January 1, 2023

Ecclesiastes 3:1-3
Revelation 21:1-6a
Matthew 25:31-46

“When Was It? ”

A few weeks ago, Nick and I got together for dinner with a friend that we haven’t had a chance to visit with for quite a while. Early in the conversation he acknowledged that it had been way too long, and he asked, “What have you two been up to over the last year?” So I actually paused for a moment and thought about that question. What have we been up to over the last year?

In my personal life, I thought of singing in the RSO Choir, trips to Winnipeg when Nick’s Dad was in palliative care and then to Vancouver in the summer for his interment. And of course there was our amazing trip to Germany in August.

In terms of ministry, I thought of helping to initiate the Saturday lunch program at First Baptist, lots of church activities finally getting back to normal this Fall, and the arrival of one of our refugee families. I confirmed for my friend that I no longer have any responsibilities at all as a former Moderator, but this was the year that in-person meetings really began to resume so I had several trips to Ontario for Canadian Council of Churches and Presbyterian Church meetings.

The most traumatic thing that happened to me this last year was getting Covid while we were in Germany. But all in all, 2022 was not a bad year.

I wonder if any of you have been similarly reviewing and remembering your 2022 over the last few days as it’s come to a close. You might reflect on the highlights, the events that were remarkably special or particularly difficult. You might consider your daily patterns of living – whether your work life, home life, and regular activities were meaningful and fulfilling. You might think about your health and wellness in body, mind, and spirit – were you well in 2022, or do you need some care and support as you move forward?

As time moves along, seemingly more and more quickly as we get older, perhaps it is good to spend a little time in reflection on how we do spend our precious time.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a season for everything, a time for every matter under heaven. That’s an encouraging statement when time feels quite scarce in the busyness of life.

Of course, I’ve often preached on this well-known text at funerals over the years. And in that context, all we can do is remember a life lived and consider the times and seasons that are all now completed. An individual is born, and later they die. In between they work, rest, play… weep and laugh… mourn and dance… love and hate… and all the rest. We usually give thanks for the times of joy and gladness, and remember the ways that God helped and sustained our loved ones through trials and difficulties.

But today, on this first day of a New Year, we can look back – not at a life that is completed – but at a life that is somewhere in the middle. We can reflect on how we spent our time in 2022 as we make new, intentional decisions about how we will spend our time in 2023. We can do this as individuals, as families, or as a church. Each one is important, I believe.

But if you choose to do this kind of reflection as an individual or as a family, there are three things that I want you to remember. These are little insights arising from our Scripture readings for today.

When I read the familiar Gospel text from Matthew in preparation for today’s service, it was the phrase, “When was it?” that stuck out to me. “When was it that we saw you hungry? When was it that we saw you a stranger? When was it that we saw you sick or in prison?”

You may remember that this passage is a kind of parable about the Kingdom of God. It’s the end of time, or at least the end of our lives in this world, and we’re standing before Christ in heaven where he is separating us into two groups – the sheep who followed him and the goats who didn’t.

The judgement that determines whether we are sheep or goats seems to depend on how we spent our time in the world. We’re not divided based on our race, culture, or religion. And it’s not even a check to see if we observed the 10 commandments well enough.

Instead, the question is whether we gave our time to caring for the least of God’s children in the world. If someone was hungry or thirsty, did we share? If someone was a stranger, did we welcome them? If someone was sick or in prison, did we visit them?

If we review the last year of our lives as individuals, as families, and as church, did we spend some of our time doing those things? Did we keep our eyes open to recognize the needs around us, and did we respond by giving generously of our time for the least among us? As much as we did, we did it for Jesus.

In our review, we should ask ourselves, “When was it?” And if we can’t think of any times, then perhaps we are missing the times when Jesus is coming to us.

The second thing is that you get to choose how you spend your time. Okay, perhaps there are some options you can’t choose, like for example, you may not be able to choose not to spend some time working if you want to have an income to live on. But you do have a lot of choices.

The Psalmist, in reflecting on the goodness of God’s Creation, says of human beings that God made us “a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honour.” God has given us “dominion over the works of [our] hands; [and] put all things under [our] feet.”

We get to choose how we live our lives and what we do with our time. We can choose time for God – committing ourselves to regular practices of worship, prayer, and study.

We can choose time for others – including time with family and friends, but also going beyond our closest relations to include service, giving, and attention to others, perhaps especially those who are marginalized or suffering from need.

We can choose (and we should choose) time for ourselves as well – We need to rest, to exercise, to care for our bodies, minds, and spirits. We can choose time make time for some activities that we enjoy that challenge and delight us, and that allow us to use and develop our gifts, or just bring us joy.

There’s a cheesy little acronym that could actually be helpful. JOY: J is for Jesus, O is for others, and Y is for you. Planning time for each of these priorities is important. And sometimes that means setting boundaries and saying “no” to something else so that you can find that balance – a time for every purpose that God has for you and your life.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to the text from the Book of Revelation. It’s another text that is often selected for funerals because it sounds like a glorious description of heaven. The author tells us about his vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And that is encouraging for us when our loved ones have died, especially if they’ve experienced a difficult time of illness and the dying process has been hard. But I’m not sure that it’s really just a vision for the new reality after our deaths. I think it’s also a vision of this world as it should be, as God intends it to be, as God is making it to be through Christ and the followers of his Way.

A loud voice from the throne says: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

That’s not a vision of heaven only. It’s a description of the Incarnation – of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ to live among us, to love us unconditionally, to teach us how to love, and to draw us back to God. That’s not just a promise for the future, but it’s the reality of right now – that God is with us in every second, every minute, every day, every time and season of our lives, in this world and in the world to come.

As we begin a New Year today, let’s remember the One seated on the throne in that wonderful vision who says, “See, I am making all things new.” 2023 is another chance to begin again, to choose how we spend our time for God, for others, and for ourselves. Perhaps next year we won’t have to wrack our brains to remember “when was it?” that we cared for the least among us.

As we move into the times and seasons of 2023, may we remember that God will be with us through them all. God says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,” and all our times are in God’s hands.