Led by Rev. Bob Gemmell
Call to Worship
Some men who studied the stars came from the east to Jerusalem and asked: “Where is the baby born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east and we have come to worship him.”
Hymn 305 – In the bleak midwinter. Listen here.
Lord, this is your day and we are your people. We have gathered together in your name, seeking your face, your presence.
We are here to shut ourselves in with you, not because we want to escape from the harshness and the reality of life, but because we know that through your Spirit, you can equip us to face up to life with hope and certainty.
However, Lord, there are times when we feel uncertain, uncertain about different aspects of our lives and faith – uncertain about the future – uncertain about our role within the church, uncertain about our gifts and the service we can offer.
We acknowledge that uncertainty is not part of your make up. You know the end from the beginning. We are reminded through the Psalms that you knew us before we were born, you were aware of us while we were still being wonderfully knit together in our mother’s womb. You know all about our past and our future is likewise all mapped out by you. Lord, while we are very much aware of areas of uncertainty in our lives, we acknowledge that there is no such uncertainty in your eyes, in your mind.
Lord, help us to deal with areas of uncertainty in our lives, help us to negotiate our way out of any tunnel of darkness we may be facing.
Help us to face our futures with hope and with certainty, certainty that as you have led us through the difficulties of the past you will be there with us as we face the challenges that confront us at the moment.
Lord, be with us in the hours of today and in the days of the week that stretch out in front of us. Be with us, encourage us through our reading and understanding of your word, and through the leading and prompting of your Holy Spirit.
Hear these the prayers of your people and hear us as we continue in prayer in the words that our Lord taught his disciples, saying:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Anyone feeling like they are constantly having to rethink their plans, from working to shopping to seeing people – it can all feel a bit tough and unfair that things are not easier. Isn’t it great, though, when we can work it out – when you have a good idea that pops into your head. Or maybe it’s something you have struggled to understand or something that is hard to do and suddenly you get it – it’s as if a light switch turns on in your brain and everything is clear.
We see this often pictured in cartoons – suddenly a light bulb will appear above their heads as a symbol that says “I’ve got it”, “I know what to do”, “I’ve figured it out” – it’s called a light bulb moment.
Bob’s opening words this morning talked about the wise men and I like the thought of these lovely wise men, happily plodding on their camel journey, but when I really think about it, I feel a little bit sorry for the wise men. You see, it seems that when it comes to listening to God, they had an unfair deal. Their task may have been different, but they had to figure it out all by themselves – Mary had an angel, Joseph had an angel and the shepherds had a whole heavenly host of angels. The wise men had to use their skills and knowledge, their own smarts, to figure out what was happening; they saw the star and had a light bulb moment as they worked out that it meant the new king was being born, but they then also had to work out what to do about it, they opted to follow the star, not knowing exactly where it would lead them or how long it would take them to get there, and so they travelled. They had to rely on the gifts they had and their own heads and hearts to respond to what was in front of them.
In fact, it wasn’t until they had made it all the way to Jesus as a small child, given him their gifts and were almost ready to head home that they had an angel moment – a dream warning them not to return to Herod and to go home another route.
It makes me think about how we respond to God in our own lives. Sometimes we’re faced with tough choices and sometimes we’re just trying to get through the everyday moments, but are we always using our own skills and knowledge to look for God and to respond with a willingness to go or are we avoiding it, thinking we need angels to appear and to be told what to do – because clearly God was in the wise men’s knowledge and the rising of the star, but it was up to them to find their own light bulb!
So maybe we could try trusting in our own heads and hearts to look and respond to God this week. Maybe we already know what that would or should look like, maybe we need to spend some time searching and thinking. As some suggestions, perhaps we need to be kinder to ourselves this week, reach out to someone else or make some extra effort to support someone struggling with lockdown. Look out for the stars and signs and maybe we will find our own light bulb moments!
Matthew 2: 1–12 (NRSV)
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.
Reflection by Rev. Bob Gemmell: Epiphany
One of my reference sources told me that Epiphany is a Christian festival held in January commemorating, in the Western Church, the manifestation of Christ to the Magi and, in the Eastern Church, the baptism of Jesus. It also refers to epiphany as the manifestation of a supernatural or divine moment or any moment of great or sudden revelation, or, as our minister David Cameron refers to it – a WOW moment.
I would like to take these three ideas and weave them into my reflections over the next three Sundays – the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, the baptism of Christ and finally our own special moments of revelation – our own epiphanies. Epiphany for the church today covers, of course, the period between now and the start of Lent.
In reality it is possible that there was a time lapse of a number of months, maybe even a couple of years, between the shepherds’ visit to the stable in Bethlehem and the arrival of this group of men who studied the stars. Mary and Joseph and their baby had certainly moved out of their emergency accommodation and into a home in the village of Bethlehem.
So much has been said and so much has been written around the narrative of these wise men and over the centuries so much has been ‘written into’ the significance of the event. Over those years it would seem as if folks have ‘dreamed their dreams’ and put into print something of their fantasies surrounding that journey and the gifts they presented.
One writer put pen to paper in this way: “The Son of God was revealed to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles, to Mary and Joseph first and then to a group of foreign intellectuals. He was revealed to the humble and ignorant first and then to the honourable and learned, to the poor first and then to the rich, to the West first and then to the East.” I’ll leave it to yourselves to work out the significance of all of that.
Another writer has suggested other lessons that we can learn from the Christmas story. His theory is that the Lord was revealed to the shepherds through a method that would be understood by them – revelation coming through an angel of the Lord giving them a sign, the sign being that: “You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The shepherds, being of the Jewish faith, would be used to some extent at least to the Lord speaking and revealing things through signs.
On the other hand, Jesus’ birth was revealed to the Magi through a method suited to their understanding – by a star.
Scriptural reference to the fact that three gifts were presented to our Lord has given rise over the years to the thought that there three pilgrims within the travelling party. Tradition may state that such was the case, not a fact backed up within Matthew’s account of things. Once again there have been various traditions built up around our ‘three wise men’. One suggestion is that the visitors came from different countries and have even been named as individuals. The gifts they brought have also been thought to enshrine all kinds of spiritual truth and significance. Gold, for example, signifying our Lord’s humanity, frankincense his divinity, and myrrh for his death. Another permutation is – gold because he was a king, frankincense because he was God, and myrrh because he was mortal.
I found a modern application to the list and I used it within the intercessory prayer last Sunday: “As the wise men brought their gifts to the Christchild, so may we bring gifts to one another in the world.
GOLD: May we share mutual resources justly;
Practise fair trade; respect the earth
and exercise mutual deference.
FRANKINCENSE: May we promote freedom of thought, speech and worship; find opportunities for all to grow in grace and stature;
take quietness with us wherever we go;
and exercise mutual encouragement.
MYRRH: May we stand in solidarity with the oppressed and suffering:
weep with those who weep; lament the atrocities of history;
bring balm for tomorrow and exercise mutual love.”
Gold, frankincense and myrrh. And so we could go on, as I said, dreaming our dreams and creating our own fantasies. Whatever the symbolism, the gifts were brought and homage was paid: “They fell down and worshipped him.” That first Christmas was a time for worship and adoration, a time for the giving and receiving of gifts, a time of celebration.
Some 50 plus years ago I came across a poem written by Joan Walsh Angland called “Christmas is a time of giving.” It couldn’t be described as a particularly religious poem in that it isn’t biblically based, nor does it use the language of Zion, but to some extent at least I think it enshrines something of the whole mixture of things that have gone in the past to make up Christmas.
Christmas is a time of giving – it is a time of wrapping gifts and making mince pies.
A time of presents tucked in secret places, of children waiting.
It is a time of toys … and drums … and dolls, a time of holly and lights and golden tinsel and green pine boughs.
It is a time of stars and midnight and soft prayers whispered in the dark.
Christmas is a time of family and good friends meeting once again.
It is a time of carolling and silver sleigh bells jingling across the snow.
For some people, Christmas is a time for remembering, remembering other happy days filled with laughing voices and other treasured times now past.
But for everyone, it is a time of magic, when troubles melt and once again the world is young.
It is a time, above all others when peace may visit earth and find a dwelling place in every heart.
Christmas is a time of giving, of hope, a time of joy
Christmas is a blessed time of love.
I wonder if you found these words a particularly honest picture of Christmas just past, especially if you had to celebrate it on your own and not surrounded by family and friends.
Christmas, however, is a time for the giving and receiving of gifts. At a very human level we are following in the footsteps of the Magi as we exchange our gifts. I am sure looking back over the years there have been gifts that you have treasured, ones that will always hold a very special place in our hearts. And sometimes these are seemingly very ordinary things but ordinary things that have become a treasure to you.
I have brought along an old tattered book this morning, a very ordinary book, not one that would raise any amount of money on programmes like Flog It. It is an ordinary book but it is one that means a great deal to me. The title of the book is “Land of the Gospel”, published by the Bible Lands Society in 1963 and written by the Rev. Leslie Farmer.
Inside the front cover there is an inscription which simply says – “To Bob and Marion Gemmell” and signed by the author.
At the time I was a student at London Bible College and we lived in a flat owned by Bow Methodist Mission whose minister at the time was none other than Leslie Farmer. Leslie was quite a character, a man well known for a few peculiar habits. On one occasion we were invited back to the manse for supper after the evening service. However, before supper Leslie’s wife rather apologetically explained that we would first of all have to sit and wait while Leslie enjoyed his cigar and watched an episode of his favourite American drama, Ironside, on television. No “I-Player” or catch-up in those days. Thereafter he was the perfect host and we enjoyed the rest of the evening. That aside, Leslie exercised a very caring ministry in a deprived and multi-cultured area of London. And this old tattered book brings back some fond memories of working in Bow Methodist Mission all of those 58 years ago, a gift that I have treasured over the years.
The Magi’s initial gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given and received with gratitude. A question that often arises at this time of the year is what kind of gift can we offer our Lord?
One suggestion comes in a verse of the old and beloved Christmas hymn:
What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man
I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him
give my heart.
In spiritual terms ‘our gift’ refers to the dedicating of our lives to the Lord. In practical terms the giving of that gift could lead to us identifying ourselves with a particular area of need that touches our hearts. For others it could mean the taking up of an area of responsibility within the church or within our community, being open in mind and heart to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What can I give Him? My heart and soul, my hands my feet, my mind and intellect, my voice, my will.
Prayers of Intercession
Hear us now, Lord, as we turn to you in our prayers of intercession. Lord in your mercy – hear our cry.
We pray first of all for your world, especially at this time for the United States of America as its leaders fight to maintain democracy within the nation. Turn the present hatred and distrust of others into respect and acceptance and toleration. We pray for Joe Biden as he takes office with a heavy heart but with a deep desire to bring unity to the divided nation.
We pray for the elected leaders of our own nation both at Westminster and Holyrood. Amidst our own difficulties associated with the pandemic give our leaders clarity of mind in the difficult decisions that have to be made. We thank you for the doctors and scientists who have produced the various vaccines that are now to hand, and we pray for the process of rolling out of the vaccines – for those who will administer the process in the coming days.
We pray for our church community here at Wardie, for those called into positions of leadership, for the Session, for members of the Nominating Committee, leaders of the Guild and all the other organisations that have been going out of their way in recent months to keep in contact and offer pastoral care to friends and members.
We pray for those within the congregation who have found the days of the past year difficult through lack of contact and fellowship. In the midst of the anxiety, in the midst of the loneliness, bring the assurance of your presence and of the prayers and interest of your people.
We commit ourselves and those around us to your care; strengthen us in our weakness, bring peace amidst the turmoil, a sense of your constant and continuing presence through all the changing scenes of life today and out into the future.
Lord in your mercy – hear our cry.
Hymn 325 – Bethlehem a noble city
May the love of the faithful Creator;
The peace of the wounded healer;
The joy of the challenging Spirit;
The hope of the three in one
surround you and encourage you
today, tonight and forever.
And may the blessing of Almighty God, Father Son and Holy Spirit
Rest and remain with you and with all whom you love, now and always.