them “magi.” So let’s go with their occupation defined by the scriptures instead an occupation defined by a song. They are not kings, even though we have called them “kings” in our anthem this morning. Even though we have sung before the hymn We Three Kings, they are not kings.  They are magi. History suggest they may have been sages, or even political advisors. Matthew says they came from the “East.” You may want to think Persia and if so, then recognize that Persians opposed the Romans.  Imagine the “other” super power come knocking at your door ready to “worship” a newborn king that you have yet to hear about.

We do know they are stargazers who allow the stars to write their travel plans. They seem to be wealthy or they are entrusted with someone else’s wealth, and they are definitely not greedy or dishonest. They are not intimidated by others, whether that be Herod or a new born king. And they don’t bat an eye in kneeling before the One who is different from them in age and race and social standing. They have come to worship the newborn king. They are open to dreams guiding their lives, but they are not vagabonds or wanderers for they return home after completing their quest.

These travellers are determined and persistent. I love how they are willing to trek miles upon miles out into the unknown based on a hunch. For that’s what it was–a hunch. No one can be certain that a star in the sky is a sign of the birth of a new king. Their hunch reminds me of Abraham. Abraham had a “hunch” that God was calling him to go and set up house in another land. So in faith he packs up the whole lot and treks into the unknown. If you think about it, certainty is always missing when we are following God’s lead. Faith is required of us when we follow God and faith is not certainty. Faith is trust in God. And yes, following God or living the Way of Jesus Christ requires determination and persistence. Don’t give up on living the way of Jesus Christ as you venture out into the unknowns of 2021. In faith trust that God will be with you–when the road is long, uncertain, dusty, or sandy, and tiring. Keep your heart and mind set on Christ.

These travellers are also willing to embrace the unexpected. I love how they willingly  accept the fact their quest leads them to a simple family: a young mother, a father, and a baby boy. I’ve often wondered if they thought, “Is this the right child because no one else around here seems to care or recognize the greatness among and around them?”  But the star’s commitment to the place gives them the push they need to show up where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are. They are at the right place, at the right time, before the right Child. So convinced about this are they, and Matthew doesn’t explain how or why, but they are so convinced that they leave behind the contents of their treasure chests and return home, mission complete. 

So what happens when we live the way of Jesus Christ, but things don’t turn out like we expected them to? Do we measure the worth of our lives using the weights of the world, or do we judge the worth of our lives through the eyes of God? Are we here to get ahead? Or are we here to bring honor to the newborn king?  Our lives may not turn out to be anything like we expected them to be, but hold firm to that belief that whatever your life is like, if it is bringing God honor and glory, then it is exactly what it needs to be. In Matthew 2:2 in the Common English Bible we read that the magi have “come to honor” the newborn king. The NRSV reads that the magi have “come to pay homage.” This is worship–the magi say, “We have come to worship the newborn king.” Herod says, “Let me know where he is and I will go worship him too.” Whatever happens as you live the way of Jesus, just make sure your living, your life is worshiping Jesus. This is what is required of us. It is how we show God our love.

So what was in all of this for the magi?  What did they gain from this quest? Truthfully it is easier to see what they lost. They lost time that could have been spent doing other things travelling all the way over there and all the way back. They surely lost a few good nights sleep travelling like they did. They willingly lost the contents of their treasure chests.  They found what they were looking for and the discovery brought them joy. But what did they gain from this journey into the unpredictable?

The only thing they carried back home with them was a story. You might say they returned home empty handed and without any proof to convince others that their quest was a success. All they had was a story about an encounter. Granted it was an encounter that inspired them to leave their treasures behind, an encounter that led them to deny the requests of a foreign government, and an encounter that required them to return home quietly so as to escape the wrath of the authorities.  I dare say that most of our encounters with God leave us empty handed without any proof of God. All we have is just a story. But the “proof” (if you will) of God in the “story” or the “encounter” comes from how it changes your life.  In fact, the story becomes a part of your life. It changes you. It polishes you. It transforms you into becoming a sign of God’s presence here in the world.  Think back to Moses. Remember when he went up on the mountain to meet with God. And when he came back down off the mountain, his face glowed with radiance from being in God’s presence.  Our encounters with God don’t typically leave us with glowing faces, but they do cause a brightness in the world that enables others to see God through us. There’s a verse in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus goes on to say, “Let your light shine before others, so they can see your good works and glorify God in heaven.”

The magi had only a story to share when they returned home. But the story was no small thing for it was about their encounter with God Incarnate, Jesus, the Christ. Truly, if you don’t look for signs of God in the world, then you are not going to encounter God, and if you don’t encounter God, then you don’t have much of a story to tell. We have a new year spread out before us. We are just three days into 2021. So how about going on a quest with me this year? Will you walk in the shoes of the magi with me and set out this year to find signs of God’s presence in the world. God is here. But if we don’t look, we will miss, and our stories of faith and about God will be thin and faded. It will take persistence on our part and courage, and a willingness to let God show up how God wants to show up instead of how we expect God to show up. But there is nothing less to gain than that same joy the magi found along with a transformed life that will bring honor and glory to God more and more every day.


Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Thank you, God for constant love. Please help our church family grow deeper and deeper in your love. Amen.

Song of Faith
Angels from the realms of glory,
Author: James Montgomery (1816)
Tune: REGENT SQUARE (Smart)

  1. Angels, from the realms of glory,
    wing your flight o’er all the earth;
    As you sang creation’s story
    now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.
  2. Shepherds, in the field abiding,
    watching o’er your flocks by night,
    God with us is now residing;
    yonder shines the infant light:
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.
  3. Sages, leave your contemplations,
    brighter visions beam afar;
    seek the great Desire of nations;
    guided by Christ’s natal star:
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.
  4. Saints, before the altar bending,
    watching long in hope and fear,
    Suddenly, your prayers attending,
    Christ beside you shall appear.
    Come and worship, come and worship,
    worship Christ, give thanks and sing.

Sending Out
May the path that Christ walks
to bring justice upon the earth,
to bring light to those who sit in darkness,
to bring out those who live in bondage,
to bring new things to all creation:

may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.

Blest Be the Tie 
by John Fawcett 

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. 
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

When we are called to part, it gives us inward pain; 
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives our courage by the way; 
while each in expectation lives and waits to see the day.  

Acknowledgements: The Call to Worship was written by Joanna Harader, posted on the Spacious Faith blog. The Opening Prayer was written by Rev. Ian Elston, posted on the Church of Scotland’s Starters for Sunday website. The anthem was sung by Mindy, Laura, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth accompanied by Tonya on the piano. Mindy sang the hymns accompanied by Tracy on the organ. The Sending Out was written by Jan L. Richardson, posted on The Painted Prayerbook website. Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-724755. All rights reserved.  All writings have been used by permission from the posting sites or authors.

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Journeys

Last night after dinner and fellowship around the tables, we gathered in the sanctuary to reflect upon the journey of the magi to find and worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).  The story of their pilgrimage amazes me. I have been struck this year by how the only time they could have traveled would have been at night–for that is the only time they could have seen the star and known which direction to go. Rarely do we associate darkness with goodness, but for them it was.  All other distractions removed, with only the light of one new star in the night sky to guide them, they headed west to Jesus.  We talked about how the journey of the magi is like the Christian journey of faith.  Jesus was the goal for the magi and for us as well.  Like the magi, we don’t have the full picture of who Jesus is, but each day we learn more and more about Christ.  Deciding to start out on the journey is one of the most important steps and like the magi’s journey, the Christian faith takes time, commitment, effort and persistence.  In the spirit of the magi’s gift giving, a challenge is set for all of us to consider.  What three gifts will you give God this year?   Pause today and pray. What will you give God this year?

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