Göttinger Predigten im Internet
ed. by U. Nembach, J. Neukirch

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2005
Matthew 25:31-46, Hubert Beck
(->current sermons )

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.


What do you say to a friend who asks you what time is? It defies definition, by and large. Our attempts to explain it tend to fall back almost immediately upon divisions of time such as seconds, minutes, hours, days and years after the fashion we are observing this New Year’s Eve.

Those are divisions of time that we humans have made up, however. Before ever there were clocks to measure time, it existed. The “time of day” and years were measured differently, but they existed as surely as they do today. Time has been spoken of in many ways throughout the history of humankind. Even today we speak of cosmic time in terms of light years and speak of the possibility of “reversing time” if one could exceed the speed of light! Definitions of time are elusive, to say the least. Measurements of time are never more than ways of dividing time. They are not definitions of time.

So we fall back on our sense of time, saying, as is common on this New Year’s Eve, “Where has the year gone? It seems only yesterday that we were celebrating the New Year of 2005 and here it is the New Year of 2006 already.” We sense how time seems to pass “faster” when we wish we could hold it back or it seems to go “slower” when we anxiously await a future moment of special joy. We comment on how time seems to pass so much faster as we get older. We speak of how much time a young person has left compared to how much time a person of eighty or ninety has left . . . as though time were a “commodity” to be possessed, used or spent. None of this defines time, however. It only speaks of how we experience time.

It is equally hard, of course, to define eternity . . . timelessness, in other words. How does God exist outside of and without the binding nature of time? Time is, to be sure, part of God’s creation, but God’s existence is not necessarily defined by or confined within time. God, does, however, accommodate himself to time when he reaches into history as he did through Abraham and the history of the people who came from his children, intercepting it, moving it, changing its direction . . . or even submitting himself to it as he did in Jesus, whose entrance into time from eternity we celebrated only a week ago. In death we leave the boundaries of time and enter into a timeless existence . . . a life without end. Such thoughts boggle our minds, do they not? How does one live without an awareness of time?

We usually speak of this experience of time in one of two dimensions, both of which have been brought to the fore in the season of Advent which ended a week ago today.

On the one hand we heard on the first Sunday of Advent about how “linear time,” the experience of time as beginning at one point and going toward another point, governs most of our every-day thinking. Not all cultures think of time in that way, for among some peoples time has a circular shape and is understood quite differently from the way we speak of and think about it in Judeo-Christian terms. This “linear” view of time, however, begun in the original creation and moving toward the time when it will again cease as it is received back into eternity, is the way we speak of how God pressed forward from the very entrance of sin into the world toward a time when he would radically alter the world’s future by entering into its history through a revolutionary act of his own making. This is what Christians talk about when they speak of the work of Jesus, the Redeemer. St. Paul says it this way: “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin . . . how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many.” (Romans 5:12 ff.) The new possibilities that emerged through this one “new man” so overwhelmed the deathliness of the old world that humans experienced a “re-birth” of time, so to speak. The old time destined for death was done away with and a “new heavens and a new earth” born from outside of time and now become present in time was at the disposal of all whose lives were claimed by this Jesus, the new Adam. Thus all previous time was moving toward this renewal of time. Israel of old and its prophets were eagerly looking toward this moment of God’s interrupting act.

On the other hand, that way of looking at time is turned inside out when we speak of time as coming to us, bringing to us, a waiting people, new hope – a salvation from a future toward which we were headed that was threatening, including the threat of death itself. The future is coming to us. God not only is in that future, but he is, himself, both the author of that future and the source of all hope that comes from that future. We wait for him, for all our efforts at making our own future are futile. We are mired hopelessly in the weaknesses and sins and failures of our humanity. The harder we try to escape this by a ferocious striving to improve things, the more deeply we sink into our hopelessness like the spinning wheels of a snowbound car attempting to free itself from the slippery iciness underfoot. It is only the coming of help from outside that gives us hope. We who wait are filled with joy at his coming, and angels filled the heavens and the earth with the glad word of the approach of that help in Bethlehem with their glad refrain: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:24) The assault on the demonic forces of sin and death was fully mounted in the coming of this young child whose birth we celebrated – who came to us as an act initiated and carried out entirely by him who came from our future into the present of our lives to change the course of the future that we would experience!

Think now, however, of yet another way to consider our experience of time as the old Year ebbs out and a New Year comes upon us. Have you ever been in a terrible hurry to do something that needed to be done or to get to an appointment for which you feared you would be late? And while you hurried, you passed by people leisurely sauntering down the street as though they had all the time in the world – you saw people sitting on benches lazily watching the world go by – you noticed young children playing as though time did not exist. You recognized in a strange way a “parallel world of time” to that which you were feeling at the time. You could hardly imagine what it might be like to simply sit or walk quietly without any compulsive need to get somewhere or to do something that you felt necessary. Their time was of an entirely different sort than the time you were feeling.

Think of time and eternity running on such a parallel path! As time runs its course here on earth, it is separated only by the thinnest of a separating partition from eternity. While we run our course with a sense of time such as we have been speaking about, eternity is so close to us that it hardly takes a small “push,” so to speak, to move back and forth from one to the other. That gentle “push” is simply a word moving back and forth between time and eternity. Let me illustrate:

The eternal Son of God is “spoken” into the womb of Mary by the gentle overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and “the eternal Word” becomes flesh and lives among us! The word of God broke through the barrier between time and eternity . . . and eternity is suddenly enfleshed in the child of Bethlehem. He speaks words of healing and revitalization that are rooted in eternity and the sick are healed, the wounded are restored to wholeness, the lame are made to walk, the blind are made to see. These acts of our Lord are little “peepholes” into the way things were intended to be if sin had not entered the world and destroyed its wholeness and health. Jesus opens small apertures of eternity in the midst of our human brokenness by speaking the word of the Lord and a sudden flash of eternity’s wholeness is brought into the time of afflicted humans. Jesus takes upon himself as a man of our time the death that would be unending were it not for his willingness to sinlessly become sin for all sinners and the miserable deathliness of our earth is swallowed up in the life that is restored to him – and to us through him. The eternal will of God is carried out and appears in a fleshly way through this man! Is this not a wonder – that the parallel world of eternity is “pushed over” into our time and our time is suddenly filled full of the promise that originated in eternity and becomes our hope for everlasting life?!?!?

Think of this in yet another way through the pouring of water with simple words: “I baptize you, John / Mary, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The name of the eternal God is planted on the mortal frame of John / Mary through this water that was joined to the word of the Lord. Without the word, as Luther says in his blunt way, the water is nothing but the water of a maiden washing dishes, but when the word of the Lord is joined to it, the parallel world of eternity is drawn through the thin dividing line and the eternal God claims us, living in time, as his child whom he will hold dear until the baptized one, grown in faith and grace and fullness of this life, crosses the line of time into the eternity from which that word joined to those waters originated. In like fashion, bread and wine is joined to the eternal Word made flesh through the words that cross between that eternal point of gracious love into the timeliness of the eating and drinking of those who trust the One through whom that line has become permeable, as it were. We, in time, carry the presence of the eternal One through the faith generated by our baptism and fed on the bread and wine of the holy eucharist! Here is the wonder of wonders – that time and eternity flow back and forth in all these ways as though the fine line between our time and God’s eternity were governed by nothing other than a word that presses back and forth between here and there!

It is likely that, as you have listened to what may have sounded like a philosophical dissertation on time (but be assured, it is not, for it is vital to an understanding of Christian faith as we have tried to make clear), you recognize how all this applies to New Year’s Eve as we celebrate the passage of time. But the Gospel reading seems quite far removed from all this talking about time, does it not?

Listen to it again closely, however, and you will find that, in a sense, we have been talking about this text all along: “I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needed clothes, sick, in prison . . . and you addressed my needs.” Thus spoke Jesus as he set forth a picture of that scene when time would end and be swallowed up into eternity. To paraphrase him, “That which you did in the time that I gave you as you saw the suffering of the world was so close to eternity that your actions pressed over into the eternity that you are now entering. I was here in eternity, watching, waiting, experiencing all the hurts and pains of the world. As once, on the cross, I took up that horrendous anguish that suffuses the whole fallen world, so also I have been present in every hunger pang, every thirsty tongue, every lonely and naked and sick person, in all whose lives were imprisoned in a tortured existence from which they could not set themselves free. I, from whose eternal existence every moment of your time has flowed, have been there . . . asking you in your time to see the suffering needy of the world as those in whom I, having crossed over from eternity into time, am present. I have blessed you with the resources necessary to come to the aid of those whose lives are rooted in eternity through whom I became present for you in your time.” Eternity rubs just alongside our time and invites us to participate already now in the works of him whose eternal mercy in his Son presses over into our lives with forgiveness and grace!

There are those, however, for whom eternity is, at best, far away and untouched by time. They can and do live as though nothing other than time itself matters. Oh, they undoubtedly also conduct acts of mercy, for it is common knowledge among the children of men that the merciless can expect no mercy when they need it. They undoubtedly have, themselves, done many things

. . . often, even, great things . . . in service to their world. There is a common sense of a certain “indebtedness” on the part of those who have much to care for those who have little. The world knows in its own way and time the necessity of charitable deeds, and it often performs them admirably. But they are nothing more than acts with human boundaries, with a time-bound sense of passing on from generation to generation a sense of benevolence and generosity and munificence, an understanding that philanthropy is essential to the continued welfare of civilization. But the King is never really in the picture at all. In short, harsh though it may sound, “They have done it as to themselves” and not to the King at all. As Jesus put it elsewhere, “They have received their reward.”

So the considerations of time with which we began these thoughts are deeply imbedded in the Gospel for this evening. Do you not hear echoes of the same thoughts in the First Lesson where the holy writer speaks of “a time for everything”? Some times call for one response and other times call for still other responses. But in all the times and in all the responses we are “rubbing up against” eternity and the writer concludes a bit later, “Everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.” (Ecc. 3:14) His words, too, rub back and forth between the God who “endures forever” and the lives of those in time who “revere him.”

The same echoes resound in the Second Lesson when John receives the marvelous vision we know as the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. He sees “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” The new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and a loud voice from the throne says, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” The entire book goes back and forth between the eternity of God and the time which is brushing up against it, the time which derives its meaning and purpose from the eternity against which it is brushing in which every tear will be wiped from the eyes and death and mourning will be no more.

So the Gospel is a way to lead and govern what will happen in the year that now stretches before us. Our earthly time will continue to be measured by days and weeks and years, but it will be filled with actions and deeds which are brushing up against the eternity that stands immediately alongside our days and weeks and years. When you see the hungry and thirsty and sick and lonely and the needy of every kind remember to “see through” the time within which they have appeared and find in and through them an image of eternity staring you squarely in the face, transforming the time allotted to you into a Christ-like image of eternity!

Hubert Beck