Sunday Worship 26 May 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 Sunday 26 May 2024

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Dr Sarah Hall

Welcome

Hello! My name is Sarah Hall and I’m a minister working with two churches and the University chaplaincy in Southampton. I’m glad to be able to share worship with you, on this Trinity Sunday when we can look with awe and love together into that great mystery we call God.

Call to Worship 

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts!

Hymn     Holy, Holy, Holy
Reginald Heber (1826) Public Domain  
Courtesy of St Andrew’s Cathedral & Choir, Sydney, Australia

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! all the saints adore Thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim, falling down before Thee,
which wert and art and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
though the eye of sinful folk Thy glory may not see;
only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity! 

Prayers of Adoration 

Creator, we come to you in awe, 
marvelling at the mysteries of the universe,
and delighting in the world you have made.

Christ, we come to you in gratitude, 
wondering at God’s love revealed in your face, 
and in your arms stretched wide on the cross.
Holy Spirit, we come to you in expectation, 
opening our lives, hearts and minds to your wind of change.

God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit,
make us holy, make us strong, draw us into the unity of your love,
creating, redeeming and sustaining us, now and for ever. Amen.

Prayers of Confession

Dear and loving God,
we know what we think of you.
We may tell our friends at church, if they agree.
We may keep our thoughts to ourselves, in case they might offend.
But we are happy with how we think of you.
We have worked it out over the years. We know we are right.
We do not need to rethink our position.

Dear and loving God,
We do not want to change our ideas about you.
What would happen if we had got it wrong all these years, 
about who you are, or how you would have us be and do?
Would you be angry with us?
Would we have to admit we were wrong?
Would we have to change our lives as well as our minds?

Dear and loving God, 
help us to keep a little corner of our minds open
Just in case we ever have to rethink our faith
in the face of a God more wonderful than we could have imagined.

Reading     Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Comment

When I was about five or so we used to live in Germany. The first time I went to kindergarten, I remember standing on my own, hearing all these children I didn’t know talking in a language I didn’t understand and doing all sorts of things I knew nothing about. I was afraid that if I tried to join in, I’d get it all wrong. I don’t remember what happened next; presumably someone came over and helped me join in. But even now, going somewhere new can feel a bit frightening. Will I know what to do, or will everyone know I don’t belong? 

Going into a church for the first time can be a bit like that. Some of you won’t remember the first time you came into the church you’re in today – you were too little. But others of you will easily remember the first time you arrived. Was it easy to work out how to behave? Or was it a matter of sitting by someone else and hoping for the best? When it comes to standing up, sitting down, saying and singing the right words at the right time, every church has its own ways, and we don’t always make it clear how people can get things right. I heard of a church where a visitor sat down in the wrong chair – but no one thought to tell her, so when the service started she was very embarrassed suddenly to find herself in the middle of the choir!

In Isaiah’s time there weren’t lots of different churches, but one huge temple in Jerusalem. Isaiah knew God’s temple well, because he worked there. But in his vision we’ve just heard about, it wasn’t the priests and the worshippers, but God and all God’s angels whom Isaiah saw filling the Temple. It must have taken his breath away. Can you imagine standing with Isaiah on the Temple doorstep, with God’s gigantic throne towering in front of you? With fiery angels called seraphs filling the air with all their wings? With their voices thundering in your ears? Holy, holy, holy, they keep on repeating. God is holy – God is different from everything and everyone we know. 

We’re stuck in one place and one time, but God is everywhere and always. We know bits and pieces about our world, but God knows everything about it there is to know. We try our best to love, though often we don’t succeed; but God is love. How could we dare come into God’s house, where everything and everyone is holy: whole and complete and perfect: so different from us?

That’s how Isaiah feels, anyway. He sees the holiness in God’s temple, the difference between God’s perfect goodness and human failure, and it makes him want to cry. How can he go on living, seeing how he and everyone he knows have fallen so far short of what God wants for them that they could never get it right, however hard they tried?

But God doesn’t leave him weeping. God sends an angel to burn away all the damage in Isaiah that has stopped him being who God wants him to be. God forgives him. And once that has happened, Isaiah can hear God’s own voice telling him what to do.

We can have that problem too, seeing only the things that separate us from God. But when we finally dare to believe that the God who is holy cares about us, forgives us when we’ve gone wrong, then we can listen out for God’s voice coming to us as it did to Isaiah, showing us where to go and what to do.

Hymn     Love is the Touch of Intangible Joy
© Alison M Robertson / Iona Community OneLicence Edinburgh University Singers Ian McCrorie (Conductor) John Kitchen (Organ) used with permission.  OneLicence # A-734713  

Love is the touch of intangible joy; 
love is the force that no fear can destroy; 
love is the goodness we gladly applaud: 
God is where love is for love is of God.

Love is the lilt in a lingering voice; 
love is the hope that can make us rejoice; 
love is the cure for the frightened and flawed: 
God is where love is for love is of God.

Love is the light in a tunnel of pain; 
love is the will to be whole once again; 
love is the trust of a friend on the road: 
God is where love is for love is of God.

Love is the Maker and Spirit and Son; 
love is the kingdom their will has begun; 
love is the path which the saints all have trod: 
God is where love is, for love is of God.
 
Declaration of Forgiveness

Listen: here is good news. 
Christ Jesus came into the world 
to forgive us in our failure, to accept us as we are, 
to set us free from evil’s power 
and make us what we were meant to be. 
Through him God says to each of us:
You are accepted. You are forgiven. I will set you free. 
Amen. Thanks be to God.

Reading     John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’  Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’  Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’  Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Reading     Romans 8:12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—  for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’  it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Hymn     Psalm 29
from The Psalms for Singing: A 21st Century Edition sung by Bon Accord singing group from Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland

O give to the LORD, 
now you sons of the mighty,
O give to the LORD 
all the glory and power;
O give to the LORD’s name 
due honour and glory;
in splendour of holiness 
worship the LORD.

The voice of the LORD 
echoes over the waters;
in thunder the God 
of all glory draws near,
and over the waves of 
the deep-flowing waters
the LORD, he displays 
his authority far.

The voice of the LORD 
is all powerful, is mighty;
the voice of the LORD 
in great majesty speaks.
The voice of the LORD 
the tall cedars is breaking;
the LORD, he the cedars 
of Lebanon breaks.

The LORD in his temple 
is given the glory;
he sits on the flood, 
ever king on his throne.
The LORD will his strength 
give to all of his people;
the LORD with his peace 
will bless all of his own.
 
Sermon

In the Reformed way of being Christian, as you may have noticed: we’re very keen on words. When you go into a Catholic church, usually the communion table – or from their point of view, the altar – is very prominent. In a Reformed church, it’ll often be the pulpit that’s the biggest piece of furniture, with the preacher who uses it lifted up six feet above contradiction: almost the way God’s throne was lifted up in the Temple. 

I’ve been called to serve the URC as a minister of word and sacraments, and it says something about the relative importance we give to the two that while we celebrate Communion monthly, and might go much longer without a baptism, I reckon I’d hear about it pretty quickly if we had just one service without a sermon or a reflection or discussion in it. So words are part of my stock in trade as a minister. Mostly that’s fine by me. I love words – you can tell that by the number of books on my shelves. But occasionally, like today on Trinity Sunday, words can confuse instead of clarifying. It’s a bad workwoman that blames her tools, and I’m well aware of the danger I’m running in trying to tell you with words just how confusing words can be, but let me try to give an example. 

I was talking a bit earlier about Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, his vision of the six-winged seraphim before God’s throne, crying out continually Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. Fiery angels, I called the seraphim – and you might have wondered why I used the word ‘fiery’ to describe them, when it’s not there in the reading. But here is one of my few bits of useful Hebrew: the verb s-r-f means ‘to burn’ – so the seraphim are the burning ones, God’s fiery messengers. So the use of that word gives us a vivid and poetic image of the unearthly nature of God’s angels. Yet unpacking the word ‘holy’ itself gives us a whole heap of technical words describing God – infinite, eternal, omniscient, ineffable – words so foreign to our normal conversation, even as insiders, that they hardly help us to understand God at all. It’s as if when I was that little girl in kindergarten I’d stayed away from the others talking German, and instead talked to myself in English about what everyone was doing. I might have got bits of what was happening right. Indeed, I might have thought I knew all about it. But on its own, describing the situation from outside in a different language wouldn’t have helped me understand what was going on inside that kindergarten community. 

Our psalm this morning does a better job of talking about God, by using images, for images can speak to our experience. God’s communicative power is stronger than floodwaters or thunder or a hurricane devastating Lebanon’s giant cedars. These days, we know more than is comfortable about extreme weather, all over the world, and in this country too. God’s power can juggle mountains, breathe out flame, tear the leaves off every tree in the forest. So our worship of God must acknowledge that unutterable distance between God’s strength and human weakness, illustrated so graphically here by reference to the forces of nature. The psalm may not define holiness the way a philosopher does, but it does help us recognise one aspect of holiness when we encounter it: that feeling of awe, of amazement, of the tremendous mystery of God, that we may feel when faced with the wonders and the terrors of the natural world.

Back to the Trinity, once preachers start to unpack the word further than its very basic meaning – we Christians know the God we worship as Creator, as Christ and as Holy Spirit, yet also as one God – it is very easy to get lost under a pile of learned words. Try slipping consubstantial, coeternal or perichoretic into a sentence – they may sound impressive, but we run the risk of being distracted from what we originally wanted to talk about. After all, the word itself isn’t the thing. Christians had been following Jesus in loving God through the power of the Holy Spirit for over three hundred years before the orthodox definition of the word Trinity got hammered out at the Council of Nicaea. So instead of giving you a long and boring lecture on the development of church doctrine, I’d like us to think ourselves back into a time before the word Trinity meant anything, back to John’s Gospel and to its story of poor old Nicodemus, trying to make sense of Jesus’ words about God. 

I feel sorry for Nicodemus, because he’s a good example of someone trying desperately to understand things from outside. He doesn’t have the courage to be seen with Jesus by day, but when he does come, under cover of darkness, he starts with a really important observation. I’ve got to believe that you’ve come from God, he tells Jesus, because without God’s presence no one could possibly do the things you’ve done.

Maybe Nicodemus would have gone on, but Jesus stops him there. Jesus may mean in what he says next that no one can recognise God’s kingdom without being born again, or he may be saying you have to be born from heaven to see God’s kingdom – the word used in the Greek means both. Either way, he’s challenging Nicodemus to a complete rethink about everything this member of the religious establishment thought he already knew. 

And either way, the imagery of new birth isn’t a comfortable one to use here. Imagine having to let go of everything you have, and are, and understand, to start all over again from nothing! But instead of taking Jesus’ words as a springboard for his thinking, Nicodemus wants to analyse them, to pin down exactly what Jesus means. And of course he misses the point completely, like the unhappy sort of person who always has to have jokes explained to them. What do you mean, be born all over again? he asks Jesus. That’s physically impossible! So Jesus tries again to express the inexpressible God through more images: the cleansing waters of baptism, the wind of the Spirit, starting up out of nowhere, powerfully affecting its surroundings. 

But Nicodemus is still lost. He’s looking into God’s kingdom, where the rules are different, with no reference points from his own experience to draw on. The definitions he learned in college don’t make sense. Yet still Jesus doesn’t give up on Nicodemus, though he does come across as a bit impatient. Call yourself a teacher in Israel? he says. I’m trying to make sense of God to you by using pictures from your own experience. But if you can’t grasp that, how on earth will you get on when I speak of things beyond your experience? And here Jesus isn’t just talking to Nicodemus. God speaks to each of us through what we already know about living in God’s world. We learn of God’s power through the amazing forces at work in our universe. We learn of God’s mercy through being forgiven and forgiving others in our turn. Yet there is more to God’s nature than we could ever learn by all our experience of life. Looking at nature or at the human world, we could think God cares only about the species that survives, the person who succeeds. How could that possibly prepare us for the sheer extravagance of God’s self-giving love for the whole world? 

In the end, however many words we use, trying to understand God from outside is doomed to failure. Our pictures of God’s holiness serve only to remind us, as did Isaiah’s vision, of the unbridgeable discrepancy between finite humanity and an infinite God. But fortunately, we don’t have to try to understand God from outside. As Isaiah discovered, God has already taken the initiative from within: forgiving our faults, drawing us into the life of God and sending us out to do God’s work in the world. 
In our reading this morning from Romans, Paul calls his friends in Rome to fight against their weaknesses with the Holy Spirit’s power; that same Spirit through which we dare to understand ourselves as God’s children, as Jesus’ siblings. And it is God’s Holy Spirit that is always inviting us into experiencing God’s life from within, not trying to define it from outside. In the Spirit, Christians of different opinions can meet in love rather than fighting one another to the doctrinal death. For in the end, being able to define the precise meaning of the Trinity, though it is good exercise for the little grey cells, is totally unimportant, even on Trinity Sunday. The really crucial thing for each of us is to live the life of the Trinity: and by that I mean to live the way that many of you will have followed for years before I was even born: giving God glory by following Jesus’ call, and relying on the Spirit’s power for our ability to do so. 

Hymn     God the Father of Creation
© Iain D Cunningham BBC Songs of Praise

God the Father of Creation, 
source of light and energy, 
your creative love so shapes us 
that we share your liberty. 
Teach us how to use this freedom 
loving children all to be. 

Jesus Christ our Lord and brother,  
in your cross we see the way 
to be servants for each other, 
caring, suffering every day. 
Teach us patience and obedience  
never from your path to stray. 

Holy Spirit, love that binds us  
to the Father and the Son, 
giver of the joy that fills us, 
yours the peace that makes us one, 
teach our hearts to be more open 
as we pray ’God’s will be done.’ 

Members of our Saviour’s body, 
here on earth his life to be, 
though we stand as different people, 
may we share the unity 
of the Father, Son and Spirit, 
perfect love in Trinity

Prayers of Thanksgiving & Intercession

God our life, we thank you for the gifts of your creation.
Teach us to treat earth and sea, air and water with reverence and respect. Renew those places where earth’s beauty is desecrated, 
its wealth exploited and its climate disrupted.
Strengthen and call to account all those whose humanity is degraded 
by the exercise of power and greed;
may corporations and their shareholders make responsible decisions
about the people and resources under their control.

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.

God our hope and consolation, 
we thank you for sending your Son to show us the human face of your love. Help us and all Christians to know that love in our hearts 
and respond to it in our lives.
Show us how to share your love with those who are unloved or unwanted, 
and with those who live in pain and the shadow of despair.

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.

God our wisdom and inspiration, 
we thank you for sending your Spirit to lead us in the way of faith.
Keep us awake to your presence in the world and in those we meet day by day.
Free us from the easy assumptions that limit our understanding, 
and make us eager to grow in understanding and in love for you.
Bless all who preach and teach in your Church, all spiritual guides, 
and those engaged in training others for ministry.

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.

God our creator, redeemer and guide,
one God, ever-living Trinity,
bring unity to your Church,
peace and justice to the nations,
harmony in our homes, and wholeness in our hearts.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

And together we pray, as Jesus taught his friends:

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, 
forever and ever. Amen.

Offertory Prayer

God loves a generous giver. 
So let us pray for a spirit of generosity 
as we offer back to God our time, our money, and ourselves.

Yours, Lord, is the greatness, 
the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty, 
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours. 
All things come from you, and of your own do we give you. Amen.

Hymn     Eternal God, Your Love’s Tremendous Glory
Alan Gaunt © 1991 Stainer and Bell, OneLicence # A-734713  sung by Paul Robinson 
and used with his kind permission.

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.

Eternal Son of God, uniquely precious,
in you, deserted, scorned, and crucified,
God’s love has fathomed sin and death’s deep darkness,
and flawed humanity is glorified.

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.

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.
 
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.

Blessing

The blessing of God and the Lord be ours; 
the blessing of the perfect Spirit be ours; 
the blessing of the Three be pouring for us, mildly and generously. 
And the blessing of God, 
Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit 
is with us and all people, now and always. Amen.

 

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