From Adam to Jonah: A Whole Year with the Old Testament
The pastor called the children to the front of church and asked them to sit on the front bench. He pulled out a long rope, then asked for two volunteers to play the parts of Adam and Eve and hold the end of the rope. Two little girls volunteered and happily shared holding the end of the rope. The pastor picked up the rope about two feet down and asked for a Noah. Immediately a three-year-old boy whose name is Noah stood up and, with a broad smile, held his part of the rope. Next the pastor called children to be Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Aaron. Then Joshua, Mrs. Joshua (we had a lot of little girls sitting on the front bench!), Gideon, Deborah, David, and Solomon. All the children got to hold a piece of the rope. The children pulled the rope taut until one end was all the way to the side wall of the church. The pastor wondered, “What if the end of the rope went outside of church and all the way downtown? Who would be holding the rope there?” One child mentioned Jesus. Another said, “Us.”
This wasn’t just a children’s sermon. It was a way to help our congregation see that we were embarking together on a journey of discovery. We were going to spend the next nine months studying redemption history as told in the stories of the Old Testament.
For several years our church has used the common lectionary as the focus of its worship services. Using an organizer like the lectionary or the Heidelberg Catechism keeps us from having too narrow a focus as we plan services. Left to our own devices, it is easy to get into a rut or to concentrate on too few topics or passages.
At a conference for pastors, John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, spoke on how seldom the Old Testament is the focus of sermons. He said that the New Testament, especially the epistles, gets a lot of coverage, but the narrative sections of the Old Testament are almost never preached. Around that same time, some members of the congregation were asking about our church’s mission statement. While we have one, it is fairly general and doesn’t give specific direction to the ministry staff. We wanted something that would provide a focus in worship and in education. This prompted the leadership team to consider educating our congregation in the narrative portions of the Old Testament.
With that in mind we came up with a theme for the year: “A Lamp and a Light: God’s Word Shining Through His People.” Our goal was to help church members see the overall story of the Bible from creation to redemption as well as give them the tools they’d need to better read different parts of the Bible. Nothing revolutionary—every pastor wants his or her congregation to be better equipped for Bible study—but we wanted to do this systematically over the course of a year. We wanted to give our congregation the opportunity to put a historical perspective on the salvation story that is not always possible in stories and sermons that are told out of a larger context.
Isn’t every church committed to this goal? Yes, but sometimes in our rush to understand one passage of Scripture we don’t have time to look at the whole picture. We wanted our exploration of any particular passage to include keys to understanding many passages of this same sort.
In addition, many in our congregation had not had the opportunity to think through a number of historical questions. For example, when does the story of Job take place? How do the psalms and the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles overlap? We wanted to draw a picture of the whole of Scripture for our congregation and then help them see how the pieces fit.
We began by developing a plan for the year. It quickly became clear to us that we couldn’t do justice to this study of the Old Testament in only one year, but we felt that going beyond a year at this point was unwise. So we compromised by skipping entire books and sections of Scripture. We also wanted to keep the church year in mind since, along with churches around the world, we observe Advent, Lent, and the rest of the church calendar. To help the congregation get a better handle on what we were doing, we came up with a theme for each month (see box). We also did not want to abandon the lectionary completely—using it helps us realize that we are just one small part of a much larger church around the world. So, even though we “made our own lectionary,” we tried as often as possible to select the call to worship and the confession from lectionary passages.
A Theme for Worship
In September we set the stage for understanding the Bible as a whole by using the first seven articles of the Belgic Confession as an outline. During the morning worship services we studied various aspects of our understanding of the Bible as the Word of God, including a discussion of the canon and the role of inspiration.
Since our church also has an evening worship service every Sunday, a service that is sometimes less formal than our morning services, we tried to be creative in bringing the theme to life for the congregation. One of our evening services focused on the Apocrypha, telling a few of the stories and discussing how we should view these books. We also thought it would be good to use some of these Sunday evenings for discussion of a more educational nature, starting with a discussion of the way the Bible has been translated. John Zinkand, a member of our congregation and part of the New International Version (NIV) translation team, spoke about the history of the NIV and the process that was used in translating this version of the Bible. Later he also expanded on this presentation for the adult Sunday school class.
In October the emphasis was on the beginnings—the perfect world God created and the fall of mankind. We were pleased that another member of our congregation, Barry Bandstra, a professor in the religion and theology department at Hope College, was able to help us place these stories in the proper historical and cultural setting. He talked about the Hebrew language and its colorful use in the Bible as part of our Sunday evening educational series. We sang Hebrew songs and learned to enjoy the sound of Hebrew. Dr. Bandstra also met with the third grade children’s worship class to help them understand more about the language the Bible was written in.
In November we skipped over the Patriarchs and Exodus and jumped right into the book of Judges. In choosing which books to cover and which to skip we followed the principle of trying to help the congregation put some of the stories they had heard over the years into context and to also give them tools to interpret Scripture. It was a bit of a leap from Babel to Judges, both chronologically and conceptually, but we used the bulletin and our church newsletter to help set the stage for the series and to help people orient themselves. Rod Brandsen, a Bible teacher from Holland Christian High School, helped us to look at the Levitical laws that God gave to his people in the light of the culture and all of Scripture.
As the year progressed we used Advent to tell the stories of David and the story of Jesus’ birth. In January we looked at the psalms and other wisdom literature. In an effort to use as many ways as possible to help our congregation better understand these books, we included an evening of singing psalms from many different musical traditions and a presentation by Debra Rienstra, a professor of English at Calvin College, on understanding the psalms as poetry. We learned more about the Song of Songs when a couple from our church read a passage from that book as it was written: in the form of a dialogue between a man and a woman. Hearing the passage read by male and female voices helped it come alive for us. The reading was followed by a sermon that helped us understand how different theologians have interpreted this book over the centuries and how we think it ought to be read.
A small group, including the pastor, met to write a short dramatic reading that attempted to distill the book of Job to what the congregation could hear in one service. This was a wonderful challenge that gave us a chance to include some gifted individuals in the church in a new and exciting way. The result was a service presenting the whole of the book of Job. The pastor made only brief comments.
February found us looking at the stories of the kings and prophets in the divided kingdom of Israel. One highlight was the “march of the kings” in which we invited children and young people forward and asked each of them to hold a sign with the name of one of the kings of Israel and Judah. Each “king” stood either on the north side of the church (if he was from Israel) or on the south side (if he was from Judah). We used the steps at the front of our church to show if they were “good kings” or “bad kings”—good kings stood up, bad kings sat down. (A lot of kings were sitting down.) This gave a visual picture to our congregation not only of the number of kings but the order in which they came, and what else was going on in the world at the time. It clearly showed how few of the Northern kings followed God’s commands!
Our Lenten series focused on the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi and tied the prophecies about the Messiah to the death and resurrection of Jesus (see pp. 13-19). April was a month of festivals. We heard the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah and, in our evening services, celebrated the feasts of Sukkot, Passover, Purim, and Pentecost. Finally, we ended our year by looking at the prophecies of Daniel and Jonah.
A Theme for Education
Our use of this theme went beyond our sermons and our worship services. Throughout the year, we printed announcements (like the following note from January) about the theme in the bulletin each week:
A Lamp and a Light: The theme for the season in worship, education, and fellowship is “A Lamp and a Light: God’s Word Shining Through His People.” In our study of the Old Testament, we have come to Wisdom Literature. Along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs speaks to the everyday experiences of life, in this case, falling in love. This evening we will conclude our brief encounter with this book with the message “Principles for Lovers.”
Our educational programs and church publications also tried to integrate the theme as much as possible. Our young children, for example, sang songs like “The B-I-B-L-E,” which helped reinforce the idea that this was a year to focus specifically on Scripture study. Adults studied topics relating to biblical translation and interpretation.
Using Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible as our source, we also created a timeline on the wall of the narthex that listed dates from 2000 b.c. to a.d. 00. The cement blocks on the wall each represented 100 years. The books of the Old Testament were placed on the wall according to when the events in each took place. Each type of book was represented in a different color: historical books were green; prophetic books, yellow; poetry and wisdom books, blue; and the Pentateuch, purple. We included a red “We are here” arrow showing what part of Israel’s history we were presently studying in our worship services.
To encourage families to use this theme at home we searched for Bible storybooks in local bookstores and asked them to loan us books that they had found helpful. We made a display of these books and wrote reviews of them for the church newsletter.
We also asked the congregation to tell us their favorite Bible verse and why it was important to them. In a newsletter article we shared these verses and some of the fascinating personal stories that came with them.
Near the end of the year, as we turned our attention to the book of Jonah, we invited families to church on Saturday night to view the Veggie Tales movie about Jonah. In addition to being a fun time of fellowship, this allowed us to compare the humorous film to the biblical account. On Sunday morning we were ready to hear more about Jonah.
Those in leadership positions in the congregation were eager to incorporate the theme into their ministry at our church not only because it was one they could get excited about, but because they were able to see specific ways to include the theme. The women’s Bible group studied Ruth and then Hosea. The young people were all given a study Bible and challenged to use it for personal devotions. Devotions at meetings often reflected the Sunday worship topic. The third grade children’s worship class asked if they could learn more about the Hebrew language.
Those of us who planned services around the theme enjoyed it so much that we plan to extend it to a theme of outreach in the next year, focusing on the book of Acts and making connections between the stories in Acts and the letters that were written to the people we read about in these stories.
On the last Sunday of the series, the pastor brought out the rope once again. With the help of the children, he showed us the connections these stories had to each other and to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ. Focusing our church year in this way helped us plan for something bigger than just one Sunday at a time. It also helped us be more creative as we explored new avenues to communicate ideas. Most importantly, it helped us see the breadth and depth of Scripture and the power of God’s covenant.
Sept. Belgic Confession, Articles 1-7 The means by which we know God
Oct. Beginnings, Genesis 1-11
Nov. Judges: Israel needed a King, so do we
Dec. King David, King Jesus
Jan. Wisdom Literature: Psalms,Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Job
Feb. The divided kingdom—Prophets and Kings
April Ezra/Nehemiah and Resurrection
May Daniel and Jonah