Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
February 9, 2020
Texts: 2 Kings 11: 2346; Mark 1: 21-28
In his 1973 novel Starting Over Dan Wakefield writes about Potter, a man who after divorcing his wife, finds it difficult to start over, to adjust himself to the dating scene of the 1970s, which was quite different than even the 1960s. It feels like time out of joint to him. This not-so-well reviewed novel was highly popular, however, and was made into a grade B movie––and some critics said that would be giving it too much credit.
Like the image of the novel, many people think of starting over as wiping the slate clean as if past events do not matter. But, as all of us know, they matter; in fact, they matter a lot. The ancient Israelites kept running into their past when they wanted to wipe their slate clean and start over.
In this morning’s reading from the book of Kings––originally the two books we know as 1 and 2 Kings were part of a single book, divided when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek for the Greek speaking community in the city of Alexandria in Egypt––the prophet Ahijah creates two nations from the twelve tribes in an attempt to get them to start over.
Like many of the personages in Hebrew Scripture, he just pops up from time to time. We know he was a Levite prophet in the time of Solomon and that he is the person who speaks the word of the Lord in dividing Solomon’s kingdom and that he installs Jeroboam as the King of the ten tribes of Israel because Solomon had let the people turn away from the Lord and worship foreign gods.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Second Commandment says. And the Third prohibits making graven images, bowing down before them, for as that Command-ment states, “I am a jealous God.” Those graven images were part of worship for people in ancient times. The Lord of the Hebrew Scriptures is forever fighting against such worship.
Let’s do a recap: The Israelites wanted to be like other nations so they implored Samuel to give them a king. So he anoints Saul, but Saul manages to really aggravate the Lord by not wiping out all the Amalekites, not to mention the livestock. Next comes David who aggravates the Lord even more by taking another man’s wife (adultery, clearly a no-no) and making sure her husband gets killed. Then we get wise Solomon, wise but not wise enough to say no to the foreign wives who brought their little gods with them.
Enter Ahijah. This is a kind of starting over. The Lord has had it with Solomon and his foreign wives, idols in the temple. I mean, diplomacy is one thing but the idols in the temple, that’s something else. Time to start over.
That is, of course, exactly what Ahijah was supposed to do—get everyone including the Lord to start over but it doesn’t quite work that way.
We tend to talk about starting over as if it wipes out the past. But it really doesn’t do that. So we have to ask ourselves: what does starting over really mean? One thing it does mean is moving beyond the place where you are in your life. For many of us, it means looking at our lives in a different way, a way that enables us to move beyond where we are stuck. In some sense Israel was stuck because of its history; it was not sure how to look into the future.
The experience of being afraid of the future does not just belong to our time. In fact, I daresay, that throughout history, most times have presented something to fear to the extent that people are afraid of the future. The kingdom that David and his son Solomon had so laboriously built had split into two following Solomon’s death in 922, partly due to Solomon’s oppressive policies toward the north. Two kingdoms existed side by side for just about two hundred years.
Part of starting over is overcoming our fear of the future. There’s actually a word for it: chronophobia, derived from the Greek word chronos, or time, and phobia. Chronos was the Greek god of time, but that’s another story for another time. There’s a difference between thinking about the future and being afraid of what the future might hold.
Concern about the future certainly makes sense because for many in the older generation, there is a need to think and to plan for the future. Thinking about the future is not like predicting the weather, at least in today’s time.
Sometimes fear of the future and the feeling that we cannot start over are related. We may feel that the future does not hold much for us due to illness, loss in income, a job, or someone we love. Starting over in this context incorporates the past in our lives and using our experiences from the past to move in a different direction.
Jesus’ short parable about new wine in new wineskins gives us some idea of how to proceed. What we do here is develop new experiences and put them into a new context. The new context may be some change in our personal lives.
I know a lawyer who when he learned he had a debilitating illness searched for and found a new associate to take over the practice and decided to start his life over again and now paints. He had thought about a time when he wouldn’t be able to practice law and had planned for it. He had garnered his resources so that when the time came, he was able to survive without his previous income.
Accepting a new reality in our lives enables us to start over, as it were, although we may not think of it as really starting over, just shifting our focus, perhaps, or accommo-dating ourselves to new situations. This is part of what Jesus meant about pouring new wine into old wineskins.
We cannot start over, accommodate ourselves, or even just shift focus if we are tied so deeply into our past that we cannot shake it loose. What is true of our personal lives is also true of our church, our community, or our Nation. The seven last words of any organization or societal group are: “But we’ve always done it that way.”
Change doesn’t come easily, of course, because old familiar ways are just that: familiar. Starting over means taking on the unfamiliar but with thought and foresight. It means recognizing that what worked in the past may not continue to work in the future. It also means experimenting with new approaches to what seem to be old problems.
Looking beyond ourselves, take the issue of medical care. Our current system of so-called choice is not really choice but is really based on markets, that is, how much the market will bear for the cost of some procedure and how much a medical consumer can pay. The United States is the only industrialized nation without a national health plan that covers everyone.
The nay-sayers claim that national health eliminates choice. What is most likely eliminated is health care based on the ability to pay. Some claim that it would ration medical care; we are already rationed by the ability to pay. There are some models out there that can address this problem. But chronophobia keeps our imagination at bay.
That’s only one issue facing our society. Education is another; creation care is yet another. We find ourselves at impasses because of our unwillingness to look at options that may require a total shift in our thinking about to approach an issue.
Ahijah wasn’t telling the people to junk the past but to return to the solid foundations of their nation. Like the ancient Israelites we have created clay idols that are destruc-tive to our understanding of what and who we should be. Many of those idols are based on our conception of wealth and possessions.
Other idols are our conceptions of how we as a church should worship or do mission in the community. The models of worship, programs, and mission have been handed down to us from generation to generation, so to speak, and they are familiar, hence, comfortable. We need to look beyond what has worked in the past to new ideas for the future. We are only limited by our imagination.
We have to let go of those old idols. Our personal inability to look at starting over, how to weave the old into the new, confronts us both personally and societally. Like the ancient Israelites we need to smash the old clay idols that we have worshipped and to both return to our principles as a Nation and to look forward to starting over.
Let us come to God in prayer: Eternal Creator, you are our guide and stay. Give us the imagination to move forward in our lives, in the life of your church, and our Nation. We ask this in the name of him who showed us how to pour new wine, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.