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Introduction To The Scripture For New Year's Day - Year B
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21:1-6A; Matthew 21:31-46

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
New Year's Day - Year B


ECCLESIASTES 3:1-13                    This time honoured passage 
effectively declares the great variety of human experience as we all pass 
through this mortal life.  Yet there is a deep sense of pessimism in its 
poetry despite the naming of God as the initiator of all things.  The 
author seems to be saying, “Be happy with your lot, whatever it may be.”


PSALM 8                                This majestic psalm sets humanity 
in a noble and yet dangerous position within the divinely created 
universe.  It appears to place us at the pinnacle of creation with 
dominion of all other creatures.  In recent centuries this great honour 
has been ingloriously misused to sanction the destruction of the 
environment.  Yet as the concluding verse proclaims, we are still subject 
to divine sovereignty.

 
REVELATION 21:1-6A                     Contradicting the pessimism of “The 
Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, John the Visionary sees all things made new 
because God is in the midst of life here and now.  Because God is the 
Initiator and the Completion of all things, we can trust God implicitly 
“in life and in life beyond death.”

  
MATTHEW 25:31-46                       The parable of the sheep and goats 
is not just a story of what will happen at the end time when the Sovereign 
Lord Jesus will decide to whom he will grant admission to the Kingdom and 
who will be denied.  It also defines the common ethical issues that each 
one of us faces daily in this present time.  What better moment to 
consider this question of utmost significance that on the first day of a 
new year?


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ECCLESIASTES 3:1-13   During the Christian Year we don’t often read from 
this book of Wisdom literature.  This time honoured passage effectively 
declares the great variety of human experience as we all pass through this 
mortal life.  Yet there is a deep sense of pessimism in its poetry despite 
the naming of God as the initiator of all things.  The author seems to be 
saying, “Be happy with your lot, whatever it may be.”

Attributed to Solomon but probably written in the 3rd century BCE, the book 
has a philosophical rather than a religious theme.  It wrestles with two 
fundamental questions: Is there any meaning to life (chs. 1-6)? And how 
should one live as a result? (chs. 7-12).  However, beginning with the 
thesis that “all is vanity” (1:2) everything that follows is essentially 
qualified by this pessimism.  All things are in flux and eventually end 
where they began.  This order has been fixed by God presumably, but seem 
quite arbitrary to humans.  Scholars have failed to discern exactly why it 
was included in the Hebrew canon.  Professor R.B.Y Scott stated in his 
*The Way of Wisdom* (Macmillan, 1971) that it was strongly opposed by the 
school of Rabbi Shammai but in the end granted sacred and authoritative 
recognition.  

The poem in this passage expresses the main theme of the book.  The author 
was no atheist, Qoheleth, or the Teacher or Preacher, as his Hebrew 
designation appears in the title (1:1).  Everything happens at the 
appropriate time as God has ordered it: “He has made everything suitable 
for its time” (3:11).  Whatever happens is determined by God, but man is 
left in the dark about what God is doing and why.  This view of life, 
however, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, 
let alone the Gospel expressed in the victory of God over sin and death 
through Jesus Christ.  

Any preacher designing a sermon on this text should have on file this 
brief excerpt from a poem, The Gate of the Year, by Minnie Louise Harkins 
1875-1957.  King George VI of Britain included it in his Christmas 1939 
broadcast shortly after the start of World War II: 

“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light 
that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he said to me, ‘Go out into 
the darkness, put you hand into the hand of God.  That shall be better 
than a light, safer than a known way.’ ” 


PSALM 8   This majestic psalm praises God as Creator and sets humanity in 
a noble and yet dangerous position within the divinely created universe.  
It appears to place us at the pinnacle of creation with dominion of all 
other creatures.  In recent centuries this great honour has been 
ingloriously misused to sanction the destruction of the environment.  Yet 
as the concluding verse proclaims, we are still subject to divine 
sovereignty.

One can easily imagine the psalmist standing beneath the starry sky 
marveling at its splendour though understanding nothing about what he is 
beholding.  Knowing only the myths of his ancient culture, he does not ask 
any of the questions a modern person might ask about how this multitude of 
heavenly lights came to be.  He attributes the whole of what he sees to 
the handiwork of God.  Insignificant as he may feel at this moment, he 
also realizes that he and his tribe are no accident in the divine economy.  
He has been created for a purpose: to have dominion over the creatures of 
the earth.  He is God’s vice-regent, a concept borrowed from the poetic 
traditions of Gen.  1:26 and 2:19-20.  Lest he should be too self-centred 
in his contemplation of his own greatness, he ends his praise by repeating 
the doxology wit which he began.


REVELATION 21:1-6A   Contradicting the pessimism of “The Preacher” of 
Ecclesiastes, John the Visionary sees all things made new because God is 
in the midst of life here and now.  Because God is the Initiator and the 
Completion of all things, we can trust God implicitly “in life and in life 
beyond death.”

If Jerusalem was the site where Yahweh’s covenant with Israel was 
celebrated, the New Jerusalem come down from heaven is the site where that 
covenant with the whole of creation will be fulfilled.  Even more 
surprising is the Seer’s statement that “the home of God is with mortals.” 
It is on earth, within creation, and not in heaven, he insists that the 
denouement of all history will occur.  

John here recalls an important element of Old Testament theology and its 
fulfillment in the Gospel.  During the Exodus, the wanderings in the 
wilderness and the earlier years of their residence in the Promised Land, 
the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant served as the symbol of divine 
presence with Israel, the holy people of God.  The temple in Jerusalem 
replaced the ancient tabernacle; but in the New Jerusalem, there will be 
no temple, as John subsequently states (21:22).  As the Fourth Gospel also 
put it, in Jesus Christ, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we 
beheld his glory.  God’s dwelling and its eternal establishment with 
humanity has taken place in the Incarnation.

The eternal presence of God, John further declared, has another 
concomitant: Death will be no more and all mourning will be forever 
removed.  Not only the Incarnation but the Resurrection has brought about 
the promised fulfillment of the ancient covenant first made at Sinai 
renewed in repeated promises of the prophets (Hosea 1:23; Jer. 30:22; 
Ezek. 36:28; Zech. 8:8); and realized in the new covenant of Christ (Rom.  
9:25; 1 Pet. 2:10).  Nothing can ever separate us from God and God’s 
loving purpose to create and redeem.  The birth, life, death and 
resurrection of Jesus have indeed made all things new.  As John said at 
the beginning of his visions, he is both the Alpha and Omega, the 
beginning and the end of all things.


MATTHEW 25:31-46   (Repeated from Year A – Reign of Christ.)  This parable 
tells us that the reign of Christ will begin with a final judgment.  But 
it is a parable, a story told to persuade people on how to live as they 
prepare for that inevitable experience, not a description of what the 
event will be like.  The story also has an eschatological and a messianic 
emphasis set in place by its very first clause, "When the Son of Man comes 
in his glory and all his angels with him ...." That is a typical 
description from the apocalyptic tradition derived from Jewish literature 
of the centuries BCE greatly influenced by forerunners in both the 
prophetic and possibly the wisdom traditions.  (See Ezekiel 38-39; Isaiah 
24-27; Zechariah 12-14.) Its stock-in-trade was revelation through 
visionary experience; and this parable contains some very vivid images of 
that kind.

In vss. 31 and 32 there are two images of the judgment which may seem to 
be unusually juxtaposed.  The first envisages a typical a royal court 
where the monarch is surrounded by courtiers and the whole populace is 
gathered before the throne waiting for a critical decision.  The second 
describes the much humbler scene of a shepherd at the end if a day 
separating sheep from goats as they enter the fold for the night.  The 
task was an easy one, for in the Middle East sheep are generally white and 
goats black.  The monarch's task might not be so easy, for the character 
of human beings is much more complex.  

The story does simplify the basis on which the judgment is made.  It has 
to do with how each person responds to everyday opportunities to help 
others in need.  The length and detail with which this poignant emphasis 
is described assures even the hasty reader that this is what the story 
means.  The reign of Christ and God's eternal judgment are going on right 
now with each decision and action we take.  How we live today has eternal 
consequences.  We are to witness to the reign of Christ in the way we 
serve him in faithfulness, kindness and love to our neighbors in need.  

Yet this parable is not a simple story offering polite moral counsel to 
create a kinder, gentler, self-satisfied society.  Coming as it does 
immediately before the Passion story, this parable connects our time in 
history and the time of Jesus as an historical person with the reality of 
eschatological judgment at the end of time.  The way this parable 
describes how the faithful are to live is the way Jesus lived "as one that 
served." His actions constantly affirmed his messianic character.  Matthew 
constantly reminded his audience of this in his choice of names by which 
he referred to Jesus of Nazareth, in this instance the OT messianic figure 
of the Son of Man.  As he turned to the all important conclusion of his 
gospel, Matthew was saying that in Jesus the Messiah the divine judgment 
which Israel has anticipated for so long had arrived.  The gospel speaks 
across the millennia with the same clarion call of judgment to our own 
time and place: the crucified and risen Jesus, the ever present 'God with 
us,' is now deciding who will have a part in the eternal reign of love 
fulfilled in God's creation.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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