And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5).
What does the word “new” mean? What does it mean to be new? Does “new” mean Christmas morning, when we leap from our warm, cozy beds and wrap our bodies in robes and our feet in slippers in order to dash down the stairs in order to immerse ourselves in the surprises that the jolly, old saint has left for us? Does “new” mean Opening Day, when the smell fresh cut grass and recently roasted peanuts saturate the air? What happened last year is in the past, and a season of wide-open possibility lays before us. Does “new” mean opportunity, such as that which comes with starting your latest position? The aroma of change and possibility marinating the air as you place that first box of books on the desk. Or maybe it’s just the new paint smell. Do we understand what “new” means? Can we quantify “new”? Can we see “new” from where we are? It is a broad concept, yet I think we’ll recognize it when we see it.
While we understand what “new” means, do we understand what it means to make something “new”? An artist sits before a blank canvas, staring into the deep recesses of her creative process as she ponders what to paint next. A theology student sits before a blank computer screen, staring into the deep recesses of his creative process as he ponders what to write about (or more commonly known as why he fool heartedly took another Dr. Oster course). A couple sits before a grainy monitor in a dark room, staring into the deep recesses of the human creative process as they ponder what to name this child. “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1)! Human experience is brimming, exploding, with newness! Yet we can miss it if we are not paying attention.
Scene 1: Jesus Calls a New Person
Our text for today comes from a collection of short scenes that is nestled in between two healing passages in Matthew 9. In many ways these three passages have been some of the most perplexing to scholars, ministers and laypeople. Yet, if we take the time to look hard enough and long enough, we just might something powerful in these subtle scenes.
The first scene is only a single verse, v. 9: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” How simple, yet how astonishing! Jesus is walking along the beautiful Galilean shore when He casts His glance over to the docks. There He sees Matthew sitting in his office doing what he does—collecting taxes. We do not know what time of day Jesus visits Matthew. We do not know if Jesus had any business with Matthew. We do not know if Jesus and Matthew had a prior relationship, such as if they had attended the same synagogue as kids. Yet, what we know is that Jesus went over to Matthew and simply said, “Follow me.” No pomp, no circumstance; simply “Follow me.” However the astonishing part is that Matthew appears to leave everything and do exactly that—he follows the itinerant preacher. In answering this call to follow, this call to become a disciple, Matthew accepts an invitation to a new life.
Scholars and psychoanalysts alike have spilt a great deal of ink over the calling of Matthew. We seek to know what Matthew’s motivations were for following Jesus. Or was it something about Jesus’ demeanor or communication style that compelled this secular tax collector to follow this spiritual leader. “We cannot imagine someone immediately getting up from his job and following Jesus without some significant subconscious reason,” writes Tom Long. Yet that is exactly what happened. In one single word, Jesus calls a new person.
Scene 2: Jesus Creates a New Community
However calling a new person to discipleship is not enough for Jesus to call it a day. While the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven grow only in people, it requires people to grow the Kingdom of God. And kingdom growth begins and ends with table fellowship. Jesus got hungry, and Jesus loved to eat. We should never think that fellowship meals and potlucks are new inventions. God has been working His missional magic through food since Genesis 3. And Jesus, as the incarnation of God on Earth, works in similar ways.
In order for there to be salvation, there must be people who need to be saved. And Jesus found plenty of people who needed salvation the evening He called Matthew (9:10). We have no idea what Jesus talked about with His party guests. Did He preach His one really big sermon? Did He tell that story about the traveling salesman who found that massive pearl? Did He tell that joke about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying at the Temple? Well, we don’t know what Jesus said to His guest. However, we know fully what He told to His party crashers. When the religious leaders criticized Him for eating and drinking with the rebellious rabble (9:11), Jesus launched a missional and pastoral volley: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (9:12-13). Given the context, this would have shocked the religious leaders! By connecting two passages from Psalms, Jesus announces that His mission is to those who are desperately seeking a spiritual vision that will give them meaning and purpose, not to those who take pride in their self-professed ceremonial piety. The sick need a doctor; the lost need a savior; those who seek righteousness want to be satisfied. And this is exactly what happened. In one single word, Jesus creates a new community.
Scene 3: Jesus Casts a New Vision
Yet, even creating a new community is not enough for Jesus to call it a day. While the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven grow only in people, it requires people to grow the Kingdom of God. And kingdom growth requires movement in order to progress. William Willimon cautions newly-appointed ministers from changing anything of significance in their new congregations during the first year. Jesus didn’t take Willimon’s course in seminary. This does not mean that Jesus changed things simply for the sake of changing things. Yet I think it is safe to say that Jesus could be classified as a “progressive”—a progressive with a purpose, that is. Jesus was certainly not intolerant of tradition, unless it stood in the way of advancing the mission of God.
This seems to be what is happening when some of John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask Him about fasting (9:14). (Obviously they missed the tweets about the previous scene.) Once Jesus recovered from His self-inflicted face-palm, He says to them: “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (9:15). In short, this is a new time with a new purpose. “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, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (9:16-17). Progressives love this passage because we think it gives us a license to do whatever we want in the name of Christ. Being missional, we claim, means changing things up and re-inventing the religious wheel. Yet, Jesus did not come “to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). As in the spirit of the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, Jesus reminds these seekers that there is “a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Yet, people of faith are to be sensitive to the time and to embrace the leading of the Spirit so that the “new wine” of God’s mission is not wasted by forcing it into conventional modes. Fasting is fine, Jesus argues, yet not when God has spread a sumptuous banquet before us. And this is exactly what is happening. And in one single word, Jesus casts a new vision.
Jesus calls new people to join a new community in order to participate in a new vision. It seems that the words of Revelation 21 are, indeed, quite trustworthy and true: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true’ (Revelation 21:5).