STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 9, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER
Call to Worship: John 1: 1 – 5
The Word was first,
the Word present to God, God present to the Word.
The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.
Everything was created through him.
nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
God of wonder, you are the Word, the ground in which all meaning lies. You are the essence of all expectation and the fulfillment of all hope. We worship you.
You are the eternal Word voiced from before the foundation of the Earth. By your words, you spoke all things into being. You overwhelm us with awe.
Your Word holds true. You promise to bring light into our darkness. In Jesus, all your promises became reality. We exalt your holy name.
We confess that we are too often unaffected by your Word. We speak a lot, but our words are empty; we do not participate in your eternal dialogue. Our prayers too often consist of telling you what we want, instead of listening to your desires and needs. We want to stand in your place. We do not want to do what you call us to do. We avoid and evade, not only you, but our responsibilities here on Earth.
Our word means little. We waffle in our decisions. We do not stand up for what is right or true. Too often we have looked for loopholes to release us from our promises. We have failed those we love with our inconsistencies. We have broken trust with you and others.
Beyond all that, we defile your holy name and so we defile you. We use your name in careless ways, without a thought for you. We say your name when we are angry, bringing down curses on others.
Lord, we deserve to hear your “no”, to be cut out of the picture, to have you turn away from us. Yet, you have given us your Word of grace. You say “no” to the darkness that threatens to envelope us, and offer us wonderful words of life. When we say “yes” to you, you say “yes” to us. You offer us the fullness of life, the great “yes” to all that is good. You make us heirs to all your promises.
As we worship today, make us aware of your generous love, of your consistent blessings, and of your open arms which welcome us. Give us ears to hear you speak, hearts full of love towards you, and words of praise with which to adore you. May we be part of your creative work, so all the world will see Christ, your eternal Word, made flesh once again, through us. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: John 1: 9 – 12
The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life he brings into Light.
He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.
Prayer for Illumination: Lord Jesus, you came into our world, the Word made flesh. As we listen to your written Word, give us a new birth, so that, by your Holy Spirit, our words will reflect your truth. Through us may you be incarnate in our world once more. Amen.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one”. Matthew 5: 33 – 37 NRSV
“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”
Genesis 1: 1 – 3
Hebrews 6: 13 – 20
Matthew 26: 59 – 66
When my children were young, they would ask, sometimes, if we could do a particular thing. In order to buy some time to look into it, check with their father or avoid incessant begging, I’d say, “Maybe, we’ll see”. That ended the day my daughter turned to her brother with glee and said, “We’re going to go. ‘Maybe’ means ‘yes’”. From then on, I did my best to heed the words of Jesus, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”.
Jesus spoke these words in the context of making oaths. In several places in scripture, we’re told, “No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name” (Exodus 20:7). Again, we read, “Don’t swear falsely using my name, violating the name of your God. I am God” (Leviticus 19:12). The Rabbinical schools of Jesus day debated on where the emphasis lies. Was it on “using (or abusing) the name of God” or on using God’s name “in vain.” The first implies that it is wrong to use God’s name, so the oath part is secondary. The second implies that it’s okay to use God’s name as long as you keep your oath.
The name of God is sacred because a name represents the “person” behind it. Whatever our preferred name for God “Yahweh, I am, Lord, God, or Father” or “Jesus, Jesus Christ” or “Holy Spirit” we’re not simply using a label, we’re invoking the person. We know the Triune God by his gracious self-revelation, but God is much greater than we are. God is holy and God’s name is sacred. Our Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier is worthy of our worship. To use God’s name without intention or worse, with empty or evil intention is to insult God. It devalues God’s person. When we use the Divine name in vain, we strip the Holy One of the honour and “glory due to his name” (Psalm 96:8). Today most people, and I am too often am one of them, banter around phrases like “O my God” or “My Word” (which actually refers to Jesus) or even “O my Goodness” without meaning to address our Lord. I was dismayed at the response of one of our Clerks of Assembly when asked to explain why it would be wrong to say “O my God” or use “OMG” in a text. He responded that God’s name is holy. Then, instead of urging the inquirer to break the habit as a witness to our faith, he dismissed it as being unimportant. He was sure “God wouldn’t care” if the person continued to use it. That’s a far cry from, “for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7 NRSV). God’s name was so sacred to the Jews, they avoided saying it or writing it. Still today Orthodox Jews will use the symbol “G-d” to avoid God’s name in writing. The holy name of God deserves respect, and Christians should uphold it with reverence. We also use the name of Jesus to express anger, as if we’re either mad at Jesus, or we want him to smite the person at whom we are mad. In this way, it’s an expression of intimidation (or was when people believed in Jesus) not grace. It threatens the judgement and punishment of Christ. It’s also arrogant, as if we control who and when Christ will judge. These too are vain uses of God’s name.
When we think of “swearing”, we think of it as using any number of four-letter words which society once deemed as inappropriate for proper company or for use by “Christian ladies and gentlemen”. We’re all aware of the legendary story of the movie Gone with the Wind which was almost banned because “Frankly, my dear” Rhett Butler “didn’t give a damn”. Today, TV is riddled with the “F” word. Terry and I watched the first season of a show that used so few profanities, we noticed how refreshing it was. The second season made up for it and then some, which was disappointing. They did it to make the show more “realistic” and to increase the ratings (what does that say about our culture?). While such words are impolite, this is not what the Bible means by “swearing”. “Swearing”, first, refers to the use of God’s name. Strong language may not be well-mannered and may even show a lack of education as well as curtesy, but Scripture doesn’t mention or prohibit it. Referring to your bodily waste by a grossly descriptive label isn’t “swearing” in the true sense of the word. You can be as disgusting in your language as you wish. However, speaking harshly to someone or offending them isn’t behaviour that reflects the love of Christ, so before you open your mouth with a barrage of vulgarities, you may want to consider the affect they’ll have on your audience. True “swear” words consist of “blasphemy” – using God’s name irreverently or hollowly, and “cursing” (“cussing”) someone by judging and damning them to suffering or hell. Or they may reduce something that is meant to be sublime – like sex, into something profane. Finally, the word “swear” when used in Scripture refers to swearing in the sense of taking an oath.
The Jews of Jesus day realized that if you make a pledge using God’s name, you call on God to witness and participate in keeping that promise; this is akin to what we do in prayer when we ask for God’s strength to fulfill a particular undertaking. Therefore, if you call on God, you’d better follow through, or you make God a liar. However, if you didn’t call on God, say, if you swore an oath based on something else – such as heaven, earth, Jerusalem or even your head, (or your mother’s grave, or the Bible), it lent weight to your words, but if you didn’t follow through, it was no big deal. People might defend this with Deuteronomy 23: 21 & 22: “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt.” The Jews saw this as a way of getting around the intention of an oath. Once again, Jesus looks beyond the practice to the heart and will of the person doing it. He points out that “swearing” by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, your head or anything else, is equivalent to swearing on the name of God because everything in creation belongs to God. God is not an egg yolk that can be separated from the white – God can’t be separated from his creation. As well as being “above all”, God is “in all and through all” (Ephesians 4: 6). So, to make an oath calling upon any of these things, was equivalent to making an oath by God’s name. And anyone who made an oath should be true to their word, “If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Keep the vow you willingly vowed to God, your God. You promised it, so do it” (Deuteronomy 23: 23). But once again, Jesus takes this a step further. “You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ (Matthew 5: 37). In other words, don’t make oaths at all. Be a person of integrity. Be true to your word. If you say “yes” do it. If you don’t want to do it, say “no”. Jesus didn’t have much tolerance for passive aggressive games, where one says “yes” with no intention of even trying. Back in the day, people sealed a deal with their word and a handshake. When I first moved to this area, I replaced some carpeting. I went to the store and made my choice. The salesman wrote up the bill, gave me the delivery date and said goodbye. Perplexed, I asked him if he’d like a down-payment. He said, “no”. I was amazed that anyone still did business that way! Then he humorously added, “We know where to find you.” I was still impressed. Store owners ask for a down-payment as a way of ensuring the buyer will follow through. They learned to do this because people can no longer be counted on to keep their word. As Christians, we need to be like Dr. Seuss’ elephant, Horton, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.” Giving our word is a matter of trust. When we fail to keep our word, we break trust. People conclude they can’t rely on us. We no longer have their confidence. There are too many stories today about children of divorced parents who wait faithfully by the door for one parent to arrive as promised, only to be disappointed and grow angry. When commitments, at work or school, aren’t met, people are adept at making excuses: “the dog ate my homework”; “I was sick”. Excuses are really lies to cover the breaking of a contract. In marriage, we vow to be faithful to the other person, yet look how many marriages, how many families and how many hearts, are torn apart by adultery. All the oaths in the world mean nothing if we don’t keep them. Jesus wants us to stop making empty promises and to start keeping our word. “Yes” and “no” are essential concepts that reveal a person’s integrity.
Words are important. With words, God created. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Our words are to be real and incarnate as well. Imagine hiring a surveyor to mark the dividing line between your and your neighbour’s property, only to be told, “yeah, it’s over there somewhere”. Imagine being a child who asks to play in the ravine on his own and the parent says, “Whatever you think”. Imagine being a client with an agreed upon deadline. When the product doesn’t arrive, you call the provider who says, “Oh, I thought you meant some time this year.” Words define, protect and clarify only when they’re fleshed out and made tangible.
The words “yes” and “no” create boundaries. They define what is and isn’t ours, and what we will and won’t do. Beyond that, they define who we are. This is why a two-year-old, who’s learning he is a separate entity from his mother, uses the word “no” liberally. This is why, in a dating situation, “no means no”. This is the reason a ‘No Trespassing” sign means “stay out”. People cannot freely say “yes”, until they’re able to say “no”. A woman I know, when asked to do anything she doesn’t not want to do, responds, “No, I am unable to do that.” Her drawn out “no” clearly defines not only what she’s unwilling to do, but it defines her as a strong person who knows her mind and won’t be pushed around or used. Within the Church, our leaders are encouraged to ask people for the help they need, while allowing for them to say “no” without guilt or embarrassment. Whether at church, work, school or home, too often we say “yes” from a sense of duty or a need to take care of people, when we should say “no”. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to say “yes”, but we have too many commitments, ill health, family responsibilities, etc. Sometimes we could say “yes” because we have the time and energy, but the task is inspiring or doesn’t use our gifts. Sometimes “no” is needed for others to take responsibility for their obligations, to protect ourselves or to limit indulgencing others. “No” is a good word. “Yes” is also a good word. “Yes” moves things along and opens possibilities. “Yes” invites people in. “Yes” sets us on a new adventure. “Yes” brings us salvation. When used for good, “yes” is a word that blesses. Imagine a world without “yes”.
When Jesus tells us to forgo the oaths and become a trustworthy person of character, he is not asking us to be someone he is not. Jesus came to lay down his life to save humanity. It was his promise to the Trinity. When the horror of the cross was before him, Jesus could have said “no” and called down an army of angels. But he kept his word. He let his “yes be yes”. He kept the eternal Word of the God who loves us. Out of Jesus’ “yes” came an avalanche of goodness and blessings. As Paul says, “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason, it is through him that we say the “Amen, yes,” to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1: 19 & 20).
Questions for Reflection:
When do you use the name of God in ways that do not honour God’s nature?
Do you look for ways to avoid making or keeping promises?
Are you a person of integrity who follows through on their word? Can you think of a time when you failed to do this? What were the consequences?
Is it hard or easy for you to set boundaries? Are you able to say “no”? To what would you want to say “yes”?
In what ways has God made and kept promises to you?
What is the Holy Spirit urging you to change about yourself?
Offering: Lord God, our King and Saviour, today we offer to you our words. We say “yes” to you, and “no” to the temptations of the evil one. May our hearts and our actions match our words. May we find the courage to speak your Word to the world, so that people everywhere will join us in saying “yes” to you, to your glory. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
God of all people,
You loved the world so much you sent your Son to die for us. We thank you for the gift of salvation, for washing us clean and giving us new life.
In your providential love and grace, you sustain the world and all who live in it giving us the gift of life which is new every morning. We thank you.
We thank you for the gift of health. This pandemic touches all of us, reminding us of our common humanity. We are all susceptible to turmoil and fear. We are all vulnerable to sickness and death. We are all at risk of losing someone we love. Yet, we’re aware of the discrepancies between countries, between social classes, and between races, which give some advantages over others. We thank you for the advantages we do have, yet we are aware of your desire and our responsibilities. You long to draw us into one family, united in Christ; give us courage to speak of your grace. You long for us to join you in creating your kingdom on Earth; give us the generosity to put the needs of others before our own.
Amazing God, we are grateful because you heal us. You come to us in unforeseen circumstances and in unexpected people. We give you thanks for all the healers and heroes who have stepped forward during the pandemic to serve with kindness and courage. We pray for them and their families, who have made many sacrifices to keep others well. Give our leaders wisdom to address these unique times, and give our scientists insight in creating a vaccine. Fill our hearts with compassion for all who are afraid, who suffer or who grieve.
God of peace, we are blessed by your reassurance. You remind us that in the midst of troubles, you are our rock. We pray for all people who live in precarious situations. Confirm for them they are not forgotten. We name before you:
those who are ill…
those in long-term care homes…
those who grieve…
those who suffer from depression and other mental illness…
those who are in difficult financial positions…
those who are alone…
those who are harassed…
those with family discord…
those who do not yet know you…
May they know your peace and strength.
Equip us to reach out in every way we can, to embody your love in our words and actions.
God of hope, you challenge us. We thank you that you call us out of complacency and urge us to stand for justice. We live in times of conflict over inequalities that should not exist. We pray for all those people crying out for fair treatment, working against racism and discrimination, telling painful stories of their lives. Bring them healing and the validity they seek. Help us to resolve discrepancies in ways that bring peace and wholeness.
We pray for those whose hearts are hard, who feel threatened and who resist the voices which cry for justice. Open their minds to the experiences of others and show them new possibilities for relationships that bridge divides. Send your Spirit to work in our communities to create mutual respect and new ways to live as neighbours. Open people’s hearts with understanding and motivate us all to work together for change.
Lord, you also call us to work for truth. We pray for our police. We know that, like all people, some have evil hearts, a hunger for power and they act out their hatred in despicable ways. We pray that you would change their hearts and root out those who are abusive. We also know there are those who serve with integrity working to keep our communities safe for all. Help us not to devalue them or abandon them.
These are challenging times. Give us eyes to see what is in front of us. We pray that systems which are biased and fuel racism, will see great and positive changes. Help us not to fear those changes, but to participate in them. Teach your Church to let go of our sense of entitlement; remind us we are chosen, not to be above others, but to serve them. Give all people love and empathy that take us beyond our narrow viewpoints. Keep all people from wrongdoing. Free us all from prejudice.
Finally, we pray for the people of Lebanon who lost loved ones or were injured in the explosion. We pray for those whose houses and cars were destroyed and for those who are fearful. We pray for unity within that country. We thank you also for Israel’s compassion in offering aid to the injured. May gestures of kindness move us towards a more peaceful world.
Faithful God, we place our trust in you and your purposes. Answer our prayers according to your wisdom and will, for we offer them humbly in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray together:
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission:
God has given us a voice.
We go from here to speak God’s truth,
to speak our truth,
and to bring glory to God’s holy name
by being true to those words.
May the Triune God bless you and keep you.