Bringing in the New
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachuesetts, December 29, 1996


Psalm 98 Sing to the Lord a new song
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 expression.

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 actions.

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.

When our 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!

Music: In the Meadow
Bruce De Boer

13th Avenue Gallery