Being New Wineskins
Topic: Changed Lives Passage: Mark 2:18–2:22
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For our guests, Mark records five consecutive stories from 2:1-3:6 that chronicle the growing conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus. It began when Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, and in their hearts the Pharisees accused Jesus of blaspheming. Then they watch Jesus enter the home of Levi the tax collector and sit at table with flagrant sinners and ask, “why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?” The implication is that he contaminates himself by associating with them.
The hostilities will culminate with two stories about Jesus’ apparent disregard for the Sabbath. The Pharisees were fanatical about keeping the Sabbath and set up strict hedges to keep anyone from breaking the Sabbath, but Jesus will ignore those hedges and violate the Pharisees interpretation of keeping the fourth commandment which Mark records in verse 6 will inflame them to the point of plotting to kill Jesus.
The reason they get so violently angry is that every time they bring a charge against Jesus, Jesus has a way of turning it around so that they are publicly embarrassed, and the more they are publicly embarrassed, the more their influence with the crowds diminishes – and that threatens everything they hold dear – which is their position and power. So they begin to dog Jesus’ steps, watching for any opportunity to accuse and discredit Jesus, and every time Jesus turns it around and embarrasses them, their strategy is to fade silently into the background as if to fall back, regroup, rethink their strategy, and then look for a different way to accuse Jesus.
In the story we are looking at this morning the flash point is over the issue of fasting. Some people come to Jesus with a question – taking the accounts of Luke and Matthew into account it’s probably a mixed group of followers of the Pharisees and disciples of John – and ask Jesus why it is that the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist fast but his disciples don’t. It could be an honest question, but in this context we see that it’s a question with an agenda: to undermine Jesus’ disciples in the eyes of the people.
To understand the agenda that is hidden in this question, we need to understand that the Pharisees had twisted fasting into something God didn’t intend for it to be. Fasting is a good thing in the Bible when done out of a humble spirit of repentance and sorrow and generous compassion for the plight of others. Jesus himself began his ministry with a 40 day fast, so we know that Jesus wasn’t against fasting.
But fasting was only commanded by God on one day a year, the Day of Atonement when Israel as a nation confessed its sins and found corporate forgiveness through sacrifice. It was a day of confession, repentance, and national grief for their sin. A faithful Jew could certainly fast more than that if they chose, but they were only commanded to fast one day a year in God’s word.
But the Pharisees had developed a custom of fasting twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, and it was expected that anyone serious about keeping God’s law would keep their custom of fasting. Adherence to this man made custom became yet another yard stick of someone’s spirituality and devotion to God and the Pharisees turned fasting into a wonderful opportunity to display their devotion to God by making it real obvious to everyone that they were fasting. The more miserable they looked, the more spiritual they were thought to be, so they disfigured their faces and didn’t comb their hair and went about all disheveled so that their devotion to God was seen by all. Inwardly, the more people admired their external devotion to God, the more their pride in their spiritual superiority swelled.
To the Pharisee, fasting had become a visual barometer of someone’s devotion to God and even John the Baptist’s disciples fasted frequently, although undoubtedly for different motivations than the Pharisees. But Jesus’ disciples weren’t registering at all on this visual barometer of love for God because they didn’t fast. We’re not talking low pressure, we’re talking no pressure. So this question really is, Jesus, how come your disciples rank third in the “devotion to God” category. Seems like, if you were really the Messiah, maybe they’d love God a little bit more than they do. It’s a question meant to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the crowds that were following him.
Once again Jesus turns it around and the Pharisees are left publicly embarrassed and silenced, but this is no game to Jesus – it’s deadly serious. He answers in a way that does more than silence the Pharisees – it reveals just how devastated their spiritual state really is. It revealed how blind they had become and how brittle their religion had become. And for us this morning, Jesus’ response gives us a window into the dead thing their religion had become and a warning not to allow our faith to become like theirs.
I. Jesus answers with a question that reveals their blindness to Who was in their midst
Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (vv. 19-20)
In those days the custom when two people got married, they didn’t go away for a honeymoon, they opened their house up and had a week long party with close friends and family. Now having a house full of people on your first week of marriage may not sound like a great idea to us, but in that day it was one of the best weeks of their lives because it was devoted entirely to celebrating the bride and the bridegroom. It was 24/7 party for seven days straight!
What Jesus is saying is, the issue isn’t fasting or not fasting. The issue is Who is in your midst – the bridegroom – the One all Israel has been looking for and waiting for for thousands of years is with you, and it’s time to party! You guys are totally missing what God is doing – it’s a time for celebration, not for deprivation. It’s a time for joy and laughter, not mourning and long faces. Tragically the religious leaders did not know the time of their visitation, they did not recognize Who was in their midst.
Joy and celebration is still to be the atmosphere of the church, because Jesus is still in our midst. Jesus’ statement “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they will fast in that day” is a little unclear. Did he only mean the cross and his death? Or does he mean the longer period of time since his death and resurrection when he has been physically removed from this earth? Scholars don’t entirely agree.
But whatever the exact meaning, the Christian knows that Jesus is still with us – he promises to be with us even to the end of the age. He did not leave us orphans but gave us the Holy Spirit which is also called the Spirit of Christ. Certainly Christians can and should fast – in repentance, in earnest supplication, in a desire to deny our fleshly appetites in order to strengthen our spiritual appetites; to increase our hunger for God. But the strong undercurrent of the church is to be joy, not sorrow, celebration, not mourning. Paul stressed over and over again the importance of rejoicing in every situation, because with Christ in our lives there is every reason to rejoice even in the worst of situations!
We’re not talking about becoming chirpy, giddy Christians – that’s not what joy is. Joy is more like a deep river than it is a babbling brook. If we’re always giddy, we’re probably shallow. But deep Christianity isn’t measured by how somber and miserable we can be either. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about a long face, and there’s nothing unspiritual about smiling and even laughing. Joy should shine through our eyes and our smiles – even in the worst of times.
When we lose our joy, we are probably losing sight of Christ and if we fix our gaze upon Jesus, we will begin to find the joy that only he can give.
II. Jesus diagnoses their religious system as terminally brittle
Jesus then tells two parables that have one point: to show that you can’t add the new to the old without destroying both. New cloth shrinks and old cloth has no stretch or give left in it. So if you patched an old garment with a new cloth when that new cloth shrunk it would pull and tear the old cloth.
Wineskins were flasks made from leather and it was important to put new wine in new wineskins because as the wine expanded from the gases created by fermentation, the new wineskins would be able to stretch and expand with the expanding wine and not burst. Old wineskins had already been stretched – they had no stretch left. So as the new wine expanded, the old wineskin couldn’t expand with it, it would just burst and the wine would be lost.
Jesus didn’t come to put a new patch on Judaism. He didn’t come to fill in the gaps where the law fell short. He came to bring something entirely new – God spoke in the OT of a coming day when He would make a New Covenant with His people, verses like Jeremiah 31:31:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers…
Jesus diagnoses their religious system as old and terminally brittle - so rigid, so hardened that it had no room for growth, no room for grace, no room for the expanding power of the life of God. Rigor mortis of the soul had crept in, and it’s terminal because there’s no hope for them unless they become new wineskins. God won’t pour any of the new thing He is doing into them – they can’t contain it, they will burst and God’s work will be spilled out and wasted. So they’re passed over for new wineskins of people who are ready to expand and grow with the life of the Spirit.
This is as relevant to us today as it was to those who heard Jesus speak these words: we need to be new wineskins and make sure we don’t become stretched out wineskins.
a. We believe truths that never change but our faith should always expanding
The truths we believe are unchanging – being new wineskins doesn’t mean that we’re ready to believe any new teaching that comes along in the name of being “flexible”. The issue for the Pharisees wasn’t that they believed the OT – if they had truly believed the OT they would have been positioned to receive the new thing God was doing. Moses would have loved Jesus, David would have loved Jesus. No, the problem is they built man-made systems and structures and became hardened in them to the point that they couldn’t grow or change. We hold firmly to truths that are unchanging – the gospel is not to be tampered with or improved upon or adapted to changing times. We’re not open to new interpretations of Jesus’ death, or justification, or whether God’s word is really meant to be taken literally or just figuratively. We don’t negotiate these things – they are non-negotiable. They are truths that never change and we cling tightly to them by faith. Anchoring our souls in truth keeps us from error and heresy.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t change or grow, or that our faith doesn’t change or grow – things that are alive tend to grow. The living Spirit of God within us will always be expanding us, stretching us, and changing us.
I worked at a music store for many years in the 1980’s and I remember one afternoon a guy came in who looked like he stepped out of the sixties. When he left the store my boss came up to me and made an interesting observation. He said, you can always tell when a guy got married cause that’s when he stopped changing. I guess the idea is, you tried to keep up with the times in order to be attractive to a potential wife – once you got her, you didn’t need to keep up with the times anymore.
I don’t know if that’s true, but I know you shouldn’t be able to tell when a person became a Christian cause that’s when he stopped changing. Becoming a Christian should be the beginning of change, of growth, of expansion, not the end of it. When I became a Christian, leisure suits was the thing cool Christians wore. Leisure suits were jackets and pants made from the same material – polyester – in the same cheesy color. They always fit perfectly so that you looked terrible from every angle. (See image on screen) They were dressy enough to wear to church but casual enough to be cool. And the great thing about them was, when you put one on you were one big walking color of polyester – what’s not to love about that? I had a grey leisure suit, my dad had a dark brown leisure suit.
My point is that I don’t wear leisure suits anymore – I’ve changed. And a lot of what I think and believe has changed over the years too. I don’t believe some things I believed 10 years ago, and I probably won’t believe some things 10 years from now that I believe now. My faith in Christ, my conviction that the Bible is the inerrant word of God isn’t up for negotiation, but there are a lot of methods, and perspectives, and peripheral doctrines that I see differently now. Are you growing in your faith? Or do you look the same as when you became a Christian?
b. Treasure the ways God has worked in your past, but expect God to work in new ways in the future
Some of us can probably look back on times when God moved in our lives or our churches, and we can wish we could have that again. We long for those days, for the way God was working, for the glory days. Maybe if we sing that song again, maybe if we hear preaching like that again, maybe if we worship like we used to again…
I have those significant times that I look back on too. It’s good to treasure those times, but don’t try to “reproduce them” again. When we start looking back with nostalgia and longing, our focus becomes the past rather than the future. We reduce God’s work to the stretched out container of what He did then. We start to see the move of God as what He did, rather than a living faith in what He is doing and will do.
God is unchanging, and His truths are timeless, but His work is always new and we need a living, stretching faith if we are to be containers that can steward His work without bursting a wineskin. What He does tomorrow probably won’t look exactly like what He did yesterday.
c. Don’t limit God to one style, one method, one context
We become brittle when we start to think that God only works through one style or method or context. I remember my grandmother coming to the church I was pastoring when she was in her 70’s. All she had known was organ and hymns and I was worried what she would think of electric guitars and drums. She loved it – not because it was her preference, it wasn’t. But she was grateful for the work of God in younger people’s lives and appreciated the worship styles that expressed their love for God. I love meeting older saints who have remained young in faith – not rigid, brittle, inflexible.
Younger people, don’t make the mistake of thinking that God’s only moving when there is face-melting loud worship music. Don’t think that the only preachers that are relevant are the ones who wear jeans and especially the ripped up ones. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that hip talk means connecting and relevance and what God is doing now. Appreciate that God works through many different kinds of vessels and styles and methods – you may prefer one kind but appreciate any wineskin that can flex with God’s work. And don’t equate God’s powerful work with cool. Not the same thing. And don’t equate God’s powerful work with uncool. Not the same. Cool isn’t really a category God is very interested in (I don’t think), so sometimes the vessel is cool and sometimes not. Don’t get brittle about God’s work.
d. Expect God to do things that stretch your faith
Expect God to do things that will stretch your faith – take you out of your comfort zone and into a place where you need to depend on God and lean hard on Him. Where your faith is challenged, and doubts loom large, and you need to hold tight to Christ. Where the testimony afterwards isn’t “you did a pretty normal, but good thing”, but rather, “look at the awesome thing God did!”
Ben just got back from Nairobi – that probably didn’t fall into his “comfort zone” category of activities. But the Lord stretched him and met him in amazing ways and he comes back with his faith stronger cause it got stretched. God pours His Spirit into us, He pours His life into us, He pours His grace into us, and we get stretched. And it’s good for us.
The whole point of these two parables is that the new things God does is for new wineskins. The New Covenant saves us through the old, old story of Jesus Christ, but not through an old, old faith. We want our faith to be new, young, fresh. Even at age 95. To do that we need to keep doing things to keep it limber, stretching, flexible. We hold to the unchanging truths with a faith that is always ready to change and expand. Let’s pray.
More in Gospel of Mark
March 31, 2013Shock and Awe at the Empty Tomb
March 31, 2013Shock and Awe at the Empty Tomb
March 24, 2013A Glorious View from the Mt Everest of Our Redemption