Sunday 26 March 2023

Order of Service

Below you will find the Order of Service, prayers, hymns and sermon for today’s service.   You can either simply read this or you can
 

to listen to the service and sing along with the hymns.  This will open up a new screen, at the bottom of the screen you will see a play symbol.  Press that, then come back to this window so you can follow along with the service.

Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 26 March 2023

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Sue McCoan

 
Call to Worship
 

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits 
and in his word I hope.  
My soul waits for the Lord – more than those who watch for the morning.  
More than those who watch for the morning.  
O Israel, hope in the Lord 
for with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him there is great power to save.  
O Israel, hope in the Lord 
and trust in his holy name.
 
Hymn    Breathe On Me, Breath of God
              Edwin Hatch (1878) Performed by vocalist at St Lawrence Church, Chorley and used with their kind permission.
 
Breathe on me, breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love 
what Thou dost love,
and do what Thou wouldst do.
 
Breathe on me, breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until my will is one with Thine,
to do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
till I am wholly thine;
until this earthly part of me
glows with thy fire divine.
 
Breathe on me, breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with you the perfect life
for all eternity.

Opening Prayer
 
Loving God, we gather as your people setting aside, for this time, our everyday life, our work and our leisure, our duties and distractions, to centre ourselves on you. May your life-giving Spirit dwell in us, filling us with peace, uniting us with Christ; may the worship we offer be a gift to one another and acceptable to you. We pray in the name of Jesus, Amen.
 
Confession and Pardon
 
God of grace, there are times when we feel so far away from you:
when we are swamped by the depths of trouble;
when we are dried up, isolated, broken;
when we long for a peace we cannot find,
for a rest that will not come.
 
We wonder why you do not hear our cries for help.
 
In you, Lord, there is forgiveness and when we stop, and turn to ask for the forgiveness you promise, we find it is already given.
When we silence our cries,  we find you have heard us all along,
and your still, small voice speaks to us of steadfast love.
 
In your endless mercy, give us the grace to receive your forgiveness,
to embrace your love, and to live again in the light of your hope. Amen.
 
Hymn    Spirit of the Living God
              Daniel Iverson, Michael Baughen © 1982 The Jubilate Group, admin. Hope Publishing Co. played and sung by Gareth Moore from the Isle of Man Methodist Church and used with his kind permission.
 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mould me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
 
Reading        Ezekiel 37:1-14
 
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’  Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
 
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’  I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
 
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”  Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
 
Sermon        Part 1
 
Among the many distressing reports from the war in Ukraine – too many – have been the discoveries of mass graves, found after Russian troops have withdrawn from various areas. It’s bad enough to know so many people have been killed, including civilians; for their bodies to be dumped like so much rubbish is just horrible. 
 
In ancient times, after a battle, the bodies would often not even have been covered over. They were left where they fell, in the open, to be looted and scavenged by anyone who came past, by animals and birds. I’m sorry this is gruesome – probably not what you want to hear in worship – but look, we’re getting towards the end of Lent, and close to Holy Week and the crucifixion; this is no time to be squeamish.
 
The prophet Ezekiel is not allowed to look away. God shows him a nightmare vision, a whole valley of human remains, long dead in this case, reduced to bones, picked clean, scattered, bleached and dried by the sun. It’s a scene of defeat, destruction and utter desolation. Can these bones live? What a stupid question! 
 
But God knows what God is doing. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones – yes, Ezekiel, speak to the bones, let them hear God’s word. When he does, the bones start to come together, making connections, forming themselves into bodies. Now, says God, prophesy to the breath. So Ezekiel speaks to the breath, the wind, the spirit – all the one word in Hebrew, ruach – and the spirit animates the bodies, as God breathed life into the first human in Genesis. And now, instead of a valley of death, Ezekiel sees a throng of living, breathing human beings. 
 
It’s a powerful image. We’ll come back to it in a little while. But first we’re going to look at our second reading, from the gospel of John.
 
This is another story about death and life, but this is no vision. Martha, her sister Mary and brother Lazarus are real people. They live in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem; they are friends of Jesus; they have hosted him for meals and know him well. When Lazarus falls ill, it’s not surprising that Jesus is the person the sisters want to see. 
 
Jesus at this point is staying away from Jerusalem, having nearly been stoned there on his last visit, and he’s in no hurry to go back. He waits before responding to their message. By the time he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead and buried for 4 days.
 
Let’s hear the next part of the story from John.
 
Reading       St John 11:17-36

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’  And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’  Jesus began to weep.  So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’

Sermon        Part 2
 
Martha and Mary are devastated, understandably. They’ve lost their brother, and in their distress they are blaming Jesus. They come out to meet him, separately, and you can hear the hurt, the pain, in their words: ‘Lord, if you had been here’, they each say, ‘my brother would not have died’.
 
Jesus tries to talk about resurrection but it’s no match for their grief and tears. And by the time they all get to the tomb, Jesus is in tears too. This was his friend. This loss is as real to him as to all the other people gathered there. He doesn’t react to their accusations of inaction on his part; he simply stands with them, sharing their pain, acknowledging their sense of hopelessness. 
 
And then he takes action. Let’s hear the final part of the reading.
 
Reading       St  John 11: 37-44
 
But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
 
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’  So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
 
Sermon        Part 3
 
In an impossible situation, God calls for improbable action. Jesus orders the grave to be opened. People are horrified. ‘You can’t do this’, says Martha, ‘what about the smell?’ Jesus prays. And then, just as Ezekiel spoke to dried up bones, so Jesus now speaks to a dead man. ‘Lazarus, come out’. 
 
To everyone’s astonishment and probably horror, Lazarus – dead, buried Lazarus, still wrapped in his grave cloths – emerges from the tomb. They unbind him and let him go.
 
This is resurrection made real before their very eyes. When we next hear of Lazarus, in John chapter 12, he is sitting at the table eating dinner. 
 
Both these stories, Ezekiel’s vision and Lazarus, have an element of demonstration. In the first, the demonstration is for the benefit of Ezekiel. God spells out the meaning. The dry bones represent the house of Israel – God’s people, dried up, scattered in exile and without hope. The life given to the dry bones represents the promise that God will bring the people home, will rebuild their lives and fill them with renewed spirit. 
 
In the second story, the demonstration is of the power of God, and to give glory to God. It’s also, indirectly, for the benefit of the disciples. Jesus has been teaching them for some time that he will be killed and then raised again, but they have not been able to grasp what he is saying. They have no frame of reference in which his words make any sense. The death and raising of Lazarus acts as a kind of preview of Jesus’s death – which he surely knows, as he approaches Jerusalem, can’t be far away – and of his resurrection. Maybe now they can begin to understand. 
 
And both these stories carry the same message: that even a situation that seems beyond hope is not beyond the reach of God. Even when we cannot imagine a way forward, a way out, God can bring something new. 
 
It’s not difficult to think of places where hope is hard to find. There may be aspects of our own lives where we feel stuck or at a dead end, and don’t know where to turn. We might think of churches who are struggling to see how they can keep going. Many of us despair at the mounting evidence of climate catastrophe, coupled with the reluctance of any country to make enough change with enough speed to reach even the modest targets already agreed. 
 
Into all these places and all these situations, the readings tell us, God can bring new life. But hope is not about us sitting back and waiting for God to do something. We might like to note 2 other themes that are common to both these stories. 
 
One is the theme of coming together. The bones cannot be animated until they have been re-assembled. When the people come back from exile, there will be divisions to be healed: between those who were exiled and those who were left behind; between those who assimilated to life in Babylon and those who remained true to their traditions. Lazarus is not raised until Jesus, Mary, Martha and the other mourners are all gathered at the tomb, standing together in their shared grief. There is a power in coming together. We need each other. We find God together. It is a great blessing that those of us who are not  able to meet in person can still gather on-line.
 
The other theme is that, for new life to come, the word of God has to be spoken: spoken to the bones, spoken to Lazarus. We need to speak out: words of protest, words of challenge, words of encouragement, words of love. Even if we feel we are speaking to dry bones and dead bodies, and get as little response, let that not put us off. We speak, and let God speak through us.
 
So, as we continue our journey through the last few days of Lent and on into Holy Week, may we look out for one another; may we speak the words that others need to hear; and may we hold fast to God, bringer of hope, giver of new life. Amen.
  
Hymn    Come, Living God, When Least Expected
              The Rev’d Alan Gaunt © 1971 Stainer & Bell Ltd sung by unknown vocalist from Logie & St John’s (Cross) Church, Dundee and used with their kind permission.  
 

Come, living God, 
when least expected,
when minds are dull 
and hearts are cold,
through sharpening word 
and warm affection
revealing truths as yet untold.
 
Break from the tomb 
in which we hide you
to speak again in startling ways;
break through the words
in which we bind you
to resurrect our lifeless praise.
 
Then, through our gloom, 
your Son will meet us
as vivid truth and living Lord,
exploding doubt and disillusion
to scatter hope and joy abroad.
 
Then we will share 
his radiant brightness
and, blazing through 
the dread of night,
illuminate by love and reason,
for those in darkness, 
faith’s delight.

 

Offertory
 
We dedicate our offerings to God, however and wherever we make them.
Generous God, thank you for gift of life and the promise of new life.  We bring our gifts in many ways – in time, money, and skills – and offer them as a sign of our gratitude. Bless those who are unable to give, and use us all to serve you. Amen.
 
Intercessions

 God go hope, we pray for people and places where hope seems hard to find. 

We pray for people who are separated from the ones they love, or the place they call home; those who are isolated by bullying or abuse; those who wait anxiously for news; those who have lost hope. We give thanks and pray for all those working for peace and reconciliation among countries and families.
 
We pray for the Church. We pray for Christians who suffer persecution from the state or hostility from neighbours; for congregations that are struggling for want of people or resources; for people who have not felt welcome or safe in church. We give thanks and pray for new forms of church, for pioneer ministries, for community projects that bring your kingdom to many people.
 
We pray for our leaders, local and national; for economists and bankers, for businesses and pressure groups and all who influence the lives we lead. We give thanks and pray for people of vision and insight who can see better ways to manage the economy that place the needs of the planet above the greed of the wealthy.
 
We pray for the created world. We mourn for the dry valleys that once were fertile plains, for the lands swept by floods and storms, for the loss of habitats and species and the creatures who depended on them. We give thanks for prophetic voices who call for change and pray that the whole world might hear that call and rise to its challenge.
 
We pray for people we know who are suffering in body, mind or spirit,
Taking a moment of silence to name the in our hearts…
 
God of hope, thank you for hearing our prayers. We pray in confidence and hope. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
 
Hymn    O Breath of Life, Come Sweeping Through Us
              Bessie Porter Head (1920)  sung at the Evangelical Movement of Wales 2018 Conference and used with their kind permission.
 

O Breath of life, 
come sweeping through us,
revive your Church 
with life and pow’r;
O Breath of Life, 
come, cleanse, renew us,
and fit your Church 
to meet this hour.
 
O Wind of God, 
come bend us, break us,
till humbly we confess our need;
then in Your tenderness 
remake us,
revive, restore, 
for this we plead.
 
O Breath of love, 
come breathe within us,
renewing thought 
and will and heart;
come, Love of Christ, 
afresh to win us,
revive your Church 
in ev’ry part.
 
Revive us, Lord! Is zeal abating
while harvest fields 
are vast and white?
Revive us, Lord, 
the world is waiting,
equip your Church 
to spread the light.


Blessing
 
May the Spirit of God breathe into your life,
Bringing renewed strength and hope,
And may the blessing of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Spirit,
Be with you all, today and always.  
Amen

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