Sunday Worship 24 December 2023 – Advent Week Four

Order of Service

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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 24 December 2023 – Advent Week Four

Today’s service is led by the Revd Sarah Moore


Hello everyone, greetings from Scotland as we gather for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent, this year falling on Christmas Eve.  My name is Sarah Moore, and I serve as Transition Minister in the National Synod of Scotland.  I am also Assistant Clerk and Clerk Elect of the General Assembly.  Let us worship God together.  

Call to Worship 

From you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, 
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  
Therefore, he shall give the up until the time 
when she who is in labour has brought forth; 
and he shall stand and feed his flock 
in the strength of the Lord and he shall be one of peace.  

Carol     People look East.  The time is near 
Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) © David Higham Assoc. Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted & Podcast permission under ONE LICENSE # A-734713.  All Rights Reserved  Sung by the choir of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio and used with their kind permission.
People, look east. The time is near 
of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
one more seed is planted there:
give up your strength the seed to nourish,
that in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Prayers of Praise and Confession 

We praise you, God of the unexpected, 
standing ahead of us, beckoning us towards your future, 
approaching us from eternity so we can know you here and now.  
You blessed Elizabeth, surprising her in old age. 
You called on Mary with astonishing news. 
You came in Jesus and disturbed the world.  
In the midst of Christmas celebration, 
shake us from the sense that we know you and are used to you. 
Challenge us again with the news of your coming, 
the holy, righteous, loving God, a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. 
Challenge us again to know that justice should rule and love should reign. 
Challenge us again with the words of Mary
to think what means to raises the lowly, 
and to fill the hungry with good things.  
Bless us with the fullness of life that Jesus spoke about
and fill us with passion for your rule in our lives, 
in our communities and in the world, 
that we may be inspired to know the meaning of your coming among us:
‘Peace on earth and good will to all’.  

The Lord’s Prayer 

Carol    It Came Upon the Midnight Clear 
Edmund H. Sears (1849) Public Domain sung by the choir of Kings College Cambridge/BBC
It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to earth,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains,
they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.
Reading     St Luke 1.39-56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel,  in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors,    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’  And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.


How much time have you spent waiting in traffic, or waiting on a train or on a railway station concourse over the last few days?  
Travelling for Christmas for many folk is as much a part of the festive season as tree, turkey and tinsel.  Travelling at the best of times can be stressful and tiring but add in the variable weather of late December and the literal darkness of much of the day at this time of year can make it more challenging still.  

Perhaps harder is it for those people who either are not where they would ideally like to be for Christmas, or for those who do not have their loved ones with them for the same set of reasons.  Those who work over Christmas, or are in hospital or prison, on deployment with the armed forces or simply do not have the money to travel to be with family or friends.  For some being with family means being within an abusive situation so a decision not to travel and depending on the situation needing to be vague about why can be the safe and sensible thing to do.  We inevitably remember loved ones who have died; Christmas, and particularly a first Christmas, without someone dear to us is hard.  There are so many situations to pray for whether we ourselves are untouched by such challenges or whether they are painfully close to home.   

Travel has been a part of celebrating the birth of Jesus all the way back to the story of his birth.  What travel depends on whose account of the nativity we read so we remember journeys from Nazareth to Bethlehem, from Bethlehem to Egypt, Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem, and this journey, from Nazareth in Galilee to the Judean hill country where the young pregnant Mary went to stay with her pregnant relative the older Elizabeth.  

Luke remembers this journey taking place immediately after Mary’s visit from the angel where she discovered God’s plan that she should bear the son of the Most High.  Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.  Quite what exactly pushed Mary to make this journey we can only speculate.  Perhaps, as an unmarried pregnant woman, she had reasonable fear of punishment from her own community.  I wonder if her parents, kind enough to spare their daughter social ostracism or even a death sentence, sent her to Elizabeth and Zechariah to come to terms with her situation quietly.  All of them, themselves, Mary, others who knew about her situation, perhaps too her fiancé Joseph as he decided, or perhaps his family decided, whether to honour the betrothal or whether to quietly or publicly end it.  

Elizabeth’s pregnancy though not equally unlikely as Mary’s, was very much an unexpected surprise.  Elizabeth’s baby would grow up to be John the Baptist, and John makes his first gesture as a prophet of the coming Christ as he jumps in his mother’s womb.  Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  

It is worth noticing that the only recorded blessing of Mary in the gospels is given to her by her older female cousin.  While awkward and uncomfortable for my Christians within the Protestant churches, we remember that our siblings in the Roman Catholic tradition and some other parts of the Church commemorate this encounter between pregnant women every time they pray the words contained in the Hail Mary prayer.  

As Christians in the Reformed Tradition we struggle to know what to do with Mary.  Wary of the temptation of some of our ecumenical friends to put her on a very high pedestal indeed we can be quick to put her on one side in a too difficult pile.   But what can she and her cousin Elizabeth teach us as Christian people in the world today?  As mother of John, sometimes described as the last of the Hebrew Bible tradition of prophets, and mother of Jesus, the Son of the Most High, they undoubtedly can show us something particular about what it means to be followers of the Risen One in our lives now.  There is a sense of how can they not.  

Reflecting on how John would be in the line of Hebrew prophets and the life of Jesus marked the beginning of something new we might consider how Elizabeth and Mary would birth expressions of the old and the new in the ever unfolding story of God’s relationship with creation side by side.  Mary’s journey to Elizabeth recognises how God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel and God’s incarnation as one of us as a tiny baby are both important and that the new depends on the old.  Without the covenant and story contained in the Hebrew Bible Jesus’ birth could not have had the same significance.  As we remember this engagement between the first and the new it is important that we remember here that the covenant with the Hebrew people whose descendants are our friends and neighbours in the Jewish faith continues to live.  Once God makes a promise that promise stands so that covenant continues to live showing something itself precious and unique of God’s engagement with creation.  

We might ponder our own approach to the old and new in our journey as disciples of Jesus.  Many of us have inherited our faith from generations before us within our own families as well as being impacted by friends, teachers, ministers and others in the Christian community.  I can name for myself a number of folk whose path has crossed with mine and made me the the Christian disciple that I am today.  How we have inherited church is important to many of us; as significant perhaps as continuing at least some of the Christmas traditions we have received over the years too.  It is worth nothing that one matter that can cause the greatest tension between couples moving into a long term relationship is quite how to handle Christmas and the differences between different family assumptions and traditions.  

Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection questioned the assumptions and traditions of his people.  Something new started with Mary’s pregnancy over and above the new of any pregnancy.  The excitement magnified as here something different was breaking into creation as God became one of us.  

This call to newness has continued through the centuries and generations since.  As Israel continuously believed that God could be doing a new thing, so we have inherited that way of living as Christians.  God continues to do the new thing in the Church and through her mission and ministry.  The hymn writer who penned, ‘nothing changes here’ couldn’t have been more wrong.  

At Christmas we celebrate how with the birth of Jesus everything changed.  But as Elizabeth’s child jumped in the womb to greet his Lord we look at how in the Church of today the old receives and sings words of praise for the new.  Later in John’s ministry he would baptise Jesus commissioning him for the start of his work. 

As we travel ever onwards we celebrate both the old and new in our own lives.  We celebrate everything that God has done and we continuously look forwards, keeping all our senses alive paying attention to the new movements and works of the Holy Spirit alive in our midst.  

Carol     Who Would Think That What Was Needed 
John Bell and Graham Maule, ©1987  WGRG, Iona Community, Govan, Glasgow G51 3UU, All Rights reserved.  Reprinted & Podcast permission under ONE LICENSE # A-734713.  All Rights Reserved  Sung by Northallerton Methodist Church and used with their kind permission.

Who would think that what was needed
to transform and save the earth
might not be a plan or army,
proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision,
that a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
Coming here on Christmas Day.

Shepherds watch and wise men wonder,
monarchs scorn and angels sing;
such a place as none would reckon
hosts a holy helpless thing;
stable beasts & by-passed strangers
watch a baby laid in hay:
God surprises earth with heaven
Coming here on Christmas Day.
Centuries of skill and science
span the past from which we move,
yet experience questions whether,
with such progress, we improve.
While the human lot we ponder,
lest our hopes and humour fray,
God surprises earth with heaven
coming here on Christmas Day.

Prayers for the World 

Lord of the journey,  we gather on the path, road and voyage  
in response to your invitation and call.  

Lord of the journey, as the pregnant Mary travelled 
to the Judean hill country,  Mary and Joseph to the stable 
and onwards with the infant Jesus as refugees to Egypt 
we pray for the world.  

We pray all whose job is travel or connected to travel. 
Itinerant staff, those who are in different places for meetings, 
preachers travelling from place to place.
Those who are ‘crew’ on planes and ships, 
who work at ports and airports, on the railways  or on the roads 
and others in this sector.  

Lord of the journey,  we pray for travellers this Christmas, 
to or from where they need to be.
May journeys be a time of blessing, 
may the in-between an opportunity for reflection.  

Lord of the journey, we remember those 
who are not where they would choose to be
or who are separated from loved ones this Christmas.  
May they know your love and peace.  

Lord of the journey, we pray for your Church, 
ever travelling onwards though tempted
by the attractions of the wayside.  
Show us how to hold the best of what we have inherited 
as you lead us onwards into the land and place you shall show us.  

Lord of the journey, we pray for ourselves 
and for our own needs.  
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts.  

In the name of the travelling one Amen.  

Offertory Prayer 

In this season of giving and receiving we bring our gifts to the table 
that God’s love may be known in our world.  

Generous God, 
we thank you for the outpouring of blessings we have received 
and for the ones for which we hope.  
We offer something of what has blessed us that it may bless others.   Amen.  

Carol     On Christmas Night all Christians Sing 
Traditional English, Public Domain sung by the choir and people of First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, Virginia, USA. Permission sought.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
to hear the news the angels bring;
on Christmas night all Christians sing
to hear the news the angels bring:

News of great joy, news of great mirth,
news of our merciful King’s birth.

Then why should all on earth be sad,
since our Redeemer made us glad?
Then why should all on earth be sad,
since our Redeemer made us glad,

When from our sin He set us free,
all for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
then life and health come in its place;
when sin departs before His grace,
then life and health come in its place;

Angels and all with joy may sing,
all for to see the newborn King.

All out of darkness we have light,
which made the angels sing this night;
all out of darkness we have light,
which made the angels sing this night:

“Glory to God and peace to all,
now and forevermore. Amen.”
Sending Words and Blessing 

Go in peace to whatever 
the Christmas season will offer to you. 

Go sharing peace to all you meet. 
In the name of the babe who shall be the risen one. 

May the blessing of God,
Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit 
be and remain with you, 
with those you love, 
and those you are called to love.  


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