In some churches, the choices for Scripture readings are spontaneous. In some churches, these choices follow a well-worn and beloved path. Generally, we call that path the lectionary. I’m a big fan of the lectionaries in general. They do several things:
- Keep the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in view.
- Take into account that not all readings are equal in value.
- Present the whole council of God (tried and tested over centuries).
- Usher the church away from doctrinal ruts (hyper-focus on one thing over others)
- Anchor sermons to the text of Scripture (there are usually at least three passages to choose from and many are related doctrinally or thematically).
- Prevent the twin tyrannies of lengthy “series” preaching and choosing texts that “fit” the congregation.
I’m sure there are other things lectionaries do on the positive side of the ledger (please feel free to comment if I left out something – I’d like to know).
On the other side of the ledger: they are not inspired in the same way Scripture is. They tend to avoid difficult passages, and they can hurt the continuity of the individual books (There are 66 books in the Bible, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New.) if the congregation is not reading and studying together on the side.
Generally, I think the good far outweighs the bad and the bad can be mitigated to a great degree as the Church moves together through the pageant of the liturgical year, remembering Jesus, ‘the author and perfector of our faith.’ There is one thing, however I would like to bring to my own church body's attention (Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod):
Because of our focus on the doctrinal aspect of our faith (what we believe) and the clear passages of Scripture which teach us the truths of the faith, it appears to me that many tend to overlook the structures and genres of different passages, including some of the more mundane and, apparently, occasional aspects. An example might be some of the greetings and instructions given at the end of letters sent by the apostles to churches and individuals. We tend to avoid the difficult in Scripture.
This focus of my church can be both a strength and a weakness. In focusing on what we ‘believe, teach and confess’, we stick to our guns in the battle for truth. At our best, our focus on Jesus as the center of everything we believe shines forth in our preaching, our passage choices (we usually focus on the Gospels in preaching) and the structure of our worship.
The weakness often shows up in our inattention to the text of Scripture. We move too quickly into the world of doctrine without wrestling with the text (after all, the important questions have all been answered).
Don’t get me wrong, our doctrine is good, arguably the best (clearest) Christendom has to offer! But when doctrine gets turned into a metanarrative by glossing the text because we know the passage so well—when the passage no longer shocks us or invites us or ambushes us—when we are no longer listening to the voice of God as it is presented in Scripture, who cares if we’re right!
When children hear the same Scriptures used over and over again as a pretext for a doctrinal point or just a point the pastor wants to make in his three-point sermon, even if that point is good, right and salutary, when do those children stop listening? When we give the appearance that what we believe is divorced from what the text is saying, our doctrine dries up, becomes dogma and is devoid of power.
Even with all we have, we must be on guard against this—not to divorce, even implicitly, the text of the Bible from our doctrine and doctrinal preaching. Our understanding of the faith flows from the Christ presented in the passages and the adventure that is Christianity involves exposure to the rough elements of the passages. Doctrine, liturgy and lectionaries are an interactive map for the journey.
And we Lutherans have a great map.
But looking at a map all the time when you are traveling can be... counterproductive. The map is not the territory.
I believe in the perspicuity or clarity of the Bible in what it teaches concerning salvation – it is unambiguous. To the degree the lectionary helps with getting this message out yearly, I love it. Yet, I also think some great treasures in Scripture lie hidden behind difficulty, hidden for those treasure seekers who are willing to dig a bit... and Jesus hides Himself all over the place in the text, I think simply for the joy of discovery.