Several years ago, our family traveled by road from our home in the Midwest to Montreal and Quebec City. While we enjoyed seeing the new sights, including road signs and business names written in French, navigating the roads was a challenge at times. On our way to explore the city of Montreal, I followed the GPS navigation, taking a sharp turn through a construction zone only to suddenly discover I was driving the wrong direction on a one-way road. After a few sharp exclamations and some evasive maneuvers, we turned around and made our way safely to our final destination.
Sometimes when we get turned around in life. It can happen through quick decisions that dramatically turn us around or through slow and almost imperceptible changes that lead us off-course. When this occurs, we need to take action, reorient ourselves, and get back on track. Unfortunately, we do not always know how to do this, what action we should take, or what direction we should follow.
In the spiritual life, the Christian year is a resource to help us take action and find our way back on course. With steady attention on the life of Christ and framed within the story of the church, the Christian year literally forms our days around Christ’s days through a series of seasons and celebrations. In a more focused way, the season of Lent dramatically reorients us around Jesus’ journey to the Cross with a forty-day period (not including Sundays) of preparation, beginning with Ash Wednesday and culminating in the Passion or Holy Week.
This journey echoes the forty-year journey of Israel to the Promised Land and Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness, intending to lead us into deeper engagement with God. We turn from ourselves and turn to God. We repent of sin, lament our brokenness, and enter the fires of refining. This extended journey allows us to enter slow time with Christ and his suffering before we leap into our celebration of the Resurrection at Easter.
As preachers, we have a unique opportunity to help our congregations see how lost we are and how much we need Jesus. Our preaching offers a reorientation, new direction, and the way to get back on track by God’s grace with Jesus as the center.
I am going to offer us four pathways for preaching in Lent so that our congregations can find their way back through Christ.
A Call to Repentance
One powerful way to preach in Lent is to help our churches encounter the truth and holiness of God with a call toward repentance.
Martin Luther urged believers to know the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed. He wrote, “No man can progress so far in sanctification as to keep even one of the Ten Commandments as it should be kept, but that the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer must come to our assistance, as we shall hear, through which we must continually seek, pray for, and obtain the power and strength to keep the Commandments.” Preaching through the Ten Commandments, then, can help churches encounter their need for God, hear the call to true repentance, and find forgiveness and life in Christ.
Several years ago, our congregation explored the Ten Commandments during a Lenten preaching series entitled “Chiseled.” Beginning with an overview of the Ten Commandments and why we would preach them in Lent, we walked through each of the commandments. Because of the timetable of Lent, we combined some commandments together into one weekend, taking a thematic approach on those weeks.
Series Description: When God called his people out of slavery from Egypt and into a new land of promise, God established a new covenant with them. This covenant outlined God’s relationship with the people. It was a covenant of grace characterized by a new way of life for the community and individuals. While there were many parts of this, the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are a good summary of this covenant. In this series, we ask: How might we be shaped by the Ten Commandments, and how might they be chiseled upon our hearts, minds, and lives?
Week 1: The Ten
Text: Exodus 3:19; Matthew 5:17-20
This message introduces the Ten Commandments, their place in Scripture, their application to us as Christians, and the importance of the journey of Lent.
Week 2: The One and Only (Commandments 1-2)
Text: Exodus 20:1-6
A study of the importance of worshiping and serving God and God alone in our hearts and lives, with some attention to the topic of idolatry.
Week 3: Set Apart (Commandments 3-4)
Text: Exodus 20:7-11
A study of the holiness of God as reflected in the use of his name and the use of our time, including attention to sabbath.
Week 4: Your Mother and Father (Commandment 5)
Text: Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-4
A study of the first commandment directly linked with a promise: honoring our parents.
Week 5: Murder, Adultery and Theft (Commandments 6-8)
Text: Exodus 20:13-15; Matthew 5:21-30
A study of three commandments together, each one related to actions that overflow from our hearts: murder, adultery, and theft.
Week 6: The Neighbor (Commandments 9-10)
Text: Exodus 20:16-17; Mark 12:31
A study of two commandments about our relationships with our neighbor focused on themes of lying and jealousy.
I enjoyed focusing on the Ten Commandments as a resource for repentance and refining during Lent. While preaching the Ten Commandments can become moralistic, instead, perhaps due to the natural focus on Christ and the Cross in Lent, this series opened some new pathways of humility, forgiveness, and grace.
Other ideas for preaching on repentance during Lent that I have heard might look at samples from the psalms, such as Psalm 51, or great prayers of the Bible, like Daniel 9. Forming a series around prayers of repentance gives a vision for how to approach God in confessional prayer, while also providing ready-made starting points for weaving prayer experiences into the worship service.
Facing into the Darkness of Human Experience
Lent not only provides us the opportunity to hear God’s call to repent from sin, but also to explore areas of darkness in our faith, lives, and world. Suffering perennially troubles us as people, expressed in the familiar question, “Why does a good God allow people to suffer?” Our church walked through a thematic survey of the Book of Job during Lent in a series entitled “Finding God in the Darkness.” Although Job is long, we addressed themes by grouping together some of the conversations between Job and his “friends,” while also linking the passion of Christ with the suffering of Job.
Series Description: How does suffering draw us to God? What wisdom can be gained from the pathway of humility in trouble with God? The Book of Job shows us the pathways of good news that can be found during trials. In light of the Cross of Christ, the Book of Job shows us that God transforms suffering in our lives.
Week 1: Reverence in the Darkness: Job's Response to God in Suffering
Text: Job 1:1-2:13
Key verse: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
What does it look like to turn to God in suffering? How do we recognize the reality of suffering, understand the nature of suffering, evaluate the cause of suffering, and grow through suffering?
Week 2: Wrestling in the Darkness: Job and His Friends’ Quest for Meaning in Suffering
Text: Job 3-27
Key verse: “I despise my life ... my days have no meaning. … When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 7:18; 23:10)
Job enters a dialogue with his friends about the nature and meaning of suffering. They offer counsel that is, in one way, true, but is divorced from the context of Job's life and God's perspective. We will consider when to speak and when to be silent, how we comfort one another in suffering and how we search for meaning in suffering together before God.
Week 3: Wisdom in the Darkness: Clinging to God in the Face of Confusion and Adversity
Text: Job 28
Key verse: “But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? ... God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells.” (Job 28:12, 23)
Amid the dialogue of Job and his friends, an interlude on the way of wisdom interrupts the reader at the center of the book. Wisdom is not easily found but is readily available because God is the giver of wisdom.
Week 4: Humility in the Darkness: Job Rebuked Regarding God's Greatness
Text: Job 29-37
Key verse: “How great is God - beyond understanding! The number of his years is past finding out.” (Job 36:26)
Job argues with his friends and occasionally edges toward self-justification or even pride. Elihu rebukes Job about his heart’s posture before God. Sometimes self-protective or self-justifying attitudes arise in our suffering, and we too must return to the place of humility before God.
Week 5: Hearing God in the Darkness: Job's Encounter with the Living God
Text: Job 38:1-42:6
Key Verse: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5)
Many times, during suffering we may ask God to reveal himself or his truth to us. When God does speak, he reminds Job of how small he is in comparison to God in his greatness. How do we learn from Job about appropriate listening to God in the times of suffering?
Week 6: Redemption in the Darkness: Job’s Return to Joy through Suffering
Text: Job 42:7-17
Key Verse: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job's lifer more than the former.” (Job 42:12)
When Job walks with and obeys God in his suffering, redeeming grace breaks in. How can we also experience greater blessing in our lives through and beyond the seasons of suffering we face?
I personally found preaching this series on Job both enriching and challenging. The pace of going through the book was brisk, but also enabled us to open many meaningful topics for people. If I preached through Job again, I might be more apt to spread it out over more time. However, this compact, thematic survey worked well for the timeline of Lent.
A sermon series on darkness in the human experience and world could explore other portions of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes or stories of suffering in Scripture. A few years ago, during Lent, we followed the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, exploring the human responses to suffering, as well as the hiddenness and sovereignty of God.
Journey through the Longings of the Human Heart
Even though we want to base our preaching on biblical texts, we also know that we need to directly address the desires and questions rooted deep within every human soul. We intentionally framed a Lenten series around this very approach. We titled the series, “Longing for God,” focusing on specific longings while relating those longings each week to biblical truth and specific spiritual practices as a response.
Series Description: Every human being has deep longings and hungers that propel us forward in life. We are hungry for love, hungry for belonging, and hungry to leave a legacy. St. Augustine of Hippo famously wrote of God: “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in You.” In this Lenten series, we will explore the hungers of our souls, how God fills those deep hungers through Christ, and the ways in which we can lean into our hungers to experience life with God more fully and with greater satisfaction. Each week, there will be suggestions of specific spiritual practices for taking off certain things (fasting) and putting on certain other things (replacing).
Week 1: The Hunger for Love [love/belonging/intimacy]
Texts: Genesis 2:18; John 3:16-17; 1 John 4:10; John 13:34; Ephesians 3:17-19
All of us want to feel loved and that we belong somewhere with someone. We want this within intimate relationships and within a broader community. We will explore this hunger for love as it relates to human love and divine love.
Take off: What are the relationships you turn to in order to find love, value, and acceptance in your life? Are there any of these that have become unhealthy in some way?
Put on: Take a step this week to enter meaningful Christian community, whether through a small group at church, an existing relationship, or some other means.
Week 2: The Hunger for Greatness [to be seen/acknowledged/necessary]
Texts: Jeremiah 29:11; 45:5; Matthew 18:1-5; 20:25-28; Acts 8:1-25
Someone once told me that what they wanted most in life was to be seen and acknowledged for who they were. Some describe that as a hunger for greatness or, at least, a desire to be necessary. We want someone to see who we are and what we can offer. That desire connects with the way that God has made us, views us, and relates to us.
Take off: Take note this week of the ways that you tend to seek attention or turn conversations with others back toward yourself.
Put on: Find ways each day this week to celebrate and build up someone else in your life. At the end of each day, thank God for specific people and how they have blessed you this week.
Week 3: The Hunger for Joy [pleasure/joy/beauty]
Texts: Genesis 1:27; Psalm 19:1; Ecclesiastes 3:11; Song of Songs 4:7; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Philippians 4:8
In many ways, there is nothing quite like the peaks of pleasure or the depths of awesome beauty. Yet, we often find our hunger goes unsatisfied, even when we taste pleasure and beauty. Why is that? What is it about this hunger that connects with the way God has made us and what we can find in him?
Take off: What are the things you turn to for joy that may not be fulfilling? What would it look like to step away from one of those this week to draw near to God?
Put on: Go outside this week to enjoy God’s creation. Go on a hike, watch the sunrise or sunset, or sit outside and enjoy natural beauty somewhere. As you do that, thank God for the joy he brings.
Week 4: The Hunger to Know [what’s out there/understanding)
Texts: Ecclesiastes 3:11; John 18:38; Colossians 2:3
Summary: There is an insatiable desire built within humanity to understand what’s going on in the world and in our lives. We scramble to be “in the know” or “on the inside track,” and we hate feeling “out of the loop.” This hunger for understanding is built into us by God and leads us toward an encounter with that which is beyond us.
Take off: Fast from information in some way this week: reduce your access to the news, reduce how often you check your email or social media, or avoid gossip forums or conversations.
Put on: Replace the time you use to gather information with practices that help you hear from God, such as regular Scripture reading, prayer, or sitting in silence before God.
Week 5: The Hunger for Peace [satisfaction/inner peace and to be filled]
Texts: Psalm 147:3; Psalm 24; Matthew 5:8; 1 Timothy 6:6; John 7:38
No one wants to feel depleted and empty. We all want to live out of a place of abundance, satisfaction, and peace. We hunger to get our lives on the right track and feel that everything is “right.” The biblical word for this is peace, or shalom, which Scripture tells us is ultimately found in God through Jesus Christ.
Take off: Fast from food in some form, perhaps at one meal or for an entire day.
Put on: In the place of eating the food you are fasting from, take time with God in solitude and silence to experience the peace that God brings.
Week 6: The Hunger to Leave a Legacy [impact/legacy and the hunger for eternity]
Texts: Psalm 78:4; Ecclesiastes 3:11
We all hunger for success, in one form or another. A significant part of that is leaving an impact or legacy that will live beyond us. It is wonderful to leave a meaningful legacy in our lives. At the same time, that hunger for a legacy connects with our hunger for eternity.
Take off: Fast from social media, or some other place where you seek recognition from others, during this week.
Put on: Replace your time spent on social media with listening to God or secret service of others.
The way this series focused on deep desires made each sermon meaningful and applicable for people. As a preacher, I personally find topical sermons more challenging to prepare for because it is harder to feel like the message is coming out of the text. That was true for this one as well, even though it seemed effective in the end. Our church members wrote a daily devotional to coincide with each week’s themes, and that helped the concept of helping us take off the old and put on the new more real.
Follow the Journey of Jesus
The center of the Lenten journey is Jesus’ journey to the Cross. Because of this, perhaps the most straightforward way to preach during Lent is to track aspects of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem, his teachings, and Passion. While there are many ways to do this, we focused on Jesus’ teaching in the Upper Room with his disciples as recorded in John’s Gospel in a series called “Chosen Words.”
Series Description: Jesus’ instruction in the Upper Room and immediately afterwards, found in John 13-17, is the longest teaching sequence in John’s Gospel and unique in its intimacy in comparison with the other Gospels. Here, Jesus offers his followers some of the most intense teaching on what it means to be his people, speaking words that illuminate his life and ministry, as well as ours as his followers.
Week 1: Servant
Text: John 13:1-17
Jesus washes his disciples’ feet as an example of servant love; Jesus says love serves and calls them to serve one another; Jesus calls his followers friends.
Week 2: Trouble
Text: John 13:18-14:4
Jesus’ journey through trouble leads to salvation and a future place of peace for his followers. The disciples’ betrayal (Judas), forthcoming denials (Peter), and fear gather around them, but Jesus offers hope.
Week 3: The Spirit
Text: John 14:1-31; 15:26-16:15
Jesus comforts his disciples by providing them insight into his life with the Father and the promise of the Holy Spirit; highlighting the Trinity as a community of love that we are invited into.
Week 4: Abide
Text: John 15:1-17
Perhaps the most-quoted words from Jesus’ final teaching are found in this passage about abiding in the vine as branches that bear fruit. But what does that really mean? What was Jesus trying to tell us about our life hidden in God?
Week 5: Overcome
Text: John 15:18-25; 16:16-33
Jesus’ trials threaten to overcome him, but instead become the way to life and victory as he overcomes death and sin. Jesus tells his followers they will suffer like he suffered, but that he will turn their grief to joy and fill their trials with peace. What does it all mean?
Week 6: Glorify
Text: John 17:1-26
John’s account of Jesus’ final hours is crowned with prayer. This prayer is one of the most beautiful views into Jesus’ interior life with the Father and is even more powerful considering his pending suffering.
I enjoyed preaching this series because of the intimacy expressed by Jesus in his teaching in the Upper Room. From the foot washing in John 13 to the prayer in John 17, Jesus relates so personally and tenderly with the disciples, and through them to us. While not following the narrative of Jesus’ journey to the Cross, the Upper Room teaching outlines themes that resonate with Lent, whether humility, self-reflection, the love of God, or Jesus’ coming suffering.
Preaching that follows the journey of Jesus could take many forms. We could trace the narrative flow beginning with Jesus’ triumphal entry through his ministry in Jerusalem and concluding with his crucifixion. As part of a longer journey through the Gospel of Luke, our church focused on titles of Christ that surfaced as Jesus moves from Galilee toward Jerusalem, such as “Lord of the Sabbath,” “The Sent Son,” or “The New Moses.”
While Lent may hold negative connotations for some believers, it is a very powerful season in which the church can specifically focus upon the life and saving work of Jesus. As pastors, whether we preach sermon series or follow the lectionary, the Lenten season can bring our congregations closer to Jesus’ life and teaching, as well as deep encounters with our own need for God and our longings in life. Hopefully these suggestions will stir your preaching ministry with power and creativity so that our congregations will recalibrate and find our way back with Christ.