Led by: Revd Dr Carla Grosch-Miller
Today’s service was done via Zoom and streamed to YouTube
Please fast-forward to 9 minutes 30 seconds for start of service
29 November 2020 First Sunday of Advent
Prayer before worship
We come before you in pain and in hope this first Sunday of Advent. Give us the courage to see and to hear what is happening around us. And give us the will to follow your Way to respond. Amen.
Call to Worship
Advent begins with a cry!
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! [Isaiah 64:1a]
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! [Psalm 80:1a]
Stir up your might and come to save us! [Psalm 80:2b]
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved! [Psalm 80:3, 7, 19]
Prayer of Approach and Confession
Holy One, we survey the world, ears tuned to the cries of the earth and her peoples. The list is long and terrifying: the ravages of the pandemic – lost lives and lost livelihoods, the melting of ice fields at the poles, the extinction of 2/3’s of animal species, an earth groaning under the weight and strain of human population and consumption, the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit. There is much to fear and to dread.
Will you come with us to dwell, our prince, our guide, our love, our Lord? Will the birth of the baby Jesus make a difference in our struggling, suffering world? What word do you have for us this day, in these times? Will you open our ears to hear your promises anew, our minds to understanding the part we play, our hearts to the pain, the pathos and the possibility of loving all things into life?
You are God of the Cosmos. You have ordered creation exquisitely and you bid us to take our place in the family of things. We come this morning humble and humbled by where we find ourselves in the year 2020. We confess that we are caught up in systems of exploitation and oppression. We do not know how to disentangle from them. We feel powerless and trapped in forces larger than we can comprehend and beyond our ability to change.
We are in the right time and the right place to prepare again to kneel at the manger and let love touch and open our hearts. Use these weeks of Advent to mould and shape us for the birth of the Love that is the Light of the world. In the silence of this moment, hear our need, hear our prayer:
We pray this in deepest hope, and join the prayer that has rung from every land and every tongue for nearly 2000 years: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation [save us from the time of trial, Luke 11:4], but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Assurance of Grace:
The child is born that we might know the forgiveness of sin and that we might find the fullness of life lived in the power and grace of God. May it be so. Amen.
The Lighting of the Advent Candle: Hope
Andrew and Sophie Cooke
We light the first candle: Hope. It is hope that calls us beyond the suffering and challenges of the current times into the promises of God. We hope for the courage and patience to hear and to heed the prophetic voices of our times. We hope for the new day, when God’s justice and peace blanket the earth. May the hope that comes from God lead us through this Advent season.
I hope for… patience, forgiveness and peace.
Candle of Hope is lit.
Hymn O Come, O Come Immanuel v. 1, 2, 6
Sung by Mrs Lucy Cooke
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, thou Wisdom from above
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in her ways to go:
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight:
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Mark 13: 24-37
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Advent always begins with weeping, lamentation and a plea for God to save the us. That’s just the Old Testament readings. In the New Testament, we read a “little apocalypse” from a gospel. It seems an odd way to introduce the season of good cheer. Why do we do it this way? Because we only begin to yearn for God when we realise how much trouble we are in, when we know our need of God.
We are in plenty of big trouble in 2020 and look to be heading for more in 2021 and beyond. Once we are all vaccinated and the pandemic has become more memory than menace, we will not be out of the woods. We’ve heard the Chancellor talk about the far-ranging economic impact of this crisis that will go on for years. And then there are the disruptions in trade due to Brexit. There is no doubt that many people, especially those who were struggling before Covid, will suffer loss of livelihoods and reduced living standards. Those of us with secure employment or in our 60’s and beyond, having lived in unprecedented affluence and security and having guaranteed incomes, may remain comfortable, but we must not let that lull us into complacency about the state of the world before God.
Then there are the accelerating byproducts of the ecological crisis we are living through – a changing climate and mass extinction of animal life, including insects on whom we are dependent for pollination. The earth is straining under a human population that doubled between 1960 and the year 2000. Population growth is a strong factor in zoonosis: the hopping of deadly viruses from animal populations to humans as we encroach on their natural habitat and cage and eat them. Scientists warn that Covid-19 may the first of many pandemics in this century.
Most days I do not, and I do not want to, contemplate these problems that are so large as to be almost unimaginable. Yet the first Sunday of Advent compels us to, asking Do we want to feel good or do we want to be good? We are reminded that feeling good in the short run is not going to save us in the long run.
As people of faith have done for generations, we look to the past, to sacred scripture, to wrestle out how to live in these times. Our Hebrew Bible passage is from Isaiah. The prophet’s words echo our angst O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….to make your name known. He confesses the sin embedded in communal life: we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…You have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
We 21st c Christians tend to think of sin as bad things we do as individuals. The writer of Isaiah 64 reminds us that our communal life – our economic life, our political life, our relationships with our neighbours near and far – the life we share in common can be inherently sinful in the way it is structured, in the inequalities and sufferings it causes. This systemic or structural sin is harder to get a hold of, particularly if ‘the way things are’ have worked for us. Those who benefit most lull us to sleep by reassuring us that they have our best interest at heart as they pursue their own enrichment. They play to our fears, our prejudices, our self-interest…so we close our eyes to the full impact of their actions. But the way we live as a society has consequences, the prophet warns. When our life together is not ordered according to the divine law of justice, we are as Isaiah says delivered into the hand of our own sin. We bear the consequences.
Never before have we been so aware that this is true. All of life is interconnected; we are interdependent with other creatures and the planet itself. The way we live has precipitated the climate crisis of temperature rise, more extreme weather events and a rising sea level, and the deaths and extinction of huge numbers of species. Just because we live as we do.
The little apocalypse of Mark looks back to the book of Daniel, an apocalyptic book written in the 2nd century BCE when the Jewish people were under the boot of the Seleucids. All apocalyptic literature was written during times of political upheaval and crisis. Daniel looked back to the 6th C BCE when again the people were besieged by the Babylonian army, who destroyed the city walls and the Temple and carried the elite and artisans off to exile. The message of apocalyptic literature is this: there are powers at work in the world that are against God, that do not follow the divine order. Things are bad but they may well get much worse. The job of faithful people is to endure, watching the signs of the time and wakefully expecting God’s presence to be made manifest, in Daniel’s words the coming of the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13).
In biblical times when Isaiah and Mark and Daniel were written, the threat and dangers arose from enemy empires as well as unjust communal practices that ignored the needy. It is easy to identify the enemy when it is burning the city walls. It is much harder to identify death-dealing powers when they are dressed as ‘just the way we do things’, the gloss and glitter of consumer capitalism and the empty promises of an “it’s all about me’, profit-based culture; the freedom and affluence to travel, leaving huge carbon footprints behind; fast fashion, fast food, fast cars. All costing the earth, literally. All dressed up as our right, our necessity, our freedom.
How will we be saved from the consequences of the way we live? How will we be saved from ourselves? The clue is in how God makes God’s name known. The prophet calls God Father and a potter. God is a parent and an artist. Not a warrior king. The way of God is a way of suffering love and creativity, of moulding a people who also will live lives of suffering love and creativity. And God’s name will be made known again in the birth of a baby, newborn and vulnerable, in need of care and love, who will grow to maturity in community and ultimately hang on a cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian imprisoned and eventually murdered by the Nazis, wrote this in his Letters and Papers from Prison (NY: Macmillan, 1971, p. 360): God lets Godself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. In coming to us in an infant, God chose vulnerability, noncoercive love and suffering rather than domination and force as the means of salvation. God comes, not as a mighty warrior, but as a newborn, Love Incarnate.
We speak of Advent as a time of hopeful and expectant waiting for the birth of that babe. That sounds like a passive thing. It is not. Advent waiting is expectant the way parents are expectant before a birth – they are actively preparing: eating and resting to nurture the growing seed of life within, gathering up what will be needed to support it. Their actions are an outgrowth of love.
How do we actively prepare to be saved from ourselves by the birth of the baby Jesus? We keep awake to the reality of what is really going on in the world, to how the structures of our world advantage some (maybe even us) and cause suffering for others. We read the signs of the times, the real and present dangers of the impact of our way of life on the earth. We let our hearts to be broken open to the suffering all around; we name and lament it. And we give ourselves into the loving, moulding hands of the Great Potter and Parent. We surrender and soften, becoming malleable…willing to change, to grow, to give up some things and take on others.
God, save us from ourselves in the way only You can. Equip us for the Advent journey. Keep us awake and alert, and ready to walk the path of vulnerable, creative, even suffering love.
Hymn Come, thou long expected Jesus
St Michael’s Singers (Spotify)
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set they people free;
from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
dear Desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver; born a child, and yet a King;
born to reign in us for ever; now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all-sufficient merit raise us to thy glorious throne.
Prayers of the People
May Christ risen in glory be with us
And now may we give our offerings to him.
May Christ be with you,
Christ before you,
Christ behind you,
Christ beneath you,
Christ above you
Be ours this day and evermore.
Prayer of Concern
Guide us all through these difficult days of the Pandemic of Covid 19. It seems such a long time O Lord, some of us have much fear – help us to put our trust in you. Not my will but thine be done. Help us to look to you when we are fearful about any of this.
Lord, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you. Dispel the clouds and darkness and awaken us to your glory and strength that we may walk in your light. Lord you are ever among us. Open our eyes to your presence that your church may be true to its mission that the congregation may proclaim your goodness. To all the nations that are looking for freedom, to the individuals striving for justice help them all O Lord.
We bless you for all the scientists who have worked so hard to invent vaccines to eliminate the Covid virus. Thank you Lord. We trust it will eradicate this virus in all countries throughout your world.
Lord, come down, come in, come among us that we may know that life is eternal, that loved ones departed are in your keeping, that we may rejoice in hope, that we may come to your glory. Lord, come down, come in be born to us soon. Amen
Dismissal and Blessing
And now unto the one who is able to keep us from falling and lift us from the dark valley of despair to the bright mountain of hope, from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy: to God be power and authority, for ever and ever. Amen.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
CCL No. 213535 / One Licence A-632495