Unlike some other liturgical seasons, Sundays belonging to the season of Lent are described as seasons “in” Lent. There are Sundays “of” Advent, or expectation; and there are Sundays “of” Easter, or new life. But in Lent, Sundays are islands in the midst of a forty-day sea of penitence. In churches with a strong tradition of sacrificial Lenten disciplines, Lenten Sundays are a small break, a celebration (albeit a low-key one) that provides some relief. Lenten Sundays are sometimes considered “days off” from these disciplines. The word “Lent” is derived from an old form of the verb “to lengthen,” referring to the lengthening days that characterize these late-winter and early-springtime weeks. Thus, even as the church is engaged in Lenten penitence, there is a growing intuitive awareness that the power of light is incrementally increasing — until the great celebration of Easter, when light bursts forth once and for all, invincible.
Pastor of Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in New Jersey
But even so, the overall theme of Lent is penitential, and the scripture texts (particularly the Gospel Lessons) have been chosen to assist Christians in the spiritual journey of accompanying Jesus on his way to the cross. In our pleasure seeking, “I want it now” culture, Lent can be a hard sell for preachers. Many worshipers are suspicious of any sustained emphasis on human sin, or on darker subjects like suffering and death. They’re not sure there’s anything to be gained in waiting forty days for Easter to come. Some will frankly admit that they much prefer worship they consider “inspiring” or “uplifting” — meaning by those words, worship that is set in a major (as opposed to a minor) key.
Yet there are considerable rewards to keeping Lent in the traditional way. In the larger context of the Christian year, it is hard to imagine a meaningful Easter celebration for people who have not first been to the cross. Lent is an important time of preparation. Also, for those who are experiencing the darker side of life — due to illness, bereavement, depression, or any of life’s periodic reversals — a frank acknowledgment of these difficult times can be an important step on the road to healing.
Excerpted from Lectionary Preaching Workbook: Series VIII, Cycle B by Carlos Wilton (CSS Publishing Company, 2005).
Mark Ellingsen is on the faculty of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta
Lent has at least 2 origins. In its medieval form it was an expansion to 40 days (in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness) of the special devotions early Christians devoted to the 40 hours Jesus lay in the tomb from Good Friday to Easter. We might think of Jesus this year on Saturday (rather than making it a secular day of getting ready for family festivities Sunday)! Maybe it could just happen in the form of a conversation with a family member or friend on the subject or a few thank-you prayers that day. The church’s commemoration of Lent asks us why we should limit such devotion to Holy Saturday. Why not 40 days? The gospel of Easter will likely be all the sweeter and even more clearly full of God’s compassion after such encounters with the law, with the awareness of what we and our kind have put Jesus through.
The lengthening of Lent in the Middle Ages to 40 days was a natural for the church. In the first centuries when all baptisms were done on Easter there had been a season of catechetical training to prepare for baptism. Thus from early times the church was accustomed to many days prior to Easter for Christian education. Wow! Isn’t that a fantastic idea for you this Lent? Education emphasis on Wednesday and Sunday worship! Why don’t you read some Christian book or a little more of the Bible? Would that not be a great way to remember, to accompany Jesus in the tomb, as medieval Christians sought to do. The history of Lent offers some rich ideas for you in 2009 to commemorate the season, to help prepare us for an even sweeter encounter with our risen Lord! I wish you a Blessed Easter, but first have a meaningful Lent.
It has been reported that congregations, which have traditionally had mid-week worship services have begun to discontinue them because it didn’t seem worth the time and effort it took for the few people that attended. Besides the effort it took to put it together, there was no enthusiasm from the leadership to continue it. What a shame.
Wesley Runk, Lutheran pastor and founder of CSS Publishing Co.
Other congregations are finding the mid-week service to be a boon to their ministries. In cities, people are coming in off of the streets at noontime to listen to concerts given by musicians that usually play in nightclubs or symphonies. People bring their lunch and remain for a short devotion before going back to work. One pastor opened a storefront during the Lenten season and invited people in off of the streets to eat a sandwich and read or even have a communion service. Another congregation has devotions for high school students as early as an hour and thirty minutes before school begins.
Congregations that have interesting Lenten seasons experience growth both spiritually and numerically. Very often your members feel encouraged to invite a person that once claimed a church home but has since fallen by the way side to a mid-week service. There is something different about those services, they don’t seem so formal or they begin with a soup supper or a Bible study.
Several years ago we formed Tables of Eight for a light Lenten supper that preceded a Bible study and a worship service. Each councilperson and his or her spouse invited another couple that regularly attended, another couple that was hanging on by their fingernails, and a couple that lived in their neighborhood that did not attend any church.
A set of three couples were asked each to prepare the soup and set up for the meal and the congregation paid for the drinks, bread, cold meats, and cheese.
Following the meal, the table of eight moved to the sanctuary for the Bible study that included handouts about the study. The first year it was about the life of Christ, another year was on the subject of peace making, and a third year it was based on the Seven Last Words.
When the Bible study concluded there was a 10-minute break before the worship service. The worship service began with a hymn sing of three or four hymns and then a brief liturgy before a meditation.
The worship experience is usually around a theme or object such as the cross or the nails of the cross. Each night people are given an object like a nail or a stone or something that relates to the series of meditations.
Setting aside the time for a minimum of more than 100 people is what makes this work. In larger congregations you can reach out to other leaders such as former councilpersons, committee chairpersons, members of the choir, the ushers group, Sunday school teachers, circle leaders, youth ministers, and others.
People get to know each other after five or six weeks and more often than not the “hangers on,” and the neighborhood invitees are inclined to also come to church. Many times other Bible studies are added and all are invited to attend either at the church or at home ministries.
Planning Lent, Easter, Advent, and Epiphany seasons with real goals to include more than the people that will show up whenever the door is opened brings new freshness to the church and the ministry it provides.
Perhaps you have a Lenten idea that you would like to share that has prospered your church’s ministry. We’d like to hear from you.
A man was looking for some guidance from God so he asked God to make his Bible open at the page he wanted him to read. The man opened his Bible randomly and the first verse that his eyes met was 2 Corinthians 13:12, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” A little discouraged he tried again and this time he found himself at 1 Corinthians 14:39 “Do not forbid the use of tongues.”
Wesley Runk, Lutheran pastor and founder of CSS Publishing Co.
He tried again the next day, and the first verse he found was Matthew 27:5, “He went and hanged himself.” The next verse was Luke 10:37 “… go and do likewise!”
This is not exactly what pastors have in mind when they encourage members and others to study the Bible. As a matter of fact most pastors are concerned that many of the members are not opening their Bibles at all. How do we get “our people” to study the Bible at home or in groups at the church?
One of the problems is that church gathering for Bible study is spread out over a long period of time and the meetings are most often held a week apart. People forget the date and time, they make other commitments, they forget about commitments they previously made, they haven’t done the follow-up they were supposed to do or they can’t remember where they left the Bible that they borrowed to attend the first class.
There are also other problems like the leader wasn’t as prepared as he/she could have been and those who attended recognized it and decided not to return.
Lent is a great time to have Bible studies. People are ready for a spiritual period in their lives and there is a beginning and an end to the season. But how do you choose a Bible study that will fit the time requirements? Do you choose something for five weeks or six weeks? Do you study a book of the Bible or a portion of the book? Should a Lent study be limited to the last week of Christ’s life or maybe the last seven words that he spoke from the cross?
Several years ago I abandoned the weekly Bible study in favor of a daily Bible study for one week. It went so well that I decided the next year that I would do it for two consecutive weeks. It went even better. I tried three the following year. The commitment was too great and the progress that was made diminished in a flash. Few even attended the first session. I had pushed the limits too far.
Here is a suggestion that makes sense. We are trying it this year for the first time. It is called One-Page Bible Studies. It is designed for groups that have something in common like men meeting with men, women meeting women, and youth meeting other youth. It has a set time and centers around our favorite times of the day that involve food (breakfast, brunch, and lunch). It has a format that is easy to lead and the study is limited to one subject each week. We think you will like it if you try it.
I looked for a way to start and end my blog. I could think of no better way than to invite others to suggest how important Bible study is to others. I began with words that I would not recommend but I will close with some others that I think say it all.
“The Bible contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword, and the Christian’s charter. Here paradise is restored, heaven opened, and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is its grand object, our good is its design and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory, and a river of pleasure. It is given you in life, will be opened in the judgement, and will be remembered forever. It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labour, and will condemn all who trifle with its sacred contents.”
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance that marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (vv. 5-6, KJV). Other examples found in the Bible include Numbers 19:9, 19:17; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13; and Hebrews 9:13.
Here are some suggestions you might consider for your Ash Wednesday services. Some of these could be springboards for ongoing series during the rest of the Lenten season. The brief excerpts illustrating each suggestion are drawn from CSS titles available on this site.
Suggestions for Ash Wednesday Services
Service of Ashes — The pastor marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshiper traditionally retains until washing it off after sundown.
Excerpt from a service in Ashes and Tears
Call To Worship: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that you fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Unison Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Ash Wednesday Collect from the Book of Common Prayer, 1952.)
Start a meditation series
Excerpt from a meditation series in Roll Back The Stone 0-7880-2354-3
(This is a meditation series with six parts, one for Ash Wednesday and one for each Sunday in Lent — they could be used for midweek services in Lent, as well. They can be used as an introduction to the sermon or as a Bible group discussion starter. They are the stories as told by The Thorn, The Robe, The Nail, The Spear, The Shroud, and The Stone.)
Initially we felt horror and disgust toward those who had used us in such an inhumane way. But then we went through a change of feelings; a change in character and being. The instant we came in contact with his flesh, a feeling shot through us that was beyond anything we had ever felt before. There was a sense of life and living that surpassed even being attached to our roots in the field. It was a different and more powerful life flowing around us. It caused us to feel warm and peaceful. It was something that flowed from him to us. We were inflicting pain and he gave warmth, love, and peace in return. How illogical!…
Start a sermon series — for Sundays or midweek
Excerpt from a sermon in Life On The Edge Of Faith
(This book provides a sermon series covering Ash Wednesday, the Sundays in Lent, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Each comes with a worship service — Ash Wednesday’s has an imposition of ashes included.)
Ash Wednesday Sermon
Whoever said that the behavior of human beings, especially frightened human beings, made sense? The behavior of the Pharisee probably made sense to him. And, up to a point, it can honestly be viewed as making sense, even spiritually. No matter what else you say about the Pharisee, you have to admit that he is thanking God for his good character, and, as far as the activity he uses as an example of his character, this might be called over and above the call of duty. Only the tithing of crops was required. This man tithed all he received, not just crops. And the kind of fasting he did was practiced by only the most zealous Jews….
Lent, in some Christian denominations, is the forty-day-long liturgical season of fasting and prayer before Easter. The forty days represent the time Jesus spent in the desert, where according to the Bible he endured temptation by Satan. Different churches calculate the forty days differently.
The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Suggestions for Services on the Sundays in Lent or Midweek Services
Start a Bible study series
Excerpt from Forgiveness The Jesus Way 0-7880-2437-5
(This book provides 12 weeks of study material, perfect for the Sundays in Lent / midweek services and the Sundays in Easter.)
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not:
Covering up the conflict,
Making excuses for bad behavior,
Tolerating the situation,
Condoning unkindness and harmful actions,
Trying to forget,
Denying our hurts and feelings,
Being a long-suffering martyr,
Setting conditional limits, or
Smiling no matter what happens
If you have practiced any of the above, even with good intentions and in the name of forgiveness, then you have discovered their frustrating and discouraging limitations. This thought by Henri J.M. Nouwen offers yet another facet of forgiveness and preparation for entering the complex drama of reconciliation scenarios.
Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour – unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family….
Start a dialogue series
Excerpt from a dialogue in Conversations With The Savior 0-7880-1783-4
(This book has dialogues and accompanying children’s sermons based on the “I Am” statements for Ash Wednesday, Sundays in Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.)
Reuben: It’s not just Romans and tax collectors and guilt that enslave me. It’s our own leaders. Not long ago, I visited the synagogue once again. I admit it had been awhile. But those pompous wind-bags. You know how they are. Well, I went. You were even there that day. You healed that man with the withered hand. Remember? But because it was the Sabbath, they came after you like a pack of wolves! They teach that freedom is in the Law. Some freedom! Thank God you disregarded their law, restoring the man’s hand, giving him the only freedom he’d had in years.
Jesus: It’s not God’s law that they were teaching, Reuben, but their own. If God’s law were truly their concern, they would rejoice in a man made well. And if Abraham were really their father they would seek to protect a man’s life. But already they are plotting to kill me. I forgive sinners and heal the sick and lame. Where is the crime in this? Who but the devil would stand in the way of freedom and forgiveness and healing and life? …
Start a sermon series
Excerpt from a sermon in Life On The Edge Of Faith 0-7880-1790-2
(This book provides a sermon series covering Ash Wednesday, the Sundays in Lent, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Each comes with a worship service)
Lent 1 Sermon
There is a story about a man who could not climb out of a well even though he was standing just a few inches below the end of a rope. Ordinarily, this might sound extraordinary. However, it ceases to be so when one realizes that this is a man who never looked up even on the good days when the sky was blue and the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Whether out of habit or insecurity or foul temperament, he never looked up. One has to wonder what good his consistent focus on the ground did him when he fell into the well anyway. But such he did. And he screamed himself nearly hoarse for help, but still, he didn’t look up. When a child finally did hear him and look down the well, he did finally look up. That is when he saw the rope.
Start a series of dramatic readings
Excerpt from Worship Innovations: Lent and Easter Season Resources 0-7880-1993-7
First Week of Lent: Salome, Mother of James and John
Second Week of Lent: Zacchaeus, Roman Tax Commissioner
Third Week of Lent: Lazarus, Whom Jesus Raised from the Dead
Fourth Week of Lent: Caiaphas, Jewish High Priest
Fifth Week of Lent: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Secret Disciples
Sixth Week of Lent: Judas Iscariot, Who Betrayed Him
Two Readers (these may be ministers)
In many Christian churches, Palm Sunday is marked by the distribution of palm leaves (often tied into crosses) to the assembled worshipers. The difficulty of procuring palms for that day’s ceremonies in unfavorable climates for palms led to the substitution of boughs of box, yew, willow or other native trees.
Suggestions for Services on Palm Sunday
A Service of Palms
Excerpt from a service in Ashes and Tears 1-5567-3018-7
Call To Worship
Let us wave the palms;
Let us sing the songs;
Let us prepare a pathway for our King!
Let us praise Jesus our Christ and King!
Almighty God, we give thanks for the Master who rode in triumph into the city of his fathers. We praise you that he came as the conqueror, not of force and military might but of love and peace. In the spirit of those who sang “Hosanna to the Son of David” so long ago, we join the great chorus of those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of your name. Amen
A Reader’s Theater
Excerpt from And Him Crucified 1-55673-701-7
Two narrators are suggested, preferably with voice timbres for contrast. They may be male and female or both women. Six readers are recommended in addition to the Narrators. No great acting ability is necessary, but the readers should be able to speak clearly and with a sense of drama in their words. They should know the lines well enough so that they can frequently look at the person to whom they are speaking.
The parts may be divided as follows. The readers, except Jesus, may also join with the Crowd and Soldiers.
Reader 1 Jesus
Reader 2 Prophet, Disciple 1, Elder, Priest 3
Reader 3 Pilate, Priest 1, Disciple 2, Elder
Reader 4 Jeremiah, Priest 2, Elder
Reader 5 Judas, Elder, Priest 4
Reader 6 Peter, Centurion, Angel
Reader 7 Pilate’s Wife, 2 Girls (unless assigned to the choir)
Excerpt from a sermon monologue in Living In The Light 0-7880-2502-3
This book has a sermon monologue for the pastor to read for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday — and much, much more.
(This is intended for the pastor to deliver to the congregation.)
Pastor: … “Hosanna” was nothing I sang with joy as much as I sang it in desperation. If you can imagine that words have a double meaning, well, “Hosanna” had a double meaning. The first Palm Sunday was not a party — even though we did celebrate on that day. It was a party, a parade, and a cry for help all in one. Things were pretty desperate for us to scream out “Hosanna!” You know “Hosanna” means “save now.” To ask for Jesus to save us immediately, things had to be pretty desperate. “Hosanna” is a cry for help. My dad was about ready to crack under the unfair rules that the temple put on us as a family. I don’t think we could have taken another Passover like the ones we had in the past. We were poor and desperate folks….