What is Old? What is New?

36He also told a parable to them. ““No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old garment, or else he will tear the new, and also the piece from the new will not match the old. 37No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved. 39No man having drunk old wine immediately desires new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’”” – Luke 5:36-39 (WEB)

Jody asked me to write about this passage yesterday with the question: Does this have to do with fasting, and if so what?

In one sense I can answer Jody’s question “No,” but only in the same sense that the previous few verses aren’t really primarily about fasting either. You may think this odd, considering that they say quite a bit about fasting, and in many Bibles you’ll find the section header reads something like “The Question about Fasting.” But that isn’t really the point.

I’ve been studying the Bible since I could read, and I’ve now made it past 50. What I’ve found, however, is that I never seem to get to a destination. I never can get to feeling like an expert. I have never gotten past the point of being surprised by new profound thoughts. But more importantly, I’ve never gotten past the stage of being surprised by extremely simple thoughts that suddenly open passages up in new ways.

That’s the joy of being a Bible student, and it is particularly true of the teachings of Jesus. I have so frequently experienced a sense of disorientation as I suddenly realize a new twist of meaning in one of the sayings of Jesus that I’ve almost come to expect it. I imagine the people in Jesus’ day leaving one of his teaching sessions and suddenly realizing–”He was saying THAT!?”

I had such an experience when Jody passed her question to me, so I’m going to ask you to persevere for a few more paragraphs today than the normal devotion so I can share it with you.

On the surface, our text today talks about new being put on old. The typical way of preaching this passage reminds congregations of how resistant we are to new stuff, including the new stuff that Jesus had to teach. I did hear one sermon from Dr. Harvey Brown in which he mentioned how the “old wine” was often wonderful too. It just didn’t fit with the new wineskins.

That older way of looking at the passage is so pervasive that it may be hard to twist our minds away from it. I have six study Bibles that I read regularly. They are from different schools of thought and different editors, and though they don’t give me much detail, they give me pointers. Five of those study Bibles reflect the standard way of teaching this passage. The sixth gave me that one little piece that puts a whole idea together.

Have you ever tried putting together a puzzle without looking at the picture on the box, and found that when you added one particular piece the picture started to make sense, and you were able to solve huge portions of the puzzle quickly? That was what this line did for me.

It’s from the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and it comes right after the note explains that the Pharisees had introduced innovations. It says: “Against such a backdrop, Jesus’ message may seem innovative, but it is nothing other than the outworking of God’s ancient plan.”

Now I KNEW that the Pharisees were really innovators despite our tendency to see them as traditionalists. Nonetheless I always read this passage with Jesus as the innovator.

Let me illustrate this. When I was a teenager we introduced songs into church from the Gaithers. They were innovative and new, and they were controversial. They were the reason I got in trouble with church boards when I was young. Now they’re in the hymnal. They’re the traditional hymns that are used against the new generation of young people who have new music. Their music will, mark my words, show up in the traditional hymnals of the future. Not all of it, no, but some will.

Traditional, to most churchgoers, is whatever happened in church when you were a teenager.

Now let me use the illustration a bit further. One of the key elements people bring to me in favor of new music over the old is that it is intimate and personal, that the worshiper is speaking directly to God. My traditional side immediately goes to the song “Nearer, my God to Thee.” It’s intimate; it’s personal; it expresses what I want to say to God. I can be brought to tears by the stanza:

Or if, on joyful wing
Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot,
Upward I fly,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.

But it’s not terribly intimate to everyone else. Imagine, if you will, that you’re in a room with your spouse, and you say, “Thou shalt sit nearer to me!” or in more courteous terms, “Wilt thou not sit nearer to me?” Is it intimate, or is it silly? Does it work? It probably depends on who you are. If I said that, Jody would find it terribly amusing, because she knows I am familiar with that language and enjoy using it from time to time. She’d prefer I said it in Ancient Babylonian, or perhaps Egyptian.

You see, we assume Jesus is the innovator here, when he is the one who is bringing in “the outworking of God’s ancient plan.” Did Adam and Eve fast in the garden? Is our proper state as human beings separated from God or close to God? The most ancient story we have is of God having intimate conversations with the first couple in a garden! Similarly we assume that the young people with their music that is close both to their hearts and to God’s are the innovators, when really those who insist on worship that tends to separate are innovators. (And remember that this may not be the same for everyone!)

The Pharisees had added rules to their lives to make themselves more holy and to distinguish themselves from others. Their fasting was, we might say, a badge of denominational honor. It was not a matter of becoming closer to God, but rather, to separate themselves further from their fellow-man, and from the fellow-Jews.

Fasting, like many other things, can be designed to carry out God’s ancient plan and purpose, or it can be a substitute. We can justifiably see the teachings of Jesus as either the old wine or the new, the old wineskins or the new. It just depends on how we orient “old” and “new.”

What is your “traditional”? What is your “old”? Will you look back to the joys of the time when you were a young person in church and long for the good old days, or will you look back to God’s good old days when God was intimate with humanity?

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