In Michelangelo’s famous painting of God reaching out to Adam, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God’s arm is fully extended. Adam, however, is slouched back, barely exerting the effort to lift his arm, only almost reaching out to God.
Adam represents us. While God always reaches out to us, we are often lazy, sluggish, and half-hearted in our response. Notice that if Adam would just stretch out his fingers just slightly, he could touch the hand of God. Since Adam, God has always yearned for us to stretch out and take his hand.
That’s what this Summer Stretch is about – to push all of us out of our ruts and comfort zones, and to challenge us to STRETCH! The word “stretch” is defined as, “capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.” You and I are capable of stretching. It might feel awkward and uncomfortable. It might require some effort. But, we can do it.
- What if a more abundant life is waiting for you just inches away, if you just stretched?
- What if you could make a difference in this world, if you just stretched for it?
- What if there are mysteries to be revealed, if you will just stretch to receive them?
- What if there is deeper prayer and worship, if you would just be willing to stretch?
- What if you could grow into the full stature of Christ, if you would just stretch more?
That’s what I want us to find out this summer. If you and I could just stretch our minds, our hearts, our souls, our hands toward God a little more, I think we might find ourselves spiritually in a completely different place than we ever knew was possible.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I pray that you… may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19 That’s my prayer for all of us this summer!
Henri Nouwen writes, “Our spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction.”
Patches & Wineskins:
In Matthew 9, Jesus is asked why he had his disciples are not fasting as much as the John’s disciples and the Pharisees. Fasting is a spiritual practice of self-denial – usually not eating food for a period of time. In biblical times, the tradition and practice of fasting was an act of sorrow for sin. Jesus doesn’t condemn fasting. In fact, in other passages he clearly expects it. But, in this case he says, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Matthew 9:15 Jesus is saying that fasting is a fine spiritual practice, but then wasn’t the time for it.
Traditions, like fasting, have purpose and value when their meaning aligns with the needs of the moment. Jesus illustrates this by comparing fasting with patches and wineskins. Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)
If you sew a patch of new cloth to an old garment that has been shrunk from many washings, when the new cloth shrinks, it will tear the garment. An old garment needs an old patch.
A wineskin was made from goat skins, which would harden over time. But, a new skin was stretchable, pliable. It had to be so, because new wine releases gases during the fermenting process. The skin has to be able to stretch and expand as the new wine ferments. If you put new wine an old wine skin, the old wine skin can’t stretch, and will burst.
Jesus is the new wine. He came to do something new and challenging – not to just reinforce the old. Jesus is not anti-tradition. But, neither is Jesus bound by tradition. Jesus encouraged fasting, but not for the sake of fasting. Jesus observed the Sabbath, but didn’t hesitate to violate Sabbath rules if a person needed healing or if the disciples were hungry. Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth – not to preserve tradition.
Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
There’s a story about a Buddhist temple, where a cat would wander in among the monks while they were praying, which was distracting. It was decided to leash the cat, and time him to a post. Years passed, and the leashed cat became a familiar presence in the temple. So, when the cat finally died, the monks bought a new cat, and tied it to the same post.
A man went to the store to buy a ham for dinner. His wife told him to have the butcher cut the end off. He forgot, and brought home the whole ham. His wife was frustrated that he forgot this simple detail. So, the man asked, “Why does the end need to be cut off anyway?” She didn’t know. She just knew it was important. So, she called her mother to ask why the end had to be cut off. The mother also said it was necessary, but she also didn’t know why. So, they called grandma, and asked her why. She said, “Because I only had a small roasting pan. The whole ham wouldn’t fit.”
Change is threatening, but it is not evil…
Not growing up in church, my introduction to Church tradition was in seminary, where I was taught the practice AND the meaning traditions. It might surprise some of you to hear that I LOVE Church tradition. I LOVE ritual. I LOVE “smells and bells.” Traditions and rituals have the ability to communicate mystery at a much deeper level than words ever can.
But, I don’t believe in practicing tradition and rituals just because they are familiar. Habit is not the same as tradition. Familiarity is not the same as tradition.
And, change is not the opposite of tradition. I think we sometimes resist what God can do, because we expect him to do a new thing in our old wineskins. Or, maybe we don’t want to do a new thing.
There’s undeniably something in our human nature that clings to the familiar and resists change. Change feels like threat. Typically, our first response to change is to assume the old was better and that the new is wrong. The Pharisees and Sadducees certainly reacted to Jesus that way.
Certainly, change is not always right or good. But, change is not inherently wrong, bad, or evil.
Every tradition began as an innovation…
We have to remember that every tradition was once an innovation that someone hated. Let me say that again – every tradition was once an innovation. Every hymn in the hymnal was once a contemporary song – that someone didn’t like. Every tradition and every hymn we cherish began with someone saying, “It’s new. I don’t like it.”
Take a walk with me through history…
Starting Genesis, the sole expression of worship was the building of altars and animal sacrifice, that was only practiced occasionally, as an individual’s thanks to God.
By the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, animal sacrifice became a daily ritual to express thanks, to seek God’s blessing, and to atone for sin. All sacrifices were performed at a sacred, moveable tent called the Tabernacle, and were performed by priests. There were precise instructions for how the rituals were to be performed. Annual festivals were also instituted – like Passover. And, the Sabbath became a holy day.
By the time of King David, the Tabernacle was given a permanent home in Jerusalem, and David instituted musical worship and dance for the first time.
David’s son, King Solomon later replaced the tabernacle with a permanent Temple. At this point, all worship took place in Jerusalem.
During the time of the Prophets, the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the Temple and took the Jews to foreign lands as slaves. There was no way to worship in Jerusalem. And, the Prophets taught that their destruction was because they forgot God’s teaching. The Jews had to find a new way to worship in this new context. Psalm 137 was written during this time,
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)
A new situation required new traditions and practices – new wineskins. So, during this time, the local Jewish synagogue was created as a place of study, and worship took the form of songs and teaching Torah.
By the time of Jesus, the Temple was rebuilt and sacrifices had resumed. The festivals had been reinstituted. But, the local synagogues remained. Local Sabbath worship happened in the synagogue for instruction and annual festivals happened in Jerusalem at the Temple, as well as daily sacrifices in the Temple.
By Acts, the persecution of Christians led to primarily worshipping in homes – not the Temple or the synagogue. Within a generation, because the Romans were persecuting the Jews, the Christians switched the Christian Sabbath to Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday. Worship primarily consisted of songs, teaching, collections for the poor, and a shared meal. It was during this time that the Jewish Temple was destroyed again, and sacrifices ended.
Think about that. Biblical worship began as an occasional burnt animal sacrifice, performed by an individual or family. By the end of the Bible, worship became the gathering of diverse groups of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men, in homes for common meals, teaching and singing. That’s a pretty radical change of tradition! New wine skins were required for new wine. But, change didn’t stop with the book of Revelation.
Did you know that churches haven’t always had seating? For centuries, people had stand for worship. When benches were introduced in churches, some thought it was heretical sit in worship.
Did you know that pipe organs were originally considered offensive in church, because they produce “artificial” sounds? Instead of an orchestra playing instruments, one person could play one instrument that simulated all of the sounds of a symphony. People didn’t like it.
For centuries, the Bible was only written in Latin, and only read by priests. When it was translated into spoken languages, and mass produced by the printing press, many objected to the idea of common people having and reading their own Bibles.
For centuries, churches were filled with tapestries, and mosaics, and stained glass, and statues to help illiterate Christians learn the stories of the Bible and the Saints through pictures. But, during the Reformation, those were considered too “Catholic,” and churches were stripped bare.
Did you know that Methodism began outdoors with “field preaching?” Methodist preachers preached out-side in public squares, at boat docks, and near the entrances to mines. Many considered field preaching highly offensive, because preaching was supposed to happen ONLY inside church walls.
In recent years, some have objected to contemporary worship music with drums and guitars, projection screens, videos, and the use of the arts in worship. Before long, contemporary practices will become traditions that we won’t want to change, and something new will come along that’s meaningful to the next generation, but will inevitably be offensive to us.
We can never forget the words of Isaiah 43:18-19. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
While it’s never wise to abandon traditions that are meaningful, we can never forget that traditions have changed and adapted over and over throughout the generations. Traditions have been adapted and changed by different cultures. When Jesus spoke about new wine, he was talking about fresh moves of the Holy Spirit in every generation. Every generation must pour the new wine of the Spirit into new wineskins, and not try to force it into old ones.
Traditions are one form of wine skins. We – you and me – are wine skins too.
Mark Batterson writes, “One of our fundamental spiritual problems is this: we want God to do something new while we keep doing the same old thing. We want God to change our circumstances without us having to change at all.”
So here is my question for all of us this morning – “What do we value more – wine skins or new wine? Are we more committed to preserving the old wineskins more than we are to receiving the new wine? Could it be that clinging to old wine skins is actually keeping you from being stretched by the new things God wants to do in your spiritual life?”
Are you ready to be stretched?