For preachers and worship planners, I’ve been outlining various sermon series ideas for the upcoming season of Lent. The advantage of a sermon series in any liturgical season is the opportunity it affords to build a story arc or develop a faith lesson across several weeks in the life of a congregation. Planning a sermon series also assists with advance worship planning, as liturgies, hymns, music and prayers can be guided by the themes and scripture already identified for the sermon series.
Last week on the Monday Muse, I outlined a sermon series based on the Old Testament readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Two Mondays ago, I shared the idea of using artwork to inspire a sermon series. For today, I had promised to offer a sermon series idea based on Gospel readings; by request, the following sermon series idea for Lent uses the Gospel readings from the Narrative Lectionary rather than the Revised Common Lectionary.
A Lenten Sermon Series on the Gospel of John
“Who do you say that I am?”
The question comes from Matthew 16:13 and Mark 8:27, but the theme of it runs through the Gospel of John both in questions (e.g. John 6:42, 9:17, 14:10) and in the answers of Jesus’ “I AM” sayings (e.g. John 6:48, 8:12, 10:11).
To raise this question in a Lenten sermon series — “Who do you say that I am?” — focuses the life of the congregation on two elements of the Christian faith: (1) belief in Christ and (2) testimony to Christ. In other words, Who do we believe about Jesus? and What do we say about Jesus? For the Gospel readings outlined below, I offer brief notes and questions related to belief and testimony for your sermonizing muse.
One additional note: The Gospel readings in the Narrative Lectionary are looong. In your worship planning, give serious consideration to whether the whole reading is needed and, if it is, how you can best support congregants’ hearing of the scripture. Consider using more than one reader if a passage has multiple characters/voices, for example, or take the time (before Sunday morning) to work with & encourage readers to speak the scriptures in such a way that stories come alive for hearers.
Ash Wednesday, March 5 — John 10:1-18
What does Jesus say about Jesus? In these verses, Jesus identifies himself as both gate and shepherd, and the actions that he attributes to the gate and the shepherd run subtly counter to some common beliefs about Christ! The gate (unlike a gatekeeper, which is a frequent if implicit image for Christ) functions as an avenue to abundant life & community. The shepherd “leads the sheep out” for adventure rather then keeping them in a small pen for security. Do we testify to Jesus as a bouncer or as an invitation, as a hiking partner or as a security blanket?
First Sunday in Lent, March 9 — John 11:1-44
What do we say about Jesus? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” both Martha and Mary say to Jesus. Their admonition simultaneously reflects their deep belief in Jesus’ power…and their (our) misconception that faith should privilege us to live without struggle. Too often, our testimony to Christ is spoken in platitudes: “God does not give us more than we can handle,” for example. Even worse are the public voices who tout catastrophe as a sign of God’s abandonment. We are called to testify in such a way that we help others walk in the light rather than causing brothers & sisters to stumble in darkness.
Second Sunday in Lent, March 16 — John 13:1-17
How do we nurture our faith in Jesus? “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” We believe in Jesus who lived his life in service to others; we testify to Jesus in our service to one another through church potlucks and community breakfasts, serving as church nursery volunteers and as global volunteers, investing in God’s world through clean water projects and fair trade efforts. Yet our testimony to Christ is incomplete if we neglect to let Jesus wash our feet — to welcome Jesus’ attention to the daily dirt and fatigue in our lives, to allow Jesus to touch and soothe what we so often hide (like a daily pedicure for the soul)!
Third Sunday in Lent, March 23 — John 18:12-27
Where and to whom do we testify to Christ? We are familiar with speaking of Jesus and of faith during Sunday worship. This passage lends itself to a sermon on our witness (or lack thereof) in less tidy places — courtrooms or homeless shelters or prisons, for example. But I’m reminded of two other places where church folks are notorious for neglecting Jesus’ name: in church parking lots and at church meetings. How do we talk about Jesus with one another? Where is our testimony needed — both within and beyond our church walls?
Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30 — John 18:28-40
Who informs our beliefs? “Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourself and judge him according to your law.'” The conversation between Pilate and “the Jews,” and then between Pilate and Jesus, betrays Pilate’s reluctance to take responsibility for Jesus’ fate. “Judge him yourselves,” he tells the religious officials. “Implicate yourself,” he practically begs Jesus. Our beliefs are shaped by personal study and experience as well as community wisdom and revelation. Pilate wants no part of either. Do we take responsibility for our spiritual growth and beliefs? Do we ask others to hand us a pre-packaged theology? Do we consume others’ faith rather than investing in our own?
Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6 — John 19:1-16a
Who do you say that I am? “We have no king but the emperor.” If it were up to me, I’d actually start Lent with this passage, perhaps using it for Ash Wednesday. Our beliefs in Jesus and our testimonies of Jesus are merely daydreams and idle talk if we “throw Jesus under the bus” at the slightest threat to our way of life. Pilate thought that Jesus posed no threat to religious establishment or imperial government. The angry mob knew better: “He has challenged our hierarchies and undermined our securities; crucify him!” If we say that Jesus is someone who will let us live contentedly with the status quo, we deceive ourselves.
Palm Sunday, April 13 — John 12:12-17
How does our testimony continue? “The crowd that had been with Jesus when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.” Belief and testimony are not built upon one story; they are built upon the continuation of stories: in our own lives, in the lives of those we know, in the life of the Church, in the life of the cloud of witnesses. The crowd’s story includes the resurrection of Lazarus and now this celebratory parade. How is our testimony continuing and building? What new thing is God doing in our lives?
As I indicated above, I’d be tempted to reorder the Narrative Lectionary Gospel readings for Lent, so that “Who do you say that I am?” has a more logical progression to its theme. However, “logical” may be in the eye of the beholder, and the questions Who do we believe Jesus is? and What do we say about Jesus? run strongly throughout these Gospel readings regardless of sequence.
Next week for the Monday Muse: a Lenten sermon series idea on PRAYER.