Bringing in the New
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachuesetts, December 29,
Psalm 98 Sing to the Lord a new
Matthew 9:16, 17 New wine in old wineskins
Arcana Coelestia #5354.2 New motivation and understanding
It was wonderful
to have so many people here for our Christmas Eve service. It is inspiring to
see that many full pews--even if most of them are in the back of the church!
Maybe next year we will have to rope off the back five pews. Just kidding!
Seeing so many people in the pews gives us something to work for as a church as
we enter the New Year. During the next few months, as we formulate our plans for
growth and outreach, I plan to present to you a few sermons on the spiritual and
interpersonal aspects of becoming a congregation that welcomes new people and
strives to serve their spiritual needs. However, today I would like to focus on
the spiritual meaning of the New Year for us as individuals.
In some ways, our
beginning the year at this particular time is arbitrary. The Jewish ceremonial
New Year comes in the fall, on a day called "Rosh Hashanah"--which
literally means "head of the year," or "beginning of the
year." This goes along with the Jewish practice of counting days from
sunset to sunset. We are familiar with this way of counting days from reading
the first chapter of Genesis, where it says, "and there was evening, and
there was morning, one day, ... two days," and so on. I have often thought
it would be more appropriate to start the new year in the spring, when nature
starts its new year of growth and reproduction. However, like the parallel
between the Jewish day and year, our year starts in the middle of the
"night" of the seasons--just after the winter solstice, when nights
are longest and days are shortest.
There is at least
one way this time is just right for the New Year. Our New Year comes right after
Christmas--right after we celebrate the birth of our Lord. From a Christian
perspective, this is indeed the beginning of everything new. When the Lord was
born into the world, it was the beginning of a new religious era and a new
church--the Christian church. As we have explored in our Advent sermons, when
the Lord is born into our own hearts and minds, it is the beginning of a new,
spiritual person within us.
We all have an
idea of what it is like to become a new person. If we look back at our earlier
life, we can see things that we have given up because they were wrong. It may
have been something related to our physical health, such as drinking, smoking,
or overeating. It may have been in the way we get along with other people.
Perhaps at one point we decided to start listening more to our husband or wife,
our children, our friends. Perhaps we decided not to say hurtful things about
other people--either to their face or behind their backs. Or it may have been
something inside of us, such as resolving to be content with what we have, and
not jealous of what others have; or deciding that we are going to make a real
effort to love even the people we have considered to be our enemies.
If you can, think
back to one of those points in your life when you made a change for the better.
Think of what your life was like before that change, and what it was like
afterwards. When we make this kind of a change, don't we feel like a new person
afterwards? When we have kicked the habit--whether that habit is physical,
interpersonal, or spiritual--isn't it like a new day, or a new year, opening up
in our lives? This is the newness of life that comes when we receive the Lord
into our lives in a new way--when Jesus is born in a part of ourselves that had
formerly been dark and destructive.
Our custom of
making resolutions at the New Year is no accident. Spiritually, making changes
in ourselves is the real meaning of a New Year. Our personal changes often do
not coincide with the New Year on the calendar. Still, this is a good time to
think about what it means to turn the page to a new chapter of our lives.
Jesus teaches us
about this in our brief reading from the Gospel of Matthew:
No one sews a piece of unshrunk
cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse
tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins
burst, the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put
into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Matt. 9:16, 17)
When we kick a
bad habit, our life has to change in more ways than just giving up the habit.
Take drinking too much as an example. Some people find they have to stop
drinking altogether to avoid drinking too much; others are able to continue
drinking moderately. Either way, our lifestyle will change. We will either stop
visiting the liquor store altogether, or we will go there much less. If we used
to drink in bars, we will not be visiting them so much, or not at all. This
immediately brings up the issue of the friends we have had. Will we be able to
continue with our old friendships? Or will some of them have to cool off or even
end because alcohol was a central part of the friendship? To the extent that we
have built our lives around drinking, our lives will have to change in more ways
than we may have realized when we made the decision to stop drinking.
However, if you
can pardon the image, the alternative is to put the "new wine" of our
newly made resolution to stop drinking into the "old wineskins" of the
things we always used to do. When the new (or unfermented) wine goes into old
wineskins with their leftover dregs, the new wine ferments, spoiling it for our
new taste in beverages and bursting the wineskin, too. If we try to keep living
the same way we did before, only changing one little thing, it will not work. To
continue with the drinking example, if we keep buying as much liquor as we used
to, keep going to the bars, and keep hanging around our old drinking buddies,
soon our new resolution will be broken as we fall back into our old habits.
Drinking is just
one example. Each one of us can think of a bad habit or two of our own that we
have kicked, and the new wine in old wineskins image will work just as well. Of
course, looking at the habits we have kicked in the past is the easy part.
Looking at the ones we have right now--the ones we know we ought to kick--is
much harder. When we do think back on past victories in our personal lives, we
will usually find that the change did not come without a struggle. We may have
made several attempts before succeeding. Or it may have been months or years
before that itching to go back to our old ways finally left us--before we could
stop clashing with those old wineskins.
It is likely that
we will have a similar struggle with whatever we are facing now. Mulling over
past victories does have its virtues. If we know we have made it through in the
past, we will have that much more confidence that we can make it through again.
When we feel our resolve slipping, we can turn to our past successes as a way to
shore up our strength and make it through our time of weakness and indecision.
Yet there is
another place we must turn besides our past. If our victories over the things we
find wrong in ourselves are to be certain and lasting, we must recognize that
the power for victory comes from the Lord. And we must make the change because
we know it is what the Lord would have us do.
There can be many
reasons to give up a bad habit. If we have a temper and it gets us into trouble
at work, we may find it expedient to control our temper in order to keep our job
and make career advances. If we get caught telling stories about people behind
their backs, the loss of people's trust can do real damage to our social
standing. We had better stop telling stories, because we do want people
to think well of us. The problem is, if we are only controlling our temper to
stay out of trouble at work, what is going to stop us from losing our temper at
home? If we stop telling stories about people, but still think badly of them
within ourselves, what will we do when we get an opportunity to show our disdain
or anger for them in a way we think nobody will discover?
If we give up a
bad habit for any other reason besides knowing from the Lord's teachings that it
is wrong, we are merely covering it up. We are not making any real change in our
inner character; we are just making sure nobody else sees what we are really
like inside. Sooner or later, our real thoughts and feelings will come out. If
we try to cover them up, they will build up until they find an outlet for
We can only make
genuine change if we change the inner thoughts and feelings behind the wrong
things we do. And we can only do this if we recognize that the thoughts and
feelings themselves are wrong--not just the trouble we get into when people find
out about them through our hurtful words and actions. Our spiritual New Year can
be truly new only when we accept the Lord as the real standard of right and
wrong, and follow that standard both in our inner feelings and in our outer
When we do accept
the Lord into our hearts--when we do change our attitudes as well as our
behavior--then not only does our behavior change, but we gain a new sense of joy
in our lives. This is the joy spoken of in our reading from Swedenborg. We feel
a wonderful sense of joy and fulfillment simply in doing good things for other
people, without any thought of what we might get in return. When we learn
something new that can help us with a problem or issue we have been facing, we
feel happiness just as if we had discovered a pearl of great price lying hidden
in the field.
Then, when we
look back on the pleasure we used to get from our old ways of living, that
pleasure pales, and even becomes distressing. We cannot understand how we could
have enjoyed doing the things we used to do. When we compare the joy of our new
way of living with the self-centered pleasures we used to get from our old way,
there is simply no comparison. We are likely to think, "If only I had done
this sooner, things would have been so much better!" Yet that is what our
spiritual New Year is all about: changing our lives for the better.
spiritual New Year has come, and we have felt the joy of living anew from the
Lord, then we can sing with the Psalmist:
O sing to the Lord a new song;
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord; bless his name;
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples;
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.
Happy New Year!
In the Meadow
© Bruce De Boer