With the Eyes of Our Hearts

The journey of faith is long and full of forked roads. Every attempt at faithful living is a response to God’s initial invitation. But the life of faith will always require certain choices. We have personal and communal responsibilities to live into. Do we choose to be foolish or wise, living prepared lives or unprepared lives, sleeping through God’s activity or wide awake and ready to join in God’s work? Every day we choose between life and death, recalling God’s steadfastness, relying on God’s grace, and remembering God’s justice.

An eschatological thread runs through this month’s texts. We celebrate the end of the liturgical year on the feast of Christ the King. We begin a season of active preparation for the coming of God, while at the same time God is actively calling out the faithful. God chooses us. But our choices matter as well. How do we choose to respond in faith to the life God continually offers us? What do we worship? What do we choose to remember? Where do we choose to place our hope?

Often when we hear the word “choice” we also hear the word “individual.” However, to choose wisely means putting our focus on the wider community. Choosing wisely means recognizing our status as “children of light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5) and constantly negotiating within varied contexts what it means to live in the light of Christ.

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

[ November 6 ]
Bound to Serve
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

One could argue that it is in our nature to enslave ourselves to something. The question is more a matter of “to what” than “if.” Joshua, being an astute leader of his people, was very aware of the temptation to enslave oneself to everything besides the God of Israel. Choosing the ways of God will always mean saying no multiple times to a variety of cultural and societal options. Like the Israelites reflecting on how to live faithfully in the land, we too must be deliberate and intentional with our decision-making process. Faithful leadership such as that of Joshua will call us to think deliberately about what we worship, whom we follow, and for what reasons. How have those to whom we give our allegiance proven themselves as sources of life? How does the manner in which we live speak to a hope rooted in Christ—and a hope that trusts that life in Christ always prevails over what leads to death (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)?

It’s worth reflecting on the context in which we even think about the notion of choice. The text from Joshua speaks into a landed and somewhat secure community. The Israelites are known to the neighboring people for their military might. The former nomadic children of Israel now have their daily needs met and countless extra resources that may blur their memory.

How are our own choices different depending on our socio-economic realities and military capabilities? Counting the cost of discipleship should include an awareness of God’s character, which includes both mercy and judgment. It should also include an awareness of God’s expectations for us to have lives awakened to and expecting God’s presence (Matthew 25:1-13). As creatures made to worship God, we are bound to serve something. The choice of whether or not we bind ourselves to God is ours.

[ November 13 ]
Discerning the Days
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 90:1-12;
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” says the psalmist (Psalm 90:12). This psalm, attributed to Moses, is almost a plea for the Israelites (and us) to remember that they are creatures and God is almighty Creator. Like the Israelites in Judges, we too have a history of following other gods. The prophet Deborah was judging a different generation from that in the book of Joshua. This new generation had apparently forgotten what it meant to serve the Lord (Judges 4:1). The sad reality is that we too often commit to God and then backslide into old habits and unfaithful ways. These passages are a necessary and gracious reminder that there is always room on the journey of faith to reassess and recommit our lives to the ways of God. The Thessalonians text rightfully urges us to encourage one another in the challenging daily task of living by faith, love, and hope.

It seems essential to reflect on the communal aspects of Paul’s letter. As children of light who find hope in what Christ has already done for us, we are called to help one another remember our identity and to use that knowledge to choose faithfulness to the life of God. We fall into carelessness and eventually into sin when we choose to live as though we do not know who and whose we are. Discerning our times means being attentive to and aware of our environment, the political and social climate, and the spiritual dis-ease that often lurks beneath the surface.

The gospel parable of the master and servants further highlights God’s odd sense of trust and patience toward us. Like the servants, we are entrusted with so much more than we often know what do to with. I have to wonder if we fail to invest God’s gifts wisely because we truly forget who the giver is and what God’s work is about. In the parable the master goes away for a “long time” (Matthew 25:19), leaving ample opportunity for the servants to choose wisely what they will do with what they have been entrusted with. Our choices have consequences, and the master will not be gone forever.

[ November 20 ]
Hope is in the Details
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a;
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Power brings responsibility. Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power, we have to recall how Christ the King, whose feast we celebrate, used power. Ezekiel offers a glimpse of what abuse of power looks like. The text picks up after God has listed the multiple ways the Israelite leaders have failed their people. They have not cared for and encouraged those most in need, but have cared only for themselves. When in power it can be so easy to believe that we can get away with injustice. But power without wisdom and hope will ultimately lead to abuse and eventually will be called to account. Thankfully, or unfortunately, depending on how you have wielded the power afforded you, God will not stand aside when God’s children are denied the care and provision that are rightfully theirs.

Psalm 95 reminds us that God is the primary shepherd, the sovereign we are called to worship with how we live, including our actions toward others. There is a quiet, steady undertow throughout these passages that alludes to our hope being in God’s self in Christ Jesus. Even within the land, with military might, with abundant provisions, the true dwelling place is in God. If life is in the details, then the bottom-line detail is God. It is to this that Paul desires that the eyes of our hearts be enlightened (Ephesians 1:18).

Any notion we have of power must be rooted in the inherent power of hope that raised Christ from the dead. How we live into the power we are given directly correlates to how we live into our hope in Christ. This hope compels us to love one another and care for one another the way Christ the King cares for all God’s children. And here’s the shocker: The love of Christ shows no distinction. The sheep in Matthew’s gospel are recognized by God because they extended love for love’s own sake, not for merit, or recognition, or because they judged Christ present in the other. Christ is always present when we extend love. Serving others is how Christ the King has chosen to live into his sovereign power.

[ November 27 ]
The Gift is Still Unfolding
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19;
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

It is the first Sunday of the “waiting season.” In Advent we are called to stay awake, to keep alert (Mark 13:33-37). Though we already have so much for which to be grateful to God in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:4), we cannot get complacent or overly satisfied with the way things are. We have a tendency to want to make do with our half-hearted attempts at faithful living.

We so easily and readily blur the lines between what is entrusted to us and what we are called to worship. Land, for example, is a gift. Spiritual knowledge is a gift. But God’s gifts do not replace God. Nor do they put us into the role of God. It is fitting to begin Advent with the voice of a prophet such as Isaiah, who is clear about the current situation of his people. They have broken their covenant with God. They have failed to remember God’s ways. Paul points to the same thing in his letter to the Corinthians. They may have spiritual gifts, but just after the selected pericope we see that they have lost focus. Instead of encouraging one another, they quarrel. Paul reminds them of the primary thing, the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

As Mark’s gospel text suggests, a crucial part of being prepared and keeping awake (Mark 13:28-29) is reading what Matthew calls “the signs of the times” (16:3). We must be alert to what is happening in the culture around us and to what is going on within our own spiritual lives as a community. Where is there a discrepancy between how God calls us to live and what we are actually doing to one another? How are we remembering to draw on the grace of God, to pray for restoration and mercy like the psalmist? How are we living into the hope and promise of Christ’s return by preparing a place and a people that the Lord might actually recognize as God’s own?

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

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