Sunday Worship 24 September 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 24 September 2023

Today’s service is led by the Revd Janet Tollington


Good morning.  My name is Janet Tollington and until retirement in 2016 I taught Old Testament and Hebrew at Westminster College.  I now serve the church in diverse ways at Synod and Assembly level. I’m a member of Downing Place United Reformed Church in Cambridge; but  I am recording this at home, a few miles outside the city.

Call To Worship     from Psalm 145 :8-9

‘The Lord is gracious and merciful
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love
The Lord is good to all
And his compassion is over all that he has made’
Come!  Let us worship God together

Hymn    Eternal God, Your Love’s Tremendous Glory
              The Rev’d Alan Gaunt 1935 – 2023 sung by ordinands at Mansfield
              College for the Rejoice and Sing promotional tape.

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 preciou
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.

Prayers of Approach, Confession and Assurance

Eternal God, God of grace and glory, 
we come to worship and adore you.  
The wonders and beauty of the natural world around us, 
the splendour and complexity of the cosmos, 
the rhythm of the seasons and of life, 
all speak to us of your power and love for all that has existence.  
We praise and thank you, Creator God.

The coming of your Son, Christ Jesus, 
and his life among us, his death and resurrection, 
all speak to us of your unending love.  
We praise and thank you, Redeemer God.
The presence of your Holy Spirit, 
alive and active in us, in your Church and in the world, 
speaks to us your guiding, challenging, transforming power, 
poured out in love.  
We praise and thank you, Sustainer God.

Triune God, God of grace and glory, 
we come to worship and adore you Gracious God, 
as a company of your people we come also to seek your forgiveness.
Too often we have been heedless in our thoughts, 
careless and even cruel in our words; 
and shameful in our actions,  We are sorry.

Too often we have been casual in our use of resources, 
wasteful of your precious gifts, 
indifferent to the consequences of our greed on others of your children.  We are sorry.

Too often we have turned our backs on a neighbour in need, 
or closed our ears to a cry for help, 
or pursued our own simple pleasures 
rather than a tricky pathway that leads to peace.  
We are sorry.

Gracious God, you have promised to forgive anyone who truly repents.  Have mercy on us, renew us by your Spirit 
and help us to accept your forgiveness, 
through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

Prayer of Illumination

Eternal God, you have revealed your nature and purposes through the scriptures and in Christ, the living Word.  Open our hearts and minds by the activity of your Spirit, that we may grow in knowledge and faith; and be encouraged as we walk in the way of Jesus.  Amen.

Reading     Jonah 3:10 – 4:11

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’  And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’  Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.  The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’  But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Reading     Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said: ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place;  and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”  They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Hymn     O Lord, all the world belongs to you 
               Patrick Appleford 1925 – 2018  ©1965  Josef Weinberger sung by
               members of Our Lady and St Joseph Catholic Church, Keighley

O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.

2 The world’s only loving to its friends,
but You have brought us love that never ends,
loving enemies too;
and this loving with You
is what’s turning the world upside down.

3 This world lives divided and apart,
You draw us all together, and we start
in our friendship to see
that in fellowship we
can be turning the world upside down.

4 The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but You show us a new way to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning the world upside down.
5 O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive, and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.


May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.

What a difference a word makes.  Missing the word ‘not’ out of a statement turns what was meant to be a prohibition into a command, as in the 1631 edition of the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ that misprinted the 7th commandment as ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’.  It was quickly withdrawn from circulation!

The Hebrew word for ‘wickedness’ – ra’ah – which is used to describe the behaviour of the people of Nineveh in Jonah chapter 1, also occurs in the passage we have heard from the end of the book.  This isn’t apparent in the NRSV bible, nor in most English translations, where quite varied connotations are put on the word each time it appears in the text.  This issue faces all translators from one language to another; and we do well to remember that what we read in our Bibles is an interpretation of an ancient text that reflects the context and beliefs of the translator.  It is never an absolute equivalence of the original author’s words.

In our passage ra’ah is translated as evil, calamity, displeasure, anger (in the phrase ‘became angry’), to express the idea of punishment, and as discomfort.  It expresses the behaviour of the Ninevites, God’s response in judgment to such behaviour; and Jonah’s reaction when God relents and doesn’t inflict the threatened destruction.  Another Hebrew word that sounds similar – charah – (burning) is also found 3 times in God’s repeated question to Jonah in vv.4 and 9 and his response, to convey the depth of anger that Jonah feels about God’s behaviour.

The whole story in the book of Jonah is grappling with questions about God’s judgment and mercy; about whether this differs – or should differ – towards people who are within the covenant community or outside it; about whether human repentance (or not) is an essential factor in God’s ultimate judgment; about how much we, as God’s people, can know and understand about God’s purposes and God’s ways.  The story challenges us to examine ourselves and to reflect on whether we behave with an expectation that God should exercise divine judgment in accordance with our will and desires, almost as though we know better than God what is right, what justice requires.

In the story Nineveh represents the most barbaric enemy nation, the Assyrians, that Israel had ever known: it is a paradigm for the greatest evil imaginable. Jonah is presented as a true prophet of Israel, who (albeit at the second time of asking) has obediently gone to Nineveh and proclaimed its imminent destruction.  Totally unexpectedly, threatened in this way, the entire population of Nineveh, together with all their livestock, have repented and submitted to an as yet unknown supreme divine power, hoping that perhaps they will receive mercy and a stay of execution.  We are told God relents, changes the divine mind, and gives them a chance to make good on their commitment to turn their lives around away from evil.
This annoys Jonah – God isn’t behaving as he wanted – Jonah wants Nineveh to be wiped out, as they deserve in his opinion; and he tries to pressure God into bringing about their destruction.  He makes claims, not supported by the text, about how he knew that God would back down and be merciful if Nineveh repented; that’s why he was disobedient the first time God told him to go to Nineveh.  Jonah is engaging in self-justification as he quotes words that we find in Exodus 34:6 that are explicitly about God’s covenant love towards the chosen people.  As a prophet of old Jonah would never have dreamt that the God of Israel would treat any non-Israelites in such a compassionate way; and that’s Jonah’s problem – God shouldn’t treat Israel’s enemies with mercy.  Besides this, God is making Jonah look like a fool, a false prophet, because his prophecy of destruction isn’t being fulfilled.

Jonah is concerned about his own reputation and he’s speaking as though he is the one with wisdom, who knows better than God what justice demands and what God ought to do.  To cap it all Jonah tries to usurp God’s power over life and death by demanding that he might die.  He is effectively saying to God that life isn’t worth living if I can’t rely on you to do as I expect, as I want – at least insofar as my enemies are concerned.  God responds gently to this outrageous challenge to divine authority, simply asking, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ and Jonah walks away without even deigning to answer.

Jonah deludes himself by pretending that he is self-sufficient as he makes himself a flimsy shelter from where he can watch what happens next.  He’s defiantly sulking and imagining that if he waits long enough God will submit and do what Jonah wants.  But the story shows that God acts compassionately towards Jonah and uses divine power over the natural world to cause a plant to grow up over Jonah – something big enough to provide adequate shade from the sun and the heat, which delights Jonah.  But when a worm attacks the stem of the plant so that it withers and Jonah realises his total vulnerability in the face of the scorching elements his mood plummets and he demands to die again.  God asks the same question of him and this time he petulantly says, ‘Yes’ that he’s entitled to be angry.  Jonah’s reactions have all been self-centred with a presumption that he, his desires, his needs, his will should be the focus of God’s concern.

The book ends with a statement by God and a final question.  These words, addressed to Jonah, are actually directed at us as readers, hearers of the story.  We are being asked as God’s people to identify ourselves with Jonah and reflect on what God is saying.

We are being reminded that we are creatures along with all other people, animals, plants and creeping things, brought into being by God, given life and a part to play in the wonderful complexity of creation.  We are no more, no less, important than everything else.  God alone has the wisdom to know the purpose of each in the grand scheme of history, and the power to control everything.

We are being challenged to consider, in recognition of our own far from perfect behaviour, how God ought to respond to others who behave badly because they don’t actually know any better; to people who have lost their way in life; to people who have never heard the good news of God proclaimed in a way that resonates with their experience and culture; to people who don’t like themselves very much, who want to change and are searching for a better way but don’t know where to look.  There are many today who turn to drugs, drink, sex, traffickers, false gods that promise much but cannot deliver the inner peace and hope that is sought.

God reminds us that divine love and mercy isn’t taken away from us, as God’s people, even when we behave badly, turn away from God, become self-centred, or even mis-represent God in an attempt to exalt ourselves and claim privilege, as Jonah did.  God never lets us go, but comes alongside us trying to help us see the bigger picture from God’s perspective; to realise the universal reach of God’s love and mercy.

The story suggests that Nineveh came to realise a need for God and God reached out to meet their need.  I pray that I may rejoice with God over everyone who repents and seeks divine mercy and have the humility to be numbered among them.  I’m ready to say ‘yes’ to God’s final question and re-commit to taking the good news of God to wherever God directs that all creation might receive God’s mercy and find life in all its fulness.  How about you?  In the name of Christ, Amen.

Hymn     The love of God is broad like beach and meadow 
               Anders Frostenson tr. Fred Kaan © 1974 Hope Publishing Company
               sung by the Rev’d Paul Robinson
The love of God, is broad like beach 
and meadow, wide as the wind, 
and an eternal home.
God leaves us free to seek Him or reject Him,
He gives us room to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
The love of God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

2 We long for freedom where our truest being
is given hope and courage to unfold.
We seek in freedom space and scope for dreaming,
and look for ground where trees and plant can grow.
The love of God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

3 But there are walls that keep us all divided;
we fence each other in with hate and war.
Fear is the brick-and-mortar of our prison,
our pride of self the prison coat we wear.
The love of God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

4 O, judge us, Lord, and in Your judgment free us,
and set our feet in freedom’s open space;
take us as far as Your compassion wanders
among the children of the human race.
The love of God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

Prayers of Intercession

Creator God, 
all that you have made is held in balance through your love; 
but we know that  human activity 
is putting the whole fabric of the world in jeopardy.  
Inspire us and teach us how to respect the earth 
and all the life it sustains.  

Grant wisdom to those with responsibility to care for the environment and the power to destroy it, that the decisions they make may preserve its fragile balance for the generations yet to come.

We pray, O God, for peace and reconciliation between the nations of the world; and lift before you situations of conflict that lie heavy on our hearts today….


You have created us with different skills and aptitudes from one another; and call us to use our abilities in ways that contribute 
to the wellbeing of society.  
We thank you for the joy of fulfilling work; 
but pray for those who find work an oppressive burden, 
or a context in which they are abused or denied human dignity.  

We pray for employers, for employees and for the self-employed 
that you will bless their work and help them to establish healthy relationships that reflect mutual respect.  
We pray too for those whose essential unpaid work in the home 
or community so often goes unnoticed and undervalued.  
May they be accorded the respect that they deserve.

We pray for the unemployed, 
unable to find work to support themselves and their families; 
for those unable to work through infirmity; 
and for those who have given up looking for work 
and who feel useless or rejected.  
Bless them, reassure them of their value in your sight 
and guide them in directions that offer hope and lead to fulfilment.

We pray for those who have retired and give thanks for all their past work.  Grant that they may rest content.  May they continue to offer from their experience as they remain able; but also have the wisdom to discern when it is right to step back.

Gracious God, we offer all these prayers, together with our unspoken prayers for those we know and love, trusting that you will answer in your mercy.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Generous God, 
you have given so much to us and we are truly thankful.  
All that we have is ours through your grace alone; 
so we respond by dedicating our offerings to you.
We present our gifts of money for the work of your Church; 
and we also offer to you our lives, our time, our talents, our intellects.
Accept and bless what we offer, that all may be used in your service towards the coming of your kingdom.  In the name of Christ, Amen.

Hymn     The Church is Wherever God’s People Are Praising
               Carol Rose Ikeler 1920 – 2013 performed by members of
               Bloomsbury Baptist Church and used with their kind permission
The Church is wherever God’s people are praising,
knowing they’re wanted and loved by their Lord.
The Church is wherever Christ’s followers are trying
to live and to share out the good news of God.

2 The Church is wherever God’s people are loving,
where all are forgiven and start once again,
where all are accepted, whatever their background,
whatever their past and whatever their pain.

3 The Church is wherever God’s people are seeking
to reach out and touch folk wherever they are –
conveying the Gospel, its joy and its comfort,
to challenge, refresh, and excite and inspire.

4 The Church is wherever God’s people are praising,
knowing we’re wanted and loved by our Lord.
The Church is where we as Christ’s followers are trying
to live and to share out the good news of God.

May the blessing of God Almighty, 
God the creator, 
Christ the redeemer 
and the Holy Spirit the encourager, 
be with you all, 
now and forever,  Amen


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