Luke 5:33-39 “They said to him, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.’ Jesus answered, ‘Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.’ He told them this parable: ‘No-one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he 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. If he does, 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 he says, “The old is better”.’”

Everyone thinks they understand what religion is all about. It’s about stopping doing bad things and doing good things. You stop swearing, and stealing, and womanizing, and drinking. You conquer your addictions, and you start going to church, and giving to charity, and staying at home with your family in the evenings, and reading the Bible. That is what almost everyone judges religion to be; you stop doing bad things and in their place do good things.

That is what people thought in Jesus’ day too. They looked at Jesus with his disciples and they noticed that they were a decent gang of men. They didn’t fight and get drunk; they didn’t fool around with women. Then they noticed how they said grace before they ate their food. They were always in the synagogue on the Sabbath. They talked a lot about the Scriptures, and so they were ‘very religious men.’ However, then they spotted an inconsistency, that there was one thing they didn’t do that every other group of ‘really religious’ people whom they knew about certainly did. Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast. For example, the disciples of John the Baptist often fasted, and they had a religious reason for doing that. They believed that the axe was being laid to the root of decadent Judaism and soon the whole society was going to come falling around them. The Messiah was going to appear in judgment and pour out the fires of condemnation on this decadent nation. John’s followers believed that they were living in the final days. So they fasted because the land was doomed. Then John the Baptist got arrested and was thrown into prison and his life was in danger, so as his disciples focused on the plight of their leader they fasted and prayed that God might have mercy.

The Pharisees also fasted and they did so because they were serious about religion, and they wanted to abstain from temptations of the flesh. Everyone knew when the Pharisees were fasting; they paraded the fact by putting white ash on their heads as they walked down the street. They decided to fast twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, although God required fasting on just one day in a year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but the Pharisees with their commitment to being serious about religion had to multiply that requirement a hundred-fold.

Yet here was this new religious movement rising in the land, but its leader, the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, didn’t introduce fasting to his followers. He didn’t say something like this, “You are never allowed to eat pork. Every Friday only fish is permitted, in fact on that day you may drink just one glass of water before the sun sets. In addition for one entire month in the year there will be a special religious season. We’ll call it, ‘The Fast.’ During those thirty days you’ll give up lots of pleasures and eat no meat. This is my new religion.”

There was nothing at all like that. This disapproving question was raised after Jesus and his disciples had been in Levi’s house enjoying a lavish banquet. Our Lord even went to weddings. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warned his followers of the hypocrisy of Pharisaic fasting; it was too splashy. It was done with an eye on people seeing and knowing that you were a religious person. Of course there would be times of crisis when an individual or a church would be given to prayer and fasting. The leadership of a congregation might take a serious decision and call the church members to a day of prayer and fasting, but it was not an important part of Christianity or there would have been a mention of fasting in at least one of the letters of the New Testament, whereas there is nothing. Let’s beware of religious people who tell us that the secret of revival is a whole night of prayer, or a week of fasting, that that is the master key to a great awakening.

So here were people watching Jesus and his disciples, admiring so much in their lives, and yet in their eyes these men didn’t seem all that serious about their religion. Their lives didn’t have those religious ceremonies that other religious people had. Down by the Dead Sea there was a group of men living with a man they called the “Teacher of Righteousness.” Now, of course, they were unquestionably ‘religious’ men. They separated themselves from the world, living in a desert and behaving like monks. People nodded sagely and said, “That’s what real religion is all about.” So they were curious at this inconsistency in the religion of our Lord’s disciples, and one day they asked Jesus about it; “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.”

Do you notice how curious is our Lord’s reply, “Jesus answered, ‘Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast’” (v.34). Jesus introduces a radically new picture of religion. Real religion in the eyes of God is like a marriage of two people, with the new relationship being launched on the wedding day. What delight! Here is a couple who publicly pledge their undying affection for one another. They love one another so much that they are going to spend the rest of their lives together, never looking at anyone else. He is leaving his mother and father, and she too is leaving her parents and off they were journeying together through life. What a marvelous relationship, and family and friends are all privileged to come together at its launch and celebrate these nuptials.

But Jesus raises a curious picture. Imagine at a wedding reception after the service and the photographs are over in the buzz of chatter with old friends and bursts of laughter, grace having been said, everyone sitting down to the meal and then the waitresses come around and they ask the guests one by one some such question as, “Melon or soup?” Imagine, I am saying from Jesus’ comment, that everyone on the tables declined them both. That was odd. Then when they came with the second course, the hot plates with generous portions of Welsh lamb that again everyone shook their heads, and when they came with a bowl of delicious green peas with a knob of golden butter melting at the top again everyone refused it. Then when the flustered waitresses (some of them students earning some money for their fees) came with piping hot roast potatoes, and tender carrots, stuffing, mint sauce and a jug of steaming gravy every single person in the reception again refused. They refused a piece of wedding cake, the trifle, the pavlova, the coffee and the After Eights. They all sat there somber, just shaking their heads as all the food was brought to the tables and then was taken back to the kitchen. They rejected the kindness of the bride’s family who had invited them to share in their joy. One could see at the top table the bride and her mother are weeping, while her father was outraged going out into the guests and remonstrating with them, “Come on boys, this is great food. Take it. I’ve gone to such expense for you to eat with us.” But everyone shook their heads politely saying, “We are fasting!” Fasting? It’s not the place or time to fast. The bride and groom are with you; they have pledged their troth; they have made their vows. Rejoice with them on this happiest of days. If it were a few years later and one of them was dying of heart disease then that would be the time for grief and fasting, but not now.

What is Jesus doing with this curious illustration? He is giving a totally new explanation of what real religion is. He is looking at religion not as the members of the Qumran community looked at it, nor as the Pharisees did, nor as did the disciples of John, nor even as some of you have tended to think about religion. True religion, first of all, is not a list of do’s and don’ts though it means saying no to sin and yes to righteousness. True religion is a loving, growing, intimate relationship with the living God. You see a man and woman sitting together in church. They go for walks together on the promenade and they talk about their lives and their plans for the future. They find out about one another; she discovers what his ambitions are, and what he wants to do with his life. She watches him with their friends, with her parents and his parents. They talk of their faith and how they want to put God first in their lives. Then when he asks her to marry him her response is a knowledgeable and informed response; it has been educated by all she has seen in him and knows about him, so her ‘Yes’ is a judged and considered answer. Soon, as we say, they will be ‘joined together’ in marriage.

Now that is a very clear picture of what real religion consists of. Why do we urge you to go to a gospel church every Sunday? Not for the ceremony or the discipline of Sunday morning rising, but to hear about Jesus Christ. I am always talking to you about the Saviour; “This is who he is; this is what he said in the Sermon on the Mount; this is what he did and how he lived; this is why he did those things; this is why he had to die – it was to make atonement for our sins; he rose from the dead on the third day; he ascended into heaven and he has immense omnipotent power.” Then, when I’ve told you all about Jesus in a short space of time, I ask you, “Will you go with this man? Won’t you fall in love with him? Won’t you take him as your beloved and walk and talk with him for the rest of your days? Won’t you have him as your Saviour?” And your response to these invitations will be educated and informed from all the times you have heard about him, from your parents, and from the Sunday School teachers, and from your preachers. Then you will be joined to him – united to him by entrusting yourself to him alone as your teacher, and shepherd, and great protector. We are saved as we say Yes to Jesus and put our trust in him. We are saved by faith; F.A.I.T.H. – ‘forsaking all I take him.’ No salvation without that response.

All over Judah and Galilee there were men and women who had done that. They had put their faith in Jesus Christ. Many of them had also been healed of leprosy and paralysis and other diseases. Some had been married to money and their job, and Jesus had delivered them and become a true lover to them. Peter and Andrew and James and John and Levi were all filled with a wedding day joy. What a wonderful friend they had in Jesus. What wise counsels he gave them. They felt loved in his presence; “This is my husband and this is my friend!” Were they fasting? No. Were they sprinkling their heads with white ash and looking doleful? No. It was a time of feasting, not fasting. It would not always be like that. Jesus warns them here, even so early in his ministry, that a time would come when their dear Bridegroom would be snatched away by wicked hands and crucified and slain, and at such a time they would be without any appetite. Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus a couple of days after the crucifixion wouldn’t be characterized by wedding day joy but funeral grief! Let his disciples fast then. But now their bridegroom was with Levi and with the people of Galilee where the blind could see and the lame walk; demons were being exorcised, men were being delivered from avarice and cruelty; and so there was joy in scores of villages and in hundreds of houses.

True religion is not ceremonies and the works which we do. It is not principally about giving up food and drink. It is to know that Christ is mine and I am his. He loved me and gave himself for me. My heavenly best friend has taken the liability for all my debts and discharged them all. “This is my beloved and my Lord.” He has delivered me from sin. That is religion. I am married to Christ for ever. One day I shall see him and I shall be like my bridegroom, but I cannot be more married to him than I am at this moment. This wedding took place when I was joined in faith to Jesus Christ, and so the great word to the church is, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”

The Lord Jesus goes on to explain how this new life from heaven becomes ours and he does so by using another two powerful images.

i] Jesus did not come to patch up their old natural religion. He says, “No-one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old” (v.36). You are aware that the world of Jesus’ day didn’t have pre-shrunk “Sanforized” materials. Every carpenter knew that if his elbow had worn a hole in his coat that it was useless to sew a patch of new cloth on that much washed garment. A piece of new cloth would shrink to a fraction of it original size on the first washing. The hole in the elbow would be greater. Jesus takes that picture and he is clarifying to these people the nature of true religion. They are still thinking that it means adding new practices to their lives. Martin Luther thought it meant adding strenuous fasting to his life, and wearing a hair shirt which irritated his skin terribly, and whipping his back, and going to a priest every day and confessing his sins But when he had done that for months he still had no peace and joy at all. Jesus is saying to us, “You know that it is no good trying to patch up your old life by adding new pieces of religious activity.” Your life will get torn between the old and new.

Here is a woman who goes to church but who is concerned about her husband’s non-attendance, saying to her pastor, “If only I could get him to come to church, then all would be well.” Her assumption is that if only her husband could only patch up this one rip in the garment of his character then his life would be transformed. She is overlooking this fact that though the garment of his character might be patched up by a Sunday-attendance patch it would still be the same old garment. Think of the man who has fallen very low and he makes a great effort after one horrible, sickening fall to change his life in a wholesale fashion. So he adds to his life the practice of counting to ten when he is being provoked, and letting ladies go first through doors, and going to church on Sundays, and watching his weight, and being generous and so on. That would certainly be an improvement, but that does not mean that he loves Jesus Christ like a bride loves a bridegroom, that he is happy just to be in the Saviour’s presence and is determined to follow him for ever? Of course he has added some good things to his life; he has patched up the holes in the garment of his old soul, but that has not made him truly religious. He is now more moral and more cultic than he used to be. That is all. He has added some ethical patches to his life. But Jesus has not finished; he then produces another striking picture.

ii] Jesus has not come to add the new wine of religious zest to your old life. This is what the Lord goes on to say, “And no-one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, 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 he says, “The old is better,”’” (vv. 37-39). Wine was kept in sheep skins. They were worked off the body of the animal without cutting into the skins, so that the only apertures were the orifices where the feet and the head had been. These openings were bound shut and the skins cured. Such a wineskin possessed a certain elasticity when it was new so that when the new wine fermented the skin could expand. An old skin lost that suppleness and finally cracked or it even might explode.

So the Lord is talking here about those who think of religion as adding some new wine to your life. “Try some religion. It will fortify you. Get excited with Jesus!” The people of Jesus’ day, just like our time, assumed that they became religious people by making certain additions to their lives; by pouring new practices into the wineskin of that ‘old man’ of theirs. I have mentioned that woman who wishes her husband would add churchgoing to his life. Parents want their children to go to a church where there will be a relaxed and action-packed worship style. They think that will keep them going to church through the difficult teens. We wouldn’t want to be misunderstood. We don’t depreciate the presence of spiritual life in a congregation, though we do distinguish between liveliness and the life of God in our midst, the joy of heaven to earth come down filled with God’s glory. We do not underestimate the importance of the local church which Christ purchased with the shedding of his blood. The church is the divine instrument, not only for the conversion of men through the preaching of the gospel, but for their sanctification, their growth into the stature of Christ. We are to grow together, in our holy loving influence one upon another. Even so, churches may become mere ‘addenda’ to someone’s life. What was fresh three years earlier soon becomes as familiar as any tradition of worship. These people might begin to add Sunday morning ‘church’ to their lives, but still they themselves might not change in their thinking or values or attitudes.

Again, a husband and wife can experience persistent marital difficulties, then perhaps they both read an article in the Readers’ Digest or they see a survey that the sociology department has done in a redbrick university to the effect that church-attending people experience less marital difficulties and stay married longer (I am sure that that is true, but it is true because the Christian is a different kind of person. But the unchurched sociology researchers don’t know that reason. They can’t discern spiritual things). The couple reading the findings only think like this, “Maybe if we go to church regularly, all will be well in our home.” So they add the wine of church attendance, episcopal confirmation, and Holy Eucharist to their lives, but that’s it. You can add to your life the new wine of many such things – like working in a charity shop, or being a good neighbour, or doing voluntary social work. You can add tongues speaking and being slain in the spirit. You can add the confessional and attendance at mass. You can add baptism and church membership. People assume that if they add these new wines to the old wineskin of an otherwise unchanged life, their empty and unfulfilled lives will feel better.

So Jesus’ strong point is this, that true religion is not discovered by making religious additions to your life. True religion is not found in making religious subtractions from your life. You mustn’t think in terms of the patches you add or the new wines you taste. Think of a young man who buys an old car. He knocks out the dents, fills in the holes in the bodywork and sprays the car yellow. He covers the seats with artificial leopard skin covers. He installs a hi-fi system so loud that you can hear the bass notes when the car is still out of sight. He even planes the head to increase the compression ratio, but when it is all done, what does he have? An old banger, souped up and cosmeticized, but a jalopy nonetheless. So it is with you. You can subtract from your life certain obvious sins. You can add to your life certain obvious good deeds. When all the additions and subtractions have been made, however, what are you? You are still the same old man.

Do you see what real religion is? It is not adding some outward morals to an immoral heart. Here is a man who works on his garden, introduces a water feature, a terrace, a balcony, a tree house, a rose arch and decking. He sits in the French window and looks down through the garden. It is a pretty sight except for one thing. There is that old crab apple tree standing at the bottom of the garden covered with bitter little apples, no good for anything. So one day he has an idea he goes down to the greengrocer and he purchases a box of 144 Cox’s Golden Pippin apples, and then laboriously he attaches them with string, one by one to the crab apple tree. Finally after a weary day’s work he can sit in his armchair and look through the French windows across the garden and there in a corner, its branches bending with the weight, is a tree full of Cox’s Pippins. What a perfect sight! But has the tree itself changed? No. It is still a crab apple tree. Adding the new apples to it does not change the nature of the tree itself. Adding morals to our immoral heart does not change the heart.

Nor does the removal of bad habits change the essential nature of our hearts. I once heard a preacher talking about a visit he made one winter’s day to the park in Caerphilly, and there he saw a circle of 12 sycamore trees, all of which had lost their leaves except one which was still covered in autumn leaves. He saw the gardener and asked him why this was the case. “It’s dead,” he told him. “That tree was struck by lightening last summer.” A live tree knows that in the winter months there will not be enough light or water for photosynthesis and so it has a mechanism by which it sheds its leaves, but a dead tree knows nothing and its dead leaves hang in there through the winter ice and snow. That outward sign indicates the inward death.

What if that head gardener called all the crew together that next day and said, “I’ve had yet another inquiry about that dead sycamore. We are going to tackle it today.” So he told them to get their pruning scissors and aluminium ladders and they were all to work on that tree that very day and cut off every single dead leaf. At the end of the day the task was completed and the tree looked indistinguishable from the other 11 leafless sycamore trees, but there was still this difference. They were alive while it was still dead. That is the point Jesus is making, that it is not the things you remove from your life – the dead things that weigh you down – or the moral things that you add to the surface of your life – that make you really religious men in the eyes of God. You yourself need to be changed. You need to become a new wineskin. The whole garment of your life needs to be changed. You must have a new spirit. You must be made a new creation. You must have your heart of stone removed and a new heart of flesh given. You must be born again (or born from above), if you would see the kingdom of God.

Why do men make mistakes like this? Why do they think that if only they added certain religious practices to their lives or gave up certain immoral practices that all would be well? They are misunderstanding the nature of their problem, how serious it is. The reason is this, that they assume that men are condemned by God because they sin. They lust. They lie. They cheat. They steal. They profane the name of God. They desecrate the Lord’s Day. Then they assume that if only these sins could be removed from their lives, all would be well with their souls. But, hear me, you are not primarily under the condemnation of God because you sin. Does that surprise you? You are under the condemnation of God because you are a sinner, that is, because you have a nature that is alienated from God, a nature that is corrupted, depraved and at odds with God. Paul put it this way, that we are by nature the children of wrath. You do not become the children of wrath because you sin. You sin because you are a child of wrath. When a man lies or cheats or steals, that is only symptomatic of the depraved nature within him.

Why does a child have measles? Is it because he has measles spots? No. He has spots because he has measles. We sin because we are sinners. When a child has a high temperature we know that he’s ill. We know that a child isn’t ill because he has a temperature of over 100 degrees. The high temperature is the symptom not the cause. When we take the child to hospital we expect the medical team to fight the virus, the bacteria, the infection that is causing the temperature. So the doctor puts the child on a course of antibiotics. When the virus has been dealt with the temperature will come down.

The fundamental problem in our land today is not lack of money, or lack of the provision for education until you are 16 years of age, or that there is a war going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem in our land does not lie outside ourselves in bad institutions or the lack of institutions. It lies in the heart of every man and woman, boy and girl. If one wishes to make a real change in human problems then it’s people themselves that must be changed, not organisations. There are well-known symptoms that indicate our society is sick. It is probably true that there are more single mothers and illegitimate children and crimes of violence and divorces and abortions and heroin addicts and alcoholics and men in prison and sexually transmitted diseases and pornographic materials than ever before in our entire history. What an ugly statement, but alas, it is statistically true. Yet all of those things are symptoms; they are not the disease itself. The real problem lies in the heart of man.

It was W.G.T. Shedd who said, “The most important conviction which a person can have is the conviction of sin.” King David had it. He knew why he’d committed adultery and arranged a murder. He said, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” He didn’t blame Bathsheba, or his upbringing, or the temptations in his grasp as an absolute monarch. David went back to our father Adam, and the depravity that has come upon the whole human race since Adam fell, which David, and everyone like him, have displayed since their conception. From the very beginning David was a sinner. There never was a time when he was not a sinner. “I was born in sin,” said David, “and that is why I myself sinned against Bathsheba and sinned against Uriah. I take responsibility for my sin in Adam and my own transgressions. I have a sinful heart and so I do sinful things.” We sin because we are sinners, because our natures are sinfully inclined. You see it in children. You do not have to teach them to be selfish and to lie and hurt. They do it naturally because their hearts are sinful. We go astray from the womb telling lies.

What has Christ just said in this chapter? How does Luke preface our text? With these words defining the mission of our Lord; “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v.32). People are lost because they won’t admit that they are sinners who need to turn away from sin to God. They are saying, ‘We don’t feel any desire to become ‘very religious’ people and fast and tithe and go every Sunday to church and become ‘super-Christians.’ We believe we are righteous already.’ But they don’t understand how profound a problem is their own sin and guilt.

One of these Pharisees who fasted twice a week came to see the Lord Jesus one night. His name was Nicodemus and he respected and admired Jesus. But the Lord wasn’t impressed or overawed by his visitor and his kind assurances. Jesus didn’t mistake respectability for true religion. He knew the difference between social acceptability and salvation. He didn’t mix up culture with consecration. Jesus didn’t confuse prestige and piety, or position and a pure heart. He didn’t suggest five practices for Nicodemus to give up and five pluses to add to Nicodemus’ religion. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (Jn. 3:3). For all his religion Nicodemus was an old wineskin. For all his goodness and morality he needed to be born again. Why? Because all his religion and his behaviour was a veneer. They were an exterior coating on the true man. Within was the same old man, dead and hard and sinful, alienated from God. Nicodemus needed to be made a new creation. Before the infinite, eternal, powerful, divine wine of love, joy and peace could be poured into his life from heaven by the Holy Spirit Nicodemus himself needed to be changed. He needed a new heart, a new nature, a new birth, a new beginning, a new wineskin. How could he contain a life of turning the other cheek and mortifying remaining sin without the new structures to do that?

You must be born again. The Lord Jesus was not issuing an admonition to Nicodemus – “Lift yourself up by your own bootstraps!” Christ was not saying to him that he had to decide right then and there to be born again. He had no more power to be born again than a corpse has to walk out of the mortuary. When Jesus said to him, “You must be born again,” he was making the peril of going on as he’d been going through life spectacularly clear. Here was a simple statement of fact. The Holy Spirit of God had to work in Nicodemus’ life and give him a totally new start, a new birth, make him a new wineskin, but if Nicodemus refused . . . then this Pharisee would never see, let alone enter, the kingdom of God. So let him cry mightily to God for a new birth, and not stop until he knew God had heard him.

We do not say to people that if they first, repent of their sins and secondly, place their trust in Christ as their Saviour that thirdly, they will be born again. We do not say that because that is not true. It is the precise opposite of the teaching of the Bible. It is putting the cart before the horse. No one has ever been born again because he repents of his sins and confesses Christ as Saviour. Repentance and saving trust in Jesus are the consequences of God working in our lives and giving us a new birth. The fruit of a new wineskin is the new life of heaven, repenting and trusting in the Lord day by day. When we believe in Jesus Christ and are saved we come to realise that God has been at work in us and made us new wineskins. Your holy sorrow for the wasted years and the constant trust in Jesus through all the trials of the future is the new wine that God has poured into the new nature that he has given to you.

You see how the Lord Jesus is challenging all of us? Are we rejoicing in our relationship with Jesus Christ today like a bride on her wedding day with the husband she adores? There is no true religion without love for Christ. Have we seen that our hearts and natures are far worse than we’ve imagined? Have you seen your depravity? Religion is not simply adding church and morality to your life, or removing the measles spots of sin. It means the old wineskin of my nature must be replaced by a new wineskin. Does your religion consist of a few patches? Have you simply taken a patch and covered a bit of sin there, and a bit of iniquity here? Or are you one of those who seeks to pour a little new wine into the old wineskin, a drop of goodness, a drop of kindness, a drop of sympathy, a drop of philanthropy into the old depraved carcass?

Then note the words of Christ. The whole fabric of your life will be torn asunder in the end by that new patch. The old wineskin will perish with the new wine. Think of Judas who followed Jesus around for three years. He imbibed all the new wine of Christ without having a new wineskin, and in the end “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this” (Acts 1:18&19). There is no hope in those ways. Love of self plus some divine wine ends in death and destruction. You are the one who must be born again. There is hope only if God should hear you when you cry with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.” You must pray that prayer until you know that God has heard you, and that he has granted you a new heart and a new birth and heaven’s new wine. Then you will be rejoicing that Christ is your Saviour and eternal Husband.

April 29 2008 GEOFF THOMAS