URC Daily Devotions Lessons and Carols for 2021 – The Revd. Branwen Rees

Order of Service

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Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church
Service of Lessons and Carols

Photo Credit Olena Sergienko /unsplash.com

The Rev’d Branwen Rees

 
Introduction
 
Hello, and welcome to our Service of Lessons and Carols on this. My name is Branwen Rees, and I am a URC Minister based in East Wales currently serving as a regional minister but with pastoral care of three particular churches: Cwmbran URC, Ebenezer URC in Pontnewynydd, and Sardis Chapel in Ynysddu which is a Local Ecumenical Partnership with the Presbyterian Church in Wales. I may be recording this in late summer, but typical British weather makes it feel like the middle of winter.  So, wherever we are, let us draw close to each other and to God as we prepare to celebrate Christmas.

Call to Worship
 
Hark, hark, the wise eternal word, like a weak infant cries! In form of servant is the Lord, and God in cradle lies, come let us adore Him!
 
Carol        Once in Royal David’s City
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) (alt.)
 

Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her Baby
in a manger for his bed.
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
 
2  He came down
to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall.
With the poor and meek and lowly
lived on earth our Saviour holy.
 
3  Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high,
where his children gather round,
bright like stars,
with glory crowned.

Prayer

 
Loving Lord, anticipation is the air; the excitement is palpable – Christmas is nearly here.  Queues in the shops are building, delivery slots unavailable, children are too anxious to sleep, counting down the windows on Advent Calendars.    For now, we wait – as the people of old waited for the prophets’ words to be fulfilled; as Elizabeth waited for John; as Mary waited for Jesus; as shepherds waited on a hillside and wise men waited for the star to stop.  We confess that sometimes our waiting gets overtaken by what is happening around us, all the plans and the lists, we easily forget what it is we are waiting for – Emmanuel, God with us. We want to prepare ourselves, as well as our homes, for the birth of our Saviour.    So, living Lord, amongst all the busyness help us to take time to listen anew to familiar words, words of promise, words of challenge, words that speak of your love and hope for all your people everywhere.  Amen
 
And so we share together in the prayer that Jesus taught us:  Our Father…
 
Isaiah 9: 2; 6–7

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
 His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
 
Reflection
 
We use a lot of words.  In the English language there is estimated to be over a million words.  In the Bible, the King James Version has 783,137 and 727,969 in the New Revised Standard Version.
 
The words we heard from the prophet Isaiah may be familiar to many of us and they have echoed down the centuries – they resonated with those in exile in Babylon; with the Civil Rights movement in the USA; South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and those sitting in concentration and internment camps across the world even to this day.
 
It is easy for us to hear these words and think of Jesus, but that is not what would have been heard originally.  The people would have associated this prophecy with the promise of a specific king for Judah; it is only later that early Christians would have seen Jesus as the expected Messiah. 
 
For the first listeners it may have been a scene of celebration, perhaps to mark the end of war or a good harvest – there is certainly joy to be found in these words and as we approach the celebration of the coming of Immanuel, God with us, we too can share their joy.
 
This ancient text helps us, as Christian hearers, to understand the meaning of Christmas and celebrate its signs of joy and hope and confidence in the future held safe in God’s hands.
 
Carol:       Angels from the realms of Glory
James Montgomery (1771-1854)
 

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:
 
Gloria! In excelsis deo!
Gloria! In excelsis deo!
 
2  Shepherds in the fields abiding,
watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing,
yonder shines the infant Light:
 
3 Wise men, leave your contemplations;
brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations;
ye have seen his natal star:

 

St Luke 1: 26–35; 38; 46-55

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’  Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
 
Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. 
And Mary said,
 
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
 
Reflection
 
I am always astounded at Mary’s response to the words of the Angel Gabriel.  Here is a girl, a teenager, trying to navigate her way through life and arrange a wedding when suddenly her whole world is turned upside down.
 
To be told she will become pregnant must have been frightening enough, but to be told that your son will be an ancestor of David, the Son of God no less; what a responsibility!  Yet Mary simply says ‘yes’.  What must have been going through her mind when the angel spoke to her, perhaps she was lost for words and could only manage ‘yes’? 
 
It can be easy to look at Mary and see her as submissive – just accepting what is going to happen to her, yet the angel does not give her a choice – she is told this will happen.  She may question the mechanics of it but other than that she has no choice in the matter.
 
After the initial shock, Mary does go on to speak wonderful words of poetry known as The Magnificat.  Words that challenged the accepted view of the time and still challenge us today – do we believe that the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich turned away empty?  I see few signs of the powerful being brought low and the lowly being lifted up. 
 
Were they just empty words, or are we prepared to take Mary’s words and make them our own?
 
Carol        The Canticle of the Turning
                  Rory Cooney
 

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great.
And my spirit sings
of the wondrous things
that you bring
to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight
on your servant’s plight
and my weakness
you did not spurn.
So from east to west
shall my name be blest
Could the world be about to turn?
 
My heart shall sing
of the day you bring;
let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears
for the dawn draws near
and the world is about to turn!
 
2: Though I am small,
my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last
from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name
puts the proud to shame
and to those who would
for you yearn
You will show Your might,
put the strong to flight
For the world is about to turn.
 
3: From the halls of power
to the fortress tower
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware
for your justice tears
ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor
shall weep no more
for the food they can never earn.
There are tables spread,
ev’ry mouth be fed
for the world is about to turn.
 
4: Though the nations
rage from age to age
we remember who holds us fast.
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s
crushing grasp.
This saving word
that out forebears heard
is the promise
which holds us bound
’til the spear and rod
can be crushed by God
who is turning the world around.

 

Luke 2: 1–7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered.  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
 
Reflection
 
More words, this time spoken by an emperor; words which everyone had to say yes to.  Words which ensured that Micah’s prophecy would come true, that Bethlehem, though small, would be the birthplace of a great king, still the birth of a king described in just one sentence, ‘And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’  It feels inadequate almost inconsequential, just 31 words to describe such a momentous event as God on earth.  This was no ordinary birth despite its ordinary beginning.    Yet perhaps that was the plan, the Son of God born in a backwater town in the middle of the night; the Messiah slipped into history.
 
Carol        Born in the night
Geoffrey Ainger
 

1: Born in the night, Mary’s Child,
a long way from your home;
coming in need, Mary’s Child,
born in a borrowed room.

2: Clear shining light, Mary’s Child,
your face lights up our way;
light of the world, Mary’s Child,
dawn on our darkened day.

 

3: Truth of our life, Mary’s Child,
you tell us God is good;
yes it is true, Mary’s Child,
shown on your cross of wood.
 
4: Hope of the world, Mary’s Child,
you’re coming soon to reign;
King of the earth, Mary’s Child,
walk in our streets again.

 

Luke 2: 8–16

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 
 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
 
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
 
Reflection
 
Now we have the words of the angel telling the news of a great event – an event that would change history although I’m not sure that’s how the shepherds would have heard it.  These men, very much on the edge of society with little education and few social graces, were visited by angels. 
How did they feel; did they think that perhaps they had sampled too much of the local brew; were they all having the same dream?  We are told they were terrified yet not so terrified as to take up the challenge the angel gave them.  The shepherds, men of few words, simply say, ‘let’s go and see this thing’. 
 
And so they see the Messiah, just as the angel had said.  And what of Mary and Joseph, I can’t imagine they would have been overjoyed to be visited by these rather uncouth men, especially after the ordeal of childbirth.  Did the shepherds tell them why they were here?  Did Mary and Joseph just accept that their little baby conceived and born in such extraordinary circumstances would live a life equally extraordinary?
 
Carol        While Shepherds Watched
Nahum Tate (1700)
 

While shepherds watched
their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.
 
2 “Fear not,” said he
for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind
“glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all your kind.
 
3 “To you, in David’s town, this day
is born of David’s line
a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:
 
4 “The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all meanly wrapped in swathing bands
and in a manger laid.”
 
5 Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God, who thus
addressed their joyful song:
 
6 “All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
begin and never cease.”
 
Matthew 2: 1–12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
 
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people, Israel.”’
 
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
 
Reflection
 
Different words this time – first read in the stars which tell of king’s birth but followed by words of deception and dishonesty from a tinpot dictator.  Evil often feels threatened – even by a tiny baby unable to fend for itself.  We can look at our world and see how dictators have used scapegoats on which to blame their own inadequacies whether it’s migrants or the poor, Jews or simply ‘the other’.
 
Thankfully, for the Wise Men and for Mary, Joseph and Jesus there were other words which will aid escape. 
Where are the words today which can rescue those fleeing repression?
 
Carol:       As With Gladness
William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) (alt.)
 

As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold,
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onwards, beaming bright;
so, most gracious Lord, may we
evermore be led to thee.
 
2  As with joyful steps they sped,
Saviour, to thy lowly bed,
there to bend the knee before
thee, whom heaven & earth adore;
so may we with willing feet
ever seek thy mercy-seat.

3  As they offered gifts most rare
at thy cradle good and bare;
so may we with holy joy,
pure, and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.
 
4  Holy Jesus, every day
keep us in the narrow way;
and, when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.

 

5  In the heavenly country bright,
need they no created light;
thou its light, its joy, its crown,
thou its sun which goes not down;
there for ever may we sing
alleluias to our King.

Prayers of Intercession
 
God with us,
As we get caught up in the joy and excitement of Christmas, help us to remember that for many there will be no joy – even at that first Christmas Herod lurked in the shadows.
 
We pray for those for whom Christmas is like every other day, sat alone with no one for company except voices on the television; days without speaking to anyone until the shops reopen.
 
We remember those for whom Christmas will now mean an empty chair at the table, one less meal to prepare, one less gift to buy, as feelings of grief and loss overtake any sense of joy.
 
We pray for those who have to celebrate Christmas in secret for fear of the knock at the door.
 
We remember those who wish to celebrate but find it hard to keep their faith in an unbelieving world.
 
Lord during this season of celebration help us to remember those who cannot find the joy and may we be joy bringers for them.  Amen 
 
John 1: 1–14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
 
Reflection
 
Throughout the many words we have heard whether from God or angels; prophets or Mary; emperors or shepherds; one person has remained silent.  We hear nothing from Jesus, of course, he is just a baby and as we learn from a famous children’s carol, we know he doesn’t cry either!
Yet now we find out that the one mute person is actually the Word.  The Word of God; the Word made flesh, there at the beginning of creation.  God with us!  The Word crept in history, and, in that instant, our words run out into the hushed wonder of a baby in whose face we see the face of God.

Carol        Hark the Herald Angels Sing
                  Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and others.
 

Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the new-born King,
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!’
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies,
with the angelic hosts proclaim,
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’.
 
2 Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail, the Incarnate Deity,
pleased as a man with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!


Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the new-born King’
 
3  Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise the folk of earth,
born to give them second birth:
 
Blessing
 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. As our time together comes to an end let us remember: When Christ comes, darkness will be light, despair will be hope, sadness will be joy, conflict will be peace, and we will be called to work, when Christ comes.  Amen
 
Sources and Thanks
 
Call to worship adapted by Andy Braunston from a poem by Thomas Pestal.  Blessing from Donald Hilton, ‘Called to Praise’ All other liturgical material written by the Rev’d Branwen Rees.
 
Thanks to Graham Handscomb, Marion Thomas, Sarah McGrory, Andy Braunston, Karen Smith, Ray Calcutt, Anne Hewling and Kathleen Haynes for reading the various spoken parts of the service.
 
Once in Royal David’s City – Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) (alt.) sung on BBC’s Songs of Praise
Angels from the realms of Glory – James Montgomery (1771-1854) sung by Annie Lennox from her album A Christmas Conucopia
The Canticle of the Turning – Rory Cooney © 1990 GIA Publications Ltd, sung by Rory Cooney, Gary Daigle, & Theresa Donhoo from the Album Safety Harbor
Born in the night – Geoffrey Ainger. Words © 1964 Stainer & Bell unknown choir on Youtube
While Shepherds Watched – Nahum Tate (1700) sung by the UK Sing Out Loud Choir
As With Gladness – William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) (alt.) Sung by the Chet Valley Churches
Hark the Herald Angels Sing – Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and others BBC Songs of Praise

Where words are copyright reproduced under the terms of Barrhead URC’s CCLI licence number 1064776,
Some material reprinted, and streamed, with permission under ONE LICENSE A-734713 All rights reserved.
PRS Limited Online Music Licence LE-0019762

 

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