Everyone here is conscious of the fact that this is New Year’s Day, the beginning of the Year of Our Lord, 2006. With just a quick reminder everyone gets the point that this is the first Sunday of the liturgical year when Christ is with us. We call it the first Sunday of Epiphany, which is the season in which we celebrate the appearance of Jesus Christ to the world. “Epiphany” means “appearance.” The alternate lectionary reading for the first Sunday of Epiphany, which is used when the Sunday does not fall on New Year’s Day, is the visit of the three wise men to Jesus, who appears to them as the king.
For many people, New Year’s Day is a ritual time for marking the change of the times, for turning over a new leaf, a new page in the book of our lives. Many of us have New Year’s resolutions, which usually begin with a program to lose the weight gained in the festive season about to end. What a blessed relief to know that most gyms are closed on this holiday, and many also on Monday; so workouts can be postponed until Tuesday, at least. My own New Year rituals include packing up the bills and check stubs for 2005 and putting them in the tax file for later. I go around the house replacing batteries in clocks and smoke alarms that otherwise would fail at inconvenient times. Of course it is legitimate to take a ritual nap in the afternoon to recoup from the celebration of New Year’s Eve. Many of us have ritual house parties to host or visit. Usually I also take time to make a reflective entry in my journal. I hope everyone reflects a while on what it means to move from 2005 to 2006.
Our familiar text from Ecclesiastes says that for everything there is a season. “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” This litany has an unsettling effect on Christian ears, for most of these contrasted pairs have a preferred member. Christians like being born, and go to great pains to say that death is not what it seems. We like to plant and then to harvest, but there is something unexpected in the season for plucking up. Of course there is a time to love, but do we ever admit a time to hate? We emphasize the time for peacemaking, but hesitate to say there is a time for war. Christians tend to be suspicious of what seems to be cynicism on the part of the author who begins his book, “Vanity of vanities. All is Vanity.”
But remember that Ecclesiastes says that everything has its season. When out of season, these things are inappropriate. How hurtful it is to laugh when you should be weeping, to mourn when you should be dancing! By the same token, sometimes it is inappropriate to hold on to life that should be released. Sometimes only war makes sense in a season of violence. The huge moral problem is to discover the appropriate response for the season. Surely we ought to arrange our lives as much as possible so that no season for war ever arises, that hate is never appropriate, that no mourning is called for, nor weeping. Would we not be blessed if there were never seasons for killing and dying?
A certain strain of Christian piety supposes that God will sometime arrange it that no seasons for death or weeping would ever exist. This is the vision of the Book of Revelation, which says that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” God says, “See, I am making all things new.” This strain of Christian piety, which stresses the destruction of the created world with an extreme non-natural makeover, is dominant in the Book of Revelation. The overall plot of that book is the final battle between God’s forces and those of Satan, resulting in the destruction of most of creation, with stars falling and the Earth going up in smoke. Nearly all God’s creatures are lost save 144,000 saints, and the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven with only straight edges and polished stone. Natural rhythms such as night and day are dismissed in favor of the steady light of God’s glory.
Piety of this sort stands in contrast with the piety of the incarnation that says that God comes into the created natural world that we have to redeem it. According to incarnational piety, God does not have to make “all things new,” but is able to exist in the original creation that God saw to be good, according to Genesis 1. Last week we reflected on the incarnational piety of John’s Gospel that says that the divine Word, in which the original creation is made, itself becomes incarnate in Jesus so as to redeem the world from the darkness into which it had fallen. All things do not have to be made new, only lighted up, perfected and redeemed.
This week, I want to affirm that incarnational piety and therefore need to take very seriously the vision of Ecclesiastes. For that text, attributed to Solomon although surely of much later composition, is extremely attentive to the realities of life, the bad parts as well as the good, the need for compromise as well as the need for celebration. Underlying the metaphor of the seasons is a recognition of the cyclic processes of nature: emergence in the spring, growth in the summer, harvest in the fall, and hunkering down as if in tombs through the winter, waiting for the next cycle. The point of saying everything is vain is not to depreciate the pleasures and achievements of life. In fact, the text says to pay attention to the work that you have to do. The point rather is that nothing lasts beyond its season. Kings can build empires but they too will die like the paupers and their empires will crumble in time. Everything has its season, and nothing outlasts its season. To think we will outwit the way creation works and establish something that will stand forever, something like the New Jerusalem in Revelation, is vanity.
Incarnational piety holds that God redeems the time, the season that we have. To redeem us, God does not have to create a new time, something beyond seasons. With this in mind, think about our gospel text this morning, from Matthew. At first glance, it looks more like the Book of Revelation than Ecclesiastes. Jesus says there will be a time of judgment when the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, sending the righteous to eternal life and the wicked to the eternal punishment prepared for the devil and his followers. On second glance, notice that Jesus’ conception of judgment says nothing about making all things new. In fact, the eternity of life and the eternity of punishment are elements of the original creation. Jesus had a larger view than we do of what the original creation consists of, including heavenly and devilish realms. But it is all there from the beginning, and the judge places people according to what they do within their own seasons of life.
The remarkable part of Jesus’ message here is that our judgment depends on what we do to him as the incarnation of God within our few seasons. The righteous are those who gave him food when he was hungry, drink when thirsty, welcome when a stranger, clothing when he was naked, and companionship when he was imprisoned. The disciples were dumbfounded to hear this, because they never did anything like that for Jesus. If anything, he took care of them. You know his profound response. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And we know that by his “family” he referred to all people, especially those in need.
Matthew’s text rubs it in, twice. “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Those poor souls were shocked! “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” Surely, if those disciples who loved Jesus had seen him in distress, they would have jumped to his care, as they tried to fight off the people who came to arrest him after the last supper. Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” This moral applies to us, who purport to love Jesus.
Now you see the downside of an incarnational religion. Any time we fail to help our neighbors, abuse our environment, or lack compassion for any part of creation, we are failing God who is present here. The false attractiveness of the “all things new” piety is that it puts off all the important stuff until later battles. For all the tantalizing excitement of getting on Jesus’ side to fight in the apocalypse against Satan who must be destroyed, that “all things new piety” actually legitimates postponement of both effort and judgment. Incarnational Christianity says that what we do now is what counts.
I don’t know what you believe about future judgment. Jesus used that imagery as a literary figure and we do not know his literal beliefs. But whenever judgment occurs, it occurs about what we do in our season. Have we fed the hungry? Often the churches have been magnificent in this regard. But as a nation we recently have made more people hungry by our wars and economics than we have fed. Have we given drink to the thirsty? If that means “thirsty for knowledge” as Jesus sometimes used the image, as a nation we have been very selective, educating some to a high degree and pushing the poor farther and farther down. Have we welcomed strangers? Some of us have been heroically inclusive in our fellowship, while others of us have pushed away the poor, the minorities, the gays, the Muslims and others who seem strangers to us. Sometimes we have clothed the naked, and other times have made them naked. Few of us have visited those in prison with the love and mercy due to children of God.
Is it not a shock, however, to think that whatever our record, that is the record of our love of God, in our neighbor? None of us has fed every hungry person we could, every thirsty person, befriended every stranger, clothed every ragamuffin, or engaged every prisoner. Jesus’ speech is an extraordinary demand for perfection, one we cannot possibly meet. In this sense, even the best among us are with the goats rather than the sheep.
The upside of Christian incarnationalism is that God is right here with us not only to judge but to love and heal with mercy. Jesus is present not only in the hungry, poor, and downtrodden, but also in those who teach us that we can still go on loving Jesus, despite the fact we fail him in many ways. We can still do what we can for the hungry and poor. We can still give ourselves to the causes of peace and justice despite continuing lack of success. We have salvation because God has come to us with the power to enable us to live in the face of judgment and still be God’s people. We do not have to wait until God makes all things new and we do have to love the old world God has created. We can love in the lives we have. That is the way God loves, incarnate in the lives we have in the world in which we are created.
When we contemplate the turning of the New Year we should see it as our season, with the particular tasks given us, the particular enjoyments, the particular trials, and the particular ways of participating in the Creator who created very much more than appears this season. For the most of us who are comfortable with our season, this is an easy lesson. For those of us who suffer hell this season, the lesson is bitter. Nevertheless, even this bitterness is sweeter than the false lesson that the world in which we live is a bad creation that must be replaced by another. The Creator of a bad creation, who has to destroy the most of it to bring about an improvement, is a sorry Creator. That is a God conceived to be too small to be worthy of our efforts at righteousness, of our deferential respect of the divine works, of our faith in salvation, of our hope for resting in Glory, and of our love that learns to love our enemies and all those sinners. I pray that in reflecting on this day, you find the immense, eternal God, not elsewhere, but here in the point of this season.