Shaped by a Psalm
When I first began preaching and my chosen text for a Sunday was a psalm, I would simply preach about the psalm at the prescribed section of the liturgy, seeing myself as the one who was called to explain and expound on the psalm as a piece of biblical text. Of course, liturgists and I would also include other elements in the litany that connected to the psalm’s language or meaning, and we would search for a great song of response to “seal the deal,” but the psalm itself remained intact as the preaching topic.
Over several years, however, as my understanding of the psalms and their use in the Hebrew worshiping community deepened, I became much more interested in having us experience the psalms, rather than just listening to a cognitive “lecture” on them in a service. Experiencing the psalms in worship was, after all, a large part of the original context of a psalm for God’s ancient people. Since we too are God’s people gathered in community to worship, how rich it is to have a psalm actually shape and direct our communal time of worship, instead of it being a presentation that we dissect together.
I began to take more careful note of the ways in which psalms were divided into parts, like dramatic acts or musical movements. As a preacher works through a text in preparation, these are often noted, but they then usually become preaching subsections or points within a sermon. I began, however, to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider how to let the psalm shape our whole time of worship, rather than fitting the psalm into our preaching slot. To maximize the impact, I decided to preach a psalm in its separate parts as separate acts of our worship gathering, letting the design and content of an individual psalm lead us through our communal worship as much as possible.
Psalms are very different in tone and tenor from each other, and so our services changed according to the type of psalm. A wisdom psalm asked for different responses in a worship service than did a psalm of lament or a psalm of praise. Some psalms contain multiple commands, and I wondered how we could not just listen to, but actually do some of those things, as, presumably, Israel might have done. Finally, I hoped that by creating a response to each movement of the psalm, God’s Word might have a deeper and more lasting resonance with people.
Following you will find two service examples. The music choices reflect the specific congregation for which they were prepared, but they can be changed to suit the style of your worshiping community.
A Service on Psalm 13: Protest, Petition, Praise
(Music team comes forward as bells are rung to invite congregation into worship.)
“Bless the Lord, My Soul” SNC 256
“Be Unto Your Name” (DeShazo & Sadler)
Welcome and Opening Prayer
Song: “Confitemini Domino/Come and Fill Our Hearts” SWM 162
Protest . . . How Long, O Lord?
Scripture: Psalm 13:1-2
Song: “Wait for the Lord” SNC 96, WR 166
Litany for Psalm 13
(The music continues as the readers, all unseen, read their lines in the following litany. Each line is spoken by a different reader.)
All readers: How long, O Lord?
How long before I am free from this pain?
How long will mere children become soldiers?
How long before governments rule justly?
How long must I feel like a lone voice against injustice?
Why must there be so much strife in my family? Why must my friend suffer so?
How long before our children turn to you?
How long will AIDS ravage Africa?
How long must I live with this guilt and shame? How long before fewer children die each day?
When will cancer die?
How long must women be made into sexual objects?
How long before the world is suicide-free?
(slowly) When will the church finally be all it can be?
(slowly) How long before peace and joy rule in every heart?
All readers: (strongly) How long, O Lord?
Song: “Wait for the Lord”
Sermon, Part 1
Sung Response: Psalm 13
Petition . . . Look On Me and Answer
Scripture: Psalm 13:3-4
Sermon, Part 2
Song: “I Lift My Eyes Up” SNC 208
Prayers of Intercession
(Leader opens the prayer with words such as these: “As we enter into a time of prayer, may the prayers spoken aloud guide you in a time of silent, personal reflection. Let us pray.” Then the following prayers are read by congregation members scattered throughout the sanctuary. These can be bidding prayers allowing for those present to add their own silent prayers to each request, or you can ask the congregational member to fill out the prayer by adding his or her own spoken words.)
We pray for those who suffer with illness, for those who live with pain every day. . . . O Lord, bring them your comfort.
We pray for brothers and sisters living in places of war and terror. . . . O Lord, bring them your peace.
We pray for justice and equality, that the voices of all people might be heard, that respect might live again in places of distrust, oppression, and abuse. . . . O Lord, hear our prayer.
Song: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (st. 1) SNC 203, WR 484
We pray for families living in hardship, that broken relationships might be mended and hurtful pasts resolved. . . . O Lord, bring them your love.
We pray for loved ones who have strayed from you, who live in doubt and fear. . . . O Lord, bring them your grace.
We pray for the disaster and turmoil in our world, for countries ravaged by poverty, illness, and death. . . . O Lord, hear our prayer.
Song: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (st. 1)
We pray for those living with guilt and shame, for those who feel regret every day. . . . O Lord, bring them your mercy.
We pray for people living with indecision and uncertainty. . . . O Lord, bring them your wisdom.
We pray for your church, that barriers might be broken, that unity and truth might prevail. Empower us, Lord, to be witnesses in your world, to serve you in one ministry, to sit together at one table. . . . O Lord, hear our prayer.
Song: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (st. 1 and 2)
Praise . . . But Still I Will Trust
Scripture: Psalm 13:5-6
Sermon, Part 3
Song: “Nothing Can Trouble/Nada te turbe” GSW 46, WR 421 “Psalm 23” (Townend)
Scripture: Psalm 96:1-8
Offertory Song: “Hear, O Lord” PsH 5
(After the offering basket is passed, people receive and share the light of a candle.)
Benediction: “Happy are those who walk from doubt toward the brightness of a humble trust in God. Just like the sun dispelling the morning mist, light will shine in the nights of the soul. This is not an illusory trust, but a clear-headed one, that impels us to act in the midst of real-life situations, to understand, to love.”
Song: “In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” SNC 220, WR 448
A Service on Psalm 95 in Three Acts
Psalm 95 is the model for this worship service. There are three acts in this psalm—three commands for the people of God. Simply put, they are praise, worship, and listen. The three acts of this service will focus on these three commands.
Song: “I Will Enter His Gates” CH 214, SFL 9, SNC 13, WR 657
God’s Greeting and Blessing
Act 1: Praise
Why do we praise God? For two reasons: because of God’s supremacy, and because everything we are and everything we have belongs to him.
Scripture: Psalm 95:1-5 Sermon, Part 1
(Congregation stands. Leader leads the following call-and-response with vigor and volume. Music begins softly along with the litany, builds to a crescendo, and transitions into the first song of response.)
Leader: Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord!
All: Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord!
Leader: Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation! All: Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation! Leader: Let us come before him with thanksgiving
All: Let us come before him with thanksgiving
Leader: and extol him with music and song.
All: and extol him with music and song.
Leader: For the Lord is the great God,
All: For the Lord is the great God,
Leader: the great King above all gods.
All: the great King above all gods.
Leader: Worthy is his name!
All: Worthy is his name!
Leader: Forever and ever!
All: Forever and ever!
Leader: Amen and Amen!
All: Amen and Amen!
Medly of joyful songs of praise. Some suggestions:
“Hosanna” CH 296, SWM 29, WR 266
“Take Us to the River” (Mark) “Blessed Be Your Name” (Redman)
“The River Is Here” (Park)
Offertory Song: “With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring” PsH 183, TH 88
How rich it is to have a psalm actually shape and direct our communal time of worship.
Act 2: Worship
We move into the second act: worship. It’s as if we have been standing in the outer courts of the temple in joyful praise, and now we move inside, bowing before God. We do this because God is a relational God. We are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.
Scripture: Psalm 95:6-7
Sermon, Part 2
(During the following section of songs, people are invited to literally bow down. We have done this in various ways, depending on the context and the layout of the building: (1) invite all officebearers to kneel up front during the first song; (2) invite one particular section of the congregation to come up and kneel at the front during one song, returning to their seats at the end; (3) celebrate the Lord’s Supper in this part of the service—as people file forward, they can choose to kneel up front after partaking; (4) urge people to kneel where they are seated; (5) encourage people to get out of their seats and kneel in an open space.)
“Humble Thyself in the Sight of the Lord” CH 622, RN 188, SWM 201, SNT 230
“Jesus, All for Jesus” (Mark)
“Be Still, For the Presence” SNC 11
Act 3: Listen
As the people kneel in worship, God himself speaks. During this section, invite people into a listening posture before God, perhaps by opening their hands. Songs are followed by short periods of silence, followed by some words from God. Various Scriptures could be used here, depending on the circumstances.
Scripture: Psalm 95:8-11
Sermon, Part 3
Song: “Ancient Words” (Smith)
Words from God (adapted from Rom. 12:9-18, 21)
Don’t just pretend that you love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of the good.
Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.
Never be lazy in your work, but serve the Lord enthusiastically.
Be glad for all God is planning for you. Be patient in trouble, and always be prayerful.
When God’s children are in need, be the one to help them out. And get into the habit of inviting guests home for dinner or, if they need lodging, for the night.
If people persecute you because you are a Christian, don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.
When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow.
Live in harmony with each other.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable.
Do your part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible.
Don’t let evil get the best of you, but conquer evil by doing good.
Song: “Change My Heart, O God” CH 654, SNC 56, WR 373
Words from God (Matt. 11:28-30)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Song: “Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer” (Becker & Getty)
Song: “Multiply Your Love” (Park)