Songs for a Lifelong Journey: Service plans for Lent based on the Psalms of Ascent

When I was young, growing up in western Michigan, our family made frequent trips to the area west of Chicago to visit grandparents and family. While in many ways the five-hour journey (before interstate highways) was long, the way was familiar to us. To ease the routine of monotonous travel, my sisters and I would sing. Sunday school songs, hymns, pop rock, and easy listening—accompanied by radio, cassette, or a cappella—were all part of our repertoire.

Traveling music was familiar to God’s Old Testament people too. Annually making their way to Jerusalem for festivals and worship, the people of Israel would sing. Some of those songs, known as the Songs of Ascent, eventually became part of the book of Psalms (Psalms 120-134). These traveling songs reflected the themes of the people’s hearts as they walked along the road “ascending” up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.

The Psalms of Ascent include songs of preparation, songs recalling God’s grace, songs of lament, and songs of joy. Each song points to the lifelong journey of obedience to God. These psalms offer many possibilities for a Lenten series, and the concluding psalms offer nuggets from which the preacher and worship leader can draw themes for Holy Week. For those desiring a bit longer journey, as we did, the series can be expanded to include almost all of the psalms in the section. Beginning already the week after Christmas, using Anna the prophetess as our example of a lifelong pilgrim, we began our journey from the manger to the cross, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society served as inspiration and a key resource in developing this series.

WEEK 1: PSALM 120

REPENTANCE

Psalms

Sing one or more settings of the psalms for each week. For variety, check several settings in, for example, the Psalter Hymnal, Presbyterian Hymnal, Gather (G.I.A.), and the Canadian Presbyterian Book of Psalms.

Choruses

“Spirit of the Living God” PsH 424, PH 322, SFL 184, TH 726, TWC 297

“Those Who Wait on the Lord” [Book of Praise (Canadian Presbyterian Hymnal, with extra verses by John Bell) 662]

Hymns

“Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” PH 326, RL 445, TH 338, TWC 290
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” PsH 543, PH 281, RL 50, TH 598, TWC 634
“The Church’s One Foundation” PsH 502, PH 442, RL 394, TH 347, TWC 689

Sermon Starter

The biggest part of planning a trip is knowing where you are going. A lot of time and energy are devoted to planning your route to that destination. Just as important as knowing where to go is knowing where not to go. As pilgrims set their faces in a particular direction, they make decisions about directions that will not be traveled, paths not taken, destinations not reached.

Repentance means to “turn to or toward.” The psalmist writes, “Too long I have had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace.” By setting our sights on the cross, desiring to imitate Christ, we discover that there are places, things, attitudes and behaviors that we will need to leave behind, to never pursue.

WEEK 2: PSALM 121

PROVIDENCE

Choruses

“Those Who Wait on the Lord”
“Seek Ye First” PsH 209, PH 333, RL 263, TWC 447
“On Eagles Wings” SFL 205, Renew! 112

Hymns

“If You but Trust in God to Guide You” PsH 446
“I Am Thine, O Lord” TH 533, TWC 534

Sermon Starter

As we begin a journey, we prepare for hardship. We pay the insurance policy, check the oil in the car, fasten the seat belts, buy travelers checks. Yet even with preparations, problems arise. Where do we look for help?

The Israelites could look to the hills, sites of worship to Asherah and Baal. They could stand and ask, “From where will my help come?” From the hills? No, “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The promise of this psalm to Hebrews and Christians who read it is not that we’ll never stub our toes, but that no injury, no accident, no illness, no conflict, no distress will have power over us.

WEEK 3: PSALM 123

SERVICE

Choruses

“Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 199
“I Will Call upon the Lord” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 180

Hymns

“Praise Him! Praise Him!” TH 173, TWC 96
“Now Thank We All Our God” PsH 454PH 555, RL 61, TH 98, TWC 374
“Near the Cross” TWC 549

Sermon Starter

Psalm 123 begins to take the focus off ourselves, placing it on God instead. “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in heaven.” Even when our destination is heaven, it is hard for us to shift our attention from our needs.

However, a journey demands that we be learners, disciples, moving our attention to the teacher. One of the greatest things we must learn is service, and service begins with a look up. This psalm says our attitude toward God must be “as the eyes of the servants look to the hand of their master,” not to receive but to give. Only the unfaithful servant approaches the master with bold brazenness, demanding what he believes is due him (parable of the tenants, Matt. 21:33ff.).

The servant expects a benevolent master. Three times in this psalm that expectation is repeated: “Have mercy upon us.” The pilgrim accepts the fact that God is the potter working on the clay of our lives—reshaping, reforming and sanctifying, and redeeming.

WEEK 4: PSALM 130

SUFFERING

Choruses

“My Soul Waits” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 88
“Our God Reigns” PsH 195
“Open Our Eyes” TWC 536

Hymns

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” PsH 384, PH 100, RL 292, TH 252, TWC 213
“The Solid Rock” TWC 517

Sermon Starter

The label on a packet of Pepcid AC says “For relief of heartburn, acid indigestion, and sour stomach; for prevention of these symptoms brought on by consuming food and beverage.” In essence we are able to take the cure before we have the problem.

In many ways this quick relief is symptomatic of our society: let’s eliminate the pain and suffering from our lives—if possible before they even occur. We have accepted the notion that we must guard and protect ourselves against suffering, deny it when in its grasp, and silently endure it. Even during times of extreme anguish, we tell others we’re doing fine.

Psalm 130 recognizes two realities. First, suffering is real, and second, God is real. The adage “this too shall pass” cannot be spoken flippantly where we read, “I wait for the Lord” and “hope in the Lord.”

WEEK 5: PSALM 131

HUMILITY

Choruses

“Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 199
“Praise the Name of Jesus” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 200
“You Are Worthy” PsH 232, TWC 116

Hymns

“Meekness and Majesty” Renew! 158
“Christ, the Life of All the Living” PsH 371

Sermon Starter

Each winter I watch as owners of a nearby orchard trim their apple trees. I wonder whether or not there will be enough tree left to grow apples in the spring and summer. But each fall there is a fresh batch of ripe fruit ready to be picked and enjoyed.

The disciples of Jesus argued about who would sit on the right and left hands of Jesus in the coming kingdom. Their goals were set high, occupying their minds with great things.

Lent is a proper time to follow the bidding of the psalmist to calm and quiet our souls, a time to prune away the distractions of our lives so that richer, fuller fruit may grow. Our example is Christ, who humbled himself. He knew his role and purpose: leaving the very throne room of heaven, he took the form of a servant. Likewise, as we are joined together with Christ, heirs to the kingdom, our earthly ambition pales according to what we have already attained in Christ.

WEEK 6:

MATTHEW 21: 1-9; PSALM 132

OBEDIENCE

Choruses

“He Is Exalted” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 111
“Majesty” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 212
“Our God Reigns” PsH 185

Hymns

“Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” PsH 378, PH 89, RL 282, TWC 203
“Ride On, Ride On, in Majesty” PsH 382, PH 90, RL 280, TH 237, TWC 205
“All Glory, Laud, and Honor” PsH 375, PH 88, RL 279, TH 325, TWC 204

Sermon Starter

Buried in the background of Psalm 132 is David’s recovery of the ark of the covenant, which the people of Israel had abandoned in Kiriath Jearim (Jaar). According to 2 Samuel 6, David brings the ark back to Jerusalem with great pomp and ceremony, rising to Zion in a grand parade. Centuries later, Jesus, the descendant of David, enters Jerusalem with similar purpose. The comparison and contrast is inviting.

Both David and Jesus acted out of obedience. David, the psalm says, swore a vow to the Lord. That vow was to restore the ark to Jerusalem. David would not sleep until this was accomplished. Likewise, Jesus came into the world for one purpose: to shed his blood for the redemption of the world. He wept over Jerusalem because he knew the cost of that redemption. His act of obedience would accomplish it.

David’s desire for recovering the ark was to restore worship in Jerusalem. Jesus’ entrance also restores worship, not in a place but in relationship to a living God. As Jesus entered the city, the focal point of worship changed from the city, the temple, and the sacrificial system to the law written on people’s hearts, God’s life-giving Spirit, the robe of salvation, and the light of God’s Word.

EASTER SUNDAY:

PSALM 134, JOHN 20:1-18

Hymns

“Crown Him with Many Crowns” PsH 410, PH 151, RL 600, SFL 181, TH 295, TWC 92
“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” PsH 388, PH 113, RL 325, SFL 172, TH 277, TWC 234
“Come You Faithful, Raise the Strain” PsH 389, PH 114, RL 315, TH 265

Sermon Starter

The focal point of a journey/pilgrimage is obviously the destination. There can be lots of interesting side trips, things to do, places to see, but the purpose of the trip is to arrive.

Having begun their journey days, weeks, even months before, the people of Israel would be anticipating Jerusalem. There they would find things always the same, yet always different. That was especially true as the children of Abraham left their homes to celebrate the Passover that particular year. Having entered into the gates on what we now call Palm Sunday, and having lived through the events in the week that followed, travelers could conclude that it all turned out differently than they had anticipated.

Yet as Psalm 134 proclaims along with the Easter story, our only conclusion can be, “Bless and praise the Lord!”

In the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter a lot of life has taken place. In our congregations we have experienced birth, death, tragedy, joy, and sorrow—all of it different than any of us would have anticipated. Yet in all these things, we can be confident that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ expressed in the empty tomb. So bless the Lord!

 

Excerpt

USED THROUGHOUT THE SEASON

Confession of Sin (excerpted from Daniel 9:4-19)

O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and have done wrong. We have been wicked and rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath. Give ear, O God, and hear. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive us, in Jesus’ name. Amen!

Affirmation of Faith from Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 21

I believe that everything God reveals in his Word is true. I also believe that true faith is not only a knowledge and conviction. It is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.