The season of Epiphany has been long and instructive this year. The church has had time to hear many of the great works of Jesus' ministry, and there has been time for us to reflect on how God is at work through them.
This Sunday the message focuses on God at work through Jesus outside the laws and customs of the day. But we begin with a passage from Hosea that is quite remarkable. God uses the image of infidelity being turned into a strong marriage because of God's infinite forgiveness and God's desire to be in relationship with Israel. You could say that is what God has been trying to do with us. Despite our falling away, our separation from God, God keeps coming back to us with a plan for our reunion. Instead of punishment, we find, in the words of one author, "an extravagant expenditure of grace."
The Gospel passage is yet another story about Jesus and his disciples doing things that seem perfectly normal, but in their context are shocking. Feasting while John's disciples and the Pharisees fast is the presenting issue. The customs of the day are being ignored by people who should know better.
When President Kennedy was shot in Dallas a nation was plunged into grief. Events of all kinds were cancelled. There was one community that was just beginning its basketball season, and the schools decided to go ahead with a scheduled game. Despite the protests from parents and patrons, the game was played following a moment of silence and prayers for the slain president. Afterwards one of the coaches said, "we talked with the teams and they decided the best way to honor President Kennedy's life was to play the game. We know not everyone will understand, but we did what we felt was right."
Jesus' entire ministry will be like this, focused on the moment, singing the right tune at the wrong time for others. This is how God can get our attention; by getting us out of step with custom and convention God can call us to consider the extravagant expenditure of grace made on our behalf.
If God waited until we had fasted enough, prayed enough, given enough there would never be a right time. But God's time for celebration is always right; God's time for giving us Jesus was the right time. God's having us see the world in a different way comes to us when God chooses. What can we do other than feast and celebrate?
Today the church is being challenged to become less structured and more flexible so it can venture forth in mission outside of its members. Churches may have to abandon cherished forms of worship, hallowed days like Sunday, beautiful but costly buildings and other trappings in order to be present in the world. A whole generation of people now exists that is not tied to denominational loyalty, but still seeks God and a deeper spiritual life. If the church is going to introduce these people to Jesus, it has to present Jesus without all the wrapping that custom demands.
Recently a church worship committee decided to focus its mission to new members on a special service. There would be an emphasis on casual dress, a hearty welcome for visitors, and other changes. When the committee proposed this change it was so threatening to other church leaders that it was shuttled between other church committees for over 11 months. Meanwhile the energy for the new service dwindled away, and the proposal died.
What happened? The worship committee tried to put new wine into old wineskins, and rather than having the wine burst the skins (the customs and norms of the congregation) the new wine was mellowed until it became like the rest!
Structures that demand conformity and exclude change are wide ranging in church life. They are the lifeblood of the church to many. But Jesus is challenging us to examine them. What structures and customs in your congregation discourage new faces? If you haven't had new people showing up and other churches have, there may be a reason that has to do with the norms and customs that are deeply held by everyone.
And think about feasting while we have Jesus. Do our worship communities reflect the joy of feasting and celebration? Does our church help people find reasons to celebrate Jesus in their lives? Do people get to know him well enough to want to feast with him?
A church in a small Midwest community recently decided it wanted to grow. It was a congregation of people who enjoyed each other, and they did a lot of things together. Some of them realized they were focused too much on themselves, and that growth would only come if they had a mission outside of their walls. They found a local nursing home that had little in the way of social events. Since this church liked to have parties and meals together they started having regular potlucks at the nursing home. Before long everyone was talking about their potlucks. Then they started having services at the home and people in addition to the residents came. What they learned from this experience was that their walls were obstacles. Once they moved out of them, feasting with Jesus, there was a whole world waiting for celebration. The church has enjoyed modest growth and everyone in town knows who they are.
The whole theme of Epiphany is making God known in Jesus. Even in a culture that often ignores Christianity as boring and irrelevant there is a lot of room for introducing Jesus in a fresh new way. Let the feasting begin, and let it begin in a new place.