The Common Good
January 2012

The Freedom to Choose Life

by Enuma Okoro | January 2012

Reflections on the Common Lectionary.

There is so much life for us to enter into now that Christ is born. Our baptism into the life of Christ means that we inhabit a world of new beginnings. God is always seeking to communicate with us. Discernment is an essential part of hearing and receiving God’s words. The voice of God is full of power, but God does not force God’s self upon us. Rather we have to decide how we use the freedom God offers us. The triune God, who created order from chaos in the beginning, still desires to form us, to overturn our understanding of freedom and order.

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We cannot escape God’s knowledge of us. This is cause for both thanksgiving and awesome trembling. It’s also an invitation to seek to know God as intimately as we are known by God. The basis of knowing God is love. As we grow in our ability to love God, our capacity for learning how to love others also expands. The Holy Spirit helps us recognize the communal nature of God’s love and call. How we live our lives affects those around us. The degree to which we seek to know and love one another is the degree to which we will understand this truth. The chaos in our world seems to call forth self-appointed prophets proclaiming doomsday and telling us “the time is at hand.” The specific prophecies might be wrong, but it is true that the time’s at hand. It is always the time to turn and freely choose new life in Christ.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

[ January 1 ]
Is That It?
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148;
Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

It’s a bit anti-climatic, isn’t it? The day after Christmas always is. We spend weeks preparing and anticipating that Christmas is all we’ve cracked it up to be. Sometimes the entire family does get along for that one day, and it’s beautiful. Sometimes we get what we hoped for and we even manage to give the right gifts. But then this odd thing happens. That for which we longed, secretly or openly, soon begins to lose its desired effect on us. After a few days, the new dress is not as perfect as we remembered it. In the days after Christmas, we begin to feel unsatisfied again.

These readings speak with conviction and promise into the still-hollow spaces of our lives. The Christ child is born—but that is not the end of the story. Like those whom the prophet addresses in Isaiah 61, we too continue to wait in hope for the full redemption of God. We can rejoice in hope in the Incarnation because we too are offered a new covering. Life in Christ is our garment of salvation. It may seem like nothing lasting has happened at Christmas because of how much we still struggle to live as though what Simeon and Anna proclaimed makes a difference to us: “A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

These faithful elders, Anna and Simeon, take us back to Isaiah, to the faith of those who waited. They also point us toward the fullness of God’s work. We do not wait in vain. Nor do we hunger in vain. Christmas actually does matter, beyond what we might imagine. If we let it, our relationship with Christ changes everything.

[ January 8 ]
Order Out of Chaos
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29;
Acts 19:1-7;
Mark 1:4-11

There is a sense in which our baptism in Christ is making divine order out of the chaos of our lives. Like the Spirit hovering over creation in Genesis 1, the baptism by the Holy Spirit creates new life where there had been darkness, where there had been separation from God. The Genesis creation story is so powerful and beautiful because it reminds us of God’s ability and desire to create—and to continue creating. God is a God of life, light, and new beginnings. God holds immeasurable power in God’s voice alone, as the psalmist proclaims (Psalm 29). If the word of God alone can effect new creation, imagine what the entire being of God, the God who becomes incarnate in Christ Jesus, might do with that creation.

God invites us deeper into the sacred narrative. Part of that story includes recognizing the ways in which God continues to communicate with us. In the Incarnation, we have a God who chooses to communicate as our brother, fellow sojourner, and resurrected savior. In baptism, such as that which Jesus receives in Mark 1:4-11, we have a God who chooses to communicate by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If we welcome God’s communion with us, then it makes a deeper call on  our vocations as disciples and witnesses to God’s reign. The Israelites recalled God’s ways and words during the exilic and post-exilic periods. The Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’ time could look at Jesus and accept the invitation to live differently, regardless of what they saw and experienced under Roman rule. It has to be the same for us today. For Christ to create order out of the chaos of our lives, then our baptism, our recognition of the power of the Holy Spirit, has to make a difference in how we live day by day (Acts 19:1-7).

[ January 15 ]
Formed in Freedom
1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18;
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

It takes two to tango. It’s not any different when our partner happens to be the God of creation. These scriptures speak to the relationship that exists between us and God. Whether we like it or not, God fully knows us—each one, and collectively. According to the psalmist, God knew us before we were born (Psalm 139). There is nowhere we can hide from God. This should give us comfort and evoke our praise of God as it did Nathanael’s in John 1. But it’s no surprise if it also causes us a little panic. Eli probably experienced a little panic himself when God told Samuel how much God knew about the actions of Eli’s sons and Eli’s passive role in it (1 Samuel 3:1-20). God knows us through and through and yet, in Christ, God does not force us to seek to know God back. It is always an invitation and an inexhaustible one to be sure. This is the difference between being enslaved and being free.

When God reveals God’s self to Samuel, to Nathanael, and to us, we have the freedom to respond as we see fit. If our communities have done a good job of forming us, so that we can recognize God when we see God, then there is a better chance we will respond favorably. If, on the other hand, we have chosen to use our freedom to believe in whatever works in our best interest (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), then the chances of accepting the invitation to “come and see” God are slim. What are we being taught to do with our freedom in Christ?  How are we forming others to understand that freedom?

[ January 22 ]
It’s Time, All Right
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12;
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

John the Baptist has just been arrested. He’s not getting out of that alive. Nineveh is on the verge of divine destruction. Paul is telling everyone to forget about life as we know it because the things of this world are not the real issue. The psalmist says that not even wealth (by whatever means we manage to accrue it) can save us. It’s pretty bleak for the season in which we are supposed to be celebrating Christ’s revelation to the world. The time is at hand, no doubt. Kairos, God’s time, is always at hand. But this doesn’t mean we are to abandon all hope. Rather we should pay attention and get busy living the way we are called to live as faithful disciples.

Jesus tells us to turn from our old life and embrace the new one he has to offer. In Pauline ethics this means all our ways of living should be oriented toward glorifying God. Whatever leads us to seek justice, love our neighbors, care for the destitute, and turn the world upside down so it looks right-side up from God’s perspective is what we should all be about. The time is at hand, but that time is God’s time. God’s time always seems to effect mercy and grace, pardon and second chances, even if this troubles and offends some of us as it did Jonah (Jonah 3:1-5,10). Thankfully power and steadfast love belong to God (Psalm 62:11-12). So no matter how dire and desperate things may seem in our world, God’s time is still at hand and we are still invited to be a part of God’s work.

[ January 29 ]
Freedom and Obedience
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111;
1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

In God’s community freedom and obedience are never about only the individual. In the world’s mindset those two words do not even make sense together. Society teaches us that inherently freedom means not having to answer to anyone or even consider how our words (and possibly actions) affect others. Our scriptures suggest that the words we choose to speak matter a great deal and the freedom God offers us in Christ is never disconnected from how we live in community. Psalm 111 is an apt reminder of the communal nature of praise, thanksgiving, witness, and trust. In fact, the faithfulness of our words is directly linked to how we understand freedom in Christ and whether we know and care for those in our community.

That prophets should come from among their own people (Deuteronomy 18:18) is a beautiful testimony to the importance of knowing the people to which we imagine we are called to witness. If we took this lesson to heart, how might it affect the way we think about engaging with governments and citizens of other nations? Christ calls us to speak out of love (1 Corinthians 8:1). People willing to speak on God’s behalf are a dime a dozen, just like in ancient times. But the true word of God is still rare, just like in ancient times. Before we claim to speak or act on God’s behalf, we should remember that we answer to God as well. There is only One who can speak without reservation into our lives (Mark 1:25). We offer the love of Christ in obedience and humility.

Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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