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Images of New Life

Eighty-six year old Joy Johnson, a veteran of 25 New York City marathons, died with her running shoes on. Johnson, who was the oldest runner in the 2013 marathon, fell at the 20 mile marker in the event. But she got up again, and she crossed the finish line in about eight hours. After the race she returned to her hotel room, lay down with her shoes on, and never woke up.
Here’s the real kicker: Johnson didn’t run her first marathon until she was sixty-one years old. Ironically, Johnson was a career gym teacher, but a stranger to personal exercise until she took a three-mile walk in 1986. Then she started jogging and competing in 10-K races. By 1988 she had competed in her first New York City Marathon. Three years later she recorded her best time at age sixty-four: 3 hours and 55 minutes.

After being a runner for awhile, Johnson established a daily routine. She would wake up at 4 A.M., drink her coffee while reading her Bible, and then set out on an eight mile pre-dawn run. “When you wake up it can either be a good day or a bad day,” Ms. Johnson said. “I always say, ‘It’s going to be a good day.’” The only day she didn’t follow this routine was Sunday—so she could attend church.[1]

Wow! What a great way to live…and die…joyously open to the new! I believe that is the way Jesus wants us to live. And that’s what the Scripture is all about for today from Mark 2:18-22. Listen for God’s word to you….
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
21 “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And 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 one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

Fasting, prayer, and giving alms were the three great spiritual disciplines of the Jews in Jesus’ day. The only compulsory fast for all Jews was on the Day of Atonement. However, the Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday as well, from 6 am to 6 pm. After those hours, normal food could be eaten. John the Baptist was obviously known for his practice of fasting because Jesus refers to John “eating no bread and drinking no wine” (Luke 7:33).

By not fasting, Jesus and his disciples stood out as different when compared to the Pharisees, or even compared to John with whom Jesus was more closely associated. People naturally wondered why Jesus and his disciples did not practice fasting.

Jesus used three vivid images to explain why he and his disciples did not practice fasting. Let’s look at them one by one. The first image was that of a wedding.

After a Jewish wedding the couple did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home for an entire week of partying. Life was hard work in first century Palestine. But in the midst of such a hard life the week of a person’s wedding was the happiest. The couple would have all their family and friends around them. Their closest friends were called “children of the bridechamber”. Jesus compared his band of disciples to the children of the bridechamber, the chosen guests at a wedding party. The rabbis actually had a rule that said, “All in attendance on the bridegroom are relieved of all religious observances which would lessen their joy.” The wedding guests were exempt from all fasting.

With this image, Jesus explained to his questioners that his presence with his disciples was a time for joy, akin to a wedding party, not a time for somber fasting. This indicates that the characteristic Christian attitude toward life is one of joy.

I do not know how many weddings I have performed, but I would say there have been quite a few, more since we have moved to Stowe. All of the weddings I’ve been part of have been joyous occasions, except for one that had a few tense moments in it. I was performing the wedding for a couple we knew in Ireland. They got officially married at the local registry office, then I performed the Christian ceremony in the home of our friends, Douglas and Merrie Gresham. However, the groom’s parents were not believers. So, in the midst of the Christian ceremony they got up and walked out with quite a colorful display of anger.

Interesting is it not? The absence of Christ coincided with the absence of joy. Once the anti-Christian members of the groom’s family were gone, we all had a grand time.

The Christian life is marked by joy, and even opposition from anti-Christian forces cannot dampen that spirit of joy for long. As Paul says in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”

Joy, unlike mere happiness, is compatible with suffering. There was probably never a more joyful person than Jesus of Nazareth, and yet he suffered greatly. In fact, he refers to his future suffering in this passage. He predicts there will come a time when the bridegroom will be taken away, then there will be fasting. By this statement, Jesus refers to the time when he will be taken from his disciples and he will hang upon a cross. Only the one who has gone through the suffering of the cross and come out the other side can give us a joy that the world cannot take away.

The second image Jesus used, to explain why he and his disciples did not fast, was that of sewing a patch on a piece of clothing.

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.”

Jesus knew that his way of living defied the orthodox conventions of his day. Everything about him presented a startlingly new way of looking at life. He understood people very well and he knew how hard some people find it to accept new ways of looking at things. That is why he used these images from everyday life to get his point across: that one needs to have an adventurous mind, open to the new.

Jesus had an uncanny ability for taking everyday things and using them as illustrations of spiritual principles. Furthermore, Jesus’ stories and word-pictures were never confined to just one world, just one way of seeing life; his illustrations covered the spectrum of first century life in Palestine. In this case, he spoke about a piece of un-shrunk cloth. He must have seen his mother mend garments countless times. He knew that if you take a piece of un-shrunk cloth and put it as a patch on an old garment, as soon as it gets wet, it will contract. Furthermore, as it contracts it will stretch the old garment to which it is sewn, and the old garment being weak will tear, whereas the new patch is fresh and strong and will not rip.

By this little word picture, Jesus was saying: there comes a time when patching is over and re-creating must begin. He was subtly telling his hearers that such a time had arrived for Judaism.

Christianity has faced such times in the past, when the Church has had to re-think what it believes and start afresh. It is not that we ever need to throw out our core principles, but every so often, we find that some article of belief we thought was essential (like a flat earth) can safely be discarded. We never need to throw out Jesus, because he is ever new. However, sometimes we have to throw out doctrines we have taught in his name because they are old and rotting.

I believe that the Church is facing just such a time again with regard to various social issues in our world today, and in regard to church structures. The old ways of looking at some issues just do not make sense anymore, and the old ways of doing church make less and less sense, perhaps to the majority of the world that needs Jesus Christ. In short, the Church must change or die. We cannot go on simply trying to patch the old garment up again. We need re-creation—something only Jesus can give us.

Television and movie actor Alan Alda wrote a book titled Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. In an interview, he explained the significance of the title:

I was 8 years old. My father was trying to stop me from sobbing because we were burying the dog, so he said, “Maybe we should have him stuffed.”

We kept it on the porch, and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries.
There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that’s passed.[2]

Perhaps it is time for the Church to stop stuffing the dog, to let go of the past, to accept change, and to move into a new and exciting future with Jesus at the helm. I wonder: what things from the past, what old ways of looking at life, do you and I, perhaps, need to let go of, so that we can receive the refreshing newness that Jesus wants to give us?

The third image Jesus used, to explain why he and his disciples did not fast, was that of pouring wine into a wineskin.

Jesus said, “And 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 one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

In Jesus’ time, they did not have bottles. Wine was kept in skins. When wineskins were new they had a certain elasticity. However, as they grew old they would become hard and unyielding. New wine, on the other hand, is still fermenting and thus giving off gases. These gases cause pressure. Therefore, if an old wineskin cannot expand when new wine is put into it, the skin will explode, and both the wineskin and the wine will be wasted.

Jesus was pleading for an elasticity of the mind. When we become set in our ways of doing and thinking it is dangerous.

Are you familiar with the seven last words of the church? “We never did it that way before!”

As William Barclay says, “when our minds become fixed and settled in their ways, when they are quite unable to accept new truth and to contemplate new ways, we may be physically alive but we are mentally dead.”

As we grow older, it becomes harder and harder to be open to the new. I call it “the hardening of the categories”. Yet, those people who are open to the new probably live longer, precisely because they are flexible.

Leslie Newbigin was a missionary and theologian involved in the formation of the United Church of South India. In the midst of that process of forming a new church, many people asked, “Now, if we do that, just where will we be going?” In the end, someone answered bluntly, “A Christian has no right to ask where he or she is going!”

The person who answered that way was, in a sense, quite right. God called Abraham to leave his home, but God did not tell Abraham exactly where he was going. God often gives us just enough light to see the next step we must take, but he does not give us a clear view of the whole journey, otherwise we will seek to take control of it.

We need to make Michelangelo’s motto our own. Toward the end of his life, the master artist said, “Ancora imparo,” which means, “I am still learning.”

For years the Iron Curtain (actually, a fence) not only separated people, but it also separated two populations of red deer living in the forests near the border between Germany and what is now the Czech Republic. When government officials began to dismantle the fence in 1989 (around the time the Berlin Wall was brought down), the physical barrier between those populations was removed. But when wildlife biologists began studying the deer in 2002, they quickly realized that the deer living in Germany were not moving into the Czech Republic, and the deer living in the Czech Republic were not moving into Germany. In other words, both populations of deer were still behaving as if the fence was still there.

One deer in particular became a symbol of the whole deer population. She was given the name “Ahornia”, and her movements in the forests of eastern Germany were tracked for several years by a GPS collar fitted to her neck by biologist Marco Heurich. During the time she was monitored, Ahornia’s location was tracked more than 11,000 times in Germany—but not a single time in the Czech Republic. She was tracked at the border of the two countries several times, but she never crossed that border.

Two elements of this deer’s history are particularly intriguing. First, she was born 18 years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fence between Germany and the Czech Republic. Ahornia could not have had a physical memory of the fence’s existence, and yet she was still blocked by something. Second, the land where there used to be a fence and guard towers has been turned into a large and thriving nature preserve. In other words, the land beyond the fence has become a haven—the perfect home for deer like Ahornia and her family—and yet Ahornia has refused to enter that new land. As one person has said, “The wall in the head is still there.”[3]
I wonder: what wall is still in our heads that needs to be torn down so that we can enter into and fully enjoy the greener pastures Jesus has for us? Jesus wants our lives to feel like a wedding, to look like a beautiful new suit of clothes, to taste like new wine. When Jesus has so much that is refreshingly new to offer us, why do we insist on settling for the “same ol’ same ol’”?

[1] Greg Asimakoupoulos, Mercer Island, Washington; sources: Michael Winter, “NYC marathoner, 86, dies after her 25th race,” USA TODAY (11-5-13); Natasha Velez and Bruce Golding, “Marathoner dies happy after chasing dream to last mile,” New York Post (11-5-13)
[2] Ted DeHass, Bedford, Iowa; source: Newsweek (2-28-05), p. 69
[3] This illustration was first heard in a sermon by Walt Barrett at Riverside Community Church in St. Charles, Illinois. Associated Press, “Deep in the Forest, Bambi Remains the Cold War’s Last Prisoner,” The Wall Street Journal (11-04-09); submitted by Sam O’Neal, Geneva, Illinois to


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