URC Daily Devotions Sunday Service for Epiphany, 9th January 2021 – The Revd. Neil Riches

Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 9TH January 2022 – Epiphany
 
Photo Credit Inbal Malca – Unsplash
The Rev’d Neil Riches
 
Opening Music:       Unto Us Is Born A Son (traditional)
Worcester Cathedral Choir

Introduction
 
Welcome to worship.  I’m Neil Riches, URC minister in Weymouth on Dorset’s beautiful Jurassic Coast.  Epiphany – the visit of the magi to the young Jesus – is the theme at the heart of our worship this morning.  We pray that the Spirit of God will help us to discern fresh truths in a familiar story.  Towards the end of our worship, we will be sharing in communion; you may like to make sure that you have something to eat and drink to hand.
 
Call to Worship   
 
Hark, hark, the wise eternal word, like a weak infant cries! In form of servant is the Lord, and God in cradle lies, come let us adore Him!
 
Hymn       Brightest and Best of the sons of the morning
Reginald Heber (1811)
 

Brightest and best
of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness
and lend us Thine aid,
star of the east,
the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant
Redeemer is laid.
 
2: Cold on His cradle
the dew-drops are shining,
low lies His head
with the beasts of the stall;
angels adore Him
in slumber reclining,
maker and monarch
and saviour of all.
 
3: Say, shall we yield Him
in costly devotion,
odours of Edom
and offerings divine,
gems of the mountain
and pearls of the ocean,
myrrh from the forest,
or gold from the mine?
 
4: Vainly we offer
each ample oblation,
vainly with gifts
would His favour secure;
richer by far is
the heart’s adoration,
dearer to God
are the prayers of the poor.
 
5: Brightest and best
of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness
and lend us Thine aid,
star of the east,
the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant
Redeemer is laid.

 

Prayers of Approach, Confession, & Forgiveness
 
Loving God, we delight to be in your presence.  Though this is a scattered congregation, help each of us to feel close to you; grant us some sense of our togetherness in Christ.
 
Help us to respond to the challenges of today’s great themes – an extraordinary journey, extraordinary gifts, an extraordinary child. Deception and jealousy.  Courage and trust.
 
There is much good and much evil in the passage.  We acknowledge that there are times when there is something of Herod in the way that we live.  We are more concerned about our own security than the needs of others.  We mislead others deliberately.  There are times when we say and do things which are clearly wrong – and there are times when we procrastinate and leave good things undone.
 
We are sorry for this.  We know that you grant forgiveness and we accept this gladly.  At the same time, we pray that you will help us to be stronger – more focussed – more dependent on you in the coming week.
 
In Jesus’ Name.  Amen
 
Hymn       Gaudete
Samuel Smith © Bob Hurd
 
Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus, ex Maria Virgine, Gaudete.
Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus, ex Maria Virgine, Guadete.
(Translation: Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary)
 

Nature marvels at the sight,
angels sing the glory,
God becomes a little child,
shepherds tell the story
 
2: Hail Mary, ever blest,
Mother of the promise.
By your word
the word the Word made flesh
came to dwell among us.

3: With the wise men from the East,
with the stars of Heaven,
with the shepherds and the sheep,
come, let us adore Him.
 
4: Now is born Emmanuel,
now is come salvation.
Sing we all noel, noel! 
Sing in exultation!

 

Prayer – illumination
 
Loving God, as we listen to the Scriptures, help us to listen actively, to engage afresh with the words and the story, even though it may be very familiar to us.  We know that you have yet more ‘life and truth’ to break forth from your Word – and that you will not disappoint us.
 
In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.
 
Reading – Matthew 2.1 – 12
 
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
 
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people, Israel.”’
 
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
 
Hymn       The First Noel
                  Anonymous 1833
 

The first Noel
the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds
in fields as they lay;
in fields where they lay
keeping their sheep,
on a cold winter’s night
that was so deep.
 
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
born is the King of Israel.
 
2 They looked up
and saw a star
shining in the east,
beyond them far;
and to the earth
it gave great light,
and so it continued
both day and night.
 
3 And by the light
of that same star
three Wise Men came
from country far;
to seek for a king
was their intent,
and to follow the star
wherever it went.
 
4 This star drew nigh
to the northwest,
o’er Bethlehem
it took its rest;
and there it did
both stop and stay,
right over the place
where Jesus lay.

5 Then let us all with one accord
sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
who hath made heaven and earth of naught
and with His blood our kind hath brought

 

Sermon
 
For me, a part of the appeal of the story of the Magi is the spirit of adventure which lies at its heart…potentially costly adventure; the presents are expensive – but what of the cost if the journey itself had gone wrong?    Indeed, what of the cost of the journey which worked out right?  It is significant that there is a very sharp contrast between the Gentile wise men, travelling uncharted distances to the child king, and the chief priests and scribes, who didn’t journey the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to find him.  You could argue that so-called ‘wise men’ were actually foolish in setting off on such an apparently crazy journey, but God has always used effectively that which the world has deemed foolish.  The Magi point us to something in the ministry of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus which we encounter again and again.
 
Wherein do you discern your adventures in faith during the coming year?   It may be that you have felt confident enough to plan some adventurous holidays for the year ahead, whilst understanding that they may not happen.  Yet faith… well, sometimes it seems so tried, tested, bland, established, lacking in challenge, that we would hesitate to use the word ‘adventure’ at all?  I know that the physical pilgrimage itself constituted a part of the adventure for the Magi – and there is still much to be said for physical faith journeys with evident meaning.  There is more to it than this, however: faith is a process involving both outer and inner journeys – how are we going to sustain a sense of adventure, excitement, the pump of adrenalin in our inner journey?  By something that we read?  By sharing in discussion?  By exposure to worship and teaching which takes us outside of our comfort zone?  By discerning something which could be offered to the whole of the faith community by way of a shared inner journey?  New years have a habit of going stale very quickly indeed: how can freshness – a sense of vitality – be sustained in faith?  The Magi embarked on an adventure.
 
In a sense, a second point grows from this.  Any journey into the apparently unknown brings with it the risk of wrong turnings – and worse.  The Magi were extricated from their encounter with Herod…but his fury at apparent deception was to have dire consequences.  By definition, we cannot have a risk-free adventure; at least, I don’t think so.  I suspect that there are some who would argue that the most graphic and engaging of computer games represent a kind of adventure…but this is a virtual reality, not actual life.  Faith is not about synthetic experiences – two-dimensional encounters – it is about life itself. It is not about temporary occupation of the imagined challenges faced by another person.  The light signalling the birth of Christ led the Magi into faithful movement, costly adoration and overwhelming joy.  By contrast, Herod stayed in the darkness with a fearful inertia, selfish scheming and lonely anger.  This is a passage of quite stark contrasts, but it is clear where fulfilment is to be found.
 
It may be because of the uncertain times in which we live; it may be because of a century of sustained decline in many well-established churches; it may be because many Christians are careful and cautious people…but so often, churches are risk-averse communities.  And yet… some of the ways in which we have sustained worship and study and fellowship during the last 20 months and more have more than a little of the ‘spirit of adventure’ about them. Now, God’s apparent love of worldly folly doesn’t always fly in the face of common sense…but an adventurous people cannot be risk averse.  The whole business of faith is about turning the world on its head, and that cannot be done easily or tidily.
 
The reality of their journey’s end for the Magi is spelt out quite clearly.  Joy – indeed, (over)joy – worship – the offering of presents – an epiphany.  Something essential about the nature of God revealed in a new and startling way.  To worship is to acknowledge the worth of something.  The journey made sense – ‘God-sense’.  The Magi arrived at an ordinary little house, and met an unimportant woman, and a child seemingly too young to matter.  They pay homage, acknowledging the kingship of this little boy; we must not let familiarity blunt the sheer incongruous unexpectedness of this picture.  The God of surprises wreaks yet another surprise in turning perceived wisdom on its head; the epiphany is about the kingdom order, not the world order.
 
There are worse ways to start a new year of faith than by speaking of adventure, risk and surprise.  I wish you all these three…and much more besides.
 
Hymn       As With Gladness, Men Of Old
William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898)
 

As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold,
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onwards, beaming bright;
so, most gracious Lord, may we
evermore be led to thee.
 
2 As with joyful steps they sped,
Saviour, to thy lowly bed,
there to bend the knee before
thee, whom heaven & earth adore;
so may we with willing feet
ever seek thy mercy-seat.

3 As they offered gifts most rare
at thy homely cradle bare;
so may we with holy joy,
pure, and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.
 
4 Holy Jesus, every day
keep us in the narrow way;
and, when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.

 
5 In the heavenly country bright, need they no created light;
thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down;
there for ever may we sing alleluias to our King.

Prayers of Intercession
 
We bring our prayers of concern and commitment to the Living God.
 
We pray for all those making journeys at the moment – particularly the journeys of the refugee and the asylum seeker.  We remember that Jesus and his family sought refuge in Egypt as the aftermath to today’s reading.  We pray that all those travelling will find a genuinely warm welcome at journey’s end.
 
We pray for those who seek to profit from those undertaking perilous journeys – and those whose violence has led to the journeys being made in the first place.  We struggle to understand why people sometimes behave as they do; we pray that your Spirit will soften hearts hardened by addiction to power, money, a conviction that there is only one correct way of doing things
 
We pray that you will continue to teach us what generosity of giving feels like.
Help us to reflect carefully on the ways in which we ‘give’ as a response to our Christian faith at the beginning of a new calendar year.  We pray for congregations struggling financially as a part of the legacy of recent times.  We pray too for small charities which have experienced a dramatic reduction in income.
 
We pray for all those who resort quickly to lying and deception; we acknowledge that this can be a ‘default position’ for some, it happens so often.  Help them somehow to see that openness and truthfulness represent a far more fulfilling way of living.
 
We pray for individuals known to us who are in particular need of our prayers this morning; in the quietness of this moment, we name them in our hearts…  Grant them a sense of the closeness of your love and the depth of our concern.
 
We pray too for a sense of your blessing on the monetary gifts which have been offered to our various churches this morning.  We have learned to give in different ways; may our generosity reflect something of your unconditional generosity, however faintly.
 
We bring our prayers together as we say the Lord’s Prayer, using the traditional form of wording…
 
Our Father…
 
Communion
 
There is an opportunity now to share in the Lord’s Supper as a part of our time together today.  We celebrate our strong conviction that the Lord’s Table is an ‘open table’.  All are welcome in this place.
 
We listen to Luke’s account of the Supper:
 
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table.  And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God’.
 
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you that I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’.
 
And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.
 
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’.
 
A prayer of thanksgiving before we eat and drink together.
 
Loving God, we are always moved by these words.  Familiarity does nothing to lessen the sense of love – of sacrifice – of utter commitment which they convey.  We thank you for the privilege of being able to share in this simple meal.  We celebrate the presence of a God who is concerned that we fed both physically and spiritually.  Paul reminds us that we should examine ourselves before we eat the bread and drink the wine.  We do so now, praying that there will be nothing in our hearts which threatens to spoil the meal in any way…  In our differing ways, may we know Christ present with us at this time.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.
 
The Body of Christ – broken for us – we eat together
 
The Blood of Christ – poured out for us – we drink together
 
Your death, O Lord, we remember. Your resurrection we confess. Our continuing part in your as-yet-unfinished plans we acknowledge with a sense of awe. Help us to be strong in the strength which your Spirit alone can provide, so that we may live lives worthy of the faith which we profess.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.
 
Hymn:      We Three Kings   
John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1857)
 

We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field & fountain, moor & mountain,
following yonder star.
 
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

2: Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.
 
3: Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.

4: Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
 
5: Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.



Blessing    
 
May we find joy in our faith – hope in our faith – purpose and love in our faith as we move into another week.  May we be sustained by a sense of God’s presence and the knowledge that Christian friends are concerned for us.  Bless us all.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.
 
Closing Music Sarabande by Handel performed by the Hale Orchestra
Sources and Thanks
 
Call to worship adapted by Andy Braunston from a poem by Thomas Pestal.  All other liturgical material by the Rev’d Neil Riches.
 
Thanks to John Wilcox, Anne Hewling, Sylvia Nutt and Kathleen Haynes for reading the various spoken parts of the service.
 
Brightest and Best of the sons of the morning – Reginald Heber (1811) sung by the choir and people of the Chet Valley Churches
Gaudete – © Bob Hurd  OCP Publications 1996 Reprinted with permission of Calamus, Oak House, 70 High Street, Brandon, Suffolk, IP27 0AU Sung by OCP Session Choir
The First Noel – Anonymous 1833 Sung by the Choir and people of King’s College Cambridge
As With Gladness, Men Of Old – William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) (alt.) Sung by the choirs and people of the Chet Valley Churches
We Three Kings – John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857 sung by the Robert Shaw Chorale
 

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