Back in high school a friend and I discovered the teachings of Ray Vander Laan. His whole deal is knowing the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. His main teaching is the importance of being a disciple of Jesus. Disciples weren’t just students. They were followers. But they weren’t followers like we talk about today where you click a button to “follow” someone and then they show up in your news feed. They were followers who devoted their whole lives to learning from and being like their Rabbi.
Ray Vander Laan says that if we really claim to be a follower of Jesus, then we should seriously be in the word and the teachings of Jesus. He said he knows a guy who reads all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) every month. That’s pretty radical. But I bet that guy knows Jesus pretty well. Reading the stories and teachings of Jesus that much is more than just knowing, it’s like really following and being with Jesus. I love that.
One of my favorite passages from the scriptures is the story in Nehemiah chapter 8. This book is the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in order to make a home again for the people of God who had been scattered about. Chapter 7 paints the scene with thousands of people having returned and gathering together in the main square of the town. The people had been scattered. Yes, their God was with them, but they couldn’t have “quiet time” quite like we do today with our bible apps and iPods with worship music. They hadn’t heard the praises of God or the word of the Lord since they’d been away.
So when the thousands gathered together in the square it says that there were choirs with hundreds of singers to lead them in praise. And then, my favorite part of all, Ezra stands up before all of the people and reads the Holy Scriptures to the people. For hours, he simply read to the people. And it says that “their ears were attentive.” As Ezra finished reading the word of God he blessed the Lord and then all the people cried out “Amen! Amen!” Then they got on their faces and worshipped God in utter humility and awe. Their God had not remained silent! He had spoken and his words gave them life!
I love the simple reading of the word of God. Without the fluff of a sermon. Or the neatness of a personal devotional time in the morning. I love the community of God that rejoices in the word of God.
The Liturgical Calendar
Have you heard of the liturgical calendar? If you grew up in a church like I did you probably haven’t. But I bet you’re aware of some aspects of it. Have you heard of Lent? Those weeks leading up to Easter that are meant to prepare the heart for the dark Friday of the cross and the great Sunday of the resurrection. Everyone knows about Christmas, but have you heard of Advent? It is a season that precedes Christmas just like Lent does Easter. Christmas and Easter are not just two days in the year where the Church celebrates some aspect of the gospel. They are actually part of a calendar that spans the whole year. A calendar that the Church has been using for centuries.
Here’s what I love about the liturgical calendar. It takes our year and meshes it to the life of Jesus. It begins with Advent (the anticipation of Jesus’ coming), moves to Christmas (the adoration of Jesus’ incarnation), then Epiphany (the revelation of Jesus’ divinity), then Lent (the preparation for Jesus’ crucifixion), then Easter (the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection), and finally Pentecost (the reception of Jesus’ Holy Spirit). Sprinkled throughout these grand seasons their are specific days to remember parts of Jesus’ life like his Transfiguration and Ascension. And the time between the seasons is simply called Ordinary Time. Time spent dwelling on the various teachings or miracles of Jesus told throughout the gospels.
I love the liturgical calendar because, like the guy who reads all four gospels a month, it takes the life of Jesus seriously. I also love it because it isn’t in a hurry. It wades through Jesus’ life slowly, soaking up each part. Reflecting on each action, each miracle, each teaching, each story. It is beautiful because it seeks to shape my life to Jesus’ life. It seeks to be “conformed to the image of Jesus.” (Romans 8:29)
Have you heard of the lectionary? Again, if you grew up in a church like I did, you probably haven’t. Evangelical churches have usually focused on two primary things: singing and preaching. We sing songs and then hear a sermon. That is what the evangelical worship service typically looks like. I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with that. But something about the way other traditions do their worship gatherings grips my soul.
Many other traditions have focused on other aspects, namely prayer, scriptures, and communion. If you have ever been to a Catholic mass or an Episcopalian or Lutheran gathering, you probably noticed that their wasn’t tons of singing or preaching. Sure, there were some hymns sung carried along by the organ and perhaps the priest shared some words with the congregation. But, most of the gathering consisted of various readings of the scriptures, of communal prayer, and ultimately the receiving of communion. The scripture readings in a ceremony like this were probably much like the picture we saw in Nehemiah where Ezra simply gets up and reads and the people respond, “Praise be to God!” Where did these scriptures come from? Who chose to read those portions? Ah, that is the lectionary.
The lectionary is a weekly collection of scriptures for the purpose of reading at the gathering of the people of God. Their are a few variations on the lectionary, but one of the most widely used ones is called the Revised Common Lectionary. It includes four readings each week: two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. The old testament readings typically consist of one from the psalms and one from somewhere else while the new testament readings typically consist of one from the gospels and one from elsewhere. The lectionary in its entirety is three years long (Year A, Year B, and Year C). Each year the readings are meant to go through an entire gospel (Year A – Matthew, Year B – Mark, Year C – Luke, John is sprinkled throughout all three years). In addition to all of that, each year the readings are thematically linked with the liturgical calendar so that what the Church is reading corresponds to the aspect of Jesus’ life that they are wading through.
This may all seem super technical to you. But I think it is beautiful. Here are a few reasons:
It unites the Church. In John, chapter 17 Jesus prays for the unity of the Church. He prays “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:1) While, obviously, not all churches are doing these readings each week, there are dozens of denominations across the world that use the lectionary in their worship gatherings. It stirs my soul to think of the thousands of people united in the reading of the very same Scriptures across the world.
It points people to the Bible. I love the Bible. I love the Scriptures. I love the word of God. I love the story in Nehemiah because it shows communities of people being revived and rejuvenated by the word of God. Psalm 19 says that “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” (Psalm 19:7) I really do like great worship gatherings. I really do like words of encouragement from the community of God. I really do like good sermons and spiritual books. But, I truly believe that there is nothing on earth as beautiful and as reviving to the soul as the simple reading of the word of God. The reading of the lectionary puts the words of scripture on people’s ears, making way for them to go deeper into the heart.
It points people to Jesus. The lectionary is not merely a religious bible reading plan. It is the reading of the word for the purpose of the revelation of Jesus. Because it is read in connection to the liturgical calendar, it is bible reading conformed to the life of Christ. Jesus himself said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; yet it is they that bear witness about me, but you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40) The lectionary intentionally searches for the testimony of Jesus throughout the Scriptures. I love that people are ultimately not only drawn to good information about the Bible but that they are drawn the Jesus, the incarnate word of God!
So, with all that said. I have been reading along with the lectionary for the last month or so. I started during Advent and we are now just past Epiphany into the first season of Ordinary Time. I want to continue following it through the rest of the year. And throughout this year I hope to, amidst other writings, post a weekly reflection on the lectionary readings for the week. I may not cover all of them each week, but as I read through them I want to reflect and grow deeper in the scriptures and in the story of Jesus. Reflecting on the Lectionary. I will call it RefLectionary.
I invite you to join me and the thousands of others across the world who follow the liturgical calendar and the lectionary. More than that I invite you to join me in following Jesus this year in the Scriptures. May God bless the reading of his word. Amen.