If you think that this week’s text feels a bit misplaced, you’re not wrong. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus flips tables in the Temple courtyard just after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But in John, we get this narrative much earlier, following directly on the heels of Jesus performing his first miracle at the wedding at Cana. So, for John, Jesus flipping tables at the Temple is more an inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry rather than a culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Add to that, the lectionary places this text on the Third Sunday in Lent, and we’re a bit befuddled. How do we craft worship around this text in the middle of Lent when we’d probably much rather deal with it in relationship to the triumphal entry and the beginning of Holy Week?
I suggest that we start with an important—and perhaps obvious—observation: what happens at the Temple matters to Jesus. For all that Jesus is out in the world teaching, tending, and performing miracles, we can’t separate his work in the world from the work that is done in worship. And the same is true today. Worship forms and informs how we live out the good news in the world, and how we live out the good news in the world forms and informs our worship. Now, this does not mean you need to go into your worship space and start turning over pews. Rather, this Third Sunday in Lent is an opportunity to lead the congregation to reflect on the individual and communal work we do in worship. (Remember, “liturgy” comes from the word leitourgia, meaning “public work.”)
Perhaps worship today includes teaching moments throughout the service. A short explanation of what a creed is and why we say it. A brief comment about why we sing in worship and why particular hymns were chosen. Preparing the congregation to participate in Holy Communion by discussing the role of confession and/or the structure and theology contained in the Great Thanksgiving. Sending congregants forth with a blessing, yes, but also to ponder what it means that we are sent forth into the world to then be gathered together again. There are so many opportunities to unpack different portions of worship and to remind those who gather for worship the meaning behind what we do, sing, and say in worship.
This is also an opportunity to direct the congregation toward two markers of right worship found in today’s text: right presence and raising up. Right presence is about the intention we each bring to worship and the proper ordering or prioritizing of worship in our lives. Are we there to be seen by others as holy or to worship the Most High God who created us, loves us, and redeems us? Do we gather in worship to gain social and political capital or to gain our lives by surrendering our lives to God? At the same time, raising up is the means and the fruit of right presence. As worship leaders, do we plan worship with the intention of pointing toward Resurrection? Are we primarily concerned with raising people up to encounter God, forming them to recognize and experience God’s life-giving love in their midst so that they can share that same love with their neighbors?
These are questions for constant discernment in the life of worship planners and leaders. But let us take this Sunday, in particular, as an opportunity to lift the veil a bit and invite the congregation into the intention behind how we plan worship so that they can gain greater understanding of the formative work that happens when we gather together for corporate worship. For we know that even if we need to move out some of the “tables” that distract us, we are also the body of Christ, raised up with and by our Savior to delight in close, intimate life with the Triune God and one another.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.