Welcome (Isaiah 63:7-9)
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favour to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely’;
and he became their saviour
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Preparation: My Jesus I love thee
Call to Worship (Psalm 148)
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.
He established them for ever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!
Hymn: Sing a new song unto the Lord
On this new year’s day, we come with hearts full of gladness. We come with praises and blessings on our lips. With the passing of another calendar year, we bring all that we have done in 2022 as our offering to you.
In this past year, we were often filled with thanksgiving for your presence and guidance with us, with our griefs not only for losing the loved ones, but also many relationships, events and projects to which we let go or were cut off from. All successes and failures, delights and disappointments we bring and put before you. Receive them from us in this worship as part of who and what we have been as your people in this world.
Fill us with new hope for 2023. Clear our eyes to see your will as we go forward. With your Word lead us. Give us faith to continue our worship and be in service to all that you plan to do among your people.
May this worship be the very source of new life for 2023!
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
"I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I and the children whom God has given me." Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Sermon: Jesus our advocate
We are very used to thinking about God who sent Jesus to save us. We rejoice as God’s children how in love God chose to hear the sufferings of God’s people and sent his Son. In gratitude we celebrate the birth of God’s Son. As we do, there is this question that stands out as to why this strange God had to send the Son to save the world? Why did this God not simply make it so since the Almighty can do anything? What was it that made God choose this painful way of seeing the Son die on the cross in order to justify the deliverance of the people who continually sinned and fallen away? Did God’s love really require the Son’s life?
As we attend to these questions, we are given the passage from Hebrews. Here we are told something that is very uncharacteristic in our faith understanding, yet very mundane in common human communities. Verse 18 is the one I am referring to. It speaks of why Jesus was and is our Saviour in ways that no one else or no other gods could have or can be. Jesus was the one who lived out his life ljust like us. There was nothing godly in the sense that Jesus as God’s Son received a free pass whenever things got tough or was privileged to avoid suffering and death, experiencing life the same way all people without privilege lived.
What had Jesus being a human being just like us got to do with anything concerning the salvation of the world? Why could God simply not judge the world by separating the righteous from sinners? Sinners do deserve punishment after all. Well, we know that there are situations and circumstances where sinning is either forced upon–there was no other choice available–or was committed in order to do good. It might feel good to see others being punished for their sins, but we do want some leeway for ourselves.
In today’s world, we are very much in agreement with justice where those who broke the laws ought to be punished. This thinking is not that different from what the people who lived in Jesus’ time thought about God’s justice. Common refrain is, “Do the crime, do the time.” Yet, as a Psalmist sang and Paul quoted, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Or as a police sergeant told me one day, “You may be innocent, but I can follow you for ten minutes and tell you how many laws you broke in that ten minutes.” As Paul told us, the law leads us to death. It does not lead to life. All of us end up found guilty if we go by the law alone.
Life requires love. Love gifts life to others. To make life possible forgiveness is necessary. Without forgiveness, there are only punishments in life. Punishments confine and lead to diminished life–life without freedom and liberty. For love to be able to foster life, love requires grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are abundantly and appropriately dispensed because of compassion. Love consists of compassion that brings dignity to people who have been oppressed and downtrodden. For us as sinners before God to find the compassionate God in fullness of love, it requires God and the advocate to have experienced, know and understand human life mired in suffering and death.
This morning’s passage is quite direct. Jesus, the Son of God is the one who became one with us. His life experience as part of suffering people gives legitimacy when Jesus pleads for his own people. Those who belong to Jesus know that Jesus understands all that we go through, even the suffering unto death, because Jesus, like all who are suffering and dying in the world, has gone through life in ways all human beings do under the power of death. All judgements on those who were called through Christ, therefore, are compassionate ones. They are given out by the compassionate God who through Christ was present in life.
Chris Hedges, a Presbyterian minister, Pulitzer winning journalist and advocate for prisoners, wrote a book called, “Our Class.” He has been teaching in New Jersey prisons for many years, helping inmates obtain a college degree. In the book, he introduces to us prisoners who were incarcerated for no other reason than they were poor and often based on their race. He talks of young people who were railroaded into prisons by district attorneys who were more interested in convictions with threats than finding the truths about the crimes. Those whom we meet in this book own their culpability, but they also know how mistreated they were by the system and were given unjust and illegitimate sentences.
In one of the difficult parts of the book, these prisoners report the process of parole and what it was like to stand before the parole board, pleading their cases. Often pleas of these ill-equipped prisoners–due to lack of education, due to inability to understand legal rights they have, due to injustice they face and due to unsympathetic board members who are without compassion–are dismissed. The parole board members have data about the crime they committed and prison behaviours as well as reports from psychologists, but are trained to think factually, not compassionately.
I have received calls for jury duty in a number of criminal cases. When we are asked to fill in questionnaires in order to gauge our ability to serve as an impartial juror, I find it fascinating that compassion is never listed as a quality to be checked off. Indeed, I have learned that those who demonstrate this very necessary human character are usually excused from jury duty on the account that they are deemed to make a biassed decision in favour of the accused. To be impartial and objective in our court system is to leave out compassion.
This is a big “but.” When we stand before ones who will judge us, as ones who are to be judged, it would be wonderful to know that a judge (or judges) has not only factual data about what we have done, but also is willing to consider actual circumstances far beyond a particular event for which one is called to account for. For example, we think judges should take into consideration how our lives and circumstances of life ended up making us choose a particular decision. We do not mind just punishments. To be just, however, we believe fully that one who judges us is not only capable, but also has full compassion.
Yes, we will be glad when we stand before God and have Jesus who understands what it is to live as weak people under the powerful, humiliated and broken, and under the power of death, being forced to do many things against our will, suffering illnesses and pain beyond measure, living under the unjust powers of this world, be they economic, technological, scientific and/or social. Just like those prisoners with whom Chris Hedges work we are glad that Jesus came as God incarnate in humanity to save us and judge us justly.
Because of Jesus, God-with-us, the justice we are subjected to live under includes the call to repentance and at repentance we are given forgiveness. We know forgiveness is not only possible, but truly ours in reality due to God’s compassion shown through Jesus Christ our Lord. We linger on this point over and over again as we pass from one calendar year to another, reflecting, remembering, repenting and reorienting our lives back to God. It is time to put all that we have done behind, putting before God all that we have done, all whom we have been, as we walk freshly in a new way toward God again.
In humble humility we bring our prayers to you. Hear our prayer.
We thank you for your guidance and love throughout 2022. In all of our ups and downs you were with us. Your constant and steadfast love continually casted out our fears. Your unwavering presence steadied our frail faith. As we look back the road we took in this past year, we see your grace and mercy in all that we did. So thank you.
We come knowing that many of us are continuing to recover from illnesses and surgeries. We pray that you will continue to heal them. Give them strength of mind and body. As they deal with aches and pain, be with them. Walk with each of them. Bless them.
We pray for all those who are seeking a safe home. So many of your children are displaced due to famine, economic difficulties, poverty, danger and political oppression. Life away from loving families and friends is never easy. Life without home brings everyone into danger and troubles. Guard and protect them. Lead them to a place they can call home soon.
We pray for the leaders of our world. As many wars continue in many countries, we pray that you will instil in leaders the strength of your love. May they have your heart for the suffering ones and ears for the cries of those who are in fear and despair due to wars raging in their countries! Soften hearts of those who oppress the weak. Strengthen those who fight for justice and peace.
Be with us as we go forward into this new year. Be the pillar of fire that goes before us and that protects us from behind. Lead us into the time of peace and hope.
All these and more we pray in the name of your Son our Lord. Amen.
Hymn: Here I am Lord