Communion Worship Service
Welcome to this first Sunday of 2021. As is our tradition on this first Sunday of the month we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Communion…but we will be doing it “virtually.” Please join with us near the end of this service. Although I will have pre-packaged elements, I invite you to use a bagel and coffee or some juice and toast…you can decide how to join in.
Today many Christians will be celebrating the role of the Wise Men or Magi on this Sunday before Epiphany. But I will be asking us to instead think of our own approach to this New Year that has just arrived. To help us go in that direction our Sermon Title is “A COVID-19 New Year – What will it bring?” But as I did not want to completely deprive you of the presence of the Magi you will find their presence represented in this morning’s prayers and Call to Worship. Let’s join them as we listen to Isaiah prophesy their arrival.
Call to Worship
Remembering the Wise Men (Magi) – Isaiah 60:1-6
1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
O God of light and peace,
whose glory, shining in the child of Bethlehem,
still draws the nations to Yourself:
dispel the darkness that shrouds our path,
that we may come
to kneel before Christ in true worship,
offer Him our hearts and souls,
and return from His presence to live as He has taught. Amen.
Today's Message: A COVID-19 New Year – What Will It Bring?
“And now”, as the late Paul Harvey was known to say, “For the rest of the story.” That may seem strange for as yet we have not even heard the “first” part. So here is the first part: There was a time not too many years ago that some Christians were accused of being “so heavenly minded” that they were of “no earthly good.” Their theme song and I’m sure that it was a high-jacking of the song, was “This world is not my home and I’m just a passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond that blue.” Now there is some very helpful theology in that song, in terms of being ready to meet Jesus, rather than being “cemented” into the fabric of this world. But there are some who have accused Christians of using the theology of that piece to either defend the pollution of our world or to not care for those around us who suffer. Today that no longer appears to be a problem. Most Christians are aware of environmental issues, and some take a lead in being good examples of conservation and re-cycling. And if folks are truly aware, they will know that many of today’s social service agencies were originally inspired or motivated by Christian principles.
And then COVID-19 appeared. With it came both pain and death; separation and sorrow; it resulted in political uncertainty to some and economic disaster to many others. Now, eight months and thousands of deaths later we are on the cusp of a New Year. By the time you watch, hear or read this message the New Year will have arrived. How do we face a once-in-a-lifetime difficulty like this? One pastor’s recent hope-filled sermon was titled: “Yet I will Praise Thee.” Another choose the theme, “God is Not in Quarantine.”
How do we react when things do not go our way? Do we stamp around the church, do we pout in prayer? How do we interpret such disasters?
SHOULD ONLY GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOD’S PEOPLE?
Only Good Times With God?
Today there is another theological extreme that has been very attractive to some Christians. But it is not really new. In both the OT & NT Jewish people also agreed with this philosophy. They thought that if you are loved by God, then everything should be “going your way.” In Bible times there was a belief among some that those who appeared to be well physically, and well-off financially were the ones that God truly loved and had blessed. Nothing bad therefore should come through their doorways nor should anything cast a dark shadow over their lives. And that same belief is still popular among some Christian groups today. But as attractive as that teaching is, we need to be careful how far we take it, for it does not reflect the entire teaching of the Bible.
What do we do when things go badly? Do we “ditch” our faith? Do we decide that we really could not have been Christians after all? Do we decide that God is not real? What do farmers do when they are un-able to plant because of the heavy rains or when mold then ruins the crop that was planted? There are many Christians among them. Are we going to judge them and declare that they did not have enough faith and that is why their crops failed? What about Christians living under totalitarian regimes throughout the world? What did they do or not do to deserve that? It appears to have been an accident of birth. Are we thankful for the blessing of living in this nation or do we take it for granted, or worse, feel that we somehow “deserve” it because we are such good Christians?
Can Our Faith Handle Setbacks?
How will we face this New Year? We now have the hope of receiving vaccinations against COVID-19. But can our faith handle any more setbacks without us giving up on it? Why is it that some are able to celebrate miracles at prayer time yet others must instead go out to attend a funeral? Can we really claim that positive prayer results are simply the result of our “superior” faith? Rev. Mark Hollis in his sermon, “You Cannot Lose” has made a comment related to our “perspective.” He says this: We focus our camera; we focus our attention, but how often do we focus on Christ despite our circumstances? How do we stay firm under pressure when our faith is being tried and tested? What convictions will keep us standing firm for Christ in the gospel? 
 Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s annual preacher’s Sourcebook; 2006 Edition (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers), 172.
During his missionary career the Apostle Paul was imprisoned many times because of angry listeners. Paul eventually faced a death sentence after being imprisoned in Rome. Can we learn from his hope-filled words to the Philippian church? Paul’s focus allowed him to stare death in the face knowing that whether he lived or died he could not lose. He could do that because Paul had a perspective that focused on God.
I am concerned about this for I come across people who, when they are honest, admit that they bailed out on Christianity because God did not answer one of their heartfelt, desperate prayers. They had somehow been convinced that belief in Jesus should have solved all of their earthly problems, yet it did not work out that way.
 Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s annual preacher’s Sourcebook: 2008 Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007), 7.
So again, I would ask, “How do we react when things are not easy; when things do not go our way?” Yes, some Bible verses can be isolated from their contexts to suggest that Christians should experience “smooth sailing” through life, but a wider view of the Bible’s teachings would suggest that there is, indeed, much “more to the story.” And we see part of that “more” here in today’s Bible verses in Philippians 1:12–18
The Bible Mentions ‘Suffering’ - Philippians 1:12–18a
Philippians 1:12–18a (NIV (Anglicized, 2011))
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. 15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Paul’s Bad Spot - Philippians 1:12
Paul was in a very difficult position. Many believe that he was experiencing what is described at the end of the Acts of the Apostles. There Paul is under house arrest. Back then Roman law demanded that accused prisoners be brought before an authority within two years of charges being laid. The charges that had been brought against him while back in Palestine must be heard by a Roman Court. Some scholars believe that the two year time period was now drawing to a close and Paul is still awaiting the trial. Others wonder if Paul is now waiting for the verdict to be announced. And still others wonder if this is taking place in Caesarea or perhaps in Ephesus. But it does not really matter where Paul was shackled to a Roman Soldier. What mattered was the up-coming verdict. For, back in Paul’s day, jails were not used for lengthy prison sentences. There were only three verdicts: Freedom; freedom after paying a hefty fine; or the death sentence. Those were the only choices.
Paul faced a stark choice. Would his future bring Execution? Or Freedom? What are your COVID-19 related questions or challenges? Do they involve your health or the health of a loved one? Do they revolve around financial challenges and related difficulties? Paul was no “Paul-y-anna” yet he was able to have hope in the face of these intimidating facts of life. Do you have hope? Can you have hope based on the earlier-than-expected arrival of vaccines? Is your faith strong enough to look towards that “land that is fairer than day”? In the midst of it all can you still sing “Through it All?” In “times like these” are you still able to see Jesus as your greatest hope?
How Others Reacted - Philippians 1:13-17
We have mentioned the philosophy held by the culture of Paul’s day. Many of the people would have assumed that Paul had sinned or that he was out of “the centre of God’s will.” After all, this is Paul, a highly trained missionary specialist who has been sent to the non-Jewish World. His ultimate goal was to travel all the way to Spain with the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus. So, shouldn’t just good things happen to God’s people? Some of the people from the church in Philippi appear to have shared this belief. So, Paul writes to them in Philippians 1:12 to say, “No. That is not how it is working out. I want you to know that God IS working in spite of, and in the midst of, all my troubles. In fact, He is doing such a miracle that even with me here in jail, his work is going even further and faster than it could have with my freedom!” (Philippians 1:13ff). Then he backs up his shocking claim by naming three very different groups that are now sharing Jesus’ Gospel that would not otherwise be doing it.
1. God’s Miracle in Spite of Paul’s Imprisonment – Philippians 1:13
First were Paul’s Roman Guards. That might seem strange until we consider the fact that in his day there were no computerized “ankle bracelets.” During times of house arrest Paul was always chained to a Roman Soldier. They watched his visitors. They listened to his words of encouragement. They had to put up with his prayers. They watched while Paul’s secretary was taking dictation. So, they were the first ones to hear Paul’s letters, most of which were laced with theology—the message of God’s love. It seems clear from a close reading of Paul’s letters that based on their close proximity, some of these soldiers came to believe in Jesus.
2. Fearful Local Christians Were Encouraged to Preach- Philippians 1:14, 16
Then there were the local Christians. Because this famous evangelist was under guard many of the local Christians were afraid. In that society WHO one knew was very important. If your only friends were prisoners, you did not have a very bright future. Yet these believers, formerly timid Christians who previously had assumed they were not good enough or talented enough to witness, saw Paul having a very successful Prison Ministry and it gave them hope. They started to share Jesus’ message.
3. Even Paul’s Enemies Were Preaching About Jesus – Philippians 1:15, 17
Finally, and even more shocking, some of Paul’s jealous “enemies” were also preaching. Yes, says Paul, there are Christians here who do not like me. They are so antagonistic that they even want me to remain in prison. They are such trouble-makers that they intend to make my imprisonment as galling and irksome as possible. But God has the last laugh as these challenging events draw people closer to Jesus!
Some may see this and be tempted to go “Ho hum, others are doing Paul’s work.” But No. That is NOT the way to see this. One commentator calls this news a “bombshell.” If we were one of those people back in the Church at Philippi receiving this news, we would have been shocked, and even “blown away,” by this news. Their response probably went something like this: Are you saying that Roman soldiers (verse 13), “fraidy cats” (verse 14), and even enemies (verse 15) are all doing God’s work? Do you mean it is OK that Paul is in jail? But that’s not what our culture tells us. Like Paul’s culture many in our own Christian culture assume that if you are doing God’s work you should be rewarded or at the very least protected from persecution.
 Ralph P. Martin, vol. 11, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 78.
Paul's Response - Philippians 1:18
I Choose to Rejoice – Philippians 1:18
Paul would reply (as he does here in verse 18) 18 But what does it matter [what our culture says]? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this, Paul says, “I rejoice.”
Paul’s main goal has been to make them understand that his suffering and imprisonment are not a mistake, but [is instead] part of God’s larger plan for the advancement of the gospel. 
In fact, in Philippians 1:18, Paul states the same thing twice, but there is a bit more going on here than appears. His first statement about “rejoicing” is replaced by the affirmation that “he will rejoice.” It is phrased as though the first statement was somehow in need of correction. He could have simply said one or the other, or he could have added one to the other, but instead he replaces the first. Rather than making it sound like the commitment to rejoicing is the least likely thing one might do he instead says he is not just rejoicing now–he’s even going to continue to do so.
 Steven E. Runge, High Definition Commentary: Philippians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2011), Php 1:27–30.
Fearing the Unknown
In the title of this message, I asked what this New Year would bring. It raises the issue of the unknown. Some of you may remember the 2007 film, The Bucket List. It featured two terminally ill men—played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman—who take a road trip to do the things they always said they would do before they “kicked the bucket.” Before the film’s release, Nicholson was interviewed by Parade magazine. Reflecting on his personal life, Nicholson said, “I used to live so freely. The mantra for my generation was ‘Be your own man!’ I always said, ‘Hey, you can have whatever rules you want—I’m going to have mine. I’ll accept the guilt. I’ll pay the check. I’ll do the time.’ I chose my own way. That was my philosophical position well into my fifties. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to adjust.”
Reality had a way of getting the attention of even Jack Nicholson. Later in the interview, he adds, “We all want to go on forever, don’t we? We fear the unknown. Everybody goes to that wall, yet nobody knows what’s on the other side. That’s why we fear death.”
None of us here know when we will die and face judgment. The question Paul and Jesus asks is: How do you that future? Will it bring deliverance or disaster? Paul’s answer would be that it depends on what Jesus means to you now.
 Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Eishof, 101 Illustrations That Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 249.
The real challenge to us is this — if to live is mainly the pursuit of my personal ambitions (my career, my family, my status, my wealth, or whatever), then of course death is the prince of terrors. That’s why our culture is so terrified of death and won’t talk about it.
But if my life is Christ—all my energies are devoted to His gospel and its advancement—then no matter what the circumstances may be, I’m always a winner. Even the removal of life itself, which to the world is the greatest horror, is in fact the greatest blessing.
Paul came to realize that if we have surrendered to Christ as Lord, we can rest assured that Christ has redeemed us and that He will use us for His purposes … As Romans 12:2 promises: When we place our circumstances in God’s hands, we realize His will is good and acceptable.
So, as you face this New Year, with COVID-19, separation, loneliness and the depression they can bring, do you believe these words from the Bible? Can you look at life, death and judgment from God’s perspective? Can you face these times with a positive outlook knowing that God is in control, that He “has your back,” or to put it in Paul’s words: “to live is Christ, and to die is gain?” I know that goes against everything that our secular society believes and even against what some Christian leaders teach. Yet this was what motivated all of Paul’s wonderful mission work. He truly was sold out to Jesus no matter what it might cost.
As we think of that cost to Jesus let us move into our Virtual Communion Service.
Dear Friends, be welcome here for we have the invitation of God. Jesus promised in Matthew 11.28–30: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
He also said in John 6.3: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
And both the New and Old Testaments promise in Deuteronomy 31:6 and in Hebrews 13:5 that God “will never leave you or forsake you.”
Invitation to the Table
With that assurance, please hear these words of invitation:
Come to this table, not because you must but because you may,
not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come,
but because you need mercy and help.
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love Him more.
Come, because He loved you and gave Himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ, for we are His Body.
Loving God in Heaven, we bow before you in our hearts, conscious of our dependence upon you and of our confidence of your grace. Forgive us our sins, we pray, cleanse us and make us new, for the sake of Jesus, our loving Lord that in this time together we might discover again how precious the hope is to which we have been called. Please also grant that we might find delight in doing your will and in walking in your ways, now and for always. Amen.
Words of Institution
The apostle Paul tells us of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Partaking of the Elements
This is the body of Christ, given for you. [Please join in eating]
This is the Blood of Christ, shed for you. [Please join in drinking]
The Gift of Peace
And may the peace of Christ be with us all.
Inspired by Philippians 2:5-8, Romans 12:2
Dear God, I thank You for your Son Jesus Christ as we reflect on You during this Epiphany Sunday. I pray that God will bless me with the mind of Christ that I will be obedient to You at all times. May You renew my mind daily with your word that I may be a humble servant at all times. I come against the spirit of pride and ambition and any other spirit that may stop me from serving You with a whole heart, Amen.
Written by Nathan Nettleton
Go now as a light to the nations.
Honour the Lord;
preach what you know of the risen Christ,
and fulfil all righteousness.
And may God strengthen you and bless you with peace;
May Christ Jesus bring forth justice for you and among you;
And may the Holy Spirit alight on you
and affirm you as God’s beloved ones.
We go in peace to love and serve the Lord,
In the name of Christ. Amen.