New Year’s Day ABC: Our Eternal Now

The Readings for New Year’s Day are

Old Testament      Ecclesiastes 3:1–13

Psalm                     Psalm 8

New Testament     Revelation 21:1–6a

Gospel                   Matthew 25:31–46

There are so many things that the church could mark on this Sunday:  New Year, The Holy Name of Jesus—Mary, Mother of God. But, of course, in these pandemic years we are bound to think that anything new must be better than what we have had since late 2019, so we embrace thoughts of a new year.

It is the last two readings that catch my attention, and seem the most pertinent to this New Year’s Day, because they seem designed to convince us to not get distracted by new or old, but to live in the eternal now.

In Hebrew the phrase la olam is translated as “forever.” But academics today claim that to an ancient Israelite it may have simply meant a very long time. In Greek the phrase zoe aionios is translated as “eternal life.” Though this aion is translated as “forever,” the more basic meaning is “age,” or “epoch.” So, the Greek eis aion may be thought of as something like, “toward the new age.”

But the Bible converges on the idea that forever and eternal are neither simply a long duration of time, or a long way off. Future and present overlap. Eternity ultimately means the eternal now.

And both Revelation 21 and Matthew 25 speak of the ultimate ultimate—the judgment of the world and the coming of heaven to earth.

Jesus’ discourse on judgment exposes another of our dichotomies as false. The future judgment is going on now because those we erase by ascribing them no worth are actually of most worth. They are of most worth because they determine ours in the judgment. They are of the most worth because God has adopted them as God’s own. So they are the present embodiment of the Lord who judges us.

In the Gospel of John this becomes the absolutely present time of  “crisis.” See John 3:19 where the Greek word for “judgment” is “crisis.” It’s the same idea as in Matthew 25. The future judgment is in the eternal now because it happened when the Son of Man, who will come in glory, already has come as the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned strangers. How we treat them is our crisis. It seals our judgment.

So too, Revelation proclaims the eternal now by saying “the home of God is among mortals. He dwells with them as their God.” Present and future overlap throughout this reading. God’s Tabernacle or presence is already among humans, and God will tabernacle in their midst. This is an echo of the same idea as in John 1:14. The Word lives with people in John’s prologue, and God will dwell with them as their God here in Revelation’s new day. And both are forms of the  Greek word describing God’s tenting, tabernacling, or being graciously present with God’s people in the Jewish Temple. And when God says, in Revelation 21:5, that he is making all things new, it is typical of the apocalyptic prophets. The future is already unfolding now. The eternal is unfolding now. And God’s presence with us is both future and present in Christ.

The way we talk about the big and trying times in our lives betrays our instinct to put our own crisis and judgment—and eternity itself—as far as possible away from our everyday existence. The snow in Buffalo is generational. Each flood is a hundred year flood. We cry out that we never thought it would happen here or now. It’s all too surreal. It’s like a movie and not like real life. Plagues and wars and mass shootings are for another time, another place, another people. Not here and now, and not for me.

But the Bible says today is our crisis, our judgment, and our eternity. New heaven and new earth are unfolding as we live. That God dwells among us—our Emmanuel—means at least two things: God is embodied right now in the people in need all around us, and God is in us to empower our caring for these same people.

In college I was surrounded by future pastors. Our greatest collective malady was thinking that some day we would be ordained, and then we would begin ministry. This kind of experience of time caused us to miss the fact that we were surrounded then and there by people who needed us and our ministry.

New Year’s Day is a perfect time to disenthrall ourselves from thinking 2023 will be significantly different from 2022, or that it will be a return to a normalcy that will buffer us from our time of crisis.

Today is the Day. Old year or New Year—today is the eternal now.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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