Friends of the beloved community,
Today, in the fresh, full, fiery breath of Pentecost, it is my joy to think with you on the subject ‘All Things New’. Jesus said, in the Gospel as Matthew understands it, Chapter 9 at the end of verse14, ‘Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Jesus is saying something quite vital here for making a good batch of wine. He’s saying, ‘Don’t come to me first, saying ‘O, the French make wine like this, so we should to’. Don’t come to me first, saying, ‘O, our people, the Hebrews, have made wine for centuries like this, so we should to’. Don’t come to me, saying St. so and so or Queen so and so fought of the dragon after just one gulp of wine, some even say a sip, so we should too. No. Jesus suggests such truths are subservient to an even deeper truth: ‘new wine in new wineskins’.
Jesus is not ignoring the chardonnays and merlot’s of the winemaking tradition. He’s just saying that however good the crafter of wine, however good the batch of wine, if you put new wine in old wineskins, there’s no way going around the fact that it’d burst and we’d have to call ‘party foul’, for new wine needs new wineskins.
What is he getting at? No doubt Jesus valued the glories of the distant past and places. He, a good jew, says early on in his early ministry, ‘I did not come to abolish the old way of doing things: the law and the prophets’. ‘Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ Tradition is important, for Jesus, in that it can help inform us of the best known way to move forward.
But Jesus realized deeper still that the long caravan of history had been headed in one way and it needed to turn in a different direction. Jesus says, ‘You have heard it had been said by them of old do this or do that, but I say to you….do it a different way’. Jesus understood that fitting his new life into the old habits of thinking was like putting fresh wine into old wineskins. The glories of the distant past and places are to be honored, but they are subservient to a more basic truth, a truth that is timeless and eternal, a truth that every generation needs to learn for itself: where the spirit of God is, there is a new creation.
One of the great tragedies of history is that too often the prophets, in tune with the Creative spirit, come forth with fresh insights, novel thoughts, innovative ways of thinking and being, but they are not accepted by the people because of their old habits of thinking. Sadly, paradoxically, the religious may be the most guilty. How many religious establishments miss the embrace of the Moses’ and Jesus’ of history, or for that matter the Galileo’s and Darwin’s of history, because of minds closed on the past?
Politicians are little better. Saul, the first King of Israel, was rejected by God, the king of kings, and Samuel, the prophet, for his disobedience. Why? The Lord said to Saul that he would win in battle on the condition that the old way of doing things according to was utterly destroyed. But Saul ‘did not obey’. ‘When the prophet, Samuel, rebukes him for this and then in the name of God rejects him from being king of Israel,’ Saul gives an explanation: ‘I have heard the voice of the people who took the best of this livestock to sacrifice to the Lord’. His justification is thus: ‘I listened to the people and the people told me: this is how my parents did it and their parents did it: the most valuable things go to the service of the Lord as a sacrifice. This is how it’s always been done!”. Samuel responds to Saul, ‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” Samuel is not saying that the old is rubbish, but that it is secondary to the voice of God which is calling his people, not those people back them, but his people now to do something different, something new.
Hundreds of years later, as the people of Israel again find themselves in perplexing times, two of the greatest prophets of the bible emerge in a fresh wind. Jeremiah says
I looked” — and we don’t know who I is — “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid waste before the anger, before His fierce anger.’
Jeremiah is describing creation in reverse: creation being de-created. It’s such a powerful way of describing what it’s like when we do not live according to Creator. And Jeremiah has for his people a new solution, ‘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 to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord….I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ This is what Christians know centrally as our new covenant.
Likewise, Isaiah creates a new cocktail. He says, “Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Both Jeremiah and Isaiah are saying quite remarkable, especially for a Jew. They’re saying, just forget the Exodus, and ignore its miracles, and instead pay attention to the new miracles of rebirth and new creation that God is enacting before your very eyes.
But there is another side of the equation as well. Victor Hugo said ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Sure, Jesus was killed by the traditionalists, but the body lives. Sure, Martin Luther King was murdered by the old school, but his dream lives on. Traditionalists can hurt and kill the person, but not the Word.
As for our age, we are confronted with a myriad new questions, brought on to no small part by our access to information through the internet. Gay marriage, wealth inequality, robots, to name a few. How will we respond? For many people, religion is the last thing they’d turn to think about addressing such new questions. Religion, they posit, is more about creeds than it is about trust, more about discipline than it is worship, more about habit than it is love, more about the splendor of the past than it is the struggle for today and tomorrow. But if you actually read the bible, you’d know rather that for its characters faith is no heirloom, but a living fountain. As in Hebrews,
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did….And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.
7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
1All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Faith, not as an heirloom, but as a living fountain, to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase. This is what the Karl Barth, the German Theologian, experience when he said that as he began to read the bible seriously he found himself entering ‘the strange new world of the bible’ (not a familiar old worldview, but a strange new worldview).
I wonder, alongside Jesus and many other prophets who pushed their age into a new dawn, are you putting new wine in old wineskins? Or are you forcing new wine in old wineskins, perhaps to save the effort of rethinking and living your ways? Personally, do you look at your body and preoccupy your mind with what it looked like in the days of your youth or before kids or that it should look like that person? Relationally, is you heart left back then when you got married or went on that honeymoon or when that relative was a total ass? Sexually, did something happen to you back then, which hinders your body coming together with another now? Religiously and politically, are you reading your holy text and tradition and not the strange new world before your eyes. If so, my call to you as a Christian is, sit up, pay attention, without disregarding the past, fear not flying with the fresh wind that God is blowing into town.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”’ ha.
Can I get a witness?