“Nearer, My God to Thee”

A Tenebrae Service with Newly Written Stanzas to a Familiar Tune
During Lent 2023, Silver Spring (Maryland) Christian Reformed Church looked at how God makes God’s home among us. We focused especially on Old Testament narratives of God drawing near to God’s wayward people and dwelling among them. Our Holy Week service on Maundy Thursday began with a brief message and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and continued with a Tenebrae service of growing darkness. (For an explanation of the Tenebrae service, see RW 2:18.) For this service, I wrote new stanzas to follow after the first stanza of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” by Sarah Flower Adams. Each stanza draws a parallel between Jesus’ passion journey and the suffering in the Christian life as we take up our cross and follow him. While the parallel is not exact because no human has ever experienced in full what Jesus did on the cross, one of the goals of this service is to empathetically draw closer to Christ as we remember the hours before his death. You can find the new text interlined with the tune by Lowell Mason here, including a final verse appropriate for Easter. Sermon notes are an abridgement of a sermon by Rev. Doug Bratt. The full sermon text can be found at https://tinyurl.com/RW150Sermon. The Lord’s Supper liturgy was adapted and arranged by Rev. Meg Jenista from the Christian Reformed Church’s brief form for the Celebration of Holy Communion.

Prelude

Call to Worship

[Christ candle is lit (or processed in) while soloist sings.]
“Nearer, My God, to Thee” (st. 1) Adams
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raises me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

 

Drawing Near to the Table

Prayer for Illumination
Our Lord Jesus Christ, as we draw near to you and your sufferings through the reading of your Word this evening, we pray that by your Holy Spirit you would draw near to us. In the growing darkness of your suffering and death, illuminate our minds and hearts with knowledge and love of you. In your name we pray, amen.
—Bethany Besteman © 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike. Used by permission.

Scripture: Matthew 26:14–30

Message: “A Shocking Grace”

Sermon Notes
We sometimes assume that when God shows up, God shows up only for those who love God. We assume that if God shows up to those who have made themselves God’s enemies, that God does so in judgment. In our text, Jesus likely has less than twenty-four hours to live. We read that someone has agreed to help the religious leaders arrest and kill Jesus. But that betrayer isn’t a religious leader or some other enemy of Jesus. No, Jesus’ betrayer is what Matthew calls “one of the Twelve.” He is, in other words, one of Jesus’ closest friends. The religious leaders’ collaborator is Judas Iscariot.

As our text opens, Jesus is in Jerusalem, alive and eager to celebrate the Passover, the annual celebration of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery. When he joins his disciples to celebrate Passover, they sit around the table together—all twelve of them. Jesus eats with his friends—including Judas. Then Jesus announces he has something hard but important to tell them. “One of you,” he grieves, “is going to hand me over to the conspirators” (Matthew 26:20–21, The Message).

In a little while, we will sit down at another table. As he was on the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus will again be present among us, now by his Spirit. But though Jesus told his friends that night that one of them would betray him, tonight he looks at us and says to us, “You have betrayed me.”

We’ve handed Jesus over to a hostile culture by acting like our culture rather than like Jesus.We’ve betrayed Jesus by failing to love God above all and our neighbors as much as ourselves. We’ve handed Jesus over by failing to see and treat those with whom we disagree as fellow image bearers of God whom God loves deeply. We don’t have to try to deny it by asking, “Surely it isn’t me, Lord, is it?” You and I don’t even have to question whether we’re capable of betraying Jesus by asking something like, “Is it me, Jesus?” We’ve betrayed Jesus by what we’ve done and failed to do, by what we’ve said and failed to say, as surely as Judas did.

So is there room for you and me at this table? Or do our multiple betrayals disqualify us from celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Can we betrayers stay here? Or should we leave so that only deserving people will eat this bread and drink this cup? Well, take a look at our text’s table and its celebration of the first Lord’s Supper. Who’s there?

None of the gospel accounts of the Last Supper even suggests that Judas left before Jesus and his disciples shared the meal. Matthew doesn’t report that Jesus offered the cup that is his blood to everyone but Judas. No, Matthew simply reports that Jesus shares his life-giving body and blood with his disciples. All of his friends. Including Judas. Jesus’ generosity and hospitality make no distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of the gifts of his body and blood.

Because when God shows up, God doesn’t just show up for people who love the Lord. God doesn’t somehow exclude those who make themselves God’s enemies. When God shows up, God appears to all those God creates in God’s image and for whom God deeply cares. The Last Supper and its Lord’s Supper remembrance aren’t for perfect people. If so, Jesus would have been the only person there, and he would be the only one here.

Jesus, after all, shares his body and blood with all of his gathered friends: with Judas, who will betray him, with Peter, who will deny even knowing him, and with his disciples, every last one of whom will abandon him after the authorities arrest him.

This celebration isn’t for perfect or even pretty good Christians. It isn’t for Christians who completely understand what’s going on here. The Lord’s Supper is for everyone who is sorry about their sins, believes in Jesus for our salvation, and wants to follow Jesus more closely. This is God’s shocking grace.
—Doug Bratt, 2023

 

The Lord’s Supper

Invitation
[Extinguish the first candle as the congregation sings.]

“Nearer, My God, to Thee” (st. 2) Besteman
When bread and wine are shared, broken and poured;
when saint and sinner kneel and call you Lord,
your welcome beckons me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
Leader 1:
The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Leader 1: Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Leader 1: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right for us to give thanks and praise.
It is our joy and our peace
at all times and in all places to give thanks to you:
Holy Father, Almighty, everlasting God, through Christ our Lord.

Leader 2: With joy we praise you, gracious God, for you created heaven and earth, made us in your image and kept covenant with us—even when we fell into sin.

We give you thanks for Jesus Christ, our Lord, who by his life, death, and resurrection, opened to us the way of everlasting life.

Words of Institution
Leader 1:
We give thanks to God the Father that our Savior, Jesus Christ, before he suffered, gave us this feast of his sacrifice until he comes again. At the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Leader 2: In the same way, after supper he took the cup and said: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this in remembrance of me.” For whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Therefore we proclaim our faith as signed and sealed in this sacrament.

“Memorial Acclamation” Kriewald, LUYH 812
[sung or spoken with congregational echo]
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Prayer of Consecration
Leader 1:
Lord, our God, send your Holy Spirit so that this bread and cup may be for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant that all who share the communion of the body and blood of your Son may be united in him. And may we and all your saints remain faithful in hope and love. Gather your whole church, O Lord, into the glory of your kingdom. Amen.

[Any necessary directions on how the sacrament is to be celebrated may go here.]

Leader 2: This table tells us the story of God drawing near in Jesus Christ. And this table is an invitation to us, that we might draw near to God through Jesus Christ.

“Draw Me Nearer” (Refrain) Crosby, WR 408
[sung by the leader or a soloist]
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord,
to the cross where thou hast died.
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord,
to thy precious, bleeding side.
—Fanny Crosby, P.D.

Distribution
“As He Gathered at His Table” (st. 1, 3, 4, 7) Richardson, LUYH 155

Communion
Leader 1:
Take, eat, remember, and believe that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.

Leader 2: Take, drink, remember, and believe that the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.

Prayer of Thanksgiving
God, our Father, we give you thanks that you have fed us at your heavenly table just as Jesus fed his disciples. Like the disciples, we prepare now to walk with Jesus toward his death on the cross. We pray that you would prepare our hearts for this time of contemplation and participation in the suffering and death of our Lord. Grant us the grace of drawing nearer to you as we are guided by your Word to remember and empathize with Jesus in his suffering.

“Draw Me Nearer” (Refrain) Crosby, WR 408
[sung by the congregation]
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,
to the cross where Thou hast died.
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord,
to Thy precious, bleeding side.
—Fanny Crosby, P.D.

 

Drawing Near in the Garden

Reading: Matthew 26:36–46

Prayer: Dear God, who sees the suffering of all your children and knows what it is to suffer, be gentle with those who endure much in this life and hold out to all of us the hope and light of paradise that helps us take and drink the cup we are given. Amen.
—Bethany Besteman, © 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike. Used by permission.

Song: “What Wondrous Love” (st. 1, 2) Anon., LUYH 164, GtG 215, SSS 177

Second Candle Extinguished
Nearer, My God, to Thee
(st. 3) Besteman
[sung by a soloist or as a duet]
When in Gethsemane darkness surrounds,
when weeping, down I fall, face to the ground,
there, as the cup I see,
I will draw near to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

 

Drawing Near Despite Betrayal

Reading: Matthew 26:47–75

Prayer: Lord, we thank you that though you faced betrayal and abandonment, you did not abandon us or your disciples. Even as on the cross you ensured the protection of your mother, so today you give us each other. Help us to cherish the communities we have in you.
—Bethany Besteman © 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike. Used by permission.

Song: “Shadows Lengthen into Night” (st. 5, 6, 7) Bringle, LUYH 158, GtG 207

Third Candle Extinguished
Nearer, My God, to Thee
(st. 4) Besteman
[sung by a soloist or as a duet]
When enemies appear, threaten, deride,
when friends abandon me, flee from my side,
your arms will cradle me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

 

Drawing Near to Christ in His Suffering

Reading: Matthew 27:11–31

Prayer: Lord, we read of your suffering at the hands of the powers of the world, and it turns our eyes toward those who suffer today in unjust systems or under oppressive governments. Just as you cried out, “I am thirsty,” so you call us to care for all those who might be crying out today in their thirst and hunger for a better life. Teach us to love the least of these as you do. Amen.
—Bethany Besteman © 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike. Used by permission.

Song: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (st. 1, 2) Arnulf and Alexander, LUYH 168, GtG 221, SSS 168

Fourth Candle Extinguished
Nearer, My God, to Thee
(st. 5) Besteman
[sung by congregation]
Through illness and despair, trials and pain,
though kings and nations fail, God’s Word remains—
that Word which gathers me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

 

Forsaken: No Longer Near

Reading: Matthew 27:32–49

Prayer: God, you suffered the impossible pain of self-separation so that we never would. Teach us endurance when we experience the dark night of the soul and feel ourselves abandoned even by you. Bring us through our desolations and into your consolation. Amen.
—Bethany Besteman © 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike. Used by permission.

Song: “Ah, Holy Jesus” (st. 1, 3) Heermann and Bridges, LUYH 172, GtG 218

Fifth Candle Extinguished
Nearer, My God, to Thee
(st. 6) Besteman
[sung a cappella by soloist]
When in my darkest hour no help appears,
in anguish and in doubt, I cry in fear:
“God has abandoned me;
his face I cannot see.”
Still, I will wait to be nearer to thee.

 

Waiting to Draw Near

Reading: Matthew 27:50–61

Prayer: Jesus, our Lord, who teaches us humility and surrender, just as you committed your spirit to God, we too today recommit ourselves to you. We honor and adore you for your sacrifice that demands our souls, our lives, our all. Amen.
—Bethany Besteman © 2023 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike. Used by permission.

Song: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 1, 3, 4) Watts, LUYH 175, GtG 223, SSS 163

Christ Candle Is Extinguished
Nearer, My God, to Thee
(st. 7) Besteman
[sung a cappella by soloist]
Wrapped in the shroud of night, still as a tomb,
here I my vigil keep in deep’ning gloom.
E’en death will not keep me,
Lord, Savior, far from thee;
longing, I wait to be nearer to thee.
[silence]

Christ Candle Processed out of Sanctuary

[Instrumental “Nearer, My God, to Thee” is played as the Christ Candle is relit and carried out.]

Benediction / Words of Sending

Dr. Bethany Besteman is the worship coordinator and church administrator at Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church in Maryland where she lives with her husband and son. She also works as the intake editor for Reformed Worship.

Reformed Worship 150 © December 2023 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.