WORSHIPPING TOGETHER St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church
August 29, 2021 Rev. Terry Ingram
Prelude and Welcome
Call to Worship: (based on Ps. 139:7-12)
Where can we go from You, O Lord God?
Or where can we flee from Your Presence?
If we go to heaven, You are there;
If we go to Sheol, You are there.
in fact, You are ready to greet us at every turn.
We praise you, for You are an awesome God.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Hymn: Saviour Like a Shepherd Lead Us
Prayer of Adoration and Confession:
Lord of all, we gather to worship you and to share such moments together. For the most part, we worship you with joy and perhaps expectation. One is never sure what might happen when we open the arms of faith to You. We admit that sometimes we simply gather to worship because we are we are in the habit of doing so – even if we don’t feel like it. Lord you are a grand God and You have every right to demand our all; but we hesitate to offer You our very selves. You are the eternal one, but we are continually mired in worry at the minutiae of life. It is all too easy for us to miss Your purposes.
Lord we tend to judge things by what we know and have experienced. Often that means we miss Your presence. At times it feels like You are far away which is the feeling we get when things aren’t going the way we want them to go. At other moments we wonder about your goodness, given the way things go in life. Truth be told, all too often our faith is timid or maybe just plain weak. It is as if our lives are like getting ready for a long road trip only to discover that the gas tank on empty. Forgive us, Lord, our lack of faith. Forgive us for the fickleness of our faith. Forgive our willful blindness. Forgive the hardness of our hearts as we seek to define life our way and expect You to act as we would. And in forgiving us free us to trust You more in all things; to easily rejoice in Your goodness; to happily worship You as the Creator of all; to rest confidentially in the conviction You will never leave us or forsake us.
We ask all these things in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon (based on Ps 86:11)
Train me, God, to walk straight;
Then I’ll follow your true path.
Put me together, one heart and mind;
then, undivided, I’ll worship in joyful fear.
You’ve always been great toward me—what love!
You snatched me from the brink of disaster!
You are both tender and kind,
not easily angered, immense in love.
So look me in the eye and show kindness,
Save your dear, dear child!
Prayer for Illumination:
Holy Spirit, help us to hear Your old story in new ways and so awaken us to see new possibilities as followers of Jesus. Amen.
Message: “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”
One of the things that I have learned about myself is that I don’t like ‘no-win’ situations. And so, I spend a lot of time working on ‘win-win’ scenarios. That being said, life experience teaches me that sometimes, maybe even frequently, I find myself in no win place or as the saying goes, ‘between a rock and a hard place.’ As a parent I remember two of my children having an important event on the same evening. Both wanted dad to be there. I calculated time lines, distances between the venues and so on. Alas, this was going to be a no winner – one child was going to be happy and the other was going have more material for their therapist later in life.
One of the most poignant ‘no-win’ situations that I have every viewed was in the movie ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ Meryl Streep was a Jewish mother who, when confronted by an SS officer, had to decide beside a rail car which of her two children would accompany her and which would go to a death camp. I cannot imagine the nightmare that such a mother would take to her grave.
Undoubtedly you have heard if not used, the expression: ‘I am between a rock and a hard place.’ I can remember on one occasion when I was quite literally between a rock and a hard place. It was on a summer canoeing adventure somewhere in northern Ontario. The water was churning and the flow increasing dramatically which usually meant rapids or, more urgently, falls were ahead. We needed to pause to scope the terrain and discover the strength of the rapids. So, we made our way to the shore at edge of the river, which in this case was a large, steep, granite slope. Clinging to the rock face, the possibility of portaging up its uninviting side which might have been easy for a mountain goat, was next to impossible for me. Looking in front of us, the rapids were becoming choppier and faster and went on for as long as I could see around the river’s bend. Bobbing uncomfortably in the canoe at this rock face I remember the distinct sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I muttered “Ingram, you are between a rock and a hard place!”
My hunch is that this expression could have been used with even greater intensity by a fellow named Jacob. On one occasion, having stolen his brother’s inheritance and lying outright and persistently to his father’s face, he discovered he was between a rock and a very hard place – even if by his own doing (which it often seemed to be). He could stay or leave. Neither option was appealing. He could head out to into the wilderness which in his day was far less attractive than it is for a holiday expedition today. Or he could stay with his dysfunctional family and likely get pummeled or worse by his stronger, older, ill-tempered brother named Esau. Fearing his brother more than the wolves, thieves and iffy food and water supplies of the wilderness, he flees.
One evening, he finds himself in ‘a certain place’ which is Bible speak for no place in particular. It was just a spot in the middle of the harsh wilderness. He needed to rest, so he searched out a nice flat stone to serve as a pillow (maybe covering it with a piece of lamb skin?). Indeed, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place – literally and figuratively. Literally because – well have you ever slept on a rock? I have on occasion while camping, waking in the morning to an aching back and complaining about the gigantic boulder in the middle of the tent. And being dispossessed, branded a thief and without family/societal protection was a very hard place to try to live in.
Here is where the story gets really interesting. While between a rock and a hard place, the fugitive has a weird experience. Jacob fell asleep – I suspect he was really tired – remember the rock pillow? While asleep, he had a dream in which he saw a ladder. The word used does not depict an extension or painting ladder as we know them. Rather, it was more like a ramp or as some translations put it, a stair well. “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him…” (28:12).
Now isn’t this odd. Not having a dream – we all dream about 6 times a might according to science. Nor even a dream with angels scampering up and down some ramp. What strikes me really odd is that Jacob is encountered by the living God precisely when he was between a rock and a hard place. We have no record of Jacob praying for God to meet him or speak to him or answer some question about the circumstances that he was struggling with. In fact, I kind of suspect that Jacob had too many other things on his mind to attend to. Life had gone sideways and he was not in as much control as he thought. It certainly transpired at a time when Jacob is hardly at the top of his game. Jacob is asleep and between a rock and a hard place! He was at his most vulnerable.
God chooses to show up, uninvited and on his own initiative. This is quite all quite startling. However, I am coming to conclude that God is like that: present even when uninvited or unexpected, in the good times as well as the bad ones.
This maddeningly unpredictable God makes three promises to Jacob summed up in 28:15. The first is “Know that I am with you.” The ladder is a visual image of this reality. As the ladder is described, it is obvious there is a great deal of traffic between heaven and earth. Angels are busy going up and coming down. Which is a way of saying that God is apparently connecting with us all the time. Jacob, the empty-handed rascal that he was, was in God’s presence. While he was awake, he likely didn’t know it was so or perhaps believed it could be possible (the story doesn’t say). I say this because he had done morally reprehensible things, like stealing from his brother and lying bold face to his father, and being between a rock and a hard place was hardly a blessed place to be. Still God is in the habit of being with us, perhaps in a quiet or unobservable fashion.
When the people of Israel were in exile, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and their lives thrown into the turmoil of existing in refugee camps, it must have felt like God was long gone or had turned His back on them. Perhaps in some way God was trying to get their attention, but just the same, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. … For I am the Lord your God” (Isaiah 43:1-2). Recall Jesus’ promise, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus is always with us, even when our moments seem bleak. To put it in other words, Jesus’ Spirit, whom Jesus promised to give us (see John 14) can tap us on the shoulder when we least expect the Lord to be present. God is with us even after the biopsy report frightens us; or our job disappears and the ink is still drying on the mortgage we just signed; or an important relationship is dissolving right in front of our eyes. Remember, the ladder is filled with angels coming and going – God is with us as he was in the person of Jesus and by the Spirit today.
The second promise is one of action: “I will keep you wherever you go” (vs. 15). This is an incredible promise: the Lord is committed to watching over Jacob throughout his life. Brings to mind the image found in Psalm 23: “the Lord is my shepherd”. Jesus used the same image when he told us, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). An old hymn of the Church based on Psalm 121 sings: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from whence will my help come? The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”
Now we should clarify something at this point as promise of God’s providence in our lives is often misunderstood. God’s ‘keeping’ Jacob did not mean that with a magic wave of an angel wing, Jacob would no longer be between a rock and hard place. God did not promise Jacob that everything was now going to be easy and painless with a blissfully blessed life at the dawn of a new day. The record of Jacob’s life after this encounter was full of twists and turns, laughter and tears. It would take years for Jacob to sort it all out. The promise was that in the midst of life, God would be with him and keep him in His hands.
The same is true for those of us who trust Christ with our lives. Christ keeps us wherever we go, even when we travel to places we ought to have avoided. And sometimes we don’t go when we should. Regardless, our assurance is that God keeps us, even in those time when we have done something terribly wrong or we veer out of control and God feels several galaxies away. The Lord sustains us – directs us – teaches us – always keeping us in the divine embrace. And this is so regardless of how we feel or what we are experiencing. As Paul wrote (Romans 8), there is nothing in all of creation, not even death, that can keep us from God’s love. To be immersed in the promise that God will keep our lives, now and forever, is a promise that brings the courage to live in faith, hope and love.
The third promise goes like this, “I will bring you back to this land”. This might seem like an odd promise to us. I am not sure I would want the deed to the house I was raise in. Now if God were signing over a palatial sea side cottage on some Caribbean Island, well that would be different. However, in Jacob’s shattered life, this was a critically important promise. Land for semi-nomadic tribesmen was important. It was an identity, providing for family and security. For Jacob this was a huge and concrete promise.
Land and people remain an important issue and the promise of ‘going home’ can bring great hope. Many a refugee living in the squalor of an impromptu camp long to go home. Our first nations people speak a great deal about the land and its meaning to them. And when we die, we can speak of ‘going home’ for the Lord promises that He will bring us home.
In the light of this serendipitous encounter and these wonderful promises, how does Jacob respond? When he wakes up, fully conscious, he reflects on what he saw while he was asleep. His first impulse was one of fear, as we read in the story. It wasn’t so much a fear as in being scared out of one’s wits unable to function, as he was able to build an alter. I believe it was more a fear in the sense of awe and respect. When you get close to the Creator of all, awe and respect seems spot on! He says, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” (vs. 17). He called the place Bethel (the house of God) and it became a holy and sacred place for Israel in the years to come.
Next, he made a vow, “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives. And everything you give me, I’ll return a tenth to you.” (vs. 20-21). Jacob was prepared to repent and serve the God who was with him. And he understood that acknowledging the God who was present was not a spectator sport. It would involve his whole life with far reaching implications.
First, he would remember God and honour and worship God (this stone shall be God’s house). The God who saves us and is with us is the God we worship. We don’t have worship services to keep the minister out of trouble and the musician and ushers busy. We have services to praise God together and to listen to God speak to us so that we might find new ways of living as followers of Jesus. And second, Jacob promises a tithe – 10% of all he earned. When Jacob made that promise it was a pretty easy goal as he didn’t have a whole lot in hand. However, the day would come when he had huge flocks and a large family and 10% would be considerable. It is easy to say one trusts in the Lord, but it is a different matter to, as the saying goes, put your money where you mouth is. It was for Jacob a tangible way of saying ‘God is with me’.
Now being the bargain hunter he was, Jacob made his promise on the condition that God would do what God promised to do (vs. 20). Over a life time, Jacob learned God was faithful. And it all began when Jacob found himself between a rock and a hard place.
When you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – in fact, wherever you find yourself, do you know that God is close to you? Do you agree with the Psalmist (Ps. 139) when he sings there is no where we can go to avoid God? Do you trust Jesus’s promise: ‘I am with you always’ Matt 28:20 and ‘where I am so you will be” Jn 14:4?
The Lord our God is with us – and keeps us – and will bring us home. May you flourish in the freedom that this reality brings. All praise and glory be to our God!
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Our Offering Prayer
Lord, you own everything. Holy One, You freely share everything with us and all living things. Help us to be generous in our offerings and in our living. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hymn: Bless the Lord O My Soul
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Holy Lord God, we have so much for which to be thankful. We marvel that you consider us worthy enough to worship you. We give thanks that you send your Spirit into our lives so that we can believe you are present in all of life’s circumstances. We give thanks that when you make a promise nothing can break it. We give thanks for Your serendipitous ways of being with us even when we least expect it or think it possible. We give thanks for Your providential care – the many blessings that are ours and the good fortune of being alive here and now. In this quiet, we offer our personal thanks …
Lord of all, we pray for those we might know who struggle to believe that You are real and present and what’s more care about them. Holy Spirit, please make it overwhelmingly obvious to them and give them the presence of mind and soul to response well. We pray for one we know who is between a rock and a hard place and ask Lord Jesus that You reveal Yourself to them, guiding and using them for Your good purposes. We pray for one who is not well … who is depressed … grieving… We pray for one we love and miss.
Lord we pray for the Church and ask for Your Holy presence in all that is done and said in Your name. May we, as members of Christ’s body, flourish in Your promise to be with us always, sustaining us and keeping us for Your purposes. Help us to be good news to the world about us.
We pray for our world. Holy Spirit move in government and court chambers so peace and justice might be prevail. We pray for those who are caught in the midst of war or persecution. Holy One, may Your presence be known. We pray for those starving in famine or struggling in the pandemic. Grant grace to them and move those who can assist to do so. Holy One, may Your presence be known and You worshipped. We ask this in Jesus’ name who told us to pray this way:
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 debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever, and ever. Amen
Hymn: Open the Eyes of my Heart
Invitation to Mission
May the Lord, Mighty God, bless and keep.
May the Lord grant you peace and courage in every endeavor.
Lift your eyes and know His grace.
And live in the Spirit’s power to His glory.