Service Planning for Lent

The season of Lent is a period of forty days extending from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday before Easter. Sundays are not considered part of Lent as such, although the Lenten themes often do carry over into Sunday worship.

Lent is a time for penitence and spiritual renewal. Although every Sunday (even the Sundays in Lent) is a "little Easter" celebration, Sundays in Lent should also reflect a somber note. The more jubilant songs of the faith, common to the rest of the year, should be replaced by songs especially appropriate to this season—songs that reflect both the passion of the Lord and the joy of Easter.

The Revised Common Lectionary provides a rich variety of possibilities for preaching during Lent. Although the readings for any given week relate to one another, it is advisable to choose just one passage as the text; if appropriate, the pastor can make reference to the other passages during the message. The service planning ideas on these pages suggest a series of messages on either the Old Testament or epistle passages.


First Sunday in Lent

The Old Testament: Genesis 9:8—17 God's Covenant with Noah
The Old Testament readings provide the basis for a series of sermons on the covenant. Throughout the series, the worship leader will have opportunity to bring into perspective the variety of covenants we make (e.g., baptism, marriage, profession of faith).

This passage from Genesis tells us that God not only instigates the covenant with Noah but also assures Noah that He will be faithful to the covenant. Faithfulness is indispensable to covenant keeping.

Psalm 25:1-10
These verses contain a prayer that God's covenant mercies may be granted in all areas of life.

The Epistle: 1 Peter 3:18-22. Saved by the Water.
The epistle lessons could be used for a series of messages that reflect on some of the paradoxes of life. This passage brings love and justice together under the symbol of the water of baptism—water that brings judgment as well as salvation.

The Gospel: Mark 1:9-15 The Temptations of Jesus
Mark records Jesus' forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. During these days Jesus wrestled with the conflicting pressures of life, especially as they related to the covenant made at his baptism.

Psalm and Hymns
Psalm 25: Lord, to You My Soul Is Lifted (Wiersma) 
You Are Our God; We Are Your People (Hoekema) 
Jesus, Lover of My Soul (Wesley)
Come, O Fount of Every Blessing (Robinson)
Oh, Love, How Deep (Kempis)
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross (Crosby)
Jesus Loves Me (Warner)

Choral Anthems
God's Son Has Set Me Free (Grieg/Arr. Johnson Bock Music Company, B-G0455, SSAATTBB F)
Calvary's Mountain (Arr. Alice Parker Lawson-Gould 51341 SATB)


Second Sunday in Lent

The Old Testament: Genesis 17:1—10,15—19 The Covenant of Circumcision 
The sign of the covenant is important, but only as a sign. Every covenant requires work, sometimes very hard work. The members must trust each other and be obedient to the terms of the covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham so that Abraham could be a blessing to others.

Psalm 105:1-11
This song celebrates God's faithfulness to the covenant promises.

The Epistle: Romans 4:16-25 Justified by Faith
Faith and works are often pitted against each other. At first glance Paul seems, in this passage, to reject all human effort—but look again. Abraham and Sarah had to face the fact that they were both too old to have children. Faith in God when faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulties is no easy matter. It takes a lot of work to keep the faith.

The Gospel: Mark 8:31-38 Cross-bearing
Jesus teaches what it means to be his disciples. Cross-bearing is not what we often think it is. Jesus' teaching on this subject will probably catch many by surprise.

Psalm and Hymns
Psalm 105: Trumpet the Name! Praise be to our LORD! (Seerveld) 
My Song Forever Shall Record (Psalter, 1912)
The Lord Our God in Mercy Spoke (Watts)
My Faith Looks Up to Thee (Palmer)
O God, My Faithful God (Heermann)
Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken (Lyte)
Savior, Thy Dying Love (Phelps)

Choral Anthems
O Lord, Increase My Faith (O. Gibbons, Schirmer ECS No. 375, SATB)
A Lenten Meditation (D. Wagner, Flammer D-5308, SAB)


The Third Sunday in Lent

The Old Testament Lesson: Exodus 20:1—17 Covenant Laws
Ministers sometimes do a series of sermons on each of the Ten Commandments. This time it would be appropriate to examine the place these commands as a body have in the covenant. The Ten Commandments are the terms of God's covenant with us.

Psalm 19:7-14
These verses tell us that God's Law is sweeter than honey.

The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:22—25 The Foolishness of God
Those who pay no attention to signs or who reject the advice of the wise are foolish. Reflection on this passage should reveal how our desire for signs and wisdom relates to accepting the "foolishness of God."

The Gospel: John 2:13—22 Jesus Clears the Temple
Jesus had the courage to challenge the work and even the worship of the people of his day. They were stunned by his swift and decisive action when he "cleansed" the temple. What was he saying to them? What message does this action have for us and our worship?

Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 19: The Spacious Heavens Tell (Otte)
We Come, O Christ, to You (Clarkson) 
Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended? (Heermann)
Spirit of God Who Dwells Within My Heart (Croly)
My Dear Redeemer and My Lord (Watts)
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (Wesley)

Choral Anthems
Father of Heaven, Whose Love Profound Willan
Concordia Hymn Anthems 98-2005, SATB 
Ave Verum Mozart
Belwin 64058, SATB


The Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Old Testament: 2 Chronicles 36:14-23 Broken Promises
The rubble of Jerusalem and the broken lives left in the wake of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar is not unlike the brokenness caused by covenant unfaithfulness in our day. Don't overlook the tender love of God also found in this passage.

Psalm 137:1-6
This song mourns the calamity experienced by those who break covenant with God.

The Epistle: Ephesians 2:4—10 Saved by Grace
We return to the relationship between faith and works in this passage. It is easy to misconstrue God's grace (cf. Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship and his thoughts on "cheap grace"). This passage puts God's grace in the context of being "created in Christ Jesus to do good works."

The Gospel: John 3:14—21 The Savior of the World
The third chapter of John is not an easy passage to preach on. How broad, or narrow, should one be in telling about the love of God? However, it's important to preach on this classic passage, the heartbeat of God's good news to the world.

Psalm 137: Babylon Streams Received Our Tears (Seerveld)
O Love of God, How Strong and True (Bonar)
As Moses Raised the Serpent Up (Post)
Man of Sorrows (Bliss)
How Vast the Benefits Divine (Toplady)
What Wondrous Love Is This? (Southern Harmony)

Choral Anthems
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (G. Martin Presser Co. 312-40785)
De Profundis (Mozart, Marks Choral Lib. 4251, SATB)


The Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Old Testament: Jeremiah 31:31-34 A New Covenant
Faithfulness, obedience, and trust are all special gifts of God's grace. Those who keep covenant and exercise genuine commitment do not do so out of their own strength or ingenuity. Their strength is from the Lord who gives them new hearts.

Psalm 51:10-17
These verses contain a prayer for renewal.

The Epistle: Hebrews 5:7-10 Privilege and Duty
An affluent society is often irresponsible in its use of resources. Privilege seems to imply the right to get what one wants and do as one pleases. But Jesus, the most privileged of all humans, had to "learn obedience from what he suffered." What is the relationship between privilege and duty?

The Gospel: John 12:20-33 Hearing the Voice of God
Jesus tells about the unusual nature of his death. Those who hear the message will have heard the voice of God. Others will either hear nothing or think it thundered, a sign of an impending storm.

Psalm 51: Be Merciful, Be Merciful, O God (Wiersma)
God Be Merciful to Me (Psalter, 1912)
Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive (Herklots)
See, Christ Was Wounded for Our Sake (Foley)
O for a Heart to Praise My God (Wesley)
Alleluia! Alleluia! Give Thanks (Fishel)

Choral Anthems
Lord, for Thy Tender Mercies Sake (R. Farrant, Belwin 64007, SATB)
Make in Me, O Lord, a Pure Heart (J Brahms, Boosey & Hawkes 5178, SATBB)
Awake, My Heart (J. Marshall, H.W Gray GCMR 2515, SATB)


Passion Sunday - The Sixth Sunday in Lent

(The beginning of Holy Week)
This Sunday, which should be a triumphant celebration of the lordship of Christ, should also lead the congregation into the week of the Savior's most intense suffering. So after introducing the service with the triumphant entry account, the pastor should help the congregation focus their attention on the passion of Christ.

The Old Testament: Isaiah 50:4-9a The Suffering Servant
This passage, the third of four poems in Isaiah about the suffering servant of the Lord, describes the suffering Jesus endured during Holy Week.

Psalm 31:9-16
This is the prayer of one who is completely drained, physically and emotionally. Perhaps Jesus thought of this psalm and prayed these words during the week before his crucifixion.

The Epistle: Philippians 2:5-11 A Christian Hymn
This poem was probably one of the songs composed by first-generation Christians as they reflected on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:39 The Final Week
You may want to be selective in your reading of this lengthy passage if parts of it can be used at other services to be held during Holy Week.

Psalms and Hymns
Psalm 31: I Seek My Refuge in You, LORD (Post) 
All Glory, Laud, and Honor (Bishop of Orleans)
Ride On, Ride On in Majesty (Milman)
O Sacred, Head, Now Wounded (Latin, medieval)
At the Name of Jesus (Noel)
Lift High the Cross (Kitchin)

Choral Anthem
Hosanna! Loud Hosanna! (Threlfall & Emig, Flammer A-5938, SATB and Youth Choir)


Maundy Thursday

Congregations who gather for worship on this evening usually celebrate the Lord's Supper. Some congregations conclude the service with a Tenebrae Service (see RW 2).


Good Friday

On Good Friday the suffering and death of Jesus are remembered. It is more appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's Supper on Thursday than on this day. It would be especially appropriate to conclude worship on Good Friday with a Tenebrae Service.

Alvin Hoksbergen is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He lives in Spring Lake, Michigan.


Kathy Prince is director of music at River Terrace Christian Reformed Church in Lansing, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 6 © December 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.