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The seven last words of the soul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Luke 5:33-39

Here’s news you need to know: Singer Jessica Simpson has told People magazine that Tony Romo is her “perfect guy.” How do we know? She wrote a song for him titled “You’re My Sunday,” featured on her new album coming out September 9. And even more, she changed her cell phone number and e-mail address so her ex-boyfriends can’t communicate with her any more. That’s true devotion. Now if she’ll just stay away from Cowboys playoff games we’ll all be happy.

It’s good to move on with your life, even if such a decision is 400 years late. This week’s New York Times reported that the Roman Catholic Church is considering a statue for Galileo Galilei, its most illustrious heretic.

Four centuries ago, the Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was not a perfect man—he savaged his critics in print and had three children out of wedlock. Nonetheless, the Church’s condemnation of his scientific declarations has been a black eye for the Vatican ever since.

They allowed some of his works to be published in 1718; in 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret over the episode. Now an anonymous donor wants to fund a statue of the Italian astronomer, to be displayed somewhere in the Vatican. (I’m guessing the basement men’s room may be its final location.)

Change is tough. It’s far easier to live in a past we can remember than a future we cannot see.

In that context, today we’re going to discover the single most important characteristic in lives which God uses fully. People who make a real difference, who live with true significance, who know all that God can do with them. People who count for eternity, who find the real joy and power and purpose of Almighty God.

There is a single thread running through the lives of every person ever used fully by God. It’s not in their abilities or achievements, their opportunities and circumstances, their background or education or possessions or social status. It’s something else entirely. Let’s unpack Jesus’ parable, then find the secret to a life used fully by God. What you do with what you discover is your choice.

New wine in new wineskins

Our text begins, “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'” (v. 33).

Matthew’s version of our story tells us that “they” were some of John’s disciples (Matthew 9:14). Jesus and his followers have just come from a feast at Matthew’s house, probably on a Monday or Thursday.

Though the only time the people were commanded to fast was the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), Pharisees and apparently some of John’s followers fasted on these days each week, eating and drinking nothing from sunup to sundown. They chose Monday and Thursday because these were market days, when more people would see their pious sacrifice.

By contrast, Jesus’ followers “go on eating and drinking.” Jesus fasted during his wilderness temptations (Luke 4:2); early Christians sometimes fasted as well (cf. Acts 9:9; 13:2, 3; 14:23). But for the most part, they lived life with all its normal events and circumstances, ignoring the legalistic rituals of his critics.

Jesus’ answer was one of the funniest things he ever said. In the English it comes across as rather stilted and formal: “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” (v. 34). But the statement was actually quite humorous and ironic.

“Can you make…” assumes a negative answer in the Greek and is better translated, “You certainly cannot make….”

“Guests of the bridegroom” were akin to groomsmen today, except that they were in charge of all the wedding arrangements. They are now standing with the bridegroom as the wedding is underway. Suddenly they announce that the entire event must wait while they observe a fast. We can picture the bride at the altar, holding her bouquet, her bridesmaids standing in line, everyone waiting in the pews while the groomsmen go on a fast for a few hours or even a few days.

That’s what it would be like for Jesus’ disciples to fast while he is still with them. However, “the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast” (v. 35).

“Taken away” translates a word which means to grab suddenly and violently. It is Jesus’ first reference in the gospels to his approaching death.

He is saying that the Bridegroom will one day be put to death. When that happens, of course the groomsmen will mourn and fast. But in the meanwhile, to impose Old Testament rituals on New Testament grace is like holding up a wedding while the groomsmen fast for the rest of the day.

Jesus knew that John’s disciples wouldn’t understand or believe him without further persuasion, so he told them two similar parables. The first: “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).

A “new garment” has not yet been washed and shrunk. If someone “tears” a piece from it and sews it on an old garment which is washed, shrunk, even tattered, nothing good will happen. The new garment is ruined by tearing out a piece of cloth. It will shrink and further tear the threadbare fabric it is intended to patch.

The second parable: “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” (vs. 37-38).

Wineskins were typically made from the skin of a young goat. The skin was removed without slitting it; the openings at the feet and tail were then sewed shut, leaving the neck as the mouth. Such wineskins are still made in the Middle East today. The skin was soft and pliable when it was fresh, but became stiff as it grew old.

“New wine” had not yet fermented and expanded. If someone poured it into an old wineskin, it would expand and burst the skin, ruining both the wineskin and the wine. Everyone knew that you needed a new wineskin for new wine.

Then Jesus made this prophetic point: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new for he says, ‘The old is better'” (v. 39). Despite his explanation to his critics, he knew human nature. He knew that it is easier to trust the past we can see than the future we cannot. It feels safer to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them—to repeat the same traditions, keeping things the same way they’ve always been.

Going on with God

What’s wrong with old wine in old wineskins? Only this: God doesn’t live in the past. He isn’t bound by what we know of the way life works. He is always ready to do a new thing, to lead his people in a new way, to inspire and empower a new direction and vision and destiny.

God told Noah that a flood was coming. For a hundred years he warned the people while building his ark. They didn’t believe him, for the simple reason that it had most likely never rained to that point in history. A mist came out of the ground, Genesis says. So far as we know, no rain had ever fallen from the sky. It had never rained, so it never could. Or so they thought, until it was too late. Their survival as a people wasn’t behind them—it never is.

For 400 years the Jewish people lived in Egyptian slavery. They forgot that they had ever been free. They knew the Egyptian language and customs. They were familiar with Egyptian ways. When this upstart Moses came forward to lead them across the impassable Red Sea and through the uncharted wilderness, their repeated cry was, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:12). But the Promised Land wasn’t behind them—it never is.

Joshua and the people stood on the bank of the flooded Jordan River. The Promised Land lay on the other side, but more than two million people needed to cross with their children, animals, and possessions. No one had ever done anything like this before. They could have stayed east of the Jordan, settled the land, and been assimilated into the civilization of the region. But their future as the people of God wasn’t behind them—it never it.

Jesus came to call fishermen and tax collectors, as well as rich young rulers and Sanhedrin members. Some went away sad; others fled at the cross; but some chose to follow this risen Messiah as he came to build God’s Kingdom on earth.

The way he led them looked nothing like they had expected. Gentiles were as included as Jews. God would lead Philip to an Ethiopian eunuch, a man unwelcome in any Jewish house of worship. He would lead Peter to evangelize a hated Roman centurion. He would lead Paul west when Paul wanted to go east, bringing the gospel to the entire European continent. He would station this Pharisaic rabbi in the house of Nero himself and use him to bring the gospel across the known world.

But only because they trusted more than they could see. Only because they believed that God’s future was better than their past. Only because they would go wherever God led and do whatever God asked. Only because they knew that the Kingdom of God wasn’t behind them—it never is.

Here is the one distinguishing mark of those used fully by God: They are willing to follow wherever he leads—wherever he leads. He can change any plan they have made and redirect any step. He can send them where they never imagined going and use them in ways they never intended. Their transmissions are in neutral, their strategies held lightly, their hopes and ambitions surrendered to him. He uses them because they are willing to be used.

Are you?

Conclusion

Dwight Moody never wanted to be a preacher, and in fact was never ordained. But when he discovered that his church in Chicago wouldn’t take in street children, he was compelled to start a Sunday school for them on the shores of Lake Michigan. Then he heard a preacher named Henry Varley say, “The world has yet to see what God will do for and with and through and in and by the man fully dedicated to him.” Moody resolved to be that man, and shook two continents for Christ.

Billy Sunday was a ballplayer, not a preacher, when he heard hymns spilling out of a rescue mission and gave his heart to Jesus. He became the most famous preacher of the gospel in a generation and pioneered ways of doing evangelism which are still practiced today.

Billy Graham thought he’d be a college president and pastor; both jobs lasted a little more than a year. His son Franklin was far from God and far from his family when the Lord seized his heart and made him a “rebel with a cause.”

All Rick Warren knew when he graduated from Southwestern Seminary was that God wanted him to plant a church in Southern California. He walked into a bank in Orange County and told the banker, “I’m here to start a church. Can you help me?” He asked the man if he went to church; the man said that he did not; Rick said, “Great, you’re my first member.” 25,000 members later, the man is still his first.

Bill Hybels was a youth minister who wanted to reach young people. He started a Sunday night service using contemporary music, but they soon grew too loud and too large for the church. They got permission to use the Willow Creek theater down the street, beginning what is today the largest church in America.

None of them had any idea God would use them the way he has. But all of them were willing for him to use them any way he would.

It’s been said that the seven last words of the church are, “We never did it that way before.” They are the seven last words of the soul as well. Are they living in your soul this morning?

When was the last time you gave God permission to change your plans? To redirect your agenda? To call you to a new thing or to do something in a new way? Why not today?