Friday, February 28, 2014

Putting New Wine in New Wineskins


I am indebted to someone(?) for some of these thoughts here, as I am uncertain where they came from. If you have a propriety interest in a portion of this message, let me know and I will certainly give credit where credit is due.

Most are pretty familiar with the wineskins parable of Jesus (Luke 5:36-39). The focal point is typically..."you must not put new wine in old skins or else they will burst" (vv.36-38). I think that we understand what Jesus is saying -- He was not interested in patching up Judaism, but was offering the leaders and the people a whole new way -- His way. He offers new life that is not some reformation of the old paths of the Scribes and Pharisees. Current application -- Jesus is not interested in patching up "our religion," but offers up a new way...a relationship that is dynamic and changing to follow His leading day by day. Yet, the intention of this message is not to focus so much on the familiar verses from this passage, but v.39, which seems like an odd, out of place statement. Upon further review, we will see that it is an integral part of what Jesus is trying to say.

"And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new...for he says, "the old is better"(v.39). This sure sounds like a wine lovers preference for old wine, right? Or, an excuse to hang on to old time religion. Remember, that this parable is delivered by Jesus in Capernaum in response to the Scribes and Pharisees who were very critical of Jesus' "radical" ministry. What Jesus was threatening was not their doctrine or their livelihood, but their traditions. The Scribes and Pharisees were committed to the past and resisted change. Jesus intended that His people be new wineskins...those who would hear and understand His dynamic, life-changing words. We are to present to Christ daily the new wineskin of an open mind, a receptive heart and a ready will to follow Him.

The challenge is not as simple as it sounds...because, like the Scribes and Pharisees, we become secure in our own traditions, pre-suppositions and resist change. We become satisfied with what we have experienced of the Lord's power in our lives and become fearful of new challenges. This wineskin becomes dry, brittle and inflexible as we fearfully try to maintain the status quo of our "life" in Christ. This old wineskin that Jesus speaks of could only hold water -- it was incapable of holding new wine. New wineskins are distinguished for their elasticity, flexibility and adjustability as containers of not only Jesus' new teaching, but of His indwelling Spirit presence.

Now, we come to see why Jesus' conclusion to the parable is challenging to understand. Jesus is not commending "old wine" to them, but condemning their inability to receive "new wine." Some say about the wine of their stage of growth in Christ -- "the old is better". But, what it really means is -- "allow me to stay where I am...I know all I need to know...I am content with what I have." The old wine in new skins presents some significant problems. We pray daily for the Lord's leading and His will for our lives, in our worship sing many hymns of commitment...and yet many would say that they have not received new spiritual power(?). Yet, what does old wine do in a new wineskin? It just sits there like water! Some would desire to offer the Lord a new wineskin, but want to fill it with old wine...they are thoroughly satisfied with the old wine of past experiences. Some constantly rehearse what has happened in the past, rather than rejoice in what the Lord is doing or wanting to do right now! Many of our greatest difficulties in our churches is the comfort of the uniformity and complacency of old wine.

We need to continually offer the Lord new wineskins that are ready for His dynamic power -- the new wine that he desires to pour into them...fresh ideas and strategies for evangelism, worship, programs, etc., where the Lord can truly use us to be His people for the world of the 21st century. If we live in this way, guided by His Spirit, we live according to faith and fear will have no power over us. Only new wineskins filled with new wine are able to handle this challenge.

Blessings, Don

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The God Who Is There


Shrek: For your information, there's a lot more to ogres than people think. Donkey: Example? Shrek: Example... uh... ogres are like onions! [He holds up an onion, which Donkey sniffs] Donkey: They stink? Shrek: Yes... No! Donkey: Oh, they make you cry? Shrek: No! Donkey: Oh, you leave 'em out in the sun, they get all brown, and they start sproutin' little white hairs... Shrek: [peels an onion] NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers. Donkey: Oh, you both have LAYERS. Oh. You know, not everybody like onions. What about cake? Everybody loves cake! Shrek: I don't care what everyone else likes! Ogres are not like cakes. Donkey: You know what ELSE everybody likes? Parfaits! Have you ever met a person, you say, "Let's get some parfait," they say, "No, I don't like no parfait"? Parfaits are delicious! Shrek: NO! You dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden! Ogres are like onions! End of story! Bye-bye! See ya later.

There is much to commend about the Shrek movies. But, one of the things that we come to understand is that, even though he might think that he is -- donkey is not a good example of a beast of burden. In fact, he is often a burden.

Jesus understands the concept of a beast of burden when He shares in Matthew 11:29-30, one of my favorite passages: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (NIV) Only someone who knew about oxen could use a yoke illustration. Paul also understands what it is to carry a heavy weight. His exploits are well-catalogued. At the beginning of 2 Corinthians (1:1-11), we see him talk about his burden for (and because of) the believers at Corinth.

Last week was one of those weeks where you understand the meaning of family a little bit better. It is always important to talk about family, emphasize family…but, even more important to be family. We have those times…we need those times as human beings and as believers in Christ. Paul considered the Corinthians his family…black sheep perhaps…but, family nonetheless. He experienced a number of trials in his life and ministry and a number of them, as we have been discussing on Sunday mornings, are with these folks. Paul is in Asia Minor (what is Turkey today) and he experiences some difficulty, although we are not told of the circumstances. What we do know is that Paul is weighed down like a beast of burden with a load too heavy to bear. In fact, he thinks that he might die (2 Corinthians 7:5). Yet, he would be able to treasure the great lessons from such trials…not to trust in himself, but trust in the Lord. When he is weak, the Lord is able to make him strong. The God who raises the dead is certainly sufficient to be able to handle any difficulties in our lives. He is able, but we must be available.

When Paul reports what God has done for him, a chorus of praise and thanksgiving goes up from the saints to God. And for Paul, the highest service a Christian can give on earth is to bring glory to God…even through suffering. Paul is never ashamed to ask Christians to pray for him. He does so in seven of his letters (Romans 15, Philippians 1, 2 Thessalonians 3, Philemon, Ephesians 6, Colossians 4, 1 Thessalonians 5). Paul and the believers in Corinth help each other in their struggles and together, they all seek to glorify God (2 Corinthians 1:11, 24). We can see that the gift of Paul’s deliverance from what appears to be certain death (however it was to take place), is the result of the participation of many people. Difficulties certainly have the ability to increase our faith and strength…we must simply remember who God is, what He has done for us, and what He is doing for us – He is there! So, Paul may not always exactly be exuberant about his circumstances, but he could praise the God who is in control of all circumstances. He knows that praise is the key to victory over difficulty, discouragement. He also has fellowship with Jesus in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10), and so can realize God’s comfort through this. Likewise, we are able to do the same. Paul also makes it clear that people do not necessarily need to experience the exact same trials in order to share God’s encouragement.

As the Corinthians struggled, at times, God allows church families…including our own…to experience trials in order for us to grow in love, grace and understanding. In all of this, it is not so much our love for Him that comforts us, but knowing how much He has loved us, and does love us. He was willing to go to a cross and die in order to purchase our salvation. In times of trial and suffering, some people are prone to think only of themselves…their difficulties…and they forget others. As one person said, we must not be cisterns…that is, we collect blessings, understanding that does not go anywhere nor does it do anyone any good. Rather, we are to be channels of blessings, help for others’ benefit. In this, we minister to one another, grow in the Lord.

Shortly after coming to Christ, Sadhu Sundar, a Hindu convert to Christ, felt called to become a missionary to India. Late one afternoon Sadhu was traveling on foot through the Himalayas with a Buddhist monk. It was bitterly cold and the wind felt like sharp blades slicing into Sadhu's skin. Night was approaching fast when the monk warned Sadhu that they were in danger of freezing to death if they did not reach the monastery before darkness fell. Just as they were traversing a narrow path above a steep cliff, they heard a cry for help. Down the cliff lay a man, fallen and badly hurt. The monk looked at Sadhu and said, "Do not stop. God has brought this man to his fate. He must work it out for himself." The he quickly added while walking on, "Let us hurry on before we, too, perish." But Sadhu…having a new perspective on life…replied, "God has sent me here to help my brother. I cannot abandon him." The monk continued trudging off through the whirling snow, while the missionary clambered down the steep embankment. The man's leg was broken and he could not walk. So Sadhu took his blanket and made a sling of it and tied the man on his back. Then, bending under his burden, he began a body-torturing climb. By the time he reached the narrow path again, he was drenched in perspiration. Doggedly, he made his way through the deepening snow and darkness. It was all he could do to follow the path. But he persevered, though faint with fatigue and overheated from exertion. Finally he saw ahead the lights of the monastery. Then, for the first time, Sadhu stumbled and nearly fell, but not from weakness. He had stumbled over an object lying in the snow-covered road. Slowly he bent down on one knee and brushed the snow off the object. It was the body of the monk, frozen to death. Years later a disciple of Sadhu's asked him, "What is life's most difficult task?" Without hesitation Sadhu replied: "To have no burden to carry." (From a sermon by Horace Wimpey, God's Guidelines For Thanksgiving)

As Francis Schaeffer acknowledges in his book by the same name, is “the God who is there”, there in your life, guiding, strengthening, comforting, and ultimately saving you? In my experience of life, I have come to realize – those who have not experienced much pain and struggle, do not have much to give when it comes to helping others through the valley of the shadow of death. This is because, agape, service, come from a deep place…such places that are not available on the surface. They come from wading through some deep waters. Like Paul, we must allow Him to bear our burdens, to deliver, comfort us, so that in turn, we can bring comfort to one another and to others! This is the only hope that the Corinthians have to learn and grow as a church family…and it is not any different for us or any other church family.

Blessings, Don

Friday, February 7, 2014

Lessons in Soccer and Life


Many moons ago I had the opportunity to play some college soccer for four years at a small Christian college in Portland, OR. We had a few unremarkable seasons until my senior year when we won the whole ball of wax, but that is a story for another time. I believe it was during my second season, we had an unfortunate set of circumstances with illnesses and ineligibilities that left us with eight eligible, available players for one game. Our coach made a pre-game agreement with the opposing coach to play the game 8 on 8…we would forfeit, so it wouldn’t matter. Well, as it turned out, the opposing team came out with 11 players against us. Our coach encouraged us to give it our best, and we played most of the game on our half of the field. At the end of the half, we were only down 3-0, and we felt like we were actually winning…and they were feeling defeated – perspective is an interesting thing. They wore us down in the second half, and we ended up losing 10-0. We believed that we played fairly well, and that it could have been much worse. It was only a game, but it is a game I still remember, because I believe we handled ourselves as good Christian citizens, even if the other team may not have done so.

Let’s fast forward about 15 years, and I am coaching a high school girls JV soccer team in SE Washington. We had a number of good players that were talented, and I believe our record was about .500 when we came up against a perennial power in our conference. Due to certain circumstances beyond our control, we had a number of players succumb to illness and two who were declared academically ineligible. Stop me if you have heard this before, but we had eight players who were able to suit up. I contacted the JV head coach from the other team and we had an agreement to play them, 8 on 8. We would forfeit to them and play the game anyway. When we showed up to the field, the Varsity head coach from that team was there and he directed his JV coach to…you guessed it…put 11 players on the field. I could tell that the JV coach felt bad about breaking the agreement, but the head coach was kind of smug about it…they were going to take us to the woodshed and give us a beating. I told the girls that I had been down this road before, and so we lined up much like our college team did, with a 3-3-1 line up, as opposed to the usual 4-3-3. I was exceedingly proud of my girls, as they played hard and defended well, and at the end of the half the score was? Yes – 3-0. The feelings were much the same as our college team…we felt like we had actually won the half, while the opponents looked defeated. We had a good half-time session and our girls came out with some good energy. I was just hoping to keep it within about 10-0, like our college team. Well…a funny thing happened. My center midfielder was able to thread a pass to our forward who was able to get a fast break. She beat the defenders and the goalie and scored! We couldn’t believe it – we scored and it was 3-1. Now, I would like to believe that I am a faithful person, but I had not seen too many miracles in my life…but, there was a small part of me that said – could the improbable happen? Could we actually make some sort of a comeback down three? Or girls were pumped, and the other team’s players were on their heels. Our girls exhibited the best control of the ball that I had ever seen them exhibit that half and we were able to run the play to our forward again, and she was able split the defense for a another goal, making it 3-2. Finally, we were able to put together a really good cross, redirect play down the field and score our third goal to make it 3-3 – true story! I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The coaches on the other sideline were screaming, but I was feeling mighty good…in a Christian sort of way.  With about five minutes left in the half, one of my midfielders was able to get a break and she had a really makeable shot on goal, but put it just wide to the right, so we just missed on the go-ahead goal. Nonetheless, we held them the last few minutes to end the game in a 3-3 tie. Let me tell you…we had a victory celebration! And they looked entirely defeated. They were good sports, as we all shook hands at the end of the game, and the JV coach was congratulatory of our efforts. The disgusted head coach of the other team wouldn’t come out on the field to show any sportsmanship…and I had all I could not to yell – How do you like them apples?! But, I didn’t…I was good sport…and just smiled (grinned) and walked back to our sideline. I thanked the Lord for a fulfilling result from the game…and even a positive fulfillment for the memory from 15 years before…as well as a story I can now share more than a decade later.

Why do I share these stories? I want you to know, as you have probably heard, that preparation, perseverance and faithfulness can bring about good results. Do not ever give up! It is easy to do, I know. I have been on the winning and losing side of many games as a player and a coach in a number of sports. But, it was almost like the Lord afforded us a reward for hard work, good attitudes, good play and we were very grateful. Do I believe God plays team favorites? No, but I do believe that he rewards the faithfulness of individuals…and that can affect an entire team. For our team, it was a real bonding time. We finished the season a little over .500 for the season, but we all had a memory that would last a lifetime from that one game.

In Matthew 17:14ff, Jesus and three of his disciples (Peter, James and John) come down from “the mount of transfiguration” to “the valley of need,” where they meet up with a distraught father of a sick child. There is a lot going on in this situation. The father has appealed to the nine remaining disciples to help heal his son…which they were not able to do. Not helping were opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, who are always looking to try to catch, trap Jesus or the disciples to seek to cause them to stumble. (There are occasionally opponents in life…some good, some bad). The scribes are accusing them…and while the disciples are defending themselves, nothing is going well. The father in the situation sees Jesus and rushes to Him. The Lord’s first response is one of sorrow, as He sees the embarrassed disciples, the arguing Scribes, as well as the needy father and son -- what a circus! Jesus expresses some frustration with their unbelief. He heals the boy and gives him to his father…all while the crowds marvel and give glory to God. Somehow, during the Lord’s absence, the nine disciples had become lazy, selfish, distracted – they lost their focus! Their faith weakened when the crisis came, because they were unprepared. From this experience, we see the importance of staying spiritually faithful and healthy. Jesus concludes the experience by talking with them about “faith the size of a mustard seed,” which suggests not only size (a small seed that can turn into a large plant), but also life and growth (that God will honor even a little faith -- there are great possibilities!) “Faith like a mustard seed” is a “living faith” that is nurtured and caused to grow…and this makes moving mountains possible.

Faithfulness can and will lead to great things! But, it must be cultivated in order to do even greater things for God…and the kingdom of God. It doesn’t take much faith to move mountains…only a mustard seed sized faith. Jesus is calling His disciples, calling us to something far beyond this. The Lord may admonish us, as he did the disciples, if we continue to make the same mistakes and are not striving for genuine spiritual growth. The Lord does expect us to learn, grow and depend upon Him for our spiritual strength and sustenance.

Blessings, Don