If you would like to join this service of worship using just the videos playing one after another, you can visit our playlist on YouTube by following the link below:
Welcome, call to worship & prayers
Hello, and welcome to this online service for the third day of Christmas from the Oxford Methodist Circuit. I’m Ian Leck, a Local Preacher from Woodstock, and I look forward to sharing with you in worship today. Whoever you are and wherever you are, you are most welcome.
Our call to worship comes from the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist:
“Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty saviour born of his servant David… In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Amen.
Prayers of thanksgiving and confession:
This week, most of us will have been getting presents from other people and giving presents to them. We’re going to begin our prayers now by saying “Thank you” for all the presents that God has given us, and the presents that God will be going on giving us in the New Year. We’ll follow that by asking for forgiveness for our failure to use God’s presents as we should. Let us pray.
Ever-loving God, we thank you this morning for all the joys Christmas has brought us even in these troubled times – joys like those that come from giving and receiving presents and cards, and above all the joy of celebrating your gift of Jesus and the assurance of your love that he brought .
We thank you for whatever other good times we’ve had in the year that is now ending, and for the people who helped to make those times good.
We thank you for giving us life itself, and for being with us and offering your help even in the bad times we’ve lived through in this strange year.
And we thank you that in all the years to come you will remain with us, to give us hope and to help us to know and to do what is best for us and for our world. For all your good gifts, we thank you, God.
We also remember before you that we have often misused your good gifts. We are your children, made in your image, but we have defaced that image. All too often we have used selfishly the talents and property you have given us, rather than using those gifts to benefit other people; and in failing to love other people as ourselves, we have failed to love you.
Open our eyes, we pray, to see how we so often misuse your gifts. Make us penitent and forgive us. And strengthen us in the years ahead to follow more faithfully the loving teaching and example of Jesus – to obey him as our supreme Lord. We ask it in his name. Amen.
We’re now going to hear the gospel appointed for today, which follows on from the story of the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus in Luke’s gospel. And following that reading, we shall have the first of our two songs, no.229 in Singing the Faith – a song by Andrew Pratt, a present-day Methodist minister, which is based on our reading.
Reading name: Luke 2:22-38
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’),and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
“Mary and Joseph came to the Temple” (StF 229)
Being asked to lead this online service has highlighted for me the impact that Covid-19 has had on our patterns of worship. Instead of being able to meet Sunday by Sunday, we’ve been locked out of our church buildings some weeks, and the rest of the time we’ve been having to decide whether to take the risk of infection that even attending a shortened service in masks may involve. And only those of us who have computers of some kind have been able to tune into online services like this one. Whatever long term effects all this may have on the numbers of people sharing in services of worship week by week, it gives us a good reason for thinking about why we should do this. And the story in today’s appointed gospel reading about Simeon’s and Anna’s encounter with Jesus when they were worshipping in their main church, the Jewish Temple, is a good place to start. That’s especially so if we link it to the other two times in Jesus’s life when Luke’s gospel tells us that he visited that Temple – one when he was twelve, and one when he was probably in his early thirties. I’m grateful for the Iona Community for opening my eyes to that link, through a song from them that focuses on it.
We begin with Jesus’s first time in the Temple, the time that we’ve already heard and sung about. Although Jesus was only a little baby on that first visit, seeing him there opened the minds of two old people, Anna and Simeon, to new insights – in particular, insight into the good news he was to bring, of which Simeon said “my eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30, 32).
In our church too, we can meet Jesus and receive new insights from him, through hymns, prayers, readings and sermons, and through each other as we share our hopes and fears, our doubts and convictions, and our love. And as I’m within two months of being ninety, I’d like to think that like Simeon and Anna we’re never too old to receive new insights!
I remember a service in Woodstock when Michael Skinner was still ministering there. He said then that our faith that God had created the universe and all kinds of living things did not mean having to believe that this only took six days of twenty-four hours. After that service, someone who was in her late eighties at the time and is now no longer with us said “I’d never realised that before. Wasn’t I silly?” Her ability to accept a new insight in her late eighties was actually the opposite of silly. She, like Anna and Simeon, reminded us to be open to what’s new, to welcome new insights, however old we are, and however old those are who have new insights to share with us.
So much for the experiences of those who met Jesus on his first visit to the Temple. Jesus’s second visit to the Temple which Luke’s gospel describes is the one when he was twelve years old and went there with his parents to celebrate the Passover – and he stayed behind when his parents had set off home. When they went back to look for him, they “found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2: 46). And when Jesus’ parents told him of the anxiety he’d caused them, he said “Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).
What does this story say to us about the experiences we may have when we go to church? Well, just as the teachers in the Temple had questions put to them by the child Jesus, so we are likely to find ourselves faced by questions – questions raised in our minds by the worship and the study of our faith in which we share in church, and questions from those whom we meet there. In particular, like the teachers in the Temple we may face questions from children and others with a childlike faith, and Jesus may speak to us in their questions. I know that my wife Ann, who’s one of our Junior Church leaders at Woodstock, has found her own faith being challenged and so helped to develop by the questions that our young people have asked her. That’s how it must have been for the teachers who met the child Jesus on his second visit to the Temple.
The third of Jesus’s times of visiting the Temple which Luke’s gospel describes began on the first Palm Sunday. Luke says that after Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, ‘he went into the Temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers”’ (Luke 19:45-46).The temple authorities were robbing the pilgrims who came there to pray, by charging them highly inflated prices both for the animals and birds that they were expected to sacrifice and for the currency that they needed to pay the temple tax that they were charged. The profits those authorities could make from the people who came to worship mattered more to them than the people themselves did.
What can we churchgoers learn from Jesus’ third visit to the Temple? One thing which we and our capitalist society need to hear at least as much as the people did who were in the Temple that day is that people matter more than profits. And more generally, that story of Jesus challenging those in the Temple by witnessing to the importance of people reminds us that it’s often when we’re together physically or on line for church worship that the teaching and example of Jesus will challenge us.
So to sum up, it’s often when we’re worshipping in church, physically or virtually, that Jesus comes to us, just as he came to those in the Temple on the three occasions we’ve been remembering. He came and comes to challenge us and our priorities – not only by his own words and example as he did on his third visit to the Temple, but also by the words and examples of the other people we meet at church, including both those who are young, as Jesus himself was on his second visit to the Temple, and those who are old, as Anna and Simeon were at Jesus’ first Temple visit.
May God help us to know when Jesus is challenging us – challenging us through the written word, through other people, and in other ways, both in church and out of it.
And when Jesus does challenge us, may we listen and respond, and so reflect more brightly in our own lives that “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” of which old Simeon spoke. Amen.
Prayer for ourselves:
We’ll now bring our prayers of intercession to God, beginning with a prayer that we may listen and obey whenever and however Jesus challenges us. Let us pray.
Eternal God, we give you thanks for the teaching and example of Jesus our Lord, and we thank you that he continues to challenge us in so many ways – in services of worship; in our interactions with the people, young and old, whom we meet day by day; in our own reading of what the Bible tells us about Jesus’ words and deeds and of what others have written about him; and in the secret thoughts and feelings of our own hearts and minds. For all these experiences we give you thanks, and we pray that whenever Jesus challenges us you will help us to listen, and to obey by loving and caring for our neighbours worldwide and so showing our love for you. Amen.
Ever-loving God, as we move into an uncertain new year, we pray for our troubled world in its struggle against the effects of the current pandemic and of climate change on health and wellbeing. We pray for our troubled nation as it loosens its ties with Europe. We remember particularly the leaders of this and other nations, and all who work for health and wellbeing..
May your heavenly light shine upon them, and give them strength and wisdom.
We pray for the Church and other faith communities throughout the world, as we continue to adjust to changing patterns of worship through and beyond the pandemic.
May your heavenly light shine upon us, and enliven our faith.
We pray for people who are sick in body, mind, or spirit, and for all those who care for them. We pray for those affected by poverty, violence, racism, climate change, and all the suffering that people inflict on each other.
May your heavenly light shine upon them, and bring them hope.
We pray for those who are bereaved, that you will comfort and strengthen them in their dark days.
May your heavenly light shine upon them, and grant them peace.
We pray for ourselves. As Jesus inspired faith, keep us faithful to our calling. As Jesus brought hope, make us messengers of hope. As Jesus gave peace, turn us into peacemakers. As Jesus embodied love, rekindle love in us, so that the light that shone on Simeon and Anna in the Temple may shine on through us today. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our second song is no. 190 in “Singing the Faith” – Angels from the realms of glory – which so far as I know is the only well-known carol that mentions Simeon and Anna – the “saints before the altar bending” in verse 4.
“Angels from the realms of glory” (StF 190)
Lord, your faithful servants Anna and Simeon had dreams and visions that sustained them into their old age. Enrich us all with visions and dreams that sustain us from one year to the next, so that our eyes may always be bright with the life that we see all around. And send us out, today and all days, to love and to cherish the world and all its people. Amen.
Organ voluntary: In dulci jubilo, BWV 729 (J.S. Bach)
Mark McDonald plays the organ of Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, BC, Canada