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This is a simple question with a multi-layered answer.

The start point is the adage on any homiletics (or preaching) course:

What do these people need to hear from this passage on this day?

Sounds easy enough. But let’s search more deeply.

What passage for this day?

That is known as a sermon series and there are several answers to that question. The easy solution is to take the off the shelf set of readings. This is known as the Lectionary (there are several versions but the one used by the church is the Revised Common Lectionary and is used by many denominations around the world). This is a set of readings across the whole year , providing Morning and Evening Prayer and a Eucharist (communion) set 365 days a year. It largely follows a set of psalms, an Old Testament book and a New Testament book through daily readings UNLESS it’s a Saints day or a seasonal variation (such as Christmas and Easter and Remembrance).

The Lectionary is designed to cover the whole Bible over a three year cycle. New Testament readings and Psalms inevitably get repeated but the system works if you are looking for a ready source of Bible coverage. Except when it doesn’t! The Lectionary often leaves out passages such as geneologies and, ooh, hard bits. Dark prophecies and killings often get left out. It is easy to solve by reading those bits anyway!

While there is a seasonality to the Lectionary and attempt to find common theme between the chosen readings (must be a fascinating committee, sitting in a darkened room matching verses) but the cyclical nature of it means that it is not always possible.

Following the Lectionary is a default position that means one is preaching on the same passage as much of the rest of the church. And as we often find out, at Midweek Communion or Morning Prayer, God speaks very loudly through Lectionary readings and the refrains and Collects and other assembled prayers that go with them in the jumble of liturgy known to the Church of England as Common Worship (2000).

The official prayer book of the Church of England is of course the Book of Common Prayer (1662) – it has a completely different Lectionary. So, one has a choice of Lectionary to follow…off the shelf.

To go Off Lectionary means to do something different to much of the rest of the church. The reason would be a desire to respond to God’s promptings to preach through certain passages in an alternative sermon series (or multiple series). The easy one is to choose a book and break it into digestible chunks and assign them to each Sunday, perhaps with a title for each week to guide where the book might take us. Sometimes the Spirit has other ideas and the topic title chosen several weeks or months ago does not become the focus on that day. Sometimes a preacher will use a shorter or longer version of the passage because it captures the point more clearly. Our most recent example of this is 1 and 2 Timothy which took us through October last year to January this year.

Another option is a theme throughout a book. Last year we looked at Luke’s Distinctive Gospel – the bits that we only find in Luke, not in the others. Our post Easter series is on the Kingdom in Matthew. This means that some discernment is required to choose which bits to preach on and which bits to leave out. Once we have a series of readings and themes they then need to be fitted onto the preaching calendar allowing for seasonal breaks such as Mothering Sunday, Harvest, Remembrance and Christmas and Easter.

An Off Lectionary sermon series can take a long time. At St Peter’s we followed all of Johns Gospel and it took a whole year. It is said that a famous Baptist preacher covered all of Romans – it only took him three years!

This means that the passage and the sermon for “this day” may have been chosen (inspired!?) months  previously. But the Lord uses all of this process often in wonderous ways. I remember one series in the previous church on Old Testament readings. One week came and I had no recollection of choosing an obscure passage from one of the minor prophets nor any inkling about the reason to choose it. It spoke directly into what was happening that week and gave a powerful message. He knows the beginning from the end. Praise the Lord!

The last type of series is a thematic one where passages from a range of books is chosen. We did a series a couple of years ago called “Would that all were prophets”. Following Moses’ words in Numbers 11:29 we explored a series of Old Testament prophets by looking at what they said and the context within which they were speaking the Word of the Lord.

The most recent series on Living in Love and Faith is an example of a Thematic series. Other examples are when we had Mission Partner Sundays we asked the visiting preacher to choose a passage which is relevant to their mission or experience. Racial Justice Sunday and Black History Sunday plus the seasons all have readings relevant to that theme. We could probably mark a different cause or theme every Sunday if we wished (eg Creationtide, Christian Aid Week, Seaman’s Mission Sunday, CAP Sunday. Open Doors Sunday etc etc – yes really!...the list is endless).

The next layer is what to actually say! On a particular day we have a passage but not in a vacuum. Karl Barth was a very influential German theologian of the early 20th Century. He is reported to have said that “We preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other”. Teaching the bible is good. Greek and Hebrew words help with interpretation of the original intention. But preaching is more than that. It is proclamation of Good News, revelation of God and his nature and it is helpful to apply that to real lives and that might either be “comfortable words” or “hard teachings”. They all come from the same source and are equally valid.

Paul was very clear that he wanted his hearers to hear God through him. “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:2-5). This is the essence of preaching, God’s Spirit working through us to speak His words to this people on this day, what He knows we need to hear (and that includes the preacher). For whatever the preacher preaches he or she preaches also to himself. Its said that a pointing finger means that three are pointing back!

Please pray for your preachers!!

Prayers are helpful, but there is more that all can do. That is to be the conscience of the church as well as the source of sermon illustrations.

Let me explain.
Paul wrote that we are a body of Christ with many parts that work together. Peter reiterated that we are a priesthood of all believers and therefore all may both approach God and do his work.

That means that all who listen to God can be the conduit for his message to the church. The more that a congregation share encouragements, good news stories as well as convictions of injustice and calls to the church to speak out, the richer the resources of the preacher to build up the congregation.

In that way our antennae and our action will be so much more effective rather than the single point of failure known as the pastor!

Is that you? If you have real life examples that will build up, share them. If the Lord has convicted you of an injustice on which the church could speak out, share that! We may not include everything that is shared in a sermon, but it is only by the ear of the body linking to the mouth of the body that the body may speak out. We are called to transform unjust systems and to nurture and make new disciples, as a body (5 marks of mission).

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Looking forward to hearing your stories and convictions.