Sermon series like the Acts series—outside the box of the lectionary, building on and sharing the preacher’s own studies, rooted in Scripture, and directed to the mission of growing and sending disciples of Jesus Christ—are most obviously and easily inserted into Ordinary Time, the long season between Pentecost and Advent.  In the Northern Hemisphere, Ordinary Time mostly occurs during the summer and fall.  These are natural seasons to explore biblical narratives or themes outside of the RCL.  During the summer of 2009 (Year B), for example, we spent 8 weeks exploring the Ten Commandments—again, building on what I had learned in a Doctor of Ministry course.  The series allowed us to explore some challenging texts and gain a big picture view of the Ten Commandments as Law and Gospel for us.  It is similar with the Revelation Lectionary Mod, which expanded an existing lectionary series on either side of Pentecost in Year C.

It is not always as simple to preach outside the box of the RCL during the “incarnational and paschal cycles,” when the Gospel readings focus on telling the story of Jesus the Christ from birth, to the cross, the resurrection, and the beginning of the church at Pentecost.[1] While one would not wish to discard the yearly retelling of Jesus’ story, one can remain open to preaching different texts, including Gospel texts, during Extraordinary Time.  As an example, consider the Gospel readings during the four Sunday season of Advent before Christmas.  Each year of the RCL cycle, on the first Sunday of Advent, one reads one of the apocalyptic visions of the coming of the Son of Man; on the second and third Sundays, one always reads Gospel texts focusing on John the Baptist and his message (John also comes up each January on Baptism Sunday); on the fourth Sunday, one reads one of the Gospel texts of the angelic messages to Mary and Joseph about Jesus’ Nativity, and their response to that message.  Each of those Advent Gospel texts is important, and worth preaching; each of those texts relates to the Advent season’s focus on the coming of Christ, especially Christ’s parousia for the first three Sundays.   However, must the Gospel readings (and their related readings) have the same focus every Advent season, year after year?  Does the congregation need two weeks of John the Baptist every December, and once again each January?

Of course, one may preach on one of the other appointed texts; but the question of congregational context arises every Advent season.  The biblical theme of Christ’s Advent is important, and needs to be a part of our biblical preaching every year (in fact, Apocalyptic texts such as the Revelation to John deserve more attention than the RCL gives them).  But the reality of our congregational context is that, first, our culture is ‘doing’ Christmas during the Advent season; second, our younger families and their children attend worship regularly up to and including Christmas Eve; third, we have a long, effective tradition of a children’s Christmas program in the middle of December; and fourth, for the two Sundays after Christmas, many of our younger families, often including the pastor and the pastor’s family, are out of town visiting with their extended families.

One sometimes hears of countercultural or liturgically correct congregations that focus purely on Christ’s Advent, or Second Coming, during the Advent season, and won’t sing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve.  How effective is that?  How many of their congregation’s children are in worship during the Sundays of Christmas to learn the Christmas carols and the meaning of Christmas?  If the congregation has a children’s Christmas program, do they wait until the official Christmas season to stage it, or does it fall discordantly in the midst of an apocalyptic Advent season?  How effective (and attractive) is it to focus on the Second Coming in December, year after year, when our culture is focusing on Christmas, and then to focus on Christmas when the younger half of our congregation—and others—are often absent?  Have they transformed their community’s culture, so that their younger families are in church for the Sundays after Christmas?  In short, is it working?  In a desire to be countercultural or liturgically correct, to what extent does the church leave it to the consumer culture to define the meaning of Christmas for children and families, and risk losing those younger families to congregations whose worship schedules fit the rhythm of their lives?

As each Advent season approached, I grew dissatisfied with the disconnect between the images and carols of Christmas during December on the one hand (including, for example, classical public radio stations), and the predictably apocalyptic Gospel lessons on the other hand.  As an alternative set of Gospel readings for Year C (the year of Luke) of Advent, I developed an (in retrospect) obvious four week series on chapter 1 of Luke.  This important, unique Gospel chapter is not included in full or in sequence in the RCL: the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah in vv. 5-25 is not in the lectionary at all, while Zechariah’s prophecy in vv. 68-79 is included as a Psalm on the Second Sunday of Advent, without the narrative context in which it is spoken.  We walked through the narrative in four sequential steps: Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah, Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and her song, and the birth of John and Zechariah’s song—all leading up to and grounding in its biblical context the Christmas story from Luke 2, which is read on Christmas Eve.[2]

After developing this simple series, I have found that other pastors[3] have preached similar series on Luke 1 during Advent; I was certainly not the first.  This series may not be liturgically or ‘lection-ally’ correct, but it is a good way to deepen the congregation’s understanding of the Christmas story; it sets the stage for the Gospel of Luke at the beginning of Luke’s lectionary year by walking the congregation through the seminal and unique first chapter, which grounds the Gospel of Luke (and its sequel Acts) in the Old Testament narrative of God’s promises for Israel; and one still gets to have John the Baptist (at least as an infant) during Advent.

For Advent in Year A, I planned a four week series moving through the first two chapters of Matthew.  As in Year C and Luke, this was a good introduction both to Matthew at the beginning of Year A, the Year of Matthew, as well as a good way to ground the congregation’s knowledge of the Christmas story more firmly in the Gospel narrative.  A downside to this arrangement is that it repeats the Gospel for the First Sunday after Christmas, which is focused on Matthew 2:13-23, and the Gospel for Epiphany, which is Matthew 2:1-12.  Our solution was to preach the Name of Jesus (for January 1) texts on the First Sunday after Christmas (Gospel reading: Luke 2:15-21).  We read the Baptism of Our Lord texts on the following Sunday (Gospel reading: Matthew 3:13-17).  The upside to this Advent sermon series is that it respects the integrity of the Biblical text and takes the congregation through Matthew’s story of the Nativity in sequence.  It also includes an important pericope that is not included in the lectionary: Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which connects Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the story of the Older Testament—and especially to the four other women included in the genealogy, who are all either Gentiles or “like Mary, had irregular sexual unions but were considered important for God’s plan.”[4] Going through Matthew 1 and 2 in sequence during Advent—a time of high attendance and participation—helped the congregation appreciate the Christmas story better on Christmas Eve, and set the stage for the Year of Matthew.

Advent of Year B, the Year of Mark, is a different case, since the Gospel of Mark does not include a Nativity story, but rather begins (after a one verse introduction: “The beginning of the good news  of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) with John the Baptist and moves quickly into Jesus’ baptism by John.  Year B is, perhaps, the year in which to keep the traditional focus of each Sunday of Advent as described above, especially since the congregation travels through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel during the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons.  While open to the possibility of other sermon series during Advent of Year B, the Year of Mark seems like the appropriate time to start the church year with an Advent text from Mark’s apocalyptic chapter—Mark 13—and with John the Baptist from Mark 1.

If one were to add a Year of John (Year D) in a New Revised Common Lectionary, or substitute a Year of John for a Year of Mark as a major Lectionary Mod (as will be suggested later in this chapter), it would be natural to move through John 1 during Advent: another Advent season with a focus on John the Baptist, alternating with non-Baptist Advents during the Years of Matthew and Luke.

Unlike a Book of Acts series, which could be inserted as the Epistle or First Reading in many different places in the lectionary cycle as a onetime Lectionary Mod (especially, perhaps, at the beginning of the season after Pentecost), these Advent Mods are season specific, and could potentially be reused each lectionary cycle.  For the author, they have become possible Lectionary Mods to keep in the preacher’s toolbox.  As one plans ahead for a Lectionary Mod of Advent, care has to be taken that the themes and texts—and indeed the hymns—of the Advent season are not neglected, but find a place, perhaps in November at the tail end of the previous lectionary year, or in the appropriate place in the year when those Gospel texts may be inserted.

[1] O’Day and Hackett, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, 152.

[2] Charts for all the Advent Series in this section can be found in appendix G.

[3] Such as Bishop Lawrence Wohlrabe.

[4] Dennis Duling, in Wayne Meeks and Jouette Bassler, ed., The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 1859.