Planning - First Sunday in Lent
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
God makes a covenant with the earth, signified by the rainbow, not to destroy the earth by flood again.
Psalm 25:1-10 (UMH 756).
Israel seeks God's deliverance from enemies. Unlike the people destroyed in the flood, Israel claims it has sought to follow God's way and wishes to learn it still better. If you sing the Psalm, use response 2 and chant using Tone 3 in E-flat major.
1 Peter 3:18-22.
Peter links the death and resurrection of Jesus with the story of Noah's flood and the sacrament of baptism.
Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert for a period of testing surrounded by wild animals, Satan, and ministering angels -- all to prepare him to spend his life declaring the good news of the kingdom of God.
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As the first Sunday in Lent, this marks the beginning of the church's journey toward Easter. For a succinct statement of the meaning of this season, see the "Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline" in the Ash Wednesday liturgy (United Methodist Book of Worship, 322).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
the early Christians observed with great devotion
the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection,
and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration
there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation.
During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.
It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins
and had separated themselves from the community of faith
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness,
and restored to participation in the life of the Church.
In this way the whole congregation was reminded
of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ
and the need we all have to renew our faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God's Holy Word.
[Emphasis mine. Text public domain]
Note the threefold focus of the season: spiritual preparation of the faith community, preparation of converts for baptism, and reconciliation of penitents.
In what ways is your congregation intending to engage these ministries of spiritual discipline during Lent?
If you did not have an Ash Wednesday service; or if few attended it, consider using this invitation as part of the service for this day, either as a prelude/call to worship, or as a response to the Word preceding an invitation to discipleship.
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From now through Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost), the lectionary texts are chosen to complement one another, with the gospel as the centerpiece or chief lens for interpreting the others. Keep this in mind as you and your worship planning team are designing worship through these Sundays. While you may still focus on one text or another, during these weeks, you should be especially attentive to ways to mine the riches of the imagery and story in all of them in ways that enhance the focus on the main story or stories you seek to embody or proclaim.
While the other texts this week abound with images connecting water with salvation, the direction of the gospel, which also includes water at the baptism of Jesus, moves from that water into the wilderness, the Judean desert (see image above) and from there to Jesus' mission and ours: declaring the good news of God's reign drawn near. Today's gospel thus provides the direction for the whole season of Lent -- from water, to wilderness, to witness.
It also sets forth the first of the five challenges of these weeks in Lent: being driven into the wilderness.
Consider in your worship planning team how this basic shape and movement might inform the design and flow of worship today as a foretaste for the next five weeks.
Perhaps water imagery might abound in songs, soundscapes, art, or projected images through the first part of the reading of the gospel, and then a stark shift from water to wilderness in the midst of the reading of the gospel forward.
Perhaps the sermon might focus on the desert as a place of preparation for witness, and the first embodiment of witness might be celebration around the Lord's Table where we pray, "Make these gifts be for us the body and blood of Christ that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood."
Perhaps you may also emphasize how the words at prayer of thanksgiving after Communion continue the shape of this story -- and our story of discipleship to Jesus. "Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit." Just as Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and just as he went from there, north to Galilee, Herod's territory, to proclaim that God's kingdom had drawn near -- so we are sent from Word and Table to follow Jesus and be his body in the wilderness places of our daily lives.
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Atmospherics: The Texts
Week 1/Challenge 1: Into the Wilderness and Beyond!
Genesis offers the resolution to the flood saga. God had essentially "uncreated" by "breaking the firmament," setting loose all of "the waters above the earth" upon the face of the earth itself. Here, God promises never to do that again.
This is the first covenant God makes in the Bible. Significantly, it is a covenant with the earth itself, with Noah as witness and rainbow as sign.
Keeping in mind that through these coming weeks -- now through Trinity Sunday -- it is the gospel that takes center stage, how might we read this text in light of our call to follow Jesus into the wilderness and proclaim God's kingdom drawn near?
Perhaps part of following Jesus into the wilderness is to recognize the ways in which we are now threatening to break God's covenant with the earth -- and thereby bring more floods and more wildernesses, and a less hospitable environment to all who dwell on our planet. We have seen sea levels rise already and peoples on island nations and near low-lying ocean shorelines become permanently displaced. The Northwest Passage and much of the Arctic Circle have been ice free now for several summers running -- phenomena not previously recorded in human history.
God's first covenant was with the earth. God's first commandment to humankind was to care for the earth to keep it fruitful. These remain intrinsic to God's mission announced and embodied in God's kingdom and its king, Jesus.
Perhaps taking up this theme may be more helpful for your worshiping community as follow-up to worship -- perhaps part of a daily life prompting you share with community members via Facebook, Twitter, text, blogs, or other means. While it may not become the centerpiece of worship today, the flood is a persistent theme and image in this week's texts. Think of creative ways to connect that with how your congregation takes on this week's Lenten challenge.
If Genesis is about the flood and the earth, I Peter is about connecting all of that with baptism, not as mere ritual washing, but as the source of God's saving power through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That power, embodied and set loose in baptism in the Triune Name, propels us into wilderness and mission just as it propelled Jesus. The "whelming flood" that destroyed the earth at the same time buoyed the ark that rescued Noah, his family, and the animals with them.
Baptism, Peter reminds us, is no less a whelming flood. That is why our baptismal liturgy -- from ancient times -- has offered a thanksgiving over the water that includes specific references to the Great Flood. Its waters are designed not to freshen our skins, but to cleanse our consciences, to renew our minds (Romans 8), and to make our awareness truly good.
"Good" as Peter uses it here here does not meet "less than better or best." It means noble, upright, admirable, virtuous. The cleansing of baptism is to remake us good, as good as God declared us to be in creation. And being remade good, "to serve as Christ's representatives in the world," beginning with the wilderness where we prepare for such service beyond.
Joining this text to the gospel lesson this week, joining Jesus in wilderness, and the testing that accompanies it, also prepares us to be remade and restored to the goodness God created humanity to be.
John Wesley called the transformation into such goodness sanctification, becoming holy in heart and life. The ritual of baptism initiates that process, ritually and really. But it is only the process continuing to follow "Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him" (I Peter 3:21-22) that moves us from initiation, to wilderness, to mission. It is only actually taking up the challenge of discipleship -- starting with following Jesus into the wilderness-- that moves us from the request for a "good conscience" to experiencing in ourselves "that holiness without which no one shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).
Wesley reminds us that there is no holiness but social holiness. By that he means we grow in holiness only as we seek to do that with others. We simply cannot do it alone. If we truly seek the "good conscience" of which Peter speaks, we will be able to do it well only in the context of a group of others watching over one another in love. Consider seriously inviting people who already participate in Covenant Discipleship Groups in your congregation or wider community to share a testimony about how their group is helping them meet the challenge of following Jesus into the wilderness and living his mission. Strongly consider how to make opportunities available for people to join a Covenant Discipleship group or other accountable discipleship group as a response to the word today.
Mark's gospel is remarkable for the way it tells this threefold story of water, wilderness, and witness. Look carefully at the verbs for the first two of these three major actions. Jesus was baptized. He was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil for 40 days, and he was with the wild beasts and angels ministered to him. These are all passive verbs relative to Jesus. These things happened to Jesus.
The mode shifts when the story shifts from wilderness to mission. "After John was arrested" (John is now the passive one!) " Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom." Now, Jesus is the actor.
Without seeking to press the verb voices too far, what is apparent in this pattern is also reflected in the wisdom of the early church's practice of preparing persons for entrance into the life and mission of the church. People did not simply decide to join and start on their own initiative. They "went through" something fairly substantial, first. They submitted to God and to the discipline of the community of committed disciples. And this time of submission could take more than 40 days; it could take three years (as a standard minimum) and sometimes much more. (The Proceedings of the Council of Nicaea prescribe up to twelve years in some circumstances!)
Likewise, when persons were responding to early Methodists calling them to flee the wrath to come and be saved from their sins, they did not try to do this alone or on their own power. They were enrolled in a trial class meeting for six months or longer to learn the disciplines and practices of following Jesus with others who were learning and one or two who could help them find the way.
The result? Those who went through these early Christian and later Methodist "trial" processes had a very high level of commitment to act as missionaries in their own right.
From the end of the first century, when Christianity formatted along these lines had about 25,000 members, to the beginning of the fourth century, when conservative estimates put the number of Christians at somewhere around ten million, Christianity did not simply grow, but multiplied by a factor of 400. And this was before Christianity was recognized as a legal religion. (See Alan Hirsch's book, The Forgotten Ways, for more on this phenomenon).
This season of Lent is all about "going through" the challenges of discipleship to Jesus with one another. We "give up" some things not for the sake of proving we can do it, but as signs of our submission to God's will and way through Jesus. We open ourselves up to let God have God's way with us. And at the end of this period of time, these 40 days, if we have truly submitted ourselves to the Spirit's driving, to be ready to act to rejoice in and proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus, the king of God's kingdom, with our lips and in our lives.
Our ritual enactment of these disciplines in worship or acts of personal or small group devotion are only preparation and ritualization of the reality we hope for -- to be made truly disciples and missionaries of Jesus all the days of our lives. Corporate worship and private devotional acts may help prepare us for that to some degree, so we practice them, too. But ultimately it is we, like Jesus, who must become the actors in engaging the mission -- to go to all sorts of places, including dangerous places inhabited and controlled by powerful people who kill people like us with a message like ours, and declare God's reign with power. And we are unlikely to do this well without a committed "band of sisters and brothers" who will "watch over us in love" to spur us on, and we them. That's why the early church always "catechized" people in groups, not simply as individuals. And that's why the Wesleys enrolled inquirers in trial class meetings, rather than primarily providing them one on one "life coaching."
The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.
The Spirit also drives us -- his body -- Christ embodied through our communities of faith and practice in discipleship to him -- in the same way.
Will we let the Spirit drive us? How will we respond to the testing we undergo? When we fail, how will we help one another get back up again?
A response to the Word, then, might offer to drive worshipers into various forms of wilderness with something like a Covenant Discipleship group that also together takes on some way of embodying God's mission together. There are poor people to feed, clothe, and find shelter for. There are prisoners and sick folk to be visited, and some to be healed and set free. There are killer diseases to be cast out. There are unemployed people who need work. There are underemployed people who need the opportunity to offer their best gifts. There is a planet in peril from global warming. There is all of that, and more. God's reign knows no bounds. Where will the Spirit drive your group to action?
There is baptism to be remembered, there is wilderness to be cast into, there is Jesus to follow. And at the Lord's Table, there is food for this journey.
How will you and your worship planning team design worship this day to "kick off" this season of challenges in discipleship to Jesus, this time of encountering water, wilderness, and witness. in ways that will make a lasting impact in the lives of those who travel it with you?
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This Sunday is as much about embrace as it is about renunciation. It is surely turning away from the "normal flow of life" as we usually know it. But that turning away brings with it a clear turning toward -- toward facing rather than fleeing our inner demons, toward people and places outside our normal comfort zones, and toward the possibility and experience of relying on spiritual support for our very sustenance. Experience these things "out there," and learn their lessons (live them, don't just theorize or talk about them!), and you, too, will be on your way to being able to declare the nearness of God's kingdom with joyful power.
The desert is no place for the merely curious. Without an experienced guide or the guidance of long experience, it can be a place of damage, destruction, and death. This is why the church does not expect people journeying toward baptism, reconciliation, or deeper understanding of vocation merely to "go it alone" out there. Instead, the role of the church is like that of the "ministering angels" to those we accompany on their journey -- although we must be careful never to substitute ourselves for the deep reliance on God that those we accompany must discover and nurture themselves.
The photo at the top of this page is from the desert in Judea where Jesus himself may have wandered. What other depictions might you use to explore the experience of temptation and our need to renounce the "spiritual forces of wickedness"? What wild place are you now being driven toward to learn how to proclaim and embody God's kingdom where you are?
Many film and book series, especially children's literature and fantasy, have been exploring the theme of an accompanied journey toward living with new power in a strange world: Harry Potter, Star Wars, Eragon, The Green Lantern, Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, and the Bartimaeus series, to name just a few. How might images or story pieces from the world of everyday culture be used to give immediacy of experience and shared symbol in worship -- particularly in connection to sermon, confession of faith, prayers, and Communion?
Continue to pray for all those affected by the global economic crisis, for peace in the world, for the leaders of nations, and for those in the armed services. See "Praying for Peace in the Face of War: Resources for Worship."
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- Greeting: UMBOW, 326 (Psalm)
- Greeting: UMBOW, 329 (Mark)
- Scripture Response: UMH, 368, stanza 3, "My Hope Is Built" (Gensis)
- Scripture Response: UMH, 473, "Lead Me, Lord" (Psalm)
- Call to Prayer: UMH, 347, stanza 1. "Spirit Song" (Mark)
- Call to Prayer: UMBOW, 196, "Call to Prayer" (Mark)
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW, 490 (Mark)
- Prayer: UMH, 253, "Baptism of the Lord" (Mark)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 399, Week 3 (Genesis)
- Prayer: UMH, 493, "Three Things We Pray" (Psalm, Lent)
- Prayer: UMH, 705, "For Direction" (Psalm)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 333 (Mark)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 509, "In Time of Natural Disaster" (Genesis)
- Response to Prayer: UMH, 347, stanza 2, "Spirit Song" (Mark)
- "The Great Thanksgiving for Early in Lent": UMBOW, 60-61
- Prayer of Thanksgiving (if no Holy Communion): UMBOW, 550 (Psalm)
- Blessing: UMBOW, 566 (Lent)
Dismissal with Blessing:
- A deacon or assisting minister/layperson could dismiss the people using UMBOW 559. The pastor could then speak the blessing, using UMBOW 561 or The United Methodist Hymnal, 669.
- You have drawn near to the water.
Refresh us, Holy Spirit.
The Spirit drives you into the wilderness.
We will go where you take us, and undergo whatever you use to test us.
Jesus goes forth to declare God's kingdom.
We go forth to follow and do as he shows us.
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