New Wine

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 5:38

But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.

Luke 5:38 rsv

The question was about fasting, abstaining from food, but it led Jesus to say some things about fullness of life. Listen. I’m reading from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 5, at verse 33:

And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”

FASTING BY CHOICE

Fasting can be a profoundly meaningful experience. I’m not talking about going hungry because you haven’t any food. That’s a distressing experience. I’m not talking about the abstinence we may submit to before a blood test or an operation. I surely don’t mean the rejection of food by inner compulsion that often destroys the health of young women who fear gaining weight.

I’m talking about fasting that is freely chosen for a religious reason; not for weight loss, not for appearance, not to make a political statement, but fasting for God’s sake, as a free response to His work in our lives.

The Bible records numerous instances of this. Remember King David when he prayed for his child, who was to be born to Bathsheba? He refused any food while he was offering this supplication, as though to underline the intensity of his desire for God’s blessing. We read of Ezra and his companions fasting, as he said, “that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a straight way for ourselves, our children and all our goods (Ezra 8:21).” Here was fasting in connection with self-humbling and prayer for God’s direction. The abstinence from food seemed to express heartfelt concentration on the prayer. Sometimes the fast was in connection with the confession of sin. Sometimes it was a sign of brokenness and repentance in a season of calamity. Always real fasting meant a turning away from known iniquity. Whenever God allowed great sorrow or trouble to come to His people, they seemed to find in fasting an appropriate response.

Sometimes the leaders of Israel called the people to a national fast. Sometimes prophets urged it upon their hearers as fitting. But fasting was never a divine command in the Old Testament law. Nor do we find it prescribed anywhere in the New Testament. The value of it, its deep meaning and power, seem to lie in the fact that God’s people choose to fast, as a way of seeking Him, a way of deepening their relationship to Him.

FASTING BY CUSTOM

But, as often happens, what began as a voluntary response to God soon hardened into a custom. By the days of Zechariah, there were stated fasts in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months, to commemorate events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem. The Pharisees later adopted the practice of fasting twice in the week. This pattern could still have religious significance, of course, but the transition from choice to custom brought some dangers with it. It was more likely now that fasting could be done in a perfunctory way, simply as a performance. In the practice of the Pharisees, it apparently became an occasion for self-display. Jesus spoke of those who “disfigured their faces” so that it would be clear to others that they were fasting. For such fasters, the exercise was a way of impressing others with the depth of their piety.

Even more ominously, the practice came to be viewed as meritorious. Fasting would somehow, it was believed, put God under obligation. It was one more way in which people imagined they could secure His favor. From a spontaneous reaction to God’s work in their lives, fasting became for some a calculated means of self-justifying. They were making an impression now not on other people but on God.

We sense something of that attitude in the question the Pharisees brought to Jesus that day. “The disciples of John fast often,” they said, “and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” The implied criticism was too heavy to miss. It was as though they had said, “Explain Yourself, Jesus. You think a great deal of John the Baptist, don’t You? Well, look at his disciples. They regularly observe the fasts. So do we Pharisees and those whom we teach. Why is it that Your disciples don’t fast?”

Now remember, this practice of regular fasting was not by divine command. It was an element of tradition, something hallowed by long practice. To the Pharisees, it was obviously a good, godly thing to do. “What’s the matter with You, Jesus,” they seemed to say, “that You don’t have Your followers observing this important spiritual discipline?”

EVERYTHING IN ITS TIME

What would Jesus say in response? His approach to the whole question is quite striking. As we’ve noted, He never commanded His followers to fast, never instructed them about its importance. At the same time, He seemed to assume that on occasion they would fast. In the Sermon on the Mount, He warned them against any advertising of their piety. But He said, “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-18).

Notice. He doesn’t say, “If you should ever fast,” but “when you fast,” implying that there will be such times. Further, Jesus says that fasting done for God’s sake and for God’s eye will be rewarded by Him. Far from dismissing it then as a meaningless exercise, He urges that the right kind of fast is something God prizes.

That gives us a framework for understanding how Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question. He acknowledged that His disciples were not in the habit of regular fasting, but He defended that in an interesting way. “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Jesus seems to say that fasting is more appropriate at some times than at others. One of the occasions when people ordinarily set aside the practice entirely is at a wedding. A marriage is, after all, a time of celebration. People don’t withdraw then for self-examination and silence. Rather, they get together to sing. It’s not a time for sadness but for joy. It’s a time, above all others, when we eat and drink, enjoying the occasion to the full with family and friends. “Could you expect,” Jesus asked, “of the members of the wedding party that they should fast at feasting time?”

What’s intriguing about this response is the role it assigns to Jesus Himself. Plainly, He is the Bridegroom in the story. His coming, His presence among His followers, is the great occasion for jubilation. It’s not stated who the bride is, but from the imagery of the Bible, Jesus’ meaning is clear. In Old Testament times, the Lord Himself was the husband of His people, wooing them, winning them, calling for their faithful love in response. In naming Himself the Bridegroom, Jesus is making an astounding claim. In Jesus, God Himself has come to claim His chosen bride. He is visiting and redeeming His people. It’s a time for all who realize that to rejoice and be exceeding glad.

That’s not to say that it will never be appropriate for Jesus’ disciples to fast. In fact, He says that it will. Listen: “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” That verb “taken away” has a strong, almost violent, flavor to it. It’s as though Jesus is predicting that He will be snatched away from His followers in death. That will be the time of their sorrow and anguish. Then, when the light of their lives has been darkened, it will be fitting to mourn, to put on sackcloth and to fast. Then they will do it as something freely chosen. Then it will express the pain and sorrow in their hearts.

THE OLD AND THE NEW

See how Jesus, in response to a question about something as ordinary as fasting, points to the mystery of who He is and to the suffering He is destined to bear. But He does more than that. He goes on to show in a little parable from life how the gospel He comes to proclaim and embody is radically, wonderfully new. Listen: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old garment; if he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.”

You see the point He is making? The practices of the Pharisees, and to a certain extent those of John the Baptist too, reflected the religious culture of their time. On the basis of their beliefs and expectations, from the light they have received, they have formed a structure of piety and performance, a certain way of expressing their religion. Now they are seeking to impose that on Jesus and His followers. But the Lord is showing them how unreasonable it is to expect that He and His disciples should fit into that mold.

If you take a piece of new cloth and put it on an old garment, what happens? It doesn’t fit, for one thing, the new with the old. And when the new shrinks with washing, it will tear away from the garment. You can’t mix the two. Nor can you put new wine, He says, into old wineskins. That’s disaster all around. The skins are destroyed and the wine is lost. For new wine, you need new wineskins.

The new wine, of course, is Jesus Himself, and the good news He announces. In Jesus, God is doing a new thing. All that had been spoken of by types and shadows in the Old Testament has become living reality in His person. All that was provisional and preparatory finds fulfillment in Him. As John’s gospel puts it, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The prophets had spoken long ago of a new covenant that God would make with His people, in which all would know Him, from the least to the greatest, in which forgiveness of sins would become a blessed present reality, in which God’s law would no longer be an external code but would be inscribed on the hearts of His people.

This is a way of living, Jesus says, which only renewed people can experience. You have to have a changed heart if it’s to make any sense to you. The only people who can live the new kind of life are those who have received it, in whom God’s Spirit comes to dwell, in whom the Lord is bringing about a new creation.

Have you realized that about the Christian gospel? Have you understood what God wants to bring about in your life? The gospel, friends, is not good advice. It’s not a word, primarily, that tells you to “shape up” and live in a better way. It’s not tired moralizing, that is, telling you again what you know already about the kind of person you ought to be. No. The Christian gospel is a transforming power. Jesus Christ offers to people, by His life, death and resurrection, newness of life, a transformation within them. That is the good news.

And for us who proclaim the gospel, it’s not enough to follow the pattern of Jesus’ questioners, trying to get people to conform to our religious practices, to adopt our style of piety. When we go to a foreign land with the gospel, we don’t go there to transplant our culture, our habits, our divisions, our peculiarities of church life. No, we go to give them Christ, to offer them new life in Him. Then we’re to leave them free to develop structures and responses appropriate to that newness of life in their situation. In other words, we need to trust the Spirit of God to do His work in the lives of those He renews. That’s a word to us about how we rear our children, isn’t it, about how we treat the people in our churches, and about how we carry on missions around the world?

Friend, be sure of this, that you don’t rest satisfied with the mere externals of religion, but that you have the heart of it. Be sure that you welcome Jesus Christ Himself, the joy-bringer, the life giver, into your life. And then let His Spirit take over. Don’t try to contain the new dynamic of the gospel in an old container. Turn the controls of your life over to Him, the One who says, “Behold, I make all things new.” Hallelujah!

Prayer: Father, we ask today that everyone who shares in this program will find in Jesus Christ newness of life and will begin to live in a new way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.