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January 1, 2012 | 4:00 p.m. | New Year’s Day

From Hair of the Dog to New Wine

John W. Vest
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Mark 2:18–22

Depending on how you celebrated New Year’s Eve last night, you may or may not appreciate beginning the year with a metaphor about wine. I’m not afraid to admit that I did, in fact, consume my fair share of wine last night, and then some. The truth is, I love a good feast. I love a good dinner party. I spent all day yesterday preparing a feast of roast pork to conclude 2011. Our table was surrounded by good friends; we had an abundance of good food; and the wine was flowing freely. It was a great way to end the year.

My love for table fellowship is probably one of the strongest connections I have to Jesus. The Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus gathered around tables with friends and strangers alike, so much so that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. His ministry and teaching are colored with rich metaphors of food and drink. A central symbol of our faith and the climax of our liturgy involves gathering around a table to share a sacred meal. Eating and drinking was important to Jesus because it is important to each of us.

In the story we just heard, Jesus is asked why he and his disciples do not fast. Fasting, of course, is the opposite of feasting. Abstaining from food is a discipline common to many religious traditions, and the Jews of Jesus’ day observed a variety of fasts. But we can infer from today’s story that it was more common for Jesus to feast than to fast.

His reasoning for this is a bit cryptic. He seems to use this question about fasting as an opportunity to hint at his eventual death. Apparently aware that his time with his followers would be limited, Jesus’ approach was to seize the day, enjoy the moment. He seems to have followed the advice of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, who concluded that the best thing in life is to eat, drink, and enjoy the pleasures of one’s work. Jesus lived life to the fullest. He enjoyed the company of others. He recognized that joining others around feasting tables was one of the best ways to accomplish his mission of changing the world. Around those tables, he made deep connections with others, and their lives were changed.

I wonder if Jesus ever woke up after a night of this kind of ministry feeling like many of us might have felt this morning: still full from the night before; head a little fuzzy from that one last glass of wine; slow getting into gear.

On New Year’s Day, people offer up a variety of cures for that pesky little side effect known as a hangover. I have always been fond of the metaphor “hair of the dog that bit you.” From an old folk remedy of treating a dog bite by placing some hair from the attacking dog on the wound it caused, many people suggest that the best way to cure a hangover is to ingest just a little bit more of the alcohol you consumed the night before.

I hardly ever suffer hangovers. If Jesus' style of table fellowship is in fact a valid form of ministry, as I’ve suggested it is, I suppose this is one of my gifts for ministry. So I don’t really know if “hair of the dog” actually helps. But as a metaphor, I find this practice of treating a hangover with the drink that did you in somewhat deficient. It feels to me like living in the past, rather than present. It feels to me like holding on to where we have been rather than embracing where we are going. Maybe I’m reading too much metaphor into this simple practice, but it seems to me like sticking with old wine. Jesus offers us new wine—new wine in new wineskins.

In fact, this thing about new wineskins is key. These leather bags used to hold wine would deteriorate and grow weak the longer they were in use. Refilling a depleted wineskin with new wine ran the risk of bursting the skin and losing the wine. New wine is for new wineskins. Jesus, the great host of feasts, invites us to join him in drinking some of this new wine.

On this first day of a new year, I am struck by the potential for change and growth in the days and months to come. No doubt, the past is important. It shapes who we are and is always with us. But I don’t believe that God wants us to dwell in the past. God is always about the business of calling us to be part of something new. As God’s kingdom emerges around us, God invites us to come along and be agents of change.

A new year is a fresh start. A clean slate. How many of us here today need a fresh start?

How many of us have made some mistakes that hurt others and hurt ourselves?

How many of us have suffered setbacks or tragedies that we had no control over?

How many of us have damaged cherished relationships?

How many of us are stuck in a rut?

How many of us are hurting?

How many of us are lonely?

How many of us have grown weary?

How many of us have given up on our dreams?

Christ is coming to make all things new. Christ is here to make all things new. Christ is here to invite us to a feast. Christ is here to offer us new wine.

What does that wine taste like? It tastes like change. It tastes like a new beginning, each of us being born anew and the whole world being remade into God’s kingdom.

With us or without us, the world is changing at a remarkable rate. Last month, Time magazine named the ubiquitous “Protester” as its person of the year. In places around the world like Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, India, Libya, China, Japan, the UK, Spain, and right here in the United States, people are demanding change and they are making it happen. There is a spirit of restlessness in the air, a feeling that things are not as they should be, not as they could be.

When I look at what is happening in the world, I can’t help but see in this spirit of change a reflection of the gospel and the Missio Dei, God’s mission in the world. I don’t know if God has been involved in these protests and revolutions around the world. But I do believe that the gospel is nothing short of revolutionary. It is a radical restart, a radical transformation of who we are and the world we live in, a radical transformation of our relationships with God and with each other. God calls us to join this revolution, a revolution of love, peace, reconciliation.

It that Time magazine article, Indian social activist Anna Hazare, who protested corruption in India, is quoted as saying, “When God wants to bring in change, he needs a vehicle of change, and I became that vehicle.” What a perfect articulation of the gospel.

Very often in 2011 you heard me quote Jesus’ opening words in the Gospel of Mark: “‘Now is the time!’ says Jesus. ‘Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!’” If my heart was stirred by these words in 2011, my resolution for 2012 is to live them out.

Now is the time! Right here, right now. God is calling us to something new. Jesus invites us to eat and drink at God’s table. God calls us to go from that table and bring new wine and living bread to feed all of God’s children.

Here comes God’s kingdom! It’s emerging all around us.

Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! Change starts within each of us. It grows into our communities. It has the potential to sweep across the globe, as it did in 2011.

It’s a new year—a new start. A new feast is being prepared for us. New wine is being poured. Let us enjoy it. Let us share it. Let us live it.