Sunday January 10th 2020
Welcome to worship on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Although we cannot meet in person, may God bless us with this time spent worshipping him together. The intimations are on pages 10 and 11.
Hymn 482 Come, let us to the Lord our God
Prayer of Approach and Confession
All seeing, all knowing God,
God of mercy and forgiveness,
We confess to you that we don’t like being wrong
It hurts our pride and goes against the grain to admit we have made a mistake.
We prefer to blame somebody else,
To look for an excuse that justifies our actions
But although we may fool ourselves
We can never fool you
Forgive us Lord, for those times we have shifted the blame on to others
Forgive us for hiding behind falsehoods and half-truths,
Letting excuses become so much a part of us
That we know longer realise we are making them.
Teach us to act wisely and with integrity
And when we go wrong,
Give us the courage to admit it
And humility to accept our dependence on your unfailing grace,
And hear us as we further pray together as you taught us saying….
Hymn 97 O God you search me and you know me
Psalm 51: 1-17
A psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1.Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2. Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3.For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4. Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5. Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 .Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8. Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9. Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10. Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11. Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Saviour,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15. Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
1. Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Anthem: Wash me throughly from my bitterness, Samuel Sebastian Wesley
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
One of the things I know a lot of people have been finding during lockdown is that it gives us the time and opportunity to discover things we hadn’t really noticed before. This can range from music, art or literature that we’ve overlooked to rather more mundane things like old television programmes that had passed us by but are now being repeated because the producers can’t make new ones under lockdown.
One of these discoveries on television that David and I have come to enjoy is the Father Brown series that has been running, unbeknownst to us, for several years on the BBC.
Father Brown was originally the creation of the Catholic writer GK Chesterton, who imagined a sort of priestly Sherlock Holmes who uses his knowledge of human nature and the subtlety of his theological thinking to solve baffling crimes.
On television Father Brown has become a parish priest who, rather like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, can uncover human wickedness even in a sleepy Cotswold village. Father Brown spends a great deal of his time solving puzzling crimes, especially murders, which he usually manages to do a lot better than the police. The television Father Brown has also acquired as a parish secretary the redoubtable Mrs McCarthy, a down-to-earth mixture of Irish faith and common sense, and he has attracted a couple of other people who assist him in his sleuthing. It’s all good fun and an amusing variation of Chesterton’s original idea
But one thing remains very much the same in the TV series and the books: the fact that Father Brown is a priest with a priestly calling. He is always aware that catching criminals is not the end of the story but rather, in some sense, only the beginning. While the police and the legal system may think things are over when the perpetrator is behind bars, Father Brown is equally concerned with what happens afterwards in the heart and mind of the criminal. There is almost always at some point in every programme a scene where Father Brown appeals to the conscience of the criminal and urges repentance, not merely a confession but a real recognition that the crime has damaged the moral order and endangered the criminal’s own soul by alienating him or her from God.
Sometimes Father Brown is successful but at least in one case he fails repeatedly, and that is with a character who appears in the series from time to time and is really almost Father Brown’s alter ego. This is the charming and equally intelligent and subtle arch-criminal Hercule Flambeau.
The character of Flambeau is very interesting and I suspect Chesterton had something quite specific in mind with him. Even his name is a pointer towards this: in French, “flambeau” means a “torch”. A torch gives light, and that recalls our English word Lucifer, “bringer of light”, once the name of a type of match, but more commonly used now as a name for the Devil.
And Flambeau certainly lives up to the name. He is intelligent, personable, funny, and extremely good at what he does, which is stealing, especially precious church artefacts. He would appear on the surface to have no moral sense, but Father Brown never gives up on Flambeau---he believes that even Flambeau is not beyond redemption. But Flambeau is certainly Father Brown’s greatest challenge and most worthy opponent, although the two men do respect each other and form a sort of friendship, despite the fact that Father Brown spends all his time trying to thwart Flambeau in his dastardly deeds.
But for Father Brown there always remains one overriding problem: Flambeau is a disturber of the moral order of society and, like Lucifer, a rebel against God, and Flambeau needs to set things right. He needs to repent.
For Father Brown the importance of repentance is that ultimately everybody needs to be in a right relationship with God and it is only when they achieve this that the moral order of society can be maintained. Catholic theology perhaps emphasizes this question more than we tend to do in the Reformed tradition, but the Biblical basis for it is very clear.
Jesus put this very bluntly in his famous parable of the Lost Sheep: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine respectable people who do not need to repent.” Down through the ages the respectable have always complained that this is rather unfair on people like themselves, but I think that criticism is misplaced. The point Jesus is really getting at is that there is rejoicing at the sinner’s repentance precisely because it allows the moral order to be restored, rather in the way the retrieval of the Lost Sheep allows the flock to be made whole again. One Bible commentator points out that a shepherd would often have been looking after not only his own sheep but sometimes a communal flock belonging to the whole village, so that one lost sheep hurt everybody.
Thinking about the parable in that way one could say that it is not simply that heaven is happier with one ex-sinner than with all those good people. The rejoicing in heaven may also be because the sinner’s recovery benefits everybody by repairing the injury caused by a dangerous and disruptive force in society---something Father Brown knows would happen if Flambeau repented. So although it is about the individual spiritual welfare of the world’s Flambeaus, it is also about the spiritual condition of the world as a whole. It matters to the individual but it also affects the rest of us.
One can see something of this in the Old Testament stories of King David, whose list of iniquities is long– lust, adultery, and murder, to mention only three. In Psalm 51 we see David finally prostrating himself in grief and repentance before God and we sense that his repentance is real. This may have been enough to restore David’s relationship with God, although interestingly the Old Testament does tell us that he was not regarded as worthy enough to build the Temple in Jerusalem, an honour that was reserved for his son King Solomon. David’s sin evidently had lasting effects for his nation, even if in the end his own soul was saved.
In the New Testament Luke’s gospel sheds more light on this connection between the individual and social aspects of repentance. One of the best known cases is of course Zacchaeus. (Luke 19:1-10) Zacchaeus is a loathed tax collector who has defrauded many people yet when Jesus shows him friendship, his repentance is total and complete. But setting his soul right with God also entails a complete change in Zacchaeus’s behaviour. He doesn’t just offer to return the money he has defrauded people of---he offers to quadruple the amount! And he says that he will give half of his money to the poor. This is setting things right indeed!
The prodigal son is another person who repents and changes his behaviour when he returns to his Father and says: “Father, I have sinned against you and against God. I am no longer fit to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired helpers.”
So repentance, particularly in the New Testament, would seem to require a positive commitment to a change of behaviour, a change that would tend to confirm the repentance in the eyes of other people.
But Father Brown is frequently heard to say to sinners in confession, “If you truly repent, God will forgive you.” God, in other words, knows the inward truth, even if the rest of us require outward proof.
But in either case the onus lies on the individual: as Jesus makes clear, true repentance is the first step towards a right relationship with God and with other people.
Father Brown would tell you that only when we achieve that can we live a truly Christian life.
Hymn 553 Just as I am, without one plea
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession (by Gwen)
Almighty Lord God,
Thank you for being our loving Heavenly Father, always near us, always waiting to hear from us, always ready to listen to our prayers and always willing to help.
We thank you that our difficulties in life are minimal compared to what other brothers and sisters go through and we pray that you would help us to help you to ease their burdens too.
We pray for all those living in grinding poverty with no means to buy food to feed their families, with no means of earning a wage as jobs are difficult to find in this economic climate just now and those who also struggle to find somewhere to live, and especially we pray for those who are homeless in this bitterly cold weather. We know in our country there are always people who are willing to help; there are food banks and charities to help, but in many places around the world there is very little help available and many people even fear for their lives and fall easy prey to people smugglers.
We pray for those in government to ease the poverty of their citizens rather than look to their own pockets or covet what neighbouring countries have and spending money on wars and destruction.
We pray for all who are persecuted because of their faith; who do not even have the means to read your word, let alone in their own language, as possession of a Bible poses a risk to life.
We pray for all who have lost family members during this pandemic and who have found the limitations of saying “good-bye” so painful. We pray for all who are suffering from the virus or are caring for people with illness. We acknowledge the difficulties just now of not being able to provide assistance to those who desperately need support through this difficult time.
We pray for all who are suffering just now whether physically, mentally or spiritually with symptoms magnified by the lockdown restrictions and with less availability of people to share problems and easing burdens.
We further add our own prayers to these; in silence we hold up to you the people we know who need further help this day - - - - - - - - - - -
These prayers we pray in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymn 519 Love Divine, all loves excelling
Now go in peace; may this day, this year unfold as it should;
May you find solace in scripture and spirit; and may your journey into this new year be filled with the hope and promise of God for the sake and the peace of the world,
And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you all this day and forevermore, Amen
Closing voluntary: Mozart’s Horn concerto no. 4 Third movement