We are a people who love rhythm. We all have particular rhythms that govern our lives. We have large, macro-rhythms that shape our entire year—like the school calendar, which shapes how many families, especially those with children still living at home, order their lives. We also have smaller, micro-rhythms, like how we get ready for the day or get ready to go to bed. When we think about how we get ready to go to work, we see that we have a similar rhythm almost every morning.
Just as we have these calendars and rhythms that shape our lives, the church also has a calendar and a rhythm that offers structure to our worship. Different from the Gregorian calendar or the school year, though, the church year begins (appropriately) with Advent—the season of anticipation of Christ’s coming to us. We then move from Advent to Christmastide, when we celebrate the incarnation of Christ. After Christmas we observe Epiphany, and then Lent, when we enter the wilderness with Christ. After Lent, we celebrate Holy Week and go to the cross. Then, of course, we celebrate the season of Easter. Between the end of our Easter season and the beginning of the next Advent season, we observe what we call Ordinary Time, or Common Time.
The Lectionary follows this calendar on a three-year cycle and emphasizes appropriate scriptures according to each season. There are four reading options provided for each Sunday: a psalm, an Old Testament passage, an epistle, and a Gospel reading. If you follow the Lectionary faithfully each Sunday for all three years (what we call Years A, B, and C), you will have read nearly all of the Bible.
I order my own preaching to follow the Lectionary, as do many pastors, and I do it for a few different reasons.
1. Scripture is the main focus. Following the Lectionary ensures that we actually read Scripture. This might sound silly, but I think we’ve all been to church services where it seems the reading and hearing of the Word of God take a backseat to other elements of the service—which is unfortunate because most of the Bible was written not for personal devotion but for corporate worship. Most of the books of the Bible would have been read out loud, in public, at a worship gathering. Through the corporate reading of the Bible, we continue a thousands-year-old tradition. When we read the Bible in our worship services, we employ the scriptures as they were intended to be used.
2. Using the Lectionary helps eliminates proof-texting. Another reason I choose to preach through the Lectionary is that it helps keep the sermons I write firmly based on Scripture, saving me from proof-texting (taking one verse or passage out of its context in order to get Scripture to appear to say what we want it to say rather than what it actually says). Instead of picking a topic to preach on and then finding a passage that fits that topic, I am forced to preach Scripture first. Any agenda I may have comes second to the Bible. Preaching through the Lectionary saves me from preaching things that I think I should preach. Instead, I am obligated to preach the scriptures the universal institution of the church has seen fit for that Sunday. Preaching the Lectionary saves me from my own desires and prejudices and places me under the authority of the church.
3. Following the Lectionary helps prevent the preaching safe or comfortable passages. When you read through nearly the whole Bible in three years, you’re going to run into some passages you’d rather avoid. Preaching the Lectionary has meant that I’ve preached sermons I’d rather not preach. To ensure that our preaching doesn’t become feel-good, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the Lectionary forces us to wrestle honestly and humbly with difficult texts.
4. Preaching the Lectionary connects us to the entirety of Scripture. Following the Lectionary is about more than just preaching, however. At the church where I pastor, Hastings Church of the Nazarene, we read all four passages of the Lectionary Scripture every week. The simple act of reading from the Old Testament, Psalms, the New Testament, and a Gospel connects for us the entirety of Scripture. When we read all four texts, we are able to see the narrative connection throughout the biblical canon. We see that the New Testament does not replace or invalidate the Old Testament but, rather, is a fulfillment of it. And we see that the Old Testament points us toward Christ.
5. It connects us. Finally, and most excitingly for me, reading and preaching through the Lectionary connects us with the universal (which we often call the catholic—not Roman Catholic) church. On any given Sunday, the folks at Hastings Naz are reading the same passages as Christians all around the world, from different denominations. While we might hear different sermons from those passages, we are receiving the same written Word of the Lord on the same day. In this way, the Lectionary forms and unifies the global church—which, in today’s world of division and subcultural conflict, is a radically countercultural practice! Just as there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, so also is there one body, one church (Ephesians 4:4–6). Christ only established one church. When we follow the Lectionary, that one church is united across time and space.
At Hastings Naz, we have found the Lectionary to be a life-giving practice that has formed our worship and our imagination.