Old Hat or New Bandwagon: A look at lectionary preaching

Few churches place as much emphasis on preaching as we in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition do. A worship service without a well-developed sermon leaves many, perhaps even most, of our seasoned members feeling empty. And in many of our churches one carefully prepared sermon a Sunday is but half of what members expect. When Sunday comes, congregations look forward to hearing two carefully thought-out expositions of God's Word.

Some ministers seem to have little difficulty meeting such expectations. But most of us strain under the load. We view a pulpit exchange as a welcome gift from God. And we wonder at times how yesterday's ministers did it. Are we less capable than they? Was their seminary training better than ours? Why are we feeling so pressured about preaching?

The answer seems to me to lie not in our relative capability or in the quality of our seminary training. It lies instead in the increased complexity of the society we must address and in the greater demands congregations are placing on us. People want "relevant" sermons that last no longer than twenty or thirty minutes. They want diversity in the order of worship and they want community outreach. Faced with these demands, preachers need all the help they can get.

Help for Preachers

Over the years many Christian Reformed ministers have relied on regular preaching of the Heidelberg catechism to help them plan their sermons. The catechism offers structure: since the fifty-two Lord's Days cover a year's worth of sermon material, we can plan ahead. It also helps us offer a balanced treatment, from a Reformed perspective, of the great themes of God's revelation. And as our years of ministerial service increase, we can build on what we did in prior years.

Another opportunity lies before us, one that could give much needed assistance in preparing the other Sunday service. This "new" help, called a lectionary, is a planned schedule of preaching that ensures, over a period of time, a balanced treatment of the whole counsel of God and prevents preachers from overemphasizing or neglecting certain themes or parts of Scripture. (Actually the Heidelberg Catechism is a lectionary of sorts.)

Some traditions have used lectionaries for centuries. Others are just now beginning to recognize the usefulness of such a system. In 1983, in an attempt to unify lectionaries of many traditions, the Common Lectionary was released for a three-year trial period ending December 1,1986. Revisions based on reactions from the churches will be incorporated into a final version scheduled for release in 1987. [This schedule has been changed to 1988 or even 1989. -Ed.] As stated in its foreword, the Common Lectionary "represents a conservative harmonization of the major variants of the three-year lectionary used at this time in North America."*

Many pastors in Reformed/ Presbyterian churches are already using this lectionary on a regular basis and are very appreciative of it. In order to help others evaluate its potential, we should examine two questions: How is this lectionary structured and what are the advantages in using it?

Lectionary Structure

The excerpt from the Common Lectionary (see box)—readings for the four Sundays of Advent—will help us visualize its structure.

*The Common Lectionary is available/or $4.95from The Church Hymnal Corporation, 800 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

The lectionary is based on a three-year cycle of biblical readings. Each year is designated by the letter A, B, or C. We are now completing year C. On November 30,1986, the first Sunday in Advent, we will go back to the readings for year A. Each of the three years features one of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, or Luke. The gospel of John is used at special times in each of the three years but, because of the shortness of Mark's gospel, especially in year B.

The lectionary is Christo-centric. It follows the church year, highlighting the biblical drama of salvation from Advent through Pentecost. The following outline of the church year is carefully observed in each lectionary year:

Advent/Christmas The church year always begins on the first Sunday in Advent. The four Sundays of this season move us in anticipation toward a celebration of the incarnation on Christmas Day.

Epiphany The traditional twelve days of Christmas end on January 6, which has long been designated as Epiphany (Greek for "manifestation"). This day brings into focus the visit of the wise men, the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The season of Epiphany, which stretches from January 6 until the beginning of the Lenten season, is an appropriate time to emphasize the evangelistic mission of the church.

Lent The Lenten season, a period of forty days, begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on the Saturday before Easter. Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent since they should be days of commemorating the resurrection—breaks in the introspection and/or fasting that accompany Lent.

Easter Easter Day is followed by the Easter season, which is sometimes referred to as the "Great Fifty Days" (culminating in Pentecost).

Pentecost Pentecost Sunday is followed by Trinity Sunday, a day on which it is most appropriate to declare that God is triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Sundays from this point until the beginning of Advent are usually referred to as Ordinary Time or as the season of Pentecost.

You may have noted from the lectionary sample that four readings are provided for each Lord's day: two Old Testament readings, one of them a psalm; and two New Testament readings, one from a gospel and one from an epistle. During the Advent, Lent, and Easter seasons the readings are carefully selected to form a thematic unity. (To avoid forcing resurrection themes on Old Testament passages, however, the book of Acts replaces the Old Testament readings during the Easter season.) During Ordinary Time the readings work their way through various books of the Old and New Testaments, ensuring that the minister will cover the main content of the Bible.

Advantages of the Lectionary

If you are unfamiliar with the lectionary, it may sound somewhat complex and involved. But if you spend a little time with it, it's very likely that it will grow on you. It's also likely that it will benefit not only pastors and worship leaders but the entire congregation.

Pastors may soon discover that the Common Lectionary is an excellent complement to the Heidelberg Catechism. While the catechism surveys the major doctrinal themes of the Bible, the biblical lectionary presents the story of salvation as it unfolds in revelation history. Using these two lec-tionaries every Sunday provides a holistic approach to preaching that could be very helpful in developing spiritual maturity in members of our congregations.

The use of the lectionary will help the congregation better appreciate the way in which the drama of salvation is presented each year. We have always celebrated the major Christian holy days in our worship services. But sometimes these holy days have created preaching problems for pastors. Before I started using the lectionary, I had trouble finding the proper place for these special worship services. They seemed to appear suddenly on the scene. Sometimes these days even felt like intrusions on a series I had in mind. But when I started using the lectionary, I found a new joy in preaching the message of salvation as outlined in Scripture. That was a refreshing change for me. It relieved me of the responsibility of trying to decide from week to week what would be best for the congregation to hear.

Pastors who like to do -series preaching on books of the Bible will find that the lectionary is a valuable guide. During Ordinary Time the readings are largely continuous. The minister need only choose whether to do a series on an Old Testament book, on an epistle, or on one of the gospels.

A number of resources based on the lectionary can be very helpful in developing the liturgy for the Sunday service. (At the end of this article I list some material I have found especially valuable.) These resources not only give exegetical help with the Scripture passages for the day but also suggest appropriate organ and choir music, songs for congregational singing, and prayers that may be incorporated into the service. The lectionary thus allows organists and

choir directors to plan far in advance for their involvement in the worship service.

The lectionary can promote cooperation among pastors as well. Sometimes pastors who live within a reasonable distance of one another get together for a weekly Bible study. They can use the lectionary to great advantage for such study as they work together on the passages that will form the foundation for the next Sunday's worship.

Church Unity

Using the lectionary provides another advantage that may not be so apparent at first but could one day prove to be the most significant of all. It concerns the unity of the church. For the first time since the Reformation many churches throughout the world, Protestant and Catholic, are hearing the same words from God's Word each Sunday.

I have personally felt the unity of the body of Christ as I discussed God's Word with pastors of other traditions. I'm beginning to believe that God may well be using the lectionary movement to manifest once again that there is but "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:5—6). That churches of varying traditions are beginning to appreciate each other is a welcome change in these last days of the twentieth century. God's Spirit could use the new lectionary to bring us even closer together.


Brokhoff, John R. Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Series A, B, and C. Lima, Ohio: C. S. S. Publishing Co., 1979-82.

Common Lectionary—The Lectionary Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts. New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1983.

Hessel, Dieter T, ed. Social Themes of the Christian Year: A Commentary on the Lectionary. Philadelphia: Geneva Press, 1983.

Pulpit Resources. A homiletical journal of suggested" approaches and illustrative material for the preparation of sermons. Published quarterly by Pulpit Resources, Inc., 121 Maono Place, Honolulu, Hawaii 96821. $24 per year.

Reformed Liturgy and Music. Published quarterly. RL&M Administration Office, The Office of Worship, 1044 Alta Vista Road, Louisville, Kentucky 40205. $12.50 per year.


I have personally felt the unity of the body of Christ as I discussed God's Word with pastors of other traditions.




We have all heard lectures, maybe given by someone standing behind a lectern. In the old days, a lecture was usually read. In fact, the lecturer was called a lector. And if he read a passage of Scripture, he was reading a lection (today we often call them "lessons").

All these "lect" words have the same root word as lectionary; they all are based on the Latin participle lectus, which means "read." A lectionary is a schedule of Scripture readings organized for a given length of time. The most widely used lectionary today lists Scripture passages for three years (years A, B, and C), starting with Advent each year. At the beginning of Advent 1986, year A will begin again.

So when someone asks, "What are the lectionary passages for next Palm Sunday?", get a copy of a lectionary and look it up. By the way, the lectionary passages for Palm Sunday 1987 are Psalm 118:19—29, Isaiah 50:4—9a, Matthew 21:1—11, and Philippians 2:5-11. Preachers, choir directors, organists—you can start your planning now!

Pastors may soon discover that the Common Lectionary is an excellent complement to the Heidelberg Catechism.

First Sunday of Advent

A - Lesson 1, Isa. 2:1-5
A - Lesson 2, Rom. 13:11-14
A - Gospel, Matt. 24:36-44
A - Psalm, Ps. 122

First Sunday of Advent

B - Lesson 1, Isa. 63:16—64:8
B - Lesson 2, 1 Cor. 1:3-9
B - Gospel, Mark 13:32-37
B - Psalm, Ps. 80:1-7

First Sunday of Advent

C - Lesson 1, Jen 33:14-16
C - Lesson 2, 1 1 Thess. 3:9-13
C - Gospel, Luke 21:25-36
C - Psalm, Ps. 25:1-10

Second Sunday of Advent

A - Lesson 1, Isa. 11:1-10
A - Lesson 2, Rom. 15:4-13
A - Gospel, Matt. 3:1-12
A - Ps. 72:1-8

Second Sunday of Advent

B - Lesson 1, Isa. 40:1-11
B - Lesson 2, 2 Pet. 3:8-15a
B - Gospel, Mark 1:1-8
B - Psalm, Ps. 85:8-13

Second Sunday of Advent

C - Lesson 1, Mai. 3:1-4
C - Lesson 2, Phil. 1:3-11
C - Gospel, Luke 3:1-6
C - Psalm,  Ps. 126

Third Sunday of Advent

A - Lesson 1, Isa. 35:1-10
A - Lesson 2, James 5:7—10
A - Gospel, Matt. 11:2-11
A - Ps. 146:5-10

Third Sunday of Advent

B - Lesson 1, Isa. 61:1-4, 8-11
B - Lesson 2, 1 Thess. 5:16-24
B - Gospel,  John 1:6-8, 19-28
B - Psalm, Luke l:46b-55

Third Sunday of Advent

C - Lesson 1, Zeph. 3:14-20
C - Lesson 2, Phil. 4:4-9
C - Gospel, Luke 3:7-18
C - Psalm,  Isaiah 12:2-6

Fourth Sunday of Advent

A - Lesson 1, Isa. 7:10-16
A - Lesson 2,  Rom. 1:1-7
A - Gospel, Matt. 1:18-25
A - Ps. 24

Fourth Sunday of Advent

B - Lesson 1, 2 Sam. 7:8-16
B - Lesson 2, Rom. 16:25-27
B - Gospel,   Luke 1:26-38
B - Psalm, Ps. 89:1-4, 19-24

Fourth Sunday of Advent

C - Lesson 1, Mic. 5:2-5a
C - Lesson 2, Heb. 10:5-10
C - Gospel, Luke 1:39-55
C - Psalm,  Ps. 80:1-7

Alvin Hoksbergen is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He lives in Spring Lake, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 1 © September 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.