Sunday Worship 21 May 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
 

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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 21 May 2023 

 
Today’s service is led by Walt Johnson 

 
Call to Worship
 

Jesus is risen. Hallelujah!
Jesus is risen, indeed. Hallelujah!
 
This is the day the Lord has made!
We will rejoice and be glad in it!
 
The Lord is our strength and our song!
You are our God, and we will praise You!
 
The Lord has become our victory!
You are our God, and we will proclaim Your name.
 
Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good!
God’s faithful love endures forever!
 
Hymn    Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise
Charles Wesley (1739) sung by St John’s Virtual Quartet of St John’s Episcopal Church, Boulder, Colorado and used with their kind permission
 

 

Hail the day that sees Him rise, Alleluia!
Ravished from our wistful eyes! Alleluia!
Christ, awhile to mortals given, Alleluia!
Re-ascends His native heaven. Alleluia!
 
There the glorious triumph waits… 
Lift your heads, eternal gates!…
Wide unfold the radiant scene…
Take the King of Glory in….
 
See! He lifts His hands above!… 
See! He shows the prints of love!… 
Hark! His gracious lips bestow…
Blessings on his Church below!…

Lord beyond our mortal sight… 
raise our hearts to reach thy height. 
There, thy face unclouded see…
Find our Heaven of Heaven in Thee…

Prayer of Approach
 
Loving God, 
infinite and eternal in wisdom, power and love:
we praise you for all that you are, 
and for all that you do for the world.
You have shown us your truth and your love in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Help us by your Spirit to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
Prayer of Confession
 
We bring to God the times when we have failed to love others, ourselves and God.  To the bidding, “Merciful God…” please respond with, “Graciously hear us.”
 
God of justice and forgiveness, 
we confess that we live in a world in which many are hungry – 
even for bread, 
many are sad or hurt, and there is much that is unfair and unjust…
Merciful God… Graciously hear us.
 
We confess that, in our own lives, 
we do not always do what is right or turn away from what is wrong….
Merciful God… Graciously hear us.
 
We ask your forgiveness, we claim your love and mercy, 
and we ask for courage to make a new beginning…
Merciful God… Graciously hear us.
 
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
 
Assurance of Pardon
 
Listen for the assurance of pardon as found in the Word of God, Psalm 103:
The Lord is tender and kind. God is gracious. 
The Lord is slow to get angry. 
God is full of love. 
The Lord loves those who have respect for God’s ways. 
The Lord’s love is as high as the heavens are above the earth.
God has removed our sins from us. 
The Lord has removed them as far as the east is from the west.
 
Hymn    Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
Henry van Dyke sung at the First Methodist Houston, 
and used with their kind permission.
 
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
hearts unfold 
like flow’rs before Thee,
op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
drive the dark of doubt away;
giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!
 
All Thy works with joy 
surround Thee,
Earth and Heav’n reflect Thy rays,
stars and angels sing around Thee,
centre of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
flowring meadow, flashing sea,
singing bird and flowing fountain
Call us to rejoice in Thee.
 
Thou art giving and forgiving,
ever blessing, ever blest,
wellspring of the joy of living,
ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,
all who live in love are Thine;
teach us how to love each other,
lift us to the joy divine.
 
Mortals, join the mighty chorus,
which the morning stars began;
God’s own love is reigning o’er us,
Joining people hand in hand.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.


Prayer of Illumination
 
Loving God, 
Your word is a lamp to our feet, and a light to our path.
You are our hiding-place and our shield: we hope in Your word.
May our cry come before you: 
give us understanding according to Your word. 
May we listen, and may You speak to us. Amen.
 
Introduction
 
Ascension Day itself was last Thursday, which is 40 days after Easter Day, something we will hear again later in our reading from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. It was Jesus’ final meeting on Earth with his Disciples which took place 40 days after His Resurrection. 
 
If we are honest with ourselves, the Bible can be a bit confusing. Not only do we have four Gospels which give four similar accounts, but other parts of the Bible also seem to repeat and copy other parts. 
 
Many of you may already be familiar with the account of Jesus’ Ascension. The writer of Luke finishes his Gospel with an account of the Ascension, and the same writer begins the Acts of Apostles begins with a slightly different and longer account of the same.
 
But first, we are going to hear two short readings from the Old Testament… listen to how oddly familiar they seem with parts of Jesus’ Ascension story.
 
Listen for the Word of God as found in the Old Testament book called Deuteronomy, chapter 34, verses 1-2, 4,5:
 
Moses climbed Mount Nebo. He went up from the plains of Moab to the highest slopes. It’s across from Jericho. The Lord showed Moses the whole land… of Judah all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.  Then the Lord spoke to Moses. He said, “This is the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I told them, ‘I will give this land to your children and their children.’ Moses, I have let you see it with your own eyes. But you will not go across the Jordan River to enter it.” Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in Moab. It happened just as the Lord had said. 
 
The reading continues in the Old Testament book of Second Kings, chapter 2, verses 6,9,11-12
 
Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here. The Lord has sent me to the Jordan River.” Elisha replied, “I won’t leave you. And that’s just as sure as the Lord and you are alive.” So the two of them walked on. After they had gone across, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me. What can I do for you before I’m taken away from you?” “Please give me a double share of your spirit,” Elisha replied. They kept walking along and talking together. Suddenly there appeared a chariot and horses made of fire. The chariot and horses came between the two men. Then Elijah went up to heaven in a strong wind. Elisha saw it and cried out to Elijah, “My father! You are like a father to me!” Elisha didn’t see Elijah anymore.
 
Talk 
 
Have you ever heard this song playing on the radio, released by in 1987 by a then little-known band called R.E.M.?
 
… That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes
And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

… Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
With the Furies breathing down your neck

… Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched

 
… It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

 
This song is called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine”. It lists the many and varied ways our world is broken, but it maintains a positive outlook: life goes on.
 
And so it was for Jesus’ disciples and other followers at Ascension: their Lord was taken forever from their sight: it was the end of their world as they knew it, but life went on.
 
For a contemporary Jewish audience, Jesus’ farewell to His Disciples would be recognised as a clear parallel with Moses who ended his days on the top of Mount Nebo, where he commissioned Joshua to be his successor, just as we heard in our first reading.
 
And many of us will be familiar with the phrase “Chariot of fire”, either because of the film of the similar name, or the phrase in William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” – “Bring me my chariot of fire!” 
 
In those verses from 2 Kings, we heard how the prophet Elijah was whisked off to heaven in a chariot of fire. And in the Gospels, Elijah is frequently mentioned. Do you remember that John the Baptist was even asked if he were Elijah returned!
As we know from many films, sequels are not always the best. The author of Luke’s Gospel wrote a sequel: the Acts of the Apostles. Both books are addressed to “Theophilus”, a Greek name meaning “God-lover”. We do not know the actual identity of the recipient. All of us, together with Christians around the world, love God, so maybe the two books are addressed to us all. That makes Acts a fine sequel!
 
And so, today, we are confronted by a passage from the Bible that talks about strange notions of a man, called Jesus, who about 2000 years ago rose from the dead, made several bodily appearances to His followers, before He was taken into heaven from the top of a mountain.
 
The New Testament reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 1, verses 1 to 11.
 
Theophilus, I wrote about Jesus in my earlier book. I wrote about all he did and taught until the day he was taken up to heaven. Before Jesus left, he gave orders to the apostles he had chosen. He did this through the Holy Spirit. After his suffering and death, he appeared to them. In many ways he proved that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of 40 days. During that time he spoke about God’s kingdom. One day Jesus was eating with them. He gave them a command. “Do not leave Jerusalem,” he said. “Wait for the gift my Father promised. You have heard me talk about it. John baptized with water. But in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
 
Then the apostles gathered around Jesus and asked him a question. “Lord,” they said, “are you going to give the kingdom back to Israel now?”
 
He said to them, “You should not be concerned about times or dates. The Father has set them by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. Then you will tell people about me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria. And you will even tell other people about me from one end of the earth to the other.”
 
After Jesus said this, he was taken up to heaven. The apostles watched until a cloud hid him from their sight.
 
While he was going up, they kept on looking at the sky. Suddenly two men dressed in white clothing stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. But he will come back in the same way you saw him go.”
 
 
On one level, we can look at the Ascension as a farewell event. It was a painful human moment, filled with emotion. If we go to any railway station or airport, all around us are people saying goodbye: some for a short time; others for a longer time; and others still for whom it is probably farewell for ever. This man, this Jesus, whom the Disciples had lost once when He was crucified; they are losing Him again. The emotion of painful separation, grief, is palpable in the story.
 
And into this fragile human moment, God acts supernaturally: Jesus is taken up into Heaven and became hidden from their sight.
 
While reflecting and writing this sermon, it occurred to me that in Bolton – like in many places around the world – we have a wonderful example and a very real metaphor for the meaning of the Ascension.
 
Winter Hill the highest point in Greater Manchester and on top of it stands this huge TV transmitter Some days, one can see Winter Hill clearly; sometimes, the top of the mast is hidden in cloud.
 
Occasionally, the cloud clings low on the hill with the transmitter poking eerily out of the top; and at other times, the hill is completely hidden in cloud.
 
Why mention this? The TV signals which come from the Winter Hill transmitter, they are there whatever the weather, even if we cannot see the transmitter itself because it is obscured in cloud. And so it is with Jesus in the Ascension: He disappeared from their sight into the clouds, and even though we cannot see Him, His presence remains with us.
 
The 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, called the Ascension “an historical turning point”. The Gospels tell us of the Disciples living in fear following Jesus’ Resurrection. Matthew’s and John’s gospels tell us of how the Disciples have returned to Galilee and have seemingly taken up their previous occupations as fishermen. 
 
The Ascension is Jesus re-gathering His followers. Jesus did not choose learned or powerful people to be His Disciples: He chose every day, working people; He chose the outcasts; He chose us. And just as He called them the first time, He calls them again.
 
In Jesus’ last conversation with His Disciples, their goals are still earthly: they ask him about the restoration of Israel, a political goal. Jesus broadens their horizons and commissions them to continue His work. 
 
The very end of Matthew’s Gospel elaborates Jesus’ words: “So you must go and make disciples of all nations. Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And you can be sure that I am always with you, to the very end.”
 
In the very early Church, they believed that Jesus’ return would be within their lifetime. With the passage of time, some churches over the years have taken Jesus’ Great Commission literally, believing that Jesus will not return until the Gospel has been preached to everyone. We see this with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons who take missionary work very seriously, even if for the most part, they are scorned, even ridiculed for their activities.
 
In many Communion services, and in everyone which I lead, we use a set of words known liturgically as the “Mystery of Faith”. We say the words: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How seriously do we believe in this central mystery of our faith, particularly that final part – Christ will come again? The early Church believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime, but after 2,000 years, are we, the Church, so weary of waiting that we have grown sceptical and no longer believe it?
 
Jesus’ words of commission to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” binds us, too. He teaches us to stand up for justice, to care for the poor, to help the needy and to pray. Jesus’ teaching helps us turn the paralysis into action we can feel in face of war, hatred, injustice, exploitation, ecological destruction, even terrorism and a global pandemic.
 
I began today’s talk with a musical clip from REM’s song “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”. We are surrounded by all sorts of chaos which this song exemplifies very well. But hear again the words of the refrain: “It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.” Trusting in Jesus’ return gives us the assuredness of being able to say: “I feel fine”.
 
Trusting in Jesus’ Easter victory over sin and death, that disease and old age aren’t the end, but that Jesus came to bring us life in all its fulness.
 
In today’s reading, did you spot the appearance of angels? When we read the Gospels which tell the story of Jesus’ time on Earth, angels appears at key moments to guide the humans on their next step when confronted with God’s powerful actions… an angel announces John the Baptist’s birth to his father Zechariah; the angel to Mary her conception of Jesus; and later, the angel guides Joseph in a dream; angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds; angels are there at the Resurrection proclaiming “He is not here! He has risen, just as he said he would!” And here at the Ascension, the angels snap the Disciples’ attention back from the sky to reality, to the task in hand to return to Jerusalem and await God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.
And fear was one of the emotions the Disciples felt when their Jesus was hidden from their sight at Ascension; they knew they would never see Him again in the flesh; the Disciples stood there in fear, shock and amazement. Like we can be, there were paralysed into inaction. The Disciples needed a nudge, for they were staring into the sky. The angels speak to them, assure them and they begin their descent of the mountain to begin Christ’s Church.
 
And at that moment, there on that mountain top, it all begins. The Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early Church, starts, in a place where Jesus is visible, angels speak clearly, and the cloud between Earth and Heaven is momentarily thinned. From this point on, discerning and understanding God’s purpose becomes progressively more difficult.
 
The Ascension is about Jesus is completing His journey and us beginning ours. Jesus becomes human, is born as a baby, lives His life, is tried and executed. He rises from the dead, and in the Ascension, Jesus is going home. Jesus, who is both fully Divine and fully human, in the Ascension forever changes the doorway between Earth and Heaven. 
 
This is the truth: Jesus, a human-being, entered heaven; a human-being entered heaven. That is the amazing mystery of the Ascension: a human-being entered glory and is with God. And because Jesus did, we can, too. 
Amen.
 
Hymn    I Believe In God The Father
© David Gambrell (2009) (admin. Presbyterian Publishing Corp.)
Tune: Genevan 42 Sung by the Chancel Choir and Congregation of Central Presbyterian Church of Denver and used with their kind permission.
 

I believe in God the Father, 
merciful and mighty Lord,
maker of the earth and heavens, 
whom we worship and adore;
and in Jesus Christ the Son, 
only Saviour, sovereign one,
by the Holy Spirit given, 
born of Mary, blessed virgin.
 
Under Pilate, Jesus suffered, 
faithful to his final breath.
He was crucified and buried, 
and descended into death.
From the grave he did arise; 
he ascended through the skies;
now enthroned with God in heaven, 
he will judge the dead and living.

 

I believe in God the Spirit, and the church in every place;
saints in glorious communion, all forgiven, full of grace;
flesh and blood will live again life in Christ will never end.

Holy Spirit, Son and Father: I will praise your name forever. Amen.
 
Prayers of Concern
 
At the bidding, “God of wholeness, hear our prayer…”, 
please respond with, “Come in grace and mercy”.
 
Risen Lord, Prince of Peace, we despair when we see war and conflict. We cry out to You for the people whose lives are broken and torn apart by violence. We pray for the peacemakers.
 
God of wholeness, hear our prayer… 
Come in grace and mercy.
 
Risen Lord, born in a lowly stable and whose parents fled to Egypt in fear of their lives, we pray for refugees and asylum seekers: for those fleeing war, for those escaping injustice and persecution. We pray for those stand alongside others.
 
God of wholeness, hear our prayer… 
Come in grace and mercy.
 
Risen Lord, we despair when we see Your church divided. We cry out to you when some churches deny your love to others. We rejoice when Your love touches the hearts of many. We pray for our United Reformed Church. We give thanks for and ask your blessing on those taking the first steps in faith…
 
God of wholeness, hear our prayer… 
Come in grace and mercy.
 
Risen Lord, we despair when we see those whom we love are in pain. We cry out to You for healing. We rejoice when they again know peace. In a moment of silence, we pray for those known to us who need Your gentle touch. 
God of wholeness, hear our prayer… 
Come in grace and mercy.
 
Risen Lord, we pray for ourselves…  
 
God of wholeness, hear our prayer… 
Come in grace and mercy.
 
Our Father…
 
Hymn    O Jesus, I Have Promised
John Ernest Bode (1869) Sung by a virtual choir from Sierra Leone and the UK and used with their kind permission.
 

O Jesus, I have promised 
to serve You to the end; 
Lord, be forever near me, 
my Master and my Friend; 
I shall not fear the battle 
if You are by my side, 
nor wander from the pathway 
if You will be my guide.
 
O Let me feel You near me,
the world is ever near.
I see the sights that dazzle,
the tempting sounds I hear;
my foes are ever near me,
around me, and within,
but, Jesus, now draw nearer,
and shield my soul from sin.
 
O let me hear You speaking,
in accents clear and still,
above the storms of passion,
the murmurs of self-will;
O speak to reassure me,
to hasten or control;
Lord, speak and make me listen,
O guardian of my soul.
 
O Jesus, You have promised
to all who follow You,
that where You are in glory,
Your servant shall be too;
and, Jesus, I have promised
to serve You to the end;
O give me grace to follow,
my Master and my friend!


 
Blessing
 
Thank you for joining in with our worship today. We close with some verses from Scripture.
 
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord turn His smile towards you and give you peace. Amen.

 
 

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