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What's New?
by Jim Hill
Mark 2: 13-22

"What's new?" we sometimes casually say. Yet it seems that what's new, or the desire for what's new, has become the major goal in our society. Certainly the desire for new THINGS is rampant: new cars, new clothes, new house, and so on.

I don't think it's only because we're discontented with what we have. There seems to be also an elitism behind it, or maybe even an inferiority complex, behind the desire to be avant-garde and trendy and at the leading edge.

I'm reminded of the Athenians' desire to hear St. Paul speak to them in the Areopagus, in Acts 17. These people of Athens asked Paul, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means." The next verse says: "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new."

On the other extreme, are those who believe that OLDER is better. They're into antiques or old philosophy or old religion. Or they want to go back to a pristine world where nature was untouched. Or they simply want to keep things the way they were when they were growing up. Oh, I love the 1950's; don't you?

Such conservatism has a lot of Biblical support. For instance, in Luke's version of today's lesson about the wineskins, Luke adds a saying of Jesus that Mark does not have: "No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'" The old is good.

It's been about 14 years now, since my wife and I took our European tour, but I still remember it well. I remember thinking, "Oh! The art! The architecture! The music! The food! Why would anyone want to live anywhere else? The old is SO GOOD!"

I also remember thinking, upon return here, that the main preoccupation of our society and most societies is development, whereas in Europe, the concern is preservation. And rightly so! Particularly in places like Venice — that huge outdoor art gallery— whose foundations are sinking while the sea level is rising. I can see why they're spending big money trying to preserve that wonderful city.

Jewish society in Palestine 2000 years ago was very conservative. And it was really tough for the Jews to preserve their culture and traditions and religion, because the world was changing so rapidly. The over-arching Roman Empire was bringing globalization. The excellent roads and increased travel was bringing a mixing of cultures into the Middle East (kind of parallels what Canada is experiencing today).

Israel was being invaded, as had happened so often before, but this time mainly by a very strong Greek culture and a very strong Roman culture. And it wasn't just xenophobia on the part of Jewish leaders. They knew they must be conservative, because theirs was the true religion. Jehovah/Yahweh, the only true God, had spoken through Moses and the prophets, saying Israel was the chosen people, that the gods of other nations were idols. The Creator of the universe had given them his marvellous laws from Mount Sinai. So they were the keepers of the truth, the holders of the light, and they knew it. It was only right, therefore, that they should be ultra-conservative.

Then along comes this guy Jesus, a nobody from the backwater of Nazareth, not even officially a Rabbi, telling them: "I am the Messiah. The Old Testament is fulfilled. It's superseded! Follow me." Even in today's Gospel Lesson, when Jesus says that wedding guests don't fast while the groom is around, he's as much as declaring: "I am the bridegroom." He's identifying himself with the groom HOSEA talked about in the First Lesson, namely God himself, who took Israel for his bride. Woo, Radical stuff!

Then Jesus uses those vivid metaphors: he says that the kingdom he is bringing is like a new patch on an old cloak, and like new wine in an old wineskin. He says to them: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but (rather) one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

New wine is still changing and expanding, you see; so you have to have a container that gives with the expanding wine. You can't have a hardened and IN- flexible wineskin! But that's what most of his hearers were. So most of them rejected Jesus.

Some, of course, by the power of the Holy Spirit, were open to change. Maybe they recalled some of those Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah, where God says: "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" Or perhaps, hearing Jesus, they recalled the prophet Jeremiah's words: "The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of . . . Egypt— a covenant they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD."

In that ultra-conservative climate, most of Jesus' hearers, unfortunately, rejected him. So the old religion was left in the dust, and Jesus' followers became the New Israel. To this day, we mark world history as being either before or after Christ, BC or AD. Because Jesus is the hinge of history, the door to the new era, the beginning of the new eon we're now in.

Well, we've been in it 2000 years now, and Jesus and his teachings are OLD HAT to us! But they're new to some people; so that Christianity is growing like wildfire in parts of Africa and Asia.

I was reading in the newspaper the other day, that Johann Sebastian Bach is NEW to most people in Japan. A writer in Civilization magazine says: "Two hundred fifty years ago, he was known as a civil servant, a coffee drinker, and a second-rate composer. [Today,] at the birth of a new century, an enormous Bach resurgence is underway — particularly in Japan. There, in one of the most un- religious countries in the world, thousands of people are converting to Christianity after listening to Bach's cantatas."

Bach is NEW, to many people still today, and to new generations of children in THIS country, if they're fortunate enough to be exposed to him as they grow up (amid all the noise that passes itself off as music).

In a sense, this is old wine in NEW wineskins, if I can stretch the metaphor a bit. Jesus' point, in the wine metaphor, is that we must be open and flexible and ready to STRETCH with the movement of the Holy Spirit, otherwise we'll break like an old wineskin, or like a frozen branch in the wind.

"Newness of life" is what God wants for us. And we experience newness when the Holy Spirit opens our minds and hearts to something that's NEW TO US. Ecclesiastes says, "There's nothing new under the sun," but if it's new to us, it's new.

In today's Gospel Lesson we have the very brief story of Matthew (called Levi here). Matthew moves, stretches, leaves his desk, and goes with Jesus to a new and unknown destination.

So also we. And so also the church, has constantly had to move with the call of God— sometimes willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming. Nonetheless, it was Christians who led the Reformation and Renaissance in the Luther's day; Christians who brought democracy to Europe; Christians who eliminated slavery; Christians who ousted Communism in Eastern Europe. Of course, not Christians but the Holy Spirit of Christ, working in people "both to will and to do of his good pleasure".

Recently the church has moved to allow women to vote and to teach in the church, and even to become pastors. We've re-examined old Scriptures and found deeper meaning. St. Paul's prescriptions were really compromises, WISE compromises between the cultural extremes of his day. Among the Jews, women stayed home from church; among the Gentiles, women were the Temple leaders and took over everything. So Paul suggested a new way.

Recently, there's a movement to reform the church's traditional attitude towards homosexuals. Not that we should sanction sodomy or so-called "homosexual marriage," for there are some natural laws that are unchanging. But God is surely calling us to treat ANY freaky, misfit type of person, the way Jesus treated those tax-collectors and sinners in today's Gospel Lesson.

A loving attitude, and hospitality towards homosexuals, may be new to us, but it's Jesus who is calling us, calling us to be open to new movements of his Spirit. And God is calling us to learn from the mistakes of those people who condemned Jesus when he got chummy with the scum of the earth.

Evolution is another example. I used to think the theory of evolution contradicted what the Bible says in Genesis 1 and 2. Then I learned some new things, such as, that there's definitely a fossil record showing a horse that was originally the size of a dog, and the evidence shows that it evolved into the horse we have today. Since then, I've come to believe that all the kinds of cats we have today, from pussycats up to tigers, evolved from one kind of original cat. And all the breeds of dogs, from poodles up to wolves and hyenas, all originally came from one kind of dog. Otherwise, how could Noah have gotten all those different kinds of animals on the ark? Back in Noah's day, in prehistory, there were fewer kinds! It makes sense.

On the Biblical side of things, it became obvious to me from studying different kinds of Bible literature, that Genesis 1 is a kind of poem, with a refrain: "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day; there was evening and there was morning, the second day;" and so on. "God worked six days, and on the seventh he rested." Is that a metaphor, or what?! It's a wonderful, poetic and figurative way of describing something that even scientists can't explain. It's a simple story we can understand, yet it describes beautifully and truthfully what happened. Light was created first, before the sun and moon; it even fits with the modern Theory of Relativity.

For some Christians, this is not a new idea. But it's relatively new to me. And I use it as an example of how we ought to be open to the Holy Spirit's leading us into new ideas, new knowledge, new experiences, and new lifestyles.

There's nothing to fear. We are saved by grace, by Jesus' merit; we are secure with God; and we know Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore, we can sing to the Lord a new song, just as the choir did with "Beautiful Saviour". For Christ will always be with us, in Word and Sacrament, to the close of the age.

So "Viva the revolutionary Jesus"! Let us pray: Dear God, may Your Spirit work mightily in each of us. And lead us to the new things You have in store for us. Amen.

HYMN 433 "The Church of Christ in Every Age"