Watch for themes of confession, fasting and other acts of penitence. In both Joel and Isaiah, a “trumpet” could be sounded, either a modern trumpet or a ram’s horn/shofar.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 – The prophet proclaims the time of the Lord’s coming! Even as that strikes fear in their hearts, the prophet, familiar with his people’s acts of contrition, calls them to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Fast, gather together the old and the young, get ready, says the prophet. Centuries later, an apt way to begin Lent
Isaiah 58:1-12 – This prophet also presumes the sinfulness of the people, especially those who protest before God that their religious practices are sufficient, why then does the Lord not take them into account? Isaiah “calls them out” as those whose religious forms do not match the faithful living from which they should arise… and for the preacher, gives plenty of examples!
Psalm 51:1-17 – Many Bibles have a superscription at the beginning of this psalm that says, A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Whether read in that specific context or in the broadest context of the whole of humanity, the psalm articulates the brokenness experienced by the sinner. It is a prayer for restoration, prayed in fear: “Do not cast me away from your presence…” For the preacher, there are universal touchstones throughout the psalm, a psalm that pleas for restoration of right relationship with God.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 – St Paul’s plea for “reconciliation” with God. He holds up himself (the editorial “we”?) as an example of enduring all things for the sake of God, staying true to God in spite of everything. The preacher might explore Paul’s heroics in remaining faithful to the gospel, and the challenge in modernity to do the same.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – From the midst of The Sermon on the Mount comes this “primer” for good spiritual practices, offered over against the more common practices in Jesus’ culture. Beyond the public/private practices is the deeper issue of our motivations, our own hearts: are we doing these things to please God or to please others? One might also examine the way public alms-giving by the wealthy would contrast with the more modest generosity of the poor, emphasizing a divide between them.
February 18, 2018
Covenants begin after disasters, Enemies and suffering abound in this week’s passages. Jesus emerges from the wilderness and proclaims the kingdom come!
Genesis 9:8-17 – Sometimes called the “rainbow covenant,” after the devastation of the great flood, God puts his “bow” in the clouds as a sign of his covenant with Noah, his family, and all creatures. The bow, both a weapon of war and a device for hunting, is transformed into a sign of peace – could it foreshadow the prophets’ “swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks?” After our floods (crises), how do we claim the sign of God?
Psalm 25:1-10 – The one who prays, “do not let my enemies exult over me” is in a tough spot. First, he has enemies; second, they are in a position to humiliate him; and third (reading on), he sees them as “wantonly treacherous.” People of the 21st century could identify with the psalmist and track with him in his prayer to be led in the right paths. There is also an opportunity for the preacher to name those shamed by their ‘wantonly treacherous enemies’ and a challenge to both identify them as well as work with them toward their well being.
1 Peter 3:18-22 – Peter delineates Jesus’ suffering for since once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. He portrays Jesus in heaven with angels, authorities and powers all made subject to him. That is a radical reordering of the experience of humans “subjected” to power and authority in a variety of harmful ways. Peter’s vehicle (vessel) for understanding is the Ark, through which a handful of people were saved by water, presaging our baptism. The preacher might explore how our baptism ushers us into a new community, where even power and authority are subject to the risen Jesus.
Mark 1:9-15 – St. Mark offers the most concise of gospels, telling in the briefest form of Jesus baptized, hurried into the wilderness, emerging from there overflowing with the good news of God’s kingdom. (More than one cynic has said, Jesus gave us the kingdom and we gave Jesus the church!) The preacher might explore what that proclamation of God’s kingdom means in this nascent moment.
February 25, 2018
Our biblical heroes faced many challenges and many were slow to realize or learn the challenges they would face, or even the challenges that Christ faced.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 – One could hardly fault Abram and Sarai for crying out, “How long, O Lord?” The promise of God seemed elusive, without end. But God continually refreshes the promise, here by renaming them Abraham and Sarah, so that when they become parents not only of a son but of “nations,” they will be rightly named. The preacher might examine how we also hear God’s promises “refreshed,” encouraging us to keep the faith. Perhaps it is God’s promise of justice and righteousness that we find elusive, or “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (see Psalm 22:26)
Psalm 22:23-31 – It may be particularly apt to hear during Lent, “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hid his face for me, but heard when I cried to him.” Christ followers recognize that he, too, was afflicted and heard by God. For the preacher, one might explore the challenge of praising God while suffering. It is the beginning of this psalm that we hear from Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” The mix of lament and praise may help interpret the modern context.
Romans 4:13-25 – For St. Paul, Abraham is clearly a hero of the faith! He recognizes what it was that Abraham faced: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” In Lent, the echo from Advent is not far away, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). For the preacher, there is a wide field of “impossibilities” facing us, all of which call for faith.
Mark 8:31-38 – Oh, St. Peter! How slowly you accept the path that lies ahead for Jesus! In all honesty, we are no different. Don’t we spend our time to look for the path of least resistance, the softer, gentler way? Lent is the time when we are most confronted by the reality of “taking up the cross,” for the reality of Jesus’ own decision unfolds with striking clarity. The preacher might examine the ways we wrestle with the paths ahead and how we, too, can faithfully choose the way of the cross.
March 4, 2018
This week’s liturgy is as much about grounding our perspective as it is biblical text. From origins of creation through the Ten Commandments to the Temple in Jesus’ time.
Exodus 20:1-17 – The mid-point of the Lenten journey calls us to check the “original map,” the Ten Commandments. One can select from the list, treat them in their corporate and individual groupings, or develop a sense of the whole. It may be an occasion for considering the commandments as foundational rather than “the last word,” which Christians find in Jesus, the Word made flesh.
Psalm 19 – What begins as a kind of “creation” psalm shifts to a response to the commandments of the LORD. Despite the psalmist’s belief in the Law’s clarity, he still prays, “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” The psalm provides a Lenten “location” from which to examine one’s own recognition of the word of God.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 – St. Paul leads our thinking to an examination of the wisdom of God over against the wisdom of the world, and how the Jews and Gentiles alike regard as foolishness that which is the very power of God. The preacher could carry forward that examination using today’s gospel or mine the richness of the whole of the gospels.
John 2:13-22 – In perhaps the most overt direct action of his life, Jesus confronts a corrupt Temple establishment, setting things right. St. John has this near the beginning of the gospel, setting the tone for the pushback that will inevitably follow Jesus throughout his public life. The preacher might examine where it is that people of faith are called to be as vocal as Jesus.
March 11, 2018
Are we saved because God rescued us from Egypt, because we understand the concepts of grace, or because of grace alone?
Numbers 21:4-9 – For a people averse to “graven images,” we find this passage strange indeed! The newly freed slaves of Egypt find ample reason to complain, which seems like a reasonable response to going the long way (around Edom), no water or food, and what was provided (manna) was no picnic… they said. We can question whether God sent the serpents to administer wrath, but certainly, being snake-bitten was no picnic either! The preacher might examine how we also name our negative circumstances as the hand of God and challenge us to decide if God works that way… for would that not imply that everyone in adverse circumstances deserved it? There is no easy answer.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 – The psalmist seems quite aware of the foregoing text, or at least similar episodes in the exodus from Egypt. While he also names the troublesome circumstances, he also names God’s acts of deliverance from each of them: sin, sickness, the loathing of the food, and the nearness of death. The psalmist has the vantage point of it all being in the past. The preacher might examine how one can claim deliverance in the midst of affliction, in mid-chapter of one’s story.
Ephesians 2:1-10 – The epistle examines how it is that we are saved, and from what we are saved, by grace alone, not works. The preacher might examine the place of our “works” in response to that grace, rather than a strategy for achieving salvation. For Wesleyans, the challenge may be to align Wesley’s “three simple rules” with this text: First, do no harm; Second, do good; Third, stay in love with God.
John 3:14-21 – We may forget that this passage concludes Jesus’ encounter with the seeker, Nicodemus, a member of the ruling Sanhedrin. He comes by night to clear up his confusion about Jesus. He hears about being born again, or from above, and seems more confused than ever. Here, the preacher might examine God so loving the world, the whole world, not for it’s condemnation but for it’s salvation.
March 18, 2018
The word of God arrives as loud as thunder or as quiet as light and has been written in both stone and on our hearts.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – Covenant making is serious business! The prophet alludes to the time when the covenant (law, commandments) was written in stone. In this latter day, that covenant will be written on the hearts of the people. The preacher might examine the modern desire for the covenant to be written instead on an erasable board, where certain adjustments can be made. Reference could be made to a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when Elizabeth complains to pirate captain Barbossa that he’s not following The (pirates’) Code, to which he says, “….the code is more like guidelines than actual rules.”
Psalm 119:9-16 – Early in the long poem that is Psalm 119 is help for young people. The psalmist is positioned as such a young person and owns the strategy for keeping his own way pure throughout. The preacher might reflect how one’s counsel is stronger in the midst of the storm than in its aftermath, or as a mere storm-watcher, as the counselor identifies quite precisely with the struggle. Meditation on this longest of psalms (and chapters of the entire Bible) is always time well spent.
Hebrews 5:5-10 – As we from time to time consider our “call,” we might do well to remember Bishop Reuben Job saying that the only reasonable answer to God’s call is “yes.” As late Lent unfolds, Jesus’ answer to the call to suffer comes into stark relief with our versions of obedience. The preacher might consider the tension in which that places us, amid our own suffering or as witnesses of, or as allies with, all those who suffer.
John 12:2-33 – Out of the thunder arrives a voice that confirms Jesus’ identity as the one who also bears the name of God. In this moment when the world (some Greeks) seeks him out, Holy Week comes into view. The preacher might examine this precipitous moment, one where Jesus still has a choice to proceed or not. How do we proceed when the signs align but danger lurks ahead? Perhaps one might consider that if the pursuit of justice and righteousness were easy, more people would be on that track.
March 25, 2018
The passion, or suffering, of the Lord calls forth a song of the people known as “lament.” In a day that begins with seeming triumph, events take a dramatic turn toward danger.
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Chosen perhaps because it is a “processional” psalm (e.g., “bind the festal procession with branches”), it accompanies the reading of Jesus’ own triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The phrase, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” perhaps foreshadows that Jesus will be rejected, even as he ultimately will become the ultimate foundation of all that is. The preacher might examine that tension in the modern context.
Mark 11:1-11 – The familiarity of the scene may risk missing the danger it produced. The echo of the prophet Zechariah, palm branches that could have connected Jesus with the Maccabean revolt, the naming of the kingly line of David, shouts of “Hosanna” (save now), all combine to stir a violent opposition. The preacher might examine the power of symbols, history, and personal involvement in such a moment.
Liturgy of the Passion
Isaiah 50:4-9a – One of Isaiah’s “suffering servant songs,” there is a poetic and prophetic connection with the life of Jesus. In times of societal turmoil, the preacher might reclaim the prophet’s voice: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.”
Psalm 31:9-16 – The passion, or suffering, of the Lord calls forth a song of the people known as “lament.” In such psalms, the “singer” sings strains of stark reality: grief, sighing, wasting, failing. The preacher might examine how such psalms provide a platform for people to face “lamentable” times and events, and also to pray together for deliverance, and at last, “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.” As Holy Week arrives, there is in this psalm strength for the journey.
Philippians 2:5-11 – St. Paul frames for us a great hymn of the early church. The theology reflected in the hymn is filled with humility, “self-emptying,” naming the One who did not grasp power. The preacher might contrast the approach of the Savior of the whole world with those who indeed see power as a thing to be grasped, with an only an insincere nod in the direction of humility. Much encouragement is available here for those descending into the depths of Holy Week.
Mark 14:1-15:47 – Where does one connect in so rich (and long) a passage? The political machinations of Jerusalem’s leadership? The humble act of a nameless woman? The Last Supper? Betrayal? Jesus’ promises to the disciples? Arrest? The fleeing of the disciples? The so-called trial? Violence? Denial? Pilate? Barabbas? The riotous crowd? Mockery? Crucifixion? A most violent death? The ignominious end? The constant throughout is Jesus: obedient, faithful, loving. The preacher may find alignment in congregational context for a wide variety of approaches.