Welcome to worship with the Ocean Grove
and Barwon Heads congregations.
This service was streamed live from the Ocean Grove church via Zoom on January 23rd at 10:30am
Below is the entire text for a service of worship for home use for those who are not ready to return to public gatherings. Even though the service is streamed live, those who are unable to participate online may use this material at any time for their private devotions. If ‘two or three’ are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church.
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“Probably all laws are useless;
for good men do not need them at all,
and bad men are made no better by them.” (Demonax the Cynic)
CALL TO CELEBRATION
L: May our time together renew our hope.
R: May the stories we share refresh our courage.
L: May the songs we sing lift our spirits.
R: May the words we speak invigorate us.
L: May the touch of hands, the sound of laughter, the sight of faces new and familiar,
R: restore us in faith.
PRAYER OF AWARENESS
Spirit of life, we gather here in loving community. Keep us in mind of the responsibilities of being human. Give us the strength to endure, but more, help us to bring strength to each other. May we exclude no one intentionally, but may our church be inclusive as we say it is. May our coming and our going be blessed, this day and forever more. Amen.
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Let us take a moment to settle into the silence. Hear and feel your quiet breathing. Hear and feel the quiet around you. In this quiet time may our spirits be renewed. In this time of worship, may our minds be open to new truth, and our hearts be receptive to love, as we give thanks for this life we are blessed to share. (Silence for at least 30 seconds)
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
How great is your faithfulness, O God of all eternity. We race through life, so full of our own plans, so consumed by our own anxieties, yet you are there for us; help us to acknowledge you and to rely upon you. Forgive us, O God, and bring us to that moment. (Pause in silence) Laying down our defences, we come before you, ready to know who we are and open to the light of your presence, your Spirit. We are not the people we would like to be; heal us and remake us, O God. (Silence for personal prayer)
L: Jesus, is the true joy waiting to assuage human restlessness and desire, for we are forgiven to a depth we cannot see, and renewed for a future which as yet we only dimly comprehend; and so I can declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us.
R: Thanks be God.
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES – Neh. 8:1-4a,5-6,8-10,19
The book of Nehemiah tells us about the rebuilding of Jerusalem after it was destroyed in 586 BC. Nehemiah found that rebuilding the city required more than repairing the walls of the city. The life of the people needed to be rebuilt as well. As Nehemiah reads the law, the people find their faith reawakened.
8 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. 3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
4 So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God.
Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
8 So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.
10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
18 Day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.
FROM THE PSALMS – Psalm 19:7-14
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
11 Moreover by them Your servant is warned,
And in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can understand his errors?
Cleanse me from secret faults.
13 Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.
FROM THE GOSPELS – Luke 4:14-21, 28-30
14-15 Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.
16-21 He came to Nazareth where he had been raised. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s time to shine!”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place…”
28-30 That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way.
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS
“The precepts of the Lord are right, they gladden the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes.” (Ps.19:8)
It is interesting how, over the years, the meanings of words change, even to the point of completely contradicting their previous connotations. For example, in the slang of the Afro-Amercans, to be “bad” is good. In the English speaking world, it once was possible to refer to people as “gay” without making a comment on their sexual orientation. I’m sure you would have no trouble in thinking of other words which have undergone a reversal of meaning just in your lifetimes.
In the Old Testament reading today, we note that the scene of the action is the Water Gate. For most Americans, and many others as well, the name Water Gate is associated with a cover-up and a breaking of the law, whereas in Ezra’s time Water Gate was a place of revelation and celebration of the Law.
And speaking of the word, Law, we have a tendency to see it, too, in rather negative terms: a necessary, but constraining aspect of society. In religious terms we often think of law as an oppressive, scary, life-denying thing which no mere human can obey – something which, fortunately, God replaced with his gospel through Jesus.
But the Jews, including Jesus, did not see law this way. God did not change his relationship with his people when Jesus came on the scene. God’s law did not change. God’s expectations of us did not change. It is essential to remember that our story did not begin with the Crucifixion or at Pentecost, but with a tired old Jewish figure named Abraham trudging through a Middle Eastern desert? The Torah is gospel; the law is good news. This is the message which comes to us in the Old Testament and the Psalm for today, and also in Luke’s story about Jesus’ understanding of the law.
There has been a change, however, in our response to God’s law, and we can see the contrast between the Old Testament and the Gospel readings. These two readings seem similar at first: Ezra reads and expounds the law; Jesus reads and interprets Isaiah. In both the audience is concerned with the meaning of tradition to which they give their assent.
However, in the first story the audience’s first response is weeping, but the weeping turns to joy, whereas in the story of Jesus, the praise of the audience turns to rage. In the Ezra story, all understand the meaning, but after Jesus’ sermon, all misunderstand his mission.
In that Old Testament reading today there was real drama as Ezra opened the Torah. All eyes were on him, and as the writers describes it, “all the ears of the people were attentive to the book of the law,” and this is from early morning till noon, mind you. It is a scene that raises a bit of envy in the heart of a preacher.
There is a saying among the Jews, “The Torah lives, even in a hovel, up to its neck in dirt.” We catch a glimpse of the reality behind the saying in this passage from Nehemiah. The law at the time had become buried. Observances of the law had almost disappeared in some areas, and it had been forgotten to a large extent. Israel was beset by internal disturbances. So for many of these people, this proclamation of the law was something new. At first its curses and condemnations hit them like the proverbial ton of bricks, hence their weeping. But as Ezra and the Levites explain the law, the people understand its meaning and it comes alive for them and they cease their weeping and celebrate. They eat and drink and share with the poor.
What has changed? Can you imagine yourselves in that scene? Would the reading of of God’s law today draw everyone old enough to understand, and hold them for hours on end? Why do those who hear it now not respond in joyous celebration?
Perhaps it is just the word “law” which is causing the trouble. We understand it in the sense of civil law, the rules of conduct designed to limit the behaviour of people to that which is condoned by the society. They are laws which originate out of our fear of being hurt or taken advantage of or cheated or losing something. These laws arise from anxiety and try to create security, but in doing so they constrain. Civil law is reactionary and hence its’ source is negative. Its orientation is to prevent something bad, rather than to encourage something good. They are necessary to have, but one doesn’t usually think of celebrating them.
God’s law is of quite a different order. This law exists as a sign of God’s continuing care for his people and its purpose is to lead us into life. Its basis is a positive one, i.e. to encourage a particular path, rather than to restrict. Imagine being in a maze. Without directions, you might wander endlessly; with directions you will be led to the end. God’s law is not written down on paper to read, despite our vain attempts to do so, but was imprinted upon the creation and is written on our hearts to lead us and the world into wholeness.
To become aware of God’s law is to become aware of the presence of God. To live by that presence, empowered by that presence is to truely live out God’s purpose and create his kingdom. This is what we have seen in Jesus: the law fulfilled. That, too, is what is held out for us.
The law holds out for us the promise of life, the promise of a new heaven and new earth, and good news to the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, and release to the captive. But the promise is fulfilled as we fulfil the law as Jesus did. And that’s where the hitch comes. As the law becomes apparent to us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of God, we are brought to the point of making choices in our lives. In other words we come to a point of judgement where we either let go of that to which we cling and allow God to fulfil the law in us, or we hold on to that which gives us our security, our self-esteem.
One choice leads to rejoicing in the freedom inherent in the law, the other choice leads to whatever life we can make for ourselves amid the captivity of human laws. The result of one is brotherhood in the family of God, the result of the other is the stress of a life where it’s every man for himself. For those who choose for, law is good news; for those who choose against law is feared and there is weeping, anger and guilt.
So you’ll know when you hear the law. Something deep inside will come to life, and you will have the chance to give it rein, and the natural response will be worship and celebration. The world will know it, too, through your living for others. Don’t fight it. It is the on-going flowing pattern of the universe coursing through your soul; the law of life imprinted on your heart. Go with it.
PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION
For our nation; its politics, commerce, culture, education, mass media and recreational pursuits. That self-interest, injustice, arrogance, and deceit may not have dominion over our people and leaders. Spirit of Jesus, make us your agents of integrity and divine sanity.
For our international neighbours; Malaysia and Indonesia, Papua and New Guinea, the Philippines, New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific: That they may be governed wisely and compassionately. Spirit of Jesus, help our country to be a humble influence for the good of all
For the indigenous people of our land; the urban dwellers and outback communities. That they may have courageous and wise leadership from within, and profound understanding and respect from without. Spirit of Jesus, with our help or without it, lead them into a better future.
For our young people in this century of abrupt changes and pervasive insecurities: That younger and older folk may be willing to learn from each other, and that the fullness of life be found by both the eager and the afraid. Spirit of Jesus, bless young people with the fullness of your liberating love.
For any member of this congregation, and for those among family or friends, who are in dire straits today: That according to their bewilderment, pain, or heartbreak, they may find your grace sufficient for their needs. Spirit of Jesus, when it is fitting, please use us as your angels of mercy.
In the name of Jesus our brother and friend, who taught us to pray, “Our Father…”
THE LORD’S PRAYER
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 and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.
WORDS OF MISSION
L: With faith in the creative powers of life; with hope for the future of life in this world; with love for all others who share this life with us, let us go forward together in peace.
R: Our worship in this sacred space has ended. Let our service begin.
Go from here in the strength of God’s spirit assured that wherever you are, and whatever you face in life, God is with you.
Go as far as your courage takes you, for you cannot go beyond the reach of God.
Give as extravagantly as you may, for you cannot spend all the riches of God.
Care as lavishly as you are able, for you cannot exhaust the love of God.
May the Holy God surprise us on the way, the gospel of Christ be always real for us, and the Spirit of God be the breath of life for us.
Keep journeying as a friend, for God will always be with you.