The Narrative Lectionary: An Introduction (narrativelectionary.org)
Rolf A. Jacobson is dean of the faculty and the Alvin Rogness Professor of Scripture, Theology, and Ministry at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. With Craig Koester, he developed and supports the Narrative Lectionary. His latest book is Introducing the Old Testament, co-authored with Michael Chan (Baker Academic, 2023).
God has chosen to reveal himself through the biblical text—the heart of which is the story of Israel and the story of Jesus.
A lectionary is a list of biblical passages to be read in Christian worship. Presumably, these passages serve as the basis for the sermon, homily, or meditation, although, having swallowed and survived a lifetime’s dose of Christian sermons, I am aware that this presumption is, well, sketchy. There are three major models for reading Scripture in worship. First, many congregations follow one of the large, public lectionaries such as the Revised Common Lectionary or the Narrative Lectionary (narrativelectionary.org).1 These lectionaries are generally produced by large church structures such as the Committee on Common Texts in the case of the Revised Common Lectionary, or by seminary professors in the case of the Narrative Lectionary.
Second, many congregations use thematic sermon series to choose and group texts together. These series are usually either produced locally by pastors and congregations or originate in large congregations such as Saddleback. These short series are also lectionaries, even though many have not regarded them as such. Third, many preachers will read and preach through one book of the Bible from beginning to end—most often, a New Testament book. This is also a form of a lectionary.
The Narrative Lectionary is one of many lectionaries that organize biblical readings for worship. As I begin an exploration of the particularities of the Narrative Lectionary, I want to be emphatic about one thing: there is not one perfect way for the church to organize the reading of Scripture in worship. Those of us who work with the Narrative Lectionary know that it is not perfect—it isn’t for everyone, everywhere. We also believe that no lectionary can be perfect for everyone, everywhere. Every lectionary makes compromises and choices. It is the nature of the challenge of deciding what parts of Scripture to read every week.
The Narrative Lectionary: A Brief Explanation
On the Working Preacher website, where we publish and support the Narrative Lectionary, we describe it this way:
The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.
The texts show the breadth and variety of voices within Scripture. They invite people to hear the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. Listening to the many different voices within Scripture enriches preaching and the life of faith.2
The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year set of readings that serves the preaching of the Word by setting forth biblical passages in narrative order, with one Gospel as the center during each year. The arrangement is shaped by both the biblical narrative and the liturgical year:
• 14–16 Old Testament readings (the late Pentecost season, from September through the first part of Advent)—each Old Testament reading is accompanied by a Gospel passage from the Gospel of that particular year.
• 20 (or so) Gospel readings from one Gospel each year (from mid Advent, through Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent, until the first part of Easter)—each Gospel reading is accompanied by a psalm reading.
• 6 (or so) readings from Acts and a Pauline letter (Easter through the Day of Pentecost)—each of these readings is accompanied by a Gospel reading.
• Non-narrative readings follow in the Pentecost/Ordinary Time (series include Psalms, Wisdom, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, Hebrews, etc.).
Christian worship does not occur in a cultural vacuum, and neither does the act of reading and preaching the Bible within it. As the (updated) old saying goes, a preacher proclaims the gospel with the Bible open in one tab and a news source open in another. Therefore, designers of lectionaries must pay attention not just to the biblical narrative and the liturgical year, but also to the rhythms of the secular year. The Narrative Lectionary was produced in the United States, with the rhythms of the American “school year” in mind, one that churches have also learned to follow alongside the liturgical year. It gets going in September, when the church program year winds up (late Pentecost), continues throughout the program year, and it winds down around June 1 (the Day of Pentecost).
The Heart of the Narrative Lectionary: One Gospel Annually in Narrative and Liturgical Order
I have been both a preacher and a member of congregations that have followed the Narrative Lectionary. From my own experience, I have concluded that the heart of the Narrative Lectionary is the experience of annually reading passages from one Gospel, in narrative order, aligned with the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Advent, and Lent. I once heard Gail O’Day, who was a John scholar, remark something to the effect that “every year is the year of Luke, because the liturgical calendar was essentially shaped by Luke.” That well-aimed skewer has some truth to it. But consider:
• Each of the Gospels has some sort of introduction, which can be read during Advent.
• Matthew, Luke, and John have versions of the incarnation story, which can be read during the Christmas season.
• All four Gospels are essentially divided into two halves, with the first half telling the story of the manifestation of the Son of God in history—also known as Epiphany. The Transfiguration is the turning point in the Synoptics, so we follow that organization in the Narrative Lectionary.
• The second half of all four Gospels tells the passion story, so each year the Narrative Lectionary follows the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, passion, and death on the cross during Lent and Holy Week. (One exception to the narrative order is the story of the triumphal entry—most congregations want their palms and donkeys.)
• During the Easter season, we read resurrection accounts from the appropriate Gospel, some stories from Acts, and then a few readings from Paul (either Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, or Philippians).
What the Narrative Lectionary does, therefore, is to read through the majority of one Gospel each year in narrative order and in harmony with the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. Building out from there, in the fall season the Narrative Lectionary reads and preaches through the Old Testament each year in hops, skips, and leaps. The Old Testament lessons in the fall are chosen in order to correspond to each Gospel’s interpretation and quotes from the Old Testament. For example, in the year of Luke, in which Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 in his inaugural sermon, Isaiah 61:1–11 is read in Advent. Or again, in the year of Matthew, in which Jesus reinterprets the law in his Sermon on the Mount, the story of Moses giving the law in Exodus 19–20 is read in Pentecost. And so on. (For a full overview of the texts of the Narrative Lectionary, see https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative-faq.)
A Closer Look: The Year of Luke
In order to get a clearer sense of what the Narrative Lectionary is all about, it might be helpful to take a look at the year of Luke, which will next occur 2024–2025. Each year, as the story is told in hops, leaps, and bounds, we have at least one story from the key theological loci of the Old Testament, such as creation, Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, the wilderness experience, the judges, David, Solomon and the temple, the prophetic word, and so on. Note that in the following chart, I am listing only the “preaching text” and not the “accompanying text” for each Sunday.
Week 1: The Pre–history
Genesis 2 & 3—Creation, Adam and Eve, the sinful condition
Creation is essential; God is first creator. Every year, week 1 is from Genesis 1–11; other years we read Genesis 1, the flood, and the tower of Babel.
Week 2: Abraham
Genesis 15—God’s renewed promise to Abraham and Sarah
The Abrahamic covenant is crucial theologically. Every year, week 2 is a story from the Abraham & Sarah cycle.
Week 3: Jacob & Joseph
Genesis 37 & 50—God works through Joseph, even in betrayal.
Stories from Jacob or Joseph’s life occur in week 3.
Week 4: Exodus
Exodus 12—The Passover
In the OT, God is above all the one who redeemed Israel from slavery. Stories from Exodus occur in week 4; other stories are Moses’ call, the name of God, and salvation at the Red Sea.
Week 5: Wilderness
Exodus 32—The golden calf
Other years: stories of God’s gift of manna, the gift of the Law, or the Great Commandment
Week 6: Time of Judges
1 Samuel 1 & 2—Samuel’s birth and Hannah’s song
Other years: call of Samuel, Ruth, and Joshua’s covenant renewal
Week 7: David
2 Samuel 7—The Davidic covenant
The Davidic covenant is essential to understanding Jesus the Christ. Other years: David’s call, David’s great sin with Bathsheba, David moves the ark.
Week 8: Solomon & Divided Kingdom
1 Kings 5— Solomon builds
The temple is also essential theologically, as is the failure of the united kingdom. Other years: the kingdom divides, Solomon’s prayer
Week 9: Elijah and Elisha
1 Kings 17—Elijah and the widow
We also have a story from the Elijah-Elisha cycle, because Elijah is essential for both Christology and Judaism’s theology. This story is chosen because Jesus refers to it in Luke 4.
Week 10: Prophets
Jonah— Jonah and God’s mercy on Nineveh
In other years we read from Micah, Hosea, and Amos. Jonah fits well with Luke because of the discourse on the sign of Jonah in Luke 11.
Week 11: Isaiah
Isaiah 6—The call of Isaiah
The prophet Isaiah may be the prophetic book from a NT perspective. In other years we read Isaiah 5 & 11, 9, and 36–37.
Week 12: Jeremiah or Josiah
Jeremiah 37 & 31—The king burns Jeremiah’s words, and Jeremiah promises a new covenant.
This text of the king burning the scroll occurs on Reign of Christ Sunday. In other years, we read the letter to the exiles (29), the call and temple sermon (1, 7), and the story of Josiah’s reform.
Week 13: Into Exile
Daniel 6—The lion’s den
The exile is the most significant rupture and crisis in the OT story. Other years, the fiery furnace (Dan. 3), Habakkuk, and Jeremiah’s promise of Messiah (33). This is often the Advent 1 lesson.
Week 14: Return from Exile
Joel 2:12–13, 28–29
The return from exile is the most surprising new life moment in the Old Testament. Joel’s promise of the Spirit falling on male and female, slave and free, young and old, is essential. In other years, Ezekiel 37, Esther 4, and Isaiah 40 are read.
Week 15: After the Exile
Isaiah 61—The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
Jesus quotes these words in his inaugural sermon. In other years, Isaiah 42 (servant), 55 (the Word), and Ezra 1 (temple rebuilt) are read.
Week 16: Preparing for Messiah
Luke 1: Annunciation and Magnificat
In Advent, we turn now to the Gospel of Luke.
Christmas Season: Early Life of Jesus
Luke 2a (Birth)
Luke 2b (Shepherds)
Luke 2c (Simeon and Anna)
Luke 2d (Jesus is 12 in the temple.)
The Christmas season varies in length, but these four key stories are read.
Epiphany Season: The Revelation of the Son of God in History
1: Jesus is baptized. (Luke 3)
2: Inaugural sermon (Luke 4)
3: Catch of fish, call of Peter (Luke 5)
4: Jesus is lord of the Sabbath. (Luke 6)
5: Healing of centurion’s son; widow of Nain’s son is raised. (Luke 7a)
6: Tell John what you see. (Luke 7b)
7: Sinful woman weeps and is forgiven. (Luke 7c)
8: Jesus’ true family (Luke 8)
The key point here is that these stories are read in canonical order, matching the season of Epiphany with the first half of Luke’s Gospel. Hearing the stories preached on in order and in a fitting liturgical season has a different and powerful impact.
Lenten Season: Jesus Turns His Face to Jerusalem
Ash Wednesday: Jesus turns toward Jerusalem; don’t turn back. (Luke 9)
1: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10)
2: Tower of Siloam and lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13)
3: Lost sheep, coin, son (Luke 15)
4: Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16)
5: Healing of the blind man; Zacchaeus repents (Luke 18–19)
Palm Sunday: Entry to Jerusalem (Luke 19)
Maundy Thursday: Last Supper (Luke 22)
Good Friday: Trial and Crucifixion
Again, a key is to hear these stories in canonical order in a fitting season. In Luke, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem—the city looms over the story until Jesus arrives. In other years, it makes a major difference to hear stories such as “no one knows the hour so keep awake” (Mark 13) immediately prior to the passion rather than in November before Christ the King.
1. Empty tomb
2: Emmaus road
3: Controversy over the care of widows, Stephen is martyred. (Acts 6–7)
4: Ethiopian eunuch is baptized. (Acts 8)
5: Council of Jerusalem; faith gives Christian identity. (Acts 15)
6: Conflict between Peter and Paul (Gal. 1, 2)
7: Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3)
Pentecost: Story of Pentecost and God pours out the Spirit; fruits of Spirit (Acts 2; Gal 4–5)
In Easter, we read resurrection accounts. Then move to the story of the early church and move to one of the letters of Paul that fits with the sections of Acts we have read.
Note that we have to make compromises. When you read through an entire Gospel in around twenty weeks, you cannot include everything, and sometimes the readings include two or three stories or parables (such as all of Luke 15 in one day). We do not read every miracle every year. We read the parable of the Sower in the year of Mark, and we read the story of the cleansing of the temple in the year of John. Stories that only appear in one Gospel—such as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or Zacchaeus in Luke or the Beatitudes in the year of Matthew—we read in the year of that Gospel. Again, compromises have to be made in any lectionary. A strength of the Narrative Lectionary is the readings in the Advent season. In Advent, it has never made sense to us to have the adult John the Baptist announcing that the adult Christ is coming—only then to have the Christ born as an infant. The Narrative Lectionary prioritizes prophetic texts in Advent that promise that the Christ will come and that the Spirit will be poured out.
One unique aspect of the Narrative Lectionary is that we include some key stories that other lectionaries, specifically, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), do not include. For instance, though the RCL does include the story of the woman anointing Jesus at Bethany as part of a longer text on Palm/Passion Sunday, in the year of Mark we highlight this story specifically. Though the RCL leaves out the story of Josiah’s reformation (2 Kings 22–23), we include it. There are more.
How the Narrative Lectionary Began
The creation of the Narrative Lectionary was an accident. Maybe that is how the Holy Spirit best works, through accidents. We did not sit down and plan the Narrative Lectionary from scratch. It happened because of a holy invitation, a dare, really, that grew out of a pedagogical adventure.
My now-retired colleague Craig Koester used to teach one of the most popular courses at Luther Seminary, “Genesis to Revelation.” The course was a week-long, intensive event. A romp through the biblical story with singing, reading, drama, movement, and noise. Lots of noise! Craig developed the course as a year-long, adult Sunday school class—from Genesis in September to Revelation in June. He taught it in three congregations and brought it into our curriculum. I asked him, “Did any of the preachers in the congregations where you taught this course also preach through the Bible at the same time?” He said, “No, I invited the pastors of the second and third congregations to do so but they declined.”
In May 2010, I was teaching a group of leaders in northern Minnesota about biblical fluency. At one point in a fairly long lecture, I told the story of the above conversation with Craig and said, “Why wouldn’t someone try that?”
After the session, Pastor Daniel Smith approached me and said, “I talked the leaders of twelve congregations into trying it. What’s next?” I said, “Trying what?” (After all, it was a long lecture and I had covered more than a few subjects.) He replied, “Preach through the Bible from September through June. What’s next?” I went back to the Seminary and told Craig I had gotten him entangled in an experimental lectionary. He signed on. We came up with the Year of John and went to work supporting the work.
By the time we started in September, we had forty congregations on board for this holy experiment. I thought everyone would quit before Thanksgiving. Instead, the experiment grew throughout the year.
We support the Narrative Lectionary with podcasts and commentaries at Workingpreacher.org. There are also partners who produce liturgical support materials and Sunday school materials.
Why the Narrative Lectionary? An Intervention for Biblical Fluency (It’s Not for Everyone)
So why would a congregation or preacher adopt the Narrative Lectionary? Before I answer that question, let me say that it is not for everyone everywhere. The Narrative Lectionary is designed to be an intervention in a system that has created a lack of biblical fluency.
When we created the Narrative Lectionary, we were in part responding to the concern that the RCL tries to do too much with too many texts, and that it does so in a very random fashion that creates a lack of biblical fluency. Every week, the RCL includes three texts: one from the Old Testament, New Testament, and a Gospel, plus a psalm. Though the Committee on Common Texts that produced the RCL may intend for the psalm to be used as a responsorial or sung text, it is often included as a fourth text in practice. Having a Ph.D. in Bible helps when following four texts at the same time. But we found in our research at Luther Seminary fifteen years ago that it can be difficult for those in the pews to follow all four texts at once, unless they have taken an in-depth Bible course such as Crossways or Bible Study Fellowship. This is especially so because the Old Testament texts and, often, the New Testament texts, are out of canonical order, chosen to accent the Gospel reading. Often, texts are connected to one another based upon common motifs. There may be a widow or a mountain in both the Gospel and the Old Testament reading, for example. This matter is made more confusing because most preachers choose whichever of the four readings speaks most to them that week—the Gospel this week, the Old Testament the next, and so on. In the Narrative Lectionary, one preaching text is assigned ahead of time—the preacher and her listeners know what the text will be.
God has chosen to reveal himself through the biblical text—the heart of which is the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. Through those stories, God is not only revealed—those stories literally bear God and deliver God’s grace to broken people who need God. We believe that knowing the overall story of the Bible helps people receive God grace. One who knows the overall story well is more likely to receive the God whose very person and grace are borne on any one story as it is preached.
Shortly before he died, an old saint asked me what the Narrative Lectionary was. He had been in worship almost every Sunday his entire life. He was over seventy. I asked him, “Do you know the biblical story?” He said, “I know all of the major stories and people—Jesus, Moses, David, Abraham, Mary—but I don’t know the order. I don’t know who came before whom.”
The Narrative Lectionary organizes the reading of Scripture in worship so that preachers preach on texts in narrative order. We believe that mature Christians know the overarching story of the Bible so that when they hear a text, they can locate it in the biblical story and apply it to life.
Criticisms of the Narrative Lectionary
No lectionary is perfect. The Narrative Lectionary is not perfect. It is a series of choices and compromises. There are criticisms of the Narrative Lectionary.
It is anti-ecumenical. One criticism of the Narrative Lectionary is that it is anti-ecumenical, because it undermines the ecumenical purpose of the RCL—to get as many church bodies as possible around the world reading common texts on Sundays. One of my colleagues went so far as to say that the Narrative Lectionary is an attack on the church catholic. This is a fair criticism. But we believe this boat has sailed anyway. The many options presented as part of the RCL, especially in the choice to follow the Catholic or semicontinuous tracks, weaken the “common” part of the RCL because there are different lanes, and many congregations do not read four texts each Sunday anyway. We believe there are far more important ways of being ecumenical than following a common lectionary. We do not intend to be anti-ecumenical. In fact, the congregations that are following the Narrative Lectionary come from many ecumenical traditions. But this is fair to a point. Many congregations will go through the Narrative Lectionary as a corrective to establish a base of biblical literacy and then return to the RCL.
It is not narrative enough. Some congregations and preachers have found that the Narrative Lectionary takes too many hops, skips, and leaps in the Old Testament. They have experimented with having longer narrative series in September through November, such as reading all of the key stories in a book such as Genesis or Exodus. They ask, why have Genesis 1 (creation in seven days), Genesis 2 (Adam and Eve created), Genesis 2–3 (fall into sin), and Genesis 6–9 (the great flood) in four separate years? Why not read them back-to-back in one year? We like the creativity and are eager to learn from those who are experimenting in this way.
It expects regular worship attendance. Another criticism of the Narrative Lectionary is that it expects people to attend worship every Sunday in order to follow the large narrative arc of the Bible, and some “active members” only come once or twice a month. Two responses. First, those who don’t attend regularly can still listen to your online sermon archive to fill in gaps. And they will have just as much of a chance to be fed by any one story in the Narrative Lectionary as they would in the RCL. The Narrative Lectionary might even give them a reason to be more regular. Second, part of preaching the Narrative Lectionary is to fill in the narrative gaps when the story makes a great leap. Preachers have to provide that sort of context for any text they preach.
It is an educational lecture series, not a lectionary. One of my colleagues has complained to me that the Narrative Lectionary is a “lecture series, not a lectionary.” Since a lectionary is any set of texts to be read in worship, I’ve never understood this criticism. But it has been taken up in print and on the web by some folks.3 One critic, Benjamin Leese, argues that the main purpose of the Narrative Lectionary is educational rather than homiletical: that “the preacher should educate his or her audience.” He is kind enough to say that in the Narrative Lectionary,
the assumption and hope is that [the congregation] will be able to find themselves in the Bible story or discern what God is doing today. Folks may then find in Jesus Christ the fulfillment of God’s relationship with the world and enter into a fuller relationship with him. Some may argue that the NL pattern of proclamation helps hearers to discover what God is up to in their lives and in the world, but without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the central event, hearers could miss the heart of the Christian story.
On the other hand, the RCL exists for preaching rather than teaching, and the proclamation that flows from its use is more likely to be centered on the Gospel message rather than on Bible literacy. Preaching is not teaching; preaching is about justification, especially when seen from a Lutheran perspective. The preacher preaches in order that God, through the preacher’s words, might justify sinners. Preaching is Law and Gospel. Preaching is accusation and promise. Preaching is about God’s great gift to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The RCL serves this purpose well. . . .4
I appreciate Leese’s generosity towards the Narrative Lectionary, but he is simply mistaken about the purpose of the lectionary. The purpose is to organize texts so that the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in law and gospel, command and promise, death and resurrection, in order to justify sinners.
Leese goes on to argue that the Narrative Lectionary assumes “that all Scripture is knowable and understandable independent of the lens of Jesus’s death and resurrection.” I find this to be an implication, an assumption that is not consistent with anything we have done. He also makes the accusation that the autumn focus on the Old Testament preaching texts “creates the potential for worship in which Jesus is not necessary.”5 A reminder that in the fall, every Old Testament preaching text has an accompanying Gospel text whose purpose is hermeneutical—that the Old Testament story is seen through the lens of the life and death of Jesus Christ. And the readings and sermon are surrounded by Trinitarian and christological experiences throughout the liturgical worship service, from the apostolic greeting, through the hymns and liturgical singing, through Creed, through the Lord’s Prayer and Lord’s Supper, and to the Benediction. The text and sermon are surrounded by Christ’s Word. That word is a christological manger in which the lectionary texts are laid. I very much appreciate Leese’s thoughtful criticisms, and I greatly support his vision of evangelical preaching. But I do not find his criticism of the Narrative Lectionary to be substantively correct.
It is too North American. The Narrative Lectionary has been criticized as too North American/European, since it runs September through June. This is a fair critique. We have partners throughout the world who have made it work for them. But it is a contextual lectionary, and its original context is North American. It is fair, though, to note two things. First, the church year was born in the Northern Hemisphere, with the commemoration of the Advent of the Light of the World during the darkest month of the year and commemoration of the resurrection during spring, when new life sprouts. Second, the Old Testament new year (Jewish Rosh Hashanah) is in the fall—September or October. So the Narrative Lectionary does align with the Old Testament sense of when the new year begins.
Join the Experiment
For those who are interested in joining the experiment, the Narrative Lectionary is posted at and supported by Workingpreacher.org. There are weekly commentaries and podcasts. There are Facebook groups and supporting ministries. I have been a pastor (and thus a preacher) for two years at a congregation that followed the Narrative Lectionary, and I have been a member for many years at a congregation that uses it. It is one imperfect option among many imperfect options for a lectionary. We welcome any preachers and congregations to adopt this holy experiment—for a year, for four years, or longer.
1. The Narrative Lectionary website redirects to workingpreacher.org/home-narrative-lectionary; it is a ministry of Luther Seminary, St Paul, MN.
3. See Richard O. Johnson, “The Case for the Lectionary,” Forum Letter 48, no. 8 (2019): 1–6. Benjamin E. Leese, “Missing the Word and in the Words,” Cresset 80,
no. 3 (2017): 42–45.
4. Leese, 42–3.
5. Leese, 45.