This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on November 28, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, as we consider scripture, this morning, and as we consider our own lives and our relationships with you — as we consider the way that you are moving in the world and working in the world — I pray that you would give us a clarity and vision for the ways that we can participate with you.
We desire after a new creation, Lord. We desire after the fulfillment of the promises we have heard and of the kingdom into which we have entered. We desire after the realization of the Gospel we have received, but we need your help, Lord, and your wisdom to see the way forward. We need your help and your wisdom to see the ways in which we can participate in a creation of love — in a dominion of grace — that overcomes the world. We need your help to bring that realization to life — to bring that desire to fruition. We need your help to be part of the work that you are doing and not just be doing our own thing, so guide our thoughts, guide our lives and our actions, guide our studies and our considerations, Lord. Transform us into the kind of people and the kind of community that can be part of your work of transforming the world.
We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m eventually going to be in Luke chapter 5, this morning.
One of the jobs I used to work was marketing. Specifically, I used to be part of some ecommerce marketing teams, and on at least half a dozen occasions across different companies, we’d have to launch new platforms, new websites, new shipping software, new inventory software — and if you’re a small business, sometimes these changes can be pretty minimal. If you’re a large business or if you have lots and lots of products or if you’re making lots and lots of sales every day then these changes can be really big, because you have to get it right. You have to just go for it. There’s no transition when you’re changing to a new website platform or a new shipping platform. You just have to make the switch, and everything that comes after that, you have to troubleshoot as you go, especially if you have a website.
Anybody out there who’s ever worked on a website or owned a website, you know that your website points to a specific place. Your domain, your website address, points to a specific site. You have to set up the new site somewhere else, and then you need to change where that address points so that people land on the new site, and when you make that shift, all these stuff goes away. The old stuff goes away, and the new stuff appears, and if there’s something wrong with the new stuff, you don’t always know until it goes live — until people start landing there — and then, suddenly, this page doesn’t work or they’re getting this error when they try to check out or their login isn’t there anymore, and they have to create a new one — all these kinds of issues.
That’s the reality of so many things in life, that we have to take what we had, and at some point, we have to switch to what’s new, and that shift is just a leap of faith. And every time we made a shift from one platform to another, something always went wrong, every single time. There’s no such thing, in my experience, as a perfect switch. It doesn’t matter if it’s business-related. Doesn’t matter if it’s life-related, if it’s career-related. Doesn’t matter if it’s just an intellectual shift in your mind or a self-help pursuit where you’re just trying to make a change in your habits. There’s no such thing as a seamless shift. When you have to make that leap, you have to make the leap, and if something goes wrong, you have to troubleshoot it on the new end, not on the old end. You can’t roll things back and troubleshoot it, because you can’t see the problem until you get into the new thing.
A couple days ago, somebody pointed this out to me about ministry, and it’s been sitting in my head since then. I’ve been mulling it over and over and over, and what they pointed out was that Jesus actually makes this analogy for us. In Luke 5, in verse 36:
He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”Luke 5:36-39, NIV
This tension exists as a reality of how human beings work, how faith operates in a community, things that happen with ministry, things that in our experiences of church… We can’t just take new things and insert them into old things. Then the old things burst, and the new things and the old things are ruined, and I’ve read a lot of articles and heard a lot of podcasts about why are people leaving the churches, why are younger people leaving congregations — this is why people are leaving.
They’re not leaving because they don’t love God. They’re not leaving because they have anything against God. That is to say, although some people have decided that their beliefs are different or that they no longer believe in Christianity and things like that, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if they believed in the God of Christianity or they still believe in Christ or if they didn’t. They would leave regardless. They are leaving regardless, and it’s not because they don’t love God. It’s because the old doesn’t fit the new, and you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins.
It’s one of the reasons why it’s hard for me, as a minister who grew up in Churches of Christ, to do something that’s not like Churches of Christ — because this is who I am, and this is what I know. This is my old wineskin, or, rather, in a lot of ways, I am the old wineskin, and the question is how do we pour new wine into old wineskins, and the answer that Jesus gives is you don’t. First, you need a new wineskin. What that means for us, as people, is that sometimes we need to be transformed into new wineskins in order to have new wine in us. Sometimes [what] that means, for congregations, is they need to be new wineskins in order to be filled with new wine, but if we take the analogy seriously that he gives here, in Luke, that means that sometimes we can’t just transform old congregations into new congregations, because, as he says at the end, there, “No one, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for they say the old is better.”
Religion does something for us. Worship does something for us. Community does something for us, and it’s hard to go from what we know and what has been beneficial for us to something that is new and uncertain and doesn’t resonate with us as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that older Christians should just do things the way they’ve always done them, and new Christians should go do something different. That’s not always what that means, but what that does mean is we need to be aware of the way that new things and old things interact with each other. We need to be aware of the reality that not all new things are for all people. We need to be aware of the reality that not all old things are for new people, either, or, as Jesus says in another place, we need to be able to bring out of the storeroom new treasures and old treasures, and what’s interesting is that as averse as conservative Christianity has been to that idea, it is actually the model that we get all throughout the New Testament. It’s the example and the precedent that’s set forth by everything in scripture: a continual re-imagining of everything that God is doing.
It’s one of the reasons why passages don’t agree with previous passages — why some New Testament teachings don’t agree with Old Testament teachings, why some New Testament perceptions of God don’t agree with some Old Testament perceptions of God — and what we get in Paul is this complete re-imagining of the Old Testament story in a way that fits a new creation, a new thing coming to life, the Gentiles grafted into the Israelites and yet not the Israelites, the Gentiles welcomed into the ancestry and the family of Abraham and yet very much not of Abraham… All of these new re-imaginings of what it means to be children of God and people of God that extend beyond the old imagining of what the people of God were.
And even Jesus does this same thing, here, in the very next passage — in Luke chapter 6 and verse 1.
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.Luke 6:1-11, NIV
Jesus contends with the leadership, and he doesn’t just do it to be rebellious, and he doesn’t just do it because he thinks they’re wrong about something. Jesus actually presents a way of being as a Jew in a Jewish culture that is different than the way that they already have. He actually presents a way of being that, in a lot of ways, is counter to what they have but I think more importantly is new, and the invitation of the New Testament is to a new creation. Through the reception of the Gospel and the reception of the Holy Spirit and the participation in God’s kingdom, here and now, we are invited to be transformed into something new, and somehow, we got so comfortable with where we were going or where we were as part of this formative process that we decided we were just going to stay right there.
It’s the Tower of Babel all over again, where God says go out and subdue all of creation, and at one point, they become so comfortable and say well let’s just hunker down here and build ourselves a great tower, and God pushes them out into the world and says this is not the goal. This is not the place. You have not arrived at the thing. You stopped mid-journey in order to do your own thing, and you lost sight of what the goal was.
People understand this in the way that Christianity engages American culture, today. It’s not hard to see for everybody except the people who have stagnated. Somehow, we look at ourselves and we say to ourselves, “We’ve arrived; we’ve arrived at the place. We are exactly who we need to be, and we need not go any further,” and yet, everyone looks at us and says, “If you have arrived, then I’m not interested.” They’re on a journey to someplace, and we have decided — like these Pharisees, like the people who built the Tower of Babel, like the people who oppose Jesus, like all of the conservatives who say that nothing about Christianity needs to change anymore — we have decided that the place [where] we are is good enough.
The problem is that all we’ve done is attempt to patch an old garment with a new piece of cloth. All we’ve done is attempt to pour new wine into old wineskins. We need a new wineskin for a new wine, and we need new wine in order to create better wine.
I don’t really know how else to carry that analogy, because anyone who knows anything about wine understands that. Wine has to be aged, but what that means is that your new wine eventually becomes old wine, and your new wineskin becomes an old wineskin, and the assumption that there’s never, ever going to be new wine is counter to the precedent that find throughout all of scripture.
God is a God of creation and creates continually. God creates moment to moment. God creates out of love moment to moment, and I would argue that love is a creative process in itself, because if you’ve ever loved anybody intimately, you know that year over year you have to find creative ways to love that person, because people change. We change and they change, and as we both change, we need to be creative in how we express our love and accept the changes. As I said recently, love is adaptive. We adapt to the changes around us and within us in order to love in appropriate ways, and if God is love, then God, too, is an adaptive God who incarnates in creative ways in the world and creates our love moment to moment in response to what’s happening.
New wine is the mode through which God operates, continually pouring new wine into the world, and when we stagnate and we cling to our old wineskins and our old garments, it becomes idolatrous. We create for ourselves an idol out of the old thing, and we call it God. We say the old thing is God, the old wineskin is God, the old wine is best, and we fail to realize that God’s adaptive nature is constantly new in creation. That’s why even when we have good intentions about the way that we worship and the way that we live, they don’t often help people, because we’re so focused on clinging to the old wineskin.
Now, I pointed out before that Jesus says we take old treasures and new treasures out of the storeroom, so the analogy isn’t perfect, obviously. We don’t just throw out everything that was in favor of something new. The precedent in scripture, again, is not that. Instead, they re-imagine what already exists in a way that is new, and one of the best examples I’ve seen of this is the way that Christianity evolves with a culture, and I know that there’s a fear of synchrotism, here.
There’s a difference between adapting and conforming. There’s a difference between adapting and adopting, so I understand that there’s some nuance, here, that needs to be discussed, but just talking high-level — just talking generalizations — to reimagine faith and Gospel as an expression of a specific people is the work of new creation. When we look at things like the way that Christianity was adopted by slaves in white culture and the way that they took that faith expression and made it their own so that it could mean something to them even as they were being oppressed by people who claimed to be their brothers and sisters — that’s new wine in new wineskins. That’s the Gospel being alive in the work of new creation without having to force itself into an old wineskin, so when we see people, today, walking away from what we’re calling White Evangelicalism in order to pursue something purer as an expression of their faith in God, that’s new wine in old wineskins. They’re not abandoning scripture. They’re not abandoning God, but they are abandoning certain traditions in favor of new traditions that express their faith, their understanding of scripture, their pursuit of God in more honest ways.
We need new wine for new wineskins, and we need new wineskins for new wine. We need new garments instead of patched up old garments, and sometimes, there’s going to be people who hang back and attend to the old things. They attend to the old wine. They attend to the old garment. Jesus doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with that, but the precedent we find in scripture is that there is something wrong when those of us who guard the old ways hinder the innovators from pouring new wine into new wineskins. When we turn ourselves from pilgrims into gatekeepers, we feed into a stagnant, idolatrous form of Christianity that doesn’t help people.
I want to encourage you, this morning, that if you find yourself trying to pour new wine into old wineskins that you take a step back and consider carefully whether it’s not time to find a new wineskin, and if you find yourself guarding old wine in old wineskins that you take a step back and ask yourself if it’s not time to empower those coming after you to find new wineskins. Maybe that comes with a fear of death. Maybe that comes with a fear of the old thing passing away, but the new thing that comes is still part of the work of love that God does in creation. We do not have to stay where we are. We can pursue God in loving and creative ways, and we should, and we should empower the people around us to do the same, even if it costs us the things that we hold dearest to our hearts.
If that’s you then I want to journey with you. If you’re looking for new things, I want to journey with you. I’m looking for new things, too. I don’t know what they look like. I don’t have the answers, yet, but I want to encourage you to go out and find them. I want to encourage you to reach out and start a conversation with me, and maybe we can find them together.