Sunday Worship 17 December 2023 – Advent Week Three

Order of Service

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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 17 December – Advent Week Three

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Paul Whittle

 
Introduction

Welcome to this service for the third Sunday of Advent.  As we navigate our way through this season of preparation, it is good to share these moments of worship.  My name is Paul Whittle and, for another couple of weeks, I am the Moderator of the National Synod of Scotland, a post which I am about to leave for retirement, leaving behind the much-loved hills (by me) of Scotland for the equally loved plains, if I can put it that way, of East Anglia.  This, then, is one of the last things that I will do in stipendiary ministry, a journey, a vocation which has been one of nearly 45 years for me.  As you might imagine, the Advent theme of waiting and preparing for something new is very much on my mind.

Call to Worship

The Psalmist wrote: Remember feeling amazing! Remember a time of celebration – that was the Lord God at work! Laughter rang out, everyone was happy,  everyone laughed till they shook with joy! The Lord has done great things for us and we reply with shouts of joy!

Hymn     O For A Thousand Tongues
Charles Wesley (1739) Sung by a 250 strong mass choir from various churches in and around Bangalore, India and used with their kind permission.

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread thro’ all the earth abroad
the honours of your name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease,
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life and health and peace.

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.
 
Prayers of Approach, Confession and a Declaration of Forgiveness

Living God, in this season of Advent, we wait on you. 
We are expectant, getting ready. We are looking for something special. 
Help us, as we look and listen for what you are doing  and what you want to say to us,  to see those moments of incarnational joy  that contribute to a transformed world. Accept our offering of worship.  May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Open our eyes that we may see the great things that you are doing.

Loving God, forgive our frequently shabby response to your love.  Forgive our failing to be your people,  living and loving in the way that you have called us to walk.  Remind us to live out our baptism.  Remind us that we are forgiven people. Remind us that we are called to be your people. 

So, help us to leave behind all those things  that take us in wrong directions 
and rather to shine as your light,  to offer influence for good, just as salt makes food tasty. We ask it for your love’s sake.  Amen.

The Good News is that we are forgiven.  The promise is that in Christ all things are made new.  God’s love is freely given.  And it’s abundantly generous.  You are invited to make the words of the Psalmist your own, 
words offered to God:  I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life;  and your house will be my home as long as I live. 

Prayer for Illumination

Lord, speak to us through your Word.  As we prepare ourselves this Advent to, once again,  celebrate the wonder of the Incarnation,  may we, in these moments,  prepare ourselves to hear your words and your call to us,  just for today.   In Jesus’ Name we ask it.  Amen.

Reading    St John 1:6-8, 19-28

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. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’, as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Hymn      God of Freedom, God of Justice
Shirley Erena Murray © 1992, Hope Publishing Company All Rights Reserved  Reprint and Podcast permission under ONE LICENSE # A-734713 Sung by members of the Franklin United Methodist Church and used with their kind permission.

God of freedom, God of justice,
You whose love is strong as death,
You who saw the dark of prison,
You who knew the price of faith—
Touch our world of sad oppression
With Your Spirit’s healing breath.

Rid the earth of torture’s terror,
You whose hands were nailed to wood;
Hear the cries of pain and protest,
You who shed the tears and blood—
Move in us the pow’r of pity
Restless for the common good.
 
Make in us a captive conscience –
quick to hear, to act, to plead;
make us truly sisters, brothers
of whatever race or creed —
teach us to be fully human,
open to each other’s need.

Sermon

Who are you?  That’s an interesting question.  The BBC programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ helps celebrities explore this question in depth as they are enabled to research their ancestry – and, indeed, the whole matter of genealogy, ancestry, family history, call it what you will, has become increasingly popular.  Pitching the question at a very different level, have you watched that other – very different – TV programme, ‘The Masked Singer’.  In that one a number of celebrities don extreme disguises, including a mask, and sing.  The audience votes for their least favourite each week, and the person voted off gets unmasked, part of the entertainment and the interest being a panel trying to guess the identity of each of the disguised singers, the cry going up, with great excitement and anticipation, each time someone is unmasked: who are you?

There are so many ways, and so many contexts, in which we might ask the question put to the strange preacher who is at the centre of today’s Gospel reading: who are you?  

John had quickly gained quite a reputation for himself.  After all, there was no one quite like John, nobody just as weird, nobody who did such strange things.  John, John the Gospel writer, doesn’t bother telling us how noticeable were the strange elements of John the Baptist’s behaviour.  But the other three all do.  Matthew and Mark describe his rather strange fashion sense, even for those days – his clothes were made of camel’s hair, though he did have a leather belt.  And they also mention his unusual diet – locusts and wild honey.  I was once given caterpillars to eat, and they were specially made for me, so I really couldn’t avoid sampling them.  I don’t think I would get on with the locusts and wild honey diet – though it might be good for my weight!  Then Matthew and Luke quote his preaching, his opening remark to the people being ‘you snakes!’  I’ve never thought that insulting the congregation was a good starting-point; but maybe I should give it a try?

Anyhow, that’s John.  Doing his thing, not bothered about winning friends, though I do think he wanted to influence people, but by challenging them, and challenging them quite starkly.  

John is a one-off.  But he’s not the one.  That’s the point.  The passage is a passage of waiting.  It’s a passage of preparing.  It’s a passage of pointing ahead.  That is why it’s a very good Advent passage.  

Have you ever prepared for a big moment?  Of course you have.  They come along for us all – and we prepare in different ways.  We make our plans.  We make our lists.  We do our preparations.  John is there to point the way.  He gives an interesting description of himself – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.  John is not one to make unjustified claims for himself.  He is careful not to claim a big role.  But, equally, he is not going to write himself out of the script.  His role may be to point to another, but it’s important for that to happen.  John will play his part.  It’s interesting just how many of the characters in the Bible whose exploits for God are described begin by trying to avoid the call or even by going off in an opposite direction.  Moses told God to find someone else.  He wasn’t a good enough speaker.  Jonah boarded a boat going in the opposite direction from that in which God wanted to send him.  Jeremiah said that he was too young.  Simon Peter said that he was too bad.  And so on.

John was weird, at least according to what we know of him, his clothes, his food, the way he spoke to his congregation.  We’ve already mentioned the issues.  And he knew he wasn’t the light.  He knew he wasn’t the Messiah.  He knew he wasn’t Elijah.  He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  That was what was needed.  That’s what he did.

It’s interesting that John begins his answering of the question as to who he is by saying who he is not – but that’s often the way of things.  In part we define who we are by saying who we are not, or describe what we do by saying something of what we don’t do.  It’s all part of the full picture, and that’s fine. But it is also true that perspectives are important, and so how we see ourselves, how we answer the question as to who we are is important.

When it is posed in the context of faith, there are various ways in which we might answer.  I might say that ‘I am a sinner’.  That is true.  It will always be true, and there are times when I need to remember the fact.  But is it the best answer?  Is it the most accurate answer?  Is it the fullest answer?  I might rather answer by saying that ‘I am a child of God’.  And is that not the essence of where God would point us when we are tackling this question?  There are loads of things that we might say, and each one might contribute to our understanding.  But is it not the case that I am, first and foremost, a child of God?  Of course, we are likely to want to say other things about who we are at any given moment.  But should it not be the case – is it not the case that what most defines me is the love of God?

From the love of God, I might talk about the light of God, and also about how then I might more easily be thankful for all that God does.  Henri Nouwen, Dutch Roman Catholic priest and spiritual thinker and writer, in his book ‘Life of the Beloved’ says: “When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant.  What fascinates me so much is that every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for.  Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.”

God has a task for each one of us.  But we shouldn’t be worried about that.  We shouldn’t build it up into something it isn’t.  Just do what God wants from you – and don’t start worrying that you haven’t got somebody else’s task.  Of course, there are some folk who get called to do big things.  But that’s not most of us.  And, if we just get on with it, all those little things so add up.  

John also proclaims: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ and states that he is not worthy to untie the lace on Jesus’ sandal.  The preparatory role needs to look beyond, needs to look forward.  There is another question to put alongside: who are you?  It’s: where are you going?  What’s the direction of travel?  As we make our way through Advent, and all its distractions, are we, like John, focussed on, and pointing to Jesus?

Hymn     When Out of Poverty is Born
© The Rev’d Kathy Galloway admin. WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland All Rights Reserved  Reprint and Podcast permission under ONE LICENSE # A-734713 Sung by the Christian Aid Scotland Scratch Choir

When out of poverty is born 
a dream that will not die 
a landless, weary folk find strength 
to stand with heads held high, 
it’s then we learn from those who wait 
to greet the promised day: 
‘The Lord is coming; don’t lose heart 
Be blest: prepare the way!’ 

When people wander far from God, 
forget to share their bread, 
they find their wealth an empty thing, 
their spirits are not fed. 
For only just and tender love 
the hungry soul will stay. 
And so God’s prophets echo still: 
‘Be blest: prepare the way!’ 
 
When God took flesh and came to earth, 
the world turned upside down,
and in the strength of women’s faith
the Word of Life was born.
She knew that God would raise the low,
it pleased her to obey.
Rejoice with Mary in the call:
‘Be blest: prepare the way!’

Affirmation of Faith

Let us affirm our faith.

We affirm our faith that God rules the world in wisdom and goodness, 
and that we are called to be God’s servants.
Through Jesus Christ God has shown us the truth 
and set us free from evil.
We believe that God’s love will never end, 
that God will go on forgiving us, 
and will bring us at last to perfect knowledge and perfect fellowship.
We will trust God for ever, and we will prove our love for God 
by love for each other and our neighbours; 
we will praise God with our voices and our lives for ever. Amen.

Intercessions

Advent God, come close to us now.  
In this time of waiting, as we look for the Christmas event, 
as we prepare ourselves to rejoice 
with angels, shepherds and wise men at the news of a birth, 
hear our prayers for those places and situations 
where so much more good news is needed.

Loving God, we pray for a world that is struggling in so many ways. 
We get news of conflict, 
of desperate poverty leading to desperate migration, 
of the potential catastrophes of climate change, 
and so much more that concerns us.
Bless the leaders of the nations. 
Give them hearts that will seek justice and peace. 
Bless those in the spheres of politics, business, 
the media and education 
who have great swathes of influence and degrees of power. 
May they use that which is given to them wisely and well. 
We pray for a better world that reflects your Kingdom values, 
asking that you will enhance the efforts 
of those who have the gifts and skills to contribute effectively to that.

We pray for the Church. 
Help us to proclaim your Gospel in what we do, 
as well as in what we say. 
May we provide good examples of co-operation and reconciliation.

And we pray for our friends, our families, our neighbours, 
especially those who will be lonely this Christmas. 
Accompanying God, 
be alongside those who most need to feel your presence. 
Hear our prayers for those who have been bereaved, 
those who are ill, 
those who are anxious, 
those facing new challenges, 
those struggling with life.

Help us to love as Jesus loved, 
taking special account of those ignored or marginalised by the majority.  As John shouted out, may we ‘shout out’ 
for those who need our voice of support.

Lord, you know our deepest longings. 
You hear our prayers. 
Hear now, the prayers spoken aloud, 
but also the unspoken prayers of our hearts, 
which we bring now in the Name of Jesus, 
in whose Name we pray, 
and in whose words we further pray now:

Our Father, who art in heaven, 
hallowed be thy name; 
thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.  
Give us this day our daily bread.  
And forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those who trespass against us.  
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.  
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, 
for ever and ever.  Amen.

Offertory

We come to our offertory.  As we think of all God’s gifts, we offer back what we can.  Let us pray:

Lord, take our gifts, gifts of money that we give in different ways, 
but also gifts of time, of service, of talent, of worship. 
Use all we bring. Use in your service. 
In Jesus’ Name we ask it. Amen.

Hymn      Beauty for Brokenness
Graham Kendrick © 1993 Make Way Music All Rights Reserved  Sung by Graham Kendrick and podcast with his kind permission.  Reprint and Podcast permission under ONE LICENSE # A-734713

Beauty for brokenness.
Hope for despair.
Lord, in the suffering
this is our prayer.
Bread for the children.
Justice, joy, peace.
Sunrise to sunset
Your kingdom increase!

Shelter for fragile lives.
Cures for their ills.
Work for the craftsman
Trade for their skills.
Land for the dispossessed..
Rights for the weak
Voices to plead the cause
of those who can’t speak
 
God of the poor. Friend of the weak
Give us compassion we pray.
Melt our cold hearts. Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love from a spark to a flame.

Refuge from cruel wars.
Havens from fear.
Cities for sanctuary.
Freedoms to share.
Peace to the killing-fields.
Scorched earth to green.
Christ for the bitterness.
His cross for the pain.

God of the poor. Friend of the weak
Give us compassion we pray.
Melt our cold hearts. Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love from a spark to a flame.

Rest for the ravaged earth.
Oceans and streams
plundered and poisoned
our future, our dreams.
Lord, end our madness
carelessness, greed.
Make us content with
the things that we need

God of the poor. Friend of the weak
Give us compassion we pray.
Melt our cold hearts. Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love from a spark to a flame.

 
Lighten our darkness.
Breathe on this flame
until your justice
burns brightly again,
until the nations
learn of your ways,
seek your salvation
and bring you their praise.

God of the poor. Friend of the weak
Give us compassion we pray.
Melt our cold hearts. Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love from a spark to a flame.

Blessing

So, wait on the Lord. 
Prepare yourselves for what God has in store. 
Know that you are loved and valued by God. 
You are a child of God. 
And the blessing of God Almighty, 
God who created all things, 
Jesus who came to this earth as a baby, 
the Holy Spirit who sustains, guides and empowers us, 
one God, but Three in One, 
God’s blessing be with you always. Amen.

 
 

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