One of my favorite memories as a kid was the August 27th. It’s not simply because it’s my birthday, but typically the first day of school would fall either on my birthday or the week of. The excitement. The chills. The nervousness. The heightened expectation. I knew it was coming every year, but the anticipation of what this year was going to be like unnerved me.
As humans we are living in time. That goes without saying. History is marked by time. Our days are marked by hours and minutes and seconds. Our days are counted by weeks and months and years. We look at the fig leaf and discern that summer is on its way. Just as surely as the sun rises, so also we bank on the fact that God will give us our next breath.
We cannot get around the fact that we mark and are marked by time.
I wrote earlier that our church, Christ the Redeemer, follows the Revised Common Lectionary for our weekly gatherings. Instead of being wooden and rote, we have found that the structure provides life to flourish in the expected. This is no less the case with following the Church Calendar.
Some may argue that following the Church Calendar will be like a straight jacket, inhibiting free movement. Analogous to following the RCL, we believe the calendar provides a framework by which we can live our lives. I know that Advent is coming. I can lick my lips and know that Christmas is coming. I can feel the breath enter my lungs as Epiphany reveals itself. I can lower my head as Lent’s crown is unveiled.
Just like my school year starting up, the way we approach the seasons of the Church Calendar has everything to do with what is going on on the inside. Some of my friends couldn’t sleep for fear of what was coming in 7th grade. I couldn’t sleep because I got my own locker!
Just like with all good things and directives in our lives, there is always a danger in missing the message for the medium. It takes a real engagement with what is happening around us. The purple. The myrrh. The lights. The bells.
In the same way we all have a liturgy for our churches’ weekly gatherings, so also we all follow come kind of calendar.
How many churches have you visited that are already celebrating Christmas and Easter? How many more have you seen more reverence and awe for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Graduation Sunday, Youth Sunday?
The question then becomes: What time will mark your years?
Do Away With Celebrations?!?
I was a member of a church that did not celebrate the various seasons—even the Church’s seasons. That’s right. No acknowledgement that it was the week of Christmas. In fact, there was a bit of disdain that seemed to be ruled by pride that said, “Ha! We are not like all the other churches that dote on each other. Every Lord’s Day is Resurrection Day now!” Sure. Every Lord’s Day is Resurrections Day. Even more, every day is a celebration of the first fruits of our resurrection. Each day we are pushing against the tide that seeks to drown us in consumerism and temporal charms.
But, anecdotally, doesn’t something seem strange about not celebrating Christmas? Or am I just crazy? Please don’t answer that! I mean these same folks who would not celebrate Christmas at church rushed home to open presents under their Christmas trees and to each cranberry sauce!
Festivals and New Moons
We don’t want to just ground our practice in anecdotes, though. Biblically speaking, there is not only precedent but prescription for following a calendar. Throughout the Old Testament there are lessons that teach and direct the life of the believer.
“This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Ex. 12.2). This is the Lord’s words to Israel upon exiting Egypt. The Passover marked the calendar for God’s people. Wherever they sojourned there were competing calendars. Calendars that marked the important days of Dagon and Xerxes.
But they were to be marked to not only remember but to relive the story of redemption. “On this day tell your son, “I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” Assuredly this was the father who was redeemer from Pharoah.
YET. We read again in Deuteronomy 16—after that redeemed generation died in the wilderness as punishment for unbelief: “Celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you our of Egypt by night” (Deut. 16.1). Was this not the children of those he technically brought out of Egypt? Yes. Technically. But biblically, there is a bringing to the present that which has passed so that redemption is made real. Is this not the same way of speaking we hear from Jesus with “this generation” not passing away—both the hearers and the readers? Is this not the way the author of Hebrews speaks when he says that the believers of the old convent are intertwined with us (Heb. 11.40)?
So it is when we celebrate the various seasons provided by the Church Calendar. We are both reminded of the generations before us who sang “Once in Royal David’s City” and we sing the same words with the same tune in the same time…at a different time.
What we have found as a church is that our lives are slowly being shaped by the Church Calendar. We start our year in hope-filled, repentant expectation of Christ’s Return at Advent. We celebrate God’s faithfulness by his sending of Jesus at the first Christmas—knowing that if he made good on his promise in our past he more assuredly will do so in our future.
We experience the awe and gratitude of YHWH revealing himself to the Gentiles at Epiphany. We are reminded of our sin as is in our boats and calms our storms and cry, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner”. This is Lent. Our triumphant King rides on his beast of burden and peace at Holy Week. He is crucified for our transgressions at Good Friday. Rises again at Easter. Grants us his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And we, as his Spirit-imbued people learn what it means to live as the church in Ordinary Time.
What a year! What a gift and reminder of God’s in-breaking. God’s initiative. God’s condescension and indwelling. We march to the beat of a different Drummer. He marks us with his time and timing of redemption.
Anticipation and Humility
As a church we know Christmas is coming. We know Epiphany is on its way. We know that we will have to reckon with our sin at Lent. We relish the divine light of hope at the Resurrection. We know we can’t do it so we tarry until his Spirit descends. We mark week after mundane week as we consider our call as his disciples.
Not a straight jacket. Not a coercion. Not a drip of guilt. The Church Calendar provides anticipation and expectation and prepares our hearts every season as we wait and continue to wait for our redemption.
And just like our decision to follow the Revised Common Lectionary is for our autonomous, local church, you can make the decision for your autonomous, local church. Isn’t voluntary and friendly association great?!?
I wrote this brief explanation for our church as to why Lottie Moon is important to international missions. I share it here for your encouragement.
As I said, yesterday, this week I will be sending out an email each day to focus our attention on international missions. I plan to share more during the Welcome & Announcements this Sunday. We will be taking up a special offering on Sunday to go directly to support international missions. It is named after an astounding woman, Lottie Moon. If you’d like to find out more about this initiative, you can click here.
The primary reason the Southern Baptist Convention began was to pool resources of churches together in order to send out missionaries. Sure, there are many other integrated reasons for why these particular churches at this particular time and in this particular region banded together. In divining all the motives, the beauty of what was created can be lost. The sheer fact that brothers and sisters joined together to financially support the work of brothers and sisters who felt called to lay down their lives overseas in an effort to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is a fact to celebrate. In a culture where competition and division has defined so many churches, we would do well to imitate the love and devotion and work that has defined our denomination.
It is a shame that so many accoutrements have been appended to what it means to be a Baptist. One of the primary and beautiful truths is that we are about declaring the saving work of Jesus everywhere.
Each year we are reminded of this call for all of us to hold the rope for those that go. We provide support to those who forsake family and comforts and lay down their lives—some quite literally—for the sake of our King.
Charlotte Diggs “Lottie” Moon was born in a very respectable family in December 1840. In the midst of the Civil War, Lottie’s heart was stirred by a sermon that pleaded with the hearers: “Lift up your eyes and look upon the fields, for they are white already unto harvest.” Her response: “I have long known God wanted me in China. I am now ready to go.”
She laid down her creaturely comforts, she boarded a ship and headed to live and die in China. Her motivating force was love. She write,
This love is what compelled Lottie to not only go to the Pingtu people, but to verily become one of them. A severe famine struck the Pingtu so that 500 of the Pingtu Christians were on the verge of starvation, thousands more consigned to death without ever hearing the name of Jesus. And so Lottie emptied her account in hopes that her fish and loaf would be sufficient to stave the hunger. But the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) was in serious debt and could not help Lottie financially. So she too starved with the ones she loved as she shared with any that had need of food. And on Christmas Eve of 1912, she withered away from starvation and sickness.
This is why we take up a special offering. As a family of churches, we have committed to reaching the unreached with the Gospel of Jesus. Money is merely an expression of a commitment. It’s the physical representation of where our hearts truly are.
Here’s an inspiring video about a Small Church with Big Dreams.
Our heart’s desire as Redeemer is to go where Christ is not named. As we continue to grow and explore such opportunities, we pray we will be able to go to unreached people. May we take heart in the life and death and love and hope that was Lottie Moon’s. May God use our church to send and support many men and women to lay down their lives for the sake of Christ.
The church I pastor, Christ the Redeemer, is a congregation that seeks to appreciate the tradition of the Church at-large without a lot of the pomp. It is a middle ground between what is called “low church” (a service opting for as earthy as possible–a few songs and a sermon) and “high church” (a lot of formality and ritual). I like to call what we do, “middle church.”
I may write more on this at another time, but our liturgy is structured following the biblical storyline of Creation > Fall > Redemption > Consummation. There are a lot of elements you find in a clearly delineated order of service (i.e., Call to Worship, Individual & Corporate Confession, Lord’s Supper, Benediction, Commission).
The purpose of this post, however, seeks to explain why we follow the Revised Common Lectionary [RCL]. This is our church’s conviction. We do not presume to know or prescribe what other local congregations ought to do…other than preach the Gospel in the best way they see fit for their time and place.
Some Principles that Direct Our Decision
Local Church Autonomy
As a Baptist, we are so thankful for local church autonomy and, as such, there isn’t a prescribed Order of Service for a church to be a “Baptist” church. The elements that link us are theological and not pragmatic. Go to one Baptist church, and it could be different than one you visit the following week. There is no prescribed way to order a Baptist church. Such diversity is healthy. Indeed, it is missiological in nature. There are so many kinds of people. It is only beneficial that there be many different kinds of churches. There is a danger to want all churches to look and sound like my preferences. To acquiesce would make the Church a monolith, rather than the rich and diverse expression of the richness and diversity of her people.
Guardrails & Guidelines
The prescribed readings for a given week are merely that, a prescription. I can opt not to take a prescription. I have often said that the RCL serves as guardrails or guidelines and not a straitjacket. That is, there may be a time in our church’s life that we don’t follow the RCL‘s Scripture passages because we want to focus on a particular book or issue in the life of our church. We have the freedom to do that.
The Whole Counsel of God
The RCL is a set of readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, Gospels, and Epistles. The real beauty of the Lectionary is that over the course of three years, our church will have heard the entire breadth of the Scriptures.
How We Implement the Readings
We open each of our services with a Call to Worship. This has always been from the reading from the Psalm for that Sunday and is typically read responsively with the Service Leader. For example, this past Sunday
The Leader read Psalm 19.1-6
The Congregation responded with vv.7-9
The Leader responded with vv.10-13
The Congregation with v.14.
After children 4-6 are dismissed from the service, we have typically have an Old Testament reading (which follows the thematic order of the RCL rather than working through the Bible canonically). During this season of Lent, the sermon text has been from the Gospel reading, since we have wanted to focus on Jesus’ life and ministry during Epiphany and Lent. Therefore, the New Testament reading has been from the Epistles.
After we celebrated Easter, we focused attention on the Epistle readings–so we can work through a book (2Corinthians, Ephesians, James, and much of Hebrews). Next year we will focus on Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Lamentations.
Responding to Criticism
Are you opting for traditions of men over God’s Word?
Every church follows a liturgy. It is merely an order of service. Whether a church is explicit in its reference to a liturgy or not, it does not negate the fact that every church follows some order of their weekly gathering. A “low church” typically has a Welcome & Announcements, then a few songs (two fast and two slow), followed by a Sermon, Passing the Offering Plate, and Dismissal. There is no getting around a liturgy. Scripture is silent on a prescribed method or model. I can’t help but think this is so that churches have the freedom to contextualize and serve their time and space most effectively. A church in Jerusalem in AD 100 and a church in Greenville, SC in AD 2018 ought to look different, but feel similar, as they are both rooted in the proclamation of the Gospel and mutual edification of the saints.
What about expositional preaching?
The 20th century saw the advent of working through a book of Scripture–specifically through the ministry of Martin Lloyd-Jones. Since that time, there has been an emphasis in evangelical circles of walking through a book chapter-by-chapter (and in some cases, verse-by-verse). There, of course, is great benefit to walking through a book of Scripture in such a way–after all, that is our plan at Redeemer following Pentecost Sunday!
But “expositional preaching” is a type of preaching that “exposits” or walks through the meaning of a passage of Scripture–heeding the context and the original authorial intent. This is the general characteristic and tenor of expositional preaching. This is the healthiest way to preach, I believe. After all, there is a need for churches to teach people how to read Scripture contextually. There is a need to explain the author’s original intent rather than opting for it as a springboard for a non-contextual, hyper-applicable sermon. The former does not see a need to get the context of the passage because the text is always evolving or it is merely a starting point for a trajectory that changes over time. The latter uses the text of Scripture to support an agenda or topic for the sermon (typically termed “topical preaching”).
Expositional preaching is the kind of preaching I do at Redeemer–though I am sure others would say that I don’t because I don’t preach verse-by-verse. Needless to say, the term “expositional preaching” gets at the issue of explaining a text of Scripture.
There actually are times that a topical sermon may be in order. For example, I preached on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation for five Sundays to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Each of those solas, however, was wedded to and derived from a passage of Scripture. For example, Sola Scriptura was based off 2Peter 1.16-21, where Peter’s intent was to give the surety and confidence we have in Scripture.
In fairness, even for those walking through a book verse-by-verse or chapter-by-chapter, the passage for that Sunday runs the risk of being taken out of context. That is, instead of reading the whole epistle of Ephesians (as would have been done in Ephesus), the pastor will only be explaining one chapter or a few verses of one chapter in hopes that people remember the previous weeks’ sermons and verses. It behoves each of us on Sunday to explain the context of a passage of Scripture each Sunday for the building up of God’s people and as a demonstration of how to read contextually and with all the texture and depth of a particular passage.
Jewish prescribed readings
Following the guidelines of the RCL follows the model of the Jewish readings in the synagogue during the time of Christ. Note Luke 4.17: The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to [Jesus]. There was a prescribed lectionary in the Jewish faith. Following the RCL just follows such a model.
The Breadth of Scripture
As mentioned earlier, following the RCL helps the congregation hear the entirety of Scripture over the course of three years. A couple Sundays ago, we had the uncomfortable experience of sitting through the entirety of Genesis 17 where there word “circumcision” shows up repeatedly. It was uncomfortable as a father…and as a man. Yet, there I was listening and underneath God’s Word. Following the RCL helps us affirm in a practical way our belief that all of Scripture is God-breathed, not merely what the preaching pastor feels comfortable with.
In all honesty, and in full disclosure, I have heard this as an argument for walking through a book verse-by-verse. Yes, this is great! Keep going for it. Yet, I can’t help but think that many pastors keep preaching through Romans and Genesis and Nehemiah and several epistles verse-by-verse and don’t want to tackle Song of Solomon or Leviticus or Revelation. Sure, there are brothers who are tackling those…may their tribe increase! Yet, let’s not put our yoke of conviction on others and say it must be their yoke. May we be able to serve in our particular congregations in accord with our convictions and joyfully.
Affirming the Church Universal
Every Sunday, while our people at our local congregation are hearing the words of John 2.13-22 so also are myriads of congregations hearing these same passages. We are one congregation in the midst of the Great Congregation. Not only across space, but across time.
What a beautiful picture to consider that we are hearing the same readings as other brothers and sisters…and across denominational lines!
Shaping the Congregation
The seasons of the Church Calendar provide us opportunity to pause at intervals to consider various aspects of our discipleship. That is, we focused on Jesus’ first Advent–his kingship, and then on his early ministry of calling the disciples and how that ought to inform our being called by him at Epiphany, and we reflected on the need to repent and lay down our lives during the season of Lent. We focus on the church as a community during Ordinary Time after Pentecost Sunday (the too-oft neglected celebration of the Church–that is, not celebrating and considering the implications of Pentecost forty days following Resurrection Sunday. My opinion only!).
I have heard accounts of people in our congregation being greatly affected by the various foci we have had as a congregation as we have spent time considering these varied aspects of our communal and personal discipleship with Jesus.
Preparing Our Hearts
This is not to say that this can’t happen in a church that doesn’t follow the RCL, I wish, though, it would happen more, but every Sunday people know what passages we will be hearing…for the rest of our lives. That is, we are in cycle B of the Lectionary right now. Someone in my congregation passed me in the hallway before the worship service and asked, “You preaching on John 2 today?” What an encouraging question! “Why yes, yes I am.” Even visitors to our congregation could know what I will be preaching on if they visited the Lectionary for that Sunday. Granted, I could have preached on Psalm 19 or Exodus 20 or 1Corinthians 1 this past Sunday. But at least someone would know.
There is a thorny problem in our churches that opt for a canon within a canon. That is, too often people give priority or superiority of one Scripture or body of Scripture over another. Because the RCL has us read from four passages of Scripture each Sunday, we see the value of poetry, history, prose, prophecy, and epistle. We see them as equally important to our devotion.
What is more, because we have opted for the thematic readings, we will hear from Numbers 21 (the account of the bronze serpent being lifted up) and John 3 (where Jesus references that happening in Israel’s wilderness wanderings) and Ephesians 2 (where Paul reminds us that we were not just in the threat of death, but were, indeed, dead in our trespasses and sins).
People are enabled to see the one story of Scripture that magnifies and tells the story of redemption. They hear the unity of the Bible. Its beauty and its strength and its relevance for us…in every genre of Scripture.