APC 18th April 2021 ‘God’s Hidden Presence’ (Part 1)
Welcome and Introduction
Good morning everyone and welcome to our Sunday morning worship. I want to start by thanking our Moderator the Rev David Bruce for his wonderfully hopeful and thoughtful service last Sunday. Today I want to begin the first of a two part series as we consider the theme of ‘God’s hidden presence’. Over this past year at times we’ve all found it hard to see God in the midst of all the difficulties and uncertainties that we have faced. So I hope you’ll find these reflections helpful and encouraging as we continue to patiently wait and hope and pray for a return to some sort of normality.
To open our worship I want to play a beautiful new hymn written my friend Jonathan Rea. The hymn is called “Your faithfulness endures.” It will be accompanied by a video clip entitled ‘Hope at Easter’ which reminds us that throughout Ireland our Presbyterian family are finding hope through their faith in God and in the support of our Christian family and friends. It’s especially nice for us to be able to share in this song as the opening title of moving letters was created by our very own Amy Whelton. So sit back and join in worship as we sing together “Your faithfulness endures”.
(End Part 1)
Opening Song “Your faithfulness endures”
I hope you were encouraged by all the images of people like us and great job Amy on the moving letters! But now let’s take a moment to talk to God, let’s pray…
Loving God, we thank you that in all the changing circumstances of our lives you are a God we can depend on – always faithful, always true, always loving, always merciful. For all your mercies we praise and thank you.
We thank you that you are a God who is constantly at work – in our day to day lives, in our fellowship, in the church, in the world. For all your mercies we praise and thank you.
Day by day, week by week, year by year, you are working out your purposes. For all your mercies we praise and thank you.
Seen or unseen, recognized or unrecognized, appreciated or taken for granted, you are moving through your spirit, striving to build your kingdom and fulfil your will. For all your mercies we praise and thank you.
Loving God, you do not work alone, but have invited us to play a part in your purpose. In your mercy teach us to respond in faith.
Help us to keep our side of the bargain – to do our bit as you do yours, to be a people whose lives clearly witness to your love, to live in a way that is consistent with what we believe and honoring to you. In your mercy teach us to respond in faith.
Help us to make the most of everything you have given us, to use our gifts, to grasp our opportunities, and to offer our time, our money and our talents freely in your service. In your mercy teach us to respond in faith.
And help us finally, having played our part, to leave all things in your hands, knowing that, though all else may fail, your love will never will. Thanks be to God.
Join with me now as we say the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully and sincerely together…
Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread, And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil,
For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory,
For ever and ever, AMEN.
Introduction to Kids Video
We come now to the part of our service that’s especially for the younger members of our church family. So if your kids aren’t beside you right now, why not pause the recording, and call them in to watch a short video about the main character in our story today- Mary Magdalene. And at the end of this video I’ve a few words to say to the children so don’t let them rush away.
(END Part 2)
Kid’s Video God’s Story – Mary Magdalene
Kid’s Talk Summary
Hey boys and girls, I hope you enjoyed the video today. You know just like Mary Jesus can really help you in your life. If you love Him like Mary did he will also help you to be kind and generous to others just the way she was to Jesus. Don’t forget to ask your mum or dad to download the colouring sheet from our Facebook page to help you remember today’s lesson. I hope you have a really good week in school and I look forward to seeing you in church very soon. But Bye for now!
Reflection ‘God’s Hidden Presence’
Two weeks ago, we celebrated Easter Sunday. It’s a high point of the Christian Year. But it also comes with an inherent danger. Having a special day to celebrate that Jesus is alive, can sometimes deflect from the reality that for us, every day is a Resurrection day. Christ is alive! We have His Holy Spirit now living inside us. His resurrection presence and power is available to us at any time and in every place.
But at the same time, there is always mystery in the Christian life – things that are not easy to explain. Yes we have the Holy Spirit inside us. Often we do sense His presence and are very aware of His help and power. But, like the first disciples, there are also times when it feels as if the tomb is empty and our Lord is nowhere to be seen.
I can think of a young Christian couple who have a 2 year old baby which has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. They are part of a church family which lost one of their youngest members to a freak choking accident at a church function despite being surrounded by several consultant medics. It’s at times like these when even the most spiritual of people are left with no answers and with many questions including, “Where is God?”
That’s why over the next two Sundays I want to reflect on this reality of ‘God’s hidden presence’ even for those of us who understand that through the Holy Spirit God is always with us and has promised to never leave us.
Today I want us to think about God’s hidden presence in the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary. So let’s sit back as Emma reads it for us now…
(End Part 3)
Bible Reading Video John 20 v 1-18 Emma Anderson
Thank you Emma for reading for us…
I’m always amazed at how God often makes the loudest statements through little details that seem almost hidden in the ancient text. In a culture where women were often treated as second class citizens it is hugely significant that the first person to meet the risen Jesus is Mary. She is the one who remains faithful no matter what. Her grief was as deep as the rest and yet while Peter, John and the other men cowered behind closed doors, Mary and the other women remained courageously faithful as they brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Where would we be without every faithful woman in our world and especially within the family of the Christian church?
Mary Magdalene went one step further. Jesus had quite literally rescued her from a life of hell when he delivered her from the presence of 7 demons. Consequently, her love for Jesus was extremely deep. While it was still dark, she got up the next morning, and as the sun rose and birds chirped to greet a new day, she made her way past shops and houses to attend once more to the body of her Lord.
Any of us who have lost a family member, a pet, or had our dreams shattered by a cruel twist of events, will understand how she must have felt. If the death of her beloved and the dashing of all that He had promised wasn’t bad enough, Mary must have been distraught when, arriving at the tomb, she found the stone door to be rolled aside, and Jesus’ body nowhere to be seen. The only thing left were the bandages they had lovingly and tearfully draped around his torso just a few hours earlier.
Her immediate reaction was to run for help. Given the days that were in it, she probably should have gone to the other women. Despite his public denial it seems that Peter was still considered to be the leader of the group. So that’s where Mary ran to deliver the devastating news.
“They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”
Immediately Peter and John got up, left the room in which they were hiding, and ran towards the tomb, leaving Mary behind. John arrived first and eventually Peter caught up. Both were amazed to discover that what Mary had said was true. The body of Jesus was gone. The only thing left were the bandages that he’d been wrapped in, strangely folded and neatly piled where his body had previously lain.
We’re not told when Mary arrived back or what conversations she had with the two men. But when they left to go home, Mary sat down and began to cry. Grief is like that. For many hours and days after the death of our loved one, the adrenalin and the practicalities of attending to their remains and burial keep us going. Often, it’s only later, when something triggers, that the tears begin to flow.
Through tear-filled eyes she peered again inside the tomb. She must have frozen in fear or jumped with surprise. Two angelic figures were standing exactly where Jesus’ body had been laid!
“Why are you crying?” they asked.
“They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
In that moment it seems Mary turns towards the exit of the tomb perhaps gesturing to the outside. As she does so, again she is startled. This time the Cemetery Gardener is standing at the door.
He asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you crying?” Who is it you are looking for?”
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and get him,” she replies.
I find it fascinating that both the angels and Jesus ask Mary the same question- “Why are you crying?” I’m assuming that all 3 of them would have known why she was upset.
You know in the painful experiences of our lives, God always knows why we are crying. He is never insensitive to our deepest fears and hurts, in fact, the Psalmist reminds us that God stores all our tears in a jar. Not one of them is lost to His love and care. Be assured- when we weep, God weeps. But at the same time, in our moments of quiet, isn’t it true that God often asks us, “Why are you crying?”
For Mary and for us I feel that this is often simply a rhetorical question. God’s way of helping us to take stock even in the midst of our grief and to remember that whatever we are going through, today is still a resurrection day- Just as it was then, so too it is now every day. Christ is risen! That means we are never alone. He is always there to comfort and listen.
Like Mary, through our tear-stained eyes it may be incredibly difficult to see Christ, but nevertheless He is there right beside us, even when we think He is the gardener. It may be that He comes to us through the disguise of someone else – a trusted friend, the author of a book or the composer of a song.
In Mary’s case, God’s words came through their primary source.
Amazingly it only took one word for Mary’s eyes to be opened and for her to see that the gardener was the risen Christ. “Mary!” he said. “Rabboni”, or “teacher” she exclaimed, as she got up, dashed forward and clung to Him with sobs of excitement and joy.
You know in the midst of this Pandemic and especially in those times when we find it very hard to see God through our broken hearts and nights of tears, one of the greatest comforts we can receive is when God calls to us by name. When we consider the vastness of the universe and all the beauty of everything that God has made, when we reflect on the truth that God loves it all, it is mind-blowing to think that in the midst of it all, God sees you and He sees me! This is especially relevant in those times when we are finding it hard to see Him. The prophet Isaiah puts it beautifully in the 43rd Chapter of his book. He writes, “Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name.”
Sometimes God seems far away, to Mary at the tomb, and to us, in so many cruel and painful circumstances of life. But then He whispers in our ear, “You are mine.” “Michael I know you by name.” I made you, you are precious to me. I understand your pain.” How amazing to know that we are not just a tiny part of some amorphous mass of humanity or some random evolutionary process. You are you, and I am me, unique, special, precious in the sight of the God who made us and loves us.
Because this world has been infected by sin, it is full of disease and disaster. The enemy of God is also real and active in mysterious ways that we cannot fully understand. All of these things at times will result in pain and suffering in our lives or even worse, in the lives of those we love. There are no easy answers for these things. But when they happen and when our tears hide the presence of God, remember that He is still right beside you. Allow Him to come near as He whispers your name. He lived and died to understand your suffering. But he also rose again and is able to comfort and sustain you.
I want to encourage you this morning, however much God is hidden through your tears, know that He is there, He knows your name and that when you weep, He weeps.
In light of what I have just said, the final part of our story seems strange and difficult to understand. As Mary reaches out to grab our Lord he says to her, “Don’t hold on to me for I have not yet returned to the Father. Instead, go and tell the rest of the disciples that I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
However gently Jesus spoke, this would certainly have felt like a rejection from Jesus, clouding just for a moment her sense of joy. You know, learning experiences can be happy or painful. But God is in them both, willing our good. Mary had happily realised that Jesus was alive. She must now slowly learn the painful lesson that soon he must leave them to return to the father. Mary would have to accept that she could not hold onto the Jesus that she had known forever. Like all relationships her relationship with Jesus would grow and change. She would have to learn to trust a Jesus whom she could no longer see but who would still be close through His Holy Spirit.
You know there is much about God that we can know and be sure of. But there is also so much about Him that we don’t know and will never know. That means that growing and maturing in the Christian faith is a process that never ends. At times God asks us to loosen our grip on the things we know or currently hold dear, and reach out into the unknown trusting Him for new experiences. At times God can be uncomfortable, and unpredictable, inviting us to adventure and to break new ground in our walk with Him. I wonder are we willing like Mary to allow God to be unpredictable and to learn new lessons from Him even if it causes us to rethink what we have thought or how we have acted for years?
As we travel the faith road we also discover that just as a mother gives greater freedom to their children as they get older, so as we mature, God encourages us to prayerfully take more responsibility for our own decisions. He invites us to think for ourselves and make wise choices, within the framework of His word. Of course, we must pray and continue to ask God for wisdom and guidance, but to always be waiting for God’s answers to descend down a spiritual drainpipe or to live like robots waiting for every instruction from above before we can move, is a sign of immaturity rather than the faith of a loving daughter or son. I wonder, do we have the courage to prayerfully make wise choices based on what we already know about God and His word?
But above all, in this moment and in the days ahead, Mary would learn one of the greatest paradoxes in the Christian experience. God’s apparent absence only hides His presence. Soon Jesus would leave Mary and the rest of the disciples, but as a consequence the Holy Spirit would come. They would no longer be able to see or touch Him. But that absence would mean that he could always be with all of them, at all times, everywhere.
Could it be that like Mary, it is through the experiences of life that make us feel that God has left us which drive us even closer into the realisation that He is right there with us?
Along with Covid 19 there are many other things that threaten to keep us awake at night and to question God’s presence. For me, it’s things like young people’s mental health, the inability to visit our elderly family, including my grieving father, important examinations for our young people and young adults and the impact that lockdown could have on our church family. Yet strangely, I have found that the more stressful these things have become, and the more they have left me feeling that God has gone on mute, the more I’ve been driven to pray with a greater intensity and sincerity than I’ve probably prayed for many years.
God’s apparent absence in this Pandemic has only hidden His presence, and it has definitely driven me into an even more intimate relationship with Him than I have known for quite some time.
It is my prayer today, that God’s hidden presence, will drive you ever deeper into His arms and cause you also to discover that even though you cannot see Him in these times, He is even closer than He was before.
Introduction to Song
Let’s respond to what we’ve been thinking about as we worship God through a song led by the Peterson family called “I know who holds tomorrow.”
(End Part 4)
Song of Response “I know who holds tomorrow.”
It’s wonderful to know that even though we can’t see God or understand some of the things that happen that he is always with us and He is always for us and not against us. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to bring the needs of other people to God. Let’s pray…
Prayers for others
Pray for our government in all the difficult decisions that they are having to make and for everyone tasked with implementing their policies. We thank you for all the research and production operation that has gone into making vaccines. We pray that these vaccines might be able to be distributed fairly throughout the world. We ask that soon enough people will be vaccinated in every country to be able to bring this pandemic under control. In the meantime, give us patience and strength to carry on.
We pray especially for all those people who are really struggling emotionally with the effects of lockdown. Lord help us to look out for one another and may all those who need help receive all the support and care that they need to help them through these days.
We pray also today for all those who have been bereaved in recent days. We think especially of Mary Walker who lost her sister, Alison Crammond who lost her grandmother and for Robert Holden who lost his father in this past week.
God may each one experience your comfort and find great strength and support from family and friends.
We continue to remember all those who ill or in hospital and pray again especially for a full recovery for Father Padraig.
Pray for Timor and nearby islands which were hit by Tropical Cyclone Seroja on Easter Sunday with severe winds, rains, floods and landslides causing loss of life and major damage to communications, roads, bridges and buildings. We pray that you will provide every support and comfort for all affected, especially for the leaders and members of our partner, the Evangelical Christian Church in Timor.
Pray for the people of Brazil who are suffering greatly from Covid-19. Pray for the witness of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, that leaders and members will bring God’s comfort and strength to many.
Pray for students coming towards the end of their last semester of the academic year and preparing for exams. We thank you for all the staff in our schools and ask that you will continue to keep them safe and give them enthusiasm and motivation to help each child to achieve their full potential. We pray that you will particularly help those ion 3rd level education who are still having to work online. God provide them with all the support they need to achieve their best in such difficult circumstances. Pray that you will give wisdom, strength and perseverance to all our PCI chaplains who continue to offer pastoral support to students and staff in our Universities and colleges.
Give thanks for people who use their talents and gifts in the business world. Pray that those
working in businesses soon to re-open to the public would be equipped to make good and wise decisions following this long time of uncertainty.
Take a moment in quiet now to bring your own prayers for one or two people or situations to God…
All these prayers we offer in the name of the one who is alive and who is able to do far more than we can ever ask or imagine, Amen.
It’s been a joy and privilege to share in worship with you this morning. Thanks for logging on. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it to be encouraging.
I’ve still no further confirmation of when our church can reopen for services but I’m hoping that it will be in the first half of May.
I want to remind you to take your time and carefully complete the GDPR form that we have sent you out. Please make any amendments to any of the details that you would like us to hold for you and your family. And do ask all the relevant people in your household to sign the form. If you require any additional forms for a young adult in your household for example, then please just ask and we will happily send it out. Once you’ve completed please do drop it into Aleida or into me at the church in a sealed envelope.
I’m conscious that many of us are weary and really struggling the longer the lockdown restrictions continue, so please do continue to keep in touch with one another and encourage one another.
But for now, let me lead you in a Benediction after which I invite you as always, to say the grace together…
God of life, may the promise of the sunrise be echoed in our minds. May the warmth of the midday sun flow through our hearts. May the peace of the sunset touch our souls. And when life seems dark teach us to remember that even then you are with us and that we will see your light again. And
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all now and for evermore, Amen.”
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