January 31, 2021 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Whenever you see this movie reel symbol, you can click on it to view a video segment on YouTube. If you experience any difficulties, please contact our webmaster.
A message from the Rev. Helen Smith
Welcome to worship in these strange times. Thank you to the Rev. Harry Bradley for providing this worship service in which all of us can participate safely. May the power of the Holy Spirit bring us together, while we are apart.
Rev. Helen Smith.
Call to worship
Spoken by One / Spoken by All
At several points in the worship service, Rev. Bradley uses a call and response structure. The minister speaks the words of One, shown in normal text, and the congregation responds with the words of all, shown in bold text. As here, the sections where this applies are prefaced with the “Spoken by One / Spoken by All” heading.
Sing joyful songs to God, our Saviour.
Remember the Lord, who sets us free.
Lift up your voices in joyful praise!
Remember the Lord, the God of life.
Together, we worship the Lord our God!
Book of Praise – 438 “When morning gilds the skies”
- Video with on-screen words exactly as in the hymnbook.
- Original German text anonymous from the early 19th century. English translation (1854) by English clergyman Edward Caswall (1814–1878), revised by Canadian theologian R. Gerald Hobbs (1941–). Tune (1868; “Laudes Domini”) by English composer Joseph Barnby (1838–1896). Descant by English musician and administrator Reginald S. Thatcher (1888–1957). Words, music and descant in the public domain.
- Vocals and keyboard by Rachelle Risling, GCPC Music Director.
- Video copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Spoken by One / Spoken by All
God of all glory, we gather as your faith community this day with the saints of every time and every place to honour and praise your holy name. As you have revealed your mercy and might to your faithful people in every age, so let us glimpse the mystery of your life-giving grace and the love that nothing can negate or destroy made manifest to the world in the life and ministry of our risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Almighty Lord and God, in Jesus the Christ you came to dwell among us, calling us to be your faithful people, and to send us out in love to share your mission of mercy with all. When we are focussed on our needs, you remind us of your concern for the needs of others. When we tend to our own comfort, you lead us into places where we hear with our ears or witness with our eyes the discomfort of others. When we attempt to portray our “chosenness” as some unique honour or privilege, you are quick to point out to us that our “specialness” is that we have been chosen to be your missionaries of compassion to freely take your forgiving love to those who have yet to experience it. Forgive us, O God. Open up our eyes and ears and hearts once more so that with confidence we might go into our neighbourhoods and make your grace known to all people in the strength of Christ Jesus who leads us forward in faith. As people who not only listen but also practise his word, together, we pray:
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.
The Assurance of Pardon
The God who made you and knows your every thought hears you now and forgives all your sin. We have been redeemed through Jesus the Christ, God’s Son, who is Alpha and Omega, all in all.
The Peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Prayer for Illumination
Holy Spirit, your people call out for understanding. Bring to our yearning hearts and minds the truth of your word, that we may hear Jesus’ call to be his disciples in our neighbourhoods and your world.
Jonah: A Whale of a Tale: How Wide is God’s Mercy?
Today we come to the end of this fish tale about a reluctant prophet named Jonah, and a persistent God who won’t stop hounding him. It is a story that has more unexpected surprises than most soap operas on television today. While the book of Jonah is a whale of a tale with lots of good-natured humour, below the surface is a serious message to challenge all the followers of God in every age.
When we left the story a couple of Sundays ago, Jonah had finally made it to the great city of Nineveh where Israel’s most hated enemies lived. It was the very place where Jonah did not want to be, nor did he want to have anything to do with these Ninevites. Following God’s’ command, this reluctant prophet preached a classic message of “doom and gloom.” Jonah called for these hated enemies to face up to their evil ways and to repent—or else! He fully expected his message to fall upon deaf ears. These Ninevites were so different than he was; in their background, lifestyles, and faith, that there was little hope that his message would be listened to. Having delivered his message of certain doom to the people of Nineveh, Jonah left to find a place well outside the city walls so that he could count the days down to Nineveh’s certain destruction—or so he thought.
It is at this moment in the story that an unexpected twist is added to the tale. Against Jonah’s expectations—and most likely, also those who first heard this story—the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah’s message from God, and took this call to repentance to heart, to literally turn their lives around and seek to live God’s ways! All the people whom the prophet thought couldn’t possibly change their ways, repented: from the lowliest household servant to the most powerful King of Nineveh. Without any reason to believe that they would, the Ninevites put their trust in God deciding to live their lives with one another as God desired. More surprisingly, when God witnessed the sincerity of the Ninevites response, God decided to “repent” or turn away from the judgment and destruction God had promised to bring to these once-evil people and their animals. The people of Nineveh were given an unexpected “second chance.”
Maybe we would think that this act of God’s merciful grace would be received by God’s prophet with joy since it appeared that Jonah’s mission had been an overwhelming success. Instead, as this final act opens, Jonah is furious at God’s “change of mind.” He vents his rage at God with a “spitting nails” anger: “God! I knew it — when I was back home. I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!”
Before we dismiss Jonah’s anger toward God as some kind of “self-righteous sour grapes,” we need to understand how the ancient Hebrews normally distinguished a true prophet of God from a false one. Simply put, if God’s message of the prophet came to pass as foretold then he was a “true” prophet of God. If the prophecy did not happen as predicted, then the prophet was considered to be false. Jonah’s anger stems from his embarrassment. He had called for God’s destruction of these hated Ninevites yet, in the end, these wicked people were forgiven not destroyed; spared not punished! From where Jonah was sitting, God had made a fool of him in front of his enemies. Jonah considered his “God-given” mission a complete failure.
We finally discover “the real reason” for Jonah’s fleeing God’s call in the first place. Jonah knew that God’s true nature is one of compassion and mercy: he did! That was fine for those who were already part of God’s people, as the prophet understood it. It was that Jonah believed that God’s mercy was limited to God’s people who were like Jonah, who worshipped like Jonah, and who lived like Jonah. As far as the prophet was concerned, God’s mercy was not wide enough to include people like the Ninevites.
That is the problem with people like Jonah. They have no difficulty presenting a gospel of forgiveness and mercy as long as others understand God as we do, worship in the way we do, or live in a manner that we deem is a proper Christian way. But for those whom we decide are too different from our understandings of faith, or live in ways that we neither can fully understand or accept, we are quick to note their problems that demand judgement rather than to consider the possibilities for mercy.
Of course, it is not up to us to decide who is and who is not worthy of God’s mercy. While we are called to share the message of God’s love, it is not the role of the messenger to decide who is and who is not in God’s kingdom. That is God’s prerogative alone. In the calculus of faith, God’s mercy is wider than we, as human beings, are able to fully understand or comprehend. As Frederick William Faber, the hymnwriter of the nineteenth century once penned these words in a much-loved hymn:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.”
– [Verse 1; Public Domain]
And then, with words that the “Jonahs” of the world need to hear, Faber included this verse:
“But we make God’s love too narrow
by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.”
–[Verse 3; Public Domain]
The wideness of God’s mercy is illustrated in an object-lesson where Jonah finds himself in the midst of a parable. In his anger, the prophet went back outside the city, to find a place where he could sit down to sulk. Unwilling to give up on hoping to witness the Ninevites destruction, Jonah made a shelter to keep out of the hot sun, and waited… and waited… and waited. Unexpectedly, God causes a tree with broad leaves to sprout up beside his shack to provide some much-needed comfort from the overbearing sun. Of course, Jonah gladly received this act of unmerited and undeserved grace gladly. The next night, however, God sent a worm into the tree. When the hot sun rose in the morning, Jonah awoke to the realization that the gift of shade had withered away and died. Without any shade, Jonah complained even more about his situation and expressed his frustration at the blistering wind of a hot desert sun. “I’m better off dead.” When God asks Jonah what’s upset him now, that this tree that provided any comfort was gone, the prophet angrily complains that somehow, he is being unfairly treated by God.
It is at that moment that God responds directly with Jonah with a series of questions that silences the prophet’s voice. “What reasons do you have to complain? Did you do anything to deserve it? And when you received this gift, did you do anything to make it grow?” To all these questions, the expected answer is “No.” In the end, a quiet Jonah is a humbled Jonah. The plant that miraculously appeared and provided a much-needed comfort was an unexpected gift of God’s mercy. Only God can choose to give or remove it. It is up to God — and God alone — to decide how wide is God’s mercy.
Jonah is not a “happily-ever-after” story. Rather than tying everything up in a nice, neat ending, the author leaves the listeners with an open-ended question that not only Jonah is left to answer but so are we: “So why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than a hundred and twenty thousand childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”
In a stroke of genius, the writer ends his tale about Jonah with a question that continues to confront the people of God of every age: “How wide is God’s Mercy?” It revolves around the question: Is God’s Grace for all or reserved for a few? Jonah represents those who think that God’s mercy is limited to people like them; those who understand God’s grace and mercy as available only among people who share a similar way of life, values or faith beliefs. As far as people like Jonah are concerned, there is no room in God’s kingdom for the Ninevites! They preach a simple and direct message: accept God as we understand God, get in line, or else!
The descendants of Jonah can be found aplenty in the Christian Church today. They are heard in the voices of those who warn that, unless someone follows the same God as we do, they are doomed to judgment and hellfire. In their narrow view of God’s mercy, there is no room in God’s compassion for “non-believers.” That excludes Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Taoists, liberal secular people, or anyone else who hasn’t been “born again” in the proper way. According to the Jonahs of today, there is no room in God’s merciful love for backsliders, gay or lesbians, or anyone else who is different or who doesn’t fit the criteria they decide defines a Christian. These followers of Jonah live in the expectation that “when the roll is called up yonder” those Ninevites won’t be there!
Many centuries later, a young, Jewish preacher dared to challenge the conventional notions of how God offers the gift of forgiving grace not only for those who were “inside” but also showering this mercy on those who were considered “outside” the faith. Throughout his ministry, this messenger of God spoke of how God’s mercy is offered freely not only to the pious and righteous Jews, but also to sinners, Samaritans, eunuchs, unclean lepers, and many others who were considered “outside” the “chosen” people of God. To those who would limit God’s mercy to a privileged few or “people like us”, Jesus said, “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ “I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst… .“This is what God does. He gives his best — the sun to warm and the rain to nourish — to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anyone can do that.” [Matthew 5:43-46]
There is a wideness in God’s Mercy.
The real question remains: How wide is ours?
- “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, African-American spiritual traced back to at least 1865, compiled by American choral director John Wesley Work Jr. (1871–1925).
- Original music in the public domain. This arrangement by American composer Glenda Austin, copyright © 2004 Hal Leonard Corporation; used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Performed on the keyboard by Rachelle Risling, GCPC Music Director.
- Audio recording copyright © 2021 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.
The Prayers of the People (Thanksgivings & Intercessions)
Gracious God, you call us to follow the way of Christ Jesus, and to spread the good news of your love for all humankind and all of your creation in our daily witness. By the power of your Holy Spirit, lead us out of the safe and comfortable places so that we might share your promise of a new beginning with those whom we meet along life’s journey.
Since the beginnings of our faith, we have looked to you to gather the outcasts, give dignity to the poor and less fortunate in our society, to heal and restore the broken-hearted. Help us to embrace those who are suffering in body, mind, and spirit. Make us your hands of support, your mouths offering encouragement to all, and to be a living embodiment of your heart willing to comfort those in our neighbourhoods and families who have lost so much. Especially, in this ongoing COVID-19 crisis, remind us to make the extra effort to connect by way of a telephone call or sending a brief note of encouragement to remind the people whom we know who are experiencing the distress of isolation and loneliness that they are not alone in their distress.
We pray for those within our world who are charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe through such a troubling time. For the many leaders within Canada who work within the many levels of governance; locally, provincially, and federally, we pray that they will exercise their authority responsibly and by their examples. We remember our sisters and brothers who live in the United States of America in this time of transition so that with your leading they will be able to confront and deal with the ongoing challenges and to forge a new hopeful present to impel them into a brighter future. And wherever there are walls of misunderstanding or division, O Lord, we pray for your mercy and grace.
Be patient with us, we pray, in the varied landscapes of our lives. May your Holy Spirit implant the Word within us to grow stronger each day, so that we will be more patient with one another and even with ourselves. May Christ Jesus do his good work within us, among us, and beyond us too, until our lives and all of creation come fully into your realm. Help us to live lives passionate for true justice to right the wrongs that keep us apart from you and one another, and, at the same time, encourage to see those who injure us not as those who must be destroyed, rather, help us recognize and offer to them the miracle of your forgiving mercy.
Everlasting God, Creator of the heavens and the earth, we bless you, for you are gracious. Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour are yours now and always. Amen.
Book of Praise – 96 “Let us with a gladsome mind”
- Video with on-screen words; differences from the hymnbook and verse 2 omitted; follow along on the screen.
- Words (1623) by English poet John Milton (1608–1674), based on Psalm 136. The tune (“Monkland”) has a complex history (see here). Key figures are American missionary John Antes (1740–1811) and John Bernard Wilkes (1785–1869). Words and music in the public domain.
- Video released May 9, 2020, by Westminster Presbyterian Church, Sacramento, California.
Be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading and grow as a member of Christ’s living body. Love with God’s grace-full love, be at peace within yourself, make peace with others, prepare for the coming reign of God. Worship God and God alone, whom we know fully in our Lord Jesus Christ, and listen to where the Holy Spirit is leading us to share Good News in word and deed. As we go, may God, the gracious God, Jesus, God’s love in human flesh, and the Holy Spirit who sends us out to care for all be with us now and always.
Copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Last updated on 2021-01-30 at 12:05 – first version