Thursday, December 31, 2009

In With the New

New wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “The old is better.” (Luke 5.38-39)
Uncommon Vintages
A June 2003 visit to Paris ended in several days of oppressive heat. Though Paris is many things, heat-friendly isn’t one of them. Its stone architecture, narrow backstreets, and inland location turn the city into an oven. So we spent our last days in air-conditioned museums and stores, when we’d rather have roamed outdoors. Back at home, French news reported the heat hadn’t lifted and Western Europe was in full-on crisis. Death tolls overwhelmed undertakers and forced families to place loved ones in makeshift morgues. Calamity also loomed for France’s vineyards. If conditions didn’t cool, one of Europe’s leading industries and economic drivers might actually die on the vine.

The heat hung on through August, causing nearly 15,000 deaths in France alone. It also reduced harvests by 15-20%. But a most interesting thing occurred. In some regions, scorching conditions improved the grapes. Critics hailed many of that year’s wines as exquisitely uncommon vintages. As older, highly reputed bottles gathered dust, 2003 wines flew off the shelves. Buyers happily paid more for typically cheaper labels. Lastly, while wines produced under more stable conditions tend to improve with age, atypical factors affecting the 2003 vintage raised suspicions it might degrade over time. Instead of waiting for an occasion to bring out a fine bottle, opening a 2003 wine turned into an occasion. Rarely has newness ranked so high among a wine’s qualities.

Utterly Innovative

Having grown up with Christian values, we're hard-pressed to appreciate how utterly innovative Christ’s message and methods were. Mark, writer of the first Gospel, hastens to drive this home in the first miracle he describes. Jesus is teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, where we’re told, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as teachers of the law.” (Mark 1.22) As He teaches, a man vexed by an unclean spirit interrupts Him. Jesus silences the man, who undergoes a seizure and the spirit flees. Mark writes in verse 27: “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!’” Mark ends by saying news of Jesus spread quickly.

Now, imagine Jesus walks into our church, stands in the pulpit, and preaches His doctrine of selfless, pure love. Would we not also be amazed? Suppose a disturbed individual jumps up to dispute Him and His reprimand triggers a fit that cleanses his/her heart of evil. Would we not be shocked? Lastly, consider the response of church officials. Would they not rush to discredit Him as a radical? That’s what happens to Jesus. But in Luke 5.38-39, He concedes His message isn’t conducive to traditionalism: “New wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’” In matters of faith, experts and enthusiasts are often less astute than wine critics and connoisseurs. They aren’t as willing to allow uncommon factors can create a rare vintage vastly superior to the established standards.

Strength to Expand

Storing new wine in unused skins is necessary because the finishing process isn’t complete. Fermentation generates gasses that test the wineskins’ strength to expand. It creates new pressures that burst their seams. What’s more, drinking new wine before “its time” challenges people accustomed to flavors and nuances of older vintages. They believe old wine is better because that’s what they’re taught and all they know. In many ways, they’re no different than old wineskins. Processing traditional beliefs saps their strength to expand. The old wine tastes better because it’s safer and easier to digest. That Jesus’s critics adopt a similar distaste for His doctrine hardly surprises Him. Yet it’s important to realize He doesn’t use this analogy to criticize traditionalists. Indeed, His explanation softens our regard for them. Jesus raises the topic of new wine and wineskins to encourage us to be strong and open-minded enough to receive His doctrine—to develop palates for its new flavors and fortitude to withstand the pressures it creates within us as it matures.

More than ever, I’m convinced Christ is pouring new wine into our hearts. Believers trained to prefer vintages of condemnation and exclusion can’t stomach Christ’s doctrine of inclusion, while we who’ve developed a penchant for new wine struggle to accommodate it in skins weakened by previous faith processes. Pressures to judge pushes hard at our seams. Every believer must pray for strength to expand. In Romans 7.6, Paul explains, “By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.” In Ezekiel 36.26, God speaks to our hardened attitudes: “I will give you a new heart and a put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” In the closing hours of 2009 and dawning moments of 2010, we ask God to finish this work in us. More than ever, need His new wine. We need to serve in the new way of the Spirit. We need soft hearts that expand with compassion and tolerance. More than ever, we need to proclaim, “Out with the old, in with the new.”

With prayers and hopes for a healthy and happy New Year to you all.

Christ's new wine tests our willingness to develop uncommon tastes and accommodate differing views.

(Next: Coming Soon)


claire bangasser said...

Tim, what a wonderful post!
I did not know why it was necessary to store new wine in unused skins...
This apart, I thank you for all the great thoughts you bring to my mind on this New Year's morning :-)

Tim said...

Blessings to you, too, Claire! I truly believe this year is going to challenge us all in interesting ways--some of us to accept what we've resisted, and others to accept those who adamantly continue to hold to the "old wine." But God is gracious to us all, and I know the year will end with all of us in a better place!

Have a glorious 2010.

Tim said...

Genevieve, for some reason your comment didn't publish. I have it and am copying it here, though:

Happy New Year, Tim. Already this message has presented to me a new view of this passage in Luke. There have been changes in me and its still happening. It coincides with why I have never really felt married to particular traditions and doctrines.

I believe that God wants to do a new thing in people and churches but they are held captive by their traditions.

In response:

One of the more beautiful aspects of living in Christ is how there are and will always be changes in us as He does new things in us and through us. That's hard for many to understand, however, because they confuse stasis with stability.

Believers and the Body of Christ in general should welcome change, provided it hews to the principles Jesus taught. If we view Christianity as a tradition, rather than an organism, we wind up in the exact position you describe--captives. But Jesus says the truth sets us free! That's what makes His doctrine so radically innovative. It's why Hebrews defines Him as "the new and living Way."

To be like Christ is to be constantly evolving, welcoming beliefs we once rejected because we didn't have strength or capacity to accommodate them. Folks like you and me, Genevieve--people who've banked a few sharp curves in life--understand that benefits of change. Others who've not be blessed by many challenges have yet to learn that. I pray that we (and everyone else here) can be lights for them!

With blessings for a new year of continued growth and joy,