First Sunday in Lent
Call to Worship
As darkness gives way to light and winter sleep to fresh beginnings,
We come today to be reminded of God’s love for us.
Like the green shoots of renewed life, stirring beneath the soil,
We welcome an awakening of God’s word in our lives.
In this time of reflection and repentance,
We affirm our identity, we claim our security, as children of God.
Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
o’er the world’s tempestuous sea;
guard us, guide us, keep us, feed us,
for we have no help but thee;
yet possessing every blessing,
if our God our Father be.
Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us;
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us;
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
tempted, taunted, yet undaunted,
through the desert thou didst go.
Spirit of our God, descending,
fill our hearts with heavenly joy;
love with every passion blending
pleasure that can never cloy;
thus provided, pardoned, guided,
nothing can our peace destroy.
James Edmeston (1791 – 1867)
Prayers of adoration and thanksgiving
To you, O Lord, we lift up our hearts,
offering worship and praise.
Show us your path.
Teach us to follow.
Guide us in your truth.
For our hope is in you all day long.
Loving, faithful God,
your love is absolute,
your promises never fail.
We look up after a shower of rain,
marvelling at the colourful
beauty of your rainbow –
a reminder of your promise
and faithfulness to all generations.
Wherever we happen to be –
wilderness, mountain or valley bottom –
your Holy Spirit is with us.
We adore you, loving, faithful God.
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 9:8 – 17
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12 God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17 God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
Gospel Reading: Mark 1:9 – 13
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
1 Forty days and forty nights
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled.
2 Burning heat throughout the day,
Bitter cold when light had fled;
Prowling beasts around your way,
Stones your pillow, earth your bed.
3 Shall not we Your trials share
learn your discipline of will;
and with you by fast and prayer
Wrestle with the powers of hell?
4 So if Satan, pressing hard,
Soul and body would destroy:
Christ, who conquered, be our guard;
give to us the victor’s joy.
5 Watching, praying, struggling thus,
Victory shall be ours too;
Angels minister to us
As they ministered to you.
6 Saviour, may we hear your voice;
Keep us constant at your side;
And with you we shall rejoice
At the eternal Eastertide.
If you had to choose one word to recall 2020, I wonder what it would be. Maybe ‘Coronavirus’. Maybe ‘lockdown’. Or maybe ‘rainbow’. In that beautiful weather at the beginning of the first lockdown, when we went for our daily walks round nearby streets and houses, it seemed as though every house had a rainbow in the window, some neatly printed from the internet, others enthusiastically coloured by children just getting used to home schooling. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no less, has an online exhibition of children’s rainbows, and it describes them as ‘an international symbol of hope’.
Noah’s rainbow too came as a symbol of hope, at the end of his lockdown in an ark with innumerable animals in pairs, plus his wife, his sons and his daughters-in-law: just imagine the arguments! God placed the rainbow in the sky as a sign that the covenant relationship would never again be stretched to breaking-point. The rainbow became a powerful marker of the relationship between God and humanity, vibrant and beautiful. Human beings are, as Desmond Tutu put it, the rainbow people of God.
Yet for all the beauty of this image, there is a profound poignancy to it, because rainbows are so short-lived – they vanish before our eyes. So often we feel that we have just grasped something of God’s majesty and mystery, and then it slips through our fingers and once again we are left confused and uncertain. Was there really a splash of colour across the sky? Was there really a moment of hope, or was it just our imagination? Perhaps Jesus felt like that too, those forty days in the wilderness which we commemorate during Lent. He had seen the heavens torn open, he had seen the Spirit descending like a dove, he had heard the voice calling him the beloved Son – and then it had all disappeared and the cool green Jordan was replaced by the rock and heat of the desert and the distorting, testing presence of Satan. Had he really seen and heard all this, or had he dreamed it? Was he called to renew God’s people, or was he chasing a will o’the wisp?
The other Gospels go into far more detail about the nature of the temptations Jesus faced and the ways he rejected Satan’s appeals. Mark leaves us with this simple, haunting image of a man alone in the wilderness, facing the demons. And yet at the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus is full of confidence and strength. The news of John’s imprisonment does not deter him as he heads north from the wilderness to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.
Where did Jesus find the confidence to believe in that brief moment of affirmation and commit his life to it? Where can we find the confidence to trust in the glimpse of the rainbow, to make our commitment to an elusive God?
I read this week that all the Coronavirus vaccine in the world would fit in a Coke can. Yet already, that canful of vaccine has begun to protect fifteen million people in the UK, and millions more elsewhere. Unimaginably tiny amounts can change our lives and provide protection in the pandemic – we don’t need much. Maybe the same is true for God. The shimmering presence just beyond our touch, the voice echoing into silence – in the end, that is powerful enough to enable people to take the risk of committing their lives to covenant relationship with God.
And as we think about those people, we realise that we are not alone in our commitment. Jesus walked by himself in the wilderness, but his disciples are not called to that solitary trust. We are among millions who have made this choice, in different times, different places. We belong in a community of faith, and that brings us strength as we support each other through the hard times and remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
As we begin our journey through Lent, we acknowledge before God that we have not always found it easy to make the commitment, to put our lives in God’s hands – and we hold on to that trust in our covenant God, the God of the rainbow, the God who speaks into our hearts for good.
Prayers of Confession and Forgiveness
As we enter these days of Lent
and look to fall into step behind Jesus,
entering with Him the wilderness where battles are lost and won
faith tested and futures found,
We confess we are not ready.
We are not strong
to face and to find
all that might be revealed
We are not pure in heart and mind.
Our feet may stumble and be unsure – we carry too many burdens
of guilt long gathered
wounds often cherished
a past mulled over
wrongs not righted –
and pray for You to meet us
at the edge of the desert
and lighten our load
Take the heavy packs off our backs and simply forgive
what has been, what has not been achieved, all the good we failed to do
That we may travel lightly with You
our eyes set on you, going ahead of us, clearing a path,
promising that for us rain will fall in the desert
and after the storm a rainbow will light the heavens
and we will be made new through Christ our Lord.
Music for Reflection
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
Prayers of Intercession
Be with us as we contend with our lives and all our challenges.
Thank you for listening
as we bring before you the troubles that undermine us.
We affirm, it is written,
“One does not live by bread alone.”
Strengthen and sustain our families and our communities.
Nurture the bonds between us
and inspire us to live with empathy and forgiveness.
Help those struggling with work or facing uncertainty in their futures,
that they may find peace in your abundant love.
Jesus, our Redeemer, rescue us when we stumble.
We proclaim, it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Enable us to admit the temptations of the world,
and support us to resist turning away from your teaching.
Awaken us to recognize the gifts you have given each one of us,
and to see the role we can play in healing your creation.
Be with our leaders and those around the world,
that they may act with compassion and generosity.
Guide them to humbly serve their own countries
and to foster peace across our borders.
God, our Creator, inspire us with renewed hope.
We acknowledge, it is written,
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Deepen our faith to hear your word and follow your way.
Encourage us to bring all our hopes and desires to you in prayer,
that in lifting up our souls to you,
we may be shaped by your love.
Help us to hear the dialogue of prayer,
and to listen in prayer as much as we speak.
Comfort those battling ill health
to bear their pain with patience, strength and courage,
and give them hope in your power to heal.
Holy Spirit, our Comforter, sustain us in our times of trial.
All this we pray, assured by your eternal love, Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who 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
Hymn: O Love that wilt not let me go
- O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
- O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
- O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
- O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
A final prayer
Creator God, you made us in your image
to be your people, wherever we go.
This coming week, whatever we experience,
wherever we find ourselves,
help us to know that you are with us –
guiding, revealing and sustaining – always.