As our Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds, the primary "messaging" of congregational worship during Lent is intended to support people preparing for baptism at Easter.
In Years A and B, the readings for the first five Sundays in Lent address the meaning and purpose of the ritual of baptism. In Year C, the readings from Luke and John are designed to help the whole church re-center itself on the teaching and practices that help all disciples of Jesus live the covenant of baptism.
During Lent, as during Easter, Advent, and Christmastide, all four readings are chosen to correlate to each other with the gospel lesson as the focal point. As you and your team plan worship for these Sundays, begin by reading the gospel together, and work your way out from there to the other readings.
Here is one possible progression of themes, starting from the gospel readings, you may consider as you begin your work.
The First Sunday of Lent always begins with an account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14). What is at stake here for him, and for us, is his capacity to name and confess his identity in God. In so doing, he is also renouncing Satan, or, as our baptismal ritual puts it, "the spiritual forces of wickedness."
The core questions for planning for this Sunday might be what practices already help (or might help) your worshiping community gain both the clarity and the confidence they need to identify themselves as those baptized into Christ wherever they go.
Historically, the creeds (Apostles and Nicene) have been one tool for Christians to do this.
Another is such deep immersion in Scripture that we can respond as Jesus does here with faithfulness and authenticity, come what may.
What else are you doing to help people actively claim their identity in Christ and renounce other allegiances?
How might worship today practice and help your worshiping community take up again (or for the first time!) these and other practices that will help them confess their identity in God?
The Second Sunday shows us Jesus boldly persevering in his mission despite rumors of threats from Herod (Luke 13:31-35). The other readings speak of "standing firm" (Philippians) and trusting God's covenant faithfulness despite what appear to be physical impossibilities (Genesis). It is one thing to say the words. It is another to stay committed to the way of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are called to be such a persevering community, continuing to "stay the course" of the way of Jesus, even if it means our own deaths.
This corresponds to the second baptismal vow, "to accept the freedom and power Christ gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves."
Accepting that freedom and power is an individual act, but it almost never "flows" through us simply as individuals. As John Wesley reminds, "There is holiness but social holiness." By this, he meant what we ask in the second part of the third vow, that we will serve Jesus as Lord "in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races." Any one of us is easy to "knock down" when pushback comes. But if we have a small group and a congregation, the body of Christ, in which we "watch over one another in love," it is as Jesus promised Peter. "The gates of hell shall not prevail against us."
So, again, what are those practices or groups or systems you have in place in the life of your congregation, or perhaps in groups that relate to it in some way, that enable disciples to stand firm in the faith, persevering in doing good and resisting evil, come what may? How will you design worship in ways that highlight these opportunities and invite newcomers and old-timers alike to take them up together that we may faithfully live our vows as disciples of Jesus Christ on his mission in the world?
The readings for The Third Sunday seem almost counter-intuitive for Lent, especially Isaiah with its descriptions of a lavish feast during this season of fasting! But the call here, and throughout all the readings, is to return to the abundance of God's feast.
We read this text during Lent because it's important for newcomers to the faith and old-timers alike to hear this message loud and clear. When we ask in our first vow, "Do you repent of your sin," we are asking people if they are ready to turn away from all pathways that bring harm to their relationships with God, one another, themselves, and creation. Repent means "to turn away," to "turn back," or -- as in Isaiah -- to "return."
There are two things we are not asking. First, we are not asking people to "feel really sorry." Repentance may come with some godly sorrow, but the sorrow isn't the repentance. The turning is. And the God to whom we turn or return is not a retaliatory perfectionist. No, God is Love. And Love offers a lavish and abundant feast in this life and in the age to come. This God asks, and asks continually, "Why will ye die" when I have so much to offer? Repentance means turning back, and continually turning to, our truest home.
Second, we are not asking people to repent for their "sins" (plural); that is, the harm they've already done. That is because ultimately we cannot repent (turn back from) what is already done. We do need to confess our sins (plural), seeking God's pardon and the pardon and pathways to restoration with those we've harmed. But we do not repent of them.
Instead, the word in our vow (and in the historical antecedents underlying our vow) is the "collective singular": "sin." This word refers to "sinful pathways." It's about those "ways of life" or "patterns" or "habits" we've gotten ourselves into that make it far more likely we'll persist in doing harm. In this vow, and on this Sunday, we are being asked to quit walking in them, turn away from them, and instead walk in the path that leads to life. When we do so, we will cease producing "bad fruit" (I Corinthians) or no fruit at all (Luke) and instead begin producing a harvest of "good fruit" that blesses us and all around us (I Corinthians).
The metaphor of the gardener from Luke is a powerful one for understanding what it takes to repent of our fruitless ways. It's never simply our own doing. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to "dig around us" and "fertilize" us, so our lives become abundant channels, and not just recipients, of God's abounding feast.
As you plan worship for today, think about what images, metaphors, and stories in your community best convey what it means to return to a God who wants to offer a bountiful feast. Ask yourselves what specific practices already in place or that might be added are part of re-aerating the soil of your community so rotted parts are shorn away and "roots" can breathe better. And what channels are already open so God can add (and your people receive!) the additional nutrients needed to produce a better harvest in your community's life going forward? Give thanks for what is in place, and pray fervently for the Spirit to open the way for what is yet needed to be provided, trusting the Spirit to say, "Yes!"
The Fourth Sunday reminds us that the Spirit's work within and through us is not simply to make us strong against opponents ("to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves"). It is especially to make us lavish in mercy as God is merciful (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32). Much of the fruit God seeks from us is the fruit of lives steeped in and extending mercy abundantly. Becoming abundant channels of compassion and justice is the primary way we "serve as Christ's representatives in the world," as our fourth baptismal vow puts it.
The second of the General Rules of the United Societies was designed to help people show mercy to all. As folks met in class meetings, they would work through the list of ways of showing mercy and report how they were doing this in their own lives, and ask for assistance from others where they were not yet living in these ways. Being "faithful members of Christ's holy church" (baptismal vow 4) means we help one another do just this.
How does your worshiping community actively steep folks in mercy? What practices already in place are teaching and supporting lavish mercy toward others?
The Fifth Sunday reminds us to forget usual cultural expectations, recreating the present based on visions of some past golden age, and even our own past sins and accomplishments and focus on the presence, will, and reign of Jesus present with us here and now (John 12:1-18). The call is to release our wills and resources to join God's work in the actual world around us as fully as we can. Mary, sister of Lazarus, is the model of discipleship we are to aspire to.
What practices have folks who participate in your worshiping community found most effective at helping them to see God's mission at work and then join in as much as they could with the resources they have? What has been most valuable at sustaining this level of real-time missionary engagement, not just on short projects, but for the longer haul in the lives of people where you are? Discuss in your worship planning team ways to help these stories get out in worship today -- song, brief testimony, preaching, video, whatever. As you head into Holy Week next Sunday, consider inviting people to consider beginning to practice some of these things this week if they are no already doing so.
Confessing who we are, persevering in God's mission, returning to the abundance of God's feast, practicing prodigal mercy, and joining God's mission in real time all the time . . . if you can help your worshiping community connect with and begin to do these things over these five weeks, both you and those who may be preparing for baptism will be more than ready to embrace the cost of Holy Week and live in the freedom and power the Risen Christ offers to all believing into him and baptized into his body and Name.
For more on the Lectionary, baptism, and the initiation of adults, see Come to the Waters: Baptism and Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers and Making Disciples by Daniel Benedict (Discipleship Resources, 1997)