The High Cost of Holiday Sermons, Part 2

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In Part 1, we considered the math behind holiday sermons to recognize that there is a high numerical cost to the practice. The numbers don't lie. An average of six holiday sermons over thirty years of preaching could instead have been used to preach through ten New Testament epistles! Thus, those who preach holiday sermons while insisting that they have no time for sequential exposition are, quite frankly, not fooling anyone with a calculator. Today, we''ll consider the practice from a historical perspective to recognize that the fundamental problem has deep roots. Those with a history book aren't fooled either.

Back to Rome: Lectio Selecta

In a strange irony, Protestant pastors who devise their sermons based on the calendar have unwittingly returned to a Roman Catholic practice. Yet, that should not be surprising. The moment verse-by-verse preaching is discarded, anything goes. And that "anything" is usually not very creative. New ideas are often old errors.

In the sixteenth century (the time of the Protestant Reformation), the corporate worship service of the Roman Catholic Church included the public reading of Scripture, but rather than moving verse by verse in sequence through the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church continued its long-held tradition of lectio selecta. This Latin phrase, meaning “selected readings,” was instituted in the sixth century and meant that the particular passage to be read during each Catholic Mass was to coincide with the liturgical calendar. In other words, various passages selected from across the Bible were to be read in accordance with the religious holidays on the calendar such as Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas.[1] And, as with any tradition instituted by the Roman Catholic Church, this became normative for their church life. Thus, by the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church was well established in the process of simply reading whichever verse was selected for that part of the year as found in their lectionary (the book containing the selected passages).

The Reformers, as they sought to correct the errors within the Roman Catholic Church, recognized the flaw inherent to the lectio selecta method: by only reading and teaching through passages of the Bible that were selected, there would always be passages omitted. In addition, they recognized that hand-picking texts from across the Bible would undoubtedly lead to an emphasis on the congregation’s “felt needs,” as opposed to their real needs.[2] As one might expect, this was unacceptable to the Reformers, who properly understood that the entire Bible was important and useful, rather than just particular verses. Looking to Scripture for guidance, the Reformers corrected the practice by instituting lectio continua (Latin for "continuous readings"). Men like John Calvin were dogmatically committed to preaching the Word verse by verse, not holiday by holiday.

And it was the Scottish Reformer John Knox who said,

We think it most expedient that the Scriptures be read in order, that is, that some one book of the Old and the New Testament be begun and orderly read to the end. And the same we judge of preaching, where the minister for the most part remaineth in one place; for this skipping and divagation from place to place, be it in reading, be it in preaching, we judge not so profitable to edify the Church, as the continual following of one text.[3]

Holiday sermons sound like a great idea to those who have not counted the cost, nor studied church history. New ideas are often old errors.

Men like John Calvin were dogmatically committed to preaching the Word verse by verse, not holiday by holiday.

The Better Question

So is a pastor in sin if he preaches a sermon specific to a particular holiday? That's the wrong question. After all, believers are more than welcome to study God's Word in additional ways outside of the regular church assembly, whether that's through a group Bible study, a Sunday school class, a counseling session, or any number of other ways (cf. Acts 17:11). And since believers have the freedom to esteem one day over another (cf. Rom. 14:5), they are likewise free to study God's Word as it relates to particular days. For example, a pastor is more than welcome to add a sunrise service to the schedule of events on Easter Sunday if he wants to preach a message specifically concerning the empty tomb—provided he safeguards the occasion from Roman Catholic overtones.

The better question is this: when a pastor stands before God to give an account for his ministry, will Mother's Day be a valid excuse for why he failed to preach the full counsel of God? That question is easy to answer—just do the math.


References:

[1] Consultation On Common Texts, ed., Revised Common Lectionary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2012), x-xi.

[2] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 65.

[3] William M. Taylor, John Knox (New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1885), 151.