New Cloth, New Wine, New Ideas

New Cloth, New Wine, New Ideas

Some here will well remember the catchphrase 'Make do and mend' which was a way of life in the 2nd World War. It was also a necessity for poor families in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It is not so much so nowadays for two reasons. Firstly, people do not know how to 'make do and mend' and secondly everyone can by clothes very cheaply in supermarkets, chain stores and charity shops. Now, as he often did, Jesus used an incident of the Pharisees' criticism as the occasion for teaching. Jesus had come from visiting Matthew and calling him to be a disciple. He uses the metaphor of patched garments: 'No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old'. Notice the deliberate contrast here between the old and the new. That's the point of the parable. You will remember 'unshrunk cloth'. Some may remember washing something for the first time and especially if it was wool finding that it had become half the size and no longer of use. Jesus is saying that to try to attach the new to the old not only results in destruction of the new but also the old, which won't look right and will eventually tear again.

It is often said of some people that as time passes they have become set in their ways, immune from new ideas, new suggestions, new ways of doing things. There is the familiar cruel observation 'You cannot teach an old dog new tricks'. Christians must not become like that. If you watch 'Songs of Praise' you will see city Gospel churches, where elderly people praise God with their arms raised to the ceiling, and dance and move as they sing the hymns. To us, it looks a bit odd. We prefer dignity, order and peace. We prefer to leave the jiggin' to the Bowling Club or the Masonic Hall. But being open to new things in Jesus Christ is not just about pop style worship. It is much deeper than that. Remember people descriptions like 'a crusty old character', 'hard bitten', 'dried up'? Jesus enables us whatever our age to be liberated from the natural tendencies and progressions of age. That does not mean we have to accept changing values and customs if they are not Christian. It means that within us, we do not become hardened, disillusioned or embittered and closed to the Grace of the Saviour. We should not be fearful of dying or death but the Lord is risen indeed, resurrected, alive for ever and his promise is that we will share in his eternal life.

Jesus makes the same point with a parable about new wine and old. The image of wineskins that Jesus uses in his parable is foreign to our culture. The only leather wine container we can imagine is the one that you see in cowboy films. In Jesus' time wine was made by treading barefoot on the grapes in a wine press, a square or circular pit hewn out of the rock, or dug out and lined with rocks and sealed with plaster. The juice then flowed through a channel into a lower vessel, a wine vat which functioned as a collecting and fermenting container for the grape juice or must. In the warm climate of Palestine, grape juice began to ferment very quickly and there was no easy way to prevent fermentation. After the first state of fermentation had taken place in the wine vat, the wine was separated from the sediment of dead yeast, tartar crystals, small fragments of grape skins, etc. and strained through a sieve or piece of cloth. After four to six days it was poured into clay jars lined with pitch or animal skins for storage and further fermentation. Wineskins were made of whole tanned goatskins where the legs and tail were cut off and had been sealed, the whole large skin bulging almost to bursting as the carbon dioxide gas generated by the fermentation process stretches it to its limit. This image is well described by Job: 'For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst' (Job 32:18-19).

Fermentation in the wineskin might continue for another two to four months until the process slows down and stops. By that time the skin has been stretched to its limit. The alcohol is probably about 12%, and the collagen protein that gives the leather its stretching ability has been stretched out, the skin's ability to contract and stretch again has been lost. Jesus' hearers were well acquainted with this process. They understood what he was saying so far. Here's the same contrast of old and new that we saw in the parable of the patched garment. His point is the same: you can't join the new to the old or you'll ruin both the new wine and the old skin. The gas pressure from the fermentation is eventually so great that the inflexible old skin ruptures, and the new wine gushes out onto the ground and is wasted.

What is new that would be ruined by being attached to the old? Jesus has come with a radical gospel of Good News to the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the sick, the broken hearted. He speaks with authority, rather than the rote learning of the scribes of his day. Their man-made rules of who can eat with who and how people should fast would just get in the way. They are externals, that is all. Jesus, on the other hand, is aiming to expose afresh the heart of the ancient faith. He helps people to return anew to love for God and for one's neighbour, to do mercy and love justice and walk humbly with their God. These are the core values of the Hebrew faith - its life, not the dead Pharisaical external traditions that offer an appearance of piety but don't change the heart.

Ask yourself whether your church going has liberated you or dried up your inner soul and being. Do you come with your prejudices and leave with them confirmed and strengthened. Or – do you leave with some new idea, some new thought, some new perspective? Are you chastened perhaps and also uplifted and encouraged? Are you stimulated to learn more, to take the Lord more seriously, to be a seeking Christian rather than a sleeping Christian?

Paul, trained as a strict Pharisee, grasped the radical nature of salvation by grace through faith. Soon he had to explain why he wasn't imposing the familiar Jewish regulations on his Gentile converts (Acts 15). Again and again he had to insist that we are free in Christ, so we must not become entangled again in a legalistic religion trying to pass itself off as Christianity. At the close of his parable of the wineskins, Jesus puts it this way: 'And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, "The old is better"' (5:39). It is easier to fall back to what is familiar and comfortable, and justify that, rather than be led by the Voice of the Spirit of God. The two are opposites, the old and the new. You cannot combine them without destroying both.
No, Jesus insists, the Gospel of the Kingdom must not be hindered by the man-made rules of the Pharisees' religion. It must be free to work its power unfettered. The New Wine may not be as smooth to the tongue, and finely aged as old wine. It may be a bit sharp and unrefined. But it is alive. You can't contain it in old structures. You must find new wine skins for it or none at all. That is not to say that Jesus' threw out the Old Covenant. He makes it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that he comes to fulfil the Law, not to abrogate it: 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them... Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven'.

What are the structures of our own age and culture that cannot coexist with the new wine of the Spirit? What have we tried to sew Christianity onto that will cause a greater tear and undermine the faith itself. What is it in your own life? What is it in your work, your community, your school, your environment? 'New wine must be poured into new wineskins' not accommodated to those comfortable things in our lives with which it is basically incompatible. The message for disciples is to be uncompromising about our faith and the work of the Spirit in our lives. If our honoured customs and habits, and the structures of our society must adjust to that, then so be it. That's why there's growth among independent evangelical churches in Britain today.

Scotland's is in a critical phase. Gone is the historic Christian sense of calling and election. Gone is the order of Christian family life. Gone is the general acceptance of Christian social values. People have become more introverted. The 'selfie' is the symbol of this. Collectively, politics have become introverted - being about people claiming the right to organise society as they see fit. There is no sense of and no acknowledgement of divine providence and no higher aspiration to meaning and purpose than what each person can get out of the system for himself or herself.

But Jesus Christ is no old fogey and his ideas are not time barred. Above all, his resurrection lifts us out of our mental boxes, our emotional cages and our spiritual prisons. If we cling to our old spiritual clothes and drink our own old spiritual wine then 2016 will be no better for us than was 2015. But in Jesus Christ the possibilities are endless. We must live in faith and with hope, optimism and joyfulness of soul. That is our calling and our witness and so great is the Lord's power that he can even change Presbyterians. He can change us. He can change me. He can change you. Let Him do so. Are there any old clothes or old wineskins in your life that you need to let go of to make you a proper Christian? What are you clinging to that stops you entering the kingdom of heaven? Make a break with what you know is not Christian. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and drink in the new wine of His Covenant of Grace. Receive his new heart, be transformed in the renewing of your mind and follow and serve Him better than you have ever done.

Robert Anderson 2017

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