Go with the familiar! This advice has meant a lot to me as I consider worship planning. As a pastor, too often I have looked for unique, one-of-a-kind approaches to Christmas, Lent, and the other “standard events” of the Christian year. This year I felt compelled to go with the familiar and serve up a Lent/Easter series based on Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 is one of the best known portions of the entire Bible. Many church members can recite it by heart, children learn it at an early age, and even those who attend sporadically find it familiar and comforting. That is why we use it at funerals. That is why people display it on plaques in their homes. And that is why it came to mind as the perfect psalm to use in developing a series of services for Lent/Easter.
I came to appreciate Psalm 23 as a precious gem to be featured in the season of Lent. Jesus is the Lamb of God, and we often highlight this part of his identity during Lent. Jesus is also our Shepherd. As we walk with him through life, and through Lent, the pictures presented in Psalm 23 are precious indeed.
Following are plans for eight services for each of the Sundays in Lent, for Maundy Thursday, and for Easter morning. Message themes that touch daily life sprang from the psalm, and these themes served well to give direction to our congregation during Lent. At one point I inverted the order of the statements in the psalm, making it possible to deal with the psalm’s “table” reference at our Maundy Thursday communion service. (The “anointing” theme ended up working well as a Palm Sunday text.)
The planning process proved to be a pure joy. Our worship planning team helped search for music based on the service themes. We arranged for each service to include a reading of Psalm 23, each time from a different Bible version or contemporary paraphrase. Our Scripture readers included a variety of persons, from very young children on one Sunday to an octogenarian on another (presenting the King James Version, with eyes closed, reciting from memory). We found a brief drama based on the psalm and used it early in the series. Finally, we created a banner for our large A-frame sanctuary that blended a cross and a shepherd’s staff, so that the worship area visually reflected the theme.
The more I studied and planned for this series, the more I became convinced that the worship theme needed to be carried fully into our lives, even beyond the Sunday worship. So I prepared a devotional guide (see box, p. 16) that was included in the Sunday bulletin, offering a passage and a reflective question for each day of the week. (These passages often repeated biblical references made in the sermon.) We encouraged each worship participant to read and pray over Psalm 23 each day, to listen to what God might say to them through these familiar words. We also added a series of brief, meditative Wednesday night prayer gatherings so that all would have a midweek opportunity to reflect on the Lord as our Shepherd.
That lenten season turned out to be one of the richest in my twenty years of ministry. Psalm 23 became a daily companion in my personal walk, and a unifying theme in the devotional life of ministry. Preparing for each message helped me to come to a deeper appreciation of what had seemed overly familiar. And the appreciation of the worshipers helped me recognize anew that my job is not to give God’s people something new, but to present the “old story” with freshness and sincerity.
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
Scripture: Philippians 4:10-19; Matthew 6:25-34
Sermon: “What do you want?”
The message began by referring to a humorous article that described America’s snack habits and made personality inferences based on the snack preference. I went on to speak about the difference between needs and wants, and God’s promise to give us true wealth, that is, “the glorious riches of Christ.”
The message concluded with Psalm 73:25: “Earth has nothing I desire besides you.”
“I Offer My Life” SNC 218
“More Precious than Silver” (Maranatha Praise Chorus Book, 3rd ed., 237)
“Psalm 23” SNC 181
“Seek Ye First” PsH 209, PH 333, RL 263, SFL 155, TWC 447
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
Scripture: Isaiah 49:8-12; Matthew 6:24-34
Sermon: “Greener Pastures”
It was easy to work into the message by recognizing that we are predisposed to wanting what is green—and it’s always greener on the other side of the fence. We’re always searching. God is the only one who will truly satisfy; God is our green “pasture” (Jer. 50:7). Our problem is that we are color blind. We go after artificially green pastures: money, sex, self-fulfillment. The idea of walking beside “quiet waters” and finding “green pastures” is, indeed, attractive, and it’s a frequent biblical theme. Only in seeking God are our souls truly satisfied and restored. The challenge is to learn to tune in to God’s voice, which is constantly calling us to claim God’s compassion and favor (Isa. 49:8-12).
“As the Deer” (Renew! 9)
“Go Now in Peace” PsH 317, SFL 79
“Like a River Glorious” PsH 560, TH 699, TWC 594
“Spirit Song” SNC 212
“Wait for the Lord” SNC 96
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Scripture: Psalm 5 (esp. vv. 7-8)
Sermon: “God Guidance?”
An ad campaign by the American Dairy Association inspired the title of the message and the introduction I used. A website on calcium listed some of the essential reasons why we need milk in our life. These provided an easy springboard for me to list the reasons we need God’s guidance in our life. (Both calcium and Jesus (a) form and maintain us, (b) enable and promote healing, and (c) prevent hypertension and deformity.) From there we worked into the task of finding Jesus, which is what worship is about, as suggested in Psalm 5. We recognized the importance of righteousness, spoken of in Psalms 5 and 23, then focused on the provision of Jesus as “the righteous one” who is both our Shepherd and our sacrificial Lamb. Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible to live in and be guided by the presence of God.
“He Leadeth Me” PsH 452, RL 161, TH 600, TWC 635
“Hear, O Lord, My Urgent Prayer” (Psalm 5) PsH 5
“Lead Me, Guide Me” PsH 544, SFL 220
“Lead Me, Lord” TH 727
“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” SNC 182
Subscribers to RW may use the art (p. 12) for bulletin covers. If your bulletin cover is 5.5" x 8.5", art is 100% for
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Scripture: Isaiah 43:1-2
Sermon: “Facing Death”
We all face death—our own and the death of the ones we love. This reality is certainly an appropriate focus during Lent. It’s also important to reflect on the various “valleys” and “dark shadows” we go through in any given year in the course of a lifetime. Isaiah 43:1-2 reminds us that the valley is not a wrong turn, but is rather a time of training and an opportunity for genuine discovery of God. I will be with you, says God. I have called you by name; you are mine. Our time in the valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death, offers a unique opportunity to discover the reality that God is with us.
“Children of the Heavenly Father” PsH 440, RL 585, TH 131, TWC 84
“How Firm a Foundation” PsH 500, PH 361, RL 172, TH 94, TWC 612
“Now Behold the Lamb” SNC 144
FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Scripture: Hebrews 12:7-11
Sermon: “Comforting Discipline”
Psalm 23 brings together the ideas of comfort and discipline. Though they often seem to be at odds with one another, the Bible teaches that they go together. According to Hebrews 12, the presence of God’s discipline in our lives is actually a reason for comfort. Through the uses of a shepherd’s rod and staff (as explained in Phillip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23) we were able to see various forms and expressions of God’s discipline in our life. We used the terms encourager and challenger to describe two of the roles God plays for us, and which God wants us to perform for one another in his name.
“Cry of My Heart” SNC 81
“My Jesus, I Love Thee” PsH 557, TH 648, TWC 101
“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” SNC 182 (also available as an anthem by Al Fedak entitled “Christus Paradox,” GIA G-5463)
“Step by Step” SNC 17
You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Scripture: Hebrews 1:8-9; Mark 11:1-11;
Sermon: “Anointed by God”
Although the early part of the service celebrated the kingly anointing of Jesus on Palm Sunday theme, we moved into the suggestion of Psalm 23 that our heads are also anointed. The classic book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller describes a number of ways shepherds use oil, and we used these to discover the types of anointing oil we need to receive from Jesus. We then discussed the sense of appointment, the sense of sorrow, and the sense of joy that Jesus experienced in his anointing, and which we need to carry in our own anointing.
Celebrating the kingship of Jesus on Psalm Sunday is an activity that can naturally involve children. The number of songs appropriate for children and congregations are numerous.
“All Glory, Laud, and Honor” PsH 375, 376, PH 88, RL 279, SFL 161, TH 235, TWC 204
“Hail and Hosanna” SNC 146
“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” PsH 72
“Hosanna! Hosanna!” SFL 160
“Trotting, Trotting Through Jerusalem” SFL 159
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
Scripture: Revelation 19:6-9
Sermon: “The Last Supper?”
Psalm 23 refers to a table in the presence of enemies. From there the jump to Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper is obvious. Jesus’ past sacrifice has present relevance for each of us as persons who need to “feed” on Christ daily. The passage from Revelation
turned the focus to the actual last supper spoken of in Scripture, and it directed us from remembrance of the past to the anticipation of the future that must be part of our celebration of the sacrament. This service primed us for the Easter morning as we anticipated the last words of Psalm 23: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!” Thus, the description of the sacrament as a past, present, and future feast was complete.
Note: We created a service of lessons and carols for this evening service, using a variety of Scriptures, Passion season music, and lenten readings. The litanies we used for this service (as well as for Palm Sunday and Easter) came from the sourcebook Stages on the Way.
“A New Commandment” SNC 134
“Come to the Table” by Michael Card
“There Is a Redeemer” SNC 145
“We Will Dance” by David Ruis (Vineyard Music)
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Scripture: Psalm 16:9-11; Matthew 28
Sermon: “Secure Forever”
Psalm 23 and Psalm 16 proved to be amazingly appropriate and inspiring for an Easter morning message. We began with the Easter story in Matthew 28, and then sprang from the doubt expressed by the disciples to the doubt we experience today. The words of Psalm 23’s conclusion are not always so confidently spoken by Christians today, and our experience of life does not always seem to be “goodness and love.” We distinguished between the “gift” (our definition of goodness and love) and the “giver” (Jesus—the divine definition of goodness and love.) We then entered into the hope we have with Jesus at our side in life and in death, concluding with the joyful affirmation of our faith and hope in the words of Psalm 16:9-11.
“Alleluia! Jesus Is Risen” SNC 150
“Celebrate Jesus” (Maranatha Praise Chorus Book, 3rd ed., 115
“Celtic Alleluia” SNC 148 (see Songs for the Season, p. 22)
“I Know That My Redeemer Lives” (anthem, from Handel’s Messiah)
“Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” SNC 157
Songs Based on Psalm 23
“My Shepherd Is the Lord/El Señor Es Mi Pastor” PsH 162
“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” PsH 550, PH 172
“Psalm 23” SNC 181
“Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” PsH 591
“Shepherd of My Soul” (Martin Nystrom, Maranatha! Music, 1988)
“The Lord, My Shepherd, Rules My Life” PsH 23, SFL 201
“The Lord’s My Shepherd” PsH 161, PH 170, RL 89, TH 86
Litany of Confession
Note: This litany, based on Isaiah 53, can be used for each of the services in this Psalm 23 lenten series.
Reader 1: Israel is a scattered flock that lions have chased away. (Jer. 50:17)
Reader 2: My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. (Jer. 50:6)
People: We all, like sheep, have gone astray. (Isa. 53:6)
Reader 1: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)
Reader 2: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matt. 9:36)
People: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way. (Isa. 53:6)
Reader 1: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds we have been healed. (1 Pet 2:24)
Reader 2: For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Pet. 2:25)
People: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:6)
Members and friends of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas, commissioned some of the best hymn text and tune writers around the world to prepare new hymns as part of the church’s yearlong “Focus on Hymns” project. The authors were given free reign, except that they had to include the words “Good Shepherd” in their texts. These thirteen hymns by twenty-six authors and composers are a wonderful gift to the church at large. They cover a wide range of themes, from Advent to Easter to pastoral concerns. Russell Schulz-Widmar, editor of the collection and director of music at Good Shepherd, writes:
I am deeply grateful to the people of Good Shepherd Church who grasped an idea and made it happen. . . . With affection, Shepherd Songs is offered to people everywhere who count themselves part of the flock.
Shepherd Songs, Russell Schulz-Widmar, ed. Kingston, NY: Selah Publishing Co, 2002. www.selahpub.com. Offered in congregational and full music editions. Most of the hymns included may be used by congregations who are enrolled in the CCLI or LicenSing programs.
Beuchner, Frederick. The Clown in the Belfry. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992.
A thoughtful and provocative sermon on Psalm 23 is presented on pages 108-117.
Keller, Phillip. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997.
A classic paperback on Psalm 23.
Neighbors, Chuck. The What Would Jesus Do? Playbook. Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing Co., 1999.
Psalm 23 presented as a readers’ theater with four voices. Performance time approximately six minutes.
Roper, David. Psalm 23: The Song of a Passionate Heart. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1996.
A very well done simple set of meditations on Psalm 23.
Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Iona Community Wild Goose Worship Group. GIA Publications, 2000.
An excellent collection of litanies and readings.
Lent Season Daily Devotional Guide (Week One)
Here you will find a Scripture reading and a reflection question for each day of the week. Use this material as an individual or around the table with your family. Keep in mind the words from Psalm 23:1 that form the theme for the week, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” May God bless us all as we seek to deepen our walk with him.
Q. What is one of the things God said to you through the message presented this morning?
1 Peter 2:24-25
Q. As Peter tells us, we are like “sheep going astray.” What are some of te things you have done that show this is true? How do you know you have “returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls”?
Q. Who might be some of the “other sheep” that are mentioned in verse 16? Take a moment to pray for them.
Q. What does the prayer of verse 14 have to do with the statements in verses 7-10? When can you offer this prayer?
Q. Who is the “speaker” in these verses, and what do they have to do with following the Good Shepherd?
Q. What events in your life have been teaching you the truths stated in these verses?
Q. Of the three verbs in verse 11 (gathers, carries, and leads), which best describes what God has been doing for you lately?