Thanksgiving has come and gone: only the smallest and ugliest pieces of pie remain, if any pieces remain at all. You’ve stuffed your turkeys, you’ve stuffed yourselves, and now you look at all the leftovers and wonder just how long you can keep on eating them. Now Black Friday has come and gone: now the long, uncomfortable ride home, in which every bump threatens to explode your gut, has turned into the lingering question: do I dare join a gym? And winter, supposedly, is coming, with harsh winds and snow, but perhaps, in the depths of your mind, you also know that this is the hottest year on record, and there seem to be a lot of birds around for the beginning of winter. The national anxiety seems to have seeped into every corner of our neighborhood, but at least we had Thanksgiving, at least Christmas is coming, and, sure as there will be delays on the A train, 2016 and all of its horror will soon be over, and we can start everything up in the new year. The return of the year, the return of spring, the familiar old patterns of our New York way of life—snow, spring, sweltering summers and trips away, fall, Thanksgiving, Christmas, another New Year, all as familiar as a Billy Joel song.
Monty Python once said that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, and I guess you could say that nobody—well, almost nobody—in Israel expected that a kingdom from far away would take possession of her land and remove her people to a foreign capital. You might not expect those people, in bondage to a foreign power, to believe what the prophet says here, that one day all the nations of the world would stream to their old home city, not to conquer, but to worship. You might expect a people conquered utterly in battle to wish that the weapons of war would disappear, but I’m not sure if you’d expect them to believe that their God would accomplish it, having seen their God decline to lift his hand to protect them from their captors. And yet they do. They still are bold to believe that God would judge all the peoples and all nations, and that the judgment of God would be a judgment not of vengeance and destruction, but of peace. You might not expect, looking at the world today, where right-wing governments have swept into power across the Western world, from Poland to the United States, into the capitals of countries that used to be considered beautiful beacons to freedom, places that the poor of all the nations would dream of reaching—you might not expect that this very same God would still make the promise that swords would become plowshares and spears pruning hooks, but it is true—God does still promise that. Even in this world, which seems as if it has lost its mind, as if the people coming to power had never heard of the Second World War or its causes, or worse yet, believe that God has called them to carry on those causes, God promises not vengeance, but justice and peace. Nobody expects what God will do—even when God tells us in advance, nobody expects God’s good love for this world. God is a thief who steals our comfort and replaces it with joy. If our regular life is liking an old friend’s dog picture on Facebook, God’s idea of life is like the time I saw an old missionary meet one of his old friends in Africa, just by chance. God’s vision of life is what I saw then, two bearded septuagenarians crying in surprise and joy, to see a face they thought they would never see again.
The old spiritual says though God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time. I sometimes wonder if that’s the whole message behind the Gospel of Matthew, which terrifies me every time we return to it during worship. This little portion is the beginning of Jesus’ last public sermon—according to Matthew, Jesus’ last public message was that he was coming to separate the sheep from the goats. In Matthew, Jesus is not interested in making us comfortable. Thanksgiving as a day to count blessings is not part of Matthew’s world view: Lincoln’s vision of the holiday, a day to give thanks that there was any life at all, and to repent of anything that denied a bit of life to others, that’s more Matthew’s speed. Matthew’s Jesus is not meek or mild, but demands an account of everyone: did you beat your sword into a plowshare? Did you turn your spear into a pruning hook? I am a thief, and I’m coming to steal your comfort: be ready, because you don’t know when I’m coming for you. And make no mistake, I’m coming for you. And you better have listened to me.
Perhaps the most interesting thing of this whole section of Matthew is that the end comes when things are completely normal. Men are working the fields. Women are grinding the grain. Some variation on this has gone on almost as long as humans have settled down to do agriculture. Everyone is carrying on with their plans: marrying, eating and drinking, doing their daily work. And then, without warning, some are snapped away—just like that. And Jesus’ only message is this: keep awake, therefore, because you do not know when your Lord is coming.
When you hear stories of right-wing takeovers, they sound a little bit like this: things were normal until, all of a sudden, they weren’t. People were getting married and having children, and then, one day, some people came and hauled off some others, and they—disappeared. Some were taken; some were left. I saw this in Argentina—everyone knew someone who disappeared, or as they put it, was disappeared. Jesus, today, warns his followers to continue to do good, to do what Jesus asks of them. Paul says, “…now is the time for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” If it is true that there are dark times ahead for us, if the expected course of our lives ends not in a comfortable retirement, but in fire, we must remember this armor of light, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the promises of a God who surprises us.
And after all, none of our lives are normal. They are all infinitely special and precious. The love we share, the way we look on life in unique ways—each of you are precious and lovely in God’s sight. That’s what the ones that oppose God never understand—every child of God is important and worthy of our love. Every child of God is worth a struggle. And this is true no matter who is power in the White House, no matter who is your boss, no matter how little or how much power you think you have. We put on the armor of light because God asks us, no matter who we are, to fight against the darkness, confident in the victory won by our Lord Jesus. So, for us, now, we just need to remember the best of what we do. If you are a teacher, remember how amazing it is that others entrust their children to your care so you can teach them the things they need to know. If you are a worker in government, remember to do your work according the Constitution and on behalf of every citizen in this land. That is a special gift. No matter who you are, your work matters, your life matters, your strength and commitment to the people of this planet matters.
So put on the armor of light, fight the darkness. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack