Archive for the ‘worship’ Category

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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Invitation. Our waiting is over! Christ has come! On this first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the gift of God’s redeeming grace. This is no small thing! With our hearts and minds turned towards God as we worship, may we reaffirm God’s unhindered ability to reshape and restore. May we recognize the spark of God’s holiness in one another and all things. And may we work to make visible the reign of God — a reign of grace and love, a reign that claims us as God’s own.

The Worship of God

Light two candles in recognition of Christ’s presence.  
In our practice, one candle represents Jesus’ divinity and the other Jesus’ humanity.

Passing the Peace
Say to one another, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”
Respond by saying, “And also with you.”

Call to Worship
~posted by Rev Gord on the site, Worship Offerings

The people who walk in darkness. That’s us!
We have seen deep darkness in the world around us.
So we have come to search for the light.
We want the light to shine on us!

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”
A child is born for US!
A son is given to ALL of US!
We come to see the child that has been born,
we come to gather in the glow of the stable,
we come to sing with angels and wonder with shepherds.
Come and worship, come and worship!
Worship the one who is born for us this day….

Opening Prayer
Almighty and Everlasting God, who by the birth of the holy child Jesus has given to all a great light to dawn upon our darkness: Shine your light on us! We want to see more clearly the great love you have for the world. May the light of your love brighten our hope in you today and always. Amen.

Song of Praise
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Author: Isaac Watts (1719)
Tune: ANTIOCH

1 Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth its praises bring;
let ev’ry heart prepare Christ room,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

2 Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

3 Christ rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of God’s righteousness,
and wonders of God’s love,
and wonders God’s love,
and wonders, wonders of God’s love.

A Reading from the Psalms
Psalm 148
Common English Bible

Praise the Lord from heaven!
Praise God on the heights!
2 Praise God, all of you who are his messengers!
Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces!
3 Sun and moon, praise God!
All of you bright stars, praise God!
4 You highest heaven, praise God!
Do the same, you waters that are above the sky!
5 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
because God gave the command and they were created!
6 God set them in place always and forever.
God made a law that will not be broken.

7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
8 Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormy wind that does what God says!
9 Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
fruit trees, and every single cedar!
10 Do the same, you animals—wild or tame—
you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
11 Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
you princes and every single ruler on earth!
12 Do the same, you young men—young women too!—
you who are old together with you who are young!

13 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
because only God’s name is high over all.
Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven.
14 God raised the strength of his people,
the praise of all his faithful ones—
that’s the Israelites,
the people who are close to him.

Praise the Lord!

Song of Praise
Hark, the herald angels sing
Author: Charles Wesley (1739)
Tune: MENDELSSOHN

1 Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the Christ-child bring:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinner reconciled!”
Joyful, all you saints arise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with the angel host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Refrain:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the Christ-child bring.”

2 Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time the Savior comes,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity,
pleased on earth with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel. [Refrain]

3 Hail the Bearer of God’s peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life our Savior brings,
risen with radiant, healing wings.
Mildly laying glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us all from earth,
born to give us second birth. [Refrain]

Prayer for Ourselves and Others
~written by John Birch and posted on the site, Faith and Worship

Circle us, Lord
Circle us with the light of your presence within this dark world
Enable us to be overcomers of fear and temptation
Enable us to be victors over sin and despair
Enable us to become that which you would desire
(Silent prayer)
Lord of creation, Lord of Salvation
Circle us with the light of your presence

Circle us, Lord
Circle our church family within the shelter of your outstretched arms
Protect them in each moment of their daily lives
Protect them in the decisions that they face
Protect their homes and relationships
(Silent prayer)
Lord of creation, Lord of Salvation
Circle our church family with the light of your presence

Circle us, Lord
Circle this world with the joy of your Salvation
Where there is sickness and disease bring healing
Where there is hunger and despair bring hope
Where there is torture and oppression bring release
(Silent prayer)
Lord of creation, Lord of Salvation
Circle this world with the light of your presence

Song of Adoration
Gesu Bambino
Composer: Pietro A. Yon

When blossoms flowered ‘mid the snows
Upon a winter night
Was born the Child, the Christmas Rose
The King of Love and Light.

The angels sang, the shepherds sang
The grateful earth rejoiced
And at His blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.

O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord.

Again the heart with rapture glows
to greet the holy night
That gave the world its Christmas Rose
Its King of Love and Light.

Let ev’ry voice acclaim His name
The grateful chorus swell
From paradise to earth He came
That we with Him might dwell.

O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord.

A Reading from the Prophets
Isaiah 61:10-11 to 62:4
Common English Bible

I surely rejoice in the Lord;
my heart is joyful because of my God,
because he has clothed me with clothes of victory,
wrapped me in a robe of righteousness
like a bridegroom in a priestly crown,
and like a bride adorned in jewelry.
11 As the earth puts out its growth,
and as a garden grows its seeds,
so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
until her righteousness shines out like a light,
and her salvation blazes like a torch.
2 Nations will see your righteousness,
all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.
3 You will be a splendid garland in the Lord’s hand,
a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand.
4 You will no longer be called Abandoned,
and your land will no longer be called Deserted.
Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land, Married.
Because the Lord delights in you,
your land will be cared for once again.

Reflection on the Reading from Isaiah
Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Listen to Jeffrey’s reflection and/or read below.

Let me tell a brief story about two Christmas gifts I received as a child. One gift, the one I wanted really badly because it was in the JC Penney Catalog, was a pogo stick. The other gift, the one I didn’t ask for but received because my older brother wanted one and I had to get the same thing he got … longer story there …, this other gift was a bicycle. The pogo stick was the trendy gift that year. It was shiny and red and the child bouncing on it in the catalog looked so happy. I was too (happy, that is) when I took the pogo stick out that Christmas day and the next and jumped and jumped. Then, I was done with it. I tried jumping with it down the street to Rudy’s Convenience Store but it took way too long. It was easier to walk. I continued to like the pogo stick and even bragged about having it. But I just never really used it again.  

The bicycle was different. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t choose the orange color but it was different than my brother’s yellow one so we could tell them apart. It was also too big for me at the time with my tip-toes barely reaching the ground. But it was a ten-speed Schwinn. That was good. And unlike the pogo stick, it was great for transportation. That bike took me far beyond Rudy’s Convenience Store. I rode that bicycle everywhere. For months. Actually, for years. I used it to go across town to my friend Allen’s house by the lake. I rode it to the elementary school yard on Sundays to play football after church. I won a “Bicycle Derby” contest with it at school the next year. I rode it to church, to baseball practice, and just sometimes for fun. The Christmas bicycle I had not expected is the one that I probably used the most of any Christmas gift I ever received.  

If you’re like me, you find that Christmas is fun, it’s beautiful (especially with this year’s snow), it is approached with anticipation. We long for Christmas to come so we can give gifts and open them. We can watch children’s wonder and joy. But then what? What’s left after the glittery and marketed Christmas consumerism?   

On this first Sunday of the Christmas season, now just two days since we celebrated the birth of Jesus who is proclaimed as “Emmanuel, God with us,” we have a gift from God that comes with a question – what do we do with Jesus now? The gift of Jesus doesn’t jingle. He’s not a toy to entertain us. If we’re honest, we don’t do a good job of teaching ourselves that the gift of Jesus is enough regardless of anything else we have. Yet Jesus remains more substantial than any box with a bow that we unwrapped on December 25. The coming of Jesus engages us far beyond the holiday. We will soon wind up the lights and box away the ornaments. The pretty Christmas day will be in the past. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll one day soon realize that Jesus doesn’t remain a baby, but grows up to call us into a Way of life and love that is much more needed than any gift we wanted. In short, we asked for and received salvation so that now we can practice discipleship far beyond Christmas. 

The end of the book of Isaiah tells us of a time much anticipated by Jesus’ Jewish ancestors. They had been captured and taken away to another country, to Babylon. For decades they worked, lived, married, birthed children, and made a home as best they could in a place that was not theirs. They struggled to find hope enough to imagine a return to their land. They tried to tell their children about Jerusalem and keep alive the dream of a home-going. For at least 70-something years they had various messages from God. It started with a reminder that the consequences of their sin of idol worship contributed to their being conquered. They had worshipped other gods and thus weakened their trust in and commitment to God. Worse than angry, God was disappointed in them. Isaiah 43 puts words to God’s perspective of their disobedience: “You did not call upon me…you have wearied me with your sins” (Isaiah 43:22, 24). The people later respond to God and in so doing they recognize the rift they have caused between themselves and God: “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14). These honest appraisals of their sin give way in the later chapters of Isaiah to hope. God’s voice through Isaiah changes and the message becomes one of renewal. Imagination is now embellished with hopeful visions. Among them are the words of Isaiah 61 and 62 in today’s reading. They can now announce their good news: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and covered me with the robe of righteousness.” 

It is not just a turn of events but a change in relationship. The people of God understand that they will not just return to the land, but they will be restored. Whereas before their sin stood between them and God, now they are presented before God as righteous. From sin to righteousness – it is a conversion of relationship, a renewal of identity, and a blessing hoped for but unable to attain on one’s own. God provides the “garments of salvation” and God covers them with the “robe of righteousness.” God has granted this gift. Now they must wear it. 

And so the children and grandchildren of those who were captured in warfare return to Israel, they anticipate the rebuilding of Jerusalem, they eagerly plan to replant their ancestors’ vineyards, they commit to both peace with God and one another. If there had been gaudy plastic battery-powered strings of LED lights in the 6th c. BC, they would have decorated their caravans with glitz and bling as they marched back from Persia to Judah. The gift they longed to receive was about to be unwrapped.  The people returning from exile also received a gift they had not put on their list. The long hoped for gift was a return. That’s now done. The gift they had not anticipated was a new name and with that name, a responsibility.  

Isaiah 62:4 tells us that Israel during exile had been called “Abandoned” and “Deserted.” These are figurative names, to be sure, but they represent the way “the nations” perceived the people of God. Disobedience of the people showed their abandoning God and God abandoning them—or so it must have seemed. And then being conquered by Nebuchadnezzar left the land that had symbolized promise now reminding the remnant of a vacant deserted home. These are names of insult and derision, but also symbolic of the consequences of their sin. But the gift of return brings new names, the first being “My Delight is In Her” and the second is “Married.” This was surprising. It is the gift they didn’t ask for but received anyway. God takes delight in the people, and they so belong to God that marriage symbolizes the constancy of this new relationship. 

According to Isaiah, God’s gift of return didn’t just leave them with the work of building homes and walls and a temple, it gave them the responsibility of changing the way the “nations” understood both God and God’s people. It turns out that God is invisible to others. The non-Jewish people around the Israelites learn about God by seeing God’s people. This happens both when the people of God act in accordance with God’s will and when they fail to be holy and just. In this regard, little has changed. People here and everywhere will only see and know God through those who take God’s name and live it among them. It’s a high calling.  

Names and titles instill meaning in many ways. For example, we call the celebration of Jesus’ birth “Christmas” rather than “Jesus-mas” because the title “Christ” identifies what God brings to the world through the birth of this child, not just what God gives to Mary and Joseph. At Christmas we don’t just celebrate the birth of Jesus but the bringing of salvation that breaks into the world anew in this Incarnate One. Just as the name “Christmas” amplifies the meaning of Jesus’ birth, when we take the name “Christian” we do more than offer approval of carols and tinsel in December. We take the responsibility to show the immortal invisible God to the people who stand before us. Christmas is a season but the identification as “Christian” defines a life-time responsibility to be part of God’s work in the world. Today as in biblical times, people will only see God through the reality of God’s people. Other folks will believe God loves and forgives and sees goodness on the Earth only when those of us who call ourselves “Christian” serve in the example of Jesus. We have received the gift of Jesus this child born in Bethlehem, but we also receive a new responsibility from God. God has granted salvation and we are called to daily discipleship. Forget the motto of “keeping Christ in Christmas,” it’s time for us to be Christian every day of the year with the understanding that as we show God’s mercy the nations will begin to believe that God is merciful. When we demonstrate love for all people our neighbors will believe that God is love. When we exemplify grace and peace our family will believe that God gives grace and desires peace. And here’s the key: God invites this identification between us and God. God wants us to be the representatives of the divine.   

On this Sunday after Christmas as we recycle the wrapping paper we note that salvation has come from God as a gift, but so has our lifetime of discipleship. We can take hope for God’s eternal gift but we must also exercise our daily calling. Whenever a Christian only glories in salvation but does not take out the gift of discipleship and live it among the world, the Gospel appears like an empty box, without substance or hope or cheer. So Christians, here are far, take heart and listen to what the inside of God’s Christmas card might say to us…paraphrased from Isaiah’s words: God says, “I delight in you, and I am proud that you carry my name. I will help clothe you in righteousness; I commission you to follow my Way; I will tell your neighbors that they can look to you to know who I am. I claim you anew as my people, and will tell everyone to see your works and know your heart. We belong together, and to all who willingly receive my gifts of salvation and discipleship.” 

Unwrap this gift of discipleship with both humility and resolve. Take it out and practice it with near and far with joy. Let it carry you around the corner, to your friend’s home, and into the world. And as we go, may we find ourselves renewed by God’s confidence in our lives each day. 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
Go tell it on the mountain
African American Spiritual, adapted by John W. Work
Tune: GO TELL IT

Refrain:
Go tell it on the mountain,
over the hill and everywhere;
go tell it on the mountain
that Jesus Christ is born!

1 While shepherds kept their watching
o’er silent flocks by night,
behold throughout the heavens
there shone a holy light. [Refrain]

2 The shepherds feared and trembled
when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus
that hailed our Savior’s birth. [Refrain]

3 Down in a lowly manger
the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation
that blessed Christmas morn. [Refrain]

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Prayer
Blessed be the tie
Author: John Fawcett

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

We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, 
and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear. 

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. Amen.

Credits. The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano with Mindy, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, Kendall and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. 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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Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

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.”

Advent Candle Litany
Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 86:15 and 136:26; Isaiah 54:10

light four candles

We light four candles today:
one candle to remind us
that God is our everlasting and constant abiding hope,
a second candle to remind us
that God brings peace to our weary and troubled hearts,
a third candle to remind us
that God provides us abundant joy
and a fourth candle to remind us
that God loves us, yes, God loves us.

To the One who has made
this everlasting promise to us:
that even though the mountains may shift
and the hills may shake,
my love for you will not shift and my peace towards you will not be shaken;
to the One who is compassionate and gracious,
to the One who takes great delight in us,
we give our thanks and praise this day.
May the Lord increase our love!

Opening Prayer
O Wondrous God,
send your Messenger to us today with a word of grace.
If we are fearful, move us to Confidence.
If we are weary, offer us Rest.
If we are empty, fill us with Hope.
We have been searching for you far away;
Let us find you at home in our midst,
Changing hearts and minds,
Urging us to join your work of Love.
We pray in the name of the One who is coming,
Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Hymn of Praise
People, Look East
Author: Eleanor Farjeon
Tune: BESANCON (French Trad.)

  1. People, look east. The time is near
    Of the crowning of the year.
    Make your house fair as you are able,
    Trim the hearth and set the table.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the guest, is on the way.
  1. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
    One more seed is planted there:
    Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
    That in course the flower may flourish.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the rose, is on the way.
  2. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
    Guard the nest that must be filled.
    Even the hour when wings are frozen
    God for fledging time has chosen.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the bird, is on the way.
  3. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
    One more light the bowl shall brim,
    Shining beyond the frosty weather,
    Bright as sun and moon together.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the star, is on the way.
  4. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
    Christ who brings new life to earth.
    Set every peak and valley humming
    With the word, the Lord is coming.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Common English Bible

I will sing of the Lord’s loyal love forever.
I will proclaim your faithfulness
with my own mouth
from one generation to the next.
That’s why I say,
“Your loyal love is rightly built—forever!
You establish your faithfulness in heaven.”
You said, “I made a covenant with my chosen one;
I promised my servant David:
‘I will establish your offspring forever;
I will build up your throne from one generation to the next.’”

Once you spoke in a vision
to your faithful servants:
I placed a crown on a strong man.
I raised up someone specially chosen from the people.
I discovered my servant David.
I anointed him with my holy oil.
My hand will sustain him—
yes, my arm will strengthen him!
No enemy will oppress him;
no wicked person will make him suffer.
I will crush all his foes in front of him.
I will strike down all those who hate him.
My faithfulness and my loyal love will be with him.
He will be strengthened by my name.
I will set his hand on the sea.
I will set his strong hand on the rivers.
He will cry out to me:
“You are my father,
my God, the rock of my salvation.”

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.

Choral Anthem
Love is All Our Joy!
Composer: Malcom Archer

Anointed as God’s chosen ones,
beloved, pure, and holy,
With patience, kindness, clothe yourselves,
a mantle, meek and lowly.

Refrain:
Love, love, is all our joy,
binding us in harmony,
With love we can ne’er destroy
the peace of Christ within us.

Compassion, mercy, charity,
these gifts to us are given;
Forgive all others, bear with them,
as you have been forgiven.
Refrain

Our words, our deeds, our gifts of love,
to Jesus Christ we raise them,
Give thanks to God who reigns above,
sing psalms and hymns to praise Him.
Refrain

Luke 1:26-38
Common English Bible

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.” Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Reflection on the Gospel
Rev. Tonya Vickery

The college Bible study group is reading through the book of Acts. Last Wednesday night we were reading Acts 15. where a major church conference is happening down in Jerusalem. Some believers are having a difficult time accepting into the church people who profess faith in Jesus but are not following some of the essential Jewish customs. For us, this seems strange. We easily recognize that one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be a Christian. Nor does one have to practice certain aspects of Judaism to be a Christian. But remember these early Christians down in Jerusalem were Jews as well. It wasn’t an either/or thing for them. They were both Jews and Christians. The Jewish disciplines they practiced were not a hindrance to their faith in Jesus. But these disciplines were becoming a hindrance to their ability to welcome all into life with God through Jesus Christ. So the church had a meeting to decide what to do.

After debating the matter, they decided not to cause further trouble for those ho were turning to God who were not Jewish. They would only require four things: to avoid eating food associated with idols, avoid sexual immorality, refuse to eat meat from strangled animals, and refrain from consuming blood. They wrote all this down in a letter which they had Paul and Barnabas hand deliver to the non-Jewish believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. In the letter these four refusals are described as “essentials.”

When we move the story into our present day context, we can push ourselves to see what unnecessary burdens we might be placing on others who turn to God. Are there disciplines that are meaningful to us, that bring us closer to God, but we have made them requirements for others to be included in the church? Now the early church came up with four essential no-no behaviors. We could be lame and leave it with those four. I don’t have a problem with any of them. I’m not tempted to drink blood, nor eat meat that comes from a strangled animal. Nor am I interested in sexual immorality or eating foods that have been offered to idols. But, truly, what are the essentials we should be placing on ourselves today? If we were to write a letter to people who are new to living the way of Jesus, what would we say is essential to being a Christian and a part of the church? I think at the top of the list is the word, “love.”

1 John 3:11 says “This is the message that you heard from the beginning: love each other.” The discipline of love is an essential “burden” we must carry if we want to be a Christian and a part of the church. If we are to trouble ourselves with any Christian discipline, if we are going to require anything of one another, if we are going to put down some essential to our faith, “love” should be at the top of the list. 1 John 3 goes on to say that “We are to love one another not with words or speech, but with actions and truth.” I like the way T.S. Eliot describes the family love in his play, The Elder Statesman . It echoes this idea of not loving one another with words or speech but with actions and truth. Eliot wrote

There’s no vocabulary
for love within a family, love that’s lived in
but not looked at, love within the light of which
all else is seen, the love within
which all other love finds speech.
This love is silent.

That’s the kind of love we are to have for each other. It is a love that does something, not merely says something. Love is essential in the life of a Christian. The way we live as followers of Jesus should reflect God’s love. If we follow Jesus, we will love each other. If we follow Jesus, we will reflect that love of God which 1 John 3:1 describes this way. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are!” We are God’s children and we are loved.

Everybody needs to be told that God loves them. We all need to be told that God loves us. It is true, God loves us. God’s love is not earned. God’s love cannot be measured. God’s love is not withheld from some and provided more for others. God’s love is constant, abounding, and certain. God does not love us in word and speech, but God loves us in action and truth. God’s love is “lived in” as Eliot wrote. As we live in God’s love, we see everything better and brighter and easier because we look at the world through the love of God.

We see the love of God in action in the opening chapter of the gospel of Luke. Here in our gospel story for the day, the angel Gabriel is sent to Galilee to a young girl named Mary. She is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. In those days, engagements lasted for a whole year. Gabriel’s presence and greeting confused and disturbed Mary, but Gabriel calms her fears and gives her some good news. She is going to have a baby whom she will name Jesus. This baby will be called the Son of the Most High. This baby will be given the throne of David. But unlike David, this baby’s reign will never ever come to an end. Without any opposition to any of this news, Mary gets straight to the point and asks Gabriel, “How will this happen?” Gabriel reassures her that this is the work of the Holy Spirit of God. And to further reassure Mary, Gabriel shares the good news that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth who had been labeled as unable to get pregnant is now six months pregnant. Yes, nothing is impossible for God. And Mary in great humility, trust, and devotion says, “Let it be as you have said.”

God loves us. And our response to that love is critical. Mary responded to God’s love by accepting it, welcoming it into her life, and committing her life to it. She says to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Mary responds to God’s love without knowing all the details, without knowing all that would be required, without knowing where this love would lead her. This was a risk she was taking. Did you realize that an engaged woman who was found to be pregnant could be punished for her mistake by being stoned to death? But Mary says, “Here I am.” She did not run from God’s love for the world. Instead she responds with humility and deep trust in God and says “yes” to God’s love which is not just for her but for the whole world.

Sometimes the way we live and the decisions we make do not reflect the love God has for the world. You see, the way we respond to God’s love is critical. Sometimes we assume God loves the world and God loves us, but we are just indifferent to it. We take God’s love for us and for the world for granted, and we go about our merry little way (and “our way” is quite little in comparison to the way of Jesus). At other times, we get so caught up in the fact that “God loves us” that we forget that God loves the whole world. Instead of being super spreaders of God’s love, we excel in making God’s love individualistic, just like a “designed for me” gift. And we have all witnessed the trend to simplify the love of God proclaimed in John 3:16. God’s love is turned into this individual evacuation plan for the end of all time. “Are you saved,” one asks. “Yes, I am saved.” God’s love morphs into something Jesus can do for us personally and privately. That’s not the good news. That’s not what Mary humbled herself for. That’s not why God took on human form, became flesh, vulnerable in all ways possible, as one of us, and lived among us.

God’s love is for all, everyone, all things, the world. God’s love leads the world along the paths of reconciliation, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. God’s love urges the world towards wholeness. God’s love points the world in the direction of mending what is broken, not tossing out the broken and replacing it, but God’s love points towards mending. God’s love does not destroy, but God’s love creates. God’s love is about life giving renewal and restoration. God’s love sees and acknowledges the brokenness, the wreckage, and the despair. But God’s love doesn’t turn away; it is tender and thoughtful and works towards repair.

Somewhere this past week I have read about the art of repairing broken pottery with gold. Imagine a bowl broken into four or five pieces. It is no longer useful. It’s purpose is gone. However, instead of tossing out the broken pieces, the bowl is repaired. A lacquer mixed with gold powder and that is used to seam the bowl back together. What once was broken is repaired. Maybe not to be used in the same way, but now with added beauty and perhaps a new purpose. This is such a great visual to how God’s love works in the world. God takes the broken, God takes the wreckage, God takes the despair and mends it. God puts it back together and it is beautiful.

God loves us. God loves the world. How will we respond to God’s love? It will help if we stop idolizing the illusion that we have control over life’s events. It will help if we can recognize our brokenness, our weaknesses, and our poverty. And it will help if we respond to God’s love with humility and deep trust just as Mary did. For God so loves the world….

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 Come, O Come Emmanuel
Tune: VENI EMMANUEL
Author: based on antiphons from Advent Vespers

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Child of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show
and help us in that way to go.
Refrain

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide your heavenly home;
make safe the path to endless day,
to hell’s destruction close the way.
Refrain

O come, O Day spring, come and cheer
our spirits by your advent here;
love stir within the womb of night
and death’s own shadows put to flight.
Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind;
make envy, strife, and quarrels cease
fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Refrain

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: 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: Artwork by Elizabeth. The Opening Prayer is provided by the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org). The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano, Tessa on the flute with Mindy, Laura, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns and played the recorder. 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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Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

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.”

Advent Candle Litany

light three candles

We light three candles today:
one candle to remind us
that God is our everlasting and constant abiding hope,
a second candle to remind us
that this God’s hope brings peace to our weary and troubled hearts,
and a third candle to remind us
of the always present possibility of joy that comes from God.

For the One who makes the gateways of the evening and the morning sing for joy,
who clothes the desert pastures and hills with pure joy,
who causes the countryside and the trees,
the valleys and the meadowlands to shout for joy,
this One sustains us, forgives us, and stays with us.
Therefore, let your hearts rejoice.
God will clothe us with joy,
God will water our souls with rivers of pure joy,
and God will help us sing and shout for joy again.
May the Lord increase our joy!

Opening Prayer
Holy One,
Builder who delights
in making spaces of safety and beauty,
fill us today with the gifts we need
to join you in your life-sustaining, hope-giving work in the world;
let us share your joyful vision
of beauty and justice
in this world you have created and loved.
In the name of the One who is coming,
Amen

Hymn of Praise
The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns
Author: unknown; trans. John Brownlie
Tune: MORNING SONG (John Wyeth)

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light triumphant breaks.
When beauty gilds the eastern hills
And life to joy awakes.

Not, as of old, a little child,
To suffer and to die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And earth’s dark night is past;
O haste the rising of that morn
Whose day shall ever last.

And let the endless joy begin,
By weary saints foretold.
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light and beauty brings.
Hail, Christ, the Lord! Your people pray:
Come quickly, King of kings.

Psalm 126
Common English Bible

When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
and we are overjoyed.

Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears
reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out,
crying and carrying their seed,
come home with joyful shouts,
carrying bales of grain!

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.

Choral Anthem
Joy!
Author: Isaac Watts
Composer: Glenn Wonacott

Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
let earth receive her King;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns:
let us, our songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love.

Luke 1:46b-55
Common English Bible

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Reflection on the Gospel
Dr. Rev. Jeffrey Vickery

Fifteen years ago we were visiting Disney World in Florida with our family. It was early Spring in 2006 and we spent part of a day at the Disney Hollywood Studios. The movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had just been released a few months previous. I remember walking through a plain set of doors into what looked like a warehouse and instantly the sunny spring day outside was transformed into the snowy white paradise of Narnia. Disney had re-created the set of the movie to look as it did when Lucy walked out of the wardrobe for the first time and into the winter snow of Narnia. I know it’s a bit cheesy, but it really did seem like Disney magic. The idea that on one side of this small door was spring and the other was a make-believe winter that looked and felt so real was startling.  

In some ways, Advent and Christmas are times to venture more deeply into God’s alternative reality. We live too much of our year thinking that what we see is as good as it gets. We forget that on the other side of the door is a version of God’s Way of life and love. If we spend too much time unaware of the world as God sees it, we can become unaware of the promises of light and salvation. We think we have to accept reality as it is, or at least as we think that it must be.  

Even more troublesome, it is easy to wonder if what is happening in the world that we see is what God really wants. Maybe if my car’s transmission failed then maybe God intended it. Maybe if my cousin contracted COVID then maybe God intended it. Maybe if I lost my job then maybe God intended it. When we only measure God’s purpose and presence by the reality we see around us then we will be tricked into accepting the status quo as God’ Holy Way. Advent and Christmas both pull back the curtain. God does not intend human suffering. God is not the author of sin. God does not secretly command evil or empower the ungodly. It is easy to confuse God’s intent and God’s knowledge. In all its messy and sinful state, this reality is what we may have to endure but it’s not the reality that God intends. 

Right here is where Mary’s words in Luke 1 come into the mix. Mary reminds us of what she can see of God’s Way even before Jesus is born. It’s a vision of faith in God and hope in God’s very real world. This young Jewish woman has something to teach us even after all these years.    

The storyline goes something like this: The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, a Jewish priest, and tells him that he and Elizabeth will have a son that they are to name John. Zechariah is rendered speechless, Elizabeth ends up pregnant, and together they await their son. A few months later, the same angel, Gabriel, visits Mary and asks her if she is willing to be the mother of the Messiah. She agrees, and her obedience changes the world. In the first trimester, Mary decides to travel and visit Elizabeth in the hill city of Hebron, presumably a 60-mile journey. Mary was clearly not timid. When she arrives and greets Elizabeth, two things happen: the not-yet-born John jostles with joy and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit of God. Under holy inspiration, Elizabeth explains the importance of Mary’s child and the blessing that falls upon Mary as a result of her courage and trust in God. While this is the Advent week of joy for many reasons, we cannot overlook Mary’s courage and trust in God because acting on these are what amplifies her joy.  

Everything Mary says in vv. 48-55 helps us see God’s alternative reality. Mary is not simply being an optimist, she gives voice to a reality that is both the foundation and the future of her life. Yet her words stand in counterpoint to what the current circumstances of her life must have been like. Consider the following.  

Mary is young, poor, unknown, and of no social status. While famous beyond measure today, she was of “no account” as they might say in my native SC. No one other than Elizabeth would look upon her and think that her small “yes” to God was going to matter to anyone other than her. Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (vv. 48-50) “God has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.” 

Mary is uneducated, certainly illiterate, isolated in her Palestinian Jewish homeland, and unable to know or understand the world at large. She would not have owned maps and books. Did not sit at the feet of teachers. Didn’t wait in the marketplace to hear the stories of travelers or the escapades of soldiers and they came through the town.  Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say, (v. 50) “God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.” 

Mary lives on land that is hers in name and history but is occupied by a Roman pagan government. She walks through streets and down highways that are frequented by Roman soldiers. She has no rights from the government including almost no ability to choose her own way of life. It is bad enough that she can’t do anything about the political power imposed on her personal life, she also has to tolerate Jewish patriarchy from her own religious leaders. Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (v. 51-52), “God has shown strength with his arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” 

Mary was poor and common, frequently surviving on only one meal a day, two on good days, but far from enjoying abundance. She knew hunger herself, and likely saw others who were even hungrier. Yet a few were rich and received their unfair portions as the expense of others. Even more found wealth through corruption and theft and fraud and using others for their own gain. Sound familiar? Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (v. 53), “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” 

Mary has not been educated enough to read her own scripture. That itself is a travesty. She would not have been allowed a Bat Mitzvah when she was of age because only boys had Bar Mitzvahs at that time. She had to learn to know and love the Torah stories by listening and remembering scraps and pieces from Sabbath blessings and Jewish festivals and traveling rabbis. Yet she can see enough of God’s reality to say (v. 54-55), “God has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” 

Mary is not in denial about the difficulties of her everyday circumstances. She knows that, on a day-to-day basis her son soon to be born will not change these parts of her life. At the same time, she is keenly aware of God’s view of reality. She can see that the divine perspective is an alternate reality. It is very real but no longer overlooked by her. Its promises help her endure to the point of knowing a joy that last beyond a moment’s sorrow or happiness.  

That’s all good for Mary. She was after all the Mother of God, Jesus’ first disciple, and a first-hand witness to God’s salvation. She communicated much of the book of Luke and kept alive the sayings and doings of Jesus. So again, that’s all good for Mary, but what about us? 

Oh, how much I want to see the world through Mary’s eyes. This Advent we are called to catch a vision of God’s reality. Especially when the circumstances of the everyday are dimmed by despair, when the future is muddied by uncertainty, when our anxieties and fears are exaggerated by the actuality of another crisis, we need to see this world within God’s holy alternative reality. For in God’s world all our troubles do not disappear, but they are re-focused. God thinks highly of us. God shows mercy to us. God knows the sin of the arrogant and powerful and in God’s reality they have no sway over us. God will satisfy all our needs and the greedy will be left in want. 

May we know God’s joy this Advent season for as we prepare for the coming of God, we are peering over the edges of the day and looking to time in which God’s Way becomes our life and our hope and our joy.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What do you think that God wants in our world that we don’t see or hear enough?
  2. How does “Joy” become part of lives at times other than Christmas?

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
Mary Gladly Told Her Cousin
Author: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Tune: IRBY (“Once in Royal David’s City”) / Gauntlett

Mary gladly told her cousin, “Praise the Lord! My spirit sings!”
Young and humble, she’d been chosen! God was surely changing things!
God of love, her words ring true As we sing her prayer to you:

“Now my soul is gladly singing At the greatness of the Lord.
I rejoice, for God is bringing His salvation to the world.
All who live will say I’m blest Even in my lowliness.

“God is mighty, just and holy, And he’s done great things for me.
Those who fear him know the mercy That God gives us endlessly.
Mighty ones are brought down low; Lowly ones find blessings flow.

“God has filled the poor and hungry, And he’s sent the rich away.
God is active here in history, In a real and wondrous way.
God has promised, and I’m blessed, For I know God’s faithfulness.”

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: 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: Artwork by Elizabeth. The Opening Prayer is provided by the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org). The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano with Mindy, Laura, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. 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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Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

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.”

Advent Candle Litany
O Holy One, we light this second candle,
a candle offering comfort to weary spirits
after a year of pain and loss.
Let its glow remind us of your tender care
and warm our lives in the Light of Peace.
Let it guide us to your presence in our midst,
leading us to your Justice and Joy in the service of Love.
God be with us in this Light of Peace.

Two candle are lit today.

Opening Prayer
O Holy One,
you are tender shepherd,
architect of the Way,
beguiling hope of all who go looking for you
deep in their lives.
Surprise us here with
Sweetness, challenge, vision—
Whatever we may need
In this moment to recognize you
and follow you into the future.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Beloved.
Amen.

Hymn of Praise
Comfort, Comfort O My People
Author: Johannes G. Olearius; tr. Catherine Winkworth
Tune: GENEVA 42 (Louis Bourgeois)

Comfort, comfort O my people, tell of peace, thus says our God;
Comfort those whose hearts are shrouded, mourning under sorrow’s load.
Speak unto Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover, and their warfare now is over!

For the herald’s voice is calling in the desert far and near,
Bidding us to make repentance since the realm of God is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise in meeting, and the hills bow down in greeting.

Straight shall be what long was crooked & the rougher places plain!
Let your hearts be true and humble, for Messiah’s holy reign.
For God’s glory evermore shall be known o’er all the world;
and all flesh shall see the token that God’s word is never broken.

Isaiah 40:1-11
Common English Bible along with The Jewish Bible

Comfort, oh comfort My people! says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
that her penalty has been paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Let every valley be raised up, and every mountain and hill be flattened.
Let uneven ground become level, and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice rings out: “Call out!”
And another asks, “What should I call out?”
“All flesh is grass; all its goodness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up and the flower withers
when the Lord’s breath blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up and the flower withers,
but our God’s word is always fulfilled.

Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength, with a triumphant arm,
bringing his reward with him and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.
He will gently guide the mother sheep.

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.

Choral Anthem
Comfort My People
Composer: Ian Callanan

Comfort, my people, and calm all your fear;
the day of salvation is quickly drawing near.
The One you long to see will soon set you free.
O come, Lord Jesus, come. O come, Lord Jesus, come.

Silence the thunder, silence sounds of war.
End all destruction and comfort those who mourn.
Your dream draws near; your vision is here.
O come, Lord Jesus, come. O come, Lord Jesus, come

Be light in the darkness; be truth for our lives.
Be strength for the helpless, the poor and lost who cry.
O saving voice, O living choice,
O come, Lord Jesus, come. O come, Lord Jesus, come

Reflection on Psalm 85
“Peace” / Rev. Tonya Vickery

I don’t know if you can remember what Advent and Christmas was like last year. This year’s pandemic, hurricanes, social unrest, and downright ugly political conversations have made the year seem like three or four years at least. However, it was just a little over 365 days ago that we celebrated Advent and Christmas all warm and cheery in our comfortable sanctuary closely surrounded by family and we were not afraid. But for some, Advent and Christmas was hard. I know it was for me. Alzheimer’s was changing my mom’s demeanor and erasing her abilities slowly but surely. I ached for her, my dad, and myself. If I could have given her anything last Christmas, I would have given her the ability to know peace.

Well here I am again this Advent/Christmas season, and if there was one gift I could give to all of you all, it would be the ability to know peace. We have all had a heck of a year and it isn’t over yet. We’ve been afraid. We’ve been sad. We’ve been angry. We’ve been flippant and short. We’ve been tired. We’ve been alone. We have been anxious. And after so many days and months of these restless feelings and emotions, we need peace. And I am grateful that the second Sunday of Advent aims to deliver.

Psalm 85:8-13
Let me hear what the Lord God says,
because he speaks peace to his people and to his faithful ones.
Don’t let them return to foolish ways.
God’s salvation is very close to those who honor him
so that his glory can live in our land.
Faithful love and truth have met;
righteousness and peace have kissed.
Truth springs up from the ground;
righteousness gazes down from heaven.
Yes, the Lord gives what is good,
and our land yields its produce.
Righteousness walks before God,
making a road for his steps.

Our Psalm reading begins today in the middle of the chapter with these words: “Let me hear what the Lord God has to say….” In other words, in response to all that has happened, what does God have to say about it? In this psalm, the writer’s life has been messed up. Life among God’s people had moved so far away from what God would have life to be. And God was angry.

This reminds me two winters ago when we were study the prophet Jeremiah on Wednesday nights. God used the common image of thirst and water to describe how God provides for us but how often we respond. God is like a fountain of living water, always running with water, always available. However, we people who are thirsty are also stubborn, arrogant, and stupid. We can see that fountain, but the way we respond to that water is by deciding to carve out our own cisterns out of stone so that we can catch the rain to drink. As we carve, and we work hard, day in and day out. It takes a long time to carve out rock. we crack our cistern, but we ignore the flaw, and when we finish we still set our leaky rock bowls out to catch the rain so we can have something to drink for ourselves. In Jeremiah, God says, when we finally realize our homemade cisterns are cracked, we don’t turn to the fountain of living water, we start looking for water in other places. We look for an alternative source, while the fountain of living water keeps on running, waiting, always ready for us to come and drink. God in Jeremiah says, please stop being so stubborn, arrogantly self-sufficient, and stupid. Please change the direction of your gaze and look this way, and come and drink.

Well, in Psalm 85, God’s steadfast patience is running out. And God is more than just a little mad with the people for doing the wrong things and acting the wrong way — ignoring the fountain of life in their midst. God is furious with them. You know, it’s bad enough when you disappoint yourself and others, but when you disappoint God, what is left to do? How can you ever make it right with God again? It is a horrible feeling when you realize you have turned your back on God out of arrogance, stubbornness, or plain stupidity, or carelessness. What does God have to say about all this? “Let me hear what the Lord God will speak.” And what is it God says? Peace.

I lean heavily today on one of my preferred theologians, Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann says that peace is “an experience of the Spirit in our restless hearts.” I don’t know about you, but I know that my heart is restless these days. It is hard for me to be at ease. Each week something happens and it seems like we hold our breath that things will turn out okay. But man, the magnitude of loss surrounds us and it’s like it’s trying to smothers us. Jobs have been lost. Trust has been lost. Civility has been lost. But worst of all life has been lost and continues to be lost more and more each day. Leaving us little time to grieve. I used to think that maybe, just maybe our small little county might be sheltered from the storm of the pandemic, but it seems that as the world we let our guard down and now the virus taunts us. Our hearts are restless. When will this end? When will life be safe again? When will we be able to see smiling faces and hug one another? When will we be able to joyful gather as family and not be terrified that we have shed the virus where we have been?

The Spirit of God comes to our restless hearts and the voice of the Lord God says to us, peace. Hear the voice of the Lord God say to you, peace. God loves you. And God does not hold back love. Instead God through the Spirit pours love in our hearts, minds and inner souls. And as God’s love permeates your whole being, peace begins to bloom and thrive. All those tense muscles, all that anxiety, it lessens it grip on us, slows our heartbeat and racing minds.

Moltmann also writes, as Christians, as believes of God through Jesus Christ, “we are possessed by a hope which sees unlimited possibilities ahead because it looks into God’s future.” Jeffrey talked about this last week. God’s future for us is a wonderful thing, not a dreadful thing.

When that kind of hope takes root in your life, you begin to see and recognize the endless possibilities in store for all of us and all of creation. And that’s when your restless heart can stop struggling to control the day, the moment or the future, and instead your heart, mind and soul can be at peace, at rest because you know that God’s future is certain and God’s future is good. We who believe God, we have the possibility of seeing through the haze of this world and past the horizon of destruction and fear, and the ability to look into God’s new world. And we live our lives looking ahead, beyond the current fears and sufferings and disappointments in this life, and we see the beautiful coming world God and our restless hearts can sigh and be at peace. Think on the beautiful world of God to come. Breath the air of the Spirit and be at and in God’s peace.

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
On Jordan’s Bank
Author: Charles Coffin; tr. John Chandler and others
Tune: WALTHAM

The Baptist shouts on Jordan’s shore,
the earth shakes with the mighty roar,
awake, let lazy sleep now flee:
behold, the voice of prophecy!

The earth and sky and sea now feel
that which their Author will reveal:
the Child now leaping in the womb
as God does human form assume.

Clean up your hearts, lay down the way,
for God approaches day by day;
prepare for such a worthy heir,
for such a guest your house prepare.

Through you, O Jesus, you alone
salvation, solace, strength are known;
without your love we fade like grass,
like wilted flowers our lives will pass.

O One who comes to set us free,
O Child, to you our song will be,
with Father, Spirit mothering,
to you shall praise for ever ring!

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: 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: Artwork by Elizabeth. The Advent Candle Litany and Opening Prayer were provided by the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org). The anthem was played by Tonya on the piano, Kat on the cello, and Michelle on the guitar with Mindy, Michelle, Tonya, Ally, and Elizabeth singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Scripture readings are from the Common English Bible unless otherwise noted. 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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Preparation for Worship at Home. When worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. During the Advent season (today through Christmas Eve), set out four candles. One candle will be lit for each Sunday that passes as we approach Christmas Day.

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.”

Advent Wreath Litany
In the beginning was the Word –
spoken and breathed,
a promise made and kept.
Listen and hear –
God’s promise is true!
The Word was in the beginning,
and through him all things come into being.
Eternal and near at hand,
already and not yet,
God’s promise is the foundation of all life.
Listen!
Hear the covenant anew, giving voice to a future with hope.
~Teri Carol Peterson

One candle is lit today.

Opening Prayer
We have had enough feasts of anger and bitterness,
so come, God-who-aches-to-be-with-us,
to feed us with the simple Bread of heaven.
Every day we are handed steaming mugs of tears,
so come, to hold the Cup of hope to our lips.
Every day seems to be the longest day
in this year which goes on and on,
so come, God-who-approaches,
using the stars in the night sky
to light the way to the grace
we long to find in Bethlehem,
where we will find a home with you
when all the power and wealth of the world
slams their doors in our faces,
leaving us huddled with all our fears and worries.
We are deafened by all the arguments, the rhetoric,
the foolish boasts, the outright lies,
so come, God-who-is our peace,
to fill our ears with the angelic songs,
to pour love and wonder into the emptiness of our souls.
Come, God in Community, Holy in One,
come to assure is that out of these uncertain times
will come the Advent of new life.
~Thom Shuman

Hymn of Praise
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
Author: Charles Wesley
Tune: HYFERDOL

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Shepherd of Israel, listen!
You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
Wake up your power!
Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Lord God of heavenly forces,
how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Let your hand be with the one on your right side—
with the one whom you secured as your own—
then we will not turn away from you!
Revive us so that we can call on your name.
Restore us, Lord God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

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.

Choral Anthem
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Composer: Richard Shephard

O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of humankind.
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Mark 13:24-37
“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. 25 The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. 27 Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

28 “Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. 30 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

32 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 33 Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. 34 It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. 36 Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

Reflecting on the Word
“Apocalypse Later” – Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

It just might seem to many of us that 2020, of all years, is apocalyptic. Let me assure you, it is not. Do not fear the end of all things. While everything from the out-of-control pandemic to the extraordinary number of hurricanes to the murder hornet invasion to the circus spectacle of politics has disrupted the lives of possibly every single person in America, yet these are not signs of the end of time. These are mostly the result of human sin in one form or another. Whatever we do, Christians cannot misunderstand human sin and assign it to God’s purpose. God is the architect of redemption, not sin. God is the Creator of a good humanity and not the instigator of human evil. God is the light of hope, not the dark knight of death and destruction. 

So even though 2020 is not the apocalypse warning sign some claim, this dramatic reading from Mark 13 is a good place to think about the end of 2020 and the beginning of a new church year as Advent starts today. Why? Because the biblical message of the apocalypse is not one of doom and gloom but of hope. I’m serious. It is not a message of the end of all things, but the beginning of all that God imagines. While sun and moon turning dark sounds ominous, the end result is salvation. Just as Advent asks us to consider what we need to do in order to prepare for God’s coming, so too these messages that we have come to call the “end of times” are really lessons from the biblical story about “the coming of God.” And when God comes among us, there is hope and salvation. In this way, the message of the apocalypse is identical to the message of the manger. God is coming soon. For the people of God, this brings hope not fear.   

This story of Jesus from Mark 13 uses three different stories to make the same point. The first story is cosmic, the second is seasonal, and the third is domestic.  

Jesus’ first illustration (beginning in verse 24) draws our attention because we are often enamored by the sensational. The sun and moon will darken. The stars and planets will shake and waver in the sky. These are things that only God can do. The first reminder about the apocalypse is that it comes at God’s time and not ours. It is the result of God’s action, not human accomplishment. It is a work of salvation, not a path of destruction brought on by human mishap and sin. Because these are only accomplished by God’s direct intention, they are hopeful reminders of salvation. Mark does something interesting with these signs by directly attaching them to the coming of the Messiah. The mention of the “coming of the Human One” is a clear reference to Jesus. And for centuries Christians have confessed as our central doctrine that Jesus came to dwell among us, full of grace and truth, as a way to bring us hope and salvation. The character of God is consistent. The truth of God’s grace is unerring. The trust in God’s forgiveness is unwavering. Therefore, the coming of God, at any time and in any place, is a reason for hope. This includes any future coming of God. If the next time we look to the heavens we happen to see the stars and planets dance, we should join the celebration. God is near, enter into the joy of salvation! 

Jesus’ second illustration (beginning in verse 28) draws us into the agriculture of Jesus’ Palestinian homeland where fig trees were common. The movement from winter to spring and spring to summer is something that we as humans depend upon but not something that we control. Without summer, Jesus can’t eat figs. That doesn’t sound dramatic, of course, but what if we were talking about a world without tomatoes, corn, squash, and beans? In order to have this good harvest, summer must come in its time. Since Galilee and Cullowhee (where Jesus lived and where we are today) are at the same latitude, our seasons are similar. And in Jesus’ Galilee, they lived in a world where they had to grow their own food. Any indication that summer is on the way, like the young shoot on a fig tree, is a sign of sustenance and hope. Without summer the health and welfare of our family is uncertain. Yet summer comes. Every year. And it comes in the way that God set forth at the creation of this world. Summer is a certainty just as God’s care is without doubt. As our Advent season leads us into winter, we know that snow and frost will eventually give way to new fruit and garden dirt warming in the spring sun. One way to read verse 30,  when Jesus says, “I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen,” is that Jesus gives us the assurance that, just as summer brings enough food to sustain life for another season, God gives life in every season. Salvation is like an eternal summer in which the garden of God is always abundant and thus our life is sustained for eternity. Think of the images of heaven at the end of Revelation in which a river flows so that water is always available, two trees that grow twelve kinds of fruit are always producing, and the light of God never dims. It sounds like heaven is an eternal summer!  

Mark ends this teaching of Jesus with the assurance that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” Consider all the ways in which the biblical story places emphasis on “the word.” In Genesis 1, God speaks a word and creation takes on life. John’s Gospel (chapter 1) gives us the assurance that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.“ In this way and others, one designation of Jesus himself is as the “Word of God.” Additionally, following the Jewish perception of the Torah, we Christians identify scripture as the word of God. So when Jesus says here in Mark 13 that “my words will certainly not pass away,” it is a statement of assurance. A trust given to us that God’s creative Spirit will always speak and life will not be diminished … regardless. The Gospel of God incarnate in Jesus is not contingent upon any other creation or the possibility of catastrophic destruction. These words of God in all their form both bring and give life. Once again, the apocalypse expresses hope. 

Jesus’ third illustration (beginning in verse 33) brings us home. Or maybe I should say, brings us into the household. The emphasis here is that the homeowner is always to be expected to be present or to return soon by those who are employed in the house. The repeated advice, three different times, is “stay alert” — “stay alert” — “stay alert.” Why? Because the owner will come home at a moment that is not determined by anyone inside the house. If God is, in this analogy, the house owner, then God is the only one that determines God’s return. We do not and cannot control God’s actions, but we are indeed responsible for our own. We are like the doorkeeper. We have a job to do and it is one that is common rather than spectacular. It is to be prepared. Do our job. Keep awake. Stay alert. This call is one of basic daily obedience to the Gospel. Since we are surrounded by entertainment and media industries that broadcast superlatives – the best, the scariest, the prettiest, the most dramatic, the world champion, the crazy sensational – we are sometimes led to believe that only these media-worthy actions are important, or make us feel important. But the Gospel lesson here is that the common daily practice of faith is what prepares us for any moment of obedience, whether it involves the extraordinary or not.  

I’m reminded of the day that Ronald Reagan was shot. It was March 30, 1981 and I was on Lake Keowee fishing with my father. While listening to the radio we heard the news of the shooting of the President after he had given a speech at a hotel in Washington. Attention turned almost immediately to Jerry Parr and Timothy McCarthy. They were the Secret Service agents who protected the President. Agent Parr pushed Reagan into the limousine while Agent McCarthy jumped between Reagan and the gunman and was shot himself. These two men, as is true for every agent who protects every President, were ready and prepared and trained to respond at a moment’s notice to any threat while at the same time expecting that almost every day will end without any incident. Their daily task is watchfulness. They are present at every event and mostly do nothing sensational. But they are always ready, always alert. They train for an unexpected moment that they also hope will never come.  

When Jesus tells the “doorkeeper” to be ready for any return of the “house owner” he is calling us to be ready to respond with the Gospel in any instance. True, we may be alive and living out the Gospel at the end of all the world. But most likely, this day and every other day of our lives will end without cosmic cataclysm. Yet we live today and the next, we train our hearts and minds and bodies, to respond today as though we are prepared for the unfiltered presence of God among us. After all, the host of angels came to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus on an ordinary sheep-herding night. Today is by all accounts normal, but it is possibly this day that we are called to show love and grace in a way that just may make this world a bit more as God intends. We don’t start the day expecting to save a life, discover our life’s calling, meet the person who will change our future, or teach the next Nobel Peace Prize winner. We don’t plan these things because, like the apocalypse, they are often within the reach of God’s intent but require our obedience in some common way. Whoever we are, this day we must remain alert to God’s way of living. We are required to exercise forgiveness, and kindness, and generosity, and grace. We cannot treat others as a means to our end but as a value to God’s work and world just because of who they are. We are alert to God’s coming in such a way that will require us to respond with justice for others and to help heal creation. We live in obedience to God now with the hope that this day will be the apocalypse, but most likely it will not. In either eventuality, we are God’s people now, and prepared for this day whatever opportunity we may have to show love. 

During this Advent season, don’t just look ahead to the joy of Christmas and skip past this common day, like so many other days, that we are to be obedient to God in the ordinary. That’s our discipleship watchfulness. In so doing, we will be a part of this day of God’s creation, and will be prepared for the hope of an apocalypse later. 

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
Tune: REGENT SQUARE

Angels from the realms of glory,
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

Refrain:
Come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn king.

Shepherds, in the field abiding,
watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
yonder shines the infant light: [Refrain]

Sages, leave your contemplations,
brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations;
ye have seen his natal star: [Refrain]

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: 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 anthem was played by Tonya on the piano, Connor on the violin, Tessa on the flute with Mindy singing. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Scripture readings are from the Common English Bible. 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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Preparation for Worship at Home
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. To celebrate communion, have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

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

artwork by John Hain from Pixabay

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world.

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

Opening Prayer
Today, Lord, we want everything to be for your glory.
We want our thoughts,
our words, our music,
our church, our community,
our resources, our time, our lives:
all to be for you.
Everything ours is yours,
and we come together to declare this to be so,
on this holy day of thanksgiving.
Bless our time together with your holy presence,
Amen.
~ written by Carol Penner

Hymn of Praise
We Sing the Mighty Power of God
Author: Isaac Watts
Tune: FOREST GREEN (trad. English Melody)

We sing the mighty power of God
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
We sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
the moon shines full at God’s command,
and all the stars obey.

We sing the goodness of the Lord
that filled the earth with food;
God formed the creatures with the word
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how your wonders are displayed,
where’er we turn our eye,
if we survey the ground we tread
or gaze upon the skies.

There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes your glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from your throne;
while all that borrows life from you
is ever in your care,
and everywhere that we can be,
you, God, are present there.

Psalm 65
Praise awaits you,
O God of Zion;
O God of Zion, promises made to you will be fulfilled.
O Hearer of Prayer,
unto you all living things may come!
When sinful deeds overwhelm us,
pardon our rebellious acts.
How blessed is the one whom you choose and bring near;
the one who dwells in your courts.
May we be sated with the goodness of your house, your holy temple!
With awesome deeds which put things right, answer us,
O God of our salvation,
the one who is trusted by all the ends of the earth
and the distant seas.
Who by power sets the mountains in place;
who is clothed with might;
who stills the raging seas;
the raging of their waves, and the turmoil of the peoples.
So that those who dwell on the far edges stand in awe of your acts.
You make the gateways of morning and evening sing for joy.
You visit the land and give it abundance,
greatly enriching it.
God’s stream is full of water!
You provide grain by preparing the land.
Drench the earth’s furrows;
soak down its ridges.
Let showers soften it;
bless its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your paths drip fatness.
Even the dessert pastures drip with fatness,
and the hills cloth themselves with rejoicing.
The meadows are clothed with flocks,
the valleys dressed with grain;
they shout and sing for joy.
~ translated by Marvin Tate 

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.

Choral Anthem
Now Thank We All Our God
Tune: MIDDLEBROOK
Composer: William A. Pasch

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  

Invitation to Communion
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Ourselves and Others
For what we are about to receive,
may the Lord make us truly thankful.
We pray today for all who are too jealous to be thankful, who complain, “Why do they get everything?” and who are always comparing themselves with those who have more.
We pray for all who have forgotten how to say thank you; who have gotten used to saying, “I earned this,” and who truly feel they have only themselves to thank. 
We pray for all who are too busy to be thankful; who asked themselves this morning, “Do I have time to go to church?” and who even in worship are thinking about their to-do lists.

We pray for all who are grudgingly thankful; who say, “I guess this will have to do,” while believing that God has given them a raw deal.
We pray for all who are too tired to be thankful, who sigh, “I just want to get through this day,” and who have no energy to open their eyes to the blessings around them.
We pray for all who are not thankful enough to be generous, who bargain with God, “I’ll be unselfish when you give me more,” or who are free with money, but are stingy in spending time with others.
We pray for all who are barely thankful; who say the words, but don’t feel grateful in their hearts who go through the motions, but think, “I don’t know how to be really thankful.”
Today we pray a simple prayer.
For what we have received,
what we are receiving,
and what we are about to receive,
Lord, make us truly thankful.  Amen.
~ written by Carol Penner

silent prayer and medititation

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. Amen.

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

A Reading from 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Common English Bible

6 What I mean is this: the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop.

7 Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver. 8 God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work. 9 As it is written, He scattered everywhere; he gave to the needy; his righteousness remains forever.

10 The one who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating will supply and multiply your seed and will increase your crop, which is righteousness. 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. 12 Your ministry of this service to God’s people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. 13 They will give honor to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ’s gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone. 14 They will also pray for you, and they will care deeply for you because of the outstanding grace that God has given to you. 15 Thank God for his gift that words can’t describe!

Reflecting on the Word
Rev. Tonya Vickery

Listen and/or read below.

I got tickled two weeks ago when Jeffrey was working on his sermon for last Sunday. After reading through Matthew 25 he looked at me and said, “I feel like these parables keep saying the same thing over and over again.” I laughed and agreed. Well guess what. I’ve veered off the gospel course for today. And I’ve skipped ahead to the Thanksgiving text for Thanksgiving Day. Here we are in the New Testament, but yet again, we find the same message as last Sunday’s.

In case you missed last week’s reading from Matthew 25, let me summarize Jesus’ story in my own words. The parable goes like this. A land owner was going to travel the world for a bit, so he entrusted large sums of his money to his workers. He had a great and glorious trip. Now, when he finally returned home so thankful to once again sleep in his own bed, he brought each of the workers in to see how they had fared with his money. The first worker reported that he had doubled what had been entrusted to him. The second worker did as well. But the third one? This lazy worker didn’t do a thing with the landowner’s money. He tried to blame the landowner for his lack of trying . He whined, “It’s not my fault that the amount of money is the same. I just hid it because I was afraid that you would be so mad with me if I lost all of it or any of it. So here it is fair and square, nothing’s been lost. I thought you would be happy.” The landowner was anything but happy. The worker knew better. He knew the landowner was able to reap where he didn’t sow and harvest where he hadn’t even scattered seeds. His lack of trying was a disrespect of the One who had entrusted him with much.

Now the point of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 is that God trusts us. With a story about money and investments, Jesus makes this point: God trusts us. Here in 2 Corinthians, the same point is being made. In the context of planting seeds and harvesting crops, we glean again that God trusts us.

2 Corinthians 2:6 reads, “The one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows generous amounts of seeds will also reap a generous crop.” Agriculturally speaking, this statement is true. If you plant one row of corn, you are going to reap one rows worth of ears of corn. If you plant a hundred rows of corn, you are going to reap one hundred rows worth of ears of corn. Same goes for tomato seeds. If you plant ten tomato seeds, you will have a few tomatoes to eat during the summer. But if you plant 99 tomato seeds, you will have a bountiful plenty of tomatoes so much that you will have more than you need.

God knows better than to trust me to be a gardener or to be a money investor, however, the money and the seeds are merely symbols. What are these seeds we are expected to sew liberally? What is the money we are to invest? Look back at verse 8 of 2 Corinthians 9. It reads, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work.” The seeds and the money are the grace which God gives us. It is the Greek term, charis. It is grace, kindness, blessing, and even gratitude.

“God is able to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace….” These are seeds and investments that bring joy, delight, and loveliness. These seeds bear good will and loving-kindness in situations and to people who do not deserve such grace. These seeds bring about thanksgiving and gratitude. These provisions are steeped in joy and gladness. These gifts from God are blessings. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance….

Even before the Gratitude Journal movement began, the hymn Count Your Blessings taught us to be grateful. The refrain repeatedly says, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings see what God has done. Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your many blessings, see what God has done.” The counting is not meant to turn the blessings of God into a competition of who has more. Numbering your blessings from God isn’t supposed to make you feel superior. Counting and naming blessings are a way for us to recognize how great and abundant God’s blessings towards us are. “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance….”

God is not stingy when it comes to loving and blessings us. God is not a hoarder of goodness and grace. God does not withhold from us but generously provides. 2 Corinthians says, God is able to provide and God will supply and multiply. The blessings of God are not scarce. There’s another hymn we sing, one that I love to play and sing, it’s There Shall Be Showers of Blessings by D.W. Whittle. The refrain sung with every verse ends with the words, “but for the showers we plead.” Now that refrain can sometimes leave us pondering if god might withhold blessings from us if we are having to plead for them. Fortunately most hymnals leave out the fifth verse of the Whittle’s hymn which would have us sing, “There will be showers of blessings if we just trust and obey.” That’s the wrong way to look at God’s blessings. The blessings of God are not rewards for our ability to trust, nor a payment for our obedience. I would say that if we do trust and obey God, we are more likely to recognize the blessings of God, but the giving of God’s gifts does not depend upon the piety of the person. They depend upon a generosity and love of God who trusts us, all of us. Remember, the workers did not earn the money that was entrusted to them. The seeds were given to the farmer, not bought for a price.

What blessings, what graces has God given you? given us? What blessings, what joys has God entrusted to you? to us? What kindness has God provided you? given us?

In our worship today we have spent a lot of time thanking God for all the many blessings. God says back to us, “You are welcome, but now go do something with those blessings.” We would completely miss the point of God’s blessings if we were to just to depart with a plan of naming and counting God’s blessings this week. For in doing so we make the mistake of believing that God’s blessings are solely meant for us. The parable from last week’s worship service and scripture passage today both clearly say God’s provisions are to be invested or sewn like seeds.

The blessings of God are not to be stored away. The gifts and graces God abundantly provides us are not to be collected or stockpiled. The kindness of God is not to be squirreled away. We don’t just put the blessings of God in our wallets, snap it shut, and pull it out in the end.  We don’t just set the blessings of God on a shelf and admire them. Yes, God gives us blessings in abundance, but those blessings do not become memorials to how great we are or how great our lives are. We are taught and expected to move beyond just thanking God for the many blessings in our lives.

Here comes that Old Testament question. What does the Lord require of us? To be thankful? Yes, oh yes. Remember the story about the lepers whom Jesus healed. Only one came back to thank and praise the Lord. But in addition to being grateful, God also expects us to be generous. Some say it this way, the blessings from God that have been given to you are to become blessings to others. When we are generous with God’s blessings, we don’t just provide for someone in need, but our generosity with the gifts of God becomes a source of great thanksgiving to God. And the praise of God grows and grows.

The point first made by Jesus in the parables from Matthew’s gospel is made again here in 2 Corinthians. God trusts us. God showers us with blessings trusting that we will share the blessings. God abundantly provides for us trusting that we will be generous with those provisions. God trusts us, that we will take what God gives us and share it cheerfully, willingly, and abundantly. God trust that we care for others like God cares for all. Now, go make God proud and share what the Lord has given you in such a way that others will not thank you, but thank God!

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
For the Fruits of All Creation, Thanks Be to God
Author: Fred Pratt Green
Tune: AR HYD Y NOS (Welsh melody)

For the fruits of all creation,
Thanks be to God.
For the gifts to ev’ry nation,
Thanks be to God.
For the plowing, sowing, reaping,
Silent growth while we are sleeping,
Future needs in earth’s safe keeping,
Thanks be to God.

In the just reward of labor,
God’s will is done.
In the help we give our neighbor,
God’s will is done.
In our world-wide task of caring
For the hungry and despairing,
In the harvests we are sharing,
God’s will is done.

For the harvests of the Spirit,
Thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
Thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all, that love has found us,
Thanks be to God.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: 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 anthem was played by Tonya and sung by Mindy, Tonya, and Ally. Tracy played the organ, Tonya played the piano, and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. 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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Preparation for Worship 
While worshipping at home, set aside a time and a place each week for worship. Light two candles to begin worship: one to represent Christ’s humanity and the other to represent Christ’s divinity. If you would like to celebrate communion have something to eat and drink for everyone. The type of food and drink does not matter for they are merely symbols which help us celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

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

The Worship of God

Lighting Two Candles
We begin worship by lighting candles to remind ourselves that the One whom we worship, Jesus, is the light of the world. We light two candles to remind us that Jesus is God and lived alongside us as a human being.

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

Invitation
We lift our eyes to you, O God; we lift our spirits in worship.
We look to you, seeking guidance and comfort.
We look to you seeking healing and renewal.
We look to you, seeking mercy and grace;
for we have had our fill of struggles and stress.
We have had more than our fill of worrying and wondering.
To you, O God, we lift our eyes and spirits,
with hope and confidence in your love.
Be known to us as we worship and help us find rest.

Hymn of Praise
God Whose Giving Knows No Ending
Tune: BEACH SPRING (attributed to Benjamin F. White)
Author: Robert L. Edwards

God, whose giving knows no ending,
From Your rich and endless store:
Nature’s wonder, Jesus’ wisdom,
Costly cross, grave’s shattered door.
Gifted by You, we turn to You,
Off’ring up ourselves in praise:
Thankful song shall rise forever,
Gracious donor of our days.

Skills and time are ours for pressing
Toward the goals of Christ, Your Son:
All at peace in health and freedom,
Races joined, the church made one.
Now direct our daily labor,
Lest we strive for self alone:
Born with talents, make us servants
Fit to answer at Your throne.

Treasure, too, You have entrusted,
Gain through pow’rs Your grace conferred:
Ours to use for home and kindred,
And to spread the Gospel Word.
Open wide our hands in sharing,
As we heed Christ’s ageless call.
Healing, teaching, and reclaiming,
Serving You by loving all.

Psalm Reading 
Psalm 90:1-12. Common English Bible

Lord, you have been our help,
generation after generation.
Before the mountains were born,
before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—
from forever in the past
to forever in the future, you are God.

You return people to dust,
saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
are like yesterday past,
like a short period during the night watch.
You sweep humans away like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning.
True, in the morning it thrives, renewed,
but come evening it withers, all dried up.
Yes, we are wasting away because of your wrath;
we are paralyzed with fear on account of your rage.
You put our sins right in front of you,
set our hidden faults in the light from your face.
Yes, all our days slip away because of your fury;
we finish up our years with a whimper.
We live at best to be seventy years old,
maybe eighty, if we’re strong.
But their duration brings hard work and trouble
because they go by so quickly.
And then we fly off.
Who can comprehend the power of your anger?
The honor that is due you corresponds to your wrath.
Teach us to number our days
so we can have a wise heart.

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.

Choral Anthem
From All the Earth Send Up the Song!
Tune: NORTH HILL (LM) by Robert J. Weaver
Composer: Robert J. Weaver and William A. Pasch

From all the earth send up the song 
Shout glad hosannas loud and long! 
Serve joyfully! Our God adore. 
Acclaim God’s honor evermore! 

Great God, Creator, Source of all, 
both keeps and guards us when we fall. 
One flock in our Good Shepherd’s fold, 
we feast on bounties yet untold.

The gates of glory beckon here. 
Come, bless God’s name. Give thanks. Draw near. 
God’s mercies last through all our days. 
New psalms, spring forth in grateful praise!

Our God is true from age to age. 
Our God is good beyond our gauge. 
Our God is faithful, ever sure. 
God’s kindness, love, and grace endure!

Celebrating Communion
Communion celebrates our unity–our unity with God and with one another. At Cullowhee Baptist Church we practice an open communion which means anyone seeking to live the Way of Jesus Christ is invited to share in communion with us. Although we are not able to meet together, our bond still remains with one another and God through Jesus Christ.  

Invitation to Communion
Imagine Jesus setting a table for us, a place where we may come together and share a meal. Before we “come to the table,” let us set our hearts aright and seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our shortcomings.

Prayer for Forgiveness
Holy God, the maker and sustainer of all things,
You teach us to be good stewards of your generosity,
but we confess that we have been dishonest managers
of your blessings.

You teach us to love our neighbor as ourselves,
but most of us are so isolated
that we don’t know our neighbor’s name.

You teach us that if we are dishonest in small things, 
we will be dishonest in greater things,
yet we treat your words as if only the big things really matter.

We have heard your high and holy standards,
and then lowered the bar so low
that we can hardly even trip over it.

We repent.
Thank you for your patience.
Thank you for not deserting us.
Open our hearts, ears, eyes, minds, and lives to follow you.
We place our lives completely in your hands.
Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 
2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, Common English Bible 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, to whom we have been reconciled through Christ. 

Share the Meal 
Share what you have to eat and before eating, have someone say, “This food represents the body of Christ.  As we eat, we remember Jesus.” 

Share what you have to drink and before drinking, have someone say, “This drink represents the covenant Christ made with us that our sins will be forgiven.  As we drink, we remember Jesus.”

Prayer of Thanksgiving 
Dear God, thank you for your abounding compassionate love. Thank you for guiding and leading us through these difficult times. Thank you for always being with us. Amen.

Song of Faith
Amazing Grace 
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (from the Virginia Harmony, 1831) 
Author: John Newton 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound 
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost, but now I’m found, 
Was blind, but now I see.

The Gospel Lesson
Matthew 25:14-30, Common English Bible
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

“His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

Proclaiming the Word
Dr. Jeffrey Vickery

Let’s take the opportunity here to change the way we refer to this parable of Jesus. I want to call it, “The Parable of the $10,000 Bills.” For a long time and by the vast number of people who read Matthew 25:14-30, this story is known as the “Parable of the Talents.” That title comes from the Greek word for a large sum of money that is simply transliterated as “talent” in our English language. The CEB version we are reading today more rightly calls it “valuable coins.” The problem, as you might can see, is that our English word “talent” brings to mind skills and ability and innate capacity to excel at something. If the parable imagines God as the master and us as the servant, then we can tend to think this means God gives people gifts and talents which, far too often, has left Christians who are untalented feeling overlooked by God.  It is important to me, however, that we recognize that the master in the parable is expressing his trust in the servants rather than rewarding their ability. In fact, the unexpected surprise in this parable of Jesus is that a master would give tens of thousands of dollars to a servant without any strings attached. The master simply says, “I’m going away for a long time so here, take five $10,000 bills, and you take two $10,000 bills, and I’ll trust you with this one $10,000 bill. See ya later. ” 

As you can tell, I want us to begin our understanding of this parable with the idea that God trusts us. Surprise! All those old crusty sermons about God’s anger and human depravation and original sin we can set aside. God trusts us to rightly display the grace and love and justice of God. I know, I know, it is equally hard for us to trust other people as it is to see the good in us. After all, we see sin around us daily. Our news is saturated with what is wrong with the world and we humans are the ones who create such disgust and distress. Yet God trusts us. No matter what we hear from others, the first word of God to us is “You are my beloved, and I trust you,” rather than “You are a sinner worthy of hell, but I’ll find some way to get through to you despite that.” So again, as the parable demonstrates, God trusts us.  Not with pittance but abundance. Without designated restrictions or making us fill out forms to justify what we did with that $50,000, God gives a valuable sum to us freely. Why? Because God trusts us.  

Do you remember the story in the book of Acts when the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection and they watched him ascend into heaven? They must have been anxious about his absence. After years of stability and direction and protection and hope with Jesus near them, now he’s no longer there. He left us, just as the master left the servants and went on a journey.  Yet the Ascension of Jesus is another testament to the trust God has in us.  Jesus is no longer with us as God incarnate. We can wish that “Jesus will return and make everything right” but that in itself is not the point of any apocalyptic message in the Bible. What is the point? To make sure we don’t just sit and wait. To recognize that God’s physical absence is neither disinterest nor permission for revelry. We are the people of God who are called to create a just and peaceable kin-dom of God on Earth. It is an opportunity to exercise the responsibility to show God’s love and help folks know that, to paraphrase Psalm 27:13, we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. How will we see the goodness of the Lord? By you and me being trustworthy of God’s gift.  

So then Jesus’ parable seems to point in two directions at once. God trusts us, and we are trustworthy in God’s estimation. Both of these statements are good news. So it’s time to stop whining about our short-comings. We can be free from the weight of our weaknesses. We can give up the justifications for our inaction. God trusts us and has gifted us with the responsibility of representing God’s Way in this world because God believes in us. 

If the first act of the master in the parable is an act of trust, the conclusion to the parable is an act of love. In fact, the parable spends most of its time describing what happens when the master returns. The first two servants are praised by the master for taking responsibility with their $10,000 bills. They had taken what the master gave them and now there is more—double as much in fact. The master says to both servants: “‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’” In simple fashion, the master is not concern over the amount of return or even the amount that he gave them, only that they chose to do something instead of doing nothing. Just as it is surprising that he gave the servants so much money, it is now equally surprising that the master describes the initial sum by saying, “You’ve been faithful over A LITTLE.” What? Since when was $50,000 just a little?!? Yet in God’s abundance, the amount matters less than the responsibility taken on its behalf. 

No character in the story receives more attention than the third servant. We hear more of his conversation with the master and in so doing we have a clearer sense of his motivation and intention. The master also addresses him directly in a way unique to the story because of his unwillingness to do something with what he was trusted. This last servant simply kept the master’s money and returned it as it was. No more was done. No tasks completed. No responsibility taken. The servant chose to hide and protect rather than serve and enhance. He expects praise from the master and instead receives a holy rebuke.  

First, the servant acted as he did, or in this case didn’t act, because of his wrong estimation of the master’s intention and personality. He calls the master “hard” and describes him as someone who will take advantage of others for his own gain. Yet nothing in this parable seems to fit that presumption. Whatever takes place in the imagination of the third servant, he has come to the wrong conclusion about the master. This man just gave a literal fortune to his servants. He trusted them. He left his possessions in their care. He gave them carte blanche to do as they wished with considerable wealth at their disposal while he was gone. The harsh and conniving nature of the master is a figment of the servant’s imagination. 

Many make the same mistake with God, casting our imagination wildly such that we have assumed or been instructed that God’s most central characteristics are wrath, judgment, fear, cursing, and destruction. If these are the virtues that we think motivate God’s action toward us, then we will become like that third servant. We will have misunderstood what the biblical stories say about God who is described multiple times as “… a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2, and parallels). Ultimately, God cannot be changed by our ideas, but our perceptions of God powerfully influence our own choices and actions. Here in the parable, the third servant’s misunderstanding of the master leads him to act out of the fear of retribution rather than as though he were trusted by the master to act on his behalf. This servant took the “don’t blame me” road rather than going ahead with the idea that “I’ll do something and trust the master knows it’s my best”.  

In my opinion, what the master says and does in response to this timid third servant is an exercise of love. The master does, in fact, love the servant enough to be honest with his irresponsibility. But the master also loves what he entrusted to the servant so much that he will not let the servant misuse the gift. 

Love does not mean permissiveness. Love does not tolerate irresponsibility with the Gospel. Love does not allow misrepresentation of God’s goodness and justice. Love does not just say “ho-hum, oh well” when God has entrusted us to represent the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living and we fail to do anything. Love means not a single one of us is left to do nothing and God is okay with that. God not only loves us, but God loves the Gospel that we are entrusted to make come alive in this world. God loves grace and mercy and hope and goodness and justice and servanthood and righteousness. And when the people of God do not love in a way that amplifies God’s goodness in the world, God’s response is not “Oh well. I guess I’ll just tolerate their apathy because I love them.” Because God loves me and God loves you, God will not simply let irresponsibility and misrepresentation of the Gospel be overlooked. We are responsible to show God’s love in God’s absence. We are invited to display God’s goodness in every situation. We are not given the opportunity to hide God’s Way and receive God’s approval.  Genuine love knows how to call one to responsibility and honestly offer correction and clearly require a high (gospel) standard of action and intention. We do not show love if we allow someone to do anything and then say nothing. Neither does God. That’s not love, that’s care-less-ness. God both cares and loves, for us and the Gospel, so much that we are entrusted with the Gospel and our response becomes a measure of our love for God.   

Perhaps it is now obvious but the $10,000 note that the master gives the servants is either (1) Jesus himself, or (2) the Gospel, or (3) all creation. Either way, the gift is a royal one. It is made holy by the one who gives it freely. We are entrusted with what is most valuable to God. This “good news” that God dwells among us full of grace and truth, the consistent perception that we are all God’s children, the call to make peace and build just and fair human communities, the willingness to forgive as God forgives and love all whom God loves, the recognition of creation as the most visible mirror displaying God’s beauty … these are the valuable coins, the $10,000 bills that God hands to each of us. None of us should take the gift lightly. All of us should know that God does not give these things to us randomly. All of us can make more peace and forgiveness and justice and grace and love with the peace and forgiveness and justice and grace and love that we have been given. That’s the point, maybe not just of the parable, but of the exercise of our faith in the human community. May it become so today and each day. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

1. How does it feel when you hear God has trusted you enough to want your help?

2. Since our perceptions of God influence our choices, what characteristics of God do you focus on the most? Who taught you the most about God?

3. The sermon ends with a call to make peace, forgiveness, justice, grace, and love. Which one of these are you willing to attempt today?


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
Take My Life and Let It Be
Author: Frances Ridley Havergal
Tune: HENDON (Henri A. Cesar Malan)

1 Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in endless praise,
let them flow in endless praise.

2 Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love.
Take my feet and let them be swift and beautiful for thee,
swift and beautiful for thee.

3 Take my voice and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips and let them be filled with messages from thee,
filled with messages from thee.

4 Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose,
every power as thou shalt choose.

5 Take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne,
it shall be thy royal throne.

6 Take my love; my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee,
ever, only, all for thee.

Sending Out
May the blessing and peace of God uphold you, 
May the compassion and love of Christ enfold you, 
and may the vitality and power of the Holy Spirit embolden you, 
today and always.  
Amen.

Closing Song 
Blest Be the Tie 
Tune: DENNIS (Nageli) 
Author: John Fawcett 

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

Acknowledgements:

The Invitation was written by Thom Shuman, a gifted retired Presbyterian minister in Columbus, Ohio. The tune BEACH SPRING is attributed to Benjamin F. White who was born in 1800 in Union County, SC and was co-editor of The Sacred Harp (1844). Robert L. Edwards who wrote the hymn God Whose Giving Has No Ending was born in Auburn, NY in 1915. A graduate of Princeton University, Harvard University, and Union Theological Seminary, Edwards served Congregational churches in Connecticut. His ministry interests included low income senior housing and prison ministry. The tune NORTH HILL was written by Robert Weaver and named in honor of the retirement community where he and his wife live in Needham, Massachusetts. The words to the anthem, From All the Earth Send Up the Song! is a paraphrase of Psalm 100 by William Allen Pasch. Pasch serves as Organist and Composer in Residence at First Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, GA. The Prayer for Forgiveness has been adapted from a prayer posted on Jeff’s Blog. (blog.wisch.org/category/
benedictions-and-prayers/). Frances Ridley Havergal wrote the hymn, Take My Life and Let It Be. Havergal was born in 1836 in Worcestershire, England. Her hymns were frequently printed as leaflets and ornamental cards. She died of peritonitis in Wales at the age of 42. Her sisters published most of her works posthumously. Henri Abraham Cesar Malan who composed the tune HENDON was born in 1787 at Geneva right before the start of the French Revolution. He served as a minister in the Reformed Church and became an ardent evangelist. On Easter of 1817, he delivered a sermon entitled, “Man only justified by faith alone.” The sermon created a storm that lasted for years. His proclamation that salvation without good works was deemed dangerous. In 1823, Malan was expelled from ministry in the Reformed Church. Nevertheless, he built a chapel in his own garden where he preached for 43 years. The anthem was played by Tonya and sung by Mindy, Tonya, and Elizabeth. Tracy played the organ and Mindy sang the hymns. Aidan played the piano for Amazing Grace. 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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