The lectionary for Lent encourages and trains readers in self-suspicion. This begins on Ash Wednesday. While the congregation gathers and wears their ashes on their foreheads in a visible symbol of piety, they hear Joel declare, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing (2:13). The preacher, who may later in the service pray long prayers, reads Jesus’ words, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (6:5). And again, a bit later, the congregation with oil and ash on their heads, will hear “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (6:16). Hypocrisy indeed!
However, do not let the lessons disuade from the practices. Let the tensions stand. The tensions preach, for they cut to the heart if we listen with the heart. These tensions run throughout the Lenten season, and they are worth noting, even drawing out as a theme. The devil is the first instigator, tempting Jesus in the wilderness by quoting the very Word of God (4:5). Nicodemus, seemingly so faithful and curious, is not brave enough, let alone faithful enough, to travel by day, and instead visits Jesus at night. Self-protection? Symbolism? In any event, worship leaders and preachers beware, and attend to Jesus’ question, “Are you a teacher of [the church], and you do not understand these things?” (3:10).
As the gospel lessons for Lent continue, it is the gospel of John that takes center stage, and the self-suspicion continues. However, there is a new literary strategy at work. Repeatedly, characters in the readings fail to understand something. The Samaritan woman does not understand, at least at first, Jesus’ meaning concerning living water. Next, a blind man sees (literally and figuratively), while the Pharisees, so convinced of their ability to see, are found uttering (ironically), “Surely we are not blind, are we (9:40). Finally, even Jesus’ closest friends, Mary and Martha, in their brush with the death of their brother Lazarus, are catechized in true faithfulness. As we read through each of these misunderstandings and further developments, something becomes clear. Our own vision is clarified. We see with new eyes. John’s gospel teaches the reader by learning from the mistakes of others.
These texts so clearly focus on self-suspicion and “seeing” that it is almost imperative that worship leaders find ways to show forth the gospel lessons in their worship space. Consider lifting out and rephrasing key questions in the gospels, then printing them on posters or banners to place throughout the church building. “We are not blind, are we?” “Where can I find this living water?” “Why, Jesus, did you let my loved one die?” “Are you really the Son of God?”
Each of these stories can also be readily portrayed in art, glass, mosaic, or 3-D. Consider soliciting the artistic talents of the members of the congregation, and create a “Stations of Lent.” The series would be: temptation of Jesus, Nicodemus at night, Samaritan woman at the well, blind man receives sight and puzzles Pharisees, and Lazarus being raised from the dead.
Some congregations are so busy with programs, small groups, choir rehearsals, meetings, and events that Lenten Mid-week services simply add to the mix and crowd it. In these congregations, the discipline of mid-week Lenten devotional services may be an invitation to simplify. Martha Grace Reese, in her resource Unbinding the Gospel, an evangelism and prayer resource designed to be used over a 40-day period like Lent, suggests that churches cancel all other events while studying the book, in order to fast, pray, and simplify. Congregations don’t necessarily need to study such a book during Lent, but they may do well to simplify during this season in order to make space for the “disciplines” of Lent.
Other congregations, however, are so weak in their small group ministries, so enervated in general, that Lenten Mid-week services may be exactly the discipline needed to spark renewed passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the patterns of church life that can sustain and flame that passion. In congregations like this, make use of Lenten mid-week services not to simplify but instead to offer opportunities for deepening and development. Prepare meals together with a prayer service built into the meal. Review the abundant resources that are available to renew Lent as a season of baptismal spirituality. The mid-week service can provide context and pattern for small group meetings, communal meals, and an emphasis on spiritual journey, fasting, prayer, etc.
Many congregations find this a fruitful time to offer a devotional series. Since this Lent includes many of the great psalms of the church, consider doing a devotional series on Psalm 32, 121, 95, 23, and 130, or a series on Luther's Small Catechism.