· We welcome all visitors to our services this Sunday at Yetholm (10am) and Linton (11.15). Please take sign the visitors’ book. Stuart Kelly is leading worship for us today.
Hymn 189: Be Still For The Presence Of The Lord
Prayers of adoration and confession
Dearest Father, we come before you in reverence and prayerfully, aware that our minds are too limited to comprehend your magnitude and magnaminity, that our hearts are too hardened to understand the extent of your love and care for us, and our souls too fickle to grasp how steadfast and faithful you are. You are beyond all experience and knowledge and language, and yet you have reached out, constantly and tenderly towards us.
You reveal yourself in your creation, and patiently teach us how to read your world around us. We can discern its beauty and its necessity, each thing fashioned and crafted and curated for us and for your delight. We hear you whisper to us in all things, your promise of return and renewal and resurrection inscribed through all of creation.
You reveal yourself in your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, wholly human and wholly God, whose life was a template for us to follow; whose sinless earthly existence was the fulfilment of the law and a new yardstick by which we shall be measured. You reveal yourself in the Spirit, the gift of communication, inspiration, conscience and grace.
You have given us every opportunity to draw nearer to you and better to be the beings you long for us to be. Yet we have been obstinate and petulant. We have been negligent and deliberately set ourselves against you. When good things happen or we succeed we take credit for ourselves which is due to you, when bad things happen or we fail, we have the audacity to blame you and not look to our own waywardness and disobedience. In myriad ways we let you down multiple times each and every day.
Yet, even though you could give up on us, you do not. You are a merciful God, and grace is available to us if we truly confess, truly repent and truly try. Let us, in silence, lay before you all that we feel guilty about, all that we regret having done, all that we have done that caused harm. You are a forgiving God, and with all earnestness, we join together in the prayer you taught us, committing ourselves anew to uphold it: [Our Father…]
Isaiah 1: 10-20; Luke 12:32-40
Hymn 473: ‘Thy kingdom come!’ – on bended knee the passing ages pray
Weekly Prayer: Everlasting God, we give thanks for this new day and worship you with all of our hearts. We pray that through our belief in you we will act justly, overflowing with love for you, and for all who we meet along our journey. Amen.
Over the past month we’ve been hearing about the Old Testament prophets – Elijah and Elisha (who don’t have books), and then from Amos and Hosea (called the minor prophets which always seems a bit disrespectful to me). This week and next week we move on to Isaiah. It’s a bit of a gear change because Isaiah well – these are my comparisons – Beethoven’s 9th, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Turner’s Snow Storm – with Isaiah we are unequivocally in the realm of indisputable masterpiece. Isaiah is almost the entire Bible in miniature. It deals with how we alienate ourselves from God and how God is reconciled to us. It is about judgment and promise. It is about exile and return. Isaiah has the clearest prophecies about the Messiah; both in glory and triumph and as the suffering servant. It is no wonder that some of the early Church Fathers referred to the book of Isaiah as the “fifth gospel”. It is the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament – it is quoted 65 times, right from Matthew through Acts and the Epistles (both of Paul and Peter) and up to Revelation. Parts of it have become part of everyday language, even for those who aren’t of the Church – the voice in the wilderness, beating swords into ploughshares, eat and drink for tomorrow we die, mount up on eagles’ wings, man of sorrows and so on.
And if Isaiah is the Bible in miniature, Isaiah chapter 1 is Isaiah in miniature. The part we heard today begins in an uncompromising, even shocking fashion, with Zion, Jerusalem, being compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. The fate of those cities showed God at his most wrathful. They were by-words for sin and the consequences of sin. The Lord eradicated them, and threatens to do the same to the beloved Zion. He is, officially, not mucking around. The stakes are high. The next part is even more startling, as God tells the people that their sacrifices and offerings and incense and congregations and prayera are meaningless, detestable, a burden: in fact they are an abomination to him. But let’s scroll back a little bit. Who instituted the Temple rules? God did. It was not Aaron or Moses but God who gave them: over 100 out of – well, the figure is disputed, but the earliest say 613 mitzvot or commandments. If God is sickened by their devotions, we really have to ask “Why?”
The next section makes it abundantly clear. Yes, they have followed the letter, but not the spirit, and one suspects they followed the letter grudgingly – and don’t tell me none of us has ever woken up on a Sunday feeling weary duty rather than joy. God sets out quite basic ethical principles to do with justice and particularly how we treat the vulnerable. We see the same pattern in the life of Jesus, berating the vipers and whitened sepulchres of the pious and setting out a simple command: feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe those without adequate clothing, visit the prisoners, receive the stranger or foreigner or outcast, tend the sick. God is saying no amount of box-ticking and aye-been performances can compensate for a lack of love.
I was reading this week a new biography of the 17th century poet John Donne and it had a very interesting section on Donne wondering (he was a courtier before he became Dean of St Paul’s) whether it was possible to flatter God. He concludes, rightly, that it was impossible: God doesn’t need flattery, and God sees through the attempt at flattery. But this is what the Temple priests were doing. Some expensive perfume, the best cuts of meat and God would be placated. Boy, is God not. The great Biblical commentator Matthew Henry, a contemporary of Donne’s expresses this better than I can: “When sinners are under the judgments of God they will more easily be brought to fly to their devotions than to forsake their sins and reform their lives.” God is not taken in by us. But we are taken in by him. This part of chapter 1 ends with the most staggering turnaround: “your sins are like scarlet, but they shall be as white as snow”. What is almost more unbelievable is the point where God changes the story: “Come now, let us reason together”. This is God as the one who placates, the one who is willing to hear humanity out, the one who grants us responsibility and agency. That is unlike anything in other religions. What Zeus wants, Zeus does; what Odin desires, Odin gets; but our God says “right, sit down, let us talk this through”. Would that more of the world took that to heart.
The Gospel reading seems somehow disconnected, but some parallels can be seen. The opening has Jesus giving both practical and emotional advice – to his little flock he gives a daunting task and a supreme hope. But the real link is in the parable; in its overturning of expectations. The servants – slaves even – get a little forgotten. It’s not like the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which has a similar moral; since here, there are no foolish servants (there are if you read on, when Jesus has to explain the parable). They have stayed awake, they were prepared and their master or owner does a radical thing. He dresses like them, bids them sit and he serves them. Yet again, God is upending convention: he critiqued the hollow observations of Judah, he makes himself the servant. Why does he do this, endure this? Because, simply, out of love. God, at any point, could say “I have had enough of humanity, it is irredeemable, it is wicked” but, but and but again he does not. He says sit down and we shall think about this; sit down and enjoy because you have been faithful servants.
Hymn 134: Bring many names
Prayers of Dedication and Intercession
Father, you have made it clear that merely going through the motions disgusts you. In giving our offerings, we give ourselves as the offering, that you dedicate what we contribute and what we do to the greater glory of the Kingdom, which is coming and so we must be prepared.
Lord God, we think of your world, a place made to be home and turned into a wasteland of refugees and displaced people, those made homeless by conflict and those made homeless by never feeling truly at home. We think of how fragile the world is, and how its beauty is scarred and marred by our selfishness. We ask you to make change us, that we might nurture the world and the people of the world.
Lord God, we think of your Church, and ask earnestly that we do not succumb to being people who mouth the words but do not believe in them, that we are, as Church, never the dried husk of tradition but the living water of replenishment. We pray for all ministers, deacons and readers that you guide them as they guide us.
Lord God, we think of those in power, those who so frequently kneel at the altar and turn on their heel. Give to all those, in any position of influence, a proper sense of their responsibilities and duties. Make them more like the servants who stayed awake, and less like the rulers who drowsed as their cities fell.
Lord God, we think of those who are thought about thoughtlessly, if at all. We think of those who think their sins are so scarlet, there is no possibility of white, those who feel unloved, unrecognised, incapable and undermined. We think of those whose basic needs are not met by a fair wage, those whose hearts are stricken by grief, or sickness, or despair, or feeling lost in a confusing and uncaring world. Make us strong, and brave, to be the hand that reaches out, the candle in the darkness, connection to the world of those who feel left behind by the world. There are those whom we have a personal knowledge of, to whom your care and grace and comfort are needed.
Lord God, we think finally about the bereaved, confident in the knowledge that those gone know more about your love and mystery, feel no further pain or anguish and sing to you as we hope one day so to do. And finally, Lord God, we think of those for whom we struggle to pray; for those whom we resist forgiving. Make us more open-hearted in the hope that where we lead, others may follow.
Hymn 449: Rejoice! the Lord is King
Father, send us from this place reinvigorated and ardent to do, not just say, to change and not just be stale, to wait and stay awake. And the blessing of Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest with us and remain with us and propel us into the world, this day and every day. Amen.