by Daniel Harrell
Human beings are naturally wired for newness. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists demonstrate our attention is involuntarily drawn to novelty and innovation—we can’t help but want the new thing. Advertisers have known this for years, of course, thus their overuse of adjectives like “never before,” “fresh,” new and improved,” and “just released.” Politicians too. As candidates continue line up for a run at the White House—from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders—prepare to be pounded over the next year and half with promises of newness and change. Change denotes hope and possibility, a chance to start over or try again. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” That’s a President Obama line. Got him elected twice.
The gospels are all about newness when it comes to Jesus. Matthew and Luke speak of his mother Mary as having never before carried a child. Mark and Luke mention a brand new colt on which Jesus triumphantly rode into Jerusalem Palm Sunday, “one that had never been ridden.” At the Last Supper Jesus announced a new covenant in his blood. Crucified, he was buried in a fresh “tomb where no one had ever been laid.” Jesus rose from the dead to launch new creation. The apostle Paul declared, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old is gone the new is come.” And then in Revelation, so as not to forget that book, the risen Christ ushers in a new heaven and earth, “Behold, I am making everything new,” he proclaimed, as if he was just getting started.
There is an irony in all of this (I’ve never preached a sermon without it). Jesus said we had to become like children for any of this to work. Even harder, he said we had to start completely over; be born again. Change isn’t something we make happen as much as it is something we let happen to us. In the end as from the start, new creation and deep change are out of our hands.
For those who understand, prayer is the pathway forward. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” becomes our constant byline. And even when we humble ourselves and submit to the way of the Lord, change seems way too slow. As a result we might try and fast track it. In Jesus’ day, abstaining from food displayed humility, sorrow and seriousness. Be contrite enough and God would have mercy and act more quickly. If he didn’t, at least everybody watching would feel sorry for you while praising your spiritual discipline and tenacity. You’d get to feel proud for being so humble. This is probably why Jesus warned not to be obvious when you fast, “as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.”
Jesus’ mention of hypocrites usually included the Pharisees, the religious professionals of Jesus’ day. Scripture required an annual fast on the Day of Atonement, but the Pharisees, who often figured they could do better than God, upped it to twice a week, which would have been fine, I guess, if they’d kept it to themselves. But righteousness is hard to keep quiet, especially when you generate your own.
Jesus was decidedly not fasting here in Matthew’s house. He’s eating a hearty dinner with a heinous sinner, a fiendish tax-collector no less, one whom Jesus had nevertheless recruited to join his merry apostolic band. Inasmuch as you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep, the Pharisees were appalled. They said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them using one of his famous “slice of life” sayings, a statement of the obvious intended to slice away pretense and superiority. “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do.” Fair enough, the Pharisees always considered tax-collectors and sinners to be sick. But Jesus then told the religious professionals to go read their Bibles, specifically the prophet Hosea where God says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” where “sacrifice” implies a certain sanctimoniousness the Pharisees constantly exuded. Mercy, on the other hand, derived from that magisterial Hebrew noun, hesed, representing the sum total of God’s love toward all people—a love Jesus readily shows here as a way of hinting at his own true identity.“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners,” Jesus said. The Doctor was in the house and had little time for those who believed themselves to be good enough already.
We’re used to this repartee with the Pharisees. Jesus was always yanking their chains. But what are the disciples of John the Baptist doing here? John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets who prepared the way for the Lord by letting let loose a barrage of hellfire and doom, labeling the religious establishment a brood of vipers and the current government a deviant evil. He vehemently warned everybody to get ready for Judgment, to fast and repent. Kingdom come was just around the bend, by way of one whose sandals he was unfit to untie, a winnowing fork in hand with which to separate wheat from chaff. Though critical of the Pharisees’ smugness, they find themselves in the same camp when it comes to Jesus. The disciples of John ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but you and your disciples do not?”
Jesus serves up another slice of life, moving from reception area to wedding reception, from his role as Physician to being the Bridegroom. Who’d ever fast at a wedding? “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them.” For Jews steeped in Old Testament prophecy, the wedding allusion would have been familiar. The prophets described God’s relationship with his people as a marriage—though it was mostly a bad marriage. Isaiah narrated the wedding, but then Hosea exposed the infidelity. Jeremiah filed the divorce.
Yet with God as a God of hesed, no way would the divorce ever be final. The Lord comes in person to heal the rift, a Great Physician to cure the sick and the sinner, to propose a new start. Who wouldn’t want to marry a doctor? Time to get out the good china! It was finally time for cake and for wine! This was it, the change everybody had been fasting for.
Not so fast, said the Pharisees. How could Jesus be anybody’s answer to prayer? He had a highly suspect background, a poor working-class upbringing. He lived on the streets and surrounded himself with oddballs and misfits. He flouted religious convention and got famous for doing it—which would have been fine had Jesus been a bad boy himself. Instead he’s hailed as a wise rabbi and wonderworker, a paragon of virtue and a real peach of a guy, the sort of celebrity the Pharisees worked so hard to attain for themselves. Jesus was stealing their lines and their thunder; hogging a righteous limelight they’d labored their whole careers to secure, all by going around dispensing easy forgiveness and telling stories that never make any sense. They can’t stand this guy.
As for the Baptists, they heard John point out Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” but what they’d hoped for a more savage sheep; a blazing baptizer who would separate out chaff and burn it with unquenchable fire. But Jesus hardly lit a spark. No unquenchable fire. Not even quenchable fire. Matthew tells later how from prison a disappointed John told his disciples to go find Jesus cousin and ask: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we be expecting somebody else?”
We say we want change, we just don’t want something different. This is obvious, Jesus illustrates, with a couple more slices of life. “You can’t patch old clothing with new cloth,” he said. “You can’t use an old cork with new wine.”
Upper Room moved in yesterday. Their offices are now right down the hall. 600 strong with a lot of loud music. We’re now two congregations in cohabitation. There’s a lot of excitement, but also some skepticism. I’ve talked with a number of religious professionals about it in recent weeks, many wondering whether such a collaboration can work among Christians.“You can’t pour new wine into old wineskins,” they politely remind me, without saying which congregation is what.
It made me remember a time years ago where a small dying church was down to its last 24 members. Our bigger church was in the throes of growth, trying to decide whether to add another worship service to accommodate crowds. I suggested we try and resuscitate this smaller church since so many of our new members were traveling from that neighborhood to our place. The little church was currently without a minister or the means to support one; we had twelve pastors and could surely spare one. How about a free interim minister and some more people until they could get back on their feet? Talk about an answer to prayer, right? Change you can believe in. The little congregation was ecstatic before they got nervous. We say we want change, we just don’t want something different. They called the whole thing off.
A couple years later I got a call from that same little church, now down to twelve members. Was an offer still on the table? By now we’d added that fourth worship service, but what the heck, we’re all on the same team, so sure, let’s try it. We still had plenty of pastors and plenty of people. Shoot, I was happy to do the preaching myself. We drew up plans and got all the requisite permissions and were just about to launch when their feet got cold again (maybe having something to do with a some of my sermons they heard.) A few months and fewer members later, they disbanded their 120-year-old congregation and sold the building. It’s luxury condos now.
“You can’t patch old clothes with new cloth,” Jesus said. “The patch pulls away and a worst tear is made.” “You can’t pour new wine into old skins,” he said. “New wine bursts the old skins and everything is ruined.” If you’re going to change, you have to change everything. Everything has to be new. You don’t wear old clothes to a wedding. You can’t drink spilled wine.
For the Pharisees, their relationship with God was all about doctrine and duty. Obedience was crucial even if you had to fake it. Fasting displayed righteous respectability. For John’s disciples, their relationship with God was all about justice. They longed for vengeance against oppression and the humiliation of power. Fasting fueled their righteous anger. For Jesus, a relationship with God kingdom included obedience and justice. But is started with grace: grace that elicited obedience as gratitude instead of achievement; grace that did justice as goodness instead of not revenge. Jesus came not as an haranguing preacher pointing fingers or as a looting revolutionary ready to fight, but as a bridegroom eager to love. And as far as he was concerned, his wedding party was open to anybody.
Sadly, neither the Pharisees nor the Baptists were in the mood to eat Despite their hunger for obedience and justice, neither were hungry for the food Jesus offered. Apparently you have to be starving to ever want grace. In the end, the Pharisees would get Jesus killed and John’s disciples would do nothing to stop it.
“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” There would be sorrow and grief on Jesus’ disciples’ part once he was arrested, beaten, executed and buried—the enormity of human disobedience and injustice piled on his shoulders. But three days later he’d show up, proving all things were new with an invitation to eat and drink up. His own flesh and blood is change and new life, new clothes and new wine, a new heart and new spirit and new life to be lived, avec joie et innové. This is good news: If anyone is in Christ you are a new creation now. Time to live the change that’s already happened.
“Behold, I am making everything new,” Jesus said, as if he was just getting started. Change isn’t something we make happen as much as it is something we let happen to us. Something we let happen and enjoy.