1. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 19, 2021

Rev. Sabrina Ingram                                                                                                                     ADVENT 4

 

WORSHIPPING TOGETHER

 

Lighting of the Advent Candle (Hope is a star)

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession

Holy God, you love us with an everlasting love.  You are the great giver and all things come from you.  In this season of Advent, we give you praise for the great gift of Jesus.   We praise you for all that is ours because of him – blessings, wholeness, adoption, freedom, trust, an indescribable inheritance, and your Holy Spirit.    You are so gracious and generous to us.

 

We confess that we can’t really grasp the depths of your love.

Too often we still prefer the shadowed side of life to holiness.

We do not always live as your children in ways that are pleasing to you.

We abuse our freedom and break your trust.

We squander our inheritance and shame your Spirit.

Forgive us once again.  In this season of Christ’s coming, help us to repent and renew our commitment and love for you.

 

We remember today that you came not only for us but for people near and far.  Be with all who worship you today and make us one.

 

May our gift of worship bring you joy, for you alone our worthy.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon  Titus 3: 4 – 7

When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us,

not because of any works of righteousness that we had done,

but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,

 so that, having been justified by his grace,

we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 

 

Hymn: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

 

Children’s Time

 

Exchange of the Peace

 

Hymn: Joy to the World

 

Prayer for Illumination

Lord Jesus, into the darkness of our souls, you have shone like a blazing light giving us hope.   Shine in our minds and hearts today, that we may bear your light and bring the hope of your incarnation to the world.  Amen. 

 

Scripture Readings

Ephesians 1: 3 – 14

Luke 2: 1 – 7

 

Hymn: Go Tell it on the Mountain

 

Message:  Getting Closer:  Gift within a gift

Have you ever gotten a big gift box on Christmas morning, beautifully wrapped with loving care and opened it only to find another equally lovely box, and continued to find boxes within boxes – “gifts within the gift”.  I’ve always thought that would be fun, especially if the last box was very small and filled with something sparkly, and I don’t mean glitter glue.

 

A gift is more than an item in a box.  Gifts are symbolic.   They often symbolize our affection for the receiver and so are valuable beyond their cost.   A young man told me his girlfriend cried when he gave her a key to his apartment.  He was surprised by her reaction, saying, “It only cost me $8”.   At one time giving a mixed tape containing all the songs that hold special meaning to you and your love was the height of romance.    The sentiment and thought put into it were more significant than the cost.  Some gifts we give from a sense of duty or equity (you gave me something, now I’m obliged to get you something), most gifts are a symbol of love – we give them because we care about the person and want them to know.

 

Gifts can be powerful.  Genevieve Kingston tells of her mother, who died of cancer just before Genevieve’s 12th birthday.   Knowing she was dying, her mother grieved all her daughter’s life events she would miss.  She grieved for her child, who would not know her support and love throughout the years.  So, she spent her last few years creating a special gift.  Shortly before she died, Mom gave her daughter a box.  Within it were many boxes marked with tags for special occasions yet to come – your 16th birthday, driver’s license, going to college, engagement, wedding, birth of your first child.  In each box was a gift and a letter.  On her 12th birthday, the box held an amethyst ring and a note about how Mom always wanted a birthstone ring as a child.  High school graduation held a string of pearls and a note saying that in her high school girls got pearls on graduating, but she had dropped out of HS to travel; years later, after graduating from college, she bought herself these pearls.  Genevieve wrote, “She wanted me to know there was more than one path to walk through the world”.  Genevieve concluded, “My mother’s gifts, her letters, are a constant reminder that I have already been given what every child, what every human, needs: I have been fiercely, extravagantly, wildly loved.”

 

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus.  Of all the generous and plentiful blessings God gives, Jesus is God’s greatest gift, the symbol of God’s love.  Through him we experience the living power of that love   Within the gift of Jesus, there are other gifts.  Jesus is the “container” in which we discover many other valuable presents.  Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes a number of the gifts that are within God’s gift of Jesus.

 

Within Christ our first gift is God’s blessings.  Paul begins by saying, “How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him” (vs. 1 – 3).  The NRSV says, God gives us “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”.   Rather than speaking about a reward after death, Paul is saying that in Christ, God gives us the absolute fullness of his blessings. God gives us happiness, bliss, joy which are all synonyms for the word blessing.  Not only does God offer the blessings of this imperfect world, he also gives us the glory of a perfect state of being.  In Christ, God gives us access to all the delights of heaven.  He lifts us up, opening to us the wonders of his realm beyond this realm.

 

The next gift is to be chosen by God, in Christ, to be “whole and holy by his love.” (vs 4).  The mystery of this choosing is that you have held a place in God’s heart since before time and space began – from before the foundation of the world.  And because you are the focus of God’s love, God wants us to be whole, holy and blameless.  Just as being chosen is a mystery and what existed before God laid the foundation of the world is too much for us to fathom, being holy and blameless is also beyond our reach.  Even the best among us are imperfect.  We do unholy things and think unholy thoughts.  None of us are blameless.  We participate in life in ways that hurt, destroy, breakdown, and oppress.   Through Christ, we’re brought into the presence of The Holy One.  United with Christ, we are made whole, holy and blameless in God’s eyes.  To see us as we are, not in and of ourselves but in Christ is an immense grace.

 

As we continue, we find another gift.  Paul tells us, “Through Christ, God destined us for adoption as his children”.  God took “great pleasure in planning this” (vs. 5 & 6).   I have known many people who were adopted as infants.  They weren’t adopted for their looks, brains, good deeds, or special abilities.  In infancy, these qualities are not yet clear.  Apart from the intrinsic value of a human life, infants claim no merit.   Babies are adopted because their parents want them. These parents freely opened their hearts to tiny strangers and made them their own.  They extended grace to these children, offering them a good life and a secure home not because the children had earned that love, but because they needed to be loved and cared for.   Adoption benefits the child and may bring joy to the parents, but parents also pay a price – the cost of raising a child, the extra work, the lack of freedom, the worry that comes with parenthood.   When God adopts us into his covenant family, it is because of his expansive open heart.   Adoption says more about God than it does about us.  We reap the benefits while God pays the price.  When God in Christ, welcomes us, not as outsiders but as children, it is a costly gift, a gift beyond measure.

 

But wait, there’s more.  The next gift we discover is freedom!  All this is possible “Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah” whose “blood poured out on the altar of the Cross”.  Jesus’ sacrifice made us “a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!”  (vs. 7 & 8).   Jesus is not a toy that lies in a box and doesn’t do anything.  Jesus is the greatest real-life action hero.   Jesus died a brutal death on a cross, but through his death we were reclaimed as his own.  Our sins have been forgiven.  God has erased them all and set us free.  He’s let go of our rebellion and disregard of him and lavishes the gift of his grace on us.  God’s gift of redemption in Christ is freely and lovingly given and he pours it out extravagantly, in endless streams of living water.

 

And now we come to a gift of further revelation.  When I was a kid, I liked to eavesdrop on grown-up conversations. I was often shooed away due to adult content.  Somewhere along the line, things changed, I was welcomed into the inner circle of adults with their thoughts, plans, woes, stories, and jokes.  Gradually, my input was accepted.  It was an honour, a gift to be invited in.  God gifts us with the same honour, in Christ.  God has a cosmic plan “for the fullness of time” and he’s let us in on it.  He has, “made known to us the mystery of his will” (vs. 9).   It is God’s intention “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (vs. 10).   At the end of time, all things both heavenly and earthly, all historical events and all divine truths, all earthly experiences and all eternal realities will be pulled together in Christ.  We share God’s hope for the day when Christ’s redemption is fulfilled, and we see his kingdom come.

 

In the next gift, we discover God has not only adopted us, he’s made us co-heirs with Christ.  God has put us in his will.  Because of Christ we have hope for a secure future in and we have the assurance that our hope will come to be fulfilled.  “In Christ we find out who we are and what we are living for” (vs. 11).   In Christ we have our identity; we are God’s children and we “live for his praise and glory” (vs. 12).

 

And there is yet another gift within the gift of Christ and that is the Holy Spirit, the sparkly thing at the core of all gifts.  By the Spirt, we are “home free—signed, sealed, and delivered”.  (vs. 13).   We have heard the word of truth and believed the good news of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Christ promised his Spirit to all those who trust in him.  The Spirit of Christ teaches, guides, comforts and advocates for us.  The Spirit is “Christ with us” at all times and in every circumstance.  The Spirit ensures that whatever life task and ministry God gives us, we will be able to come through for him, and whatever God promises us, he will come through for us.

 

It appears we’ve opened all the gifts within the gift of Jesus.  But Paul’s final note tells us there is more still to come.  This is just the “down payment” on the “first installment of what’s coming”.  It’s only the beginning of God’s generosity – a glimpse of what awaits us.  With these gifts, God reminds us, and assures us we will get everything he has planned for us, everything he has hidden away for us, in Christ.  God keeps more surprises for another occasion, but we can be sure that all his gifts will all add up to a glorious life of praise to him.

 

Within the gift of Jesus, we find these gifts:  blessings, wholeness, adoption, freedom, and knowledge of God’s plan.  We discover that we are heirs with Christ. We’re given the Holy Spirit.    Who knew there was so much tied up in one tiny package?  All of these gifts are symbolic – they are signs of God’s love for us.  As an infant, Jesus may have been wrapped in swaddling cloths but as a gift from God, he is tied with a huge bow of love.  God’s gift of Christ, all the gifts within him and all the messages within those gifts are constant reminders that we have already been given what every person needs.  Because of God’s generous gifts in the birth of Jesus, we know that we are fiercely, extravagantly, wildly loved.

 

Silent prayer and reflection

 

Receiving of Offering (hymn:  we give our hearts to you)

 

Offertory Prayer:

Generous God, you have spoiled us with the gift of your Son and the gift of grace that is ours because of him.    We offer you what we bring today.  Small gifts by comparison yet given with grateful and dedicated hearts.  Bless and multiply these gifts so they may bring never-ending blessings to the world you love.  Amen.

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

God of Grace, who came to us in our Lord Jesus Christ,

We thank you for your faithfulness to us throughout all generations.

You have given new life to the world through those who took up the promises you made to their fathers and mothers and followed your way in the world.

In this time and in the time to come,

raise up generations who will live the new life you promise in Christ Jesus.

We pray that there will be witnesses to Christ through your church in every neighbourhood and nation.

 

Thank you, for the faithful saints we have known in our lives, who have served in our congregation and who strengthen our hope and faith.

Make us as faithful as those who have gone before us,

so that our ministry and mission in Jesus’ name will be renewed,

engaging the world in refreshing, respectful ways so that others will know your love and mercy.

 

We pray today for those struggling with loss and discouragement this season:

for those who have lost someone dear;

for those who cannot find meaningful work;

and all who fear the uncertainty of the world.

Embrace them with your compassion and strength to persevere.

 

We pray for those for whom sickness and death

obscure your promise of health and salvation;

We think particularly of those we know who are ill and suffering…

And those who are sad and grieving…

We pray for those who have are without hope and have given up on themselves and on the goodness of others…

We remember those who face conflict in their homes or their homelands…

We pray for the creation that has suffered from fire, storm and earthquake this year,

and for the lives disrupted by drought and despair…

 

Embrace all who suffer with your comfort, courage and faith.   Give them your Holy Spirit so the new possibilities that are offered in the birth of Jesus may be born in every heart.

 

God of All Life and Each Life,

come to us and be with us once more as we celebrate Christ’s birth.

With the tenderness of your Spirit, lighten our burdens,

and show us new opportunities for our own lives

and for the ministries we take up in Jesus’ name,

for we pray together as he taught us:

 

The Lord’s Prayer

 

Hymn: Christians Awake

 

Invitation to Mission

We go from here having been brought from darkness to light

We go with praise and thanksgiving

We go with the love of Christ in our hearts

We go to shine the light of Christ on all we meet

 

Benediction   May the Triune God bless and keep you.  Amen. 

 

Postlude Hymn: Wexford Carol