Lectionary Readings
(from the Revised Common Lectionary)

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

First Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B

Summary

Lent has become something of a fad recently, invoked for themes as disparate as self-improvement projects and “shared lament.” So the preacher must take care to set the congregation’s focus and expectations squarely on repentance and reconciliation with God through Christ, by the Spirit (namely, the gospel). Fortunately, the Holy Scriptures show the way.

Jesus gives us the theme of Lent in Mark 1:15: “repent and believe the gospel.” Every deprivation and discipline we go through is for this purpose. There is an explicit connection between the 40 days of lent and the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and we can participate in Jesus’ deprivations. The important thing about “wilderness experiences”—oft invoked, rarely understood—is to rid ourselves of distraction and pleasures so that we can subsist on God alone such that one overcomes temptation.

Reading about Jesus’ resistance to sin when under the worst temptation, rightly leads us to feel ashamed of our own performance under much less serious conditions. But this turns believers to repentance instead of despair, because the same Holy Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness and sustained him also drives us to repentance and sustains us through its stings. Christ himself accompanies us through our temptations, strengthening us by the Spirit so that we can turn in a good performance.

The first and second readings show the trajectory of judgment, hope, and salvation. God’s judgment on sin is as total as the flood, but he is slow to that kind of anger, offering every opportunity for escape. For Noah, that escape was the ark. For Christians, Peter tells us, it is our baptisms. As Noah and his family were brought through the waters of death, we too are brought through the waters of baptism and into eternal life.

It is important to start the season with these themes of hope and supernatural accompaniment, because it gives believers the reason to endure the convicting pangs of penitence.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Second Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B

Summary

The Revised Common Lectionary retains the option of the more traditional Transfiguration reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, but the more recent practice of observing Transfiguration Sunday at the end of Epiphany recommends the Mark 8 reading.

Here, Peter has the unpleasant experience of being rebuked by Jesus for trying to persuade him away from his purpose of death. This even comes after Peter’s famous affirmation of Jesus as the Christ. The preacher should use this opportunity to remind the congregation of the necessity of the Cross, both in Jesus’ atonement for sin and also the believer’s life.

It is very easy to use this passage to affirm the necessity of Jesus’ death to accomplish the atonement for sin, but note that the image Jesus calls attention to is actually the carrying of the cross, which is the suffering along the way. This, Jesus says, is the vocation of every Christian.

The Cross is not an obstacle to get around, a bump in the road to a better life. The Cross is the road. What this means is that the believer ought to expect to suffer, but also to expect to suffer alongside Jesus, since he was the One who went ahead of us. Our sufferings in this life become a mysterious participation in Jesus’ suffering.

So the rebuke was for Peter’s own sake, since by diverting Jesus away from his suffering, Peter would have deprived himself of that supernatural solidarity that Christ offers to the sufferer. We risk the same when we seek our own comfort above all and avoid the hardships that can result from living the Christian life in a fallen world. In these moments, we must put our comforts behind us and walk the way of the cross with Christ, and so we will release the world and its pleasures and gain instead our souls restored by the deep and intimate connection that comes with Jesus the Suffering Servant.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Third Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B

Summary

Traditionally, Lent was a time when catechumens prepared for baptism and penitent sinners prepared for restoration to the life of the church, and the passages aimed at them appear in Year A. The rest of the congregation was not aloof, but stayed in solidarity with these brothers and sisters, seeing in their situations opportunities for its own instruction and progress.

In the Year B readings, Jesus’ identity as the true Temple is revealed in the light of the Exodus. In driving out the money changers, the true temple purifies the old one. In the same way, Christ purifies us, since our bodies are set aside as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and it is fitting to see Lent as Christ clearing out the impurities in our own hearts to make us into honorable dwelling places for his Spirit.

Other avenues to explore include the self-authenticating power of the death and Resurrection of Christ (which is what Jesus means by “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”). Paul calls attention to the Jewish preoccupation with signs seen in John 2:18, adding to it the Greek obsession with wisdom, but declares that the crucifixion and resurrection is a sign apt to be missed by the sign-searchers; its wisdom seems like silliness to the philosophers. Simple faith is what unlocks the power and wisdom of God, not an attuned intellect, or a penchant for wonderworking.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Fourth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B

Summary

“Laetare Sunday,” marked by its pink (excuse me, rose) vestments is a respite from the austerity of penitence, but not from the act of repentance. The preacher should understand that this is not an opportunity to leave off the Lenten theme of repentance, but to more clearly define it from a fresh perspective.

The Gospel reading bids us look up from examining ourselves to the intentions and character of God. God loves the world so much that he gave his Son to save it. We are not abasing ourselves before a disinterested archon in order to avoid its capricious wrath. God loves his creation, opting to send the Son to save it instead of plunging it into a prompt and irrevocable judgment.

One only falls under the judgment of the God of Love by refusing to believe and accept his mission of love. God places no obstacle between himself and his creation. Instead, it is fallen creatures who obstruct their own salvation by loving the darkness instead of the light, and refusing to believe in the saving mission of the Son.

The elect are those who believe in the Son. But belief is not a passive state of mind. Jesus says that the believer is the one who practices the truth. In Ephesians, Paul reminds us that we were created for good works, and that it is our purpose to walk in them; but even these works were prepared for us by God, so the believer is not left alone to craft a moral life without divine help.

Hence, the whole Lenten movement of repentance—refusing evil and accepting the good—is seen afresh from the vista of God’s eternal love and his desire to rescue his creatures. The preacher should use this opportunity to let the people know that true repentance does not mean negating evil, but receiving good, and doing so will clear away evil deeds as surely as light repels darkness.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Fifth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B

Summary

Nearing the end of the Lenten season, those faithfully fasting begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Jesus too, in the Gospel reading looks forward to his glorification, but also his passion. This dual identification between suffering and ultimate glory should be foremost on the preacher’s mind, since it also sets the pattern of life the believer is to emulate.

When Jesus refers to being “lifted up,” this is a rich, multilayered allusion. Jesus has already compared himself to the serpent lifted up in the wilderness in John 3:14—the image of death defeating death. There is also the suffering yet triumphant servant who is “lifted up” in Isaiah 52:13. So, Jesus is looking forward to fulfilling both dimensions of these scriptures by being lifted up on the cross at his death, but then also lifted up on high at the ascension.

The apparent defeat of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection are inseparable in his plan of redemption, and so suffering and victory are inseparable in the life of the believer. Since Jesus suffered, our suffering as believers becomes an opportunity to imitate the Lord. Jesus changes everything he touches, so suffering is no longer meaningless, but the path to victory.

Nowadays, people need a great deal of help to understand that suffering is made valuable by Christ’s passion. The secular world cannot see suffering as anything other than either a tragic misfortune or a preventable malady. But the way of the cross means victory through suffering. Certainly this applies to the deprivations that come from following the commandments to care for one’s parents and the poor. But also the ordinary, inevitable sufferings of this life—like medical and financial woes—become a chance to participate in the Cross.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Liturgy of the Palms—Lent, Year B

Summary

The two sets of readings at Palm or Passion Sunday can give people emotional whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the tone of the joyous triumphal entry with the sorrowful Passion reading while still looking forward to the resurrection. All of this should also matter to the practice of the believer’s faith as more than the memorial of a great deed at a moment in time.

A traditional solution is for the preacher to focus on the Philippians passage, where Paul describes the attitude of Jesus to be emulated in the believer’s life. This makes the memory of Christ’s passion a present reality, a mystery to be participated in.

Another solution is to choose which passage to focus on. Since the Passion is covered again on Good Friday, the triumphal entry is often emphasized on the one day it is commemorated. If this is the chosen route, there are a few canards for the preacher to avoid.

The first is to use the colt to overemphasize Christ’s poverty. Kings routinely rode on donkeys, a comfortable ride in the ancient world. The meaning is found in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which sees the king coming to Jerusalem in peace instead of on a warhorse. Second, the waving of palms and cloaks spread on the road are not ad hoc substitutes for a more glorious entry which Jesus deliberately eschews. Rather, they recall the “festal procession” of Psalm 118:27 up to the Temple.

Jesus certainly is “lowly” and his kingdom brings justice to the poor, but the emphasis here is on his rightful authority to rule—a kingship which here is happily celebrated, but will later be rejected by the same crowd, after coming under the influence of the chief priests.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Liturgy of the Passion—Lent, Year B

Summary

The two sets of readings at Palm or Passion Sunday can give people emotional whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the tone of the joyous triumphal entry with the sorrowful Passion reading while still looking forward to the resurrection. All of this should also matter to the practice of the believer’s faith as more than the memorial of a great deed at a moment in time.

A traditional solution is for the preacher to focus on the Philippians passage, where Paul describes the attitude of Jesus to be emulated in the believer’s life. This makes the memory of Christ’s passion a present reality, a mystery to be participated in.

Another solution is to choose which passage to focus on. Since the Passion is covered again on Good Friday, the triumphal entry is often emphasized on the one day it is commemorated. If this is the chosen route, there are a few canards for the preacher to avoid.

The first is to use the colt to overemphasize Christ’s poverty. Kings routinely rode on donkeys, a comfortable ride in the ancient world. The meaning is found in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which sees the king coming to Jerusalem in peace instead of on a warhorse. Second, the waving of palms and cloaks spread on the road are not ad hoc substitutes for a more glorious entry which Jesus deliberately eschews. Rather, they recall the “festal procession” of Psalm 118:27 up to the Temple.

Jesus certainly is “lowly” and his kingdom brings justice to the poor, but the emphasis here is on his rightful authority to rule—a kingship which here is happily celebrated, but will later be rejected by the same crowd, after coming under the influence of the chief priests.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Liturgy of the Palms—Lent, Year B

Summary

The two sets of readings at Palm or Passion Sunday can give people emotional whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the tone of the joyous triumphal entry with the sorrowful Passion reading while still looking forward to the resurrection. All of this should also matter to the practice of the believer’s faith as more than the memorial of a great deed at a moment in time.

A traditional solution is for the preacher to focus on the Philippians passage, where Paul describes the attitude of Jesus to be emulated in the believer’s life. This makes the memory of Christ’s passion a present reality, a mystery to be participated in.

Another solution is to choose which passage to focus on. Since the Passion is covered again on Good Friday, the triumphal entry is often emphasized on the one day it is commemorated. If this is the chosen route, there are a few canards for the preacher to avoid.

The first is to use the colt to overemphasize Christ’s poverty. Kings routinely rode on donkeys, a comfortable ride in the ancient world. The meaning is found in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which sees the king coming to Jerusalem in peace instead of on a warhorse. Second, the waving of palms and cloaks spread on the road are not ad hoc substitutes for a more glorious entry which Jesus deliberately eschews. Rather, they recall the “festal procession” of Psalm 118:27 up to the Temple.

Jesus certainly is “lowly” and his kingdom brings justice to the poor, but the emphasis here is on his rightful authority to rule—a kingship which here is happily celebrated, but will later be rejected by the same crowd, after coming under the influence of the chief priests.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Liturgy of the Passion—Lent, Year B

Summary

The two sets of readings at Palm or Passion Sunday can give people emotional whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the tone of the joyous triumphal entry with the sorrowful Passion reading while still looking forward to the resurrection. All of this should also matter to the practice of the believer’s faith as more than the memorial of a great deed at a moment in time.

A traditional solution is for the preacher to focus on the Philippians passage, where Paul describes the attitude of Jesus to be emulated in the believer’s life. This makes the memory of Christ’s passion a present reality, a mystery to be participated in.

Another solution is to choose which passage to focus on. Since the Passion is covered again on Good Friday, the triumphal entry is often emphasized on the one day it is commemorated. If this is the chosen route, there are a few canards for the preacher to avoid.

The first is to use the colt to overemphasize Christ’s poverty. Kings routinely rode on donkeys, a comfortable ride in the ancient world. The meaning is found in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which sees the king coming to Jerusalem in peace instead of on a warhorse. Second, the waving of palms and cloaks spread on the road are not ad hoc substitutes for a more glorious entry which Jesus deliberately eschews. Rather, they recall the “festal procession” of Psalm 118:27 up to the Temple.

Jesus certainly is “lowly” and his kingdom brings justice to the poor, but the emphasis here is on his rightful authority to rule—a kingship which here is happily celebrated, but will later be rejected by the same crowd, after coming under the influence of the chief priests.