Sunday 8 August 2010 : Matthew 9 : 9-17

Last time we saw that  Jesus’ choice of Matthew as an apostle sparked off quite a row with the Temple bigwigs and brought to the surface the dangers of self-righteousness, a nasty spiritual disease which leads us to take upon ourselves, and our own good deeds, the responsibility for our standing before God. Self-righteousness causes us, if asked what makes us think God will let us into heaven, to point to our church membership, our respectable lifestyle, our generosity to good causes, and so on ; rather than point to Jesus, who – the Bible says – carried our sins in His body to the cross that we might die to sin and live for righteousness, and by whose wounds we are healed.

Preaching in the city of Pisidian Antioch, Paul declared : We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God—something the law of Moses could never do. That’s Acts 13.38f, and it’s wonderful news, except for those who are trapped in self-righteousness.

Paul again, writing to the church in Rome about God’s salvation plan : if he chooses us by grace, it is not for the things we have done. If we could be made God’s people by what we did, God’s gift of grace would not really be a gift. That’s in Romans 11.5-7. And finally Paul to the church in Ephesus : Ephesians 2.8f : God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this ; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

In other words, we have a clear, stark, mutually exclusive choice – self-righteousness or God’s righteousness in Christ. And it’s obvious to us all which is better, but sadly it’s also obvious that many of us try to cover our options by having a bit of both, claiming faith in the cross of Christ but – just in case that’s not enough – being anxious to bank a few good deeds as well as back-up. That’s the wrong way round.

Good deeds and right living are meant to be the evidence of our personal relationship with Jesus, not the price we have to pay to buy that relationship. If we try to make ourselves, and our goody-goody things, a link in the chain of salvation, then we need to remember the old axiom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And when we get to the pearly gates we want it to be Jesus meeting us and saying : Welcome, my good and faithful servant ;  not Anne Robinson! Get my drift?

Moving on … Jesus is questioned about fasting. Now, I may be bang out of order here, but I have a suspicion that fasting doesn’t form a regular part of our spiritual discipline for most of us. Going without food for days on end is not something we practise on a regular basis – correct? It has its place, of that I have no doubt, but only as a private and voluntary act of devotion to, and concentration upon, the Lord – and then, I suggest, only on His specific direction. Actually, it probably wouldn’t do most of us any harm to fast to some extent, from the point of view of knocking our selfish flesh into shape, but to fast or not to fast, and how, and when, isn’t the real issue Jesus addresses here.

It’s not the act of fasting itself but the attitude behind it that’s at stake. In Luke 18.12, the so-called prayer of the Pharisee, although it looks more like a press release from a spin doctor to impress an audience, than a prayer from the heart to touch base with God who is spirit, ticks the box of dutifully fasting twice a week. In those days, Adam Clarke notes in his commentary, people fasted in order to have lucky dreams, to obtain the interpretation of a dream, or to avert the evil import of a dream. They also fasted often, in order to obtain the things they wished for.

In all these things, the purpose of the fast was not so much to sharpen up any awareness of the presence of God as to be used as a bargaining chip to twist God’s arm. Fasting was also sometimes a bit of a pantomime, with theatrical make-up applied to the face to create an air of mourning, a public pity party to demonstrate sorrow for human sin – but, dare I say, without any great conviction that the tendency to sin will change any time soon? In Matthew 6.16-18, Jesus has dismissed that sort of nonsense as hypocrisy.

Here again, Jesus trains his guns on this sham sorrow. OK, John the Baptist’s disciples have an excuse – John’s busted, languishing in a dungeon, waiting for the chop – and as far as the Pharisees and their cronies are concerned, most of them were imprisoned by their traditions and just followed them without thinking about it. But what had the 12 got to be sorry about? They were slap-bang in the middle of the greatest time of their lives – day by day fellowship with the Son of God, seeing and hearing and being part of amazing things that Jesus was doing. The roller-coasters at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers had nothing on the thrills of those three years of Jesus’ ministry.

But the time to be sad was on its way. The three years would soon be up. Gethesemane, Judas, Herod and Pilate, Calvary and a borrowed grave would crash in on them almost before they knew it, and then would be time to fast and pray, and mean it – but, even then, the mourning season would be very short, quickly overtaken by a joy that no-one and nothing could ever take away. The acute agony of Friday, the dark desolation of Saturday, swept aside by the pure delight and exaltation of Sunday.

And that’s the wallpaper, if you like, behind the bad-hair days in our own lives. Every one of us knows what it’s like to go through spells when everything we touch seems to turn to dross, when the only light at the end of the tunnel is the next train bearing down on us, when the Biblical promises of health and prosperity of spirit, soul and body for us and for our loved ones seem so far from coming to pass. Anyone know about that?

But even when the fur and hair is flying, resurrection power is at work. God is working behind the scenes, and shifting the scenes. Angels are hard at work, out of sight, paving the path for our deliverance. It’s Friday, but – praise God – Sunday’s coming. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome : in all things, God is working for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose [Romans 8.28]. Whatever you’re going through at the moment – bad news from the doctor, the bank, your employer, a member of the family, whatever – it’s not over till it’s over.

God has the last word over His children, and it’s a Word of blessing. The proverbial cheque is in the post, with a heavenly postmark, and it will arrive, bang on time. This is no time for sorrowing or mourning, no time for self-pity, resentment or recrimination. This is the time to dig deep into the wonderful promises God has made to you, to give thanks for His every touch on your life, to take up the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit which is His Word. God will not let you down. I believe Kenneth Hagin used to say : Keep standing, therefore, till you receive what you’re standing there for.

Jesus then proceeds to a lesson in home economics. Don’t patch your trousers with a bit of material that hasn’t shrunk into shape, or the whole thing will fall apart, and don’t put new wine into old wineskins, or they’ll burst and you’ll lose the lot. This is a twin saying, two parallel expressions of the same truth, and I’m sure you’ll cut me a bit of slack when I say that I know nowt about repairing clothes but a little bit about wine, so that’s the part I’m going to use to develop the point Jesus is making.

Those of us who were around the edges of the big explosion of Holy Spirit renewal in the 1980’s would have heard this text adduced to teach people to come out of their existing churches and start new ones. The traditional denominational churches were the old wineskins. They were tired and stiff and brittle, and if you tried to introduce new teaching or new worship, it would be a disaster. The church would split, and the bitter fallout would discourage and destroy the new-found faith of those recently converted.

I can understand why that was taught, and at least in those days there was empirical evidence to back up that teaching, but I don’t honestly think it’s what Jesus meant when He said it. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but it’s interesting that so many of the new fellowships and house churches have been and gone over the last quarter of a century, but the Church of Scotland is still here. Let me qualify that a bit.

Where congregations have welcomed this time of refreshing by the Holy Spirit, where there’s been a readiness to turn to God’s Word, to embrace new songs and new ways of worship that put Jesus first, where congregations have been willing to place on the altar everything but the truth of God’s Word, there has been growth. Traditional churches that resist change in style, but water down the message, are dying, and good riddance.

There are those so desperate to be inclusive, to avoid offence, to say nothing that might rock the boat, to survive as an organisation, that they are prepared to do so at all costs – including the sacrifice of theological integrity. If the Word offend thee, ignore it. If the Holy Spirit offend thee, repress Him. God is not glorified in that, and the time is not far off when these false shepherds will be removed and replaced by men and women who honour God, who preach His Word, who move in His Spirit, who share His heart.

And God’s heart is one of unconditional love and grace, of seeing His children walk in His will and purpose, enjoying His blessing. God’s heart is that His children prosper and enjoy health in every way as we put our faith 100% in Jesus, committed to love Him, follow Him, and carry on the ministry He left to us when He returned to Heaven.

The real thrust of this teaching on wine and wineskins is this. We cannot possibly be all that Father God wants us to be if we’re half in the Word and half in the world. There is no way we can realise the full potential God placed within us at our birth, and wants to nurture via the Word and harvest via the Spirit, if we won’t make that full commitment.

There is no way He will be able to work through us as fully as He has planned to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bring Good News to the poor, or to love our neighbour, if we’re not prepared to let Him take charge of every aspect of our lives. The glorious new wine of life in the Holy Spirit just won’t go into a hard, inflexible old wineskin that says – Sunday morning is God’s, fine, but how I conduct myself at work, or behind closed doors with my family, or what I watch on TV, or the internet websites I look at, or what I do with my money – that’s my private business, and I’m keeping it that way.

That’s not going to work. The new life in the Holy Spirit, characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control ; working itself out in supernatural gifts, talents, abilities, ministries ; characterised by wholeness in every aspect of our being, nothing missing, nothing broken – all that IS God’s will for you. Make no mistake about that. The Bible teaches that from beginning to end. Jesus died to win it back for you out of the clutches of the thief and liar called the devil.

All that is out there. That is the new wine. But you and I need to look at the wineskin – namely, our way of thinking. If we still think as the world thinks, whether it’s the homespun homilies our granny taught us, what the Sunday Post, or the Guardian, or the Discovery Channel, or the government, or the Scottish Executive, or even Life & Work are telling us to think, our wineskin is likely to burst and God’s blessing will simply get spilled all over the floor. For those stuck in the world’s way of thinking, what will be will be, what’s for you won’t go past you, blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed, look after No.1, survival of the fittest, Jesus died in vain.

But for those willing to trade in that dud old wineskin, that trashy way of thinking, and submit to God’s way of thinking as revealed in His Word, not even the sky is the limit. The choice is ours. Let’s choose wisely – believe and receive God’s Son as Saviour and Lord, believe and receive God’s promises for this life and the next, believe and receive God’s plan and purpose for a life that make a difference for good.

And don’t ever let anyone, whoever they are, or think they are, talk you out of His glorious destiny for you. Now is the time for new wine, new wineskins.