Mark 2.18-22 / July 26, 2020
Pastor Ken Larson
Have you ever played the board game “Monopoly”? It’s been around since 1935. Every generation since then has grown up moving their playing piece around the Board, wanting to buy railroads or the “Boardwalk” and “Park Place” properties, hoping they wouldn’t pick up the “Chance” card that reads, “Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.” Recently, though, some big changes were announced. One of the original game pieces is being replaced – the “thimble.” Why? Because it just doesn’t connect with most people’s experience today. In the days when socks, pants and shirts were repaired with a needle and thread a thimble was a necessity, but that’s a rare occurrence today. What will replace it – maybe a miniature cell phone?
The world around us changes constantly. What was common knowledge and practice for one generation is different from what succeeding generations know and do. If you …
The situation today is very similar to the first century. When the first Christians took Jesus’ story to the Mediterranean world, they encountered people to whom Abraham, Moses, and the Exodus meant nothing. Everything had to be explained in ways those cultures could grasp. On top of that, most communities had strong ties to other religions. It was a huge challenge to convince Greeks and Romans and Ephesians to embrace the teaching of a Jewish rabbi. It was all new. The message and methods of Jesus were also new to his first audience, the Jewish community. So he had to help people understand that God was doing something unprecedented. Life was about to change.
Life at First Covenant Church is changing, too. You’ve been listening to a new voice from the pulpit for the past month, and you’re praying for the committee that’s seeking a new permanent lead pastor. I’m sure you have questions about who will come and how he or she will minister. How will this person preach? What strengths will he or she bring? The church around the world has been forced to confront a new reality since the Covid 19 pandemic struck. We didn’t meet in person, now some churches are gathering again, but many are choosing to stay home and stick with an online experience. Some Christian leaders are saying that this may be a permanent situation. Many business leaders are finding that having employees work remotely is effective. I heard recently that many corporate CEOs want to renegotiate their office leases because they envision needing less space and others are selling their buildings. How will all these changes affect the church? No one really knows, but we certainly have to be looking ahead, thinking creatively, and asking serious questions about how we reach the next generations. Over the coming years the answers will become obvious, but one thing is certain – change is coming. Are you ready?
One of Jesus’ favorite teaching methods was to tell a story. Over the next seven weeks we’ll be examining these “parables” which use situations from everyday life to teach us about life and faith and God’s Kingdom. The story in Mark 2.18-22 is all about change. Jesus was approached by some Pharisees and disciples of John the Baptist with a question about fasting. This was the practice of giving up food for a time to focus on prayer and introspection. In Jesus’ day every Jew was expected to fast once a year, but certain groups, like the Pharisees, did it more often. Some thought this elevated them in God’s eyes over others who weren’t as devout as they were. Yet Jesus and his disciples didn’t fast. When asked why, he referred to a Jewish wedding feast. It lasted seven days and during that time fasting was prohibited because this was a time for communal rejoicing. So Jesus’ intent was that being around him was an opportunity to be happy about the great things God was doing among his people – healing, helping, instructing – so it was not a time to fast. Christ’s presence announced that because God was doing something new, the old ways just didn’t work anymore.
He went on to explain this with two illustrations. If a person patched an old garment it was no good to use new cloth that had not been shrunk. If you did, when the garment was washed the new cloth would shrink and pull away from the old. In the same way new wine could not be stored in old wineskins. New wine is still fermenting and giving off gas so if it was kept in an old, brittle wineskin, it would burst the skin and then both the wine and the skin would be lost. Instead, new wine was placed in new wineskins that were still soft and supple and able to expand as the wine fermented.
It’s hard for us to grasp how radical Jesus’ teaching and methods appeared. For centuries Judaism demonstrated their faithfulness to God by keeping the traditions that developed over time. Many of these traditions were good because they reminded the people of what God’s love that had saved and protected them. They found their identity in repeating these practices. Then Jesus came along with new perspectives on God and life and faithfulness, and made extraordinary claims about himself like the prerogative to forgive sins and declaring that his teaching was more authoritative than what Moses said. He flouted Sabbath traditions and when religious leaders, like the Pharisees, opposed him he said, “You’re just a bunch of snakes.”
Yet no one could deny that common folks were experiencing God’s presence in a way no one ever had. Jesus’ teaching was like the new patch that couldn’t be over-layed on the old material of Judaism. His presence was the new wine that could not be contained by old traditions. Things were changing. Some hated it, some feared it, and others even called it the work of Satan. However these changes were necessary because Jesus came to reach the whole world, not just the Jewish community. His good news was for everyone – Jews and Romans, Greeks and Parthians, Spaniards and Germans, so for his message to be heard and embraced by a diverse audience it had to shed much of its Jewish character and break out of a provincial straitjacket.
As the culture around us changes, so in every generation Christians shift, too. But not everything changes. I heard one pastor say that the followers of Jesus must “marry” the message of the gospel, but we “date” the methods by which we communicate it (Ray Johnston). That’s true because what worked in 1970 or 1990 or 2010 may not be effective today. The last church I served before retiring was in suburban Detroit. When I came in 1999 it was a congregation of mostly nice white, Christian people, many of whom had a Scandinavian background. Then God began to do something new. Folks started showing up from all over the world, first from Germany and Sierra Leone and Japan. Then others came along who were born in places like India, Korea, Indonesia, England, Puerto Rico, Estonia, Nigeria – even Canada! Along with them we welcomed African-Americans, Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans. When our Sunday school kids packed the platform to sing at Christmas it looked like the United Nations. No, actually it looked like the Kingdom of God. This influx of diverse people changed us – our staff, budget and programs. We invited a Japanese pastor and his wife onto our staff and they started English classes to reach the huge Japanese population around us. Today there are people from eighteen different nations in that church. We didn’t set out to become a multi-cultural church, but when the Lord began to bring these folks our people opened their hearts and their lives so these new friends could experience the love of Christ. It changed our church.
If we get mixed up with Jesus, shouldn’t we expect things to change? Hasn’t God always been in the business of stirring the pot so that his people could discover more of him and then share it with others? Our God is endlessly creative, so why would we think he’d only be interested in us doing the “same old, same old?”
John Woolman was a devout Quaker who lived in the American colonies from 1720-1772. He was a successful merchant who lived a comfortable life. Then God convicted him about the evils of slavery. So he gave up his prosperous business and used his wealth to buy freedom for slaves. He wore undyed suits because dye was produced by slave labor. When he saw slaves on the road he would get out of his carriage and walk with them because they were not permitted to ride in carriages. He would not eat sugar, drink rum, use molasses or any product tainted by slave labor. One writer called him a “quiet revolutionary” who impacted others. By 1787, fifteen years after his death, not a single Quaker in America owned a slave.
If, like John Woolman, you call Jesus not just “Savior” but “Lord,” shouldn’t we become more like him in our character and actions? Why would we believe that we can follow Christ but stay the same? When was the last time you stepped out in response to Jesus’ call on your life to do something new or ventured beyond your comfort zone in service of the gospel? What new things does the Lord want to do in your life that will make you into a different person and bring you into contact with new people so you can impact their lives ? What does Jesus Lord want to do through First Covenant Church that you cannot imagine right now?
It’s not easy to change, but it can happen with the right motivation. I read an article by a man named Wayne. He likes sports, but had zero interest in bowling or roller skating. there were two that didn’t interest him in the least. Then he met a woman named Anna. He was really attracted to her, partly because she also loved sports. On their first date, he excitedly knocked on her door and when she opened it he asked, “Where would you like to go tonight?” To which she said, "Do you like bowling?" as she picked up her own bowling ball and bag. Wayne said, “I love bowling,” and out they went. They had a great time. The next week he picked her up again and asked, “Where would you like to go this week?” She picked up her roller skates and said, “Do you like skating?” And he said, “I've been waiting for months for someone to ask me go skating. I love skating.” They skated all night, it turned out great, and eventually they married. (Wayne Cordeiro, “A Personal Relationship,” Preaching Today audio, #225)
What changed his attitude? The relationship made all the difference. A growing love opened Wayne up to new possibilities and then change was no problem. When you have a growing relationship with Jesus, you’ll discover he wants to transform your life, but it’s always rooted in his love for us. Christ’s invitation to follow was never coerced. When someone came close they felt his love, and then they would do anything for him – even lay down their lives. If we back away from a challenge or ignore a call to ministry or resist a change that deep in our hearts we know is necessary, could it be that our love for God has grown weak or distant or cold? Yet the good news is he’s always inviting us to come closer. He wants to share our burdens. He delights to hear about our joys or fears or questions. Draw near to him in prayer. Listen for his voice in the Scriptures. Fix your eyes on the cross and marvel at the depths of his love for you. Jesus went through the greatest change of all time when he took on the mantle of human flesh and became one of us. He doesn’t ask us to do more than he did.
The future is uncertain, but this presents us with a massive opportunity for creativity and faithfulness. New wineskins will be required. What we can’t afford to be is fearful and what we must never do is stick our heads in the sand and say, “change is not coming.” It’s already here. I heard one church leader say, “Denial is not a strategy.” Instead we must affirm that our God is trustworthy. Know that our Savior’s love never wavers. Be sure that the Holy Spirit is still at work and the Gospel is true. So be hopeful, be faithful, be courageous. AMEN