Come to the Water: A Lenten and Easter Series with a Focus on Baptism

New Life Christian Reformed Church is a relatively new church located in Grand Junction, Colorado, just twenty-five miles from the Utah border. What began in 1997 with a Bible study of fifteen people gathered in the home of our pastor has grown into a congregation of approximately two hundred.

Our church membership comes from very diverse faith backgrounds. Along with those who have just claimed Christ as their Savior, we have those who were raised as Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Lutherans, and other denominations, as well as those who are thoroughly steeped in the Reformed tradition. This diversity provides a wonderful synergy in our worship services, but it also creates unique challenges.

This year we decided to do a Lenten series focusing on the sacrament of baptism called “Come to the Water.” We also decided to highlight the time of confession and God’s forgiveness throughout this series. The series presented here includes service plans for Ash Wednesday and the first five Sundays of Lent (not Palm Sunday), Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

ASH WEDNESDAY

Return to the Lord Your God

We began this journey with a service of ashes on Ash Wednesday. People were asked to enter in silence. A large wooden cross was centrally placed in front. The theme of returning to God was taken from Joel 2:12-13. Four readers representative of the various generations within our church participated throughout the service.

Greeting

Pastor: [to the readers] The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Readers: And also with you.

Pastor: [to the people] The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

People: And also with you.

A Call to Begin a Journey to the Cross

Reader 1: People of God, each year we remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he overcame death and provided for us redemption from sin. Lent is a season of preparation for this celebration, a time of personal and communal renewal and repentance. Tonight we begin a journey that will lead us to the cross and finally to the empty tomb. Tonight we begin with ashes.

Ashes are a powerful symbol, reminding us of our mortality and our need for renewal. We invite you to self-examination, prayer, meditation upon God’s Word, and fasting during this season of Lent. May God bless us as we strive to walk in the way of our Lord.

Reader 2: “Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:12-13)

Meditation (based on the story of Jonah, especially Jonah 3:1-10)

Receiving the Sign of Ashes

Reader 3: As we receive the sign of ashes, we are reminded of our own sin and human frailty, and we are called to humility and repentance. We invite you to come forward and kneel to receive the sign of ashes. After receiving the sign of ashes, you may return to your seats. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Song: “We Choose the Fear of the Lord” by Kirk Dearman (Maranatha! Music)<p>

Call to Confession

Reader 2: “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed. And get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek. 18:30-32)<p>

Song: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” PsH 384, PH 101, SFL 166, TH 252, TWC 213

Prayer of Confession

[A responsive reading of Psalm 51:1-12 involving the first three readers and the congregation. An alternative prayer could be sung with the Kyrie (SNC 50). The prayer concluded with the following invitation.]

Reader 1: Spend some time in quiet confession, writing your prayers on paper.

[Silent meditation and prayer]

Song: “Create in Me a Clean Heart” SNC 49

Assurance of Pardon

Reader 2: Psalm 103:8-12; Jeremiah 23:29;

2 Corinthians 5:20b-21

Placing Our Sins at the Cross

[People come forward with papers on which they have written their confession and place them at the foot of the cross.]

Song: “What Wondrous Love Is This” PsH 379, PH 85, SFL 169, TH 261, TWC 212

Closing Blessing

“Amazing Love/You Are My King” by Billy James Foote

[As the music plays, the congregation is dismissed.]

Sermon Ideas
  • Meditation on ashes: use story of Jonah to communicate use of ashes in context.
  • Brief history of Lenten origin and practice.
  • Focus on ideas of our mortality and God’s sovereignty.
  • Use Ecclesiastes 3:11 with NIV Study Bible footnote to set context of service. Use open-ended questions for reflection throughout the service: What do you fill yourself with that only provides temporary satisfaction? What are some things you need to empty out of your life?
Opportunities for Interaction
  • Sign of ashes—the four readers were spread out in the front of church; the lights remained dimmed. All in the congregation were encouraged to come forward and receive the sign of ashes. Children were encouraged to come forward and receive the sign of ashes from our child reader (who was 11 years old). As each person received the sign of ashes, readers repeated these words: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
  • Writing prayers of confession—people were invited to come forward and place their written prayers at the base of the cross or place them in the holes of the cross (our cross had holes for papers to be placed in the beams of the cross). We explained that these would be burned into ashes.

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

The Hands of the Potter

To begin this series, we wanted to recognize our sinfulness, our need for confession, and our brokenness. We commissioned a local potter to come to our sanctuary and set up all the equipment necessary to throw several pots and pitchers as part of our worship service.

The potter’s wheel was set at the front of the sanctuary next to a large wooden cross draped in purple. The pastor sat in a chair off to the side.

As the lump of clay was placed on the wheel and the wheel began to turn, the pastor began the service.

Scripture

Jeremiah 18:1-6; Genesis 1:26a, 27c; 2:7; Isaiah 29:15-16; 45:9-10, 64:8-9; Zechariah 14:20-21; Romans 9:20-21; 2 Corinthians 4:6-9, 16

Sermon Ideas
  • Begin with Genesis 1-2 highlights: marvelous mud—God created, breathed, and shaped; then move to sin and brokenness—cracks, leaks, no longer living our created purposes.
  • Transformation/change/redemption: Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Romans passages highlight God’s ability to reshape and recreate.
  • Finally, 2 Corinthians and Zechariah focus on reshaped living and our call to be holy.
Opportunities for Interaction
  • A dry pitcher was smashed to demonstrate brokenness and sin.
  • Clay shards were placed in water and softened for redemption. Potter made something new from the melted clay.
  • Children and youth gathered around the potter for the entire message to see and hear the experiences of the Potter and the clay.

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

The Red Sea:
Remembering Your Baptism

Scripture

Exodus 13:17-15:21; Romans 6:1-13

Sermon Ideas
  • Build on the powerful drama of the story. The Israelites are trapped between the sea and the enemy!
  • The phrase “Move toward the water” from the text is repeated and used again later in regard to baptism.
  • Water motif is emphasized in the three main themes, used to highlight baptism: judgment (Pharaoh and his army), deliverance (the Israelites by the hand of God), and rebirth (God redeems and gives identity to a people).
  • Can touch on the theme of dying and rising with Christ, but be careful not to spill all the beans—Easter is coming!
  • This event defines God’s people forever. Move to remembrance.
Opportunities for Interaction
  • Celebrate a “Remembering Your Baptism” service. We chose this Sunday to center our attention on remembering God’s judgment on our sin; deliverance from sin, death, and hell; and our rebirth in and through the person of Jesus Christ signified in our baptisms.
  • A female vocalist sang “Come to the Water” (SNC 234) a cappella from the back of the sanctuary as she walked forward. Then children and adults were invited to come forward and feel, touch, and experience the sign of water. As a steady stream of people came forward, the worship team continued to lead worship by singing “I Give You My Heart,” “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” and “There Is None Like You.”

Note: Pay careful attention to include everyone in this invitation. Those who have already been baptized are invited to remember God’s promises to them in their baptism. Others can be encouraged to remember that water itself is a gift of God, and that baptism with water was chosen by God as a means of grace to those who commit their lives to him. Make sure the congregation understands that this is a remembrance, not a rebaptism or a baptism itself.

  • The pastor invited those who were ready to commit their lives to Jesus to come forward to speak about setting a date for their actual baptism celebration.

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Baptism: A Sign and Seal

Scripture

Genesis 17:1-14; Psalm 103:17-18; Mark 10:13-16;
Galatians 5:1-6, 11-16; Acts 2:38-39; 16:31

Sermon Ideas
  • It was helpful for us to refer to the denominational forms for baptism.
  • Goal is tying together the threads from Old Testament circumcision to New Testament baptism practices, particularly infant baptism.
  • “Unpack” images of sign and seal.
  • Language of “covenant community” and “belonging” are also significant themes for this message.
Opportunities for Interaction
  • Infant baptism would be wonderful.
  • Water imagery can be used to emphasize various points of the message.
  • Sanctuary was decorated with water-colored fabric to create the effect of being covered and surrounded by waters of baptism (grace).
  • Service also included the Lord’s Supper. Just prior to the memorial we had a dramatic Scripture reading based on Matthew 11:28-30; Isaiah 55:1-2; John 4:14.

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

God’s Covenant Calls us to Christ-likeness: Identity (1)

Scripture

Isaiah 42:6; Jeremiah 31:31; 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:17 (selected verses)

Sermon Ideas
  • Define “covenant” and trace the tapestry of God’s covenants with his people: Adam/Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sinai, Phinehas, David, and the New.
  • Tie baptism to God’s covenant promises. In baptism, God takes hold of our hand in covenant and calls us to Christ-likeness.
  • Focusing on Jesus as the supreme prophet (calling us to obedience), priest (mediating for our sins), and king (establishing God’s righteous and just rule) leads us in our understanding of our new identity in him and service to him.
Opportunities for Interaction
  • Ahead of time, assign readers to rise during the service to read the various covenants from Scripture as needed, beginning with Adam and ending with Jesus.
  • A perfect opportunity for a children’s message on baptism and covenant.

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

God’s Covenant Calls us to Christ-likeness: Living (2)

Scripture

Ephesians 4:1-5:8

Sermon Ideas
  • Ask, What does a covenant (Christian) community look like? (One that has been covered in the waters of baptism?) Characteristics found in Ephesians 4:1-17 include humility, patience, unity, forgiveness, recognizing others’ gifts and abilities, and building others up.
  • Living as children of light and putting off of old self/on of new self is described in Ephesians 4:18-5:8, to include issues of lying, anger, stealing, tearing down, and sexual immorality.
  • On a positive note, Paul ends with being imitators of God—showing kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and thanksgiving.
Opportunities for Interaction
  • Smaller congregations like ours allow for occasional dialogue during the sermon—ask the people what reasons the text gives for not doing and for doing the behaviors listed in the text.
  • End the message with a time of reflection, prayer, and a song of forgiveness to allow the people to have conversation with God on the issues raised during the service.
  • Conclude the service by asking for people to hold hands (even across the aisles) while receiving a blessing and concluding with a song of unity in Christ.

GOOD FRIDAY

We had a Tenebrae service on Good Friday, a new experience for many congregants. The sanctuary was dimly lit and all the chairs—except for a ring on the perimeter reserved for the elderly or those unable to sit on the floor—were removed. In the center we placed a large wooden cross shrouded in black. A table in front of the cross held seven white candles of varying sizes, the largest of which was the Christ candle. Nine readers of all ages participated from the side of the worship area. For each reading, a young teen dressed in black would slowly enter the sanctuary in silence and extinguish the appropriate candle. At the close of the service she came in and extinguished the Christ candle. With her head bowed, she tenderly carried it out of the sanctuary.

The Tenebrae service was adapted from “More Than One Kind of Dying” by Douglas Kamstra (Reformed Worship 62).

EASTER

Dying and Rising with Christ

This service was a celebration indeed! After the sorrow and introspection of the Tenebrae service, there was an atmosphere of gratitude and praise, as was evidenced by the hugs and handshaking of all who entered.

Scripture

Romans 6:1-13

Sermon Ideas
  • Message has two powerful movements: dying with Christ and rising with Christ.
  • Dying with Christ focuses on being dead to sin and the destruction of sin’s dominion; illustration of a wheat seed (dying before living).
  • By faith we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection!
  • What does rising with Christ look like in everyday life?
Opportunities for Interaction
  • If at all possible, have a baptism or two or ten on Easter! It’s a powerful time for interaction and grace.
  • Include a testimony or two from the past year of ministry where dying and rising with Christ has been evidenced, experienced, and seen.
  • The congregation erupted into applause to our resurrected Lord after the baptisms! God’s mercies are never-ending, and his faithfulness endures from generation to generation. Alleluia! Amen!

 

Excerpt

Comments After the Service

  • From a 6-year-old: “The cracks were the bad things and God fills up the cracks with good things.”
  • From a 13-year-old: “I need to let God mold and shape me to make me what he wants me to be.”
  • From a 15-year-old: “It drew me in. It gave a great picture of God as the potter and me as the clay.”
  • From a middle-aged woman: “It was a turning point for me . . . my heart was breaking and all the old stuff was coming out. . . . I experienced God’s grace . . . it gave me freedom . . . even with my imperfections God can still use me.”
  • From a senior: “I am a visual person and it was good for me to see how the potter shapes the clay just like God shapes me. . . . It brought my heart right where it needed to be.”

 

Reflections from Our Banner Maker

At the Good Friday service, I was touched again by the banner of the people kneeling at the table. At the end of the service, the lights were dimmed and the silhouettes of the people of God gathered reminded me of the people in the

banner. I often wondered where the idea for this banner came from . . . and then I knew. God was at work in my life again.

—Sandy Acre

Banner panels were 4' by 9', and were upholstered onto a wooden frame. The water banner was made with blue organdy over a satin-like white fabric; the people gathered around the table were made of muslin and homespun quilted, then painted with watered-down acrylics.

See photograph on page 11.

Song Suggestions

• “Above All” by Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche
• “Cámbiame, Señor/Change My Heart, O God” SNC 56
• “Come to the Water” SNC 234
• “Fairest Lord Jesus” PH 306, RL 370, TH 170, TWC 115
• “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” TWC 472
• “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” PsH 287, TH 688, TWC 584
• “I Give You My Heart” by Reuben Morgan
• “Jonah’s Song” SNC 233, SFL 111
• “My Friends, May You Grow in Grace” SNC 288
• “Psalm 139: O Lord, My God” SNC 243
• “Take Me to the Water” SNC 236
• “Take My Life” by Scott Underwood
• “There Is a Redeemer” SNC 145
• “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” TH 481, TWC 452
• “You Are My King/Amazing Love” by Billy James Foote
• “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters” SNC 238
• “We Fall Down” by Chris Tomlin
• “We Have Put on Christ” SNC 240
• “We Know That Christ Is Raised” PsH 271, PH 495, RL 528

 

God’s timing of events for our Easter celebration was incredible. Seven people, ranging in age from 3 to 95, were baptized on Easter. The stories of grace for each baptism wove a remarkable tapestry of God’s faithfulness. Those baptized included a family of four who had recently relocated to the Grand Junction area, their past life filled with drug abuse and related difficulties. Others were a man who’d left his position in the Mormon church as a bishop five years previously and then came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ; a mother who had been a Christian for years but never celebrated her own baptism; and a man in his nineties who had followed Jesus much of his life but had never been baptized. We also had the opportunity to renew wedding vows right after two were baptized that day. It was a wonderful picture of who God calls to follow him. Particularly powerful was seeing a few elders help one gentleman up the steps and down into the water—praise the Lord for this wonderful sign of water!

Alice Waanders (AliceW613@bresnan.net) is worship coordinator of New Life Christian Reformed Church, Grand Junction, Colorado.