Perhaps the term “journey” is a bit overused nowadays, but I can find few better descriptions to speak of Lent, beyond the language of passage or sojourn.
Each time I step behind the pulpit, I try to remember that I am inviting the congregation to join with me in a shared pilgrimage.
Part of the task of the preacher is to consider what that journey should look like, directed by Scripture and shaped by church tradition.
Particularly if one’s church is not well grounded in an understanding of Lent, this can be a helpful season to teach and offer creative ways to worship, observe and serve as a community of faith.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and, along with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, it calls on the congregation to center and focus through unique services of worship.
Throughout the first Ash Wednesday service I led, I felt a bit self-conscious about introducing a service that may appear to be “too Catholic” to many of our members.
I carefully prepared the church for a few weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday by sharing what we would do and why.
The service itself provides an occasion to preach about themes of mortality and penitence – with or without ashes.
We use ashes since this is such a vivid symbol of the day, and the power of touch should not be underestimated.
The first year we had our friends at the Episcopal church nearby provide the ashes and have continued to do so each year.
Our members take great delight in sharing this tradition with our sisters and brothers.
Over the years, the number of worshippers at this service has grown and it has provided a meaningful time of worship that crosses generational lines.
There is something quite powerful when you impose ashes on a child’s forehead and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Some even respond with a “thank you.”
The season of Lent is a period of 40 days – excluding Sundays, which are considered “feast days.” With that in mind, the Bible provides many opportunities to further explore other seasons of 40 in Scripture.
The rains of the flood lasted 40 days, the wilderness wanderings of Israel continued for 40 years, Moses was on the Mount Sinai with God for 40 days, and Jesus’ temptation in the desert was for 40 days.
There are other examples, each one suggesting journey and pilgrimage, but these examples should help start the process of creative reflection.
Lent is also the biblical journey of discipleship. Remembering how Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), all followers are challenged to consider how they are to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow” (Luke 9:23).
With that in mind, I have used this season to preach on practices of the faith, such as prayer, fasting, keeping the Sabbath, hospitality and even tithing.
The preacher has the responsibility and the opportunity to consider topics and themes related to the challenges of the faith from the pulpit.
One year I preached a series on doubt. Another year I shared seven sermons on the “tough prayers” of Jesus.
Remember: this is not a season that is preoccupied with triumphalism, but directs the walk toward sacrifice.
So, for example, deciding to preach on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross opens the door to some beautiful traditions in music centered on the same theme.
While preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary is not common in many Baptist churches, I commend its use.
It is a way to unite one’s pulpit with preachers throughout the world by sharing and preaching from the same texts of Scripture.
The Gospel readings keep the focus on the life, sayings and doings of Jesus while the Old Testament readings provide a helpful reminder of the unity of all Scripture as one canon.
Lent is a journey, and when a church (and preacher) decides to enter that journey, they are joining with Christians worldwide. It is a pilgrimage from the pew, to the pulpit and ultimately to the cross.
In this progression, Easter takes on the glorious alleluia that this journey does not end at the tomb.
Editor’s note: “Eyeing Easter, Walking through Lent,” EthicsDaily.com’s eight-week Lenten Bible study curriculum, is available here.
Interim Dean at McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University and Director of Development at McAfee School of Theology and College of Professional Advancement.