“No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they 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. Otherwise, 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 they say, ‘The old is better.’ ”
-Luke 5:36-39 (NIV)
A friend of mine told me on the phone this week about some of the Christmas gifts he received. He thought I might be interested in a couple of books that he got from family: a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who stood against the Third Reich (and was executed for his trouble), and a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s writings. He knew that we share an admiration for Bonhoeffer, both for his theology and his willingness to suffer and die for his convictions.
Since I was thinking of Bonhoeffer, I was all the more surprised when he mentioned what his brother-in-law got him for Christmas.
A set of throwing knives.
Guess what will be at the top of my list next year? Spoiler alert: it’s not Bonhoeffer.
Most of us get surprising gifts. Sometimes they’re a surprise because you didn’t ask for them, but they turn out to be just what you wanted. Sometimes they’re a surprise because, well, you can’t imagine why anyone would think you’d want that. And sometimes...
Well, one of my most surprising gifts this year was at one of those white elephant gift exchanges. I know, you’re supposed to be staggered by the ridiculous at those things, but I was literally speechless when I opened my gift and found what I can only assume are recordings of Korean soap operas from the ’70’s. On eight-track tape.
Now, if someone will give me an eight-track player next year, I can get caught up on 횃불.
But even that wasn’t my most surprising gift. My aunt went all out this year: she mailed in a DNA swab to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, and then gave me, my sister, my son, and my parents the results as part of our Christmas gifts. After all, her results would at least apply to us.
That wasn’t even the surprising part. The surprising part was what the results indicated. According to the pie chart I received, my ancestry is 34% French-Canadian, 28% Ethiopian, 16% Australian, 10% Germanic, 7% “Post-Terra”, and 5% Scottish.
I know we all have roots in Africa, but 28%? And Ethiopian? How would they know that? And French-Canadian? I don’t even like Canadian Bacon on my pizza. Harboring no ill will toward any of those countries or ethnicities, I was still surprised. What the results said I was didn’t really fit with what I thought I was.
Well, it turns out that the results were a gag. Apparently things are backed up at the National Geographic genetics lab, and my aunt didn’t get her report in time for Christmas. So she made up the results, just to make us wonder.
Sometimes we need to be surprised, don’t we? Sometimes it’s only a good surprise that will shake us out of our comfort zones and make us take a good long look at ourselves. Sometimes we need a spiritual DNA test that makes us realize that what we think we are and what we really are don’t match up all that well.
Gifts are new, of course. (Unless you get recordings of 1970’s Korean soaps - though, even then, they’re new to you...) They bring new choices to your life. Add new functionality. We often don’t think about it, but gifts disrupt our lives. They demand something of us as we figure out how to install them and integrate them into our lives. Sometimes they don’t integrate into our existing lives very well at all. They demand a decision of us - will we change or lives, or exchange the gift? Change, or exchange?
Paul reminds those of us who follow Jesus that God wasn’t just offering us something to dress up our lives when he sent his Son to us. He was doing nothing less than bringing about a “new creation.” That, in Jesus, we say goodbye to the old and welcome the new.
So it’s no wonder that Jesus spoke of a “new covenant” and a “new command.” The covenants and commands that God had given to his people before Jesus came didn’t really fit with the new reality that he was bringing into being. Jesus’ gift forced people - and still does - to that same crisis: change, or exchange? Be willing to change in response to God’s amazingly gracious and completely disruptive gift, or exchange that gift for something that doesn’t demand quite so much of us?
That’s the point of Jesus’ parables of the patch and the wineskins. Jesus doesn’t just recycle us. He doesn’t come with reassuring words that reinforce the opinions of ourselves and our lives and our world that we’ve already settled on. He comes telling us of his Father’s kingdom, and warning us that if we hold on tightly to our self-determined identities, priorities, and values that we won’t have a free hand to receive his gift. Jesus, and the kingdom he opens to us, is the new “patch” that will rip apart the fabric of any life that isn’t willing to change under its influence. Jesus, and the kingdom he opens to us, is the new wine that won’t be contained by old habits, attitudes, structures, and rituals.
In short, Jesus doesn’t come to affirm what we already believe to be true about ourselves. He comes to deconstruct it, tear it down, rip it apart, so we can know who we really are in him. So we can know about the person God created us and always intended us to be.
Right now, at the beginning of a new year, we have the perfect opportunity to really receive the brand new thing that God is doing in us, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we integrate our new gifts into our lives, let’s also let the gift Jesus offers start to have its way. May we be prayerful and honest about the ways in which we need to let the kingdom of God tear at the fabric of our lives. May we be willing to stretch to accommodate Jesus, so that we don’t lose the new wine of God’s wonderful blessings. And may we not be so intoxicated by the comfort of our old lives that we fail to receive the new thing God is doing in us, through Jesus.
At least you don’t have to figure out how Korean soap operas fit into your life.
Who knows? Maybe the real results of my aunt’s DNA test will reveal that some of the actors are my relatives.