Sharing Our Faith Together

Worship for 23 January 2022

by Janet Patmore 23 January 2022

Call to Worship

It’s good to be here with you again and I’m really pleased to see that you’ve all survived last Monday and are still smiling.

 You’re looking a bit puzzled. 

Last Monday was Blue Monday.  Still looking puzzled.    

Well Blue Monday is meant to be the most depressing day of the year. The day when after all the excitement of Christmas, you feel totally deflated. All the bills start coming in - and people realise just how much money they’ve spent over Christmas. The decorations are down and everywhere looks drab.  The weather turns grey and cold and miserable, people are back at work and there isn’t another holiday looming until Easter. They do say that after stressful family Christmases it’s the most popular day for filing for divorce and of course we can’t escape the covid figures.  

Well it was Blue Monday when I started preparing for this service - and weather wise it was a pretty murky day   but - miraculously- when I looked at the readings -  what did I find?  Not doom and gloom -   but instructions to be joyful,   to rejoice in the wonder of God’s creation -   and in the Good News of the fulfilment of scripture.

So no apologies if the words JOY and REJOICE crop up frequently in this service.

 Our call to worship “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice. ” 

Let’s sing  - This is the day that the Lord has made.

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Let’s come to God in prayer 
Loving God                                                                                                                                          
We rejoice that we can gather together this morning, in church or  united in our homes  – that, wherever we are, we can feel your nearness and sense your loving touch.   We rejoice in your creation,  the green shoots of spring, the snowdrops, the lengthening days.    We rejoice in the love with which you surround us, the love of family, of friends, of our fellowship here.                                                                                   
Loving God, we come with joy to bring you our thanks and praise and adoration. 

Loving God
We rejoice that you sent your son to live our life, to show us your unfailing love, to teach us your eternal truths, to give his life for our salvation.   We rejoice that in Jesus we have a friend, an example, a comforter,   an advocate, a saviour.
Loving God, we come with joy to bring you our thanks and praise and adoration. 

Loving God
We rejoice in the knowledge that we are your children. That you know each of us by name.  That you know our weaknesses and failings, the dark corners of our souls.  The evils we have done, the good we have failed to do. And yet you still love us. And you will never stop loving us.  And so we bring to you now the things which we are ashamed of,  the things we have said and done which have hurt other people, the times we have turned away from you, closed our ears to you. We lay them at the foot of the cross and ask for pardon and cleansing. And we rejoice as we hear your words of grace to us all “Your sins are forgiven”.

Loving God, we come with joy to bring you our thanks and praise and  adoration. 

And we join together in the Lord’s Prayer

Now we come to our Old Testament  reading .  It’s from the Book of Nehemiah  -  which is probably a book we’re not too familiar with  so let’s put it in its setting.  The events referred to in Nehemiah take place in about 445 BC.  445 years before the birth of Christ.  You’ll remember that previously in 587 BC the Babylonian empire under King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem  and taken many of the Jews, particularly the leading priests and citizens, into exile in Babylon.  But then in 539 BC the Babylonian empire was itself conquered, by the Persian empire. And the Persians had a different attitude to empire.  They ruled by encouraging their conquered countries to retain their own territory and follow their own practices and beliefs.  This involved encouraging exiled nations to return to their original territories -   and so it was that in 538 BC the first consignment of Jews made the Journey back to Judah, settled in around Jerusalem and over the next 20 years or so managed to rebuild the temple.   In 458 BC a second consignment of Jews returned to Judah with the priest and teacher, Ezra.  The city of Jerusalem was still pretty much in ruins and things were not too good with the Jewish community.  Back in  Babylon Nehemiah, a trusted Jewish cupbearer at the King’s court, heard about the problems, prayed about the situation, brought his concern to the Persian king and in 445 BC Nehemiah was appointed  governor to Judah and returned to Jerusalem with a third influx of Jews and a commission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. By dint of all working together, each Jewish family rebuilding the section of wall nearest to their dwelling place, defending each other and the building work from attack by the pagan tribes, who had taken over Judah during the exile, they completed the wall, with all its intricately constructed gates, in a miraculous time of 52 days. So with the task completed it is time you may think for a great ceremony.   A cutting the ribbon moment.  And it’s at this point that we take up the story as the Jews gather within the newly built walls, in front of one of the great gates, the Water Gate.  

Reading:  Nehemiah 8:  1-3,     5 - 6,   8 – 10 

An interesting celebration, a gathering of people, a reading of the scroll, an explanation of the word and  a reaction moving from praise and worship to weeping and then to joy.  We’ll come back to that later. 

But let’s obey that command to be joyful as we sing, Give me joy in my heart

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Let’s move to our NT reading. Again we have a gathering of people, a reading of the scroll, an interpretation and  a reaction ( to come in next week’s lectionary reading.)

Reading: Luke 4:  14 – 21 

So we have heard the accounts of 2 very special occasions, both described by main participants as very special occasions.                                                
 In our OT reading Nehemiah says,“ This day is sacred to our Lord”. In the NT reading Jesus says, “This day Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

They are very special occasions because they are both moments of revelation.  Moments when the scriptures come to life.                               

Think about that OT event.  It seems to me that those Jews, returned from exile, had a bit of a light bulb moment. It’s as if words that they’d been totally familiar with all their lives suddenly came to life.  I say “words they’d been totally familiar with” because one of the things which happened during those years of exile was that because there had been no possibility of temple worship with its animal sacrifices and rituals, the Jews had kept their religion alive by meeting together in groups to read from the scrolls, which at that time consisted mainly of the Torah, the law. That written word and the rabbis who explained and taught it had become the dominant factor in the faith and those community meetings became the basis of the synagogue. So yes those Jews in our reading were definitely steeped in the law. But in the reading it’s as if they suddenly saw it in a new light. 

You know, when we think about the Jewish law we often think it’s just lists of rules about food and hygiene and sacrifices but, of course, it’s not.  It’s really a blueprint for the kingdom of God. The law contains all the instructions for living one’s life in closeness to God, and creating an equal and caring society where the weaker members were looked after, where strangers were welcomed into the community.  This care for others was to be inbuilt into the fabric of society.  The crops round the edge of the fields were to be left unharvested, left for the poor to gather.  Do you remember Ruth gleaning the corn in Boaz fields?  Fruit was to be left on the trees and bushes.  And so that inequality and injustice was never allowed to build up, God had instituted the year of Jubilee, every 50th year when debts were cancelled, mortgages were completed, property returned to rightful owners and slaves were freed. So, to get back to our story, it seems as if, listening to the whole drift of the law, these Jews for the first time caught the total vision of God’s plan and purpose and they were overcome with praise and the need to worship.   

But it seems that as Ezra continued to read and explain the law the Jews recognised how far they had fallen short of God’s requirements in the past, which in their eyes God had punished with exile.  And they realised that their behaviour since their return, intermarrying with pagan women, was in danger of diluting the faith.  And they wept.  Wept for their sinfulness, wept with regret.  But here is where we turn to joy.  Nehemiah tells his listeners not to weep, not to grieve, but to rejoice and to spread that joy by obeying God’s law, starting there and then by sharing food and hospitality with the less fortunate.  As we might say today, bringing about God’s kingdom with out-reach. This is their very own Jubilee act. That’s why Nehemiah tells them “This day is sacred to the Lord your God.” 

And if that day in Jerusalem was sacred, how much more sacred should that gospel moment in Nazareth have been.  For in our NT reading we have a revelation that goes that stage further.  Again we have people gathered together – this time a formal synagogue situation.  Again we have the presentation of a scroll, this time a later scroll - the prophet Isaiah. Again we have the vision of caring and freedom and equality, justice, that Jubilee vision,  the kingdom of God on  earth -   and then we have  the  revelation from the mouth of Jesus himself  that he is the fulfilment of that prophecy.    

And then  - And then - That’s where the lectionary reading for today ends .  Maybe you’ll have the follow up next week. But I think you know the ending- and it wasn’t good. As they say on the TV - here comes a spoiler alert - Jesus was chased out of the synagogue and narrowly escaped being thrown over the cliff. But in a way what happened on that occasion isn’t the issue for us today. The issue for us today is to imagine ourselves in that synagogue, place ourselves at Jesus’ feet.  As we hear Jesus making that mind blowing claim, what is our reaction  -  our  response?

And so we are faced with a series of challenges.  

How ready are we to listen - to really listen and explore  scripture to find what God is saying?     We heard in Nehemiah  that the people themselves brought the books of the Law to Ezra and asked him to read.  They didn’t have to be coerced,  dragged in. They were hungry for teaching. Are we hungry for teaching?  

They were so hungry that they listened for hours - from daybreak to noon - I’m not sure when daybreak would have been - but if you say 6am that would be 6 hours. I don’t think you’d like me to go on for 6 hours but that crowd in Jerusalem asked  the priest Ezra to bring the scrolls of the Law and they listened attentively for all that time both to the words of  scripture and  to the other learned leaders’ explanations.  They were hungry for the word.  Recently by chance – or led by God I’ll lead you to decide-  I  was channel hopping on the tele  and I came to rest on the Christian channel and caught a bit of a programme about revival – and the speaker was talking about the Welsh revival of 1904. He was describing situations where the preacher would have been preaching all evening but the congregations just wouldn’t go home. They just kept sitting in the pews demanding more and more of God’s word.  

How ready are we to look honestly at ourselves and our churches and admit where we have been going wrong, where we have been ignoring God, picking and choosing what we hear and believe?   Where we have been distracted by the worldliness, the materialism of our age and become accepting of the values of modern society?  It is a painful process.  The OT Jews wept when they saw how far they had strayed.  It can be less painful to divert one’s attention, to focus on externals of religion, the rituals,  the rules – that’s what the scribes and Pharisees did.   Where do we stand?  Do we weep or do we divert?

How willing are we to accept forgiveness and respond to God’s generous love by putting our faith into action in every part of our lives. The OT Jews lived out their spiritual rebirth by sharing meals and hospitality, building an inclusive society.    To use the NT phraseology” proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour” is both a spiritual activity and a practical activity, preaching by word and deed.  Preaching the good news to the poor involves rescuing them from poverty, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners means coming alongside people in whatever situation they are and dealing with the physical and psychological problems, the addictions, the guilt etc. which keep people in chains . 

So questions for us all to ponder.  Challenges for us all to face. But to face with joy -   for our OT reading assures us that it is our joy in the Lord that will give us strength.  Good News The joy that the lord gives you will make you strong.

I’m very fond of the author David Adam- he was an Anglican priest-  sadly he died last year- and he wrote lots of prayers.  And some time ago I bought this cube which has got 3 verses for the morning and  3 for the evening -   and I try to remember to hold this in my hand each morning and choose a morning verse.  One of them is an adaptation of that verse from Nehemiah.  “The Joy of the Lord be my strength and song today and always”. Amen    

Let’s sing again - Rejoice the Lord is King

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Prayers of intercession
Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you have called us to know you and to love you. You invite us to experience the joy of coming into your presence and to delight in your grace. Lord, we come depending on your grace and goodness and we pray that our lives may show the joy of knowing you and your love.

Loving God, we pray for the church, at home and throughout the world. We pray for renewal.  Create in us a desire for your word.  We ask you to open our minds and hearts so that like those people of Nehemiah’s time, we may hear your word and recognise and repent for the mistakes of the past.  We ask you to open our eyes to catch the vision of the world that you want, the jubilee world of mutual love and care and support, with an end to oppression and exploitation.  And we ask you to fill us with your spirit so that we may go into the world to bring about this kingdom of heaven on earth. We ask you to bless our gifts of money, of time and practical support that they all may be used for your glory.  We hold before you the churches away weekend and pray that it will have been a time of vision and blessing.  And we pray for all our circuit churches that they may proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and action.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our Prayer

Loving God,  We pray for the world. As we remember Jesus’ words in the synagogue we bring before you the oppressed and persecuted of our world. As we approach Holocaust Remembrance day we pray for all those experiencing religious persecution - in so many places around the world.  We acknowledge that we have not learned the lessons of the past.  Help us all to stand up for tolerance and to fight for freedom of belief and religious observance. We hold before you those held in modern slavery, those suffering starvation,  lack of medical care  and those fleeing as refugees from countries torn apart by warfare.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our Prayer.  

Loving God,  We pray for all in any kind of distress, the sick or bereaved, the  unemployed or homeless, the lonely and depressed.  In the silence of our hearts we name all those we are concerned about.    Lord,  surround them with your loving arms and turn their weeping to joy.                                                                     
Lord in your mercy, Hear our Prayer.

Loving God,  We pray for ourselves.  Speak to our hearts, challenge our thinking, guide our actions, and help us to walk joyfully in your paths all the days of our lives.  

Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your son, our saviour Jesus Christ, Amen

 Hymn: Joy to the world 

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Let us go out with joy, to praise God, to proclaim the Gospel  and to build the kingdom of Heaven here on earth.