Singing the Gospel During Lent

See Christ, Who on the River's Shore; What Fabled Names from Judah's Past; The Lord Is God, the One and True God; As Moses Raised the Serpent Up

The Revised Common Lectionary offers a three-year plan of Scripture readings (Years A, B, and C). The Lectionary does this so that once every three years, public worship services can include readings from every book of the Bible.

Each Sunday, countless churches around the world include these multiple Scripture readings—one from the Old Testament, a psalm, a passage from one of the New Testament epistles, and a reading from one of the gospels. The Lectionary focuses on Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C, with readings from the gospel of John placed in all three years.

Of these Scripture readings, only the psalm is usually sung, though sometimes it is read. But the four songs offered here correspond to the gospel readings or Old Testament texts in four weeks during Lent in Year B; all of them are recent texts based directly on these passages as found in Singing the New Testament (SNT), published in 2008 by Faith Alive and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Two of these songs are from the gospel of Mark, one is from Exodus, and one is from the gospel of John.

First Sunday in Lent: “See Christ, Who on the River’s Shore”
 

The gospel lesson for the first week of Lent for 2009 is Mark 1:9-15, an account of the baptism and temptation of Christ that ends with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, announcing, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

All four gospels record the account of the baptism of Jesus. The first three follow it with the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Christopher Idle, an English hymn writer, drew on all four gospels, in effect preaching a poetic sermon on the meaning of the baptism of Christ.

As in so many hymns, the opening words are among the most important, setting the tone for what follows. The opening words here are a direct invitation to “see Christ.” It’s a wonderful example of the purpose of preaching, whether in sermon or song—that is, to help the worshiper, through reflection on Scripture, to see and know Christ.

The opening words are repeated as a poetic device for each of the four stanzas, in which Idle draws word pictures for us to sing. Already in the first stanza, Idle points to Christ as the “Lamb of God,” a reference used only by John in his gospel. The second stanza explores more of the meaning of the sinless one submitting to baptism, drawing a relationship between the going down and rising up of baptism and the eventual death and resurrection of Christ. Paul later wrote about this relationship in Romans 6 in terms of our own baptisms. The third stanza speaks of the Father’s voice and the Spirit’s anointing; the fourth moves from the baptism to the desert where Christ was tempted.

Consider singing this hymn after the sermon so that the Scripture, both read and sung, can frame the sermon. If preaching only on the baptism of Jesus, sing only the first three stanzas. The tune chosen for this text is one that most people who grew up singing hymns will recognize, often called NOEL because of its long association with the song “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.”

Christopher Idle recently retired after many years as a pastor, writer, and member of the Jubilate Group of pastors and musicians dedicated to preparing and publishing new songs for worship. A collection of his hymn texts, Light Upon the River (Hope Publishing, 1998), is available.

One additional idea: during the service of confession, or if celebrating the Lord’s Supper during this service, consider adding the next song in Singing the New Testament: “Behold the Lamb of God.” It’s a very short refrain by John Bell that would serve well for repetitive singing by the choir, then the congregation, during the distribution of the bread and cup.

 

Second Sunday in Lent: “What Fabled Names from Judah’s Past”
 

The passage for the second Sunday in Lent for 2009 is Mark 8:31-38, where Peter responds to Christ’s question, “Who do people say I am?” with the confession, “You are the Messiah.” This beautiful confession, no doubt a high point for Peter, is followed by the difficult teaching of Jesus about his coming death. Peter tries to correct Jesus, thus receiving a rebuke.

Tom Troeger sets this passage to poetry in his hymn text “What Fabled Names from Judah’s Past.” Unlike Idle’s text above, this first line needs some context. When Jesus asked his disciples how others identified him, they said some thought he was John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets. These were the “fabled names” from the past. There was a long tradition of expecting Elijah to return, and in the account of the transfiguration of Jesus in Mark 9, Peter, James, and John indeed saw Elijah and Moses. Also, Mark recounts the fear of Herod and many others that Jesus could be John the Baptizer come back from the dead (Mark 6:14-16ff). So there was both superstition and prophecy connected with the question many were asking about Jesus: Who is this? Who is this one who heals the sick (Mark 7) and can feed four thousand people (Mark 8)? This basic question still needs answering by everyone.

The first three stanzas cover the first part of the passage, ending with Peter’s confession; the final two stanzas move to the teaching of Jesus about his approaching death. All five stanzas end with a refrain that includes Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ!” The refrain moves into praise, with the confession repeated now as our own, framed by an “Alleluia” (Praise God!) and “in excelsis gloria,” echoing the song of the angels in Luke 2.

Ending the first three stanzas with this refrain is natural, since it connects to the story. But ending the final two stanzas also with the refrain is a beautiful extension of grace; even though Peter was rebuked and later denied Christ, he was restored and lived to repeat this confession in his powerful ministry after the resurrection of Christ.

This is our story too: though in high moments of faith and worship we are glad to confess Christ as Savior and Lord, at times we all fall and need to ask for forgiveness, praying that Christ “keep us true to this our boldest claim,” assured that in our own “life and death we’ll worship you and your eternal name.” Because of the contrast between stanzas 1-3 and 4-5, consider ways to accompany stanza 4 more quietly; perhaps having it sung by choir or soloist in a more meditative spirit.

The choice of the French tune UNE JEUNE PUCELLE is striking; it is also associated with Christmas, usually set to a text from the Huron people of Canada, “’Twas in the moon of wintertime.” The melody carries a narrative text well, and the refrain is poignantly balanced between joy and awe.

Like Christopher Idle, author Tom Troeger is a theologian and writer with more than a dozen books published in the field of worship and preaching and many hymns published in several collections and hymnals. He is a frequent presenter at conferences around the world. He is also a fine flutist, and his creative presentations often combine theological reflection, reading and singing his hymn texts, and playing his flute. Troeger is ordained in both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in the Episcopal Church; in addition, he is professor of Christian communication at Yale Divinity School.

 

Third Sunday in Lent: “The Lord Is God, the One and True God”
 

I know of no hymn text on the difficult passage in the gospel lesson for this week (John 2:13-22) in which Jesus drives out the money changers in the temple, scattering money, overturning tables, and demanding that those who sold doves—the offering for the poorest people—stop turning his Father’s house into a marketplace.

There is, however, a powerful motet for a good church choir that could try a very challenging setting of this text: “Jesus and the Traders” by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. I sang it at the University of Michigan many years ago and will never forget Kodaly’s musical interpretation of the text. Do a Google search to listen to it; more than one recording is available.

Instead, for this Sunday I’m proposing that you sing the Old Testament lesson—the Ten Commandments as recorded in Exodus 20. This text has been part of worship since the earliest days of the Reformation, when it was one of two texts beyond the psalms that John Calvin added to the final edition of the Genevan Psalter. Singing or reading
the Ten Commandments was a regular feature of liturgy in the Reformed tradition until only about a generation ago, and this accessible tune is still included in hymnals in the Reformed tradition around the world.

Two settings to this tune are available for congregational singing. The first (Psalter Hymnal 153), by Dewey Westra, covers the Ten Commandments in seven rhymed stanzas after this introductory stanza:

My soul, recall with reverent wonder
how God amid the fire and smoke
proclaimed his holy law with thunder
from Sinai’s mountain when he spoke:

and the concluding prayer:

Teach us, Lord God, to love your precepts,
the good commandments of your law.
Give us the grace to keep your statutes
with thankfulness and proper awe.

Since nine stanzas is a lot to sing, you might prefer to read the commandments, framed by singing the first and last stanzas.

A shorter setting is included here, “The Lord Is God, the One and True God,” set in three rhymed stanzas by Reformed Church in America pastor Daniel Meeter (Sing! A New Creation 73). In a very succinct text, he touches on all ten commandments as well as on the summary of the Law.

Typical of Renaissance music, the tune “dances” between groups of two and three beats—there were no bar lines then that forced melodies into only duple or triple meter; instead, the tune is more lilting, beginning with units (counting quarter notes) of 2+2+3+3+2+2. But after that the tune is duple. So consider having some instrumental or choral help to make sure the opening phrase goes well.

One possibility would be to combine these two settings in the following way:

Westra’s stanza 1, sung by a soloist, as an introduction

Meeter’s stanzas 1-3, sung by a choir or small group

Westra’s stanza 9, sung by the congregation

Following the Old Testament lesson, Psalm 19 is very appropriate, since it combines love for God’s creation and love for God’s law, concluding with a prayer that is often used as a prayer for illumination. Follow the Ten Commandments with the excellent setting of Psalm 19 by Carl Daw, “God’s Glory Fills the Heavens” (Sing! A New Creation 88).

 

Fourth Sunday in Lent: “As Moses Raised the Serpent Up”
 

The readings for the fourth Sunday in Lent connect the Old Testament and the gospel lessons very directly. Numbers 21:4-9, the Old Testament lesson, tells the story of how the people of Israel were suffering in the wilderness after their rebellion; many were dying from snakebites.

Moses, following God’s instruction, put a bronze snake up on a pole, and those who looked at it did not die from their bites. In the gospel lesson, John 3:14-21, Jesus refers to that Numbers passage when talking to Nicodemus, who had come to him secretly at night wanting to learn who Jesus really was. Jesus draws on Nicodemus’s knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15). Then comes verse 16, one of the best-known and loved verses in the entire Bible.

Marie Post, a poet and member of the Psalter Hymnal Revision Committee, prepared a setting for the Psalter Hymnal that included both the Old Testament reference quoted by Jesus (John 3:14-15) as well as the beloved verses about God’s love for the world and God’s desire that no one die, but that all would live forever through the Son he sent to save the world (John 3:16-17). Singing the New Testament included only John 3:16-17, which may be more liturgically useful on different occasions. But on this Sunday, with the Old Testament reference so clearly connected to the gospel passage, singing all four verses is most appropriate.

The text is set to O WALY WALY, an English folk melody. The Psalter Hymnal used a duple version of the tune, but the original triple version, as found in more recent hymnals and in Singing the New Testament, sings more naturally. Sing this Scripture song after the sermon as a grateful response to the good news that God so loved the world that he sent Christ not to condemn, but to save.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.