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Sunday Service, 17th May 2020

Opening prayer

Lord we sometimes find it strange when we think that you should call us to be your church. Yet you have always worked through men and women in the working out of your purpose. Through prophets and disciples, leaders and followers, preachers and listeners, you have called your people, that your redeeming love might work through them.

Above all, in Jesus your Word has become flesh and a human being has lived your will.

He died for us and you have raised him for us, that he might be our foundation and our head.

Fill us with his love that we might truly be his disciples.
We dedicate ourselves to being your people.
Accept our worship and our prayers our intentions and our gifts.
All has come from you and now as we pray, your Spirit prompts us and empowers us.
Grant us your grace, that we might be faithful to our calling as your Church.

Deepen our faith, strengthen our love and increase our hope that we might be an offering acceptable to you and available for your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Adapted from the Baptist Union of Great Britain publication – Gathering for Worship

Hymn – 110, Glory be to God the Father. Listen here.

Readings

Nehemiah 1: 111 (NRSV)

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’

When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.” They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!’

At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.

Mark 2: 1–5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Credit: Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Challenges can become doors of opportunity: Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell

Rebuilding a city wall is fortunately not a task that confronts us every day of the week. However, like Nehemiah we are called to be followers, and on occasions we are called to step out in faith, challenged to get out of our comfort zones and tackle something new.

Nehemiah was neither a priest nor a prophet. He was a Jewish leader, raised up at a particular time to meet a particular crisis, a time when part of the Jewish nation was still in exile. The opening chapter of the book presents Nehemiah with some worrying facts about the situation back in Jerusalem.

The previous book of Ezra tells us how some of the returning exiles had rebuilt the Temple and revived the civic legislation. But the city had been left unprotected and its population was constantly being subjected to raiding parties. It was obvious that the government would not be safe, nor would the people become established and prosperous until the walls of Jerusalem and the gates of the city were rebuilt.

That’s the challenge that Nehemiah faced head on. How he tackled the problem is a good read. Let me give you a thumbnail sketch, and I will leave you to fill in the details for yourselves, if you so wish, as you read through the book.

News arrived from Jerusalem concerning the perilous state of the city’s defences. On being briefed, Nehemiah sat down and wept; he mourned and fasted, he prayed to God. But what could he possibly do? At the time he was in exile, he was the emperor’s wine steward and certainly not in a position to make demands or even requests of his master. But an opening presented itself when Emperor Artaxerxes asked him why he was looking so sad. An opportunity which Nehemiah grabbed – further doors opened, Nehemiah was not only given permission to travel to Jerusalem but he was also supplied with the resources necessary to begin the work of restoration.

On arrival in Jerusalem Nehemiah kept his plans close to his chest. He surveyed the situation and challenge for himself. He then confronted the priests, the leaders and city officials, presenting them with facts and challenging them to respond: “See what trouble we are in because Jerusalem is in ruins and its gates are destroyed. Let’s rebuild the city walls and put an end to our disgrace.” And the response? “Let’s start rebuilding.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Sure there were major problems to be faced, difficulties to be overcome, opposition to be tackled face on, plots to be dealt with. But as the narrative tells us: “After fifty two days the entire wall was finished … the wall had been rebuilt and the gates had been put back in place.” Ezra was invited to lead the nation in worship and thanksgiving, Nehemiah dedicated the city wall: “sacrifices were offered and the people were full of joy because God had made them very happy. The woman and the children joined in the celebration and the noise they all made could be heard far and wide.”

On day one, to Nehemiah it must have seemed almost an impossible challenge to meet. But the challenge became an opportunity, an opportunity that he grasped, doors opened and eventually the difficulties were overcome, the gates of the city were restored and the defensive walls rebuilt.

Permit me a wee bit of indulgence. My first pastorate was the Baptist Church at High Blantyre. On arrival the membership of the church stood at 32, five of whom were wage earners. We worshipped in what could only be described, even generously, as an old corrugated shack constructed at the end of the 19th century as a billiard hall. The first pastor of the church had a ministry which spanned almost 50 years. He had been absolutely certain of the imminent return of the Lord and so any thought of rebuilding had been kicked into the long grass. With less than £1,000 in the building fund the church made the decision to rebuild – brought about partly because the local council was threatening to condemn the old building. The church rose to the challenge and within five years a new church building was opened, debt free, and the membership had doubled over the period.

Fortunately we had a good number of Nehemiahs in that small congregation, men and women who rose to the challenge and had a work ethic of which even Calvin would have been proud. The project was cemented together with prayer and honest hard work and fundraising. A small church willing to step out in faith.

Parallels between the two projects? In both instances the subjects concerned were in dire straits – the city walls and gate in Jerusalem lay in ruin and the church building at High Blantyre was a bit of an eye sore. Initially both tasks presented seemingly insurmountable barriers. Nehemiah was but a wine taster in the employ of the Emperor, our church had only five wage earners and £1,000 in the building fund. But then doors began to open and opportunities presented themselves – a sympathetic Emperor and a sympathetic council began the process of the dreams becoming reality. But that was just the start, the real hard work was yet to take off. When doors open, opportunities must be taken up. Nehemiah journeyed to Jerusalem, sought and gained the support of the local officials and clergy and all joined together to progress the dream towards reality. At High Blantyre we sought the support of various charitable trusts, fundraising became a way of life for five years, practical help was offered and received with gratitude. At the end of the day, in both instances, the goals were reached – the citizens of Jerusalem once again felt secure and safe, the congregation, which had risen in numbers and grown in faith over the period, rejoiced in having a new building in which to work and worship.

But how does any of this apply to us at Wardie today? The building project here was the dream of a past generation and we are able to worship and work together (or at least we will again at some time in the future) in a beautiful and functional building.

I think it is important to remember that it is not the magnitude of the challenge that is important but our willingness to answer the call, either to face new opportunities or to remain faithful to our original call.

And opportunities do arise for all of us from time to time, and when doors open and we find ourselves standing on the threshold of the possibility of further service the response to the challenge becomes ours.

Within the Gospels we have a number of examples of individuals and groups responding to difficult, and for them, seemingly insurmountable situations, by making the most of opportunities that arose.

There’s the woman who suffered from bleeding for twelve years. She wanted to be healed –she had tried very hard to find healing. She believed Jesus could heal her, but she was faced with a huge challenge because she couldn’t even get to him because she would have to go through the crowds and her uncleanness would make those with whom she came into contact unclean. If she touched Jesus he would become unclean. But she faced that challenge because somewhere in her, she knew she had the opportunity to be healed. And she was. If she hadn’t faced the challenge her opportunity would have been lost.

Zacchaeus for some reason had a strong desire to make contact with Jesus. His lack of stature and the density of the crowd presented him with a challenge and prevented him from fulfilling his desire. His door of opportunity presented itself in the form of a sycamore tree.

The synoptic Gospels refer to an incident, early in Jesus’ ministry, when four men arrived at Capernaum carrying a paralysed man to Jesus and again the crowd numbers prevented them from getting anywhere near the Lord. In this instance it wasn’t a door that opened for them. They took measures into their own hands, they opened the roof of the home and lowered their friend right into Jesus’ presence.

I invite you to think about the challenges you might be facing at the moment. They might not be huge challenges – thankfully we are not faced with those kind too often. Then look for the opportunities which lie behind them. They are always there and, if you let him, God will help you find them.

Credit: Photo by Anton Mislawsky on Unsplash

Hymn – 533, Will You Come and Follow Me. Listen here.

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Lord, we remain together yet apart. We yearn to come together as a congregation again and worship you together.

Lord, we miss our Church Family. We miss the small things – the smile of welcome, the nod of acknowledgement across one side of the church to a friend on the other, the gathering over coffee and the chance to share our stories.

“God is with us” is a comfort to us and is not an insurance policy against pain, or a talisman against misfortune. Lord, be with us in our pain, our worry, and be present even when life goes against us.

Lord, these are hard times as people all over the world over struggle with pandemic. We are united in the struggle and our wishes to come together again will have to wait, but we pray that you will give us encouragement as we go forward with strength for what is ahead.

We pray for all those within the caring professions as they continue to show their devotion and professionalism helping those who are ill. We pray for all those helping to support people with family members unwell and our heart goes out to the bereaved.

We remember those who have to make decisions about our current state of lockdown. Those who are seeking to find ways to bring back safely our schools, our activities, our “non-essential” services, and forge a path back to a more normal life.

Let us go out into our world, the community we know, our workplaces and our homes, with hearts open and ready to love those we meet. We can make a positive difference. We pray the words of the old hymn “they will know we are Christians by our love”.

In the week ahead let us remember the welcome of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit whose heart closes no-one out – but whose love is for all, always.

Amen

Blessing