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URC Daily Devotions Sunday Service for 6th March 2022 – The Revd. Dr Michael Hopkins

Daily Devotions from the URC
Service for Sunday 6th March 2022
The First Sunday of Lent
 

Picture credit: Andra C Taylor Jr/Unsplash

The Rev’d Dr Michael Hopkins

Introduction
 
Good morning and welcome to worship today.  My name is Michael Hopkins, and our service today comes to you from the Spire Church in Farnham, which is a Methodist and United Reformed Church single congregational Local Ecumenical Partnership.  I am also the minister of Elstead United Reformed Church, and in the Methodist circuit, especially the Methodist chapels at Hale and at Rowledge.  Today is the first Sunday in Lent, when we encounter a familiar Bible passage about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, and see to discern what God has to say to us today.
 
Call to Worship
 
One:         Almighty God, we pray for your blessing on the Church here in this place: Here may the faithful find salvation and the careless be awakened.
 
Many:      Here may the doubting find faith
and the anxious be encouraged.
 
One:         Here may the tempted find help,
and the sorrowful find comfort.
 
Many:      Here may the weary find rest, and the strong be renewed.
 
One:         Here may the aged find consolation
and the young be inspired.
 
Many:      Through Christ, our Lord, Amen. 
 
Hymn      Praise to the Holiest in the height
St John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
 

Praise to the Holiest
in the height,
and in the depth be praise, –
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.
 
2  O loving wisdom of our God!
when all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.
 
3: And in the garden secretly,
and on the Cross on high,
should teach his brethren,
and inspire to suffer and to die.
 
4: Praise to the Holiest
in the height,
and in the depth be praise, –
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.

 
Prayers of Approach, Confession and Declaration of Forgiveness
 
Loving God, in hunger we come. 
May we be filled with your words of love.
In weakness we come. 
May we find strength in the power of your love.
In humility we come. 
May we find our voices in the glory of your love.
And when the devil is in the detail, God, help us to see beyond self-gratification to the bigger picture, to the wider vision, to horizons where grace hovers with blank pages and a new agenda.
 
In faith we come, God.  May we know your presence every day, and may our deserts bloom in the hope of one who loved too much to compromise.
 
It must have been tempting, God.  Warm bread over hunger’s hardness.  Power’s sway over a weakened world.  Divine protection over human exposure.
 
It is tempting, God, with our full stomachs, to forget the hungry;
in our strength and position to ignore the weak; through self-righteousness to display our inhumanity.
 
If we believe that we can have it all without the pain of sacrifice,
if we would bargain rather than buy into your promises, may we hear one word, God.  Forgiveness.
 
Tempt us, God of grace, with visions of your kingdom.  Turn our eyes away from what the world might offer to what you have guaranteed.  Free us to choose you.  Amen.
 
Prayer of Illumination
 
God, we know that in the desert, flowers grow.
In the wilderness, life flourishes.
In a thirsty land, water flows,
May we hear you speaking through the Bible, and may your Spirit help us to understand; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
 
Reading   St Luke 4:1-13
 
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
 
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the God your God, and serve only him.” ’
 
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
 
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the God your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
 
Hymn:      The love of God comes close
John L Bell and Graham Maule © 1988 Wild Goose Resource Worship Group
 

The love of God comes close
where stands an open door,
to let the stranger in,
to mingle rich and poor.
The love of God is here to stay,
embracing those
who walk the Way.
 
2. The peace of God comes close
to those caught in the storm,
forgoing lives of ease
to ease the lives forlorn.
The peace of God is here to stay,
embracing those
who walk the Way.
 
3. The joy of God comes close
where faith encounters fears,
where heights and depths of life
are found through smiles & tears.
The joy of God is here to stay,
embracing those
who walk the Way.
 
4. The Son of God comes close
where people praise his name,
where bread and wine are blest
and shared as when he came.
The Son of God is here to stay,
embracing those
who walk His Way. 

 

Sermon
 
Lent rolls around every year, but if you’re anything like me, you end up thinking of Lent less like a birthday and more like a flu vaccination.  We know Lent is necessary, and that it’s good for us in much the same way cabbage might be.  We’ve heard all the preachers’ clichés as to how it makes the joy of Easter possible, but the truth of the matter is that Lent never comes naturally to many of us. 
 
It’s hard to explain to our non-Christian friends, because, to tell the truth, many of us don’t fully understand it ourselves.  We can be prone to engage in Lenten practices without ever asking why we’re doing what we’re doing.  Perhaps we cut out chocolate, or lay off the red meat; maybe we stop drinking booze for forty days, all to declare ourselves better prepared for the resurrection.  To an outsider, it looks more like a diet.
 
But if we don’t have a good explanation for our Lenten behaviour, if we don’t seem to understand the focus of the season as fully as we might, it’s not completely our fault.  It’s Jesus’ own sojourn in the wilderness that inspires this odd season, and Jesus doesn’t seem keen on offering any explanation for what he’s doing.
 
Year after year when the first Sunday of Lent arrives, we watch as Jesus wanders off into the wilderness again.  And while the Bible is full of spiritual retreats, this one doesn’t follow the typical pattern.  Jesus’s baptism has been the kind of positive event you build on, maybe following it up with a reception or a press conference to let people know that their long-awaited hope has finally arrived.  That is, unless you’re Jesus.  Jesus does none of those things.  He came as from nowhere, and then immediately moves on.  To nowhere.  Maybe technically Jesus’s first temptation, to live up to the appetite of the crowd at his baptism for Messianic ambition.
 
The received wisdom suggests that Jesus goes to the wilderness after his baptism to prepare for what is to come.  Instead of going to the wilderness to listen to God, like Moses and Elijah, Jesus comes to the desert in order to hear from Divine Enemy Number One.  This isn’t the kind of spiritual retreat your Synod might advertise.  It’s a Spirit-inflicted dark night of the soul.
 
Why?  Why does the Spirit lead Jesus into the desert, if not for a deeper connection with God?  Because the newly crowned Messiah has a date with the devil.  He’s gone to face temptation.  One of the most powerful messages the life of Jesus leaves us with is that no-one is exempt from the power of the tempter, not even the best of us – maybe especially not the best of us.  We’re all vulnerable to temptation, though what tempts us may change.
The devil’s taunts are dressed up in the noblest of intentions, temptations worthy of the Son of God.  They prey on his goodness, and they tell us something about Jesus’ own heart.  For Jesus and for all of us, the voice of evil sounds an awful lot like the voice of good. 
 
“Take care of yourself.” “Save the world.” “Prove your faith.”
 
None of those things sound particularly self-destructive on the surface; in fact, it sounds like a good basis for life.  And this is what temptation looks like for Jesus.   When culture talks about temptation, it’s usually the kind of temptation that looks like temptation from the start: an alcoholic raiding the hotel mini bar.  A lonely husband spending too much time with his attractive co-worker.  We certainly wrestle with those obvious forms of self-destruction, but the goal of Lent is to help us recognise the temptations that don’t look like temptation until we see them in the rear-view mirror.
 
The temptations that are the most dangerous are the ones that sound most like good, the ones that sound the most like God.  Jesus has every good attribute in spades: character, integrity, faith, a moral compass that is unmatched, and yet he is tempted.  The antidote, then, to temptation isn’t strength, nor moral fortitude nor depth of character.  If we imagine ourselves spiritual enough, mature enough, to be exempt from temptation, it’s just a matter of time before we yield to it.  But our temptations won’t be the hotel mini bar.  They’ll be played out on the road paved with good intentions.  When we’re led by our own wisdom, when we’re led by our own desire to see the good done, when we’re tempted to take shortcuts to get there, we’ll always find ourselves vulnerable; and the greater our moral character, the more tailor-made we will find temptation.
 
The only vaccine to temptation is obedience.  Jesus’ escape from the tempter isn’t a matter of weighing pros and cons and making the best decision; it’s a wiful choice to submit to God.  Again and again and again.
“Life is more than eating bread,” Jesus whispers, though his rumbling stomach disagrees.
 
“Worship God and nothing else,” he says, the world’s kingdoms and all that power to do good right there for the taking.
 
“Don’t test God,” teaches the one who will be tested even unto death.
 
Half-dead from hunger, and seemingly alone, this man looks nothing like a king or a messiah, but make no mistake; he is the real thing.  The promises made to him at his baptism are refined in the desert.
 
These won’t be the last temptations.  This is a dress rehearsal for what awaits Jesus deeper into his ministry.  Peter will try to coax him into a kinder, gentler, way of saving the world that doesn’t involve execution.  When Jesus hangs dying on the cross and the crowd tries to bait him, “If you are the Son of God, meet our expectations,” he knows better.  Then, as now, it’s obedience that will deliver him.  The one who teaches with authority will live under the authority of the One who sent him. 
 
It’s no surprise, really, that this mysterious season of self-denial doesn’t come naturally to many of us.  Lent isn’t strength-training for the soul, or about exercising our spiritual muscles.  It’s about obedience.  Reliance.  Dependence.  It’s about the awareness that every good door that opens is not necessarily the will of God.  It’s about learning to be led, or if necessary, driven, out to the desolate place within ourselves where our hungers and our dreams and our fears all take turns trying to shut out the voice of God. 
 
In just a few weeks, we’ll follow Jesus to a garden where, for a moment, his own desires will conflict with the path he’s been called to take.  “If you can take this cup from me, please take it away,” Jesus will pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But his prayer is not finished. “Yet not what I want, but what you want.”
Lent doesn’t come naturally, even to the best of us.  But that’s exactly why Lent is our only hope.  If we can learn to recognise the voice of the tempter here in these forty days of self-denial, perhaps we’ll be wise enough to recognise the tempter speaking with our own voice?  Somewhere in the desert, alone but not alone, Jesus chooses obedience.  May God grant us the grace to do the same, to choose who we will be and whose we will be.  In the wilderness of this holy season, and wherever the road takes us on the other side.
 
Hymn       Lead us Heavenly Father Lead us
                  James Edmeston (1821)
 

Lead us,
heavenly Father, lead us
o’er the world’s tempestuous sea;
guard us, guide us,
keep us, feed us,
for we have no help but thee;
yet possessing every blessing,
if our God our Father be.
 
2 Saviour, breathe
forgiveness o’er us:
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this
earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.

 

3 Spirit of our God, descending, fill our hearts with heavenly joy,
love with every passion blending, pleasure that can never cloy:
thus provided, pardoned, guided, nothing can our peace destroy.
 
Affirmation of Faith
 
One:         This is the good news that we have received, in which we stand, and by which we are saved, if we hold it fast:
 
Many:      that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day,
 
One:         and that he appeared first to the women, then to Peter, and to the Twelve, and then to many faithful witnesses.
 
Many:      We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He is the first and last, the beginning and the end, He is our Lord and our God.  Amen
 
Intercessions
 
Loving God, we hold before you people who have lost their sense of identity: refugees living away from their homes and their families, people who have lost jobs that gave them identity and purpose, people whose relationships have ended, or who have been bereaved.
 
As you sought your identity in the wilderness, be with people who seek their identity today.  Where people have been given a label and an identity that belittles and diminishes them, may they, and we, and all people, find a common identity as your people, however different we are.
 
Gracious God, as we journey through Lent, we commit ourselves to being open to you.  Guide us during this period so that our faith may be increased and our service encouraged and strengthened.  May our knowledge and love of you, our living God, may be deepened.
Use us as you will.  Bend our will and our ways to your will and your ways, through love and obedience.  Show us the way of Christ, the way of suffering love.  Enable us, by the power of your Spirit, to walk that way not just for Lent but throughout our lives, so that we may show your love to others.  We offer you these and all our prayers, in Jesus name.  Amen.
 
Offertory
 
We serve God each day and each week, as we give our skills, our time, and our money to God as a sign of our thanks to God for all that God has given to us, and we mark that offering with a prayer:  Gracious God, as we enter this season of Lent, help us to ready ourselves so that we as journey with Jesus we are ready to meet with him in resurrection joy.
Make us ready to fast from criticism,
and feast on the good we see in others.
Make us ready to fast from inactivity, and feast on action for justice.
Make us ready to fast from greed, and feast on giving.
Make us ready to fast from conflict, and feast on peace making.
Make us ready to fast from selfishness, and feast on Christ-likeness
so that we might be changed to become more like your Son.  Amen.
 
Hymn       I cannot tell
W. Y. Fullerton (c. 1920)

 

I cannot tell
why He, whom angels worship,
should set His love
upon the sons of men,
or why, as Shepherd,
He should seek the wand’rers,
to bring them back,
they know not how or when.
But this I know,
that He was born of Mary,
when Bethl’hem’s manger
was His only home,
and that He lived
at Nazareth and laboured,
and so the Saviour, Saviour
of the world, is come.
 
2 I cannot tell
how silently He suffered,
as with His peace
He graced this place of tears,
or how His heart
upon the Cross was broken,
the crown of pain
to three and thirty years.
But this I know,
He heals the broken-hearted,
and stays our sin,
and calms our lurking fear,
and lifts the burden
from the heavy laden,
for yet the Saviour,
Saviour of the world, is here.
 
3 I cannot tell
how He will win the nations,
how He will claim
His earthly heritage,
how satisfy
the needs and aspirations
of east and west,
of sinner and of sage.
But this I know,
all flesh shall see His glory,
and He shall reap
the harvest He has sown,
and some glad day
His sun shall shine in splendour
when He the Saviour, Saviour
of the world, is known.
 
4 I cannot tell
how all the lands shall worship,
when, at His bidding,
every storm is stilled,
or who can say
how great the jubilation
when all the hearts
of all with love are filled.
But this I know,
the skies will thrill with rapture,
and myriad, myriad
human voices sing,
and earth to heaven,
and heaven to earth, will answer:
at last the Saviour, Saviour
of the world, is King.

Blessing
 
The service has ended.
Go in peace and joy,
and the blessing of God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Is upon you, and all God’s people,
now and forever.

Sources
 
Call to Worship adapted from The Worship Source Book (p46) recorded at Barrhead URC. Affirmation of Faith from St Matthew 16:16, St Mark 16.9, St John 20:28, I Corinthians 15: 106 & Revelation 23:13 (The Worship Source Book p153) and recorded at Barrhead URC.  All other liturgical material by Dr Hopkins. 
 
Praise to the Holiest in the Height – St John Henry Newman (1801-1890) BBC Songs of Praise
The love of God comes close – John L Bell and Graham Maule © 1988 Wild Goose Resource Worship Group Sung by Christine Walker, accompanied by Frikki Walker of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow. 
Lead us Heavenly Father Lead us – James Edmeston (1821) BBC Songs of Praise
I cannot tell – W. Y. Fullerton (c. 1920) sung by an unknown artist at the Keswick Convention.
 
Opening Organ Piece – Nun Komm Der Heiden Heiland (“Now the Gentile saviour comes”) by Johann Sebastian Bach (organ of The Spire Church, Farnham – 2020)
Closing Organ Piece – Nun Danket Alle Gott – Marche Triomphale (“Now thank we all our God”) by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (organ of All Saints’, Odiham – 2020)
 
Opening Organ PieceEin Feste Burg (“A mighty fortress”) by Max Reger (organ of Basilica Santo Spirito, Florence, Italy – 2016)
Closing Organ Piece – Songs of Praise Toccata by Robert Prizeman (organ of St Andrew’s, Farnham – 2019)
 
Both pieces played by and received, with thanks, from Brian Cotterill http://briancotterill.webs.com

Thanks to Many Hibbert, Sylvia Nutt, Kathleen Haynes and Anne Hewling for reading various spoken parts of the service.
 

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