Friday, January 16, 2015

Cloaks and Wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Can we agree on this, change is life is inevitable, sometimes we embrace change, but at other times, change is difficult and we resist it with every fiber of our being. 

When the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff immigrated to the United States, he saw many changes from his Russian homeland, but the thing he loved most about America was the grocery stores.  He said, "I'll never forget walking down one of the aisles and seeing powdered milk; just add water and you get milk.  Right next to it was powdered orange juice; just add water and you get orange juice. Then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, what a country!"

At a church committee meeting, the moderator said: "Let's put it to a vote, everyone in favor of changing the maroon baptistry curtains, which Mrs. McIntire purchased 40 years ago, to green ones, after she moves to Florida, say so with an uplifted hand."

We read in our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew a response to a question about fasting addressed to Jesus from the disciples of John the Baptist.  It was asked in a critical tone because Jesus was breaking with tradition.  Or to be more precise, he was breaking the Jewish Law.  

Jesus regularly broke the rules of the Jewish law.  He forgave people's sins and was accused of blasphemy.  The law said rest, don't work on the Sabbath.  Jesus healed people on the Sabbath and was accused of being a law breaker.   The law said don't associate with sinners.  Jesus associated with tax collectors, lepers, and Gentiles, and talked publicly to women, not too mention women with questionable reputations, like the woman at the well. 

The disciples of John the Baptist were deeply troubled because Jesus' followers weren't fasting.  Fasting originally was for the purpose of personal spiritual preparation, for worship and for Jewish holy days and festivals.  But it had evolved over time into a legal requirement.  A rule required Jews to fast on Mondays and Thursdays.  Jews kept the rule out of a sense of duty and religious obligation.

Jesus responds to this criticism by explaining that His relationship to the disciples was like a marriage banquet.  In Jesus’ day, the bride and groom celebrated their marriage with the entire village for a full week.  And according to the rabbinical rule, during that week, the bridal party and their friends were excused from, exempt from, all religious observances, including fasting.

Jesus asks: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, then they will fast.” 

Jesus identifies Himself as the bridegroom and that a relationship with him was like a spiritual marriage.  Jesus wasn’t promoting anarchy and lawlessness, for remember that the Law’s original purpose was to command people to respect and honor and revere God.  The law's intent was for people to treat one another justly and fairly. 

Recall the commands God gave to Moses: no other gods, no idols, don’t misuse the name of God, remember the Sabbath, don’t steal, don’t murder, don't commit adultery, don't bear false witness against your neighbor.  Jesus taught about loving and worshipping God over legalism and exercising compassion for people over legalism.   But the Jewish leaders were committed to Jews keeping man-made rules and regulations which had built up over the centuries.  They were bound by the traditions of their ancestors and resisted change or modification.  Jesus was essentially saying – the time for change has come!

In this context, Jesus uses two pictures to teach the disciples: “No one sews a piece from a new garment on an old one, otherwise the patch pulls away from the old garment, and no one puts new wine into old wineskins, or the wineskin bursts, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.  New wine must be put into fresh wineskins and so both are preserved.”

In Jesus’ day the juice from grapes was fermented in the skins of goats, rather than in oak barrels and stainless steel tanks like today.  When the goatskin was full of juice, the neck of the skin was sutured and the fermentation process began.  When fermentation was complete the new wineskin was stretched to capacity.  When the wine was poured out, the empty skin was dried.  It hardened and became brittle, inflexible, incapable of stretching and further elasticity.  It could be used for pouring water, but not as a wineskin, because the fermentation process would burst the old skins.

Is Jesus teaching us a lesson about winemaking?  No.  He was talking about new ideas, and new thinking, and new ways of doing things, and a new conception of the truth, he was talking about change.  And don't we love change and don't we hate change?  He was saying don't let your minds be like those old wineskins, hardened and brittle and inflexible.   No, not all change is good and not all change is bad.  But sometimes change is necessary, sometimes it’s required.  We often deny change.   One author wrote:  “Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed.”

The Jewish leaders were vehemently attached to the old traditions, especially in terms of the Law.  The old is better.  The Law is unchangeable and immutable.  It's a familiar attitude.  “We've never done it that way before.”  “We've always done it this way.”  We become secure in the status quo.  We become comfortable with well-known ideas and habits.  Our attitudes become fixed and rigid.  We want to hold on to what we know, to what is familiar. 

Jesus was saying – “I have come, I am the Son of God, the time for change has arrived.”  Yes,  there comes a time when patchwork is folly, when patches are useless, when tinkering and duct-tape no longer works, when all you can do is scrap something entirely and begin again.

Now we immediately see a dilemma.  We value tradition and history and heritage. We should. We remember the good old days.  Although, like singer Billy Joel said: “Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies, because the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”   But there is a caution - we don’t want to make a god out of the past, an idol of it and worship it and bow down to it and preserve it at all costs.  

Conversely, change is important and making changes in our lives in light of a rapidly changing world is crucial.  But the same caution applies: we don’t want to make a god out of change, an idol of it and worship it and bow down to it.  There should be sound reasons, a sound rationale for making changes. 

Did Jesus respect tradition?  Yes.  Did Jesus say: “I command you - stop the practice of winemaking.”  No, he didn’t denounce winemaking.  Did Jesus say throw out all old wine? No, he valued wine that had aged.  Remember his first miracle was when he changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana

First, in thinking about wine in old wineskins, we remember how God has worked in our lives in the past.  We recall our service in His name, we recall how God has called us to serve, how God has guided us and strengthened us and comforted us and we affirm this.  But we need to be open when God calls us to change, to think differently, to come up with new ideas, to do things differently, to be creative, to follow him down new paths, even though God is leading us in new directions. 

Second, Jesus is saying Jesus that He is the new wine.  The new wine is His new teaching about the Kingdom of God, about Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, Emmanuel, about setting believers free from being bound to the laws of the past, about his message of repentance, faith, forgiveness and grace, and the joy of becoming his follower and the new life He offers to all who commit their lives to Him.  Jesus is the new wine who by his Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts.

This picture is about Jesus and his followers, in his day and in ours, who contain the dynamic, fermentative, life-changing power of His gospel and Holy Spirit.    We are to be distinguished for our elasticity and flexibility and creativity as vessels of Jesus’ own indwelling presence.   We are to represent an open mind, a receptive heart, a readiness to obey God’s guidance and inspiration where ever it made lead us, while still respecting tradition.

What do you hear God saying to you in this teaching about cloaks and wineskins?   How does this truth apply to your life?  What about where you work and how you're doing your job and your attitude toward it?  Is God calling you to do something new?

Is God calling you to do something new in a current friendship that has soured or to invest in the new wine of a new friendship? 

What about the church?  Do we need to pour new wine into new wineskins of outreach and ministry?  Is it time for some new thinking and ideas?

What about your marriage?  Are there significant changes that God is calling you to make in your marriage? 

What about your parenting responsibility and the raising of your children?  Is God calling you to pour new wine into new wineskins in terms of new ideas and practices and values in your parenting style?  

I recall a family in the congregation I served in CO.  Their son had gotten deeply involved into drugs in high school.  They tried various disciplinary strategies at home: grounding, taking privileges away, etc, but nothing worked.  He was quickly descending into the dark world of drugs.   His life was spiraling downward.

Finally after much prayer and research, they made the toughest decision in their lives, they sent him to live for two years in a military style drug rehab program in another state.  They couldn’t even see him for the first year.  He eventually graduated, got his life back on track and is doing well today.  Patch work on old efforts, new wine in old wineskins, didn’t work.

How about your own spirituality, your own journey of faith?  Are you growing in your walk with God?  Is God calling you to do something totally different in your spiritual life? Patches aren't working.  A new wineskin, a new idea, is the answer.

Life changes radically and rapidly; Jesus is saying it takes new cloaks and new wineskins to meet the new challenges of today. Jesus is the new wine.  Jesus is the new cloak. Let us go forward, trusting in Him, embodying His power, inspiration and guidance, and be ready for something new?    Amen!

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