Sunday Worship 23 June 2024

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Dr Nick Jones

 
Introduction

Hello, and welcome to today’s worship. My name is Rev Nick Jones and I’m a URC minister in Mersey Synod, serving Chester Road United Reformed Church in Ellesmere Port, and also Heswall URC where I am speaking to you from today. Here at Heswall we have adopted the mission statement ‘We believe God loves us all, so everyone is welcome here’ – and I am delighted you have chosen to worship  with me today; everyone is indeed welcome. During the service we’ll hear two well-known stories from scripture – including a giant, and a terrifying storm. Together, we will think about what this means for us today, in our particular time and place, and in doing I hope encounter our living God. So let’s worship together. 

Call to Worship

O give thanks to the LORD, who is good; 
God’s steadfast love endures forever. 
Some went down to the sea in ships, 
doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD, 
the Lord’s wondrous works in the deep.
For God commanded and raised the stormy wind, 
which lifted up the waves of the sea. 

Hymn     Who Would True Valour See
John Bunyan Public Domain sung by Maddy Prior

Who would true valour see, let him come hither;
one here will constant be, come wind, come weather;
there’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round with dismal stories,
do but themselves confound, his strength the more is.
No lion can him fright: he’ll with a giant fight,
but he will have the right to be a pilgrim.
 
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit;
he knows he at the end shall life inherit.
Then, fancies, fly away; he’ll not fear what folk say;
he’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim.

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Approach

God of constant love and grace, ground of our being,
we gather today to draw near to you and to worship you.
We come not because we must but because we want to,
to share our thanks and praise,
to be drawn deeper into relationship with you
and into community with others.  
We come together to think of the mysteries of your love,
and commit ourselves to your values, 
to helping build your kingdom, to establishing peace and fairness.
Lord, when we feel like David, struggling against the odds, 
help us to be ready to act bravely in the name of justice. 
When we feel like Goliath, and we have power over others, 
help us to act with kindness and compassion.
 
Eternal God, this and every day, we bring our praise to you,
and we thank you for all you have done for us. 
You open your heart to us, and we respond.
We give thanks for the world around us,
the streets of our towns and cities, fields, hills, beaches,
the beauty of nature which surrounds us 
and the people we share our life with. 

God of compassion, you bring meaning and purpose to our living,
and allow us to ground our lives in your love.
You are our God, we are your people,
We give thanks too for the sense of belonging and safety
you can bring to us, as we know that in the storms of life you are with us.

Confession and Assurance of Pardon

We turn to you, God of love, 
knowing that in your mercy and goodness
you are always ready to forgive us our mistakes, 
and guide us as we try to do better in the future. 
Through you, Lord, our sins are forgiven.

Therefore with confidence in your forgiveness we confess to you  
the things we have done wrong and we regret;
times when we have not loved our neighbour,
times when we have been selfish, 
and put our choices ahead of others’ needs,
times when we have done what is easy rather than what is right,
times when we have not challenged injustice
but been a part of systems which oppress and discriminate,
times we have been thoughtlessly cruel or unkind.
God of second chances, help us to grow closer to you and to your ways. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

Hymn     The Love of God Comes Close
Words by John L Bell and Graham Maule © Wild Goose Resource Worship Group Frodsham Methodist Church Cloud Choir. Accompanied by Andrew Ellams and produced by Andrew Emison One Licence A-734713  
 
The love of God comes close where stands an open door,
to let the stranger in, to mingle rich and poor.
The love of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk His Way.

The peace of God comes close to those caught in the storm,
forgoing lives of ease to ease the lives forlorn.
The peace of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk His Way.

The joy of God comes close where faith encounters fears,
where heights and depths of life are found through smiles and tears.
The joy of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk His Way.

The grace of God comes close to those whose grace is spent,
when hearts are tired or sore and hope is bruised and bent.
The grace of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk His Way.
 
The Son of God comes close where people praise his name,
where bread and wine are blest and shared as when he came.
The Son of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk His Way.

Prayer for Illumination

Gracious God, help us to read scripture
hearing its message, 
embracing its difficulties and paradoxes,
exploring its history,
seeing where it leads us as people,
trying to apply it to our lives today.
And we pray in this we will be guided
by your Holy Spirit moving among us. Amen.

Reading     I Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim.  And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. 

He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” 

When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you!” 

Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.” 

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

Reading     St Mark 4.35-41  

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Hymn     My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less    
Edward Mote (1797-1874) Public Domain sung by Jessica Tawiah | Atlanta Ghanaian SDA Church

My hope is built on nothing less 
than Jesus’ blood & righteousness; 
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, 
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. 

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand – 
all other ground is sinking sand, 
all other ground is sinking sand. 

 
When darkness seems to hide His face, 
I rest on His unchanging grace; 
in ev’ry high and stormy gale, 
my anchor holds within the veil. 

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand – 
all other ground is sinking sand, 
all other ground is sinking sand. 

His oath, His covenant, His blood, 
support me in the whelming flood; 
when all around my soul gives way, 
He then is all my hope and stay. 

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand – 
all other ground is sinking sand, 
all other ground is sinking sand. 

When He shall come with trumpet sound, 
O may I then in Him be found, 
dressed in His righteousness alone, 
faultless to stand before the throne. 

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand – 
all other ground is sinking sand, 
all other ground is sinking sand. 

 
Sermon

Have you heard the term ‘a David and Goliath struggle’ recently? It’s a description that is quite common, and widely understood by people who might not know its exact origins in the Bible. It comes of course, from the story we heard from Samuel. David, young, small, armed only with a slingshot, intended for warding off animals rather than fighting in a war, goes up in single combat against the fearsome and mighty Goliath. Therefore the phrase is applied when there some sort of competition or conflict which is seen to be one-sided with a perceived mismatch in power or ability.
 
Here are some examples of things which the media have recently described in this way: a football team preparing to take on an opponent from a higher division in the FA Cup, a community group trying to prevent a new development in their village, and the owner of a bar in New Jersey engaged in a dispute with the large fast food chain Taco Bell over ownership of the phrase ‘Taco Tuesday.’ 

More poignantly and seriously it’s also been applied to Ukrainian resistance against the brutal invasion by their larger and more powerful neighbour. And back in January the ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’ told the story of an individual taking on a powerful system to try to overturn miscarriages of justice, and in doing so put the scandal high on the political agenda. There are many, many more examples like this. 

So why is this idea of David vs Goliath so enduring and the idiom still so widespread? Perhaps because we like stories of people who succeed against the odds, who take on the system and win, who dare to stand alone for what they believe in. When you watch a sporting event do you instinctively support the underdog and long for an upset? We like to be on the side of the scrappy, rag-tag band of outsiders who somehow manage to triumph despite being written off by everybody. That’s the plot of a myriad of films covering all sorts of activities. I think it’s the plot of every sporting film ever made. It makes for a great story, and makes us feel good. 

But of course the problem with this is that in real life most of the time Goliath wins. Entrenched interests win out, systems can’t be beaten, and often those people with power guard it jealously. That’s why it’s special and notable when the opposite occurs. Andrzej’s Wajda’s 1957 film Kanał, set during the 1944 Warsaw uprising during which the Polish resistance attempted to liberate the city from Nazi occupation, begins with a voiceover introducing the main characters and telling us to look carefully because these will be their final hours. It starts by telling us they don’t succeed against the odds. Too often that’s how the world is; the principalities and powers seem to be in charge, hate seems to triumph over love, the powers of empire over those seeking a fairer and juster society. Goliath is tall, armed, powerful. David has nothing but a slingshot. The outcome is inevitable – except it isn’t.

There’s a question, and a discrepancy between sources, over how tall Goliath is. Some manuscripts put his height at ‘four cubits and a span’ which is around six feet nine inches, or 2.06m – slightly taller than the current average for a basketball player in the NBA. Tall, even today, but not inconceivable. Other sources put it at ‘six cubits and a span’ which is 9 feet 9 or just under 3 metres – substantially taller than the tallest person ever recorded (who, for the record was a man named Robert Wadlow, born in the United States in 1918, who due to a medical condition reached a remarkable 2.72m or 8 ft 11.)

Leaving aside the complex textual arguments, perhaps this gives us a way of thinking about these stories. Are they realistic narratives recording events that really happened, some of which are very hard to believe, or are they fantastical, mythical stories intended to create profound theological meaning, but which are not based on real events, or at the very least hugely exaggerated in the telling? Do we prefer a mythical 10 foot Goliath, or a more believable 7 foot version? These are interesting matters to consider, but as so often the really interesting question is how is the author, or editor, of the book of Samuel is using the story to try to explain something about God. And that theological point is that power is with David, the apparent underdog – because God is on his side.

And of course we like to think that we are David, not Goliath. In the Church of course we believe God is on our side. Perhaps in our contemporary world, as congregations on average get smaller and older, and it can be a struggle to find people willing and able to serve, holding onto our faith can seem hard, it can seem we are the underdogs. Historically the denominations which made the URC may also have felt like outsiders against the larger established church. But too often the Church has acted like Goliath, like empire, holding onto power, deciding on who is to be permitted inside and who is to be excluded. We need always need to be aware of the privileges we have as Christians, and the power we might have over others. Because, as the cliché has it, with great power comes great responsibility.

To leap slightly to our gospel reading maybe a small ship against a powerful storm could be described as a ‘David vs Goliath’ situation. Where could there be a greater mismatch in power than between a human being and the full force of nature? We know together we can affect this, often in negative ways; perhaps the biggest challenge we face is responding to climate change as our planet grows hotter due to human activity. And yet in response to that challenge we often feel that individually we can’t do anything –  anything a seemingly unstoppable force. Which might make you think of Cnut, King of England in the 12th century, who, the story has it, sat on a beach and attempted to hold back the tide not because he believed he could, but rather to show that he could not, and that whatever power he had as king was as nothing compared to the power of God. 

And in our gospel reading storms do sometimes seem to come out of nowhere; one minute it’s calm and everything is fine, the next clouds have rolled in and the wind picked up, then suddenly there’s a full-blown storm which is severe enough that the disciples, fishermen presumably used to the lake in all its moods, are fearful for their lives. This is a real crisis. 

Here we see a side of Jesus we don’t often get to glimpse. He’s asleep in the stern of the boat on a cushion, snoozing calmly, tired after a long day. 

The disciples, scared, wake him up. In a crisis of course they turn to him; why wouldn’t they? But it seems Jesus doesn’t see what the problem is. He even seems a little bit grumpy at being woken up prematurely. He simply rebukes the wind saying ‘Peace! Be still.’ And that’s it. The storm ceases and quiet is restored. For the writer of Mark, this is a story about who Jesus is, what type of person is he. Who on earth is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him – even the forces of nature which are completely outside our control. It’s more than a hint at Jesus’ power and divinity. And yet it’s also the very human tale of a man whose nap is disturbed. Jesus is of course both David and Goliath at once. And again, as with Goliath, we can ask the questions about whether we believe this really happened or not, or whether we take these miracle stories more metaphorically. Sincere Christians will come to different conclusions and ways of reading the Bible, which is a part of our wonderful diversity within the Church. 

Of course, God is on our side, ready to help us, save us, support us. But then again, we need to be careful. Oliver Stone’s 2008 film ‘W’, which depicts George W. Bush’s presidency and his decision to invade Iraq, ends with the Bob Dylan song ‘With God on Our Side’, which questions the moral and religious certainty with which politicians have launched wars. God is on our side personally, but not if we claim God’s backing for our own purposes. History is filled with Christians committing atrocities in the name of God, or working against the values of the kingdom in excluding rather than including groups of people, on grounds of gender, race, sexuality. We, and the church, make mistakes, but we need to not be afraid of asking the difficult questions of ourselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to ask ourselves if we are being or supporting David or Goliath, and take action if we realise we’re on the side of injustice. But either way, God is with us; not because we are always right, not because we have all the answers, but because God will not abandon us whatever we do. And, as Christians, we have chosen to make Jesus part of our lives, as we journey together seeking answers, meaning, and understanding. Amen.

Hymn     The Love of God Is Broad Like Beech and Meadow
Fred Kaan © 1974 Hope Publishing Company OneLicence A-734713 sung by Paul Robinson 
and used with his kind permission.

The love of God is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.
God leaves us free to seek him or reject him,
he gives us room to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
     
The love of God is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

We long for freedom where our truest being
is given hope & courage to unfold.
We seek in freedom space & scope for dreaming,
and look for ground where trees and plants can grow.

The love of God is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

But there are walls that keep us all divided;
we fence each other in with hate and war.
Fear is the bricks-and-mortar of our prison,
our pride of self the prison coat we wear.

The love of God is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

O, judge us, Lord, and in your judgment free us,
and set our feet in freedom’s open space;
take us as far as your compassion wanders
among the children of the human race.

The love of God is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

Prayers of Intercession

God of love, 
we have today given thanks for all you have done for us, 
and we have heard from scripture of your grace and compassion. 
We give thanks for the gift of our world, 
our planet and its people, 
but we acknowledge that planet is damaged and polluted, 
and that across the world many people are suffering. 

We pray for the Davids of our world, 
people willing to take on the powerful in the name of justice,
and we pray they may have courage and strength. 
We pray for the Goliaths, 
those people with power and authority;
presidents and Prime Ministers,
those whose decisions can affect many lives.
We pray those with power will act 
with compassion, honesty and integrity,
rather than through narrow partisan interest.

Creator God, we think again of the universe you made,
and of the effects of climate change on our planet.
We pray for people who have lost homes and livelihoods
due to drought or flood or famine, 
and we pray the nations of the world
can join together in helping those in need. 
We pray for people living in poverty,
those in our own communities struggling
with the high cost of living,
and people across the world 
without access to clean water and sanitation.
God of plenty and generosity, 
we pray for a world in which your resources are shared fairly
and nobody goes hungry. 
We pray for people struggling with illness,
either mental or physical;
for those waiting for treatment
or recovering from operations, 
at home or in hospital. 
We give thanks for the dedication 
of NHS staff and careworkers, 
and pray that everyone will receive 
the care that they need to flourish.

God of peace and unity, 
we pray for peace wherever there is conflict, 
wherever there is war,
and we hold before those regions and nations
where wars are being fought today,
or the effects of conflict are still felt.
We think of Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen, Syria,
and many other places. 
We pray for people living in fear 
of bombing from the air or attack from land, 
and all of those forced our of their homes.
We pray for refugees and asylum seekers 
trying to make new lives in new places, 
and we pray they will be met with compassion
rather than suspicion and hatred.

We pray for people across the world
who are victims of discrimination.
We pray for people held back by racist attitudes and structures,
by homophobia and transphobia, 
and we remember that your love reaches out to each and every person.
Help us, in the church, to become a model of radical inclusion. 

Praise the Lord, all the earth. 
A time is surely coming when the poor will be fed, 
the powerful will bow down, 
and all creation will know that God is Lord of all. 
Praise the Lord, all the earth, 
as we bring our prayers humbly before you today, 
trusting as always in your everlasting love and mercy. Amen. 

Hymn    Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer
William Williams (1745); Translator: Peter Williams (1771) Public Domain BBC Songs of Praise

Guide me, O my great Redeemer,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but you are mighty;
hold me with your powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore,
feed me now and evermore.

Open now the crystal fountain,
where the healing waters flow.
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
ever be my strength and shield,
ever be my strength and shield.
 
When I tread the verge of Jordan, 
bid my anxious fears subside.
Death of death, and hell’s Destruction, 
land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises 
I will ever sing to you,
I will ever sing to you.

Blessing

Loving God, help us to see you at work this week 
in the people we meet and the places we go,
help us to be builders of your kingdom.
And may the grace of God almighty, 
Creator, redeemer and sustainer, 
be with and remain with us all, and the people we love, 
now and always. Amen.

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