Planning - Third Sunday in Lent
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
God speaks the "Ten Words" (as they are known in Judaism), beginning with an important identity statement: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
Psalm Response: Psalm 19 (UMH 750) .
A psalm declaring Creation's praise of God and our praise of God's instruction ("Torah"). If you will be singing the psalm, consider using Response 1 and Tone 5 in D minor. Or See UMH 736-737
1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
Paul notes what must have been obvious -- proclaiming a crucified man as Messiah and Savior can be a stretch for all people, Jewish or Gentile. But for those who "get it," it is a powerful, life-changing message that opens up a new understanding of God and the world.
Jesus makes Temple worship impossible at the busiest time of the year -- the Passover sacrifice. He confronts those who had turned the Temple courtyard into a marketplace, and they ask him what sign of authority he has for doing this. He tells them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
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The early church developed Lent as a season to prepare those to be baptized at Easter to respond to the questions they will be asked and the vows they will take.
This gospel theme this week is "Jesus Confronts Religion." As followers of Jesus, bound to him in the covenant of baptism, we are called to "accept the freedom and power Christ gives [us] to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." Religion can and often does enculturate us to live this "resistant way" in the wider world. But sometimes, religion also becomes a "safe place," harboring evil, injustice, and oppression in its worst forms. Today calls for corporate awareness, confession, and repentance of the ways religion, as you practice it where you are and as you participate in its wider systems, becomes an instrument of "slave-ation" rather than "salvation."
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.
This coming Friday, March 16, marks the 40th day before the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church (April 24-May 4). Download 50 Days of Prayer for General Conference 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 Sunday.
Next Sunday, March 18, is designated as One Great Hour of Sharing Sunday. The special offering collected this day underwrites the administrative and programming expenses of UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. UMCOR provides direct assistance, coordinates volunteers, and partners with organizations on the ground worldwide to bring both immediate and long-term relief after natural and human disasters. This special offering makes it possible for 100 percent of donations to specific projects to be spent solely on providing relief, with zero percent administrative costs taken out of them.
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This week's texts are full of imagery and dynamism -- the giving of the Law (Exodus), the majesty of the heavens declaring God's praise (Psalm), and the passionate confrontation in the temple (John). The theme for today, centered as all the texts are on the gospel reading, is more revolutionary and troubling still: Jesus against the failure and falsehood of established religion.
A recent YouTube video has tried to capture some of this, if not always coherently "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." A response to this video, attempting to provide some balance is "Why I Love Religion, And Love Jesus." The selection of the texts today leans more toward the latter than the former. We do have rules -- the Ten Commandments among them. And we do have religious institutions and leaders who seek to help us keep these rules -- in both Judaism and Christianity. And in Christianity, our discipleship to Jesus is a discipleship to one who plainly teaches, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).
Jesus attended synagogue regularly. Jesus participated in the feast days of his religion. Jesus came, as he said, not to abolish the commandments, but to fulfill them and show others the way to become "perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect."
Religion is on track when it supports these things. It is off track and false when it serves to undermine them. Jesus' cleansing of the temple in John is an expression of Jesus overthrowing not religion per se, but religious practices and powers that were failing to serve the ends of God's kingdom.
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Atmospherics: The Texts
"Jesus Confronts Religion"
This week, we will start with John, since this text, especially this week, is so definitive for all the others. All four gospels describe Jesus committing an act of public vandalism in the temple during the height of the Passover season, releasing what would have been thousands of animals into the streets, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, and offering the strongest possible words of justification for what by many could have been seen as a religiously hostile, if not "blasphemous" or "abominable" action. In the synoptics, Jesus declares, referencing Isaiah, "My father's house is to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a safe house for thieves!" In John, which we read today, Jesus, whip in hand, has already driven out the moneychangers and the people responsible for selling the larger sacrificial items. He then turns his face and his words toward the sellers of doves (the sacrifices available at the lowest cost for the poor). "Get these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a shopping center!"
This isn't about whether we sell coffee or other items inside church buildings. We cannot escape this judgment so easily. Ending the moneychanging and the selling of items for sacrifice at the temple was effectively shutting down the temple entirely at its busiest season and radically re-purposing what was going on there. If there were no moneychangers, there would be no way to get animals appropriate for sacrifice. If there were no way to obtain appropriate sacrificial animals, then there could be no sacrifices. If there were no sacrifices, then there would be nothing for the priests to do there, except, perhaps, pray and teach.
But priests didn't wait their lives to get the call to come to the temple during Passover to pray and teach. They had invested a lifetime being trained to enact these ceremonies with precision and grace, hoping against hope they may be "called up" for the "high holy days" where they could offer their best skills with the largest crowds.
On this day, Jesus stopped everyone from doing what they were sure they had come to the temple to do.
The question came back, demanding some justifying sign. His response was telling: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John tells us Jesus was referring not to the building, but to "the temple of his body," to his own death and resurrection to come.
But discerning readers and hearers of John's gospel would have heard more than a mere foreshadowing of the fate of Jesus here. The phrase "his body," as John's first audience would know, also refers to them -- the body of Christ. That means it refers also to all who seek to follow and embody the way of Jesus here and now where we are.
What Jesus did then we are still called to do -- to confront all the powers, including religious ones, that empower some at the expense of others and turn relationship with God and the embodiment of God's reign into some sort of exchange of "religious goods and services." The Son of God is not buying! And he both puts a halt and commands others to put a halt to selling! Religion reduced either to ceremony or consumerism is false and must be stopped.
We hear this text this week, so we are all confronted by it together in the midst of a season where we may either add spiritual and religious disciplines, or pay deeper attention to cultivating the ones we already have. Where is Jesus confronting you in the midst of your practices here and now? Where does he call out your "mere ceremonialism"? Where does he catch you in your consumerism and call it for what it is?
This text brings difficult but necessary questions for your worship planning team and other leaders in your congregation to wrestle with.
- Where and how does the religious, ritual practice you have in place where you are contradict or interfere with rather than embody, enable or encourage love of God and neighbor and discipleship to Jesus?
- What might Jesus be ready to come in, tear down, drive out, put a halt to, and rebuke? What is Jesus pleading for you to do instead?
- How will you address these questions in how you plan worship today?
Beginning to answer these questions, or even just raise them, may be about all you can realistically do in worship today. But today's text, indeed discipleship to Jesus itself, demands we do more than simply raise questions. We are called to answer the questions Jesus asks of us with our lives.
So how will you help your congregation or worshiping community do that? What other groups in the life of the church -- perhaps small-group leaders, Christian educators, musicians, mission leaders -- will you call together so that your community's response to this text today becomes the beginning of a process that affects not only today's worship, but every encounter of every disciple of Jesus every day?
At first glance, nothing could be further removed from this revolutionary prophetic action and message of Jesus than the giving of the law in Exodus. But there are significant, if often overlooked, links between the two. In John, the "toppling of the temple" accompanies the word of Jesus; in Exodus, a veritable explosion of earthly and heavenly fireworks sets the backdrop for the giving of the Law (Exodus 19:16-25). In John, Jesus declares that when people try to destroy "this temple," he will raise it in three days. In Exodus, the coming of the law is on the third day of an extensive process of preparation for the people and the priests (Exodus 19:10, 16). As Jesus, Son of God, enters the temple and takes charge from the priests and anyone else who thinks he's in charge, so in Exodus God makes clear, abundantly clear, that God is in charge of the giving of the law, and priests -- indeed all the people -- are decidedly marginalized. Finally, just as Jesus put a stop to sacrifices in the temple, on the day of the giving of the law there were no sacrifices. The smoke that appeared came from the mountain itself, "because the Lord had descended upon it in fire." That fire is described like that of a "kiln," intensely hot, an image that may also be caught in the disciples' remembrance in John of the verse, "Zeal for your house will consume me."
The Ten Words (as the Hebrew puts it) is no mere list of moral or religious principles, either for the people who received them after their Exodus from Egypt, nor for us who follow the way of Jesus. These are instead covenant expectations between God and God's people, foundational descriptors of what God expects the relationship of people in God's covenant to be to God, to one another, and to their neighbors, and by extension, to the earth itself. (Remember that Sabbath for people and their domesticated animals represented rest for the land from being worked as well.)
The introduction to these covenant expectations makes clear why God is making covenant. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." Each of the covenant expectations denotes a way that God sets people free from all kinds of "houses of slavery" so we may all come to dwell in God's land of promise.
In short, the commandments are all about setting people free.
To bring this home to the gospel reading, how was the temple system, which Jesus temporarily shut down in its peak season, fulfilling that purpose at that time? How were the things that had grown up around it -- the marketplace, the moneychangers, the priestly caste, the politics -- setting people free? How were they driving people "back to Egypt?"
And to bring this home to your worshiping community, how does the way your congregation operates set people free? How does it keep people trapped in bondage? How does it bring into bondage people who were previously not in such bondage?
To begin to get at this in your worship planning team, project a pie chart of your congregation's budget and ask to what degree the budget reflects marketplace values about institutional growth and survival or kingdom values about ensuring the poor are getting good news, the hungry are being fed, those who are sick, imprisoned, or otherwise "cordoned off" are being visited or reintegrated into society, and people in all stations of life are experiencing through your congregation's investments the reality of the transforming love of God. How might worship today become an opportunity both to share how you do see and embody God as deliverer in your midst as well as honestly to acknowledge where you still have "growing edges"?
Once again, the epistle functions as a hermeneutical hinge. "We proclaim a crucified Messiah, a scandal to Jewish people, sheer foolishness to the rest of the world, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, 'Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God'" (I Corinthians 1:23).
In context in I Corinthians, Paul has already praised these Christians, whose church he had a hand in founding, for their spiritual giftedness, and challenged them for the spiritual cliques developing among them ("I'm a follower of Paul" or I'm with Apollos or Peter or even Christ). He will come back to chide them for prideful abuses of spiritual gifts later (chapters 12-14), but here he addresses their divisions by associating them with human pride and by disassociating human pride from the message of gospel he had brought them. There is nothing in the gospel he proclaimed to them, the good news of the crucified Messiah named Jesus, that they or anyone could take pride in -- except that this crucified Messiah is God's wisdom and power.
Paul was here confronting a specifically Greco-Roman religious tendency to divide people into little niches. In Greco-Roman religious processions, people marched to offer their sacrifices or pinch of incense in their own little groupings, not as one body, a series of one segregation after another. After giving their offerings in a segregated way, they would share a meal in a segregated way as well, one group never sitting down to table with another.
Paul could see the same "re-segregating" happening in the early Christian community in Corinth. Peter followers over here. Apollos fans over there. Paul partisans over yonder.
No, Paul, says. No. This is now how we have learned Christ. Christ's power and wisdom is the foolishness of the cross. We are all made new in Christ to have one Lord, and become one people, no longer divided into our little "market niches," but united in Christ, crucified and risen.
To get at the larger theme of "Jesus Confronts Religion" present in today's texts, where does your worshiping community need to start? If you need to confront ways your own religious systems and practices prevent people from following Jesus, start with John. If the vision of God that you have seemed to promote has been other than God as deliverer, or if you have taken the notion of God's covenant expectations too lightly, start with Exodus. Or if your fellowship is more characterized by its passion for cliques and partisanship instead of a unified passion to follow Jesus, start with I Corinthians. Start where you need to start. Plan creatively and joyfully, but also seriously, about how best to embody these themes in worship around your selected starting place.
Plan worship and follow-up in multiple ways that will help the worshipers who gather live free from slavery, connected to God, and sent into God's mission in the world in the wisdom and power of Jesus, crucified and risen.
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The third Sunday in Lent was and is a day of special preparation for those preparing for baptism. The ancient church practiced exorcism of all that was not of Christ in the candidates and handed on to them the faith of the church. Present-day churches that practice the ancient catechumenate present the Apostles' Creed (UMH 882) to candidates as the summary of the central articles of our faith in the Triune God.
"[The Apostles' Creed] connects Christians with their ecumenical heritage and links them to the apostolic faith and witness of the early church. As a baptismal creed, it serves as the basis for entrance into the baptismal covenant and helps candidates to relate diverse scriptural texts to the essential narrative of God's saving action."
Come to the Waters, p. 116.
If you choose to carry on this tradition today as a response to the word, be sure to connect it with the larger theme,"Jesus Confronts Religion." Perhaps either in sermon, or in your introduction to the "handing on the creed," you might take note how the articles of the Apostles Creed, like the covenant expectations of the Ten Commandments, are a declaration of God setting the world free from captivity to sin and death through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
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- Act of Congregational Centering BOW 470 (1 Corinthians)
- Call to Worship BOW 199, "Come! Come! Everybody Worship!" (Exodus)
- Greeting: BOW 330 (1 Corinthians)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 460 (John)
- Canticle: UMH 112, "Canticle of Wisdom" (1 Corinthians)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 479 (Exodus)
- Litany: BOW 496, The Ten Commandments (Exodus)
- Prayer: UMH 268, Lent (Exodus)
- Prayer: BOW 35 (1 Corinthians)
- Prayer: BOW 501, "For the Church" (John)
- Prayer: BOW 510, "For Discernment" (1 Corinthians)
- Prayer: BOW 514, "For the Mind of Christ" (John)
- Response: 191, "May This Mind Be in Us" (John)
- Prayer: BOW 516 or BOW 517, "For the Nation" (John)
- Prayer: BOW 525, "For Wisdom" (1 Corinthians)
- Response: BOW 193, "Prayer for Wisdom" (1 Corinthians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Myanmar (Burma), Thailand
- Great Thanksgiving for Early in Lent: BOW 60-61
- Dismissal with Blessing: A deacon or assisting minister/layperson could dismiss the people using BOW 559 and the pastor speak the blessing using BOW 561 or UMH 669.
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