Welcome, Cheviot churches! We worship together on this 2nd Sunday of Epiphany
Call to Worship
How precious is God’s steadfast love!
We will find refuge in the shelter of God’s wings.
Come and feast on God’s abundance.
We will drink from the river of God’s delights.
For with God is the fountain of life;
And in God’s light we will see light.
Hymn 327 – Brightest and Best (1,3,4)
Prayers of Adoration and Confession
God of light and life,
as the new year unfolds before us, we begin to feel the sunlight coming back to brighten the winter.
Our spirits grow stronger in the light.
You shine your light into our lives in your Son Jesus.
Your Spirit strengthens us to face whatever this year will hold.
Ever-hospitable God, the storehouse of your love never runs dry. We taste and see your goodness, overflowing, spilling into our lives and the life of the world— love, grace, and mercy enough for all, and more besides. Generous God, forgive us when, in fear, we withhold your grace, worrying that there may not be enough to go around; or, when we judge that others may not be worthy of your blessing. Forgive us when we share your grace with those ‘like us’ and those who like us, forgetting that all of humanity is our neighbour, and all are invited to your feast.
Be assured. No power in heaven or on earth can separate us from God’s great love.
Take heart, and know that we are forgiven.
Readings – Isaiah 62:1-5
Hymn 201 – Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (1,3,4)
Heavenly Father, as your Son Jesus began his earthly ministry at a wedding celebration and through the miracle of changing water into wine showed us the abundance of your wonderful love for us. May our Lord continue to transform the water of our everyday lives into the new wine of your kingdom as we put our faith in Him, transforming by his love the ordinary into the extra-ordinary. Amen
I was visiting my Syrian friends in Galashiels earlier in the week, and I was chatting away to Youssef, when Hania, his wife, appeared with a tray of big bowls of a Syrian type rice pudding sprinkled with coconut. Not something I would ever choose, I must say, but I couldn’t refuse. I managed to clear my bowl, only for Hania to reappear with another bowl. I did refuse this time. Then a plate of fruit appeared – each. Banana, apple, pear, grapes. Eat, eat, eat! It was Middle Eastern hospitality. They don’t have much, but are very generous.
Our Gospel reading today talks about abundance at a wedding reception - though it could have gone so very wrong! It is interesting that John should begin Jesus’ ministry at a wedding reception. First things matter. In Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with the sermon on the Mount with Jesus as a Moses figure, giving the law. Mark has Jesus immediately into the fray, casting at demons, while Luke has Jesus preaching a sermon on liberation and healing in his home town of Nazareth. Each sets the tone for their Gospels. But John chooses what at first seems a rather frivolous story of turning water into wine. But it was a sign, and John has seven of these signs – like the feeding of the 5000, the walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, all pointing to the kind of person Jesus was, pointing to what he was coming to do, and the first of these was at the wedding reception.
Weddings can last several days in the Middle East, but at this one, the wine ran out. Inconvenient, to say the least. Positively embarrassing for the family, you could acknowledge. But at that time and in that place, it was a real disaster. For wine was more than a social lubricant, but symbolised God’s harvest, God’s blessing. It would be an awful start to anyone’s marriage, if the wine ran out. There was no point looking at who was to blame; something had to be done!
Enter Jesus’ mother. She gave Jesus the ‘look’ and told him to get on with it. He protested his time had not yet come, but Mary had a steely determination about her, and Jesus soon was asking that six big stone jars be filled with water, and when tasted, it was the best of wines, so good that the steward remarked on the family keeping the best wine till last. The day was saved, as were the family’s blushes.
Some commentators look at the six stone purification jars and see the emptiness of the religion at that time, contrasted to what Jesus brought- something new, something out of the ordinary, something transformative. He brought the sign of God’s abundance, for the six jars would have produced 1000 bottles, more than enough for the reception.
In Isaiah 25, there’s a banquet on God’s mountain, where all are satisfied; the Messiah would bring this about. In Isaiah 62, which we read this morning, Israel would be transformed and given a new name – they would no longer be forsaken, but called Hephtzibah, my delight. We have been going through a difficult time, and certainly we are not out of the woods yet, but in this sign John is pointing to God’s extravagant love and abundant grace. As Jesus was committed to the wedding family, so God is committed to us. The story of the wedding in Cana is all about the joy and abundance that Jesus brings in his kingdom, where no-one gets the dregs and where worry is turned to wonder and embarrassment to joy. In this act, Jesus shows the best is yet to come. ‘Don’t worry’, he says, ‘I have saved the best till last’.
Hymn 697 – Let’s praise the Creator
Prayers of Intercession
O God, Jesus brought the joy into lives that needed hope and a new beginning. We pray for all those who need a new beginning this year:
Individuals trying to make a new start,
Families trying to sort through difficulties,
Groups hoping to accomplish good things for others,
Refugees building new homes in a new land,
Students and teachers beginning a new semester,
Businesses and congregations trying to rebuild in uncertain times.
Show each one how much they matter to you,
and renew their courage and resolve to make a fresh start. God, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
O God, Jesus changed water into wine to show us that you can accomplish extraordinary things through ordinary lives.
We pray for all those volunteering their energy and concern to make a difference for others in this community.
We pray for our elected leaders and for all workers trying to manage their responsibilities in such challenging times.
We pray for those working for justice, raising awareness to problems in society and for the earth itself.
And we pray for one another and for each good purpose we undertake with new resolve this year.
Give us a glimpse of how our hands become your hands, blessed by the Spirit.
God, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
O God, Jesus faced the suffering around him with compassion, reaching out to those in pain and grief with healing and hope.
We remember before you those whose lives are wrapped in sorrow or despair, and those facing tragic death or critical illness…
We remember those burdened by pain or problems that seem to have no end…
Embrace each one with your comfort and courage,
and show us what we can offer to make a difference.
God, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
O God in whom we live and move and have our being,
thank you for giving us the courage and commitment we need to follow Christ in good times and in hard times. Thank you for the strength we find together as part of your church and the gifts you give us in each other. Help us trust in the promise of your love for us
and energize us with your Spirit so that we can recognize the opportunities you give us
to live out the grace and mercy we know in Jesus Christ. Amen
Hymn 700 – As man and woman
Welcome, Cheviot churches! We worship together on this 1st Sunday of Epiphany
By the light of the Lamb shall the nations walk, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their splendour. Revelation 21:24
Eternal God, by a star you led wise men to the worship of your Son. Guide by your light the nations of the earth, and the whole world may know your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever
Hymn 326 As with gladness men of old – vv. 1,2,3
Prayers of adoration and confession
Our dearest Father, who is changeless but who makes us able to change; you who are the Unmoved Mover who inspires us to move; Lord who is both our origin, our destination and our route, we creep towards you in humble wonder. We would not know where to journey except you magnetised our hearts, our minds, our souls that we might seek you who knew the paths we have been set. We give thanks for the way along which we must pass: for the lengthening days at the darkest times, for the very first signs of your return as the earth begins to awaken, for the constellations that seem to turn like clockwork until the meteors erupt, unexpectedly.
Holy Jesus, before your infant form, sages took the knee and acknowledged your lordship over all power and wisdom. Grant us also clear vision and courage, that in the light of your light we may devote our power and potential to your service, even that requires us to go home by another way.
Spirit, who is still ahead of us, still guiding us, still and forever beckoning us onwards, we thank you for not having left us alone, stranded in the maze of the world. Be with us at all times, and guide us always, whether that voyage is inwards or outwards, to understand that we are loved by you, the Son and the Father.
We have often strayed and been misled along the road. We have allowed self-pride and self-satisfaction to make us loiter. We have ignored the needy by the wayside and have looked to pomp and earthly power rather than to the stony track ahead. We have been lazy, prideful and have kept our riches for ourselves rather than made them into gifts. We know that you see all our failings, but we know that you are merciful, gracious and forgiving. We pause, for the way is long, and think of what we might have done differently and what we did foolishly and what we did maliciously.
With contrite hearts and clear eyes, we are meek to say the family prayer that you established, saying:
Hymn 470 – Jesus Shall Reign where’er the sun - vv. 1,2,4
Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
Hymn ( CH3 185) – All poor men and humble – vv. all
Heavenly Father, you sent your son to guide your people, just as you sent a star to guide the Wise Men to worship him. We pray that you will send, your Holy Spirit to guide our Church as we begin a New Year and may we rise and shine as we reflect your light in our community. Amen
I have a friend, Sarah, whom I mentored when she studied Creative Writing in Edinburgh. Although she was working thereafter the government decided she wasn’t earning enough to stay on a student visa, and so she went back to America, to North Carolina, then Texas, and now is in Paris. She was one of the few I knew who was Christian, but she had an unusual background. She and her father were Episcopalians, and her mother and siblings were Orthodox. When I asked her about this she said “it’s brilliant. I get two Christmases! The 25th for us and January 6th for them!” We have a strange relationship with Epiphany. It seems, to use an awful newly coined word “betwixt-tide”. Christmas is over, and Epiphany is a vague nod. I do like that some denominations call it the “Little Christmas”. We are still adjusting to what has just happened in Bethlehem and are beginning our journey to Lent.
So what does Epiphany mean for us? I am sure you have heard many standard sermons on the Magi or Wise Men or Kings. There is the version where you point out that they came after the lowly shepherds, inverting the hierarchy. There is the version where you say “well, the Bible doesn’t say three kings” at all, and the Syriac Church has twelve. (Their traditional names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar originate from the 8th century, but they were venerated from the 4th century). Everyone who has been carol singing knows the symbolism of the gifts: gold for royalty, frankincense for priesthood, myrrh for death. There is the post-colonial version as they supposedly represented Africa, India and Arabia. But what do the Magi mean?
The first thing to say is that it is unusual that they are in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke, who gives us the shepherds, was far more attuned to the mission to the Gentiles, whereas Matthew was more concerned with Jewish tradition. But it is Matthew who introduces the Gentile worshippers and Luke who commemorates the startled shepherds. Already, things are being inverted and turned upside down by the Nativity.
The second is – and I say this as someone who is quite clever – clever people are stupid. Yes, the Magi might have been astronomers or scientists or sorcerers seeing an unusual star and inferring a new King, and yet, they went straight to Herod. That was, frankly, dumb. They didn’t keep looking and studying but scurried to power instead. It would have disastrous consequences. It also shows the virtue of knowing the scriptures: Herod’s advisors give away where the Messiah is by quoting Micah 5, which presumably these scholars did not know. Nevertheless it is interesting that God speaks to them in dreams to say it might be best to be circuitous and not to go back to Herod. He shall do the same with Joseph in the next chapter.
What do we learn from the Epiphany? The Greek work epiphaneia does not occur in Matthew’s account – it does appear in 2nd Timothy and in Revelation, always about the second, not the first coming. But the Greek means “an appearance or a sudden realisation”. It is a little like Archimedes having his “Eureka” moment or Newton realising the apple which has just hit him on his head and the moon are governed by the same force. In literature, it was a trademark of Modernist writers. I won’t discuss James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but Agatha Christie has one of the best examples in one of the Marple novels: how did you know Jane? Well, they passed the salt and pepper too politely. It is about suddenness more than anything. And we must be prepared for God to be sudden. It is also about the extensiveness of God’s love, for Israel, for the Gentiles, for you and for me. He will in crisis intervene, unexpectedly.
What I really take from it is the ending of the reading. “They returned to their country by another route”. If we meet the Christ, in whatsoever circumstance, there is no going back the same way, no way to retread. It will require us to be brave and require us to be daring, but the encounter means we are changes. That option is open, always, forever, to us.
Prayers of intercession
Father, we pray for the world, which you imagined, created and sustain still, and into which you entered, in a time of conflict, repression and bigotry. Millennia have not changed that. For every place marred and maimed by warfare, intolerance and catastrophe we ask that you help us to know how to help. We ask that you focus our minds, so that news about Kazakhstan does not allow us to forget Yemen, or that news about Myanmar does not distract us from Haiti; nor let us forget the injustices here which are suffered and in which we are complicit. You came into the world not for a tribe or sect or natin or empire but for the whole world, and for the whole world we pray.
We pray for the church, in all its forms. Keep uppermost in our minds that it does not matter which day we celebrate or commemorate, but that we do. Give us fortitude as we go into a New Year which will bring changes and challenges, instilling in us the knowledge that your first church was nothing more than a stable and yet it reached out to the ends of the earth.
We pray for all those who hold power, that they use it wisely, are cautious always to consider their impact on the least and lowest in society, and that they behave with due dignity. Make each person who has impact be mindful of that impact, and whether it works towards fairness, equality and justice.
We pray for all those who need not just prayers, but for us to act; for those who are ill, lonely, lacking employment or security or purpose, those who are lost and those who have lost loved ones. We pray for those with not enough food or inadequate shelter, for those in hospital and those in prison, for those who lack what we often take for granted. We pray for anyone in any kind of need – material, physical or spiritual – that you comfort them as you enlighten us as to how to bring help to the helpless and hope those without hope. We give thanks for all those, particularly in this time of pandemic, who are caring for the unwell, who are using their intellects to find solutions, those who are picking up the pieces. Strengthen them and make us, in whatever manner is right in your sight, means to improve the lives of others. Make us, Lord, the world, the church, those with power, those with none, each and every one of us here fit for your purpose. Amen.
Hymn 646 – Forth in the peace of Christ we go – vv. 1, 3, 4, 5
Go out now, and do not return the same. Go with confidence that the Father will be behind us, the Son beside us and the Spirit ahead of us. In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, bless us, protect us and encourage us. Amen.