Sunday Worship 10 March 2024

Today’s service is led by the Revd Fiona Bennett


Hello, my name is Fiona Bennett and I am Minister at Augustine United URC, which is in the middle of Edinburgh. It’s good to be with you this morning and sharing your worship.

Call to Worship

One      We are on a Lenten journey;
All         From a wilderness, to a garden, from longing, to discovering, from waiting, to birthing.

One         God of transformation and new life,
All         We offer you our worship & praise.

Hymn     Womb of Life 
Ruth Duck  © 1992, GIA Publications, Inc. Printed and Podcast in accordance with One Licence No A-734713 Sung by Heather Jordan of St George in the Pines Anglican Church, Banff, Canada.
Womb of life, and source of being, 
home of ev’ry restless heart, 
in your arms the worlds awakened;
you have loved us from the start. 
We, your children, gather ’round you,
at the table you prepare.
Sharing stories, tears, and laughter, 
we are nurtured by your care.

Word in flesh, our brother Jesus,
born to bring us second birth, 
you have come to stand beside us,
knowing weakness, knowing earth.
Priest who shares our human struggles,
Life of Life, and Death of Death,
risen Christ, come stand among us, 
send the Spirit by your breath.

Brooding Spirit, move among us;
be our partner, be our friend.
When our mem’ry fails, remind us whose we are,
what we intend. Labour with us, 
aid the birthing of the new world yet to be,
free of servant, lord and master,
free for love and unity.

Mother, Brother, holy Partner;
Father, Spirit, Only Son:
we would praise your name forever,
one-in-three, and three-in-one.
We would share your life, your passion,
share your word of world made new,
ever singing, ever praising,
one with all, and one with you.
Opening Prayer & Lord’s Prayer

One    Holy One, in times of wilderness and uncertainty
All      Love and hope surround us. 
(action: *arms circle round, cross in front of body and lower)

One    In times of abundance and clarity
All       Love and hope surround us. (action*)

One    In times of growth and change
All       Love and hope surround us. (action*)

One    God of Love and Hope,
in this season of Lent we are travelling with Jesus 
from the Wilderness to the Garden.
We remember the wilderness 
where the seeds of his calling took root;
where he planted wholeness rather than egotism;
watered with integrity rather than achievement;
nourished with love rather than fear.

We give thanks for Jesus’ wise choices,
We praise the Spirit’s abundant growth
We worship you, Holy Source of all Life.

As we travel through Lent, may we too be transformed:
May we plant seeds of wholeness and turn away from egotism; 
May we water with integrity and turn away from earthly success;
May we nourish with love and turn away from fear.
That we may grow as we follow your wisdom;
Bloom, as we trust your abundance;
and be transformed by your loving companionship.

We unite our prayers together in the Lord’s Prayer…

Our Father…

Hymn     Be Still and Know 
John Bell © 1988, WGRG c/o Iona Community, GIA Publications sung by Sarah Haigh and Robert Shooup of the Second Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, USA and used with their kind permission. Printed and Podcast in accordance with One Licence No A-73471

Be still and know that I am God,
And there is none beside me.
Be still and know that I am God,
And there is none beside me.

Reading     Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”  Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.  The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Hymn     Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery 
Marty Haugen © 1984, GIA Publications, Inc. Printed and Podcast in accordance with One Licence No A-73471 Performed by Catherine Weber and Carol Churchill and used with their kind permission.

Tree of Life and awesome mystery,
in your death we are reborn,
though you die in all of history,
still you rise with every morn,
still you rise with every morn.

We remember truth once spoken,
love passed on through act and word,
every person lost and broken
wears the body of our Lord,
wears the body of our Lord.

Christ, you lead and we shall follow,
stumbling though our steps may be,
one with you in joy and sorrow,
we the river, you the sea,
we the river, you the sea.

In our call  to be a blessing,
may we be a blessing true;
may we live and die confessing
Christ as Lord of all we do.
Christ as Lord of all we do.

Reading     St John 3:14-21 

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Sermon     The Cross – Totem of God’s Way

Lent is a season of intensive discipleship training. As followers of Jesus we are called to be disciples at all times, but in Lent we are invited to try to strip back some of the comforts and distractions we use to support us through life in order to see ourselves, our faith and God more clearly. The stripping back is an opportunity to centred (and re-centre) our lives in Jesus the Christ, deepening our lived faith, which we then carry into other seasons. It is helpful not just to think about this as an individual experience, but an opportunity for collective growth as bodies of disciples.

The readings today from Numbers and from John’s Gospel offer us a gift to reflect on the story of the Cross and how it shapes and could shape our individual and collective discipleship.

The verse John 3: 16 “For God so loved the world…” is well known, but the wider context that verse is set in, is often less known. John compares Jesus lifted on the cross, to the stick with a bronze serpent on it, which Moses lifted up in the wilderness. 

The setting for the story of the serpent stick is that the children of Abraham & Sarah were free from Egypt and following Moses through the wilderness on their 40 year journey. At this point in the story, the people were getting impatient with Moses and with God, that they had been taken out of Egypt only to be brought into the wilderness with no water and little good food. God responded to this impatience by sending poisonous serpents that bit lots of the people who then died. The people became remorseful and asked Moses to ask God to take the serpents away. God’s response was that Moses was to make a serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole, then whenever someone was bitten by a serpent all they had to do was look at the one on the stick and they were cured.

The serpent stick healed people, but also reminded them not to moan. It was a very expedient form of social control. It was a stick with power in healing but also a stick with a message. A totem is a reminder of a sacred story which holds power

Now, in some ways, I do not think this story shows the people or God in a particularly good light, which makes me curious about why the story tellers crafted it this way. However, it certainly makes real the concept of carrot and stick, which perhaps we all need to find healthy balances of in our individual and collective discipleship. Something to consider in Lent.

Returning to our Gospel reading, it is interesting then that John should compare Jesus on the cross to the serpent stick.  The symbol of the Cross of Jesus is an image used different ways in scripture and has been used as a symbol across history both to inspire hatred and violence as well as healing and forgiveness.

So, what does John see in the story of the serpent stick which offers him insight into the story of the cross? I believe the serpent stick enables him to see in the Cross both as a Totem of both God’s Way of Healing & the power of human choice.

Knowing how the cross has been used abusively in human history, I want to be careful in my understanding of how the cross heals us and what it reminds us of.

So firstly, does the cross heal us? Well I do not believe that simply by physically looking at a cross I am magically healed. Nor do I think that we need healing from sin. We may need to repent from sin. We may need forgiveness for sin. But sin is not a virus or gene, it is humanity’s choices (individually & collectively) to follow fear before love, to crave power over justice, to serve ego before God (the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness express the heart of sin).

I don’t need healed from sin, but I do need healed from brokenness of body & brain, mind & thought, of spirit & hope. Brokenness needs healed.

In the whole story of the cross – how Jesus lived, ended up there, how he died, what happened after (that whole story of the Cross)  – Jesus shows us, and journeys with us along the path of healing. He showed us the path of healing when he included people who were beyond the pale. He showed us the path of healing when he restored people to themselves and to their communities. He showed us the path of healing when he stopped violence against women, as he refused to cast the stone. He showed the path of healing when he called fisherfolk as disciples, to discover more within themselves that they might have dreamed of. He healed hungry bellies when he fed folk and invited them to share with each other.

Jesus healed and showed others how they too could heal themselves and others and their society as a whole. The whole story of the cross, shows the path of healing for the brokenness of the world. It is a path of facing fear, shame and brokenness and with humility and cooperation going through pain and death to find new life.

In the healing way of the cross, Jesus shows a way through brokenness to new life for all, without raising an army or forcing a political coo. The very way he did things was just as much part of the healing as the change itself. The Cross speaks that profoundly challenging story of someone who did not respond to violence with violence, or force with force, or fear with fear; of someone who did not respond to threat by using the ways of empire… and he was put to death  – but that did not mean he was wrong or that he failed. His death meant that his very way and message was then born again and again and again in those who follow him.

So, the story of the cross of Jesus is a healing stick; the story of the cross shows us the way of healing for ourselves and the world…

But John is also pointing out that it is a sacred reminder or a totem, like the serpent stick, of the worst of our human choices.

The Romans authorities, with support from the religious authorities and the aggression of the mob, had Jesus executed. Their fear, their craving for power, their serving of ego before God, resulted in Jesus’ execution. We see the same story of power defending itself, played out in other assassinations through history, from the high-profile ones like ML King, to the woman walking home, to the transperson murder because of fear of their gender identity. When drive by the power of fear, the craving of power and the serving of ego, we try to extinguish those who challenge us; we seek to extinguish the light which shows up our emptiness. This is a story which repeats itself throughout history in individual lives and between nations. 

That fear, power craving and ego longing, exist within each and all of us, and the cross of Jesus serves as a totem of what happens to us and our world if we allow them to consume us and drive us. The story of the cross is a story of human choice which reveals the power of humanity to destroy our best hope… but it is also a story which shows that even when we do destroy our best hope, God is not done with us – even from our very worst God can still create and birth good new life.

I believe in comparing the Cross to the Serpent Stick, John is pointing to the Cross as a totem of God’s Way of healing; a totem of the depths of human destructiveness; and as a totem of the unquenchable power of God’s creativity, hope and love.

In this Lent as we strip back, we are invited to come to the Cross and to enable God’s spirit to change and shape us, through the power of its story, wisdom and example.

Each day, 
may the light of the cross 
guide us in its ways of healing;
may the light of the cross 
remind us of the power of our choices;
may the light of the cross 
inspire us to trust in the love of the Creative One.  Amen. 

Hymn     O Breath of Life 
Bessie Porter Head 1920 public domain, sung at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Aber Conference 2018 and used with their kind permission.  
O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,
revive your Church with life and pow’r;
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
and fit your Church to meet this hour.

O Wind of God, come bend us, break us,
till humbly we confess our need;
then in your tenderness remake us,
revive, restore, for this we plead.

O Breath of love, come breathe within us,
renewing thought and will and heart;
come, Love of Christ, afresh to win us,
revive your Church in ev’ry part.

Revive us, Lord! Is zeal abating
while harvest fields are vast and white?
Revive us, Lord, the world is waiting,
equip your Church to spread the light.
Prayers of the People

God of Healing, in Jesus’ Cross 
you have shown us your desire of wholeness for all.
We thank you for your loving heart and bring before you, 
brokenness in our lives and world.
We pray for illness experienced 
in body and mind and for all who offer care.
We pray for systems and processes, 
from national laws to local decision making, 
which deny justice or equity.
We pray for relationship which are fractured and distorted, 
preventing love and joy.
We pray for the brokenness in the health of Earth.
In a moment of silence, we offer together to God what is broken, 
seeking the healing work of God’s Spirit.

Holy One in Jesus’ Cross 
you have shown us not only your desire for healing, 
but your Way of healing.
Grant us the courage to follow your Way 
and work with your Spirit, to bring healing for all.

God of Justice, in Jesus’ Cross 
you have shown us the power of human destructiveness. 
This Lent, as individual disciples 
and together as faith community, enable us to…
turn away from fear and follow your ways of love; 
turn away from the ways of Empire 
and live by the ways of your Kingdom; 
turn away from the drives of our egos or hubris, 
and be fuelled by your desire and seeking to glorify you.

God of Hope, in Jesus’ Cross 
you have shown us the indestructible power of your creativity, 
hope and love.
We seek to trust you and to follow your Way.
May the Way of your Cross shape our daily lives, 
the lives of Your Church and all faith communities.
May the Way of your Cross 
shape the minds and actions of our politicians 
and the leaders of industry.
May the Way of your Cross shape the minds and actions of educators, 
medics and care givers.

God of Healing, God of Justice, God of Hope
to you we bring ourselves and our prayers.
God of the Cross in you we trust.  Amen.

Offering & Dedication

Giving is part of our lives as Christians – we give because it is needed, because it’s good for us, because it deals with the poison of consumerism in our souls.  We give to charities at home and abroad, we give to the homeless, we give to the Church.  In all the ways we give we seek to make a difference and now we give thanks for all of our giving.

Praise God from whom all blessing flow
Praise God all creature here below
Praise God above, You heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Thomas Ken (1674)
A Cappella Hymns


May the blessing of God Almighty Creator, Christ and Comforter
be with us all, now and always.  Amen.

Hymn     Lord for the Years 
Timothy Dudley-Smith © 1969 Hope Publishing Company Reprinted and Podcast in accordance with One Licence No A-73471 Performed by Ruth and Joy Everingham and used with their kind permission.

Lord, for the years your love has kept and guided,
urged and inspired us, cheered us on our way,
sought us and saved us, pardoned and provided,
Lord of the years, we bring our thanks today.

Lord, for that word, the word of life which fires us,
speaks to our hearts and sets our souls ablaze,
teaches and trains, rebukes us and inspires us,
Lord of the word, receive your people’s praise.

Lord, for our land, in this our generation,
spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care;
for young and old, for commonwealth and nation,
Lord of our land, be pleased to hear our prayer.

Lord, for our world; when we disown and doubt him,
loveless in strength, and comfortless in pain;
hungry and helpless, lost indeed without him,
Lord of the world, we pray that Christ may reign.

Lord, for ourselves; in living power remake us,
self on the cross and Christ upon the throne;
past put behind us, for the future take us,
Lord of our lives, to live for Christ alone.

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