Friday, February 3, 2017

Parable: New and Old

It is hard to believe that we are into the second month of the new year.  February has arrived.  Groundhog Day has come and gone.  In Oklahoma, we don’t care much if the little critter saw his shadow or not.  We will have doses of winter, spring, and summer interspersed for the next two months, often with appearances by all seasons in a single week. 

If it’s the middle of March, it’s time to plant potatoes.  Don’t put out your tomatoes until after the first of April.  You will wait until tax day if you really want to miss the overnight frost danger.

Time marches on.  We have some landmarks that we use with time.  Birthdays come every year.  Sweet sixteen can be a special one, at least until parents realize that their kids are legal to drive.

At age 18 you can legally buy tobacco and be drafted, not that tobacco is good for you or that anyone has been drafted for 4 decades.  You are almost considered an adult.  At 21 you have generally reached the last milestone and now we have to call you an adult.  Give it 10 more years and it might even be time to move out of your parent’s house and get a job.

Oops!  There is one more milestone regarding age that I left out.  When you are 35 you are eligible to be President of the United States.

We mark the year with seasons and important dates.  Few remember when the summer solstice is, but we shouldn’t feel badly about that because there are actually two dates.  The northern hemisphere’s is on 20 June while the southern hemisphere’s is on 21 December.  Sometimes we forget that there is another half of the world.

Most of our state won’t remember that the Supreme Court of the United States convenes on the first Monday in October.  That is 2 October for this year.  Most of the state will remember that bow season for deer opens on 1 October.

I don’t even know if the rule about wearing white shoes after Labor Day still applies in this century or not.  I had some white shoes back in the 1970’s, but not anymore, so I don’t keep up with all the fashion dates much.

We probably remember that this is Super Bowl Sunday, which is followed by weeks of depression for football fans.  They normally come back to life for March Madness, even if they are not a big basketball fan.

We divide our calendars, clocks, and lives into things that we can measure.  We have time zones and daylight savings time.  I’m not really sure where the time we saved went.  We have metaphors for time.  He was gone in a New York Minute.

Using terms such as Tempus fugit makes us sound intelligent.  Time flies sounds so much more sophisticated in Latin.  When time seems to be dragging on or we are doing something that we don’t really want to do, we can break out our sarcastic nature and say that time flies when you’re having fun.

Solomon said that for everything there is a season.  There is a time for every purpose in creation.  It seems that God has even ordered time in accordance with his purposes.

From the psalmists to Peter, whom Jesus called The Rock, God’s people knew that time was different for God.  A day could be a thousand years.  A thousand years could be just a watch in the night.  If you do the math, that means that a day for God could be six thousand years to us.

But time is not just time.  It has purpose.  We know that waiting on the Lord is a good thing.  People don’t like to wait, but we need to learn to wait upon the Lord.

Sometimes we think that we don’t have enough hours in the day but when we live with purpose, God always seems to make just enough time for us to accomplish the tasks that he has given us.

There is a time for everything.  Solomon had quite the litany of examples:  birth-death, planting-harvest, weeping-laughing, mourning-dancing, being quiet-talking, and many more.  The verses unite both time and purpose.

John’s disciples came to Jesus.  Remember that John noted that his prominence would lessen as the Messiah’s recognition grew.  But John’s disciples were perplexed.  They thought they were good guys and wanted to play by the rules.  They and the Pharisees—surely an interesting pairing—both continued the practice of fasting, but Jesus and his disciples did not.

So they ask Jesus, “What’s up with that?”

Jesus answers with a parable of things that don’t go together.  Trying to mend an old garment with new cloth might work for a bit but everyone knew not to do that.  The rigidity of the newer cloth would not give way with the older and soon it would actually cause the garment to tear even more.

It’s a tough concept for today’s generation that pays extra for the tears in their jackets and jeans.  Some of us remember iron on patches that worked for a while but usually started peeling at the edge.  The worn out jeans moved with your body and the patch tried to stand firm.

Some suit jackets understood this principle and could have a little extra cloth on the inside that could be used for small mends.  The cloth would wear with the jacket and be suitable for mending.

Jesus used an example that people understood. These two things don’t go together.

He continued with the example of putting new wine into old skins.  The new wine would be too potent and burst the old skins.  These were pairings that the people would think to themselves, “Who would do that?”  It was like an insurance commercial.

You don’t put new wine in old skins.
Everybody knows that.
Well, did you know that you can save 15% by switching to Jericho Insurance.

Had Jesus used that example in this century, people would be lost.  Wine is something that goes into a bottle or if you are really classy, it goes into a box.  We need to understand the parable in the times it was told.  Some things just don’t go together.

New cloth on an old garment.
New wine in old wineskins.
Analog connections in a digital age.
Texting and driving.  Had to sneak in a public service announcement.

God with us in the flesh and fasting.

Why didn’t Jesus and his disciples fast?  This was a time of celebration.  God had come in the flesh and was walking the earth.  If you wanted to draw closer to God, you just had to follow him, listen to him, and do what he said to do.

We don’t mourn the dead in the middle of the wedding celebration.  And Jesus and his followers had no need to fast while he was with them.

Fasting is something that helps us break away from our reliance upon things of this world and place our focus and dependence completely in God.

Remember the time when Jesus and his disciples went through Samaria, stopped in Sychar, and Jesus talked to the woman at the well.  The disciples had gone into town to get food.  When they returned and asked Jesus if he wanted something to eat.  He said that he had food they did not yet comprehend.

His food was to do the will of the One who sent him.  His food was to complete the work that he had been given.  His nourishment came from his Father in heaven and not from bread.

Yes, Jesus ate regular meals but his true sustenance came from living his purpose.

Fasting played a big role in the lives of the Hebrew people.  It still has a place today.  When we find ourselves drifting away from God and need to initiate a wakeup call, fasting is effective.  We live in a time and place where even the poorest among us live in comfort.  We know very few people who actually go hungry.  If we know them, we feed them.

There are hungry people in the world and we help feed them; but in our locale, someone is always ready to help with food.  So for even the least wealthy among us, there may be a time for a deliberate fast.

It seems though, that through the ages, God’s people never really caught the rhythm of the fast.  They got so wrapped up in one-upping each other or identifying blame that they did not really draw closer to God.  Listen to what God says about fasting though his prophet Isaiah.  Why did he need to say this?  The people had made fasting into only a ritual.

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

Fasting seeks to bring us closer to God not only by physical denial but by loving the least of our brothers around us.  Jesus came and did these things while he was walking the earth as a man in the flesh.

Isaiah 61 begins:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
 To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

Jesus read this from Isaiah.  He gave the scroll back to the attendant and then while everyone was waiting the see what he would do next, Jesus said, “Today in your hearing, this prophecy has been fulfilled.”

The people didn’t know how to take that, but we know that Jesus had come to bring joy not mourning.  He would have people trade in their ashes for beauty.  Heaviness would give way to praise.  He brought God’s righteousness and favor with him.  Who would even think of fasting in his presence?

Give John’s disciples and even those who followed Jesus a little slack here.  They didn’t quite know the whole picture, but we have so much more of the story.

So do we fast?  We believe that we have God’s own Spirit within us and beside us and are never alone.  Do we fast?  Would our fasting be as absurd as putting new wine in old wineskins?

We fast if we need to.  Jesus said there would be a time when he would be gone.  He would be taken from them.  He said then you will fast.  If we need to fast, the fast is still available to us.  It is not a requirement in the freedom that we know in Christ Jesus.

But if the Spirit leads us to fast, then don’t resist the Spirit of God that is guiding you.

The three decades that Jesus walked the earth were like no other in human history.  It was incongruous for his followers to fast while he was in their presence. 

The parable is about things that don’t go together.

New cloth on old.
New wine in old skins.
Fasting in the presence of the bridegroom.

It is a simple parable that even makes sense even in a time when we pay extra for rips in our clothing and get a discount for wine in a box.  But we know that mourning at the wedding is still incongruous.  The two don’t go together.

One day we too will know a time when we will be physically in the presence of our Lord and Master.  If we have any tears, he will take them away.  If we have something to mourn, he will take it from us.  We will know only joy and thanksgiving.  We will be singing praise.  It will be a wondrous time.

For now, we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  We rejoice in the day that he has made.  We serve and pray, and sometimes if we need to, we fast.

But we look ahead to a wedding banquet where there will be only feasting and no fasting.  We long for the time where all tears will be tears of joy.  We know that one day sorrow will give way to joy and laughter and all chains of oppression will be broken.

And we know that between now and then, there are still some things just don’t go together.

A disciple without grace and mercy.
One who is forgiven who does not forgive.
One who is blessed with abundance who is not generous.
A disciple who hides his light.
The commissioned who do not take the gospel to the world.
Those who are so loved by God and do not love one another.

There is still plenty of application for this simple parable.
Sometimes time and purpose seem to be a thousand-piece puzzle to us.  Life and our discipleship seem too big to figure out, but more often than we realize we know the time and the purpose that God has given to us.

Consider the parable once more.

No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.

Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.

Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear your purpose and your timing for us.


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