Liturgy Lessons: March 24, 2019 (3rd Sunday Lent)
Call to Worship: Psalm 29:1-2; 10-11; Psalm 89:5-7; 13-17
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Rejoice, the Lord is King (#310)
Confession and Trisagion
Assurance of Pardon: Titus 3:3-7
Hymns of Assurance: Before the Throne of God Above; God of Grace
Reading of the Word: Acts 20:17-38
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin, “The Mission is Life”
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Lift Up Your Hearts Unto the Lord; Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands
Closing Hymn: There is a Higher Throne
Worship is not just something we do. It does something to us. Our Sunday service of worship is not just the downloading of content or the expression of inner feelings. It is a life-changing, burning-bush encounter with a Holy and loving Yahweh. It is more art than science, more poem than PowerPoint. Our liturgy is designed to enable a transformative dialogue with our promise-keeping God, one that consummates in a renewal of our covenant with Jesus. It is a weekly wedding feast rehearsal of the great marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). Our communal practices in worship go way beyond our intellectual capacities. They seep into the soil of our imaginations, and thereby shape our souls. Put simply, our liturgical habits form our life’s hungers. Therefore, how we worship is so very important, because it influences what or who we worship.
There is wealth of wisdom that is gifted to us in the forms and narratives of historic Christian worship. There is stuff here that operates under the mind’s radar. By embodying these forms, we follow in the footsteps of the church fathers, who unintentionally protect us from following fads that may lead us astray. In the practice of worship, it is easy to wander off. It is a sad fact that the contemporary church suffers from a sort of cultural amnesia. So many churches have forgotten where they came from. And so, Christian worship has arrived at a crossroads. This junction is not what you think. It’s not a flat, great plains intersection with perpendicular straight lines leading clearly to north, south, east, or west through a Kansas cornfield all the way to the blue horizon. No, this is a labyrinthine crossing deep in the woods. There is an old, mossy signpost with carved letters, arrows, and mile markers that are weathered and illegible. Countless storms have left these trails damaged and overgrown, some of them no more than a deer track through the underbrush. We could follow any one of these twisting tentacles until it narrows out to nowhere. In such a place, how is it possible to find the way?
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.'”
– Jer. 6:16
Ask for the ancient paths. That is where the good way is. It is fortunate that we have compass (scripture), map (church history), and a guide (Holy Spirit), without which we would be lost. So much of that ancient path has already been trod. Consider these lessons as an attempt to “stand, look, and ask,” that we may “walk” with wisdom in our worship and find the soul’s rest which the Lord desires for us.
Four weeks ago (Feb. 24th) the subject of the Liturgy Lesson was the ancient prayer Kyrie Eleison. Two weeks ago (March 10th), we learned about the timeless and transcendent hymn Trisagion. Both of these texts were born in scripture and adopted into the liturgies of the early Christian church during the patristic era (c. 100-450). This week we continue to explore the semitis antiquis (ancient paths), by looking at another age-old prayer, the Sursum Corda.
Lift Up Your Hearts Unto the Lord
Text: Sursum Corda (ca. 3rd cent.)
Music: SING ALLELUIA, Linda Stassen (1974)
This week we sing words that millions of Christians around the world say or chant every Lord’s Day as they prepare to receive the bread and wine in Holy Communion.
“Lift up your hearts unto the Lord.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
The responsive refrain, known as the Sursum Corda, echoes the biblical injunction to open our hearts to Jesus, and set our minds on Him. It is a re-calibrating prayer, one that steers the heart’s affections back to true north. We find this sentiment all over the Psalms.
“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.”
– Ps. 25
“Gladden the heart of your servant, for to you, O LORD, do I lift up my soul.”
– Ps. 86
“Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”
– Ps. 143
The Hebrew expression “lift up” essentially means to cry out for or set one’s heart on something. David uses this expression in the Psalms to describe his desire to worship the Lord and commune with him. Jeremiah uses the same phrase in Lamentations: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (3:41). The Sursum Corda, then, is biblical language that expresses the longing of our hearts to commune with God. It is an appropriate prayer as we prepare to come to the Table of our Lord.
Michael Brown of Christ United Reformed Church (Santee, CA) gives us this helpful history of the prayer:
“The church has used the Sursum Corda in worship since at least the early third century. We find references to it in the writings of several early church fathers. For example, Cyprian (c.210-258), the bishop of Carthage, said in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Let every carnal and worldly thought depart, and let the mind dwell on nothing other than that alone for which it prays. Therefore, the priest also before his prayer prepares the minds of the brethren by first uttering a preface, saying: “Lift up your hearts,” so that when the people respond: “We lift them up to the Lord,” they may be admonished that they should ponder on nothing other than the Lord.’ We find similar statements in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430).”
There is precedent for using this prayer in our context. In fact, even though the Sursum Corda was associated with the rite of Roman Catholic Eucharist, the Protestant Reformers did not condemn the use of it. To the contrary, John Calvin (1509-1564) recognized the wisdom in this ancient practice, especially in connection to the Lord’s Supper. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin said”:
“For, in order that pious souls may duly apprehend Christ in the Supper, they must be raised up to heaven…It was established of old that before consecration the people should be told in a loud voice to lift up their hearts. Scripture itself also not only carefully recounts to us the ascension of Christ, by which he withdrew the presence of his body from our sight and company, to shake from us all carnal thinking of him, but also, whenever it recalls him, bids our minds be raised up, and seek him in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Our sung version of this prayer begins with the Sursum Corda, but includes an “Alleluia” refrain and several added verses that celebrate the mystery and reality of our communion with Christ at the Table.
Lift up your hearts unto the Lord. Sing Alleluia!
His resurrection sets us free. Sing Alleluia!
In Christ the world has been redeemed. Sing Alleluia!
Therefore we celebrate the feast. Sing Alleluia!
Scripture tells us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3.1). When we sing this on Sunday, we are being obedient to this mandate. Holy Spirit, as we come to the Table on Sunday, hungering for the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, grant that we may commune with our ascended Savior. May this not be just an empty ritual. As we lift our hearts to the Lord, tune them to sing His praise!
I could not find an online version of the hymn setting we are doing, so here is an instrumental recording of the melody.
Rejoice, the Lord is King
Text: Charles Wesley (1744)
Tune: DARWALL, John Darwall (1740)
The refrain of this great hymn by Charles Wesley quotes the Sursum Corda, and adds in a bit of Philippians 4:4.
“Lift up your hearts, lift up your voice, rejoice, again I say, rejoice!”
After opening with a jubilant call to rejoice in the reign of Jesus, each verse concludes with that rising and rousing refrain. At the end of the full version of the Sursum Corda, the people say that “it is right to give God thanks and praise.” It is that sentiment on which Wesley elaborates, giving us countless reasons why it is so fitting to lift up our hearts and rejoice. This hymn reads like a gospel expansion of the Sursum Corda.
Wesley’s pen, saturated in the Word of God, consistently drips poetic and rich biblical allusions on the page. He writes eloquently and enthusiastically of the triumphant reign of Christ. He assures us that Jesus conquers guilt and the grave. Thus, we hail him as King, reigning at God’s right hand (Hebrews 1:3, Revelation 1:18). The final verse invites us to see Christ as our living hope, as we anticipate his joyful return (1 Peter 1:21). Wesley originally wrote six stanzas, five of which are included in our hymnal.
The most common tune used with this text is DARWALL, named after the composer, John Darwall. It is a regal tune that perfectly supports and augments the text. The music does the heavy lifting. All we have to do is add heart and voice. Each musical line is ascending either in leaps or by stepwise motion. The refrain is two musical phrases that lift the voice back up to the keynote (tonic) of the scale. This makes the singer feel as if they are arriving back home. The melody was first published with the text of Psalm 148 in Aaron Williams’ New Universal Psalmodist in 1770, but somewhere along the way some brilliant matchmaker paired the Wesley text with Darwall’s tune. This arranged marriage has been living happily ever after in almost all mainline Christian hymnals. Let us lift up our hearts and rejoice, for the joy of the Lord is our strength!