The heart of preaching is found in the interplay between the preacher coming to God’s Word in Scripture and then bringing people to God’s Word. While academic preparation is essential for the preacher, our preaching must be rooted in an actual experience of the living God through Jesus Christ. The Apostle Peter writes, We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses to his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).
While preachers across Christian traditions could agree to the necessity of the preacher having an experience of God through Christ, we would likely be more challenged to agree upon how preaching should be conducted. One popular method for sermon preparation and delivery in many denominations and traditions is to preach by use of a lectionary. Less familiar to preachers from non-liturgical traditions, the lectionary provides an opportunity to engage in all three of the major methods of Biblical preaching.
What is a Lectionary? A lectionary is a predetermined cycle of Scripture readings that are designed to take an individual or congregation through the majority of the Bible in a selected period of time. There are daily lectionaries as well as weekly lectionaries designed for use by congregational worship on Sundays. The selection of readings for each day or Sunday is guided by the Christian year (or liturgical year), which seeks through various seasons to bring the people of God into contact with all of Scripture s major themes and events.
In addition, most liturgical calendars (and hence lectionaries) also observe days of recognition for important Christian leaders and events. In this way the people of God are immersed holistically in God’s Word and how God’s Spirit has guided believers throughout history.
For example, the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by several Protestant and Anglican denominations, is based on a three-year cycle of readings. Each Sunday includes selected passages of Scripture from the Old Testament, a separate reading from the Psalms, the New Testament and finally a reading from one of the Gospels.
Once as a teenager I remember the Southern Baptist father of my girlfriend telling me with a bit of irony that the worship services of the Episcopal Church had more Scripture in them than most evangelical services he knew of. If you consider the sheer amount and breadth of Scripture that congregations using the Lectionary hear over the course of a year, that Baptist could be right!
The readings for any given day are tied to the liturgical year. For example, during Lent, the Gospel readings will follow Jesus from His temptation in the wilderness, through His public ministry and into His passion in Jerusalem during Holy Week. All of the readings for a given Sunday are selected to go together.
The compilers of lectionaries often group Scripture texts together that share common themes, events or references. Some lectionaries do a better job than others—from a hermeneutical perspective— of grouping together passages that have a true relationship to each other. A good example of text selection is found in the
Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the first Sunday in Advent, using the cycle called Year A , which is coming up in November 2007. Advent is the season of the Christian Year that focuses on the believer’s preparation to celebrate and understand the first coming of our Lord in Bethlehem and to prepare believers for Christ s Second Coming at the end of history. The RCL selects the following texts for that Sunday: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13: 11-14 and Matthew 24:36-44. Put together these texts and they nicely connect the Old Testament theme of the Day of the Lord with Christ s first and second comings in the New Testament.
Many lectionary preachers craft and execute their sermons in a thematic way, drawing from the texts, the Christian year and the particular time and circumstance of their congregation s life. In addition, it is important to realize that most lectionary preachers are delivering their sermons in the context of a liturgical worship service. The written prayers, musical selections and even the arrangement or decorations in the church are all affected by the particular season or day of the liturgical year.
In this way most lectionary preachers engage not only in thematic preaching but also in what I describe as three-dimensional preaching. The entire worship service—and even its environment— contains symbols, words and sometimes even smells that are woven together to deliver a powerful message and experience from the Word of God.
For example, during Holy Week many liturgical churches celebrate a service of darkness called Tenebrae. The central liturgical feature of this service is a series of candles in the middle of the church. All of these are lit in the beginning but are progressively blown out during the course of the service. At the end all of the candles are blown out, symbolizing that the light of the world, Jesus, has been extinguished (a symbol of the crucifixion). In this service, one could almost preach through the use of the service itself without a traditional homily. However, when preaching a sermon in this liturgical setting, the preacher could draw heavily upon the images of light and darkness. There would be an immediate and ongoing illustration for the congregation not only to imagine but to experience.
Keeping in mind the three-dimensional setting in which most lectionary preaching takes place, it could safely be said that the most common Biblical approach taken to preaching in these settings is textual. The preacher in his or her exegesis attempts to find the common themes in the various texts and draw them together to deliver a sermon that is a mosaic of all of the texts illuminating God’s Word for God’s people.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Lectionary Preaching
One of the greatest strengths of lectionary preaching is that that the preacher is freed from the sometimes agonizing job of discerning what text to use for the upcoming Sunday. In addition, the preacher doesn’t have to sit down every few months to plan a schedule of texts to preach on because the various lectionaries are already complete, functioning on the basis of a cyclical calendar. An added benefit of having four passages from Scripture to choose from is that a preacher could choose to preach any given Sunday, or series of Sundays, from an expository, textual or topical approach depending on the Spirit’s leading and the congregation’s needs.
With a lectionary in place, congregants can read the upcoming Sunday’s text ahead of time and engage in personal, family, or small group study of the passages. This provides a way for your people to already be engaged with the selected Biblical texts before you even begin to preach on them.
Also, considering the sheer amount of Biblical illiteracy across the Kingdom, the lectionary systematically exposes people to varied contents of the Bible. Perhaps even more so than typical expository preaching, the lectionary method forces the preacher to engage with texts that he or she might not normally gravitate toward.
One of the major weaknesses of lectionary preaching is that a particular set of Sunday readings may not be the most relevant for a particular time in your congregation’s life. In this case the answer is to deviate from the lectionary readings for that particular Sunday. Another negative temptation for the lectionary preacher is to simply bypass a difficult text by preaching on an “easier text” in the selected passages.
In addition, the sheer amount of Scripture that is offered in the lectionary can sometimes cause the preacher to try to cover too much exegetical ground in too short a time. Remember that most lectionary sermons are shorter in length than sermons given in non-liturgical settings because of the other elements of the worship service.
All in all, the pitfalls of the lectionary can be overcome by sensible deviation from the lectionary when needed. Preachers also do well to focus on one particular theme from the selected texts or to preach on only one of the readings, the Gospel reading being the most popular in this particular approach.
Lectionary Usefulness for Non-Liturgical Preachers
Even if you don’t preach in a liturgical setting, the lectionary still can provide you several benefits beyond those listed above. Using a lectionary in a non-liturgical church could be one way of increasing the amount of Scripture people are exposed to during a Sunday morning service. Selected passages from the lectionary could be read by lay leaders in the church to emphasize that the Word of God is something everyone should be engaged in reading and proclaiming.
Further, an entire church’s daily Bible reading could be based on the lectionary so that everyone is reading the same Scripture passages in their personal devotional time. Additionally, study groups, children’s and youth ministries could base their Bible teaching on the lectionary as well so that the entire congregation is being systematically immersed in the Scriptures.
It’s also possible to incorporate elements of the Christian year into a non-liturgical worship setting. I served on the pastoral staff of a church which was essentially non-liturgical but incorporated elements of the Christian year into its simple praise and preaching services. Be creative and find the ways that the great thematic elements of the Christian year can be incarnated into your congregation’s unique setting.
Preaching by lectionary is the most ancient and most widely used method for preaching across the world. It finds its roots in the ancient Christians traditions. Today Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, plus many Anglican and Protestant denominations engage in use of the lectionary, uniting all of their local churches in a common engagement of God’s Word.
Regardless of whether your local church is non-liturgical, denominational or independent, there is something from the lectionary that you can incorporate into your preaching ministry that God will use to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.
Kevin Goodrich O.P. is an Anglican Dominican Priest and Pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Jamestown, ND.