Monday, August 30, 2010

A Story of Faith & the Front Page

Can you name five front page stories this week? Here are mine: There was another story about the slowing economy; the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; a story about our Marines in Afghanistan; about corruption in the nearby city of Vernon; and an expose of the egg industry...not to mention continuing debates over gay rights.  At such a time as this, Jesus helps us think about our attitudes and actions in response to bad or simply polarizing news. 

Turning to Luke 13: 1-9, Luke tells us that somewhere in Galilee, Jesus was interrupted by people reporting news of two recent disasters. Now before I go any further I just want to point out that Jesus was not too busy to address newspaper headlines. He was teaching the Word…but that did not mean he was disinterested in the World. The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, once said in a Time magazine interview: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible" (Time Magazine, Friday May 31, 1963 / Princeton Seminary Library). Jesus did just that as he was confronted with two bad news stories.

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did....’   
The first headline would have read something liked this: “Pilate Kills Galileans While Sacrificing in Temple.” This probably refers to an incident that was also written down by the Jewish historian, Josephus. Pilate (who was the Roman Governor of Judea) decided that Jerusalem needed a new water supply. No problem there. But he determined to pay for the construction of an aqueduct with monies from the temple treasury. There were many Jews up in arms over this, and during a large scale protest, Pilate’s soldiers actually killed several Galilean Jews as they were dispersing the crowd (Antiq. 18.3.2). Jews felt this was an outrage, and the incident incited Jewish hatred for their Roman overlords all the more.

The second headline would have sounded just as bad: “18 Killed in Jerusalem by Falling Tower of Siloam.” Edersheim suggests that these 18 men may actually have been Jews who had worked on the hated aqueduct. The key word is “Siloam” – referring either to the Siloam aqueduct or the pool of Siloam, the reservoir that collected water from the Gihon spring that flowed into Jerusalem. Perhaps these men were killed by a tower near the Siloam aqueduct or pool. If so, they were killed while collaborating with Pilate, and many may have felt it was God’s judgment on them for working with Pilate.  Remember that in first century Palestine, Rome was the enemy, and Israel an oppressed people. Those who stood up to Rome (like the Galileans killed by Pilate) were exalted, while those who collaborated with Rome (like the 18 working on the aqueduct) were hated. All of this is now placed before Jesus, and their implied question seems to be: “When the news is this bad -- how should we respond?” Jesus seemed to see four possible responses.

On the one hand, we can turn against our enemies (1-3). As Jesus was teaching, people arrived bearing the news of the death of several Galileans in the temple area which I have already described. No doubt, those who brought this story to Jesus were furious, and were seeking in part, some kind of criticism of Pilate. But Jesus does not offer this kind of remark, instead, he does something totally unexpected: he calls Israel to individual and national repentance! It’s as if Jesus were saying, “You see these men as heroes, and Pilate as a demon…but I say to you that before you make any more judgments, you yourselves must repent before God."  Notice that Jesus does not condone sin: he doesn’t approve of Pilate’s actions, or deny that Pilate has done a great evil. Even so, he chooses to speak to those who are in front of him who he knows will destroy themselves and all around them if THEY do not repent and turn back to God. (Jesus foresaw that if the Jews went on with their rebellions and plottings they would be destroyed, which is what happened in AD 70).

Generally, Jesus seemed to focus on redemption, not just retribution. I found it interesting to read about the Marine’s present strategy in the village of Nawa, Afghanistan. Once controlled by the Taliban, the Marines have built schools, health clinics, and a marketplace. Now Jesus used a similar strategy. Listen to this: He wants us to destroy our enemies…by turning them into friends. Do you have any bad eggs you need to get rid of? -- and I'm not talking about the ones you buy at the market. Do you have any selfish neighbors or arrogant work associates that you could destroy by having them over for dinner, bringing them to church, or introducing them to Christ? Try it. They might become your friends... or the next Apostle Paul!

On the other hand, we can turn against each other (4-5). After Jesus responds to the question about the Galileans, those present may have asked him about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them (or he may have simply brought up the incident himself). Remember that many who heard this story assumed that the victims got what they deserved. In the opinion of many Jews, these workers were collaborating with the enemy, and were punished by God. Jesus knew this is what they were thinking; so he mentions it as another example of how we respond to suffering, we assign blame and lash out in revenge. 

Once again, our Lord does not lift up these collaborators as examples to follow, he simply points out that they were no more sinful than all the others living in Jerusalem (which means Jesus is being very inclusive here: he’s saying that everyone from the aqueduct builders to the Roman soldiers, from the prostitutes to the High Priest himself are under God’s judgment – Rom. 3:23. The kind of inclusivity that is currently popular is the inclusive club of “I’m OK, You’re OK;” it’s the Society of the Sinless; of those who never have to admit their own sin or turn from it, never have to be honest about their weaknesses. But the inclusivity of Jesus’ invitation is the inclusivity of fellow sinners…sinners who know they need God’s grace, salvation, and transformation.

Let’s face it: it’s much more fun to assign blame than to take responsibility. In the days following Hurricane Katrina…we saw different gov’t agencies and local officials blaming each other for the slow response to the disaster, for not repairing the levies in time, for not getting food, supplies, and money to the victims; for excessive police force…but seldom did we see anyone taking responsibility. When the next earthquake hits LA, each of us shares a personal responsibility to be prepared. How much more do we need to be prepared for earthquakes in our personal life; and to be ready to respond faithfully rather than blame resentfully.

Aside from blaming our enemies or each other, we can turn against God.  I don’t think it is impossible that those who brought news of these tragic events did so because their faith was being severely tested by them. Jesus is in Galilee at the time, and those who bring him this news are also Galileans. Perhaps they had lost friends or even family members.  In times of loss or suffering, even people of faith experience doubt, and question the goodness of God. “Now that I am a Christian,” C. S. Lewis once said, “I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable" (Mere Christianity).  I don’t think that Jesus anywhere condemns us for such changing moods, instead he prays for us as he did for Peter when Jesus predicted that he would deny him three times (Luke 22: 31-32). Notice that Jesus does not pray that God would remove this trial from Peter, but that he would persevere through it! What an encouragement to know that Jesus prays that our faith will not fail.

One of the most faith-testing experiences in my life has been the standing conflict in our own denomination over the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians. It’s become headline news…and for me personally, a front burner issue since 1978 when my father, also a Presbyterian minister, was facing this crisis.  It is a highly emotional and very personal debate and I can tell you two things: First, I'm certain that Christ doesn't want me to meet gays and lesbians with hatred or condescension but with sacrificial love; and if you are a gay and lesbian person and feel that Christians hate you…I am deeply sorry. Christ loves you…and wants you to know him and follow him.  But having said that, I must also say this: Scripture uniquely affirms the sacred relationship of husband and wife, and the call to live faithfully within that covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in singleness.  Now here is the one saving grace in all of this as I see it...that above sexual temptations and inclinations, racism and political party, biogtry, anger, and unforgiveness (the list goes on and on) Christ is Lord, Healer, and Deliverer.  That's where my hope is found...and where your faith can find a resting place too.

Certainly, when the news is bad or discouraging, we can turn against our enemies, we can turn against one another and we can turn against God, but Jesus gives us a fourth option … We can turn back in humility and hope. 

6Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
After addressing how we often respond to problems, Jesus reveals that what we think is the problem (get this!) is not the problem. The problem is not Rome or the Jews who collaborate with Rome. The problem is not out there at all. The problem is in here…in the vineyard (with Israel and its leaders). The problem is a lack of fruit, the fruit of a life turned toward God. In other words: God’s problem is that we don’t get the problem. That the “bad news” as far as God is concerned….is our rebellion, our lack of faith, our stubbornness and pride.

But the good news is that in this parable the Gardener (who represents Jesus) is willing to wait yet another year for the fig tree to bear fruit. For here, and throughout the scriptures, God responds to disappointment and the barrenness of his people whom he loves with incredible patience…He doesn’t want to quit on us, and so he lovingly pursues us to our last breath. Why? Because he does not want us to be separated from him, but to be with him forever. Imagine if the Gardener’s attitude could be our model for responding to suffering and disappointment too: a model of patience; of the one who says “I’m not going to give up on that fig tree, or that family member, or that difficult neighbor, or my faith in God just yet. I’m going to be patient. I still have hope.” This week, I got an email of good news stories. Here is just a sampling of the top ten...

#10 Thirteen year old raises $32,000 for school art supplies.  #9 Motivational Speaker stops talking and starts finding jobs for the homeless.  #7 Ethiopia has cut malaria deaths in half in just three years. #5 Nine year old saves his drowning brother with CPR.  #3 A newly discovered microbe is eating the gulf oil spill at a much faster rate than expected!   #2 An Armless Chinese Pianist who plays with his feet wows the judges on China’s Got Talent.   #1 A Kansas lottery winner sent the winning ticket anonymously to a local hospital! How do you respond to good news like that?   Words like... inspiring... miraculous... courageous... incredible... and "Thank God!" came to mind.   All this is to say that in the midst of all the bad news…the good news is usually staring us in the face; and nothing could be more true the day that those men brought their bad news stories to Jesus, for as they were telling their stories of woe…the Good News Himself, the best news of all, was staring them in the face.

Every morning, the paper boy leaves the paper on our front driveway. I rarely see him drop it there…it seems to miraculously appear, faithfully, every day; and everyday I go out and grab hold of that paper and bring it inside and put it on the table. Friends, the Good News is like that. It is delivered daily to our front door, but we have to bring it inside. We have to open it and read it…believe it, and live it; and so dear God, when we are feeling the weight of bad news....

Help us to turn toward you, not away from you; to respond to hardship and suffering with hope; to say, in the desert place, when we are tempted to quit: “Let’s leave it alone and wait another year.” Help us to practice patience and lean upon your grace in life’s trials, whether it be a troubled marriage, a difficult job situation, or a strained friendship, and to grow in Christian maturity through that process. May we “count it all joy when we encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance…” trusting in the promise that as we abide in you, as we wait on you, fruitfulness is assured.  For you offer us the Best News of all...through Jesus Christ our Lord.  May we open our hearts to it, believe on it, and live in it.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Story of the Two Debtors

Last weekend, my family and I were in Little Tokyo in downtown LA where my daughters were hula dancing. As they were getting ready to perform I wandered around the outdoor festival looking at the various booths and vendors.  At one point someone offered me a brochure on Buddhism which I accepted and began to read.  What I found was a description of Buddhism and its relationship to Christianity and other religions that surprised me.  This is what I read: “Christians and Muslims believe that they will live in eternity with God if their life on earth has been spent in worthy and useful pursuits…. Buddhists on the other hand…believe that life is an everlasting cycle of birth and rebirth, that what is done during a lifetime determines the kind of life one will have in a future incarnation unless a person liberates him or herself from the cycle" (from "Some Important Things to Know About How Buddhists Think," copyright by The American Institute of Buddhist Thought). According to this brochure…Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have something very significant in common…we are all redeemed or achieve enlightenment by our good deeds. Now this is my question to those of you who profess to be Christians: Is this the gospel message?  Does this accurately describe the message of Jesus?  I’d like to return to that question and Little Tokyo a bit later…but for now, let’s go to the house of a Pharisee in Luke 7: 36-50 where Jesus is treated with incredible disrespect on the one hand and surprising love on the’s where we learn about the one sure sign that we have heard Jesus' message and received God's saving love....

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

The Story begins with the Rudeness of a Religious Professional (7: 36).  Jesus was invited to eat at the house of Simon the Pharisee (the pastors and bible teachers of Jesus’ day). Now the scene of this story is the courtyard of Simon’s house. Pharisees were well-to-do, and the home of such a person was built around an open courtyard. In that courtyard there might be a garden and a fountain, and meals would be eaten there in warm weather.  It was customary when a Rabbi was invited to such a meal, that many people were in attendance. Guests would enter, taking off their sandals or slippers and leave them at the door, taking their places around a low table or large wooden bowls of food placed in the center of the room. At such a banquet, they would rest on their left elbow, with their feet stretched out behind them. Servants would stand behind the guests, where they would place wide, shallow bowls, and pour water on their feet. In addition to the guests and servants, villagers would crowd in to the area to hear any pearls of wisdom that the visiting Rabbi might be sharing. While you and I would not appreciate having the neighborhood crowd into our living room as we entertain a visiting guest, this was not thought to be rude… it was expected.

It’s ironic that Jesus is twice referred to as an invited guest (36,39) in this story. For Simon failed to show him even minimal hospitality.  He did not wash Jesus’ feet, which was considered the minimum gesture of welcome. Nor did he kiss Jesus on the cheek: a sign of respect that was always given to a rabbi. Finally, when a guest entered, a sweet smelling incense was often burned, or an aromatic oil was placed on the head. But Simon didn’t do this either; setting the stage for what is to come….

For we read next about the Kindness of a Professional Sinner (7. 37-40). As I said earlier, it was not unusual for a crowd of curious onlookers to gather in the courtyard on such an occasion, which explains why this “woman of the city who was a sinner” (a prostitute) was able to get in (37). Jesus had been preaching and teaching all around Galilee and she, like many others, had learned of the forgiveness that he offered, and came to repent and be cleansed. One grammatical detail here that is worth pointing out. The Aramaic word for sinner (hayyabta) also means debtor (as in "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," a line from The Lord's Prayer). This woman was both a sinner and a debtor to God. This detail will be important as the story unfolds…

Luke tells us that she brought with her a flask of ointment, as all Jewish women did. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why such a flask was important to a prostitute. But she no longer needs it – she has turned to Christ -- and so she comes to pour out her perfume on his feet. The point is that she was prepared to do something profoundly meaningful as she entered Simon’s house. Deciding to turn from her old life and to put her trust in the Messiah, she wanted to anoint Jesus with oil as a symbol of a changed heart and her gratitude (38). Imagine then, how this woman must have felt, having come to honor Jesus, when she sees the insult Jesus receives. Simon deliberately omits the kiss of greeting, and the foot washing. Perhaps the whole assembly has noted this harsh treatment, and is waiting to see what will happen next.

Meanwhile, the woman is totally overcome with emotion, her anger and her devotion mixing together at this point. She completely forgets that she is in the presence of a group of men, and rushes forward toward Jesus. She cannot kiss him on the face. This would be misunderstood, but she can kiss his feet (a mark of respect, especially to a rabbi)! Then she literally bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and because she has no towel, she wipes them with her hair (a very intimate gesture, for letting one’s hair down in the Middle East was something only done in the presence of a close friend or husband); and anoints them with the perfume. She offers Jesus her love, while trying to compensate for his insult.

Simon’s true suspicions about Jesus emerge now as he watches. He says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, “he would have known who and what kind of woman” this is (39). She is a “sinful woman.” Obviously, Simon doesn’t believe Jesus is a prophet -- and this confirms his suspicions. Prophets don’t hang out with Prostitutes. His presupposition is that godly people don’t associate with hayyabta (sinners/debtors to God).  Knowing Simon’s assumptions about who is a sinner/debtor (hayyabta), Jesus finally speaks up: “Simon, I have something to say to you” (40). This exact phrase is still used all over the Middle East to introduce a blunt word that the listener may not want to hear (see Kenneth Bailey's excellent commentary on this passage in Poets and Peasants and Through Peasant's Eyes). “Rabbi” says Simon, “Speak up!” (41)

At this point Jesus reveals the Difference Between these two Debtors with a simple story (7. 41-50). There were two debtors.... Understand the wordplay, Simon.  I'm talking about two sinners (41)! One owned 500 denari and the other 50 denari (Remember that a single denari was equivalent to a days labor).  Thus the one owed his master more than a year and half's worth of labor.  Because they were not able to pay him back, says Jesus, he forgave/ canceled the debts for both of them (42a). A similar parable, if told today, might go something like this: 

Once upon a time there were two couples, each owning a home. One older couple, retired medical doctors, have lived in their house for 29 years…and have one more payment to go before the house is finally paid off. The other couple newly married, who happen to care for ten disabled children, have lived in their dream house for five years. Six months ago their adjustable rate loan payment skyrocketed due to the current mortgage meltdown. Fearing they might lose their house, they’ve begun working double shifts and weekends at the factory to make their house payment. 

Yesterday, the retired couple went to the mail box to find a letter from their mortgage company. Dear Valued Customer: In recognition of your excellent 29 year credit history, we are waving your final loan payment and giving you full title to your home. You’ve earned it! Congratulations! On that same day, the second couple also found a letter in their mailbox. Dear Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Greatly moved and inspired by your dedication to the community as foster parents of ten disabled children, Extreme Home Makeover has selected you from a list of more than a thousand applicants to receive a complete home remodel. In addition, we want you to know that we will be paying off your current mortgage loan. Congratulations!

Now “Which of them will love him more, will be more grateful?” asks Jesus (42b) -- the couple whose mortgage lender waved their last payment, or the couple who just got a new home debt free? Which of these would likely invite their benefactor over for dinner once a week for the rest of their lives if they could? Simon says “The one I suppose who was forgiven more.” He can’t escape the logic of the parable. “You have judged rightly” Jesus says (43). Then Jesus goes on to explain that this woman’s actions were a sure sign that she had experienced the saving grace and forgiveness of God. By contrast, your lack of love (your lack of hospitality & judgmental spirit), shows that you don’t really see yourself as a sinner who needs God’s mercy and love…. For you gave no water for my feet, the minimum gesture of hospitality (44). You did not kiss even my cheek, but she has kissed my feet (45). You did not anoint my head with oil..." (The Greek word here that Jesus uses is elaion, the word for common household oil); but she anointed my feet with costly perfume (Greek: muron...myrrh, perfume, v. 46)!

Now we come to a critical verse in this story which we must interpret correctly. The NIV reads: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins (debts), have been forgiven – for she loved much….” (47-48). The NIV could be misunderstood to be saying that this woman was forgiven because she loved much: that is, because she showed so much love to Jesus.  Was she forgiven because she loved much, or did she love much because she was forgiven? The latter. Her love was the evidence that she had experienced God’s forgiveness, not the basis for it. How do we know this? Because it’s the whole point of the story of the two debtors!  As I said earlier, this woman discovered God’s mercy through Jesus, which is why she had come to see him. Her acts of love were in gratitude for the gift of God’s healing. This is why the NRSV translates the Greek conjunction hoti with the word "hence" and not with the word "for."  “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
Back in Little Tokyo I received a brochure that said that Christianity, like Islam and Buddhism, pins it eternal hope on “a life on earth spent in worthy and useful pursuits.” Now before I go any further I want to say that I believe in the free exercise of religion in our country…and that we need to defend that freedom, because if it is lost for one group it is endangered for the rest of us. I’m glad that a certain Buddhist had the freedom to give me that brochure, and I’m grateful for the freedom I had to talk with him openly about it.  But in this situation I had to not only listen and try to understand, but eventually point out that the Christian message is actually the opposite of what was stated in that brochure!  That is, eternal life is not something human beings earn -- if that were even possible -- by their own good deeds, or by an accumulation of good lives lived in successive reincarnations.  It is received as a free gift when we come to God by faith in what He has done for us through his Son. It is received today, just as that repentant woman received it two millennia ago.  

Now here is the big surprise…as I got to know this man, I found out that he once attended church, and for some reason, he never heard or understood this message of God’s grace. My eyes opened! Instead of hearing the message of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus…he was still trapped in the notion that only his good works could save him…that after another thousand reincarnations or more…he might succeed in liberating himself from the wheel of karma. As I said to my Buddhist friend, it’s not that Christians don’t believe that good deeds are important. Every major religion believes that doing good is important because -- as C. S. Lewis once argued -- we are all endowed with an innate sense of right and wrong from the Creator.  But the Christian message is that while our so-called "good deeds" can never amount to anything that could possibly earn our own salvation; they can be a humble response to God’s saving grace…as the woman in this passage demonstrates.  Indeed, the presence of self-giving love in us is the surest sign that God's love has penetrated our hearts and begun to work its transforming power: "We love because He first loved us"  (1 John 4: 19). Certainly if we claim to know Christ…and have no love or forgiveness in our hearts – then we must ask ourselves if we truly know him.

By the way, in the course of our conversation, my Buddhist friend said that in his former church he was never allowed to ask questions or voice the kind of doubts he was sharing with me. I sincerely hope and pray that you never encounter that kind of attitude among Christians; that you find instead the grace and truth of Jesus, who invites sinners and doubters like us to follow him. I left that man with my email address and invited him to contact me again if he’d like to talk further).

Friends, I don’t want anyone to be mislead like the man I met in Little Tokyo…still trying to earn his or her way into God’s good graces, and confused about the whole point of the gospel. But let’s return briefly to the final verses of this passage where those who heard Jesus forgive this woman’s sins -- ask a question: “Who is this who even forgives sins” (49) Regardless of how Simon and the others will respond, each of us must answer that question for ourselves.  But hear Jesus’ final words to the woman: “Your faith has saved you” (not your good works, or your Bible studies or perfect worship attendance, or your careful attention to social justice, or your fasting and prayer, or your one thousand and twenty first reincarnation). "Faith in who?" we may ask.  Faith in Jesus, as this woman's actions clearly testify: faith in Y'shua the Messiah and Lord (50).  May we share with this woman both a simple faith in Christ…and a deep and extravagant love that is the surest sign our debt has been paid in full; and that we have truly received God’s forgiveness and healing grace.

O to grace how great a debtor, Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
Robert Robinson, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Monday, August 9, 2010

Jesus for a New Generation

I've been thinking a lot about generations lately.  My dad is retiring for the second time in his career this month.  My daughters are on the brink of adolesence...Lisa and I just marked our 15th wedding anniversary, and last night we attended my 30th high school reunion...but more about that later.  Today, we hear a lot about the great divide between generations; and, in generational theory, there is a reason for this tension: each successive generation reacts to the preferences, excesses and problems of the previous generation.

I was born at the beginning of what Douglas Copeland coined, "Generation X" (b.1961-1980). The X Generation is marked by the cynical rejection of ideals...especially those of the Silent (b.1925-1942) and Boomer Generations (b.1943-1960) which believed in and preached many ideals.  What's interesting is that the generation to follow us, the Millenials (b.1982-2005), are rising and, according to a few theorists, they will be looking for one ideal above all the other competing ones to build a society on...much like the GI or Builder Generation (b.1901-1924) had to do as they confronted the terrors of the early 20th century. As a Christian, I find that very exciting...and a huge responsibility, because this is the generation of my own children. 

I'm not a fan of shock rock musician Marilyn Manson, but I found this quotation from an interview with Rolling Stone to be interesting commentary: “Resistance will always be the first thing to fuel the fire when you’re young. That’s how I learned about heavy metal music. They would have these seminars in Christian school saying, 'This is what you’re not supposed to listen to.' So I immediately went out and bought it.” By the way, the Bible nowhere declares that certain kinds of music are evil or immoral. Any kind of music can be used to praise God (the lyrics are another matter)….But my point is that rebellion and the rejection of authority is the hallmark of every generation. Remember the old Frank Sinatra song, “I did it my way?”

Enter Jesus of Nazareth who presents himself as the truly radical and revolutionary one. In The Story of the Wineskins (Luke 5: 33-39), he claims that what he is doing is a truly new thing, and that it will always be the new thing when compared to our old ways that lead to death. Speaking to some skeptical Pharisees (the religious professionals of Jesus' day), "[Jesus] told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed" (Luke 5: 36-37).

Jesus begins by talking about the problem of new wine in old wine skins (36-37). What Jesus is saying here is that just as old garments cannot be patched with new un-shrunk cloth, and just as new wine cannot be contained in old inflexible wineskins… so his message and ministry cannot be contained or received by an inflexible and unyielding heart that has rejected him as Messiah and Lord.  The context of this parable is a controversy with those religious leaders who continued to fast and pray for the coming of the kingdom, even though Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom was at hand, and that he was the Messiah they were praying for.  In their minds, Jesus and his disciples were doing too much eating and drinking with sinners, too much celebrating and not enough fasting to qualify as a genuine messianic movement. But Jesus explains parabolically, that the kingdom is at hand, and that now is the time to rejoice! You simply don’t fast at a wedding feast. The celebration has begun, and you are standing outside, says Jesus! These religious professionals were living in a by-gone era that was passing away.

Interesting. What was true 2000 years ago of the Pharisees’ generation continues to be true for current generations. When compared to Jesus, every generation is behind the times, out of step, and obsolete. Why? Because Jesus is always ahead of us, both morally and spiritually, calling us forward in the eternal kind of life.  But, you may ask: How can you say with any seriousness that my generation is outdated, out of step, or old fashioned when compared to a 2000 year old Jesus? We are the most progressive generation to ever walk this planet! Are we?  I would agree that recent generations have seen breathtaking changes in science, technology and culture, yet the fundamental problem of human sin remains unchanged, and the fundamental need for spiritual renewal remains the same. When compared to Jesus, there is no generation that is not in need of a radical reformation. 

A while back I saw an MTV broadcast while exercising at the gym. A panel of music “experts” was being asked to name their favorite rebel song. One song in particular got everyone’s approval...though the title escapes me right now.  What made it so popular? "It makes you want to go out and break things!" they said. I really started laughing at that point. Isn’t that just like human nature to equate “breaking things” and other kinds of mayhem with being a radical or rebellious. If what we read in the papers and hear about on TV is any clue “breaking things, people and relationships” is not radical, it’s the status quo.

Case in point, last week on CNN, author and former mistress Holly Hill was arguing that married couples should consider what she calls negotiated infidelity… where couples give permission to each other to have sexual liaisons for the good of the marriage. It was supposed to be a radical new idea…but it was really an old idea. It took a psychologist to bring some common sense to the discussion. “I think what's universal is that no one likes sharing partners -- whether you're male or female.” In other words, when we sin, people get hurt.... 

Which is why I maintain that Jesus is the only authentic revolutionary, the one who beckons each new generation to follow him in the eternal kind of life, the one who leads us in a revolution of self-giving love, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of faithfulness and holiness. Paul calls him “the first born among many brethren (Rom. 8:29)” or we might say, “the first born of a new generation” and he beckons us to join him. But how do we join this new generation of God’s people, of whom Jesus is the “first”? In v. 38, Jesus says that we must be like fresh wineskins for new wine. Now that’s good news if we feel like fresh wineskins, nice clean bottles, uncracked, without a scratch on us -- but what hope is there for those of us who feel morally and spiritually, and even physically stale, broken, and beat up?

Let’s look at the possibility of new wine in fresh wine skins (38). The key to understanding Jesus’ meaning is the word “fresh”. The Greek word kainos conveys more than simply “new” or “chronologically young” (If that were true then only the physically young or the morally perfect could receive Jesus’ message).  But in fact, kainos  means “newly-invented, remarkable or previously unknown.” It’s a word that appears often in the book of Revelation where God promises to every generation that one day he will make all things new, that we will live in the new Jerusalem, and that there we will receive a new name, and sing a new never before heard song.

When Jesus says that his wine must be put into fresh wineskins (kainos) he is talking about a miracle of the new creation -- the creation of a new kind of vessel that can hold his Spirit, his message and ministry, and be the means of sharing it with others. Ironically, that new vessel can even be a tired old heart, cracked and compromised, that comes to him in humility, and is transformed by his grace. Christ invites all of us, regardless of our present situation or moral condition…he invites us to follow him and allow him to do the new thing in us, the healing and transforming work that only he can do.

In this parable, Jesus began by awakening us to the problem of new wine in old wine skins (one doesn’t go with the other). He inspired us with the possibility that we could become fresh wine skins for the new wine of his Spirit. And finally - he promises that new wine to all who will taste it (39). Jesus ends this parable with an ironic phrase.  "And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'” (Luke 5: 39). Everyone knows that well aged wine is supposed to be better than new wine; and there’s a sense in which we instinctively gravitate toward old, familiar ways. But the irony is that – SURPRISE - Jesus is that new wine that is actually better than the old -- but which so many refuse to taste: what he offers to us is the cup of salvation, and that means new life to every generation!

As I said earlier, last night I went to my 30th high school reunion. We drove over to the Castaway restaurant in Burbank, California and took a step back into the past; and I have to say…I was a little nervous, but it was fun. It was fun to reconnect with people that I sat in class with…went to gym and dances with…and graduated with. But I’ve got to tell you…we had to keep looking at each other’s name tags (with our senior pictures on them) to jog our memories (you can see mine above). There are always a few awkward moments of course. “Oh yeah…I remember you now. What’s your name again? Boy it’s been a long time (as we look at each other's pictures) I mean a long time.” Or talking to that girl (or was is it two) who turned me down when I asked them to the prom.  My wife Lisa (who is a Marriage & Family Therapist) was a great sport. I warned her that she’d probably be working overtime at this party helping a bunch of middle aged teenagers and I think I was right.  Anyways, as a pastor it was a natural opportunity for people to also share with me about the role of faith in their lives. There were stories of disappointment or unfulfilled dreams (we all have those)…but I was also amazed at the number of people who I met who had a deep faith in Christ, or who had found the Lord after high school…whose church had sustained them with community and friendship, a faith that has stuck over three decades.

Jesus is truly the new wine that revives and redeems our wounded and worldly hearts. Every generation claims to be radical, rebellious, and revolutionary, but in the end what they share is a common struggle with sin and death, and a thirst for meaningful, purposeful life. We have been offered that life in Jesus Christ.  Jesus offers us this new wine, the cup of salvation to all who are willing to drink it. How then do we do receive it? How do we become the fresh vessels that can hold the precious gift he offers us?  Quite simply, we begin by asking his forgiveness for everything we have done wrong (we admit to him that we are aged, cracked and imperfect vessels). We commit ourselves to him as Lord and Savior of life (we ask him to heal us and make us whole); and finally, we ask him to pour into us the gifts and fruit of his Holy Spirit, that we might be empowered to walk as his faithful disciples.

Risen Savior, what unites us today, regardless of our background, age or generational ties, is that we confess you to be our life, our hope, and our salvation; the answer to our secret longings and deepest yearnings. We admit that we have sinned and turned away from You, failing others and abandoning our First Love. We thank You for showing us how to live; and for dying for us on the cross that we might be delivered from the power of evil. Forgive us and heal us, for You alone have the power to make us new…like strong, clean bottles for the fresh vintage wine of your Spirit. As you ate and drank with your disciples on the night of your arrest saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” so we come to taste and to drink deeply of your mercy and grace today that we might be filled with your Holy Spirit, walk as you walk, and live faithfully for you in our generation, and for all eternity. Amen.