A possible theme that could tie the Year A readings for Lent together is that of Jesus' defying the devil's temptation of autonomous self-aggrandizement, crossing boundaries of prejudice in order to genuinely touch people as individuals.
That's a mouthful, but it could be simplified as "Love Finds a Way" (the referent for the overall theme is Romans 8:28-39, "[nothing] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The first week sets the scene: the Devil's temptations are vain attempts to deflect Jesus from this radical, new way of relating to people. The Devil would rather see all human prejudicial boundaries kept intact. If Jesus is spending all his time aggrandizing himself and performing flash-in-the-pan wonders like jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple, then how can he demonstrate this new way of loving others, this willingness to stop at nothing to touch people in their inmost hearts, where they are most tender and vulnerable?
The more playfully-inclined could title the first sermon, or perhaps even the entire series, "Jesus and the Devil's Double-Dog Dare" (with a nod to Jean Shepherd's "Christmas Story," a film many listeners may know). The devil lays out the dare, tempting to Jesus to take the easy way out, to abandon his mission and bring glory to himself instead. In the ensuing weeks, Jesus demonstrates beyond doubt that he is refusing to take up the dare.
Then, we move each week through a series of human encounters in which Jesus refuses to play the devil's game. Jesus matter-of-factly steps over each and every boundary a prejudiced society has constructed in his path.
First, there's Nicodemus (Lent 2; John 3:1-17) - theological prejudice.
Then, there's the woman at the well (Lent 3; John 4:5-42) - national and gender prejudice, with a dash of harsh judgment on account of her chaotic family life.
Then comes the healing of the man born blind - whom we'd call today a man with a disability, but whom conventional society of his day holds at arms' length, because they're sure he must be cursed by God, probably for his parents' sins (Lent 4; John 9:1-41).
Finally, there's the raising of Lazarus (Lent 5; John 11:1-45) - Jesus crossing the most fearsome boundary of all, that of death.
None of these encounters are ones that any casual observer in Jesus' society would expect him to go out of his way to have. There are good reasons for him to shun Nicodemus, a potential enemy; the woman at the well, who's unclean; the man born blind, whom God has surely cursed; and finally, Lazarus, who's so unclean (so much so, that he "stinketh," to use the KJV language) that a typically observant Jew wouldn't go anywhere near him. Nothing, but nothing - not even the devil - will stop Jesus from carrying out his ministry of radical love and acceptance.
Either the Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday Gospel reading could then be used to wrap up the series in a larger sense, seeing Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem as the ultimate reaching-out, crossing even the boundary of his own death to love an entire city - and even an entire world.
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
Point Pleasant Beach, NJ
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