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The United Reformed Church Daily Devotions Service for Sunday 11th July 2021
The Rev’d Clare Downing Moderator of General Assembly
Hello. My name is Clare Downing and I am delighted to be able to share in today’s service. I am serving as one of the current Moderators of the General Assembly, which is meeting this weekend. Today’s service has been prepared with Helen Everard, the Assembly Moderators’ Chaplain, who ministers at Wonersh, near Guildford.
Eternal God, your love’s tremendous glory cascades through life in overflowing grace, to tell creation’s meaning in the story of love evolving love from time and space.
2: Eternal Son of God, uniquely precious, in you, deserted, scorned, and crucified, God’s love has fathomed sin and death’s deep darkness, and flawed humanity is glorified.
3: Eternal Spirit, with us like a mother, embracing us in love serene and pure: you nurture strength to follow Christ our brother, as full-grown children, confident and sure.
4: Love’s Trinity, self-perfect, self-sustaining; love which commands, enables, and obeys: you give yourself, in boundless joy, creating one vast increasing harmony of praise.
5: We ask you now, complete your image in us; this love of yours, our source and guide and goal. May love in us seek love and serve love’s purpose, till we ascend with Christ and find love whole.
Call To Worship
We meet in the name of God, the Holy Trinity of Love who knows our needs, hears our cries, feels our pain, and heals our wounds. God is our light and our salvation. In God’s name we light this candle and are reminded of Jesus, the Light of the World, God’s own Voice who came to live with us. May our hearts be open to you, O God, now and always. Amen.
Prayer of Approach
Creator God, You are holy beyond our wildest imagination. You called everything into being and saw that it was good. As we come to Your presence, You gather us together with the whole of creation. Creator God, we worship You.
Lord Jesus Christ just as we are, you invite each one of us to your celebration feast. You greet us each by name and welcome us into your family. Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you.
Holy Spirit, breath of Life You fill us with your love for all so that we are enabled to witness with and to your Word. Holy Spirit, we worship you.
Prayer of Confession
Loving God, as we draw near to you, we are painfully aware of our faults and failings. We confess that we have been greatly influenced by other voices than yours. We have been seduced by the superficial glamour of the culture of the world. We have not spoken out against injustice and inequality in our society. We have filled our own plates whilst others plates are empty. We have been indifferent to the damage our way of life has caused to your creation. Forgive us, Lord God. Help us to listen only to your voice, to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly in your way. Amen
Assurance of Pardon
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. To all who turn to him he says: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ He also says: ‘Follow me.’
Prayer of Illumination
Almighty God, As Elizabeth and Zechariah saw the fulfilment of your promises through themselves, help us also to fulfil your promises through our service. As John prepared people for the coming of the Messiah may we also be prepared by hearing your word for us today. As Zechariah’s speech was restored and he praised you in thankfulness, may we also be empowered to proclaim your good news wherever we are. Amen
Reading: St Mark 6:14-29
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Most villains prefer that nobody knows their self-serving schemes or how their wealth grows; with sly propaganda they’d smooth-talk and charm, so no-one will challenge their vi’lence and harm.
2: Yet, prophets like John, with selfless disdain, cut right through the lies and make God’s truth plain, till villains, unsettled, lash out in their hate, expose their own evil served up on a plate.
3: True heroes commit to caring and cost, to evil’s defeat, to helping the lost; they struggle for justice and mercy for all, exposing the villains to hasten their fall.
4: Like John, Jesus came, a hero to share, who felt people’s pain, and showed that he’d care; unlike Herod’s feast, just for cronies and cheats, he’d feed starving thousands with God-sharing feats.
5: So, what will we be, which way will we take? Will villainous ways keep us on the make? Or will we be heroes and heroes for right; who live to bring justice, for all, in life’s fight?
6: As people of God, our shared call is clear: exposing the wrong, resisting the fear; whatever the evils, help justice win through, with Jesus, for Jesus, do all we can do!
Going to the pantomime wasn’t part of our family tradition. I only really discovered it in my late teens when a group of us regularly met up to hit the theatrical hotspots of Torbay. Despite, or maybe because the panto was clearly not ‘cool’, we entered into the spirit of the occasion with gusto. Cheering, shouting, booing and hissing with the best of them. Everyone knew who were the goodies and the baddies – the heroes and the villains – and reacted accordingly.
During this year, the young people of the United Reformed Church have been concentrating on heroes and villains. So have Mission Council and General Assembly. And so shall we today
In real life, it’s not always so easy to judge. And the Bible is full of flawed characters, who aren’t clearly one or the other. The heroic villains, or the villainous heroes are to be found all over the place – even in the story we have just heard.
On the surface it’s simple. John the Baptist is the hero. He’s God’s spokesperson, preparing the way for Jesus. In true superhero fashion he even wears odd clothes, though not going so far as to wear his underpants on the outside. John stands up for right, even when it’s going to get him into big trouble. He’s not afraid to speak out against the powerful when they misbehave. So much so that he’s imprisoned because of his insistence that King Herod’s marriage is unlawful, immoral.
But John isn’t perfect. Preaching is challenging but not always encouraging. He knows that he is the warm up act for God’s chosen one. And his expectation is that Jesus will be very much like him – only more so. He’s so disappointed in Jesus that when he is in prison, he sends his own disciples to ask if Jesus really is the one he’s been waiting for. John – a hero, yes but with weaknesses and limitations.
Then there’s Herod. Obviously a villain, and yet…he respected John, liked to listen to him. At the beginning of the reading, before we have the flashback to John’s death, we hear him thinking that Jesus who is performing miracles and healings must be John raised from the dead. He’s definitely picked up on the fact that something big is going on. The trouble with Herod is he seems willing to listen to any voice. He’s easily swayed. He makes rash promises. And his need to keep face in front of his friends means that he can’t pull back from fulfilling the demand of his stepdaughter Salome. Changing your mind takes more strength of character than Herod can summon up.
What about Salome. She doesn’t have much more than a walk on, or to be more precise, a dance on part. Perhaps she’s a good, obedient child, wanting to please everyone. Dancing for her stepfather, asking her mother for advice, the innocent abroad in the power games of her family. There again, is she the knowing teenager, playing the powerful adults off against each other? The way in which she embellishes the request for the head of John the Baptist doesn’t endear her to me.
But even so, maybe we can reserve judgement on her.
Herodias is the one most clearly the villain of the piece. Her grudge against John so strong that it will stop at nothing. Her undue influence over both her husband and daughter makes sure she gets her own way. She knows what she wants and doesn’t care what she needs to do to get it.
So Herodias is the one who comes on stage and gets booed and hissed by the audience. And yet there is still a question about whether she is totally bad or whether she is reacting to the circumstances she finds herself in. I’m not willing to condemn her completely without knowing a bit more of the back story.
So what a collection of characters! And whilst we may not easily identify with any of them, the reminder of the complexity of being human and our own ability to be both villain and hero is important.
Two things that stand out in their stories are part of all our lives too.
The first is the question of what voices we listen to. Herod listened to John, perhaps even listened for the voice of God through him. But in the end, listening to the vindictiveness of Herodias was a bigger influence. We are surrounded by voices: family & friends, media, all sorts – even fake news. Listening for the right voices, for God’s voice among the tumult is not always easy. But it is vital in our discipleship.
The second is all about power. Of course in the Church we pretend that power games don’t happen. We’re often afraid even of the word. But let’s not fool ourselves. All of us have power and influence to some extent. It may be limited in its scope, but it’s there. We’re called to use our power for good not evil. Within the life of the Church we’ re to build one another up, to encourage each other, to work for the good of the whole world. And one more question to ponder. In fairy tales or pantomime there is so often a place where someone is granted a wish or three.
So of you could ask for anything, even up to half of Herod’s kingdom, what would you wish for on your platter? Who would you ask for advice? And how would you use it for good? God the Giver of all good gifts want to share those good things with us, wants us to use the gifts well. We may never be superheroes, we will always be flawed. But the call to be disciples, followers, learners should lead us to a place where we listen for Gods voice, and exercise the power we have wisely and for the good of all.
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in God. Despite His silence and His secrets we believe that He lives. Despite evil and suffering we believe that He made the world so that all would be happy in life. Despite the limitations of our reason and the revolts of our hearts, we believe in God.
We believe in Jesus Christ. Despite the centuries which separate us from the time when he came to earth, we believe in His word. Despite our incomprehension and our doubt, we believe in His resurrection. Despite his weakness and poverty, we believe in his reign.
We believe in the Holy Spirit. Despite appearances we believe He guides the Church; despite death we believe in eternal life; despite ignorance and disbelief, we believe that the Kingdom of God is promised to all. Amen.
Prayers of intercession
Eternal God, We come to you with our prayers of concern for the big issues affecting us and our world. We pray for all who are suffering because of climate change, and for all who are taking action and speaking out on behalf of your creation. Lord in your mercy Hear our prayer
We pray for all who are suffering because of the COVID 19 Pandemic: those who have lost loved ones, health, or livelihood And we pray for all who are working to tend the sick, support those in need and who minister to the bereaved. Lord in your mercy Hear our prayer
We pray for all in positions of authority and responsibility, that they may exercise power with justice and righteousness and we pray for all who speak truth to those in power on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. Lord in your mercy Hear our prayer.
Lord Jesus, through baptism we became part of your worldwide family. Help us to faithfully proclaim your gospel on behalf of all people and to walk your way of sacrificial love through testing times, listening only to your voice as we speak your word. Lord in your mercy Hear our prayer
Holy Spirit, comforter, We pray today for all prisoners, victims of torture, prisoners of conscience and those condemned to death. As Jesus sent words of comfort to John in prison, may you send people who may speak comfort to all in captivity at this time. We pray for all who are ill in body, mind or spirit and for all who mourn.
In a moment of silence, we name before you now those who are particularly on our hearts this day Lord in your mercy Hear our prayer Amen.
We bring our prayers together as we share the prayer that Jesus taught his first followers:
I come with joy, a child of God, forgiven, loved and free, the life of Jesus to recall, in love laid down for me.
2: I come with Christians far and near to find, as all are fed, the new community of love in Christ’s communion bread.
3: As Christ breaks bread, and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends.
4: The Spirit of the risen Christ, unseen, but ever near, is in such friendship better known, alive among us here.
5: Together met, together bound by all that God has done, we’ll go with joy, to give the world the love that makes us one.
We are about to celebrate communion. I would remind you if you wish to have some bread and juice to hand. I would like also to encourage you to continue giving as you are able towards the work of the Church at this time. Let us dedicate our gifts to God.
Generous God, We bring you our gifts of bread and wine and with them our gifts of money. Take and use them, so that your kingdom may come. Amen
Jesus invites us to his feast. Not a banquet to impress others, but a shared meal, to give us sustenance for the next steps of our journey with him. We come both remembering the meal he shared with friends before his death, and looking forward to the great banquet of heaven which he promises. In sharing supper with his friends, the night before he died, Jesus gave us the pattern of blessing, breaking and sharing bread and wine. And so we pray…
God who speaks, help us to recognise your voice in the words and in the silence. We give you thanks that you continue to speak in our day and time.
God of power, you were willing to come among us as a vulnerable baby, and to die a criminal’s death. We give you thanks for your call to be your servants in the world.
God of all, we ask that you will send your spirit on these gifts of bread and wine, and on each one of us as we offer ourselves afresh to you. Amen.
Together, despite being apart, we gather to share the bread and wine. Jesus blesses and offers us the bread, tells us of his body broken for us, tells us to eat and to remember him. Jesus blesses and offers us the cup, the sign of the new relationship with God. Tells us to drink and to remember him. So take the bread and wine, eat and drink the gifts of God. Remember with thanksgiving, look forward in faith.
Music: Jesus Invites His Saints Isaac Watts, sung by Lythan & Phil Nevard, Ruth Whitehead and Susan Durber
Jesus invites His saints to meet around his board; here pardoned rebels sit, and hold communion with their Lord. For food He gives His flesh, He bids us drink His blood; amazing favour, matchless grace of our descending God!
2: This holy bread and wine maintains our fainting breath, by union with our living Lord, and interest in His death. Our heavenly father calls Christ and His members one: we the young children of His love, and He the first-born Son.
3: We are but several parts of the same broken bread; one body hath its several limbs, but Jesus is the head. Let all our powers be joined His glorious name to raise; pleasure and love fill every mind and every voice be praise.
As you have given yourself for us, we give our lives afresh to you. Take us, change us, use us in your service. Amen
Hymn:The Kingdom of God is Justice and Joy Bryn Rees (1973) sung by the Rev’d Paul Robinson
The Kingdom of God is justice and joy; for Jesus restores what sin would destroy. God’s power and glory in Jesus we know; and here and hereafter the Kingdom shall grow.
2 The Kingdom of God is mercy and grace; the prisoners are freed, the sinners find place, the outcast are welcomed God’s banquet to share; and hope is awakened in place of despair.
3 The Kingdom of God is challenge and choice: believe the good news, repent and rejoice! His love for us sinners brought Christ to His Cross: our crisis of judgement for gain or for loss.
4 God’s Kingdom is come, the gift and the goal; in Jesus begun, in heaven made whole. The heirs of the Kingdom shall answer His call; and all things cry “Glory!” to God all in all.
Go into the world to speak with courage. Go into the world to act with compassion. Go into the world to encourage your neighbours. Go into the world to share the good news. And may God – Creator, Son and Spirit – inform and inspire our thinking, our speaking and our actions and bless us today, and every day to come. Amen
Sources and Thanks
Call To Worship from the Church of England’s New Patterns of Worship. Affirmation of Faith from the Reformed Church of France translated by Andy Braunston. All other liturgical material written by the Rev’d Clare Downing.
Thanks to the Everard family, The Rev’ds Lythan and Phil Nevard, Ruth Whitehead, Susan Durber and Paul Robinson for recording the hymns and to Brian Coterrill for the opening and closing organ voluntaries. Opening: Ein Feste Burg (“A mighty fortress”) by Max Reger (organ of Basilica Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy – 2016); Closing: Songs of Praise Toccata by Robert Prizeman organ of St Andrew’s, Farnham – 2019).
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