The Old Testament in the Lectionary: Finding Sermon Series Inspiration

January 12th, 2013
This article is featured in the The Ultimate Sermon Series Issue (Feb/Mar/Apr 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

Following the scriptures suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary when planning worship has much to recommend it: many print and online publications offer worship planning helps based on the lectionary readings, and shared readings across churches enables pastors to join together in sermon preparation study groups.

However, one of the frequently offered justifications for its use – that the lectionary ensures that the Scriptures are broadly covered – simply does not stand up to scrutiny. With a gospel reading and an epistle reading each Sunday, together with eight Sundays of additional readings from Acts, the New Testament is fairly well covered in the lectionary’s three year cycle. The Old Testament, on the other hand, is slighted, relatively-speaking, by the cycle of lectionary readings.

The Neglected Old Testament

As a child, when learning how to find the books of the Bible, I was taught a handy trick: open to the very middle of your Bible, and you will find the Psalms; divide the last half in half, and you will find Matthew’s gospel – the first book of the New Testament. Over time it occurred to me that this is not just a good way of finding biblical passages quickly – it also illustrates that the Old Testament takes up roughly three-quarters of the Bible. You wouldn’t know it by reading the lectionary.

The Psalms have their own category in the lectionary. One psalm (or part of one psalm) is read most Sundays. However, if a pastor follows the lectionary, more than a third of the Psalter goes unread.

The remainder of the Old Testament is read the least often. From Easter Day through Pentecost, readings from the book of Acts take the place of the Old Testament reading. (Note: I have seen bulletins in which Acts was actually listed as the Old Testament reading! Please proofread your bulletins: Acts is not in the Old Testament, despite its location in the lectionary.) This means that in any given year, your congregation will hear 44 (maybe 45) readings from the Old Testament—if they come every Sunday.

There are many notable omissions from the Old Testament lectionary readings. In Genesis alone, the stories of Cain and Abel (chapter 4), the Tower of Babel (chapter 11), and Abraham bargaining with God for Sodom (chapter 18) are not found in the lectionary. The book of Daniel is read from only once every three years: The stories of the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), the lion’s den (Daniel 6), and the mysterious writing on the wall (Daniel 5) are all excluded from the lectionary.

When putting together a sermon series, you might want to consider using Old Testament passages that are omitted from the lectionary. The gaps in the lectionary’s suggested Old Testament readings present an opportunity to (re)interpret Sunday school stories that are familiar but rarely preached on, or to explore parts of the Bible with which many in your congregation are completely unfamiliar.

The Inspirational Lectionary

But even preaching a sermon series using the lectionary readings can serve to highlight little-read scriptures. In churches that follow the lectionary, the Old Testament reading for June 2 has not been heard in worship at all since the Revised Common Lectionary was instituted in 1992! This means that pastors this year have the rare opportunity to preach about Elijah for five Sundays in a row.

The Elijah stories can correct the common misconception that the Holy Spirit only comes into being after Jesus ascends. From Easter Sunday through Pentecost Sunday, seven weeks when the Old Testament reading is replaced by readings from Acts, the only reading from the Old Testament (unless you rebel against the lectionary!) will be from the Psalms. But building on momentum from Trinity Sunday’s suggested readings (including the lovely Proverbs 8, on wisdom), and the assertion in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets,” the work of the Holy Spirit comes to life with this Elijah/Elisha sermon series that follows the Old Testament lectionary readings:

The Spirit Speaks

1. June 2 – “The Spirit Speaks Truth”

In 1 Kings 18:20-39, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal. The Holy Spirit descends in fire upon Elijah’s sacrifice, witnessing to the power of the one true God. In what ways does the Holy Spirit continue to witness to God’s truth and power today?

2. June 9 – “The Spirit Speaks Life”

In the Nicene Creed, we call the Holy Spirit, “The Lord, the Giver of Life.” In 1 Kings 17:8-24, the Spirit gives life in two distinct ways: providing the daily needs of Elijah and a small family in verses 13-16, and raising a widow’s dead son to life in verses 19-22. In what ways do we see the Spirit as the Giver of Life today – in both everyday and extraordinary ways?

3. June 16 – “The Spirit Speaks Justice”

In 1 Kings 21:1-21a, Queen Jezebel conspires to kill Naboth, in order that King Ahab might have Naboth’s vineyard. Through Elijah, the Spirit speaks a word of judgment to Ahab and Jezebel, for using their power to defraud one who was less powerful. A good gospel scripture to pair with this might be Luke 2:39-55, which includes Mary’s Magnificat. Has the Spirit spoken to or through us on behalf of the less powerful?

4. June 23 – “The Spirit Speaks Comfort”

Elijah flees from Ahab and Jezebel in 1 Kings 19:1-15a. God does not judge Elijah for needing rest and safety but instead sends an angel to feed Elijah. Even Elijah, something of an Old Testament superhero, is not expected to continue in God’s work unabated. Likewise the Spirit speaks to us when we are overwhelmed, telling us to rest and to eat: “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” (1Kn 19:7)

5. June 30 – “The Spirit Keeps On Speaking”

Though Elijah is taken away in 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Elisha is appointed his successor: now the Spirit will speak through Elisha to the people of Israel. For many pastors, this will be their last Sunday in their parish before moving to a new congregation or retiring. God is continually raising up new servants to speak the Spirit-breathed words of truth, life, justice, and comfort.

6. July 7 – “The Spirit Speaks to Every Nation”

Following July 4, the lectionary suggests the story of the enemy general Naaman who comes to Israel for healing in 2 Kings 5:1-14. Naaman finds healing through surrendering his national pride, which leads him to accept Israel’s God – but he remains a Syrian. The Spirit speaks to people of every nation. When preparing this sermon, consult the hymn “This is My Song” (437 in The United Methodist Hymnal.)

Another Approach to Lectionary Preaching

Instead, you might prefer a lectionary-prompted series, meaning that the series begins with the lectionary text but remains in that book of the Bible or general storyline after the lectionary moves on. On October 19, one of the suggested Psalter readings is from the longest psalm: Psalm 119. Another reading from this Psalm follows two Sundays later, on November 3. Psalm 119 is written in 22 eight-verse stanzas – but only 4 of these stanzas made it into the lectionary.

Psalm 119 meditates on faithful living, a fitting lead-in to the Advent season. A close reading of this Psalm inspires many fruitful questions, including: How does my zeal for God’s law make it difficult for me to extend grace to myself and others? Can God’s law be life-giving and grace-filled? What is God’s intention for the law? How are these intentions fulfilled in Jesus?

Psalm 119: Wonderful Words of Life

1. November 3 – “I do not forget”

On All Saints Day, verses 137-144 give an excellent summary of the life of a saint: one who proclaims God’s righteousness and who delights in God’s word even in times of trouble. A saint may be “small and despised” rather than big and powerful. A saint is not perfect in all things, but still prays to God, “Give me understanding that I may live.”

2. November 10 – “Let me not be put to shame”

Through verses 113-120, we remember the struggle of trying to live according to God’s will for us. We need God’s help every step of the way; God is our hope, our help, our hiding place, and our shield. Sometimes we “tremble for fear” of God when we realize that we are as double minded as those we have despised. Romans 7:7-25 provides a word of grace that speaks directly to our concerns: we cannot keep the law on our own, and so Christ rescues us!

3. November 17 – “It is time for the Lord to act!”

In verses 121-128, the psalmist expresses frustration: “My eyes fail from watching for your salvation.” (v. 123) If you continue through verse 136, the reading closes with the words, “My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept.” We, like the psalmist, can be impatient for God to act. Jesus acknowledges and directs this desire through the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . .” Can we find ways to wait that are both patient with God and impatient with injustice?

4. November 24 – “How sweet are your words”

On Christ the King Sunday, we meditate on the question: “What kind of King is the Messiah Jesus?” Verses 97-104 begin with the words, “Oh, how I love your law!” But doesn’t Jesus make the law unnecessary? On the contrary, in Matthew 5:17, Jesus tells us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” John calls Jesus “The Word” – and the law too is called “The Word of God.” Jesus is the living embodiment of the law and demonstrates the life-giving freedom of ordering life according to God’s will.

Honoring the Old Testament

I hope that, as you consider preparing one or more sermon series over the coming year, you will take advantage of some of the many little-read Old Testament texts. However you decide to incorporate the Old Testament into your preaching, whether as a focal point or an accent, remember that your congregation learns how to think about and interpret the Bible both through the scriptures you preach about as well as those you never read in worship at all.

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