Finally, my brothers, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your waist girded with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, having your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace, and above all, taking the shield of faith, with which you will be able to extinguish all the fiery arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit always with all kinds of prayer and supplication. To that end be alert with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. Pray for me, that the power to speak may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may speak boldly as I ought to speak.
Psalm 122:1 “I rejoiced with those who said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’”
What an interesting insight the psalmist gives to worship. He rejoices to go to Yahweh’s (the LORD’s) house! Is that true today? Perhaps some of us quietly admit that worship is less than thrilling, less than exciting. In fact, it might be a rare occasion when we could admit that we rejoiced about worshiping. An interesting parallel with basketball will help us better understand what happens in liturgy, and why we can join the Psalmist.
For a basketball game people gather to be ready for the game. They (usually!) stand for the national anthem. So at worship we gather together standing for the opening hymn in worship.
At the basketball game, the players are introduced. So, too, in worship. One side in this game is: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit = God” and the other side is: “I, a poor, miserable sinner = us sinners.” At this point, God stops the game and declares, “You can’t play in My game. I am pure, holy, and righteous. You are sinners, deserving my full punishment.”
Then comes the surprise. Like in basketball, the jump ball starts the game. Usually the taller player can tip the ball to his or her team. In worship, this is a game between God and us. Who will the tipoff? Even the tallest basketball players are not able to compete with God. So to start the game, God wins the tip off.
In worship, since it is God’s game, He grabs the ball first and rushes down the court to tell us of His love and forgiveness. God says, “I forgive you all your sins for the sake of My Son, who is the Star of the game.” With that, we are invited to play in God’s game with God’s rules— with God’s victory already assured! We rush down the other way, scoring with our praise. We don’t shout “Yeah, God,” but we use appropriate terms such as “Praise the Lord!” or “Hallelujah.”
You keep track of who has the liturgical ball by watching the pastor. When he faces the congregation, God has the ball, speaking to the people. When the pastor faces the altar, the people have the ball—they are speaking/singing to God.
As in a basketball game with four quarters, in worship we have four quarters. When the basketball game is on the line, everyone stands in anticipation of victory. So, too, in worship, when the Gospel is read, we stand, because in effect, God says, “Right here, this is My Star, and this is how He won the game.”
When the pastor says, “The Lord be with you,” that marks a quarter break.
First quarter: Invocation, confession/absolution, and praise.
Second quarter: Scripture readings, sermon, and creed.
Third quarter: Lord’s Supper (Christ’s body and blood for you).
Fourth quarter: Final prayer and benediction/blessing.
In a basketball game, each player can commit five fouls (in high school and college) before leaving the game. But in worship, five times we hear the words “your sins are forgiven.” God doesn’t want anyone to foul out of the game! Notice the focus of each declaration:
1) Confession/Absolution (general),
2) Scripture readings (how God achieved forgiveness),
3) Sermon (application),
4) Creed (joining the Church Catholic everywhere at all times proclaiming forgiveness of sins),
5) Lord’s Supper (forgiveness of sins —specifically “for you individually”).
Years ago on Monday night football, Don Meredith had a way of signaling the essential end of the football game. He would sing, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over…” Many people think that the benediction/blessing at the end of the service functions the same way: “It’s over, finally.” But not so!
Notice throughout the liturgy, God provides the words through His Word. He gifts the Church with musicians and servants to help in worship, Our highest form of worship is receiving His gifts and praising Him with His words. Music and art enhance our worship, not to entertain us, but to point to Jesus and His saving work.
To this game God invites the bruised, broken, abandoned, abused, forgotten to gather together, to join with others. After all, if we are honest, we fit one or more of those descriptions as well. There is only one star—Jesus
The star and center of worship is Jesus: who invites you!
Unlike a basketball game in which the thrill of victory fades, in worship God declares that the victory celebrated during worship will continue with us during the week — daily. Therefore, we leave not looking for a let down, but having been built up by playing in God’s game according God’s rules—winning with Him. In other words, the benediction declares that what God has done for us continues to be for us, in us, with us, and through us.
Guess what? Next week the game is repeated. Basketball fans do not complain that “we have to go to the game next week!” Nor as worshippers do we complain about worshipping next week. What an exciting event! Ultimately we look forward to the greatest day — when we will be with the Lord forever, rejoicing at the final victory won and celebrated permanently in heaven. Therefore, we join the psalmist and say,
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the LORD.’ ”
As Christians we cherish the Old and New Testaments for many reasons. They teach us about God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. The prophecies and promises of His coming in the OT, and the revelation of Him through the Gospels, and then expanded teachings in the NT letters.
There are many texts in the OT that you can read that point ahead to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Here are just a few (look up their fulfillment in the NT):
As part of our new relationship with God (saved, not condemned), God invites us to approach Him in prayer.
Jesus invites the hearers/readers/listeners to believe on Him and be saved. This includes forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, etc., and to approach God in prayer and to do so with confidence. In fact, we see in both testaments the encouragement to pray, the models for praying. Reading the Psalms can be great sources of praying, and learning about prayer.
For centuries Christians have grown in their prayer lives as they are influenced, guided, and directed by the Bible.
Praying can be hard
As we live in this world that is scarred by sin, it doesn’t take us long to hit the brick wall of difficult prayers. I don’t mean simple prayers, but those prayers that are so agonizing that we can’t even express ourselves. Words seem to fail us.
Having lived through decades of agony, fear, inability to change circumstances, I can’t even count how many times I was flat on the bed, floor, ground, crying out loud, “How long!?!” One Psalm captures that extreme sense of loss, abandonment, despair.
God does not leave us in that condition. And it is a good thing. Perhaps the pain of what is happening is monumental,and we stutter, frozen in a failure to even pray. God promises that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in that exact spot:
At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to.(Romans 8:26-27 GW)
What a comfort that God helps form our prayers even in those difficult, trying times.
Praying the Un-prayable
But now we come to the most difficult part. Trying to pray the un-prayable. This is the extreme condition when praying even seems unspeakable. When the pain is beyond description. To even say words at that point would mean that even God would be offended!
Psalm 137 comes to mind. It begins with a lament.
So far, this seems like a normal lament. But notice how this ends:
That is startling!! A few years ago I read one commentator who wrote strongly that this is “sub-Christian” and should never be uttered by anyone! Or in the words of this subheading: Praying the un-prayable.
I would offer that this prayer is precisely a Christian prayer, a faithful prayer. For the Jew writing this, the agony of seeing Jerusalem and the temple destroyed was overwhelming. The agony of deportation to other lands (not just Babylon, but also Egypt). The death of many family members and friends boils in the backdrop of the mind. The Psalm is not written with a “peaceful, pretty, gentle” background. The raw emotions of the Jewish people comes through very clearly.
But God… and this is key… But the Psalmist who utters this prayer brings the full brunt of the desperation before God. Notice, however, that the Psalmist does not act on this violence, namely “smashing babies against the rocks.” Rather the Psalmist is praying in faith before God. And that faith is such that God can handle the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness. The worst of all imaginable words, yet the Psalmist brings those emotions, hurts, losses, and now even words before God.
A word about justice:
The Psalmist does not take matters into his own hands. His heart is open about what he wanted to do—before God. But justice was not in his hands. God raised up others (namely, the Persians) who conquered Babylon. Was it instantaneous justice? No, but it was far better than one person trying to take on personal vengeance.
In the case of the sexual abuse scandal at MSU, USAG, and OSOC, God raised up people to address not one abuse incident—remember that many were not aware how extensive it was—but the larger scheme. Therefore, God raised up Rachael, Morgan, Makayla, and many others to become the voice that shouted “no more!”
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina in the courtroom allowed those many voices to be heard. The voice was no longer one lonely, fearful voice, but a combination of hundreds of voices, angry voices of women who were finally being heard. The Psalmist of 137 gave way to God’s greater justice. And now that same process is being played out. Justice is being served.
And the voices of others who have been abused are now catching worldwide attention: Abby Honold and the law named after her in Minnesota. Sammy Woodhouse who survived the Rotherham abuse ring is telling the story through her book and personal appearances.
Hope in Praying the Un-prayable
In praying this way, we are not offending God by our words. Rather we are actually trusting Him to hear, and respond in His perfect way. Not our way, not the expedient way, not the way we planned, not in the time we demand, but in His perfect way and perfect timing. We do so, knowing His promises to hear and to act.
Over the years when the ongoing turmoil was moving beyond 30 years, and part of it was our one son was missing for 18 years, life was beyond messy—it felt like the Babylonian captivity. It was what I described privately as “hell on earth.” That was the strongest way to describe it. Was God offended? No, he welcomes the prayers that are un-prayable. My heart was broken into a million pieces, my words inadequate. But, God listened.
My prayer of lament, the un-prayable prayer, was answered in a dramatic fashion two years ago. What I struggled to utter during those decades was answered in a way I didn’t think possible. But God…
prayers for them and with them
As I think about those who have been (and are being) abused, I think of Psalm 137. We can pray their un-prayable prayers for them and with them. We can open our mouths before God to say the difficult words, express the hurt, anger, rage, frustration. And we know that God can handle it.
That is one reason I began the daily prayer on Facebook and Twitter for #PrayerSurvivorsConquerors who suffered (and still do) under the abuse by Larry Nassar, MSU, and USAG, USOC, etc.
But now, we can expand that to pray for the many who have suffered abuse in so many ways. I think of Madeleine Black, Abby Honold, Lori Ann Thompson, Sandy Beach, Mary DeMuth, and so many others. And prayers for those who care for and minister to those who have been abused.
When we pray for them, we do not in any way minimize or diminish what has happened, what they are experiencing, the anguish, despair, sense of being forgotten. Rather, we pray in light of all that, we pray that God brings what we cannot.
Let’s storm God’s throne of mercy with un-prayable prayers, for the sake of our sisters and brothers.
1 Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before Him as a tender plant
and as a root out of a dry ground.
He has no form or majesty that we should look upon him
nor appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from him;
he was despised, and we did not esteem him.
4 Surely he has borne our grief
and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon him,
and by his stripes we are healed.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray;
each of us has turned to his own way,
but the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away,
and who shall declare his generation?
For he was cut off out of the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was struck.
9 His grave was assigned with the wicked,
yet with the rich in his death,
because he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him;
He has put him to grief.
If he made himself as an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days,
and the good pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the anguish of his soul and be satisfied.
By his knowledge My righteous servant shall justify the many,
for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore, I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death,
and he was numbered with the transgressors,
thus he bore the sin of many
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday caused quite a stir. Many were involved in proclaiming the praises due to Jesus. “Hosanna. loud Hosanna!” “Come, save us!” was their declaration. But are they ready for that salvation?
In the three days since then, Jesus teaches the people in the temple area. He confronts the religious leaders with parables. Instead of making a coalition with the leaders, Jesus demonstrates how far they have drifted from God’s intention. More broadly, He shows how much the entire people of Israel have lived, not as the people of God, but as whiny spoiled children who demand that God start working for them— constant refrain from the time of Moses leading them in the wilderness 1500 years prior.
But now it is Thursday, the passover celebration. Unlike other major festivals among the Jews, the Passover was not connected to the temple and the sacrifices. Rather it was a family festival, remembering God’s deliverance from Egypt. The night is not hurried, it is not time to prepare to escape at any moment. Passover had become a time of relaxing, retelling the story of the Exodus, in a night of lavish eating, joy, rejoicing in their life as God’s people.
The New Family
Earlier in the Gospel accounts we find a realigning of family:
Then his mother and his brothers arrived. While they were standing outside, they sent word to Jesus, calling for him. A crowd was
sitting around him. They began to tell him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you.”
He replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He looked at those who sat around him in a circle and he said, “Look, my mother and my brothers! (Mark 3:31-34 EHV)
That finds fulfillment tonight at the Passover meal. Jesus joins His disciples, not His family. The new identity of family is established—those who believe in Him are the family of God. That means these disciples have to relearn what relationships are like.
Servanthood in the Family
Earlier and even that night, they want to know the pecking order in this new community. “Let me sit on your right” and “Let me sit on Your left” become the questions. Instead, in John’s Gospel we read:
He got up from the supper and laid aside his outer garment. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:4-5 EHV)
Jesus takes on the form of a servant, the lowest servant who washes the feet.
After Jesus had washed their feet and put on his outer garment, he reclined at the table again. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. (John 13:12 EHV)
It takes them a while before they put all this together. For tonight they have a lot to digest.
But since Jesus knows that they are all sinners, He will do two things about that. Tomorrow He will die for their sins and the sins of the whole world. We will revisit tomorrow. But for now, Jesus takes the family meal of Passover and makes it a life-giving meal for sinners. Each of them will sin before the night is over. Each of them will experience the affects of sin in their lives: guilt, shame, fear, blame, etc. One will betray Him, another will deny Him, and all of them will flee in His greatest need.
So tonight Jesus changes the Passover meal with these words:
He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after the supper, saying, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is
being poured out for you. (Lk 22:19-20 EHV)
Instead of being a remembrance of a past event (Exodus) now in the Lord’s Supper Jesus Himself be present with His body and blood—for the forgiveness of sins, cleansing of conscience, taking away guilt, shame, fear.
Tonight we celebrate not the Exodus event, but Jesus serving us in the best way possible, giving us His body and blood. Thus through that we have the greater deliverance: from sin, death, and the devil.
We leave here not with an uncertainty like those disciples around Jesus. We know what happened, that the disciples run away afraid. But we know that Jesus fulfills all things written about Him. He dies, yes. He also rises from the dead. And His victory becomes our victory by faith in Him including what He did for us.
We leave tonight anticipating the events coming, but with faith and hope—not fear and failure. We are sisters and brothers of Christ. And we give thanks to God, family of God!
How do you respond to the crowd? For some (usually extroverts) crowds can be an important part of recharging themselves. For others (usually introverts, which I am), crowds are okay, but then there is a need to withdraw. For such people, recharging comes away from the crowds.
As we look at Jesus’ ministry, we discover something interesting. He would withdraw from the crowds. But something more happened.
But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, (Matt. 12:15)
Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself; and when the people heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. (Matt. 14:13)
So despite Jesus withdrawing from the people the people would not withdraw from Him. Amazingly, Jesus continues to care for them, healing, teaching, comforting them.
Palm Sunday: The crowds
Palm Sunday in one way is the peak of Jesus’ popularity. The crowds greet His arrival in Jerusalem as the new king, much in anticipation of the new David, King. Matthew noted the Old Testament prophecy related to preparation for His entry into Jerusalem.
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your King comes to you, Humble, and riding on a donkey, On a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matt. 21:5)
The actions and words of the crowd reflect this anticipation of someone great, like a new King.
A very great multitude spread their clothes on the road. Others cut branches from the trees, and spread them on the road. The multitudes who went before him, and who followed kept shouting, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:8–9)
And the crowd begins to put the pieces together.
When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” The multitudes said, “This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matt. 21:10-1)
Post Entry to Jerusalem
The attention to Jesus doesn’t end there. Jesus goes into the temple area and causes quite a stir.
Jesus entered into the temple of God, and drove out all of those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the money-changers’ tables and the seats of those who sold the doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers!” (Matt. 21:12-13)
On the one hand, the Jewish leaders are very concerned about this agitation of their little kingdom. On the other hand, Jesus is very concerned about the agitation caused by changing and defiling the temple and God’s work through it. Not only that, but Jesus heals many in the crowds (Matt. 21:14-15).
Jesus continues His ministry to the crowds
In the rest of Matthew 21, we see Jesus continuing what He had been doing in previous years: teaching the people (crowds), healing them, while also confronting the Jewish leaders.
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his illustrations, they knew that he was talking about them. They wanted to arrest him but were afraid of the crowds, who thought he was a prophet. (Matt. 21:45–46)
The crowds still follow Him, listen to His teachings, and receive His healing gifts. Jesus is doing what His Father had sent Him to do.
His crowd ministry never stops
The reality is that Jesus came into this world —for the crowds, even the enemies within the crowds. While needs time to be alone with His disciples, he never fully withdraws from the people. He knows their concerns, their hurts, they challenges, and their brokenness.
He continues to live out His ministry in fulfillment of Psalm 34:17-18:
The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
The LORD is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit.
So we see that Jesus has much to do. In the days following His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. His crowd work will dramatically change focus on Maundy Thursday. He will begin the care for His followers of the future.