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Sunday Service, 26th April 2020

Opening prayer

God our Father, we pray that as the Holy Spirit came in the form of wind and fire to the apostles at Pentecost, so may your Spirit come upon us, breathing new life into our lives, setting our hearts aflame with love.

Lord, early in the morning, when the world was young you created life, life in all its beauty and glory, you gave birth to all that we know and love and cherish.

Early in the morning, when the world least expected it, a newborn child, crying in a cradle, announced that you had come amongst us, that you were one with us.

Early in the morning, surrounded by religious leaders, anxious politicians, silent friends, you accepted the penalty for doing good, for being God, you shouldered and suffered the cross.

Early in the morning, a voice in a guarded graveyard, footsteps in the dew, proved that you had risen, that you had come back, to those and for those who had forgotten and denied and thought they had destroyed you.

Early in the morning, in these changed circumstances, we celebrate your creation, your life, your death and resurrection, your interest in us, now and always. Hallowed be your name.

Hear us Lord in our prayers of confession as we take the words of the Psalmist and make them our own: “Create in me a clean heart O God and put a new a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of my salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit. Open my lips Lord and my mouth will declare your praise”.

Be present with us in the days of this week and help us to honour in the living of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Adapted from Gathering for Worship, a Baptist Union of Great Britain publication

Suggested Hymn – 691, Be still my soul. Listen here.

Readings

Isaiah 35: 1–10 (NRSV)

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Matthew 11: 28–30 (NRSV)

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell

Streams of water will flow through the desert, the burning sand will become a lake and the dry land will become a lake.” Isaiah 35: 6–7.

The desert had always played an important part in life of the people of God. In a way it became the training ground for Israel during those forty years of nomadic living after exiting Egypt prior to settling in their ‘land of promise’.

In later years the desert played a significant role in the lives of, for example, Elijah, Jeremiah and Amos. Centuries later John the Baptist raised the Messianic standard in the desert and of course it was the setting for the confrontation between Jesus and Satan.

As one commentator puts it, “the desert fascinated Israel’s imagination, it influenced their culture and literature and coloured their theology”.

One of the cruellest features of any desert experience is the mirage. Israel had experienced something of a mirage within her own historical record. Out of the desolation associated with those years of Egyptian bondage a magnificent dream was born, freedom appeared to be on their doorstep. And the day arrived when it seemed that their dream had become reality. However, on their momentous journey they became disillusioned. “Freedom”, they cried out to Moses, “if this is freedom, you can keep it. We were better off as slaves, we have been fooled, take us back to Egypt.” In their eyes, freedom had become nothing more than a mirage. They felt that they had been let down, betrayed.

Do you remember how Captain Scott, amidst the despair of his courageous but disastrous and unsuccessful expedition to the South Pole, wrote in his diary: “Good bye to my dreams”?

In our post-resurrection study we recalled the experience of two of our Lord’s followers on the Emmaus Road: ”We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel but now it is all over, it can never happen now”.

I am sure that this is the kind of experience with which many can identify to a greater or lesser extent. Occasions when our dreams have been shattered, our expectations have been dashed. The streams of water have become nothing more than a mirage.

It could be said that at the beginning of his ministry Jesus set out from Nazareth with the dream of turning the world upside down. It could also be said that life took those dreams and brutally shattered them into fragments. The world would not accept his gospel. The inquisitive crowd dwindled to a trickle. His best friends forsook and fled the cause. Seemingly the dream had become a nightmare.

The author of our Old Testament Scripture passage proclaims that this process of seeming failure is one that can be reversed. The mirage can indeed become a pool, the nightmare can become a dream, the wilderness can once again become alive.

But has he any right to rekindle our hopes in this way? Is his proclamation not cruel and hurtful?

Amidst the darkness and uncertainty, the anxiety and the fear around us today, is it the kind of message that we have any right to be preaching?

I believe that we not only have the right to present the claims of Scripture in general and Jesus Christ in particular but would suggest that certain messages from Scripture are relevant for the day and can bring comfort, hope and encouragement to us all. To the testimony of Scripture I would also add the testimony of God’s people, especially those who have suffered and endured particular hardship as they have walked the road of faith.

Let me present you with a couple of examples from each of these three categories.

It was the Psalmist who assures us in Psalm 46 that God is indeed our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. And in Psalm 107 v 9 he says: “He satisfies those who are thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”

From the Gospel message I would choose two examples from Jesus’ ministry. His invitation: “Come to me all of you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”

And our Lord’s post-resurrection promise to his disciples: “Go then to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples; baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you ALWAYS to the end of the age.”

Turn now to the recorded testimony of Eric Liddell who amidst the squalor of his prisoner of war camp and the intense physical pain he suffered found comfort in the reality of God’s presence and in the hymn ‘Be still my soul’. Take a moment to refresh your mind with the words of this great hymn and read it against the backdrop of Eric Liddell’s final days on earth.

I well remember, as a young Christian, reading the book Through Gates of Splendour, the story of Operation Auca, an attempt by five American missionaries to reach the Huaorani tribe of Eastern Ecuador. Prior to death as martyrs, they recorded their assurance of the Lord’s presence and strength through the valley, and on through the gates of splendour.

I would suggest that all of these examples proclaim a parallel message to the one presented by Isaiah, proclaiming that “streams of water will flow through the desert…”.

Preaching, speaking, sharing the gospel, not in an insensitive, triumphal way, but with a quiet and encouraging manner, reminding folks of the faithfulness of God not only to past generations but of his presence with us in our own lives, strengthening us in our weakness.

I firmly believe that his faithfulness in past days and through many a difficult situation can become the ground of our confidence in Him for the present and the basis of our hope for the future.

Professor James Stewart in one of his books wrote about the first time he visited Interlaken in Switzerland. He had waited for days to catch a glimpse of majestic mountains that dwarf the surroundings, the Eiger and the Jungfrau. But the mist had descended and shrouded his view. Others had told him about the wonderful and spectacular view, but he hadn’t been able to witness it for himself. Then one day the mist lifted and the splendour of the mountains was revealed. The following day, it seems the mist descended once again, covering the mountain tops. He could no longer see the peaks of those mountains, but he knew for certain they were there behind the clouds, experience told him that.

I would imagine that it was in the midst of a difficult situation that Horatio Bonar penned the words of this hymn, words that still bring comfort and encouragement to many of us today:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Behold I freely give the living water; thirsty one
Stoop down and drink and live’.
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived and now I live in Him.

As we return to Isaiah’s proclamation and question its relevance for us today and whether or not we have the right to proclaim it in the midst of our present anxiety over our future, let us take just a moment to remind ourselves of his message: “The desert will rejoice … and sing and shout for joy … tell everyone who is discouraged ‘be strong and don’t be afraid’ … the blind will be able to see and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert; the burning sand will become a lake, and dry land will be filled with springs.”

A cruel mirage or a message of hope and encouragement?

For me, it is a message of hope and encouragement. One based, not within a vacuum, but based on and grounded in our experience of God’s presence along all of life’s perplexing paths and in the promises of Scripture.

Yes, “streams of water will flow through the desert, the burning sand will become a lake and the dry land will be filled with springs”.

Suggested Hymn – 540. I heard the voice of Jesus say. Listen here.

Prayer of Intercession

Lord Jesus, when things are happening that we find hard to deal with, when our head goes down and our eyes see no further than our own feet, help us to be honest with You even if it’s through tears or rage, and ride the storm with us.

We cannot avoid the pandemic that is enveloping our world. Let us not become numb to the relentless news about it or complacent about helping and finding solutions.

We pray for those who are ill or have been impacted by coronavirus. We pray for all those in the health professions for whom we are grateful for their skill, expertise and compassion.  

We pray for those affected economically – those who have lost their job or have seen a reduced income resulting in financial difficulties and worries. We pray for support for people facing these pressures – help us to stay in touch and offer what support we can, often it is a simple conversation that can make all the difference.

We pray for those who lead who are trying to manage this situation. Finding a perfect solution to balancing physical health, mental wellbeing and economic factors appears all but impossible but may decisions be taken with wisdom and compassion.

Lord, there are times where we feel distant. Help us to trust You are there even when we cannot see or feel You close. Gently tilt our faces to look into Yours, to find there limitless compassion, endless understanding and patience, and the courage we need.

Amen

Blessing