Is your congregation suffering from self-esteem issues? Are you wondering if using a hymnal with its liturgy is an anachronism? Should your church drop the lectionary and have the pastor focus on sermon series with hip and relevant messages? Is the church calendar just too constricting?
It is easy to see the weaknesses in our congregations, but let’s not do a Mitt Romney. What’s a Mitt Romney? It’s being embarrassed over that for which you should be thankful. You know Governor Romney was at first shy about the fact he has been a success in business. We don’t need to go down that route.
As we approach Lent, it is good, right, and salutary for us to see the great blessing liturgical churches have in the (1) lectionary and in the (2) church year calendar. No apologies necessary
1. The lectionary is a blessing. For hundreds of years many Christians used a one year set of readings that repeated each year. This developed gradually starting well over 1,000 years ago. The most popular lectionary today, however, is a three cycles of readings.
Each cycle (year A, B, C) has an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel reading for each Sunday. During the Easter season the Old Testament readings are dropped for texts from the book of Acts. There are also texts for various holy days that fall in the middle of the week as well as readings from the Psalms.
Consider that the lectionary is a blessing because it gives us a broad sweep of the Bible instead of letting the preacher focus on his own pet topics and texts. Indeed the Pastor and congregation are forced to consider portions of Scripture that they might otherwise ignore. Perhaps a text of Scripture seems hard for people of a certain culture and a certain time to digest. The Lectionary doesn’t let us focus on only those portions of Scripture that seem comfortable and soft to us. Nonetheless, the lectionary, as adapted in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, certainly is designed so that the Goodnews of Christ is held high.
Take note that each year has its own emphasis. Year “A” focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, year “B” on Mark, and year “C” on Luke. The Gospel of John is scattered throughout each year.
The Gospel reading is king and so the Old Testament reading is tied in some way to the Gospel text. The Epistle very often stands alone so that Christians can hear larger portions of them, but even here, they will conform to the season of the church year especially during Advent and Lent. Let’s move onto the church year because the lectionary happens in the context of a regular calendar.
2. The church year is a blessing. This is so because it faithfully delivers Christ to His people. It also gives us a wonderful rhythm to our life together in Christ. Rhythm is all around us. God put rhythm in nature as we enjoy winter, spring, summer, and fall (unless you live in a place like Phoenix where the rhythm is simply sweltering hot and not as hot). The Jews had a rhythm in their life together as God gave them a cycle of various feasts and observances.
The church year is broken up into two major sections. The first half focuses on an orderly account of the life of Christ. The second half is known at the “time of the church” which is much more diverse in that it doesn’t have a long running theme.
The first half starts in the last Sunday of November with Advent. In Advent we consider the first and the second coming of Christ. Then we move onto Christmas. The season of Epiphany is next. It begins January 6 with the coming of the Magi. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation.” In this season Jesus manifests His true glory in miracles, casting out of demons, and the calling of the disciples. We see the greatness of the Babe born in Bethlehem shine through in Epiphany.
Then the church moves on to Lent which is a 40 day preparation for Easter. It is a time when the church focuses especially on repentance and even fasting. Dr. Timothy Maschke notes that the 40 days does not count Sundays since this is the day in which our Lord rose. The 40 days recalls 40 days of fasting of our Lord and 40 years of wilderness wandering for the Hebrews.
He also notes that, “In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea recorded the first reference to the specific number of days in Lent” (Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church, p. 56). This is an ancient season indeed. Easter is next. The emphasis is joy, victory, salvation we have in Christ’s resurrection. It is the churches oldest celebration. It ends with Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. With the day of Pentecost we move into the “time of the church.”
The church calendar helps the body of Christ remain relevant in its worship because it runs us through the life of Christ each year. The Gospel is the news of salvation that each lost soul needs to hear. It is the message that continues to strengthen each believer and keep them in Christ. The Church is the body of Christ, and so the church keeps Him as the central focus in its worship, readings, and church year.
Think of the gimmicks so common in the American church – 30 day sex challenges, secular cover bands, success driven sermon series, and pandering to people’s various felt needs. These gimmicks diminish Christ. They herald His importance not as Savior but as life coach.
These gimmicks make churches temples of profanity. Augustine criticized the immoral, pagan worship of his day and wrote, “If these are sacred rites, what is sacrilege? If this is purification, what is pollution?” (The City of God, Book II, section 4). The same could be asked of many congregations in our own day.
We Lutherans need never apologize for the lectionary and the church year. These are great blessings because they bring us to Christ!