Liturgy Lessons: March 28, 2021 (Palm Sunday)
Call to Worship: from Psalm 118
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Praise: All Glory, Laud, and Honor (#235)
Prayer of Confession: Psalm 143 and “Deliver Us” refrain
Assurance of Pardon: Revelations 19:11-16 and 1:5-6
Hymn of Assurance: Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder (#172)
Reading of the Word: Luke 19:35-40
Sermon: “Journey from Teacher to King” – Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
Supper: At the Lamb’s High Feast (#440); There is a Higher Throne
By Malcolm Guite (b. 1957)
Now to the gate of my Jerusalem,
The seething holy city of my heart,
The saviour comes. But will I welcome him?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing,
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal he is bringing
Changes their tune. I know what lies behind
The surface flourish that so quickly fades;
Self-interest, and fearful guardedness,
The hardness of the heart, its barricades,
And at the core, the dreadful emptiness
Of a perverted temple. Jesus come
Break my resistance and make me your home.
Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, is the beginning of Holy Week, the liturgical summit of Christian Worship. After our long march through the Church calendar year, we arrive at this week in which we remember and recount the final days of Christ’s earthly journey. There is so much that is inexpressibly beautiful about the narrative of Christ’s journey from Palm Sunday to Easter morning, especially the chapter that unfolds from the Garden to Golgotha. It is the greatest story ever told, and one that has shaped the entire imagination of Western culture. Indeed, this is the most transformative week in all history.
The dramatic nature of these events has inspired some of the greatest art, music, and poetry every produced. Much of this canon seeks to draw us into the story, inviting us to think of ourselves as participants in these narratives. Consider this work from G.K. Chesterton:
by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
As we approach Holy Week, I think that poetry, art, and music can help us enter into the narrative in fresh ways and get inside the truth. It can help us hear the story as for the first time. The poets do this by telling it slant; likewise, the artists give us new angles of vision. And our music, with its allusive and evocative power, helps draw our hearts up and out of their cloistered, comfortable caves back into the light. “Awake O Sleeper…and Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14).
The events of Christ’s passion are so profound in importance, they sometimes seem indescribable, unutterable, ineffable. It is at such a juncture, the thin (and thick) place where heaven meets earth, the place where analysis fails, that the artist jumps in and gets to work. Samuel Coleridge, the great 18th-century poet said that he hoped his work could…
“awaken the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the loveliness and the wonders before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”
It would be a grievous error for us to approach Holy Week with only the “lethargy of custom” in such a manner that our hearts “neither feel nor understand.” Likewise, it would be a profound mistake if we went through worship and missed the forest for the beautiful trees. I pray that the beauty of our liturgies this coming week will open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the wonders before us in the person of Jesus Christ.
One more thing. There is a work of art in our worship that should not be overlooked. It is one that is too often missed, yet it is right in front of us. That work of art is you. Consider this verse from Ephesians.
“For we are God’s workmanship (poema), created in Christ Jesus for good works…”
Or this one from Isaiah:
“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
These passages affirm the reality that God’s workmanship in us, his sanctifying and redemptive work through the blood of the Cross and the power of the Holy Spirit, is not merely functional or useful, but it is beautiful and well-crafted; in essence, it is poetic. This work is consistent with the character of God, who seeks to transform us into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Indeed, all those whom He has chosen, He has predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:29), Jesus Christ, who is the very “perfection of beauty” (Ps. 50:2). Those who are in Christ are slowly and steadily being stretched and struck, tuned like so many strings on the piano, so that we may sound a grand and beautiful chord to His glory.
All Glory, Laud, and Honor
Text: Theodulf, Bishop of Orleans (c. 820)
Tune: ST. THEODULPH, Melchior Teschner (1615)
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the opening chapter in the Holy Week chronicles. These final days for Jesus are filled with more caliginous beauty than any Rembrandt, more pathos than a Shakespearean tragedy, even more (dare I say it) poetic layers of meaning than anything Bach ever wrote. The march from crown to cross and then from grave to glory is literally out of this world. It is an endless source of inspiration for songwriters and storytellers throughout history. Compared with the brilliant revelation of Jesus, even Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and Bach are nothing more than cover bands…albeit really good ones that I would pay to go see.
Our opening hymn this week is a poetic retelling of the triumphal entry, which has been used in the churches for fourteen centuries. The medieval liturgy actually re-enacted the story of Palm Sunday. Using this hymn as a procession, the priests and people would start outside the city walls and march toward the gates, waving branches and casting flowers, all the while following a living representation of Jesus seated on a donkey. Before the gates were opened, a choir of children would begin to sing, then in Latin: Gloria, laus et honor, with that refrain often echoed by the crowd. Once the song was over, the gates were opened and the procession made its way to the cathedral for the celebration of the Mass.
This hymn originally consisted of 78 lines (39 couplets). Don’t worry, we won’t sing all of them on Sunday! It was written by St. Theodulph while he was in prison. The first line of text directs all praise to the “redeemer King,” which is a bold statement considering that Theodulph was imprisoned for suspected treason against the king of France. The tune was not originally composed with Theodulph’s text in mind, but it did not take long for the two to be matched. The pairing became so popular that the tune is now named after Theodulph himself. This marriage of tune and text results in some unintended theological brilliance. The melody consists of four four-bar phrases. The first eight measures are a repeated melodic phrase that is rising and hopeful. In contrast, the last two musical phrases are mostly descending lines, resulting in each verse ending on the lowest note in the entire phrase. The effect is one of a grand, melodic arc that lifts and then lands back where it started. Settling and satisfying in its structure, the melody mirrors the expectations and experience of those who greeted Christ with shouts of “Hosanna!”. It is not the big high-note finish that we would expect from the start. Rather, it is a melody fitting for a servant King who brought hope through humility, took up a cross before a crown, and gained deliverance through death.
Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder
Text: John Newton, 1774
Music: ALL SAINTS OLD, 1698
The worship pastor and hymnwriter Matt Boswell gives the following thoughtful and heartfelt description of this great hymn by John Newton. This comes from doxologyandtheology.com:
“Few hymns marry the practice of revelation and response like Newton’s “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder.” This text is laid with care and intentionality as Newton calls us to worship God with the first line of each verse. In each call to worship he fuels the flame of devotion by setting before us what God has done on our behalf. He clearly reminds us both of God’s upheld justice and also of our justification in Him alone. Our God is the God who calls us, washes us, brings us near, secures us, and liberates us.
Newton’s theology is fixed on his heart. There is no room in his understanding of theology that it would not rest in his affections. “Let us love,” “let us wonder,” “let us sing”–he shepherds his own soul along with ours as he recalls the goodness of God. We often feel our hearts grow cold and our minds unaffected. We hear the loud thunder of the law, and feel the echoes of Egypt ringing in our bones, but the approval of God is louder than the whisper of the curse. His mercy triumphs over judgment.”