This was the message that I presented at the Fishkill (NY) United Methodist Church on 31 December 2000. I have this Sunday listed as the 1st Sunday after Christmas but I used the lectionary readings for New Year’s Day (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).
I had moved up to this part of New York in May of 1999 and transferred my membership to the Fishkill Church at the beginning of June. In August, 1999, I began serving as the pastoral assistant to the District Superintendent with the assignment of being the lay pastor for the Walker Valley United Methodist Church. As such, I only knew the pastor (Arlene Beechert) and a few other members of the Fishkill Church. Most of the Fishkill church only knew of my assignment but did not know who I was. So, Pastor Beechert and I looked for a date where we could exchange pulpits and I might introduce myself to my home church at that time.
Unfortunately, the weather on this day was miserable. Services at Walker Valley were cancelled and attendance at the Fishkill Church was minimal. The bad part was that the organist couldn’t make the trip to church and we had to sing unaccompanied. That didn’t help matters. I like singing and think that music is an integral part of any service but I was never a good musician and I have to hear the music in order to lead it. In all honesty, this was not one of my better services. I would return to Fishkill pulpit in June of 2005; I did a much better job that time.
So here are my thoughts for 31 December 2000:
The measurement of time has always been a challenge for mankind. While we can say with a certain degree of certainty that it is 10:00 a.m. on December 31st, the telling of time has not always been that easy. For the founders of the Methodist Church some two hundred and sixty years ago, the telling of time required clocks that were big, bulky, and highly unreliable. And in Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hour glass and the passage of events.
And even today, we still mark the passage of time by the occurrence of certain events. That fact that today is the last day of the year 2000 and tomorrow is the first day of the year 2001 is one such occurrence. The Old Testament reading for today is about the passage of time.
For the Preacher, the name we give to the writer of Ecclesiastes saw time as a passage, as a balance of the events of life. Some of these events are joyful while others are not. And while we may wish to eliminate and do away with those events of life that are not so joyful. But with birth comes death, with love there is hate and with war there is peace.
Does this mean that God condones hatred, war, death, and uprooting? Or are these things beyond His control? I think that is why this reading is paired with the reading from the Book of Revelations. John’s words were words of hope. When John wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, the Roman Empire was exacting a terrible toll on all those who would defy the power of Rome. It was a time of hoping for the return of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.
But the time of Christ’s return was unknown and though John offers a great hope for that kingdom, He also points out that God is now and forever, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In making a reference to the eternal nature of God, John was telling his readers not to wait for the return of Christ on this earth. In the opening verse of this passage from Revelation, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” John offers not a second beginning but a freshness, a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 65: 17, Isaiah 66: 22, and 2 Peter 3: 13
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65: 17)
“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain befroe me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendants your name remain.” (Isaiah 66: 22)
“Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2 Peter 3: 13)
But how is the hope that John speaks about fulfilled? How do we deal with the lack of meaning that Preacher gives to this existence on earth? Early in the American Revolution Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was time when things were not going good for the colonists; such a sentiment could be justly as easily expressed today.
We look around us and see countless examples of problems for which we feel there is no solution. Unlike those in the Gospel reading who asked who were the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, sick or in prison, we know who they are. Yet many times, we like they, walk right by.
Jesus told his disciples and followers that the Kingdom of God was already in place. We do not have to wait for His Second Coming because He is always with us, if we but look for him.
The foundation of the Methodist Church was and will always be in how we treat others less fortunate than us. Granted that salvation only comes to those who accept Christ in their hearts but coming to know Christ is very difficult when you are hungry, when you are sick, or when you are in prison, be it one with walls of stone or one which entraps your soul. John Wesley knew that for the world to be saved, concern for the poor, the weak, and the helpless had to be more than just words said on a Sunday. There had to be action on Monday.
But if we try to take on the task of solving all the world’s problems by ourselves, we will be like the Preacher seeing that after everything was tried how futile our efforts were. Because we alone cannot are not equal to the task. But the Preacher also pointed out that God put eternity in our hearts so as to give us a sense that what was around us is not all there is too life. If we allow God to be a part of our lives each day, then the moments of our lives can be transformed into something beautiful and with meaning.
As we end this year and get ready to begin the new one, it is important that we see what is before us, not in terms of what the world puts before us, but rather in what Christ shows us. Christ shows us that the opportunities to let the world know of His presence are in our actions.
The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.
And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life.”
What time is it? For some it is 1030 and time to get on with the rest of the day. But I hope that it is time to take Christ into your heart and then take the light of Christ out into the world.