Come, let us worship and bow down': service plans for a four-week series based entirely on the psalms

In crafting a series that explores the richness of the Psalter for the life of prayer, I considered two approaches. The first was to spend one week on each of the main types of prayer in the psalms—for example, lament, songs of praise, enthronement psalms—choosing one psalm from each category to be that type’s model and the focus for the preaching and worship of that week’s service.

I found two main problems with that approach. First, any given service within the series would be unbalanced in terms of the experience of worship. Do we really want to spend a whole week doing nothing but lamenting? Second, the richness of the Psalter resists this approach, making it difficult to select which categories to look at and which psalm to use within each category.

There are various systems for categorizing the psalms. I find Walter Brueggemann’s the most helpful. He suggests that all the psalms can fit into one of three categories: psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation (see The Message of the Psalms [Augsburg, 1984]). This paradigm helps me immensely when I am reading and praying the psalms, but it is too broad to be helpful in the crafting of a sermon series, primarily because there is such immense variety within each category.

I decided to go with a different approach. For the four weeks of the series, we would use the psalms as the source of every element of the worship service. Instead of talking to the congregation about how to use the psalms in their life of prayer, we would pray through the balanced structure of our worship service—from the call to worship through the time of confession and reconciliation through the hearing of the Word and our response to it in prayer and giving—using the words of the psalms. This approach allows for a wider experience of the Psalter, while permitting each worship service to retain its balance between times of confession and times of praise. It also allows us to approach the psalms as they are primarily meant to be approached—singing and praying them rather than studying them. We shouldn’t approach the psalms in the same way that we’d approach the book of Romans, for instance.

So all the worship elements in the following series are based on psalms, including all the suggested songs, though not all are straight psalm settings. Some are paraphrases, and some of the older paraphrases especially are quick to understand psalms as referring to Jesus Christ. I think that’s appropriate, in the same way that it is appropriate for Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 to assert that the rock that followed the people of Israel in the desert was Christ himself. We are a Christian people, and we use this prayer book of the Psalter in a different way than did the Old Testament people of Israel. For the same reason, I make no apology for following the ancient Christian practice of adding a trinitarian doxology to the end of most chanted psalms.

Since the best way to learn how to pray with the psalms is to pray with the psalms, this series would be an appropriate time to take five or even ten minutes off the regular sermon time and have more extensive times of praise and prayer, using connected groups of psalms. I have suggested such groups as a time of praise to open each service. If your church is accustomed to using praise choruses, you could integrate more of those into this time, since many praise choruses are settings of verses from the psalms.

When planning a series, I try to keep some element of the service the same each week. This is both a way of defining the series in the minds of parishioners and also a way of meeting the needs of those who worship best when worship is repetitive. For this series, I chose to keep the assurance of pardon the same, using a responsive selection from Psalm 103. I also chose to repeat the use of Psalm 51 as the prayer of confession, though I suggest a different sung setting of that psalm for each week. You might want to select one of those settings and use it for the entire series. Or you might want more variety, in which case Psalms 6, 25, and 38 are all possible prayers of confession. I also used Psalm 67 as a responsive benediction throughout the entire series.

I have offered many options for singing each day’s psalm text. You might wish to include more than one setting, using one immediately after the psalm is read, before the sermon, then using another as a response to the Word after the sermon. If the psalm is chanted, so that the entire text is accurately presented, then reading is redundant, but if the psalm setting that you choose is a versification or paraphrase, then reading and singing complement each other.

Note: All responsive readings are taken from the New Revised Standard version of Scripture.

Week One

Praying in God’s House

Scripture
New Testament Lesson: John 14:1-6

Text: Psalm 84


Sermon: A Nest on the Altar
What place in your life would you describe as lovely? As beautiful? For the psalmist, the loveliest place is the house of the Lord. This place meets his deepest desires and wants. The house of the Lord is a home, a refuge—offering welcome, safety, and security. It’s both a source of strength and a source of praise.

So what is “the house of the Lord”? Is it heaven? Is it a metaphor for your personal devotional time? Not really. The psalm is quite literally about the temple, the location of public worship. That is the place of greatest beauty in the life of the psalmist.

Can you say the same about coming to church? Is this house of the Lord lovely for you? Does your weekly experience of worship here in this place meet your deepest desires and wants? Or are you really here not out of a sense of longing and desire but out of an awareness of duty and obligation? Many of us—especially those who are most active in and most committed to the church—come to church because we’ve been taught to come to church, because we know we ought to come to church, because it’s the right thing to do on Sunday morning. But the loveliness of worship is a rare experience. Most weeks we don’t even hope for it anymore.

Is this sanctuary a home, a refuge, a welcoming shelter? Or in your experience is church one more task, one more responsibility, one more source of obligation and work? Many of us—especially those who are most active in and most committed to the church—find ourselves consumed by the busyness of church activity, and Sunday morning is a time when we work at that activity. It’s a time of the week that is full of responsibility and sometimes even anxiety.

Is this a place that gives you the energy for praise? Or does it sap your energy and leave you tired? Is this place a source of strength? Or is it a source of exhaustion? Many of us—especially those who are most active in and most committed to the church—go home on Sunday afternoon with yet more work to do, jobs we picked up in the course of coffee hour or during the quick committee meeting after church school. The truth is that many church members, not just pastors, are burned out. One friend of mine recently referred to this as “compassion fatigue.”

I wish I had the secret for making worship always lovely. Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If this psalm does not describe your experience of this place, then you need to restructure your church involvement to let this loveliness come back into your experience. Some of you may need to say no more often. Say no to the activities that don’t strengthen you. Some of you may need to say yes more often. Seek out the activities that do strengthen you. This psalm reminds us that worship should be lovely.

Liturgical Resources
Call to Worship (Psalm 50:1-2)

The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.

Opening Time of Praise
“Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim” (Psalm 135) PsH 181, TH 12 stanza 1

“I Will Exalt My God, My King” (Psalm 145) “PsH 186, Renew! 78

“It Is Good to Sing Your Praises” (Psalm 92) PsH 171, TWC 325

“Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim” stanza 3

Call to Confession: Psalm 14:2, 3

Prayer of Confession (sung): “God, Be Merciful to Me” PsH 104, RL 104, TH 486

or read Psalm 51 in unison

Assurance of Pardon (Psalm 103:8-14)
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.

Friends, believe the good news of the gospel:

In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

Note: As alternatives, sing the Taizé setting of Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, My Soul,” which includes a part for the cantor singing these words of forgiveness (Songs and Prayers from Taizé, Vol. 2). Or have the congregation sing only the refrain before and after the spoken assurance.

Prayer for Illumination: Psalm 119:18

Musical Settings of the Sermon Text (to precede and/or follow the sermon)

Metrical Settings of Psalm 84
“How Lovely, Lord, How Lovely” PH 207, TWC 333 (see p. 34)

“Lord of the Worlds Above” RL 110, TH 375

“How Lovely” The Hymnal 1982 517

“How Dear to Me, O Lord of Hosts” The Hymnbook 440

Choir Anthems
“How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” Brahms

“O How Amiable” Vaughan Williams

Prayers of the People
Introduce the prayers of the people with Psalm 34, using one of the many recent settings that involve the congregation on a refrain, with the verses sung or read by one person. For one example, consider “Taste and See,” a gospel-style setting by Francis Patrick O’Brien (see box on p. 10). The optional choral support on the refrain is very accessible for a small choir. (Incidentally, this piece is also very appropriate during the Lord’s Supper.) The arrangement of the entire psalm would be as follows:

Refrain (v. 13, sung the first time by the choir alone)

Stanza 1 (vv. 1-3); Refrain

Stanza 2 (vv. 4-7, 9-10); Refrain

Stanza 3 (vv. 11-18); Refrain

Stanza 4 (vv. 19-22); Refrain

Prayers of the People; Refrain

Benediction: from Psalm 67
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.

Let all the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

Week two

Spending Time in God’s Presence

Scripture
New Testament Lesson: John 14:7-17

Text: Psalm 27

Sermon: Seek His Face
God is light because God is love. Love is the source of the truest vision. We say that love is blind, but anyone who has truly loved some other person through good times and bad, faithfully over many years—anyone who has loved that way knows that love is not blind. Infatuation is blind, but love sees everything. C. S. Lewis says: “He who loves, sees.” Love sees the other person whole and complete, distinct from myself, gloriously individual. John Bayley’s recent book, An Elegy for Iris, is about his wife, Iris Murdoch, the world-renowned philosopher and prolific novelist. Iris (who recently passed away) had Alzheimer’s disease, and most people who met her could see no trace of the woman responsible for so much scholarship. But John Bayley could still see her. Because her husband loved her, he could still see the Iris he married in the disabled woman he cared for.

That is how God loves each of us, seeing the true person within. That is how God loves everything that exists, seeing its truest nature. Our love may generate flickers of light, but God, who is love, is light. This light is what the psalmist is seeking when he urges his own soul, “Seek his face.” But the psalmist knew full well that he’d never attain this vision. Even Moses wasn’t allowed to see the face of God, because to see God would mean annihilation—like a piece of paper in a fire.

And yet this yearning, this longing for God driven by love for him that wants nothing more than to see him, keeps emerging. So in the gospel of John, when Jesus is having an intimate conversation with his disciples, Philip asks for the thing he wants most. “Show us the Father,” he begs. Even though he knows that to see God is to die, Philip wants to see God.

But in Jesus, an amazing thing happens. In Jesus, we see the face of God, and we do not die. Rather, Jesus takes that death on himself. He offers himself for us. He is both light and salvation.

Liturgical Resources
Call to Worship (Psalm 92:1-4)

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night,

to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.

For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

Opening Time of Praise
“Be Exalted, O God” (Psalms 57 & 108) Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 25

“God Is My Great Desire” (Psalm 63) TWC 336

“O Worship the King” (Psalm 104)” PsH 428, PH 476, TH 2, TWC 29

“Be Exalted, O God”

Call to Confession: Psalm 24:3-5

Prayer of Confession (sung): “Have Mercy in Your Goodness, Lord” TWC 322
or read Psalm 51 in unison

Assurance of Pardon: from Psalm 103 (see Week one)

Prayer for Illumination: Psalm 43:3

Musical Settings of the Text

Metrical Settings of Psalm 27
“God Is My Strong Salvation” PH 179, RL 95, PH 179, TH 667

“O Lord, You Are My Light” PsH 164

Choir Anthems
“The Lord Is My Saving Light” Andrew Witchger (G.I.A.; this is a very accessible gospel-style choir anthem that includes a chorus on which the congregation joins in.)

“Hide Not Thou Thy Face” R. Farrant (setting of v. 9 only)

Other Settings
“The Lord Is My Light,” Taizé, Renew! 102, or in Music from Taizé Vol. 2 (G.I.A.); a round with several possible instrumental descants.

“The Lord Is My Light,” David Haas, Gather (G.I.A.); solo or duet verses with a congregational response.

Prayers of the People
Introduce the Prayers of the People with Psalm 102, using “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (see box; Songs and Prayers from Taizé 20; Wonder, Love, and Praise 827; Renew! 173; The Covenant Hymnal: A Worship Book 394). A speaker reads the psalm; the congregation responds with the refrain.

Refrain

First time choir; second time all. The choir may continue to hum the refrain during the reading.

Psalm 102:1-7 (read); Refrain

Psalm 102:8-11(read); Refrain

Psalm 102:12-17 (read); Refrain

Psalm 102:18-22 (read); Refrain

Psalm 102:23-28 (read); Refrain

Prayers of the People; Refrain

Benediction: from Psalm 67 (see Week One)

Week three

Waiting for God

Scripture
New Testament Lesson: John 14:18-27

Text: Psalms 130 and 131

Sermon: Waiting in Weakness
These two brief prayers are next to each other in the Psalter, and each of them includes a reminder to let our souls wait for God.

One or the other of these prayers is probably relevant on almost any day of your life. In times of despair, we wait on the Lord. In times of excitement and achievement, we wait on the Lord. In times of longing and in times of dryness. In times of failure and in times of success. In times of humiliation and in times of pride. In times of need and in times of abundance.

Psalm 130 begins with humility, with the recognition of utter weakness. From the depths of pain and failure—at one of those low, painful, horrible moments in life—the psalmist cries to the Lord and finds help there. Help is available not because of any virtue in us, but because of the steadfast nature of God. Just as the sunrise does not come by virtue of our willing it, so God’s steadfast love is constantly poured out on us without our merit.

Psalm 131 also begins with humility, but this is not the humility of the previous psalm. This is a humility that has been consciously chosen and embraced as a discipline. When things are going well, when we believe that we can achieve anything we set our minds to, then we need to pray this psalm, to remember that our strength is an illusion and our wisdom is as foolishness to God. We need to be willing to be weaned, to see God as a personal being whom we are learning to love rather than primarily or solely as the source of food, the one who fills our orders and meets our wants.

Both psalms lead to an attitude of restful contentment, of trusting hope, based on the knowledge that God is in charge, now and forever.

Liturgical Resources
Call to Worship (Psalm 90:1-2, 14)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Opening Time of Praise
“A Shield About Me” (Psalm 3) Maranatha! 23

“In Heavenly Love Abiding” (Psalm 23) TWC 521

“Lead Me, Lord” (Psalms 5:8; 4:8) The Hymnbook 539, TH 727, Renew! 175

“A Shield About Me” (Psalm 3)

Call to Confession: Psalm 130:3-6

Prayer of Confession: “Have Mercy on Us, Living Lord” PH 195 or read Psalm 51 in unison

Assurance of Pardon: from Psalm 103

Prayer for Illumination: Psalm 119:34

Musical Settings of the Text

Metrical Settings (Psalm 130)
“Out of the Depths” PsH 130, PH 240; RL 134

Week Four

Praying and Worshiping in Joy

Scripture
New Testament Lesson: John 15:1-11

Text: Psalm 100

Sermon: Serve Him with Mirth
Garrison Keillor’s novel Wobegon Boy opens with, “I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it’s all thanks to a good Lutheran mother.” Not everyone would see such a natural connection between cheerfulness and a religious upbringing. But joy is a central reality of the Christian life.

Try to think of a time when you’ve experienced complete joy. I can think of such times. For instance, I think of the last time that I was at the beach, lying in the sun under a blue sky, listening to the waves. But that joy was fragile, dependent on external circumstances and so susceptible to external change. It wasn’t a joy that none can move.

Most of us have probably had a few experiences in our lives of a joy so overwhelming, so complete, that we were for a time immune to external changes. People who are in love may sometimes sustain that state for weeks or even months at a time. That’s the joy Jesus wants for us as a constant in our lives.

The psalm tells us that the joy we find in God is unshaken and unchanging because it is based on something lasting and unchanging. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us very clearly what we have to do to have complete joy. We need to abide in his love. Joy is rooted in love—a love that we receive from God, not a love that is our duty to produce. Romans 8 promises that we cannot be separated from that love. Brennan Manning says that God loves us so much, he’d rather die than live without us.

We would be so much more comfortable if everything depended on our love for God. Our sacrifices, our offerings, our rituals, our prayers . . . these are things that we can control. But this is not what we need. We need a heart that delights and rejoices in God’s love. This is the hinge on which your eternal destiny depends: not “Do you love God?” but rather “Will you let God love you?” We have a hard enough time receiving love from other people. Remember the connection between love and light? Love sees. So we hold other people at a distance because we don’t want to be seen. God’s love sees completely, yet he still loves us. In Wobegon Boy, Keillor’s narrator, John, ultimately concludes: “You can’t outsmart life. The only answer is to be loved so that nothing else matters so much.” That’s the answer that God offers us.

Liturgical Resources
Call to Worship (Psalm 95:1-2)

O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Opening Time of Praise
“O Lord, Our Lord, How Majestic” (Psalm 8)

Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 217

“Come, Let Us Worship and Bow Down” (Psalm 95) Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 105

“Praise Ye the Lord” (Psalm 150) PH 258

“O Lord, Our Lord, How Majestic” (Psalm 8)

Call to Confession: Psalm 5:3-7

Prayer of Confession (sung): Psalm 51 chant (setting by David Isele) PH 196
or read Psalm 51 in unison

Assurance of Pardon: from Psalm 103

Prayer for Illumination: Psalm 19:14
Read Psalm 100. This psalm is so well known that people need to hear it in a new way. But using some fresh translation or paraphrase is often more jarring than refreshing and undermines the memorization of Scripture. Instead, I suggest that you have people put away their Bibles and repeat each line of the psalm after you. Break the psalm into short lines, and declare each line very deliberately with joy, enthusiasm, and clarity. The people will naturally repeat after you with the same intonation you use and at the same speed, so they will find themselves expressing the psalm with the same joy, enthusiasm, and clarity. Start your next line as soon as they finish repeating the line prior, with no pause, but don’t rush the text. This is very simple and very effective. It’s especially effective if you memorize the psalm so that you can look up at the congregation while saying your lines.

Musical Settings of the Text


Metrical Settings
“All People That on Earth Do Dwell” PsH 100, PH 220, RL 120, TH 1, TWC 317

“Before the Lord’s Eternal Throne” Hymnal 1982 391

Choir Anthems

“Old Hundreth” Vaughan Williams (the well-known setting of “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” for choir and congregation, with brass and organ.)

Prayers of the People
Introduce the prayers of the people with Psalm 16, using the refrain, “You will show me the path of life” by Marty Haugen in Gather or in Psalms for the Church Year, Vol. 2 (both G.I.A.). Soloists sing the stanzas or read the verses; the congregation responds with the refrain. The arrangement below intersperses the musical setting with straight Scripture.

Refrain: (first time, duet; second time, all)

Stanza 1 (sung): Faithful God, I look to you, you alone my life and fortune.

Never shall I look to other gods; you shall be my one hope. Refrain

Psalm 16:1-4 (read); Refrain

Stanza 2 (sung): From of old you are my heritage, you my wisdom and my safety.

Through the night you speak within my heart. Silently you teach me. Refrain

Psalm 16:5-8 (read); Refrain

Stanza 3 (sung): So my heart shall sing for joy. In your arms I rest securely.

You will not abandon me to death. You shall not desert me. Refrain

Benediction: from Psalm 67 (see Week One)

Laura Smit is a faculty member in the religion department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA).