Planning - Fourth Sunday in Lent
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
God's new covenant requires no stone tablets. It will be a covenant written in the people's hearts, informing everything in their whole lives.
Psalm response: Psalm 51:1-12 (UMH 785).
A reprise of the confession of sin from Ash Wednesday. Today the focus is verse 6 -- "therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart." Use Response 2 with Tone 2 in C minor. Or consider using either of the following as sung responses: TFWS 2152, "Change My Heart, O God," or TFWS 2154, "Please Enter My Heart, Hosanna."
Jesus is our great high priest by God's appointment and made perfect through his obedience and suffering.
Jesus tells Phillip and Andrew that the time for his glorification; i.e., his execution is drawing near and that those who serve him will be found with him wherever he leads or goes. God ratifies the message with a sound from heaven, which Jesus interprets as a sign that the present spiritual regime's days are about to come to an end.
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Lent continues, and with it the work of learning and becoming what it takes to be the disciples of Jesus, baptized into his name and way.
Holy Week begins next week with Palm Sunday, and concludes with the Great Three Days. The church in Lent continues on the way to the "birthing room" with those to be baptized. The community of faith continues to repent and believe the gospel with outward acts of compassion and justice and personal acts of devotion and prayer.
This means we are also very close to the beginning of Eastertide. The early church developed Lent to complete a time of intense preparation of how to live the way of Jesus. The early church developed the seven weeks of Eastertide, culminating in Pentecost, to celebrate the resurrection and to help the newly baptized understand the teaching of the church and begin to claim and live in the power of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Eastertide historically began and begins with a "pull-out-all-the-stops" service of Light, Word, Water and Table known as the Easter Vigil. The United Methodist Book of Worship provides a full model for this service. Dr. Dwight Vogel has two articles on our website about the Vigil -- one on preparing and the other on teaching what it all means. We also provide a highly interactive service for the Great Vigil on our website.
The gospel this week calls us to die in Christ's service that our lives in him may bear much fruit.
See "Planning Lent and Easter for Congregation, Group, and Home, Year B" for an overview of the biblical themes for each Sunday of this season.
And see "Worship Planning for Eastertide, Year B" for an overview of the themes and Scriptures for the season to come.
United Methodists continue 50 Days of Prayer for the General Conference of The United Methodist Church (April 24-May 4). You may download and share the prayer resource from Upper Room Ministries in multiple formats (including ePub) and languages (English, French, Portuguese), so all in your congregation may join this journey of prayer each day, and especially as you gather for worship on the Sundays leading up to and during the gathering.
We are also in the thick of election primary season in the United States. How well does the political rhetoric of whatever party comport with the rhetoric of the baptismal covenant and the way of Jesus? How does the rhetoric of worship and your worshiping community reflect the rhetoric of Jesus more than that of partisan politics?
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Atmospherics Overall: Hearts and Sheaves of Wheat
The image that most clearly unites the reading from Jeremiah with the Psalm is "the heart." God will inscribe a new covenant on the people's hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). The Psalmist pleads, "Teach me wisdom in my secret heart."
How might you develop the idea of "heart" as an anchor image (or even soundscape) for the Old Testament and Psalm?
As you consider how you might incorporate images and sounds of hearts, be sure to include some instruction as well. "Heart" in our culture has a number of "first associations" it didn't have at all in the biblical world. We tend to contrast "heart" to "head, or think of the "heart" as the "center of emotion" or "passion" or "drive."
For the biblical people, as well as the larger Western intellectual tradition until well into the nineteenth century, the heart was primarily understood to be the center of intellect and values, how we understand and respond to God, each other, and the world around us.
So when God says in Jeremiah that the new covenant is written on our hearts, God is not saying we will "really feel it this time." Instead, it is that the new covenant would inform everything we see, say, and do "from the inside." And this is why the Psalmist's prayer for his heart is that God would teach him wisdom, and not something like that God would make him feel a deeper longing for God.
The primary image from John's gospel is grains of wheat. Consider distributing wheat sheaves to folks as they enter or as the gospel is proclaimed. The wheat grain is the "finished work" of the wheat plant. It is in the wheat grain's death to its form and substance that it multiplies life to others. What "finished work" in us as individuals or a congregation needs to die to make way for new life to emerge? What are we so afraid of having something taken from us or destroyed that we would hold it all in -- like the hull of the wheat grain?
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Atmospherics: The Texts
"Discipleship to Jesus Calls Us to Die"
All of this week's texts ring the same message: Die.
Die -- that there may be much fruit (John). Die -- to any notion you can rule yourself (Jeremiah). Die -- in reverent submission to God, accompanying Jesus in his ministry of embodied intercession for the whole world, that you too may experience him saving you from death. The word was no less distressing and distasteful in Jesus' day, or Jeremiah's day, than it is in ours. But die we must to have life, and have it abundantly.
The introductory verses to this week's reading from John may seem strange, even out of place. Some "Greeks" (probably Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jewish pilgrims from another part of the empire) have come to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover festival, find Philip, and ask to see Jesus. Philip finds Andrew and both go to tell this to Jesus. One might expect Jesus to go over to meet these foreign inquirers. He never does. Instead, he starts talking in public about death as a source of fruitfulness and eternal life for those who will "deacon" him.
Like the grain of wheat dies, so will Jesus. Jesus goes on to declare, publicly, that he will not seek to evade his own coming death, because he sees it as the whole reason for his coming. Instead he prays, "Father, glorify your name!" A voice from heaven ratifies the prayer for all to witness. And then more bold proclamations: "Now is the judgment of this world, and now will the ruler of this world be thrown out! And when I am lifted up from the ground, I will draw everything toward myself."
How does one get from "Some Greeks want to see you, Jesus" to this? Their arrival from far away and their interest in seeing Jesus sparks it. Jesus was not going to receive these people as foreign dignitaries deigning to meet with him, a famous personage, in "private audience" at the festival. Had Jesus sought to follow the honor system "of the world," he might have done that. Instead, he publicly confronts these would-be courtiers and all present with a very different account of what is about to happen to him, what it means to be his "deacon" (hand-servant), and what God truly honors.
Serving as Jesus' hand-servants at first glimpse might sound like he was reasserting the world's honor-system. The rest of what he says and God does (in ratifying his words) reveals quite the reverse.
The world's honor-system essentially follows the "deuteronomic canon" -- God blesses the "honorable" and curses the "shameful." A significant corollary is that suffering is a sign of God's curse, and so our shame, and never God's blessing, and so our honor. The world's honor system teaches us to love our own souls and seek to preserve their honor, and so, generally speaking, avoid suffering.
The confrontation gets even stronger. Jesus calls his "deacons" to do what he himself will do-- "hate one's soul in this world-order" (v. 25). This is an important phrase not to be missed. Jesus does not say, "Whoever hates one's own soul will keep it for eternal life." He is not teaching "self-loathing" as the order of the day! Far from it. He is instead directly confronting the expectations of "this world-order." To "hate one's soul in this world order" is to make a decisive break from the influence of the typical honor-shame system. "Deaconing Jesus" is the standard for honor in God's kingdom!
And Jesus is clear what "deaconing" him involves: let go focusing on building honor in this world, and instead follow him and be with him wherever goes, even into death itself (v. 25-26).
The Greeks have come from afar. Now the whole Jewish world is represented in Jerusalem to witness the judgment and dethroning of "the ruler of this world" as Jesus is executed (v. 31). The judgment is the revelation of this world's utter violence and hostility to God, its "bent toward sin," that it would execute the Son of God. The dethroning is that in his execution, Jesus draws all things to himself, becoming the source of eternal life for all who follow him (v. 32).
The Greeks have come. They thought they wanted to see Jesus. In reality, he was waiting to see them so he could announce to all that the real show would soon begin.
Who in your midst is ready to hate their soul in this world, and so keep it for eternal life? If no one yet, who do you know who is? Or who may be willing to get there?
How will you plan worship today to invite more worshipers to "get there"?
Jeremiah gets at a similar issue in his graphic description of God cutting a covenant into the heart muscle of the captive people. The previous covenant, cut on stone tablets, had not succeeded at helping these people become free and stay free. Only such a drastic action could deliver them, not just from captivity, but from waywardness.
This is not a simple matter of "external" versus "internal" as if external were somehow less real or less influential than internal. Indeed, neurological evidence about human choice indicates quite the opposite. When someone else tell us to do something, we are far more likely to choose to do it than if it is something we think we are choosing for ourselves. We will sooner change our minds about doing something we think we have chosen than about doing something someone else -- or something external -- tells us to do.
The science reinforces the necessity of the communal character of the covenant we have with God and one another, and even of our discipleship to Jesus. The notion that "external" voices are "more valid" than "choosing our own path" may be antidemocratic and politically incorrect, but it is what the Bible, and now science, show to be most effective if the desired outcome is lasting change.
God's covenant here is not with the individual making choices. And it is not the individual's choice to make the covenant. It is God's covenant. God cuts the covenant. God inscribes the law on the hearts of the people, collectively and individually. Ours is to live out what God has inscribed. It is as a people with this covenant cut and law inscribed by God into their heart muscle that they can become bearers of God's "external" authority that seeps into, directs, and redeems the individuals in it and touched by it. We do not will our own obedience. We submit.
It's a different way of saying, "We hate our souls in this world."
The phrase "God cuts the covenant" may be unfamiliar. It is an accurate translation of the Hebrew, however. Covenants were cut, not merely "agreed to." Specifically that tended to mean that something was cut, often an animal, as witness to the agreement being made. And most often, the idea of cutting the animal was to say "may this happen to me/us if I/we fail to uphold the agreement we have made."
The cutting of the covenant here is the inscribing of the law on the heart muscle of the people. This is "open heart surgery" performed by God. This would have been considered tantamount to butchering the people at the time, if taken literally, because no one would have survived such an operation in that day. But open-heart surgery is what the exile was for and was doing. God was performing open heart surgery on the people, breaking through the chest wall of reliance on ritual or status (honor!), carving the conditions with a cuneiform scalpel of dislocation, marginalization and suffering into the muscle. When people realized that God was doing this, they could not doubt "It is the Lord." Everyone, least to greatest, could "get" this. It would be as undeniable as the miracle of anyone surviving open heart surgery in the sixth century BCE.
Open heart surgery is survivable now and often effective at extending life for many years, provided that the changes made by the surgery are not quickly reversed by the patient resuming patterns of life that damaged the heart in the first place. Those who have had the surgery are told they need to change their way of life, but also that they are unlikely to be able to make those changes stick without support from families, friends, and often other survivors holding them accountable. The choice facing these persons is clear and stark: change, or die sooner. Get help to change, or you likely won't change.
So how is the way of Jesus being inscribed into the heart muscle of people where you are? Not just referred to, talked about, or occasionally acted upon as one option among others -- but actually cut into the muscle? Where are the "external" support systems and people that are helping people live the change that God has begun in them through the new birth?
If you don't have anyone walking with anyone else on a journey of intentional discipleship and preparation for baptism or confirmation this Lent, when will you begin? What are your next steps? How does worship today -- in music, art, video, readings, sermon, and celebration of the sacraments-- become an invitation to those who are ready for a change?
Hebrews describes the reality of Jesus' high priesthood in very similar terms. His high priesthood was no status earned from the honor codes of society, but the result of God's own begetting. His was not a position of honor, but a way of life deeply connected with the very kind of suffering God redeemed and used to make a new covenant during the Exile.
Watch what Jesus' priesthood consisted of: The "offering" he presented to God was "beggings and beseechings with powerful outcries and tears to the one able to save him from death" (5:7). This he did throughout his ministry and in the chaotic, bloody and shameful public ritual of his crucifixion. If we follow him into priesthood, becoming his "deacons," what does this imply about our own ministry and how we offer it, both in prayer and in other ways?
The next verse goes deeper into this theme: "Despite the fact that he was God's Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having achieved that, he became the basis of eternal salvation for those obeying him." As priest he offered fervent, wrenching prayer. As Son he received not privilege but suffering as the path to greatness, achieved through obedience to God. We who are "with him where he is" (John 12:26) experience eternal salvation as we follow the same path where he still leads.
Sometimes it is said, "Jesus died so I don't have to." This text says "Jesus leaned fully into the suffering of the world in obedience to God. If you're one of his, expect to do no less."
Who in your congregation or social networks embodies a strong connection with and advocacy for the suffering? If you have a deacon, perhaps this is part of her or his role.
Perhaps it is lay person. Or perhaps it is a ministry in your congregation or community. If you are going to focus on this week's theme through Hebrews, invite these persons to participate in your worship planning team for this service. Think and discern together how to connect worshipers with the call to follow Jesus into suffering; and help them see, as Jesus and generations of his disciples have found, that this is truly the path of eternal life.
Remember, the Sundays in Lent are little Easters. Though today's theme of dying is a hard one, this isn't about guilt or self-loathing. It's about surrendering, releasing oneself to God's converting power to save.
Should you celebrate Communion today, as an increasing number of our congregations do throughout all the Sundays in Lent, avoid making the liturgy "funereal" in tone. The Scripture call us to die, but it is to die that we may experience and multiply God's life! Let the readings and the "death and resurrection" expressed in the Eucharistic prayer set the tone. If you are preparing to baptize persons at Easter, continue to invite the congregation to pray for them. After the sermon, call them to the center and extend hands toward them or lay hands on them as you pray for the deep work of the Spirit in their lives. See Come to the Waters on "Examination of Conscience," pages 117-119.
Traditionally, the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the day for "Handing on the Prayer of the Church" to those about to be baptized. The leader might say to the candidates for baptism:
Dear friends, hear the teaching the Lord Jesus gives to those who seek to know and do the will of God.
Then a member or lay leader might read Matthew 6:7-13, inserting the commonly used version of the Lord's Prayer that the congregation prays each week.
Then the presider might invite the congregation to gather around the candidates or extend hands toward them while the candidates kneel, and say these or similar words:
In the name of our Lord who calls you to life among us, we hand on to you our common prayer and we call you to share our life of prayer for the people of God and for the world. Take your place among us as people who pray.
The candidates can be instructed beforehand to simply listen as the congregation surrounds them praying the Lord's Prayer.
Remember: It's okay to offer the Lord's Prayer twice or more in the same service (Wesley's Sunday Service did this!), so don't hesitate to commend it to those coming in preparation at this point in the service and to offer it again in the Great Thanksgiving later on.
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- Call to Worship: UMH 292, stanza 1, "What Wondrous Love Is This"
- Greeting: BOW 329 (Hebrews)
- Greeting: BOW 343 (John)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 447, The Collect (Psalm)
- Call to Prayer: UMH 502, stanza 2, "Thy Holy Wings, O Savior" (Psalm)
- Prayer: UMH 353 Ash Wednesday (Jeremiah, Psalm)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 475 (Psalm)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 488 (Jeremiah)
- Prayer: BOW 337 (Hebrews, John)
- Prayer: BOW 514, For the Mind of Christ (Hebrews)
- Response:BOW 191, "May This Mind Be in Us" (Hebrews)
- Prayer: BOW 518, For Others (Jeremiah)
- Prayer: BOW 522, For Purity (Jeremiah, Psalm)
- Prayer: BOW 530, A Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Psalm)
- Scripture Response: UMH 479, stanza 4, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" (Jeremiah)
- Scripture Response: UMH 530, stanza 1, "Are Ye Able" or TFWS 2016 "Glorify Thy Name" (John)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: China, Hong Kong, Macau.
- Prayer of Great Thanksgiving: BOW 62-63
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 550 (Jeremiah, Psalm)
- Blessing: BOW 566, Sarum Blessing (Jeremiah)
- Benediction: BOW 189, "May This Mind Be in Us" (Jeremiah, Hebrews)