Epiphany Service January 7 2024

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 Epiphany, January 7 2024 

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Andy Braunston

 
Call to Worship

Jesus, Messiah, and Saviour, we come to Your crib today to pay you homage.  
Hail to the Lord’s anointed!

Jesus, Messiah, and Saviour, we long for your reign on earth to be fully known.  
Hail to the Lord’s anointed!

Jesus, Messiah, and Saviour, we yearn for Your justice making the weak strong, turning our darkness into light.
Hail to the Lord’s anointed!

Jesus, Messiah, and Saviour, we fall before You and offer You our gifts, knowing that in Your many names, we know you as love.  
Hail to the Lord’s anointed!

Hymn     Hail to the Lord’s Anointed
James Montgomery (1821) Public Domain sung by Lythan and Phil Nevard and used with their kind permission.
 
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.

He comes with succour speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.

He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth;
love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.
Before Him on the mountains,
shall peace, the herald, go,
and righteousness, in fountains,
from hill to valley flow.

Kings shall fall down before Him,
and gold and incense bring;
and nations shall adore Him,
his praise all people sing.
For He shall have dominion
O’er river, sea and shore
Far as the eagle’s pinion
Or dove’s light wing can soar.
 
O’er every foe victorious,
he on His throne shall rest;
from age to age more glorious,
all-blessing and all-blest:
the tide of time shall never
His covenant remove;
His name shall stand for ever,
that name to us is Love.

Prayers of Approach, Confession and Forgiveness

Since the beginning, O Ancient of Days,
You have called people to follow.
Inspiring humanity with moon and star, sun and rain,
majestic mountain, fast flowing river,
and with the very mystery of life itself,
You have called people to be Your own.

In the simplicity of Your manger, Lord Jesus,
You drew people to Yourself;
awe filled shepherds and exotic magi came to worship 
and to see in You the hopes and fulfilment of all their yearnings.

Like a light in the gloom, O Holy Spirit, 
we see Your brilliance, feel our hearts warmed
and gain a sense of direction and purpose.

Forgive us, O Most High,
when we fail to see you in Creation,
and so exploit and misuse the abundance of life
with which we share the planet.
Help us to learn, soon, O God, 
how to live in harmony with nature.

Forgive us Lord Jesus,
when we seek fulfilment in other things and turn away from You.
Teach us, quickly, O Christ 
that our restless hearts will only find their rest in You.

Forgive us, Most Holy Spirit,
when we look for warmth and purpose 
in strange places instead of in Your all-powerful love.
Forgive us, and give us time to change!  Amen.

Hear good news: God’s love seeks us out at great cost.
When we turn back to God we find that, like a father, 
God runs towards us with arms open wide in welcome.
Like a mother, God surrounds us with fierce love.
Like a rock upon which we stand, 
God gives us a secure foundation for life.
So accept the forgiveness on offer, learn to forgive others,
and find the strength to forgive yourself.  Amen.

Prayer for Illumination

Break open our hearts, O God,
that as we hear Your word read, sung, 
proclaimed and pondered,
we may see Your truth revealed,
learn to share it, and be a light to the nations.  Amen.

Reading     Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Hymn     Angels from the Realms of Glory
James Montgomery (1816) Public Domain, sung by the Frodsham Methodist Church Cloud Choir accompanied by Andrew Ellams and used with their kind permission.
 
Angels from the realms of glory,
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

Come and worship, Christ, the new-born king.
Come and worship, worship Christ the new-born king!

Shepherds, in the field abiding,
watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
yonder shines the infant light: 

Come and worship, Christ, the new-born king.
Come and worship, worship Christ the new-born king!

Sages, leave your contemplations,
brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations;
ye have seen his natal star: 

Come and worship, Christ, the new-born king.
Come and worship, worship Christ the new-born king!

Saints before the altar bending
watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord descending,
in his temple shall appear.

Come and worship, Christ, the new-born king.
Come and worship, worship Christ the new-born king!

Though an infant now we view Him,
He shall fill His Father’s throne,
gather all the nations to Him,
every knee shall then bow down:

Come and worship, Christ, the new-born king.
Come and worship, worship Christ the new-born king!

Reading     St Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Sermon

I try not to make my sermons promotions for tourism in Orkney, but we do live in an achingly beautiful landscape.  The long days of Summer bring thousands of people to these islands each day paradoxically feeding the desire to get away from it all, but in Winter Orkney is hauntingly beautiful.  Shorter days mean longer nights and, on clear nights we have brilliant views of the moon and the stars – we often get to see the Northern Lights – known here as the Merry Dancers.  From our house we often get views of the faint Milky Way; we see stars, even some planets in our solar system too.  One of our outer isles as Dark Skies status meaning the views of the stars there are even better than here but out in the countryside where we live, we don’t have much light pollution.  At night as I take the dogs for their last walk of the day the words of Psalm 8, in the Grail Version I learnt as a child, always come to me:  How great is your name, O Lord our God, through all the earth!  Your majesty is praised above the heavens; on the lips of children and of babes you have found praise to foil your enemy, to silence the foe and the rebel. When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, who are we that you should keep us in mind, mere mortals that you should care for us?  Living in cities for all my life until we moved here, I am still in awe of the heavens.

Of course, it’s only in the modern era that the stars are invisible to people who live in cities and towns.  Public safety concerns led to street lighting, we navigate by SatNavs – which use human made heavenly vessels, and the night skies seem rather peripheral to our concerns.  Our forebears realised that the stars were vital to navigate by.  The movements of the moon, regular as clockwork, timed seasons, and holidays – Muslim and Jewish festivals, like Easter, depend on calculations from lunar calendars.  Most of us are unaware if it’s a full or new moon, most of us can’t see the stars and almost all of us wouldn’t know how to navigate by stars even if our lives depended on it.  Now the stars are studied by scientists or astrologers but, for most of us, they are a treat when on holiday in an area with little light pollution.  

Our readings today, however, were not written in the modern era, but in the ancient world where the light of the sun by day and the moon by night were vital for travel and where the movement of the stars were imbued with meaning in ways they aren’t now.  The Magi saw a new star, found meaning in that, realised it had something to do with the Jewish people and came to see.  Our Old Testament reading rejoices at a time of gloom, despondency, and despair – these pesky prophets always demand we look at things in a different light.

This part of Isaiah was written as the exiles returned to Jerusalem.  Years of longing fulfilled, tales of Jerusalem passed down from parents and grandparents to those who had never seen it were now seen as rather lacking.  The city was in ruins, those left behind when the city was sacked 70 years beforehand didn’t have the skills or resources to run a city, teach the young, or see to the spiritual nurture of the people – those that did were taken into Exile after all.  So, the city stood in ruins with incompetent and corrupt officials in charge, the crumbling buildings being a startling image of a crumbling government  – and who says the Bible is irrelevant to our contemporary concerns? Worse, the exiles who had kept faith and hope alive in captivity were faced with a religiously apathetic population.  Believing they had been punished by God’s own hands, unable to worship in a sacked Temple, the people had drifted in their faith and religious practice.  In these ruins the prophet tells the people to rejoice!  In this despondency the prophet said that light would shine on the city and the people for its time had come!  Despite the crumbling buildings and government kings would come bearing gifts.  One’s got to admire the optimism.  Of course, Matthew saw the fulfilment of this prophecy in Jesus but for the people of the time it gave hope in a dark place, hope like a light shining in the gloom, a light to guide like the stars of night.

Matthew and the writer of this part of Isaiah saw that in God’s light new truth would be revealed.  Outsiders would come to Jerusalem with the wealth of the nations and the abundance of the sea, exotic commodities would be brought, and Jerusalem would be the centre of trade and prosperity.  Those outside the Jewish faith would marvel at the wonders God had wrought for Jews and give thanks to the Most High.  In Matthew we see this idea worked out in a very different way to that which the Isaiah passage’s author had imagined.  The wealth of the nations does not come to the poor stable in Bethlehem.  The glory of Jerusalem is not renewed.  Hope is not found in a renewed national life.  Instead, Matthew has the nations, in the form of these Magi, bringing prophetic gifts and seeing God’s light in a sleeping child.  God’s glory is revealed – just as Isaiah prophesied – but not in might, riches, trade, and fame but in the weakness and frailty of a small child.  God’s glory is found on the edge, in the backwater of Bethlehem not at the centre of things in the royal palace – of course that’s where the Magi first went.  Later in the story Matthew shows us God’s glory again at work on the edge – on Jerusalem’s rubbish tip at Golgotha.  

The Church names this celebration Epiphany – meaning revelation.  Here we remember the revelation of Jesus to those who were outside the Jewish faith – to these exotic worshippers who represent all of us who worship and who came to faith from outside Judaism.  God’s universal longing for is seen in these visitors and their gifts.  

They also represent some more contradictions that we wrestle with.  Gold is given, a gift for a king.  Yet kings sit on thrones not their poor mother’s lap.  Kings sleep in luxurious beds not a feeding trough for cattle.  Kings have courtiers not animals to attend them.  Frankincense is given, a gift for a priest.  Yet priests don’t live in stables.  Priests advise the mighty not flee into exile for fear of a tyrant’s rage.  Priests have respect not scorn.  And who gives myrrh to a baby?  Myrrh still used in medicine but then mainly used to anoint the bodies of the dead.  One wonders what Mary made of that gift; perhaps a thank you and wondering what they might be able to sell it for.  

Yet this child given these strange gifts grows up.  This child worshipped by Gentiles is schooled in his faith and his scriptures and learns to preach and draw new meaning from ancient texts.  This child lauded by king priests champions the poor and the oppressed.  This king has no wealth, no armies and no power yet changes the fate of peoples and nations.  This priest has more questions than easy answers and inspires women and men throughout the ages to worship and live radical lives.  This sacrifice shows us the power of love which defeats all that is evil, even if the defeat involves pain and humiliation.  

What is revealed to us in these stories, and the life that follows, is a way of living and loving that still challenges us, that still makes us wonder, that still captivates, enthuses, annoys, and puzzles us.  We long to have power and authority, for people to listen, for our old privileges, status and numbers to come back but the revelation we have to deal with is that power is found in weakness, victory found in defeat and sacrifice as the Way of the Cross.

Let’s pray

Grace us with your gifts Lord Jesus,
the gold of knowing that power is fragile and seen in weakness,
the frankincense rising as the prayers of the poor and vulnerable,
the myrrh calling us to the edge where we might see things more clearly.
And remind us, O Christ,
of our duty and joy to reveal You and Your love
in our lives and our loves.  Amen

Hymn     The First Nowell
Anonymous 1833 Public Domain sung by the choir and people of First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska and used with their kind permission www.youtube.com/@FirstPVideo

The first Nowell the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,
in fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

They lookèd up and saw a star
shining in the east beyond them far;
and to the earth it gave great light,
and so it continued both day and night. 

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

And by the light of that same star
three wise men came from country far;
to seek for a king was their intent,
and to follow the star wherever it went. 

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

This star drew nigh to the northwest;
o’er Bethlehem it took its rest,
and there it did both stop and stay,
right over the place where Jesus lay. 

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

Affirmation of Faith

We believe that, in great love, God has ensured that all people can know and find the truth.  The heavens declare God’s glory, the sky above reveals God’s life.  Amen!  We believe.

We believe that, through precious law, brave prophets and lasting wisdom the Eternal One raised up the Jewish people to be a light to the nations and to embody the truth of righteous living.  
Amen!  We believe.

We believe that, in the fullness of time God’s own self became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  He proclaimed freedom to those held captive, liberation to the oppressed, and good news to the poor.  For this he was opposed.  For this he suffered an unjust trial and execution as a criminal.  For three days he laid in the tomb and evil thought it had triumphed.  But the Most High vindicated Jesus and raised him to new life; a life that is promised to us all.  
Amen! We believe.

We believe that the Holy Spirit frees us from all that holds us captive, drives us out in loving service of others and emboldens us to challenge injustice.  In the Church the Holy Spirit teaches us to love, helps us encounter the Lord Jesus at the font and the table and refines us as committed disciples.  
Amen! We believe.

Offering

The wise ones bought gifts to Jesus, each with a symbolic meaning – gold to acclaim him as king, frankincense to recognise his priesthood, myrrh realising he’d be slain like a sacrifice.  All gifts have meaning – they might mean love, obligation, thanks, or a debt being repaid.  We are told in Scripture to give, and to give cheerfully.  We give to a range of charities and good causes but at this point we give to , and give thanks for the work of the Church.  Here in Church we find peace.  Here we find balm for our souls as we are fed by Christ’s own hand, taught God’s Word and have our rough edges knocked off as we are built into community.  We give in a variety of ways – in the plate using cash or envelopes, directly to the bank, with a legacy.  What matters is we give.  And so now we give thanks for all that has been given:

Giving God,
we return to You something of what You have given us.
Help us to use these gifts wisely;
knowing that, in all things, 
You desire us to reveal Your generous love that reaches all.  Amen.

Intercessions

God of the stars,
we gaze at the heavens in awe,
we see the moon and the planets,
satellites orbiting the earth, 
twinkling light from millions of miles away,
we wonder at how the ancients navigated by these lights,
and saw meaning in their movement.
We gaze and wonder if humanity is alone in the universe
or if, in some far off corner, You’ve got other civilizations, 
other worlds  that You care about.

We pray today for all who study the stars,
who seek to explore our solar system,
and to increase our knowledge of the vast abyss of space.

pause

God of the stable,
we gaze at the nativity scene and struggle to take it all in.
God in the dirt; animals attending like courtiers,
smelly shepherds and exotic magi;
it’s all too much for us really. 
We wonder at the danger of it all,
the cruelty of the tyrant, the protection of Joseph, the trust of Mary 
and we give thanks.

We pray today for all who are living in danger,
refugees and asylum seekers, the poor and hungry,
those on the edge of our societies 
to whom the wealth never seems to trickle down,
those struggling to pay their rent, mortgage or power bills.

pause

God of the Scriptures, 
we gaze at the magi and wonder they trusted  in ancient words 
and clear dreams.
We are horrified that those who knew Your word turned to murder,
whilst outsiders turned to worship.
We thank You for the ways in which You speak to us,
through ancient words and contemporary dreams,
through the Church and deep in our own hearts.

We pray today for those who search for You,
in Scripture, stable and star,
that You may be found
and that we may be signposts pointing to You.

pause

God of star, stable and Scripture, we pray now for all those we love and worry about

longer pause

We join all our prayers together as we pray as Jesus taught saying Our Father…

Hymn     We Three Kings
John H. Hopkins (1857) Public Domain Sung by the Angel City Chorale in Los Angeles, California.  https://www.youtube.com/@AngelCityChorale 

We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold we bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign. 

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies. 

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

 
Blessing

Now the song of the angels is stilled, 
the star in the sky is gone, the magi are home,
the shepherds are back with their flock, 
so now the work of Christmas begins: 
to find the lost, 
to heal the broken, 
to feed the hungry, 
to release the prisoner, 
to rebuild the nations, 
to bring peace among others, 
and to make music in the heart.
Go now and attend to Christmas’ work
and the blessing of Almighty God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
be with you as you work
now and always. Amen.

 
 

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