Sunday Worship, 19 September 2021

Welcome

No place is left for any human pride in the presence of God. If any one must boast, let them boast of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 1: 29, 31

Hymn 5 O Lord our Lord throughout the earth

Opening Prayer

Lord

We seek you in special places

 – in churches

 at sites long held to be sacred or holy

 we might even look for you on the mountain top

 by the river, the loch or the sea

 in the garden, in the meadow or the wood

But you come to us where we are

 at home, at school, at work

 in the supermarket, on the bus

 in the traffic jam

 at the doctor’s, in the pub

You come to us when we are happy and care-free

 you come when we are tired or stressed

 when we are worried or lonely

 when we are looking for you

 when we do not want to see you

 when we need help

 to surprise us when we are not expecting you

You are here now

 and we come before you with our questions

 our worries

 all the baggage we carry around in our hearts

May we find your acceptance, your forgiveness

 your challenge and your strength

Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen

All age time (for ages 0-100)

Unfortunately in Dumbarton we don’t get great views of the night sky. Even if it is dry and clear, light pollution from our street lights limits what we can see. If we can go somewhere that has no cloud, and no dust or light pollution then the picture is very different indeed – especially if it is a night without a moon. The whole sky is filled with pinpricks of light, as we look on millions of stars filling the whole space from one horizon to the next. Those stars are millions of millions of miles away from us, and the light we see left them millions of years ago to travel across the vast spaces of the universe.

The hymn we have just sung is based on one of the Psalms, a collection of hymns and prayers from the Bible which was used by Jesus, and which had been around for a long time before him. The person who composed the Psalm didn’t know anything about light years or the size of the universe, but they were sufficiently amazed by it to think how wonderful it is that in such a vast and amazing world, God should love each one of us so much.

Now that we have a better understanding of the size and scale of the universe we can be even more amazed that God is so interested in each of us, and has equipped human beings to be able to appreciate and try to understand how the universe works. It certainly is amazing what we human beings can do. We’ve been up the highest mountains, we’ve been to the bottom of the oceans, we’ve been in space and to the moon, we’ve sent craft to other planets and beyond the solar system. We’ve learned a whole lot about things from viruses to sub-atomic particles, algorithms to microchips.

But we haven’t learned to use our knowledge carefully. People can still be greedy, selfish, neglectful, abusive, and use the new technologies in the same way that their ancestors used stones and clubs, to hurt others. We’ve also ignored the needs of planet Earth and the other creatures that live here, and we’ve littered the place with rubbish, spoiled large areas, and messed up the climate. In under 50 days there is going to be a big meeting in Glasgow – Cop26 – when people from all over the world are going to be talking about how to take decisive steps to address these issues. As it gets nearer, let’s remember it in prayer every day – asking God to help all of us to be more thoughtful, especially about waste and climate matters, and to inspire those at the meeting to be bold in the steps they take.

Hymn JP94 If I were a butterfly

Bible reading

James 3: 13 – 4: 3

Reflection     

How are followers of Jesus supposed to behave – not just in the eyes of other people, but particularly in the eyes of God?

Many of Paul’s letters refer to the behaviour God expects of those who are following Jesus, addressing particularly those who grew up in a non-Jewish background. He impressed on them that their invitation to become part of God’s family was entirely through the kindness and mercy of God – there was nothing that they could do to earn it, and no way that they could earn bonuses for themselves in God’s eyes through doing ‘good works’. At the same time God gave his Spirit to everyone who followed Jesus, and expected them to allow the Spirit to change their behaviour and outlook. Unfortunately a number seemed to think that now that they were part of God’s family (they were ‘saved’) there was no need to pay any attention to how they behaved. They could do what they did before, think the same things, say the same things, and treat Self and Others in the same way. So Paul spent a lot of time emphasising the need to let the Spirit work in them and change them, so that they lived in a way that pleased God – not to win them bonuses for good behaviour, but simply to give God pleasure, and set an example to the world.

The reading we had today from the Letter of James is saying virtually the same thing, only to an audience with a Jewish background rather than a Gentile one. While Paul spoke about the Spirit, the author of the Letter of James refers to the Divine Wisdom. That word ‘Wisdom’ can mean a number of different things when we find it in the Bible. In ancient Middle Eastern cultures, at royal courts, and among lay people who were seeking a better understanding of life and way of relating to each other, a tradition known as ‘wisdom literature’ grew up – and there was a form of it in the Jewish community too. It didn’t set itself up in opposition to the Temple cult or the teaching of the prophets, but formed another strand of Jewish religious and ethical life. A number of books in the Old Testament belong to the ‘wisdom’ tradition – Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms – as do some of the books from the Old Testament Apocrypha, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus/ the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach.

Jewish understanding of God developed over the centuries as they thought through the traumas they experienced, and as they engaged with other cultures and their understanding of the world.  From once seeing him as a tribal god like so many others, they came to see him as the One and Only God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, totally different from his creation. Trying to describe how this ‘totally different’ God could engage with his creation, and in particular with humanity, some writers began to speak about it happening through the ‘attributes’ of God – the Glory of God, the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the Wisdom of God. (It almost prepared the way for Christians to speak of the Trinity in God). This Wisdom of God is the Divine Wisdom, the Wisdom that comes from above, to which the author of the Letter of James refers. In many ways the way he speaks about the Wisdom of God is very akin to the way Paul speaks about the Holy Spirit.

Across the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East there were other groups who used the term ‘wisdom’ to describe their approach to life – though whether they all used the word to mean the same thing is unclear. To some it  might mean learning to be ‘worldly wise’, learning the tricks and tactics to get on in life, to amass wealth, to achieve career ambitions, to create a reputation and legacy for yourself. One element which was certainly around later, but might have been around in the community to which the Letter of James was addressed, was a focus on the immortal soul at the expense of the mortal body. Getting your soul to heaven was what mattered, and that could mean ignoring how the mortal body behaved, and it could mean ignoring the material needs of other people.

This claim to be following wisdom, whatever form it took, was essentially self-focussed: what is in it for me? How can I get on and achieve what I want? We don’t know if the intended audience were really killing and coveting, quarrelling and fighting, or whether that was just the author’s rhetoric. But for a Jewish audience those words would have echoes of the 10 Commandments (thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet..) reminding them that following God has implications for everyday behaviour, and probably causing them to recall many other things that they had heard before about God’s expectations for everyday living set out in the Law and the Prophets. Over against that is the way of living inspired by God’s Wisdom (or as we may be more used to saying, his Spirit): peace-loving, peace-making, considerate and the rest.

We may not come from a Jewish cultural background, but the Law and the Prophets are part of our heritage and speak of God’s expectations. Jesus spelt it out and lived it out clearly. Paul and other New Testament writers were ready to relate living God’s way for people in other cultures and from other backgrounds. And so it is for us: God calls us to ‘holy living’, to be the kind of people he wants us to be, a way of living that will not be easy, that can see us take knocks and be taken for granted, but a way that bring him pleasure, that demonstrates to the world how it can operate, and which brings the love and care of God to those in need.

Hymn 606 Lord you sometimes speak in wonders

Prayers for others

Gracious God

In a world where so much doesn’t seem to make sense

 where so many claim to have the key to happiness and success

  but that happiness and success eludes most people

 where there competing ideologies and world-views

 we give thanks that in you we find true wisdom

  the only true way to peace and justice in the world

  hard and painful though that way may be

Teach us your wisdom

 not simply as a set of precepts to try (and fail) to follow

 but through your Spirit working in our hearts

 help us to live lives that reflect the way of Jesus our Lord

 help us to show the world that there is a different and better way of living

Inspire the leaders of our world to strive after your wisdom

 not worldly-wisdom

we pray for all who are ill,

those who look after them

 and those who worry about them

those waiting for or receiving treatment

 and those for whom there is no treatment

those who are lonely, feeling down, or grieving a friend or loved one

those who are worried about home, work or money

 a friend or a relative

those who are living with the after-effects of natural disasters

those who do not have enough to eat, or somewhere to call home

those who long to live in peace and safety

those who have fled from their homes seeking safety

We pray for the Queen, the Government

 all in positions of leadership in this and every land

We pray for you church

 the worldwide church

 the wider church in Dumbarton

 our own congregation

help us always to be faithful to Jesus our Lord

We bring to you our prayers for people and situations of special concern to us

And we sum up our prayers in the words of the prayer Jesus gave us

Hymn 184 Sing to the Lord a joyful song

Blessing (3-fold Amen)

And the blessing of God Almighty.

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