November 29, 2020 – First Sunday in Advent
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A message from the Rev. Bob Smith
Welcome to worship on this first Sunday in the season of Advent. As we begin our journey of preparation that will take us to Christmas, the excitement and expectation grows in us all. Our journey begins today with Isaiah pleading with God to come and save his people who are struggling and lost, a request that we see fulfilled with gift of the Saviour, born for us so long ago in Bethlehem. The age-old story warms our souls.
However, in these days of a pandemic, where our worship is limited to the internet, we struggle with what our celebration will look like, or even if our families will be able to gather. But the message of hope comes to us now as much as it ever has, that God has heard our cries for help, and a Saviour is coming.
Our service today begins, as we have in the past, with the candle-lighting liturgy supplied by Presbyterian World Service and Development. You may want to join in the responses where you are, and even light a candle each week as we move through this season of preparation for the birth of the Saviour.
Grace and peace to you,
Rev. Bob Smith
PWS&D Candle-Lighting Liturgy
This is done as a call and response. The preacher says the words in regular text, and all say the words in bold.
The season of Advent begins, and we celebrate the hope we find in the good news of the Gospel.
Through the birth of a tiny and helpless child, God comes to save the world.
While we watch and wait for Jesus, we join God’s mission by bringing grace and mercy to those who need it most.
We engage the poor and the poor in spirit, letting Christ’s light shine through us.
We speak words of comfort and love to a world in need of hope and healing as we share our stories of God’s transforming Spirit.
Together, we are a sign of God’s hope for the world.
(The candle is lit)
Let us pray:
God of surprising grace, when we least expect it, you bring fresh new life; and where we feel that all is lost, you bring redemption. Give us courage as we share all you have done, all you are doing, and all you will accomplish through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Book of Praise – 110 “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”
- Video with on-screen words taken from the hymnbook. Follow along on the screen or using the words just below.
- Words (1744) by English minister and hymnwriter Charles Wesley (1707–1788); music (tune “Hyfrydol”; 1844) by Welsh musician Rowland Prichard (1811–1887); harmony by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958). Words, music and harmony in the public domain. This arrangement © copyright 2020 Rachelle Risling, used by permission.
- Keyboard and vocals by Rachelle Risling, GCPC Music Director.
- Recording © copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us;
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art,
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver;
born a child and yet a king;
born to reign in us forever;
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all-sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne
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Prayers of Adoration, Confession, Lord’s Prayer
O God, the source of all light and life, we praise you that you have come to us in Christ. In this Advent season, help us to watch and wait with joy and expectation. Help us constantly to be alert and watchful, that we may perceive your presence and hear your call to follow and serve. All praise and glory be to you O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God forever.
God of new beginnings, as we enter the season of Advent, and await the coming of your son, our saviour, we confess that we have not always been eager for you to enter our lives, nor very prepared to hear your life-changing word for us. We like to think Jesus came only to bless us in whatever we are doing, and that his most challenging commandments refer only to others. Forgive us, we pray. Help us to realize that in Christ you came to remake every one of us, and that he invites us to open our hearts to him in love. In his name we pray, and continue by singing together the prayer that he taught his disciples:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Declaration of Pardon and The Peace
Friends in Christ, here is good news: Jesus Christ, whose coming we anticipate in this season, came not to condemn the world, but so that the world in him might be saved. Accept the forgiveness that God offers to you in Christ. Thanks be to God.
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(And also with you.)
Don’t you wish sometimes that God would just step in and take over? You know, grab back the steering wheel to keep us from going into the ditch and say, “Maybe I’ll drive for a while.” It’s like the times when you finally decide you have dug yourself so deep in trouble that you will never climb out on your own. You need help. It’s time to call in an expert — someone who knows what they’re doing.
It can be in little things like when you decide to fix the leaky kitchen tap. It’s not until you are up to your ankles in water, that you finally confess that you can’t do it on your own and it’s probably time to call a plumber.
But it’s also in more important things, isn’t it? Like when the thing that needs fixing is the relationships in your school, your workplace, your family or your marriage. Your best efforts are getting you nowhere. There is division, there is misunderstanding. Bitterness and mistrust beget more of the same. Angry words are spoken, spirits are wounded.
Whatever respect or love used to be there is very quickly evaporating into thin air. Honesty, communication, caring, tenderness — they are all just faint memories.
Whatever the cause of your being so overwhelmed, you suddenly realize that try as you might and as good as your intentions are you can’t do it on your own. You need to find a friend, an expert, a counsellor who can help you find a way. Help to sort out the issues and the feelings. Help to set it right again.
You simply can’t cope anymore — this problem is too big. You will come apart at the seams if something doesn’t happen soon. You are at the end of your rope.
In an act of desperation, you cry out for help. You need someone from the outside. Someone to bring a power that is greater than you.
Someone to come in and help set things right for you.
And what if the thing that needs fixing is our country, or our world? And not just its security and its economy, how long governments will last, or how smooth the transitions from one to the next, but the things that really hold it all together. Its values, its faithfulness its moral fibre, its sense of compassion.
What if a whole people needs fixing — a whole nation is in danger of losing its way? What if it’s a whole society that has lost it moral bearings?
We sure can’t fix that on our own. What kind of expert do you bring in then, to set things right?
At such a time as this, the one Isaiah calls on is God. He realizes it’s time to admit that the people of Israel cannot fix their desperate situation on their own. God is going to have to come in and take the wheel. The prophet’s plea becomes a journey in self-discovery, and a revelation about where the real problem lies.
In this part of the book of Isaiah God’s people have returned from exile in Babylon. And many of us come with them, longing to go back to a former time, a normal time, to recover a life, an innocence, a memory to the way things were before, things that are now long gone. Like the long lines of refugees we see on our TV’s, they make their weary way home, hoping against hope that there is a home to return to.
But instead of finding business as usual, they find a country in ruin. There is nothing that looks familiar. Their homes lie in shambles. Their businesses have been looted and torched. The markets where they used to gather for a coffee and bagel and watch the world go by are empty now.
Gone are the tables and stalls. Gone are the produce and household goods. Gone is the smell of fresh-baked bread. Gone is the laugher of children playing and the bustle of the crowd. Gone are the signs of community, of joy, of home.
But the worst of it is their place of worship. Once the pride of their community, the focus of their faith their place of devotion and worship is now just another pile of rock. A bit bigger a pile than the others, maybe, but now a place without life. The only psalms are the sound of wind whipping the dust around the stones. The only sacrifices are the memories of the former worshippers as they turn away in tears.
They try for a while, but it’s no use. “It’s too much work — we will never be able to rebuild. The temple, the city, our homes, our lives. It will never be the same again, never how we remember it, never as good as it was before.” They fall into a downward spiral of discouragement and despair. Too much has changed. Too much has gone. There is no hope.
So we cry out with the prophet to God. “Things are such a mess here, God. Can’t you help? Can’t you just tear open the heavens and come down to straighten things out for us?
“We no longer have any answers. We can’t do it on our own. Anything we try just makes things worse. Things are so bad, we’re almost at the point that no-one cares anymore. Won’t you help us, God? Won’t you come down and set things right?”
The prophet pleads for a spectacular divine intervention. “We know you did this kind of this in the past. You came down in ways mightier than we even expected. Even the mountains shook in fear. So… please do it again. Make the people who did this to us — the ones who have ruined everything that was familiar and loved make them run and hide. Nobody is as big and strong as you are, God. Nobody else can do the things that you do. Come down here and show those wicked enemies of ours who’s boss.
“We know, God, that you are able to do things to help the people that are righteous. That you stick up for us good people. So come on down here and prove to those bad people that you’re in charge. We’ll be right behind you.”
The prophet stops for a breath in his prayer, but there is something else. Those last words get caught in his throat — the ones about protecting the righteous and punishing the wicked. Somehow his moral indignation rings a little hollow.
That might be the way that God works. But the prophet has suddenly realized something. He is no longer sure which side he and his people are on. Who are the righteous and who are the wicked? Which side are we on?
His tone changes: “We don’t pray anymore,” he says. We don’t even try to walk in your ways. When things don’t go our way, we always think God has gone away or become silent. Maybe God seems absent because have ignored him, silent because we haven’t been listening.
“How can we presume to be on your side, God? To be honest, we don’t deserve your blessing — even our best efforts end up looking like a filthy rag. Because of our sinfulness there is nothing in us that deserves to last. Like leaves in the fall, we fade, dry out, and are blown away like the wind. Maybe we and our nation have outlived our usefulness.”
The thought is too painful to bear, being cut off from God’s favour. The prophet pleads with God not to leave them. He appeals to God’s faithfulness to the one who created them in the first place and made them a nation. His prayer for help becomes a prayer of confession.
“We may have sinned, God, but remember that you are our parent, that we are yours, the work of your hands. You made us once, now remake us to remove our sin and to remind us what it is to live as your people. You are the potter, we are the clay. You are the one in the driver’s seat we will follow where you take us and seek to be faithful. You are the one who can step in to set things right we are the ones who need help. You are the righteous one, we are the ones who need to be shaped, corrected, molded.
“What if the thing that needs to be fixed is not our circumstances, or our neighbours, or the bad economy, or the government, or those who would change all the pillars of our society, or all those people over the last 30 years who have left the church?
“What if it’s us, the ones who like to think we are righteous? What if the one thing we can’t fix by ourselves is our own hearts? Why do we always assume that if God were to intervene in any situation, it would be in our favour? Why do we never think to look at ourselves, and ask, “Is it us? Is it me?”
It gives us pause. Even with something like the pandemic it may seem a rather benign and “safe” prayer to ask God to deliver us from such suffering. But very soon we discovered that a such a widespread health emergency, even here in Canada, has laid bare our own injustices, like racism, poverty, homelessness, our responsibility for those in long-term care, and our treatment of indigenous people. And let’s be honest — all those new infections are coming from somewhere. Clearly many of us are finding it hard to abide by those simple rules of staying at home, wearing our masks, keeping our distance, and washing our hands.
Isaiah would go along with Pogo’s famous line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Asking God to step in and referee in the affairs of humankind is a risky business. Maybe if we ask God to come and correct the wicked, we are the ones who will be corrected. Maybe if we ask God to come and set right whatever is wrong in our world, or our community, or our church, God might begin with us. And maybe if we ask God to bless the righteous, we need to be ready to see that blessing fall on someone else.
The prophet started praying for God’s fist to crush their enemies. He came to realize they needed the tender, caressing hand of the divine potter to reshape them to mould them into a more faithful vessel more able to bear the image of God.
He started praying for a terrifying warrior God who would make their enemies cower in fear. We understand now that we received a vulnerable, caring human God who would come to us in love.
Isaiah started praying that a thunder-bolt God would come in power and fix them. Not even Isaiah could have predicted quite what God had in store, but our Advent preparation is for a God who would come to us in the helplessness of a new-born infant born to a poor young unwed mother in a forgotten backwater in the Middle East.
So insignificant that most of the world did not even notice.
But so loving that he would set things right in this tough old world by touching and changing human hearts. Goodness knows the world is in grim enough shape — our nation, our churches, our communities, our families, ourselves — all need the kind of help he can still bring.
How do we prepare for the arrival of this child saviour? Putting lights up on the house, or baking fruitcakes, or putting generous and heartfelt gifts under the tree. Well, they are quite lovely, but don’t really get to the heart of it, do they?
We prepare by opening our hearts for the coming of a saviour who is not coming to fix the other guy as much as he is coming in love to fix us, to mould us, to remake us, and by his grace, to make us fit for the kingdom of heaven.
- “Hope is a Star”. Hymn 119 in the Book of Praise (Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997).
- Words (1989) by English hymnwriter Brian A. Wren (1936–); music (tune “Moon Beams”; 1989) by Joan Collier Fogg (1949–). Words and music © copyright 1989 Hope Publishing Co. Used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Guitar and vocals by Rachelle Risling, Music Director of GCPC.
- Audio recording © copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.
Prayer of Dedication, Thanksgiving and Hope
In this season of hope and preparation, O God, we celebrate all that you have given to us in Christ. Receive these offerings of ours, for we give them from our hearts, so that the good news that he is with us may still be proclaimed, and the church that bears his name may be strengthened and built up.
Great and loving God, we thank you that in this season, we can remember and prepare for the fact that you have reached out to us and come to us in Christ to draw us to yourself. As he came not to condemn but to save the world, we bring to you now our prayers for the world
We pray for those in the world who are so much in need of help and hope. We pray for people in areas of trouble and tension, that you would raise up and inspire leaders in every nation who will seek peace and reconciliation. We pray for victims of violence and oppression, that those means of people getting their way could be brought to an end so that your people could live in communities of peace and safety. And we pray for those who are poor, homeless, hungry, and so much in need. Help us all to take steps to improve their well-being, to give them hope, and to help them to know that through your Son, you have come to them.
God who comes, we find ourselves in this season of pandemic lock-down, joining our voices with the prophet’s, calling you to come down, to intervene into the turmoil of our days. May the hope of the coming saviour bring encouragement to health care workers fearing rising numbers of infections, comfort to those who have lost loved ones or friends to the virus, courage to teachers and school administrators as they labour to teach and keep their students safe, sustenance for those whose businesses or jobs have been lost, and companionship for those suffering from loneliness and isolation.
We pray for the church in this season, that you would keep us watchful and ready to receive you through whomever you come, and to recognize the signs of your presence around us. Keep us faithful, holding fast to your timeless words, and reaching out into a world which is so much in turmoil, with the good news of your love. Strengthen, inspire and unite us, in that work to which you call us.
God who comes, and has promised to be with your people, be present amongst us now, and assure us that you hold our future in your hands. Keep us watchful and faithful, so that when that day comes when we will see you face to face, we may greet that day with joy and enter into your presence, to serve and praise you there forever. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Book of Praise – 118 “Hark the glad sound”
- Video with on-screen words, with some differences from the words in the hymnbook; follow along on the screen.
- Words (1735) by English minister and hymnwriter Philip Doddridge (1702–1751); music (tune: “Richmond”) first published in 1792 by English minister Thomas Haweis (pronounced to rhyme with “pause”; 1734–1820) and both adapted and shortened in 1808 by English music teacher and composer Samuel Webbe the younger (1768–1843). Words and original music in the public domain. This arrangement for organ, brass and choir by: American professor and organist John Ferguson (1941–); and American composer and arranger Dr. Brian Pfoltner, who is also director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.
- Recorded at First Plymouth Congregational Church, Lincoln, Nebraska on December 18, 2016.
Commissioning and Benediction
Go now in peace,
to prepare your hearts for the coming of the Saviour.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all, now and forever. Amen.
© Copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Last updated on 2020-12-04 at 13:08: corrected hymn number in musical meditation; updated “Prayer of Dedication, Thanksgiving and Hope” heading formatting.