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Sunday Service, 6th December 2020

Led by Rev. Bob Gemmell

Welcome

Call to worship

As an introduction to our service this morning I would like to quote words of Tom Wright. Speaking about the Magnificat he says: “It has been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals, recited in small remote chapels and it has been set to music by many composers over the years. It has been described as the Gospel before the Gospel, a shout of triumph thirty weeks before Bethlehem, thirty years before Calvary and Easter. It’s all about God, it’s all about revolution.”

Our opening hymn this morning is Timothy Dudley Smith’s Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord, a hymn based on the words of the Magnificat.

Hymn 286 – Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord. Listen here.

Prayer

God of eternity, when the voice of the prophet was silent and the faith of your people low; when darkness had obscured light and indifference displaced zeal; you saw that the time was right, and prepared to send your Son. Set us free from fear and faithlessness that we may be ready to welcome him, the one who comes as Lord and Saviour.

Lord we thank you for calling Mary to be the mother of Jesus. In a world where men were in control, you chose a young girl to nurture the Saviour of the world. In a world where power reigns supreme you turned our values upside down by inviting Mary to share in the great work of redemption.

Lord we thank you that you still call women and men to share in your saving actions. You call us to live and serve in the way of Christ, uncertain of the future but trusting in your faithfulness. Sometimes your choice surprises us, the direction you point us in daunts us and your faith in our possibilities awes us.

Help us to say ‘Yes’ when you call. Enlarge our vision, strengthen our resolve and increase our sense of your all-sufficient grace, that we might be used mightily for your glory and for serving in your world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose name we further pray using the prayer that our Lord taught his disciples:

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

Scripture Readings

Luke 1: 46–56    

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the
lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great
things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and filled up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Luke 4: 16–21

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Children’s talk by Mo Brand

What do you have to do to get ready for Christmas?

Have you presents to buy, gifts to make, cards to post? Do you have your tree up? Decorations to hang? Food to order?

Sometimes we write a list but there’s a lot that happens in the lead-up to Christmas that we just know that we need to do, so much so that we wouldn’t even need to put it on a list.

Let’s imagine we are like this jar, and these beads are all the things we need to do for Christmas. We need to decorate the tree, hang the stockings, Zoom our family members, post presents and cards to people we won’t see, tidy up, look out our Christmas jumpers, plan Christmas dinner, bake some biscuits … lots of traditions, lots of little things and more little things … it soon adds up to being quite busy and full up during advent, the countdown to Christmas.

I had quite a list, so it’s good that everything can fit in.

Except God, oh, it seems there’s no space left. (God is represented as a large bead.)

If someone brings me a big knife maybe I can saw a little bit off and squeeze it on top… maybe the bit about going to or watching a church service, perhaps visiting the Wardie Advent Calendar, maybe reading the Christmas story in the Bible, maybe just a wee prayer … I’m not sure which part would be the most important and I remember talking about God in all things so I don’t think it would be wise to just take a bit off … I mean it’s not just one thing, I’d still be leaving God behind …

Maybe I need to rethink; it’s quite hard to take things out so what if I start again and see what’s left …

When we put God first it seems that all the other things can just fit around. Maybe having God first makes some things easier – and perhaps some things harder – but all the other things are still there, we just need to make sure in all the busyness we make room for God.

***********

In this time together with each other and with God we look to our advent wreath.

Our first candle is for hope.

“The light of hope shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.”

We light this candle for Hope.

Our second candle is for Peace.

Kidz at Wardie reflect on peace and ask for: “the light of peace shines on through troubles; a light to guide, to focus and a light for all.”

We light this candle for Peace.

Reflection by Rev. Bob Gemmell: The Magnificat

The Magnificat has been described as one of the most beautiful songs ever written and it is a significant segment within our heritage at Christmas, something to be remembered and cherished.

There are those who maintain that the words and thoughts contained within the Magnificat could not possibly be spoken by a young uneducated teenager. Others have suggested that they are more likely to have been words put into Mary’s mouth by perhaps the author of the Gospel, by Luke. I have even heard it suggested that it could have been the work of the two of them working in conjunction. If that was the case, then Mary must have been a very old woman by then. Another suggestion put forward is that Mary’s source and inspiration is based on Hannah’s song from I Samuel Chapter 2, a song celebrating the birth of Samuel and all that God was going to do through him. Who knows?

As far as I am concerned, I don’t think any of this is all that important at the end of the day; what is important are the words, the thoughts, the challenges presented by this song. Throughout the sermon I will simply refer to “Mary’s Song”.

Yes, in the years stretching out in front of her, Mary will have to respond to and cope with the darker side of life’s experiences. Sorrow like a sword will pierce her heart. She will lose Jesus for three days when he is twelve. She will think that he has gone mad when he is thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem when the God she now wildly celebrates seems to deceive her. But then her moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost.

Mary’s story is certainly a remarkable one. The tabloids, the red tops of today could hardly dream up anything more sensational. An angel comes to a young woman and tells her that she will become miraculously pregnant, and that the child she will bear will be the Son of God. In that short angelic encounter Mary makes two responses: “How is this possible?” and “Yes I am willing for this to happen”.

Mary’s song presents us with a number of issues concerning God’s dealing with humanity, his relationship with the proud and powerful, his respect for the vulnerable, his compassion for the hungry, his sorrow for the rich and his faithfulness to his people. Let me in a few sentences reflect briefly on these themes.

“He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Pride, arrogance and power get short shrift in Mary’s song. The same God who has been merciful to generations of God-fearing people will nevertheless overturn the powerful and the proud and will bring dynasties to an end.

There are, of course, different kinds of pride. For example we can legitimately be proud of certain people that we know or the work that they do or we can take a great deal of pride and delight in our children and grandchildren. No the ‘problem’ kind of pride is the one that becomes obsessed with itself, one that turns inwards, that becomes self-congratulatory, that thrives on the adulation of others, that obliterates God and loses its contact with reality. Or perhaps a pride that is so caught up in ourselves, our place, our status.

We also sometimes find that those holding positions of responsibility or political decision- making can abuse their power, leading to cover-ups and injustice. And when pride goes hand in hand with political or religious power we have the ingredients of which dictatorships are born. Within the song’s prophetic insight we are reminded of a God who brings down the mighty from their thrones, a God who removes them from their palaces. That is God’s relationship with the proud and powerful.

He is however a God who has respect for the vulnerable: “From the earth he raises the lowly, the humble and the vulnerable.” Those without position and status, the handicapped, or as one writer suggests, “those on the fag-ends of respectable society” or those who are pushed to the outer fringes of society, these are the ones for whom God cares, something that Jesus was to proclaim during the years of his ministry, identifying and caring, as he did, for the blind, the lame, the leper and those in need, the vulnerable. Mary’s song tells us how God loves those who neither bathe in the limelight nor hide their frailty and need.

The Magnificat not only speaks of God’s provision in the past and points prophetically to Christ’s ministry in future days, but it also provides us with a manifesto for a vital part of the church’s ministry today. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus identifies those who love him with those who feed the hungry and care for the sick and give clothes to those who need them, and treat the stranger with hospitality.

Mary’s song also refers to God’s sorrow for the rich: “He sends the rich away with empty hands.” Not necessarily a condemnation here of possessing riches, more a condemnation of the method by which people accumulate their riches and how they use them and share what they have. Amos is my favourite Old Testament prophet. He railed against people who had become rich off the backs of others, those who exploited the poor, those who denied justice to the oppressed, those who accepted bribes. Fast forward to the New Testament where we find James taking up something of the same theme, speaking out against those who cheated against their workers, living in luxury on the back of the labours of others.

And the final theme of Mary’s song? A declaration of God’s faithfulness. God has kept faith with his people regarding the promise made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. In the words of the song: “God has kept the promise he’d made, he has come to the help of his servant Israel, he has remembered to show mercy to Abraham and his descendants for ever.”

The message and the challenge contained within Mary’s song was one that was relevant for the day and it was taken up and echoed by Jesus himself in his manifesto for ministry in words recorded later in Luke’s Gospel: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”

Read Mary’s song again – read it again today, and read it slowly and carefully. Read it in the paraphrase in Timothy Dudley Smith’s hymn 286 in CH4. Ask yourself whether it is just a great piece of poetry or whether it challenges you today as you prepare for the coming of the Christ child. How does it challenge you to think about how you respond to his call to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the weak? How does it challenge you to respond to his call to seek justice? And how does it prompt you to count your blessings?

In this season of Advent I encourage you to sing Mary’s song: My soul doth magnify the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Prayers of Intercession by Jane Scott

Let us come to God in prayer, let us pray.

Loving Father, we thank you that you are our guiding star, shining brightly, lighting our way as we journey towards Bethlehem, and prepare for the birth of your son this Christmas.

During these dark days of December we ask for hope:

  • for the vaccination roll-out and increased testing capacity
  • for seeing family and friends
  • for good health
  • for visiting relatives in care homes
  • for a hug

We pray for wisdom and discernment for all leaders taking tough decisions that affect lives across the world. And we pray for strength as they face criticism, whatever their decision.

We pray for all across our nation, who as a result of this pandemic are facing hunger and loss of income. We think too of those who are lonely, unable to see their friends or family. Christmas time is likely to be a real struggle for many people this year. Help us to reach out to all those in need, to make a difference.

We pray for households where families have all been under the same roof for months at a time, with few opportunities for social interaction outside of the family unit, and where tension is leading to breaking-point. We think especially of teenagers missing out on the experiences and opportunities that would normally be available to them.

We pray too for the sick and those close to death, unable to be comforted by the touch of those closest to them. May they be comforted knowing that they are being held up in prayer, and may they also know your peace in their hearts.

Across the world, similar situations are being experienced as the pandemic continues. Loving Father, we pray the hope found in the birth of Jesus Christ reaches to every corner of creation.

We give thanks that we can all follow your star around our neighbourhood this Advent with the Wardie Advent doors and for all who are participating in this. May our hearts rejoice and sing, as Mary’s did, at the forthcoming birth of your son.

We bring all these prayers to you, along with the quiet prayers of our hearts, in the name of your son Jesus Christ, baby in the manger, Light of the World.

Amen

Hymn 287 – No wind at the window, no knock on the door (John Bell). Listen here.

Blessing

Advent God, we have met here and within our homes as your people
drawn together by your call and built up by our response of faith.
You have united us in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
As we go our separate ways, may we be supported by each other to be your people in the world, through the power of your Spirit.
And now may the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit rest upon you and remain with you and with all whom you love, now and always, Amen.