Though it is Saturday evening when this gets posted, it is my first post for the New Year. May this be a blessed, happy and safe New Year for you, your family, and your mission.
It is interesting to note that all three Scripture readings for this, the first day of the New Year and the first Sunday of the New Year, are about time. It stands to reason of course that we should consider time since this is the one day when we can look back at the days past and also look forward to the days that are to come. But is today the first day of the New Year? Are we really in a position where we can look back over the past and forward to the future?
Time is and will always be a difficult thing to study, understand, and categorize. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory added the extra days to bring the calendar back in line with the seasonal change that we started celebrating January 1st as the beginning of the New Year. Until that time, April 1st was the traditional start of the New Year and this change in starting times lead to the beginning of April Fool’s Day (but that is another story and, if you will allow the pun, another time). Even today, though the Gregorian calendar is predominantly used, there are over forty calendars in use throughout the world today. (http://webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar.html)
Time is more than just a passage of time; in fact, you really cannot set a beginning or an end for time. Time is more about the passage of the seasons and the marking of events in one’s life than it is about a start and a beginning. It is the passage of time and the passage of the season that lead the Neolithic people of pre-historical England to build Stonehenge; it was the passage of time and season that lead many of the Plains Indians of the American West and Canada to build what are called “medicine wheels”, places where the passage of time throughout the year and the markings of the seasons can be recorded. It is the efforts put into building these intriguing and wonderful sites that mark mankind’s first forays into understanding who they are and why they are a part of this world. One can only imagine the patience and perseverance it took develop and build these stone monuments. But it is clear that, no matter how long it took, it was important to the people building them to study time and mark the passage of time.
It is the passage of time and the marking of the seasons in one’s life that lead the Preacher to write Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13)
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; 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 cast away stones, and 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 cast away; a time to rend, 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.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)
The Preacher saw time as a passage, as a balance of the events of life. Some of these events are joyful occasions; we rejoice in the birth of a child or the marriage of two people. We rejoice in one’s accomplishments. But there are other events that are often not so joyous. We grieve at the lost of a loved one; we are saddened when times are bad. The question will always be how we are to make this balance work for us. The Preacher concludes this chapter of Ecclesiastes by noting that there is nothing that we can do that will change the balance of events as time passes. It will be God who determines the final outcome.
That is why we hear the words of Jesus calling us to task about the care we show for others. The Kingdom of Heaven may be here today but it will not be open to those who see poverty, sickness, and oppressions as a sign of the end time.
The problem is that too many people today see time only in terms of a beginning and an end, not in terms of one’s life but rather in terms of society. They read the words of the Seer (as Robin Griffith-Jones identifies the writer of the Revelation of John) in terms of a beginning and end. They hear the words and look forward to a new beginning, one in which they can escape the problems and turmoil of today’s society. People who hear the words of the Revelation see the poverty, sickness, and despair that is present in this world as a sign that things are about to end. They see themselves as not changing but these words are just that, a sign of change and hope for what is to come.
When the Book of Revelation was written 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 the Seer 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, the Seer told \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 before 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 to be fulfilled? How do we deal with the lack of meaning that the Preacher gives to this existence on earth? Shall we hear the words of the Seer and see this time as the end of all time, with no hope for who we are in life’s passage? 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.
But we hear Jesus’ words that the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us right now, if we would look around us. It is just that we cannot act as if this is the end; rather, we must act as if this were the beginning. We must act and respond to the challenge that Jesus lays before us.
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. 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 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.”