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The Story

A Series on God's Work in the Lives of His People

Life is a story. Or, rather, a series of stories. “What’s your story?” is a question we like to ask each other. Your story, like everyone else’s, has a specific arc to it: birth, childhood, education, work, family, and eventually death—but every story is different.

But you can’t tell your story without telling other stories. You are someone’s son or daughter, a friend or coworker, parent or grandparent. Your story is woven in with other stories. And all of these stories are part of even larger stories, until we come to the grand story overarching it all—God’s story.

For you keen-eyed readers who are looking for how this series preaches Jesus, we must read every story in the light of the cross and resurrection, grace and life. There is no way to life except by dying. Death, including all those small deaths we suffer every day, is not the last word, nor are our successes. This fundamental understanding of life—this Jesus faith—informs every story in this series.

This worship series tells the stories of some prominent people in the Bible. They are specific stories set in a specific time, but they are always more than that. They are not only the stories of Jeremiah or Ruth, but the stories of God’s interaction with people. In each service we try to capture the essence and the arc of one biblical figure’s story.

We begin with the story of Esther and the question put to her by her uncle Mordecai: “Who knows but that you came to the kingdom for such a time as this?” In each service we ask what “time” it is, not in our way of keeping time, but in God’s way of keeping time.

As we ask how each of these people fit the time in which they lived, we must ask the same question of ourselves: How do we fit into the time in which we live? What is our time? To what is the Lord calling us? God called out something from within each of the people we’ll focus on—something that was needed at that moment in the history of the coming of God’s kingdom. God still does this, drawing out of us something—perhaps, like Moses, something we didn’t know we had—for the sake of the kingdom.

Along the way, I’ll share comments about how the actual sermon went. I could have simply adjusted the original plan to reflect the actual sermons, but it seems useful to see the tension between plan and “performance,” for lack of a better word. Sermons planned and sermons preached are not the same thing. I’ll let a little of that struggle into the notes that follow.

The sermons were introduced each week with the same short video. It mimicked the tagline for the old television series “The Naked City.” The line went, “In the naked city there are eight million stories. This was one of them.” Instead of a voiceover, we projected in white lettering on a black background this sentence: “In the city there are millions of stories, and God is in every one of them.” The video included scenes from our city and people from our congregation.

For our large, lecture-style, Sunday morning adult class we picked up the story theme by having members and pastors tell the stories of people who had influenced them, whether in person or through books. Some of the persons included in the series were the poet Mary Oliver, the ancient theologian Irenaeus, the twentieth century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the contemporary activist Shane Claibourne, and the late Ernie Harwell, long the voice of the Detroit Tigers.

For our small groups, we produced weekly study guides. These study guides anticipated the sermons by a week.

Week One - Esther: For Such A Time As This

Based on selected passages from the book of Esther. Key verse: “‘Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’” (Esther 4:14).

Sermon Notes

The story of Esther is a story of oppression and humiliation. It begins not with Esther but with another queen, Vashti, who refuses to exhibit herself in front of a banquet hall full of leering, drunken men, and so loses her position. Why does the storyteller begin here? To illustrate the crude and cruel world into which Hadassah, the young Jewess, is about to be introduced. When Xerxes, the Persian king, realizes he has lost the beautiful Vashti, his advisers suggest a search of the kingdom for a new queen. In this search the young women are powerless. They have value to the extent that they please the king and his leering men. Esther (named now for the pagan goddess Ishtar) survives and thrives in this world because of her compliance. But then the moment comes. Her people are threatened with extinction by the order of the overreaching Haman. Esther, at Mordecai’s prompting, throws caution to the wind and declares, “If I perish, I perish.”

Let’s call this a “core truth story.” Core truth stories are stories about those moments in our lives when God’s call and our individual lives come together in a way that demands an answer. It was Esther’s time, and the continued existence of the ancient people of God depended on her.

Or so it seemed when I wrote out the original outline. When I faced up to the material in the sermon, I came to quite the opposite insight. As Mordecai says, if Esther fails, God will raise up other means (Esther 4:14). This is a story about the hidden God, what the Jewish interpreters of this story called the hester panim, “the hiding of the face,” with an ample pun on the name “Esther.” This is a story about how we live when God doesn’t speak, how we hang on to the larger story, the story of God’s justice, when the immediate events seems to suggest the opposite. How we answer in such a time does not determine the ultimate outcome of the great story of God’s faithfulness, but it very much determines our place within that story. What does it profit a person, said Jesus, if she gains the whole world yet loses her soul (Matt. 16:26)?

Ideas for Worship

Song Suggestions:
Solo: “For Such a Time as This” (Wayne Watson)
“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” CH 665, PH 357, PsH 573, WR 589 “With All My Heart I Thank You, Lord” CH 662, PsH 138
“My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone” PsH 62

Feast of Purim: Esther concludes with the Feast of Purim to celebrate when “their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration” (Esther 9:22). Scripture instructs people to give gifts of food to one another and to the poor. You could conclude your worship with a potluck lunch, or collect food for a food pantry as part of this service. You may also want to try some of the traditional Jewish food associated with the Feast of Purim, like Haman’s Pockets (or Haman’s Ears); you’ll find many recipes online.

We Gather In Praise

Call to Worship: “Break Forth in Joyous Song” (Biery) Psalm of Praise: Psalm 149:1-4

Song: “Sing Praise to the Lord” PsH 149, TH 21

Greeting

We Seek the Ways of the Lord

Scripture: Psalm 149:5-9

Prayer (from Heb. 11 and 12):
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. . . . God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Song: “If You But Trust in God to Guide You” PH 282, PsH 446, SFL 210, TH 670, WR 429

Prayers of the Congregation

Choral Anthem: “How Can I Keep from Singing” (Honore)

We Present Our Gifts

Offering

We Hear God's Word

Scripture: selected passages from the book of Esther

Message: “Esther: For Such a Time as This”

Prayer

Song: “For All the Saints Who Showed Your Love” SNC 195

Week Two—Joseph: Interpretation Belongs to God

Based on Genesis 40:1-8. Key verse: “‘We both had dreams,’ they answered, ‘but there is no one to interpret them.’ Then Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God?’” (Gen. 40:8).

Sermon Notes

In this case, the story begins with dreams: the dream, the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dream; and Joseph’s dreams— the dreams that seem to point to him as leader of the family. And when those dreams appear to have been snatched away by bad luck and bad brothers, there are more dreams, the dreams of the butler and the baker.

I had originally planned to center the sermon on the famous text from Genesis 50:20, usually rendered something like, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” I had planned to add to this text Romans 12:14-21 with its message about waiting for God’s justice. But the story won out over the plan. The sermon came to rest on Genesis 40:1-8 and the remark of Joseph to his fellow prisoners, “‘Do not interpretations belong to God?’” We think we know the meaning of things—the events of our lives, what is good and what isn’t. But, in fact, interpretation belongs to God.

The Joseph story drives this home with an interruption. In the middle of the story we suddenly get another story, the story of Tamar and Judah (Gen. 38). This seemingly unedifying story about the patriarch and his daughter-in-law is interpreted by a note in the gospel of Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (Matt. 1:3).

This story calls us to the sacredness of the ordinary, the small, and the forgotten. In the end it’s not Joseph who carries history on his back, but Tamar. We have our own take on the events of our time, but in the end interpretation belongs to God.

Ideas for Worship

Song Suggestions:
“Song of Joseph” SFL 101, SWM 70
“In Matthew’s Gospel There Are Five” (st. 1, 2, 7) SNT 4

Involving Children: Since this is a familiar story, have children and youth from your congregation draw illustrations of the Scripture passage in advance of the service, and project them during the Scripture reading.

We Gather to Worship God

Choral Call to Worship: “Psalm 105” (McNeil)

Opening Words: Psalm 40:1-5

Song: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” CH 139, PH 276, PsH 556, SWM 194, TH 32, WR 72

Greeting

The God Who Befriends Us

Song: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (st. 1-2) CH 630, PH 403, PsH 579, SFL 52, SWM 172, TH 629, WR 473

Prayer of Confession

Assurance of Pardon: Lamentations 3:22-26

Song: “Psalm 105” (PfAS 105B with alternate refrain) Guide for Living (from Heb. 11 and 12):
See “Prayer (from Heb. 11 and 12),” page 5.

Choral Anthem: “How Firm a Foundation” Prayers of the Congregation

Song: “Tell Your Children” PsH 588

The God Who Receives Our Gifts

Offering

The God Who Keeps Us Safe

Scripture: Genesis 40:1-8

Message: “Joseph: Room for God”

Song: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” PH 270, PsH 434, TH 128, WR 65

Week Three—Joshua: Man of Action

Based on Joshua 7:1-10; 24:1, 14-15. Key verse: “‘Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?’” (Josh. 7:10).

Sermon Notes

If Moses is a contemplative, Joshua, his young aid, is a man of action. The book of Joshua is full of action verbs: “get ready,” “cross over,” “be strong and courageous.” Joshua’s specific task is to bring the people into the promised land. He accomplishes that task, but not without setbacks and difficulties. The first setback comes at Ai (“the ruin”). His army is defeated, and Joshua is devastated. He tears his clothes in an act of mourning and bows his face to the ground from morning to evening. But God will have none of it. He says to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?”

It is sometimes easy to forget that there is a place for people of action. In Joshua’s time, action was called for. Joshua served the Lord by doing.

In our time too, as the Lord prepares the kingdom, the Lord calls people to action. God calls us to bring justice, defend the weak, build up institutions that preserve life, and work to create within God’s creation something in the image of God’s kingdom.

In the sermon, I drew out the contrast between Moses and Joshua, the contemplative and the man of action. I noted that preachers sometimes make people miserable by wanting them to be one when they are the other. The kingdom needs both.

Ideas for Worship

Song Suggestions:
“God, You Call Us to This Place” SNC 14
“Canto de esperanza/Song of Hope” PH 432, SFL 82, SNC 282 “The Lord Is My Light” SNC 192

Corporate Reading of Scripture: For a reading that includes the congregation, visit worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com and search the Scripture index for Joshua 24.

We Stand on Jordan’s Bank

Opening Words: Revelation 7:9-17

Song: “Here from All Nations” PsH 235, SNT 255, WR 528

Greeting

Ready to Enter the Land

Choral Anthem: “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” (Grotenhuis)

Prayer
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us so that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world—through the pain and sorrow and brokenness of our lives—toward the glory of the world to come. We pray that we may gather with Esther, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, the apostles, the saints, and all your great congregation from every corner of the earth. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Song: “Come, We That Love the Lord” CH 416, HFW 73, WR 67

Offering

Instructed in the Ways of God

Scripture: Joshua 7:1-10; 24:1, 14-15

Message: “Joshua: Man of Action”

Prayer

Song: “Lead on, O King Eternal” CH 724, PH 447, 448, PsH 555, TH 580

Week Four-Ruth: Moabite Blood

Based on Ruth 4:9-22. Key verse: “‘Your people will be my people and your God my God’” (Ruth 1:16).

Sermon Notes

Good point guards, it is said, have the capacity to make every player on their team better. This is Ruth’s role. From people who are discouraged and jaded, Ruth draws faithfulness and joy. Naomi, the epitome of Bethlehem, returns to her hometown defeated by life and by the loss of her husband and sons. In kindness she dismisses her daughter-in-laws; they have no future where she is going. But Ruth refuses to go and delivers the justly famous lines: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” It’s the first grace in Naomi’s life in a long time, and though she remains Mara (“bitter”), a kingdom seed has been planted.

We watch the seed ripen in the next chapters. Boaz is by all accounts a decent man but not one to initiate anything. In a daring move, Ruth goes to him at night. Although he is concerned about the neighbors, he begins to act—to do what perhaps he should have done in the first place.

Far from being merely an interesting domestic story, the story has an important place in the overall story of God’s redemption of the earth. Of Ruth and Boaz’s son we are told, “And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17). We would add: And the father of Jesus, our Lord.

In the sermon I emphasized the Moabite blood in the genealogy of Jesus and, by extension, the church itself. We all have Moabite blood. What holds us together is not that we come from the right sort of people but that we have crossed the Jordan, come through the waters of baptism. In the church, water is stronger than blood.

Ideas for Worship

Song Suggestions:
“Tell Out, My Soul” PsH 478, TH 26, WR 41
“In Matthew’s Gospel There Are Five” (st. 1, 4, 7) SNT 4

Come to the Waters

Call to Worship: Isaiah 55:1-2, 10-13
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
We come to you, O Lord.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish . . .
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the
  purpose for which I sent it.
Lord, speak your word to us today.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and
  instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting
  sign, that will endure forever.
Lord, lead us into your joy.

Hymn: “For the Beauty of the Earth” CH 793/182, PH 473, PsH 432, SFL 90, SWM 54, TH 116, WR 40

Greeting

The Waters of Forgiveness

Call to Confession

Song: “I Love the Lord, for He Has Heard My Voice” (st. 1) PsH 116

Prayer
Eternal and merciful God, you have loved us with a love beyond our understanding, and you have set us on paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. Yet we have strayed from your way; we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, through what we have done and what we have left undone. As we remember the lavish gift of your grace, we praise you and give you thanks that you forgive us yet again. Grant us now the grace to turn from our sin and to follow you with the faithfulness of Ruth, who left her own people to become one of your children, and who became an ancestor of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Song: “I Love the Lord, for He Has Heard My Voice” (st. 2, 4)

The Deep Waters of Love

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-15

Solo: “Entreat Me Not to Leave Thee” (Gounod)

Offering

The Waters of Life

Scripture: Ruth 4:9-22

Message: “Ruth: Catalyst”

Song: “In Christ There Is No East or West” CH 428, PH 440, PsH 540, WR 600/603

Week Five—Jeremiah: A Word From the Lord in a Time of Terror

Based on Jeremiah 29:1-14. Key verse: “‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder’” (Jer. 29:13-14).

Sermon Notes

Few lives in the Bible are as fascinating and, at the same time, as elusive as the life of Jeremiah. The problem with Jeremiah is that we know more about his thoughts than we do about the events of his life. We also have difficulty in figuring out the arc of Jeremiah’s life, since most of the prophecies are not dated. We are constantly asking: When did Jeremiah speak this word?

Nevertheless, there does seem to be a discernable trajectory to the life of Jeremiah. We are told that he began to prophesy in the thirteenth year of Josiah. In our counting, the year would be 627-26 b.c. Those were heady years in ancient Judah. After years of Assyrian domination, it appeared that the oppression hanging over Judah was lifting. A great revival broke out (see 2 Kings 22-23). Along with the revival of the ancient religion came a new sense of the destiny of Israel. God and country—a potent combination.

It was in this world that Jeremiah heard the call of God. He was given a word from the Lord—a terrible word, a word of judgment and disaster. Assyria wasn’t to be the last of the oppressors. Other armies would come, notably the Babylonians, and Judah would be destroyed. Jeremiah spoke this word so often and so insistently that he became known as the “Terror-All-Around” guy (see Jer. 20:7-10).

The people of Jerusalem, especially the kings and other officials, tried to shut him up. They put him in stocks, mocked him, imprisoned him, threw him in a cistern, and cut up his writings, all to no avail. And then the words Jeremiah had spoken came true. It happened in stages, each worse than the previous one. In 609, Josiah died trying to stop the Egyptian pharaoh from reinforcing the last remnant of the Assyrian army. In 605, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops arrived. In 598, they came back to punish Judah for its role in a rebellion. In 587, the Babylonians burnt down Jerusalem, pulled down the temple, hauled away the precious and ancient temple furnishings along with many people, put out the eyes of the king, and left Judah in the hands of a governor. It seemed the end of all that Judah was or hoped to be.

It was then that the word of Jeremiah became not a word of disaster but a word of hope. The word was that the Lord, the ancient Yahweh, was in charge. It was he who was king, not the Assyrian king or the Babylonian king. When at last Judah had no hope, at least no hope in its own power to save itself, then the word of the Lord became a word of hope.

What is the word for us in the life and book of Jeremiah? The word is that out of despair comes hope, out of disaster comes new life, out of failure comes freedom. Judah would not be put back together again— not in the same way. But God blessed this people. God blessed them in Babylon. God blessed them in Judea. They learned new ways to be the people of God, the way of the Book instead of the land, of the rabbi instead of the prophet, of the synagogue instead of the temple.

In the sermon, I addressed these themes by talking about Christian realism and Christian hope. We need both. Without Jeremiah’s gritty realism, we grab on to false hope—hope as we define it. Without Jeremiah’s hope, we sink into despair.

Ideas for Worship

Song Suggestions:
“God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” PH 191, PsH 46, TH 40
“How Long Will You Forget Me, Lord” PsH 13

Prayers and Testimonies: Spend additional time in prayer, remembering not just adult concerns but concerns of all congregants. Pray especially for help during difficult times, and also rejoice in the hope we do have. Include a testimony from a congregant that highlights this sermon’s message.

We Serve A Faithful God

Call to Worship: 1 Kings 8:23, 56-58 (NRSV)

O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart. Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel according to all that he promised; not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke through his servant Moses.

The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our ancestors; may he not leave us or abandon us, but incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statues, and his ordinances, which he commanded our ancestors.

Song:“God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” PH 191, PsH 46, TH 40

Greeting

God Hears our Prayers and Sees Our Tears

The Lament of God’s People: Psalm 137:1-6

Prayer of Longing for the Coming of the Lord
Father in heaven—you who are forever holy—we pray again,
   as you have taught us to pray,
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is
   in heaven.
Lord, on earth we see so little of your kingdom
and so much of the kingdom of the prince of this world.
Where we see hatred, bring love.
Where we see evil, bring justice.
Where we see loneliness, bring the community of the
   redeemed.
Where we see godlessness, bring faithfulness.
Where we see despair, bring hope.
For we know, Lord, that your promises are firm and that
   we can trust your Word.
Our hearts long for you, Lord, as watchmen long for the
   morning,
as watchmen long for the morning. Amen.

Scripture

Assurance of God’s Coming: Isaiah 40:1-5

The Joy of the Redeemed: Isaiah 35

Choral Anthem: “River in Judea” (Marcus, Feldman/Leavitt)

Prayers of the Congregation

Song:“Like a River Glorious” CH 737, PsH 560, TH 699, WR 435

Offering

God Renews His Promise Every Day

Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1-14

Message: “Jeremiah: A Word from the Lord in a Time of Terror

Song: “When Peace Like a River” CH 705, PsH 489, TH 691, WR 428

Moses: Turning Aside

Based on Exodus 33:7-11; 34:29-35. Key verse: “And when he came out . . . they saw that his face was radiant” (Ex. 34:34-35).

Sermon Notes

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her very fine meditation on everyday spiritualities, An Altar in the World (HarperCollins, 2009), reflects on the story of Moses:

Moses’s life changed one day while he was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. According to the storyteller, he had led the flock beyond the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God, when an angel of God appeared to him in a burning bush. The bush was not in right in front of Moses, however. It must have been over to the side somewhere, because when Moses saw it, he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

 

The bush required Moses to take a time-out, at least if he wanted to do more than glance at it. Moses could have decided that the bush didn’t interest him. But if he had done that, he would not have been Moses. He would just have been a guy who got away with murder, without ever discovering what else his life might have been about.

Perhaps this slights the story some. It was about much more than the life of Moses, after all. But it points to the theme of Moses’ life: he is the one who, with the single exception of Jesus himself, had the most intimate relationship with God of any human being. He turned aside to God, and having encountered God he never turned back.

The heart of the story lies in the chapters that begin with the incident of the golden calf. This incident introduces a crisis into the relationship between Moses and God. Will God stay with this people or will he leave them behind as a failed experiment?

In the original sermon plan, I thought to explore how God’s presence becomes manifest no longer in the cloud or on the mountain but in his people—an anticipation of incarnation. But in the preached message, preached on our Missions Sunday, I focused instead on the training Moses received for ministry. I drew parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Paul: the initial wrong directions, the blood on their hands, their conversion experiences (Moses at the burning bush and Paul on the Damascus road), and their failures (Paul at Corinth and Moses at the mountain). I drew the conclusion that ministry is hard.

But in these crucial chapters from Exodus, the relationship of Moses and God is transformed, and with it, Moses’ ministry. It is transformed not by some new technique for managing the congregation or some new way to do worship or a new evangelism scheme; it is transformed by presence, prayer, and time with the Lord—the Presence that shines forth from Moses’ face.

Paul speaks of the same thing in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18, where he says that if we are to do ministry we must focus first not on technique but on time with the Lord, on prayer and meditation.

We Stand on Holy Ground

Call to Worship: Exodus 3:1-5

Silence to Prepare for Worship

Song: “Holy, Holy, Holy” CH 3, PH 138, PsH 249, SWM 28, TH 100, WR 136

Greeting

We Hear the Call of God

Scripture: Exodus 3:6-10

Song: “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” PH 334, PsH 476, SFL 103, SWM 71, WR 618

Prayer (in unison)
Lord, we echo the words of Moses:
Who are we that you would call us to go to confront the powers of our worlds,
seeking justice and freedom for those who are enslaved by evil, wherever they are?
We don’t know what to say or what to do.
We are afraid to stand out in the crowd.
We believe that others can do your work better than we can.
And so, Lord, we try to still your persistent call in the busyness of our lives,

Forgive our hesitations, our fears, our failure to obey. Speak to us again.
Amen.

Scripture: Exodus 3:12

Prayers of the Congregation

Choral Anthem: “Saints Bound for Heaven” (Shaw/Parker)

We Hear God’s Word

Scripture: Exodus 33:18-34:8, 29-32

Message: “The Transformation of Moses”

Prayer

Hymn: “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer” CH 682, PH 281, PsH 543, TH 598, WR 501

Elijah: God in the Silence

Based on 1 Kings 19:9-18. Key verse: “After the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).

Sermon Note

So where is God? This was Elijah’s question. For a while God seemed to be on his side. Elijah announced a great famine, and a great famine there was. He called down the fire of God on his altar on Mt. Carmel, and the fire came down. But then, in the wake of Elijah’s victory, God seemed strangely absent. Elijah began to think that he was alone—that no one cared, not even God.

The issue was syncretism. Ahab had crafted a political alliance with Phoenicia by marrying Jezebel, daughter of Ittobaal, the Tyrian king. Politics and religion go together, then as now. Baal (the name simply means “lord” or “husband”) was the title for Melqart, the god of life and death. In the popular theology of the day it was no stretch to claim that this god and the ancient God of Israel, Yahweh, were in fact one and the same, or at least part of the same symbolic universe. That was what Elijah opposed. He opposed the idea that worshiping Yahweh and worshiping Melqart were morally equivalent. The first task for those who worship God, Elijah insisted, is to get God right.

But where was God? Elijah’s journey into despair took him back to the mountain of God where Moses received his revelation. As in the days of Moses, the wind blew, the mountain shook, and fire came down from the sky. But this time it was empty. There was no voice of the Lord in it. And then a whisper. The traditional translation for the convoluted Hebrew is “a still, small voice.” And there in the quiet was God.

How often do we look for God in the great things of the day, in the wind and earthquakes and fires of our time, when in fact God is in the silence, in the small things, doing things that will change the world? We need people who will step away from the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the rush of events, and the demands of the day, and listen in the silence for God.

We Worship the Lord

Call to Worship
Sing praises to God, O you saints.
We exalt you, O God, for you have restored us to life!
We may cry through the night, but joy comes in the morning.
You hear us, O God, and you are gracious in our distress.
You turn our mourning into dancing.
Our souls cannot be silent!
O God, our Savior, we give thanks to you forever.
Amen.

Song: “Now Thank We All Our God” CH 788, PH 555, PsH 454, SFL 33, SNC 228 (refrain only), SWM 230, TH 98, WR 14

Greeting

The Lord Watches Over Us

Scripture: 1 Kings 16:29-33

Choral Anthem: “Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord” (Mendelssohn)

Scripture: Psalm 121

Choral Anthem: “He, Watching over Israel” (Mendelssohn)

Prayers of the Congregation

Song: “Abide with Me” CH 642, PH 543, PsH 442, TH 402, WR 521

The Lord Speaks to Us

Offering

Scripture: 1 Kings 19:9-18

Message: “Elijah: God in the Silence”

Song: “If You But Trust in God to Guide You” PH 282, PsH 446, SFL 210, TH 670, WR 429

Daniel: Dream Whisperer

Based on Daniel 2:14-47. Key verse: “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Dan. 2:28).

Sermon Notes

“Dare to be a Daniel,” we’d sing in grade school. We knew what that meant: dare to be someone who stands up for what’s right in the face of power and cruelty. Be willing to face down the lions, to brave the furnace, to risk speaking truth to power. What we perhaps did not understand was the source of Daniel’s courage. He was not courageous simply because he was a man of outstanding virtue, although he was that, but because he had the ability to see what others did not see. He saw the world, not as it appeared, but as it was.

How the world appeared was plain. The world was in the hands of the great powers, first Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, the dread conqueror of Jerusalem; and later Persia, conqueror of Babylon. What seemed to be the case was that empire followed empire, violence brought violence, and it was always the poor and the weak who suffered. But Daniel knew better.

For Daniel, the truth about the world came through dreams: his own dreams and the dreams of others, notably the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar. What these dreams revealed was that the great powers of that age and of any age were and are fragile. What seems permanent soon falls apart. Beyond these apparently great powers lies a still greater power: the power of God and of his rule.

In Daniel 2 the dream suggests that what seems eternal is temporal. It will one day be replaced by the Kingdom of the Rock. Daniel teaches us how to resist the empire. He does it respectfully, scrupulously, firmly, and prayerfully. Those who, like Daniel, belong to the Kingdom of the Rock can learn much from him.

Call to Worship (from Ps. 145)
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
There is no end to his greatness.
One generation shall praise your works to another
and shall declare your power.
All your works praise you, Lord,
and your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your power.
My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord:
Let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.

Song: “For All the Saints” (st. 1-4, 7) CH 767, PH 526, PsH 505, SFL 195, TH 358, WR 529

Greeting

Song: “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH 625, SFL 54, SWM 170, WR 489

Prayer of Confession
Eternal God, in every age you have raised up men and women to live and die in faith.
Forgive our indifference to your will.
You have commanded us to speak, but we have been silent.
You have called us to do what is just, but we have been fearful.
Have mercy on us, your faithless servants. Keep before us faithful people for us to follow, so that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, we may grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to the praise of your holy name. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon: Ephesians 2:19-22

Our Profession (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54)
I believe that the Son of God, through his Spirit and Word,
out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end,
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself
a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.
And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Song: “Dare to Be a Daniel” SFL 104, TH 579
or “My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone” PsH 62

Scripture: Daniel 2:14-47

Message: “Daniel: Dream Whisperer”

The Lord’s Supper

Song: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” CH 151, PH 259/260, PsH 469, TH 92, WR 507

Mary: A Life of Prayer

Based on Luke 1:26-38; John 2:1-11. Key verse: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).

Sermon Notes

The life of Mary is a bit sketchy, but what is there is intriguing. She is there at the beginning; she is there at the end. We last catch a glimpse of her among the gathered disciples just before Pentecost (Acts 1). She is many things in the story: expectant (in every sense of the word), nurturing, worried, devastated, and, most of all, simply there. She doesn’t fully understand what her son is doing, but she never abandons him.

Especially interesting (at least to me) is the story of the wedding at Cana. John chooses this story to introduce the ministry of Jesus. As the celebration progresses, the hosts run out of wine—a symbol of the messianic kingdom (see, for example, Amos 9:13). Mary approaches Jesus, who puts her off (“Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.”). But she calmly says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” By this prayer (her request to Jesus) and command (to the servants) she sets into motion the rest of the story.

Does this imply, as it seems to, that Mary’s expectation, her faith, calls out of Jesus the first steps toward the coming kingdom? And does our expectation call out from the Lord the same? Consider Peter’s remark at the end of his second epistle: “What kind of people ought you to be . . . as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming?” (2 Pet. 3:11-12). Does our expectation, like Mary’s, speed the kingdom’s coming?

In these Scriptures Mary prays two kinds of prayers: the prayer of acceptance and the prayer of expectation, faith, and hope. “May it be to me as you have said,” and, “Do whatever he tells you.” Between these two prayers is most of the Christian life.

Call to Worship (based on Ps. 50:1-3, 6)
The mighty God summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.
Our God comes and will not be silent.
God calls, and we respond to his love.
The heavens declare God’s righteousness.
We tell out God’s glories!
Offer up to God your thanksgiving,
and our God will hear us, save us,
and stay with us forever.

Song: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” CH 240, PH 309, PsH 342, TH 162, WR 181

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

Choral Anthem: “Lead Me, Lord” (Wesley)

The Lord Comes to Us in Grace

Scripture:Isaiah 1:18

Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving and Petition (from Ps. 40)
I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.
Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened— burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.”
But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.

Song: “Tell Out My Soul” PsH 478, TH26, WR 41

Prayers of the Congregation

Choral Anthem: “From the Rising to the Setting of the Sun” (Lantz)

Offering

Scripture: John 2:1-11

Message: “Mary: Sticking It Out”

Song: “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” PH 27, TH 229

James: Holding On

Based on James 1:19-27. Key verse: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

Sermon Notes

Our series ended with James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the church in Jerusalem. Like with Mary, we have no connected narrative about James, but there is much to go on in the book of Acts, the writings of Paul, and the letter of James, as well as sources outside the Bible. James was the great conservative among the apostles, the one who wanted to preserve as much of the old ways as possible. When Paul returned to Jerusalem with an offering from the churches of the diaspora (Acts 21), James insisted that Paul participate in and pay for purification rites at the temple for himself and four other men. In hanging on to the old ways, James hung on to the Torah as the mirror in which to see ourselves (James 1:22-25). To lose this perspective is to lose a crucial part of the faith.

I preached this sermon on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of our congregation. I called attention to the James-like faith that had sustained us in those 75 years: a faith that is quiet, obedient, wise, and, as much as possible, unstained by the world. A faith that is more concerned about orphans and widows than showy displays of piety. In the course of the sermon, I named some of the saints in our congregation who exemplified that sort of faith.

We Gather in Thanksgiving

Choral Call to Worship: “We Praise You, O God” (arr. Jennings)

Te Deum (adapted):
We praise thee, O God; you are Lord.
The earth worships you, Father Everlasting.
To you the angels cry aloud
with the heavens and all the powers they contain.
The cherubim and seraphim continually cry to you:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty;
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of the apostles praises you.
The good fellowship of the prophets praises you.
The noble army of martyrs praises you.
The holy church throughout all the world acknowledges you, Father of infinite majesty; Son, adored and true; and Holy Spirit, Comforter.
Your compassions never fail. They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness!

Song: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” PsH 556

Greeting

We Gather in Remembrance

(Here followed a litany of remembrance, praise, and prayer outlining the history of the congregation. It included the song “I Love You, Lord” at various intervals.)

Congregation and Choir: Concertato on “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” (arr. Ferguson)

Prayers of the Congregation

Offering

We Gather in Faith

Scripture: James 1:19-27

Message: “James: Holding On”

Choral Anthem: “The Old Hundredth Psalm Tune” (R. Vaughan Williams)

Sample Small Group Study Guide for Ruth

Begin with Prayer

The book of Ruth is notable for the many blessings the people in the story exchange with each other. We have largely lost this practice. Even our “good-bye” has lost its original meaning of “God be with you.” In your prayers today, ask a blessing on each person in the room, either by name or by asking God to bless all who have gathered.

Enter the Story

The book of Ruth is not long, so it’s an excellent book to read out loud. You may wish to divide up the reading: have four people each take a chapter, or ask group members to read as far as they wish. (Be aware that reading aloud can be very stressful for some people, so give them the grace to “pass.”) If you decide not to read the whole book out loud, at least read the first chapter.

After you have read the Scripture, take a moment to gather impressions of the reading. Were there things you hadn’t noticed before? Did anything surprise you? What impressed you about the reading?

Get to Know Each Other

The book of Ruth is about a friendship between two women. Have you experienced a cross-generational friendship in your life? Tell a little of the story of your friendship. Were you Naomi (the older person) or Ruth (the younger one) in this relationship? How did this relationship enrich your life?

Dig into the Material

Chapter 1

Ruth’s climactic speech to Naomi (vv. 16-17) is often quoted in weddings, because it’s one of the greatest expressions of loyalty. But at the same time that Ruth is expressing her loyalty to Naomi, she is stepping away from her own people and the culture and religion she grew up with.

  • Discuss loyalty. How do we know when we should be loyal and when to step away?
  • Have you ever found yourself in the position of Ruth, expressing a new loyalty and abandoning an old one?
  • What difficulties would Ruth expect to encounter when she arrives in Bethlehem?

Chapter 2

Seeking food, Ruth goes out to glean in the local grain fields.

  • What’s gleaning?
  • Note that this seems to expose Ruth to danger (see vv. 9 and 22). Why would Naomi allow Ruth to do this?

Chapter 3

Already in chapter 2, Ruth catches Boaz’s eye, but now (at Naomi’s suggestion) she boldly goes to him at night when he is in good spirits (v. 7).

  • Are Ruth’s actions here morally dubious?
  • Are they, once again, dangerous?
  • Why does the Bible give us such stories?

Chapter 4

In a complicated series of transactions, Boaz redeems Naomi’s property (in our terms, gets it out of foreclosure) and claims Ruth (v. 10). They are blessed with a child, who is the ancestor of David and Jesus.

  • What’s the significance of this story?
  • Why is it there in the Bible, between the books of Judges and Samuel?

Application (“So What?”)

We live in a loyalty-starved world. Marriages end. People move from church to church. We move from place to place. To what or to whom are you loyal? How will you maintain your loyalties or, if necessary, renew them?

Closing

Close in prayer. Pray for each other, especially for those relationships that have been mentioned in the course of your time together.