Every Sunday in worship we read at least three passages of from the Bible–something from the Old Testament, something from the New (other than a gospel), and something from one of the four Gospels. We also try to incorporate a psalm as often as possible, usually as our Call to Worship. That’s a lot of Scripture reading!
Maybe you wonder, Why? Why not just focus on one passage from the Bible? Keep it simple. Dig deep. And how on earth do we come up with these four Bible passages, anyway? Sometimes they seem connected, and other times we scratch our heads and wonder what gives.
Let me offer a little bit on what that is all about, and also share one example from this week’s set of readings that I hope shows why/how that can be important:
The readings we use each week are given to us (the Church) by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL or Lectionary). The Lectionary is a 3-year cycle of scheduled of Scripture readings for every Sunday in the year (and special holy days). Each Sunday there is a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, the New Testament (e.g. from one of Paul’s letters), and one of the four Gospels. The three years are called Year A, B, and C. If a church follows this 3-year cycle, by the end you will have heard nearly 75% of the Bible in worship.
The idea of using a Lectionary has been around for a while. In fact, when Jesus stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4, he was handed Isaiah most likely because a reading from Isaiah was prescribed for that day. Our RCL came to us in 1994 and was a collaborative work of leaders in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. If you want to know more about the Lectionary, follow this link.
We use the Lectionary to guide our readings and worship planning for Sunday mornings. Others use the Lectionary to guide their personal devotional readings. One of my professors in seminary suggested that following the Lectionary ensures a “healthy diet of Scripture”. That is, you don’t just turn to what you know (and miss out on what you don’t) and you get a balanced look at God’s saving work throughout the Bible. It also helps us see how the Old and New Testaments go together.
Whenever I prepare for a sermon, I consider how the primary passage I’ll be preaching from goes together with the other Lectionary readings. I think about this as the passage’s “Lectionary context”. Those connections don’t always make it into the sermon in an explicit way. Sometimes they come out through allusions or borrowing language from one story to illuminate another.
Sometimes one passage (like the Psalm) is used as a Call to Worship to help set up the story and movement of worship. The same professor who talked about a “healthy diet of Scripture” also suggested we think about worship as a story–as our way of living in the story of the Bible, and our way of letting God’s words in the Bible live in the story of our lives. When planning worship, he suggested we think about how someone from that Sunday’s Bible reading might call us to worship if he or she were given the microphone. Or how might they lead us in prayer? How would they urge us to respond to God’s word?
As an example, think about two passages we’ll use this Sunday: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (the parable of the prodigal son and his brother) and Psalm 32. Try reading the passage from Luke and then the Psalm. Go ahead, give it a try.
Can you hear the voice of the younger brother?
Psalm 32:1 “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” This is a psalm about the joy of forgiveness. Do you think the younger brother had some thoughts about that?! Here he comes home after blowing off his father and burning through all of his inheritance. He practiced his speech all the way home–“I am not worthy,” “treat me like one of your hired hands”. He expected judgment, but what he got was compassion and a welcome home party! Do you think he might know a thing or two about the happiness of the whose sin is forgiven?
Psalm 32:3 “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” This is where he’d come from–a place where he had no home, no money, no food, no food, and most clearly no friends. Out there with the pigs, his body was wasting away and so was his hope.
Psalm 32:5 “Then I acknowledged my sin to you…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” Jesus’ parable says the younger brother “came to himself.” Maybe he wasn’t thinking with words like repentance and contrition, but he’d found rock bottom and he was desperate to get out. So he went home. He remembered “the way [he] should go” (Ps. 32:8).
Psalm 32:6, 8 “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you…I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go.” Can you imagine how the younger son had some hard won lessons he wanted to share with others? Maybe you’ve had adults or friends try to guide you in life saying something like, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.” The younger son could say that, and he could also say, “But when you do, I hope you come to your senses and know that when you come home to God, you’ll find compassion and forgiveness running down the driveway to meet you.”
This is more than just interesting to me. It helps me imagine how the story might keep going past Luke 15:32. It helps me as I think about the “younger brothers” I know, and the “older brothers” too. Reading the psalm is like sitting with the younger brother himself, not as a character in the story, but as a brother I can know who both warns and encourages me on the journey of faith. It makes me want to celebrate what God is doing in the lives of others. How does it move you?
This Sunday we’ll use portions of Psalm 32 as our Call to Worship. Maybe you’ll hear the voice of the younger son calling you in, saying, “Hey, come join the celebration!” Maybe this will help you live into God’s story, and God’s story to live in you.