STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JANUARY 10, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Epiphany 1
WORSHIPPING TOGETHER AT HOME
Call to Worship Matthew 28: 16 – 20
The risen Jesus gave this charge to his disciples: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” The disciples worshipped him, giving themselves totally.
Let us do likewise.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Gracious God, we praise you for the messages of prophets and angels which pointed us towards Jesus our Saviour. Your Word became a human being and lived with us. We praise your for Jesus’ resurrection; his death rescued us from sin, his resurrection saved us from eternal destruction. Many people kept Jesus story alive, by verbally remembering his life and words and then by writing the story of salvation for us to read and understand. Millions of words have been written by theologians which unpack and make sense of Jesus’ mission. The words of ministers, preachers and evangelists have brought us to believe and strengthen our faith. We praise you for the wonderful ways in which your truth has spread.
We confess that we are not so eager to speak about our faith. Many people find what we believe ridiculous and we can be embarrassed to share. Our enthusiasm for Christ wavers. We are often more concerned with the well-being of people here and now, so we lack compassion for their eternal outcome. We have applied ourselves to studying your word and we do not trust the Holy Spirit to be with us. Yet we realize that without our participation, your word will not spread. Help us to find courage and love so that we can reach out to others with the good news of Jesus Christ.
As we worship today, we think of all the people who are worshipping with us, especially those in our faith family. Bless them and unite us so we may be assured that we are still one in your Spirit. Help us to hear your word and receive your grace. May our worship be beautiful in your sight, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Romans 1: 16 & 17
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Prayer for Illumination:
Lord God, just as you revealed your Word in Jesus of Nazareth, help us to speak the words of life to our neighbours so that they too may know and follow Jesus. Amen.
1 Corinthians 1: 17 – 27
Luke 2: 15 – 20
Message: Christmas in the time of CoVid: Spreading
Which do you want first the good news or the bad news? Since I can’t hear your answer, I’ll give you a choice. Let’s start with the bad news first: The bad news is that while you’re working at a bank a group of masked people come in. The good news is they don’t have CoVid, they’re just robbing the place. Now, the good news first: The good news is that people are staying home. The bad news is the Jehovah’s Witnesses know this and they aren’t. On a less humorous note: The good news is pharmaceutical companies have developed vaccinations. The bad news is that just as they did, the virus mutated. Staying home, wearing masks, getting vaccinated, physical distancing, and washing our hands are all part of a responsible social contract to stop the spread of CoVid 19. Despite our collective efforts, the world has, as of Thursday, recorded close to 87.4 million cases and 1.89 million deaths. What’s worse, the numbers continue to go up. We are all tired of being diligent. We would all like to go to Hawaii. We don’t give in to these impulses because CoVid is a highly communicable disease. We know this because we see its impact. However, even before the virus hit Canada, we knew this because people kept telling us. We get updates and information every day. Those who have been ill share their experiences. Authorities we trust, such as medical experts; local hospital staff; informed politicians; and every news anchor in the world, give us messages, warnings, and directives in an attempt to save as many people as possible. It is a constant topic of conversation. Not only is CoVid spreading but the word about CoVid is spreading. And we give thanks that it is, otherwise, the disease would be spreading even faster, more people would be suffering, and many more people would be dead. Bad news spreads quickly. Good news? Not so much – as every evening news report reminds us.
As Christians we are bearers of Good News and we are called to spread it. There is no question that Jesus taught his disciples to spread the good news of God’s kingdom. He sent them out on mission trips for that purpose. And there is no question that all followers of Jesus are directed to spread the good news of God’s grace in Christ, which is the way God’s kingdom comes. The question is: are we going to do it?
At the time of Jesus birth, angels appeared to the shepherds to deliver a message. Having heard their words, the shepherds went quickly to discover for themselves (as we all must do) the truth of the Angel’s announcement. When they arrived on the scene and saw the baby, the first thing they did was tell Joseph and Mary and “everyone they met” (Luke 2: 17) about their experience and what it meant. An angel came with good news; an angel choir sang God’s praises; your baby is the Saviour; he will bring peace. Luke tells us the listeners were “amazed” and “impressed”. But that could mean a lot of things. Perhaps not everyone who heard them believed their story. Perhaps they thought it was a great but wild story or that the shepherds were delusional. Or perhaps people did believe them; they thought it was an extraordinary encounter. They not only believed the event happened as told, but they also even believed that the Saviour was lying in a manger right in front of them. Like Mary, maybe some of them went off to consider all that had happened and what it meant. The shepherds didn’t worry about the reactions of their listeners. Their experience was too wonderful not to share it. They couldn’t hold it inside.
Part of what makes us spread the good news is the excitement of our own experience. To regain this excitement, Christians may need to think back to the first time we heard or understood the gospel. What need of yours did Jesus meet? Were you seeking healing or forgiveness? Were you lost and needed to be found? Empty and needed the Bread of Life? What is your earliest memory of Jesus and how did that impact your life and your interactions with others? As an adult how has Christ supported and sustained you through times of crisis? When you think about these things, be as detailed and specific as possible. What has moved you to worship God? For what are you thankful? You might also think about what the Church has meant to you over the years and how it has given you both roots and wings. What is it about your congregation that you value? Whatever part of your faith journey fills you with joy, peace, gratitude, or excitement is a story worth sharing.
We also spread the good news out of compassion for others. The whole world is talking about CoVid because people want to save lives. Like God, they spread the word because they don’t want anyone to die (sv John 3:16). They realize people are afraid. One way to curb fear is not to tell people the truth, or to downplay the severity of the threat. That was the approach of the leadership in the USA. What happened when the whole story wasn’t told? People died. The President was criticized for his lack of compassion. Jesus is the one who reconciles humanity and God. Since union with God is life, separation from God leads to death. And since we’re talking about spiritual things, we are speaking of eternal death. Are we as concerned for people’s eternal well-being as we are for their physical well-being? Do we have compassion for those who are spiritually dying? Does the thought of eternal separation from God make you want to tell people what God has done in order for them to stay alive? What will happen to our family members, our neighbours, friends and acquaintances if we don’t tell them the truth, or if we pretend there is not a serious spiritual threat out there? If we’re truly a compassionate people, we will spread the life-giving word.
But do we really have to use our words? Do words even matter? Every day for almost a year, we’ve been bombarded with news about CoVid. There has been a constant stream of words. Why? So that people will get the message. What would happen to our world if no one ever spoke of CoVid? If people like Theresa Tam didn’t give us the statistics and solemnly warn us to pay attention and keep acting. If Doug Ford didn’t plead with us to stay home and stop the spread? Not only would we have a pandemic, but we’d also have pandemonium. Words make a difference. (I’m reviewing this in the aftermath of the storming in the US Capitol building, where we see the power of words in action. What one person says can incite or calm the many).
But do words make a difference to the Christian message? Can’t we just show our faith in action? Isn’t that more powerful than mere words? Living our faith is certainly essential; James tells us that “faith without works is dead” (2:2). It’s important for us to bear witness to our spiritual transformation with our actions and to be consistent. Why? Actions are needed to encourage the coming of God’s kingdom on Earth. They’re also important because our actions back up our words. They prove that what we’re saying is real. But the words are needed. Without words our actions go unnoticed. Would the shepherd’s have noticed the birth of Jesus without the angel’s words? Without words, people don’t understand the significance of our actions. Even if they’d somehow stumbled across a newborn, they would have simply thought he was just another infant. God had acted, but without hearing the good news the shepherds would not have come to believe in Jesus. They would not have been transformed. They would not have been saved. Words make a difference. As Paul argues, “How can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted [Jesus]? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Romans 10:14).
But let’s face it – we’re ashamed of the gospel. In the eyes of the world, what we profess is weird. Only crazy people and zombie masters believe that people come back from the dead. If we spread what we believe, we’ll be ridiculed. We’ll suffer for our faith. It will create emotional discomfort for everyone involved. That would be impolite. Paul, who was perhaps the most influential evangelist who ever lived, acknowledged that the cross was foolishness to those who aren’t saved, but to those who are saved it’s God’s power. In Jesus’ death on the cross lies our salvation. To be rescued from sin; to gain victory over death is no small feat. Its powerful. Paul points out that many wise philosophers attempted to discover this power through wisdom. They had good and lofty ideas, but those ideas didn’t reconcile them to God. Because God wanted to restore his relationship with humanity, he used “what the world considered dumb [the cross and our words] to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1: 21). Paul was grateful to God for rescuing him by grace through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. He believed with his whole being. If Jesus wasn’t ashamed of him, he could never be ashamed of Jesus. Paul suffered for his faith and for his words, but he considered “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Paul was willing to put up with much more than ridicule or discomfort because he believed that it his sufferings were nothing compared to what God had done for him and will do for him. What is it we believe?
In fairness, it’s not always shame that shuts our mouths, sometimes it’s a lack of confidence. We feel that we don’t understand our faith well enough or that our Biblical knowledge is too limited. That is no doubt true. Both those things can be remedied through study and prayer. But spreading our good news is more like sharing a personal story than defending a theological, doctrinal thesis. Heated, testy arguments rarely lead someone to find wholeness in Christ. We don’t need to know it all. Not only did God choose a foolish method – the cross, and a foolish means – words, he also chose foolish people (1 Corinthians 1: 26f) – us. None of us has all the answers, but we do have the solution to the pain caused by alienation from God and to death which is caused by sin. That’s not to say we go around with an air of superiority judging or even solving people’s personal, spiritual dilemmas. What we know is what Christ means to us, how we have experienced him in our lives and what he has done to heal, save, liberate and/or make us whole. We know how we’ve changed because of him. We know the peace and joy he gives us. In other words, we know our own story. Like the angels, we only have to share our message and point people towards the Saviour. Few people are evangelists like Billy Graham who clearly was called and anointed by the Spirit to do a very particular ministry. I’m not an evangelist. Evangelism isn’t one of my gifts. It’s probably not yours either. God doesn’t expect you to share your faith over a loudspeaker to a crowd of thousands. But each of us can spread the good news in the hope of keeping someone from being destroyed by the bad news. Peter urges us, “Do not fear as others fear, and do not be intimidated. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone why you’re living the way you are. Be able to give an accounting for the hope that is in you; with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). And remember, people always want to hear good news.
Offertory Prayer: God, we come today offering our gifts. We know that compared to the great gift of Jesus Christ, they are small. Among these gifts we offer you our worship, giving ourselves totally to you. We offer our actions so that through us, others may see you. We offer our words so that those who are lost may come to the fold of the good shepherd. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
We thank you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit that in a broken, fragile world, you are our hope; you are our salvation; you are our support. You have come into our lives and given each of us a story to tell. There is power in our words which bring healing and salvation. We are honoured that you call us to spread Good News. Give us the integrity to live our faith and the courage to speak words of eternal life.
We thank you for the strength you give us to continue each day, enduring isolation. We thank you that a vaccination is on the horizon and pray that it will be effective. We remember all those who are ill with CoVid, especially those who are most vulnerable. We recognize their anxiety. We pray for their healing. We also pray for those who grieve the death of a loved one, not only in our country but around the world. Give them peace.
We thank you for the leaders within our country who are showing their concern for their people and making difficult decisions. We recognize the drain CoVid has placed on them. Encourage their hearts and give them strength. We pray for our country as we witness the resignation of many influential people. We know this creates gaps in leadership and erodes our stability as a nation. We pray that you would hold Canada and each person in it in your loving arms. Keep us strong.
We thank you for democracies around the world where people are free to choose their leadership and where human and civil rights are protected. We pray for countries that are oppressed under dictatorships or socialist regimes. We pray for their freedom. We pray for the United States as their leadership changes from one person to another. This week we’ve seen protests and uprisings of people who believe they have been cheated. We see people who feel they have been disenfranchised and that their chance for recognition is fading. We see people who are guided by hatred and disrespect for their fellow human beings. We pray that you would transform their thinking and their hearts. You have taught that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Give the American people the will to work together with respect and hope. Remind them of the positive role they can play in our world.
We thank you for our brothers and sisters in Christ and especially for our friends at St. Stephen’s. We are eager to return to worship and to the support of those who love us. We remember those who are ill and in need; those who are grieving; those who are suffering emotionally; those who are weary; those we love who have fallen away from you. We pray that they would sense your Spirit with them. Where it is your will, bring healing, determination, hope, health and faith.
We thank you that you are always hearing our prayers, that your love for us is unending, and that we can trust you to answer our petitions according to your will and for our best. Hear us now as we pray together saying…
Invitation to Mission:
We go from here to speak the good news of Jesus Christ.
Benediction: May the Triune God bless and keep you.