I am a pastor in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Most pastors in my tradition don’t choose the biblical text from which we will preach each week; we use a lectionary, a calendar of texts.
Some use the Narrative Lectionary which has us reading through the story of God and God’s people…as a story. It has longer passages each week, and you pick up next week where you left off today, so you get a sense of the narrative of God’s action in the world. The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. When you reach the end of it – start again! It’s been four years, and God has something new to say and new people who are listening.
Most use the Revised Common Lectionary which has us reading (mostly) through one of the gospels – and a few other texts from various parts of the Bible which work to help us better understand the gospel reading for that day. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings.
Year A, we read through the Gospel According to Matthew – and some coordinated readings.
Year B, we read through the Gospel According to Mark – and other readings.
Year C, we read through the Gospel According to Luke – and other readings.
And St. John’s gospel gets lots of focus sprinkled throughout in all three years.
And some pastors in our tradition create their own lectionaries. For example, I once attended a church where we used the Gospel According to Luke all year, we didn’t insert any of St. John’s gospel where the RCL does. Other pastors do sermon series preaching and various other patterns for proclaiming who God is and what God has done in Jesus.
That’s a very long way to get to this: I use the Revised Common Lectionary. I mean I really use it. I have only been a pastor for 4 years, so I am not tired of the three-year cycle of readings, and I have a gut feeling that I should not be the person choosing the text for the week. So, I really do like using the RCL. I nearly never stray from it.
We are smack dab in the middle of St. Matthew’s gospel. We are in chapter 13 right now, and Jesus has a lot to say to the Pharisees who are furious that he is healing on the Sabbath and such. He uses lots of language about punishment and the fiery furnace and people gnashing their teeth in agony and suffering. It’s hard to hear. I know that we are sinful, and God is righteous. I know the wages of sin really are death, but sometimes in the middle of this gospel, I feel a bit desperate.
This week, the focus for our Wednesday evening time of worship and study is Christmas. We have something called Chrismons, symbols of Christ which hang like ornaments on a tree. This week, we’ll study the meanings of them, where those meanings are found in scripture, and how to make one. We will surely sing some Christmas hymns and tell the Christmas story.
As I sat to do some preparation for Wednesday evening, remembering the meaning of all the symbols, looking up some of Jesus’ names in scripture, and thumbing through the hymnal to choose a few Christmas hymns, I felt relaxed. As I sang through a few verses, I noticed that gentle feeling of familiarity settling around me. One of the joys of Christmas is hearing the first few notes of a hymns and thinking, “Oh, I love this one!”
It felt so different from last Sunday morning when I read from the pulpit that all evildoers will be collected and thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The poetry of Christmas hymns works to wrap words around the mystery of the ways God loves the world. And while St. Matthew certainly reveals God’s love to us in the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – it’s sometimes a hard road following Jesus around Galilee.
So, this lectionary preacher decided that we will tell the Christmas story this Sunday in worship (for not all our folks come out for the mid-week classes). And, maybe since I never change the lectionary texts, I came here to write about it and process it, making sure it’s a good idea.
I guess Spirit is telling me in many and varied ways that it is always good to tell the story of God’s choice to “move into the neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson puts it. Surely, we need always to keep in focus the miracle and mystery of the choices God makes to be in relationship with us. The story of God’s birth is one of those choices.
In the midst of the language of punishment and gnashing of teeth, can you imagine Love growing in Mary’s womb in order to be born into this world ~ in order to teach us about Love? I think we need to imagine it again – in the middle of our journey through St. Matthew’s gospel. We need to peer into the manger to see the gentle way Love shows up.
Now, please join me in turning to hymn #283, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.
After we sing, please wash your hands and come to the table where sugar cookies and icing is ready for you to make creative and delicious symbols of God’s love. (Now, you bigger ones be sure to help the littler ones among us.)