Better Than Wine


MATTHEW 9:14-17


new-wineskins 2


As I was praying over today’s Gospel text the Lord gave me a phrase, “your love is better than wine.”  I knew it was a scripture. I just didn’t know where it was from. I thought, “that sounds pretty good Lord I will look it up.” So I googled the phrase and found to my surprise that it was from the Song of Solomon. “Oh no Lord. Not Song of Solomon.” And the Lord was like, “yes Song of Solomon. For My love is better than wine.”

I have to confess that I hated the Song of Solomon. I know it is wrong to hate a book of the Bible. But I did.  My men’s Bible study group back in Richmond, Virginia studied the Song of Solomon once.  Now a group of guys in their twenties and thirties studying the Song of Solomon can get a little sketchy at times if you get my drift. I hope there were no recording devices in that room. And I just despised studying this book. Some Christian writers through the ages have tried to argue that it is an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church.  But John Calvin, who was always a rather down to Earth theologian, dismissed that notion. He said it is about what you think it is about, it is about sex. Some have argued that it is a depiction of how Christian Marriage should be.  But Solomon is not a good example of Godly behavior in that regard. To quote 1 Kings 11: 3-4. “He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.”  In other words, Solomon had all the power, all the wealth, and all the wisdom in the world, but the ladies led him astray.  I really hated this book. And I could give you all the reasons that it really had nothing to do with the Christian life and why it shouldn’t be in the Bible.

But this week the Lord convicted me and showed me that none of these were the real reason that I hated the Song of Solomon. I hated the Song of Solomon because I didn’t believe that love could be that good. May that  love be between a man and a woman or may it be the love of God. Love couldn’t be that good. I was skeptical that such passion belonged in the Holy Scriptures. I was skeptical that it was possible to not only talk about the love of God but be touched by the love of God.  But our Lord wants you to know today that his love is better than wine. He is showing us through his Spirit that Solomon’s Song can refer to Christ and his Bride the Church. He is showing us through our Gospel text that His love is extravagant and he is making all things new.  Today I see three points from our Matthew text that the Lord wants to show us.

  1. Christ is the Bridegroom and we are his Bride
  2. God’s Love is better than wine
  3. God’s love cannot be contained in old garments or old wineskins.

Our text today starts out with a question by the disciples of John to Jesus, “why don’t your disciples fast like the Pharisees and we do?” Jesus says his disciples will fast, that fasting is a valid spiritual practice for the right time, and that time is coming for our church. But it is not appropriate for the time that Jesus is with his disciples. Jesus compares his ministry to a wedding, he is the bridegroom, and the disciples are his wedding party. It is this wedding imagery that binds together this entire parable.  Elsewhere in the scriptures the Church is referred to directly as the Bride of Christ. In Ephesians 5:25-33 Paul tells the church this, “ husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

You see in our common language we talk about our significant other as our spouse. But what Paul is telling us is that marriage is only a reflection of a greater mystery. That our true significant other is Christ. And it is through Christ that marriage between a man and a woman is sanctified and made Holy.  That is why I believe that the Bible teaches that sexual intimacy is best expressed in marriage between a man and a woman. Not because I am a prude. Not because I want to be unfair to people with different sexualities. But because Christian marriage is routed in theology. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be loving and understanding to those who are different or to those who fall short. And it doesn’t mean that the church’s theology should be applied to all of society. But to change our view of marriage in the church is to change our view of God, creation, and theology. Marriage in our theology is not a sacrament. Only the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are. But the Bible does say that Christian marriage, along with having practical purposes, teaches us something about Jesus. What would our marriages be like, what would our everyday relationships be like, if we believed that we not only had a relationship with Jesus Christ but that we were married to Jesus Christ? What would happen if we believed we were in the ultimate committed relationship, what would we do if we realized we were the eternal Bride to the eternal Lord? What would we do if we believed we could know Jesus as intimately as we know our spouse? How would we live our lives if the purpose of our lives was to make ourselves ready for the marriage feast of the Lamb as described in Revelation 19, if we lived our lives to prepare ourselves to be clothed in splendor for the only one who knows our hearts that being Jesus Christ the lion of Judah and the Lamb who was slain. Now I am not a wedding planner. But talking to Pam and Bob, who’s wedding you all are all invited to on June 11th by the way, I have learned that wedding planning is a lot of work.  Celebration takes work .We have to sacrifice to get to a celebration. It makes the celebration all the more worth it. But what is the point of sacrifice and working hard if we are not working towards something? What is the point If we are just doing our duty and not hungering for a celebration?  A good marriage requires joy and joy requires work. But we can certainly work without joy. We can certainly go through the motions and be strangers to the ones that we are physically close to, the ones we spend the most time with. We can even go through all the religious motions and be strangers to our Lord Jesus Christ. Because this isn’t about duty, though in a marriage love is a choice and does require duty.  A marriage to Jesus is first and primarily about passion and intimate knowing.  Have you felt in your heart that stirring that passion for Christ that makes you want to cry out in worship? Or has that love been dormant within you for years? Are you in the marriage bed with your Lord or are you sleeping in separate rooms?

First, we learn Christ is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride. Second, we learn that his love is better than wine.  Jesus uses the example of wine in this parable. And grapes and wine are the perfect example of our relationship to the Kingdom of God. Wine back in Ancient Israel was a staple of daily life. There really wasn’t such a thing as clean drinking water so people would drink wine instead.  Wine was essential for survival and as Psalm 104:15 declares it also gladdened the heart so that people not only survived but they celebrated and flourished. And throughout the scriptures the vineyard is a metaphor for God’s people. Just listen to what Isaiah says in Isaiah 5:1-2.

“Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes but it yielded wild grapes.”

I was talking to Paul, one of our regular visitors recently. And his son has started a winery. And Paul expressed to me how much of a huge initial investment his son had to put into his vineyard to have it start producing healthy grapes. Paul’s son has been working on his vineyard for five years now and it is just beginning to bear fruit.  As I learned from research I did online grapes thrive under very specific conditions and need constant attention. Grapes thrive in areas with warm summers, short mild winters, and few chances for frost. They require well drained moisture, no standing pools of water, and direct sunlight. And they grow best on slopes so the soil is not to moist and can be properly drained.

What better analogy is there for life in Christ than the vineyard?  What does the letter of 1 John tell us? “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all our sin.” As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians :14 the love of Christ compels us. The love of Christ drives us crazy. It drives us out of our comfort zones. There is no stagnant water in the Kingdom of God. The water flows downhill to fill thirsty hearts. As Jesus says in John 3:38, “Whoever believes in me, as the scriptures has said, “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Our very life our very survival is connected to Jesus. As Jesus says in John 15, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

The scriptures tell us that this living water, this sacred connection, this Holy fruit,  is the love of God in Christ and it is better than wine, it is better than money, it is better than power, it is better than sex, it is better than all the things we use to fill the emptiness in our lives. Listen to what Paul says in the book of Romans.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” ( Romans 5:1-5)

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Does that sound like an abstraction to you? Does that sound like a philosophical statement about God being a clockmaker who winds up the universe and then says, “well I’m done you guys have to fend for yourselves?” No. This sounds like a revolution. This sounds like a revolution.

We see this revolution in the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the church at Pentecost. The very life, love, and liberty of God is poured out on all those who believe. And the scripture records that people from every nation talked in languages they did not know, and diverse people, people you never thought could get along, understood each other. And Peter addresses the crowd that is astounded by these events and declares, “ Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ears to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only third hour of the day,” which would be 9am.

Now many a smart aleck has pointed out that just because it is 9am may not be the best explanation for why those folks couldn’t have been drunk.  But that misses the point. The point is this. If you knew with 100% certainty that someone spoke no English, and that person  came up to you and started speaking perfect English, would you think that person was drunk? I don’t know about you but when I have been drunk, and yes even Pastors overindulge at points in their lives, I don’t pick up the ability to speak Spanish, French, or whatever. I do become fluent in the language of I wish I hadn’t said that which is the language of anyone who gets drunk. So the fact that the disciples were speaking other tongues wasn’t the reason people thought they were drunk. They thought they were drunk because they were happy. They thought they were drunk because they were joyful. They thought they were drunk because they were celebrating.  They thought they were drunk because they had let go of their inhibitions.  But this is Holy celebration not debauchery. In 2 Samuel when the Ark of the Covenant, which was like a really fancy box where the presence of God dwelt, when the ark returned to Israel, King David rejoiced by dancing in the streets. He got down in the Spirit, even ripping off some of his close. His wife Michal was a bit of a party pooper and chided David for being undignified for a King. But David replied, “ I will celebrate before the LORD. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this.” Rejoicing in the Spirit means getting down. It means laughter, it means joy, it means celebration. But not as the world rejoices. As Paul warns in Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”  Now there is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol. In fact, the scriptures affirm God gave us wine and strong drink to help us celebrate. But when it is easier for us to be filled with earthly spirits than the Holy Spirit that is a problem. If we know our beers and wines better than we know our scriptures that is a problem. If we get more enjoyment from going to a bar than worshiping God that is a problem. If we like the taste of alcohol more than the Truth of God’s word that is a problem. For the scriptures tell us that when we rejoice in the Word of God, when we fellowship in truth and love, when we hunger for God’s Word, than we can receive a joy that is better than wine.

Well you might be thinking, “well Reverend I don’t always connect that way. Sometimes the scriptures are hard for me to understand or worship is boring or I have too much going on in my life to study the Bible.” But there is a misperception that if the Word of God is proclaimed, if we drink of the Spirit, that it will automatically feel good at first. For notice, that Jesus says he has come to bring new wine. Now this confused me at first, because as anyone who has made wine knows, newer wine doesn’t taste as good, and it isn’t as powerful, at least according to worldly taste buds. Indeed, we all know the older the wine, the higher the quality, the more expensive it is. The world values older wine over new wine.  Jesus acknowledges this in the same parable in the Gospel of Luke where he says, “and no one after drinking old wine desire new, for he says, “the old is good.” And isn’t that the way of the world. If it is tried and true it has to be better. We love our traditions, they taste good to us. Doesn’t matter if the water has stopped flowing. If we no longer remember why we started doing things we do. It meets our needs. But even the best wines go bad after long enough. Because we can’t hermetically seal ourselves from the world. The flesh, the Devil, and the world get in there and corrupt our life. We don’t see it happening but when we become stagnant pool not a river of living water. A root of bitterness enters our lives and it defiles us, it takes away our joy and our hope.

Finally, we learn that God’s Love cannot be contained in old garments and old wineskins.  Now at first look Jesus’ comment about unshrunk cloth on an old garment doesn’t seem to relate to the marriage and wine imagery. Any mom knows that if you put new clothes in the wash they are going to shrink. Likewise, by its very nature new cloth when sown onto an old garment will rip the garment as it contracts.  The point Jesus is trying to make is it is better in the Kingdom of God not to try to patch an old garment but to sow a new one. Because as Jesus says we are preparing for a wedding and we want to look our best. As God tells us in Isaiah 61 the Holy Spirit has come to set the captive free. He has come to give us a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.  What has come before cannot prepare us for the wedding feast ahead. We must put on something new.

Likewise, you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. Back in the day people would make wine skins out of animal carcasses. The older the carcass the more brittle the wineskin would become. And as we know as wine ferments it releases gasses which cause the wineskin to expand. Old wineskins burst and the wine is lost. New wineskins expand and both the new wine and the new wineskin are preserved. Scholars have debated if Jesus means the old wineskin is preserved or the new wineskin. But I think it is clear from the text that the new wineskin is preserved and not the old wineskin. We have to do away with the old wineskin because it isn’t working anymore. It served its purpose but it can’t contain what is coming.

Jesus is making a pretty radical critique on tradition here. Up to this point people might have been convinced that Jesus wanted to preserve all Jewish traditions. Matthew did spend a few chapters back at the beginning of the book telling us about Jesus’ lineage, about his connection to his people and how important that connection is. Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you , until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” For those stepped in Jewish tradition, these words were probably comforting at first. The old guard probably thought, “great that means Jesus is going to let us do things the way we have always done them.” But as we read through the Sermon on the Mount, as we see Jesus heal people, as we see Jesus deliver people from evil, as we see Jesus forgive sin, we see the opposition from the establishment growing because he is not doing things the way they have always been done. Fulfilling the Law doesn’t mean that we do things the way they have always been done. It means that we have met the God who wrote the Law, he reveals the deeper meaning of His Word, and we update the form of our faith to fit the movement of the Holy Spirit. God’s Love is eternal, God’s Word is eternal, worship is eternal, but the form that all those things take throughout time is not.

Take for example the problems churches have with music. Many churches have suffered from the worship wars. But worship styles change the heart of worship does not. It is the act of Deep crying out to deep, of being unashamed to be undignified and dancing and laughing and bearing our souls before the Lord which is our true act of worship. When our hearts get tied too much to the type of wineskin, to what the new wine is being packaged in we miss the point. The new wineskin isn’t about contemporary or traditional worship. It isn’t about preaching styles. It is about God’s love and truth being poured out into our hearts and us having hearts that are ready and willing to whatever God asks of us no matter what they may cost us.

Oh Lord. My Lord. We have been withered and worn by the heat of the day. Many of us have served and loved you with our whole hearts, but we are tired and worn out. We want to veil ourselves because we cannot believe that you see our hearts. That you look past our sin and see us as beautiful and that we could be your Bride. We don’t deserve to be your bride. To be adorned in splendor. But we know we are made worthy by your grace. We are cleansed by your blood. For your love is better than wine. Anoint us with your Spirit till we are set aflame. Make us drunk in your love till all we can do is laugh as we praise your name. Draw us closer into your embrace. Let us see your glory. Let us behold your face. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come”. And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Revelation 22:17). The Spirit and the Bride say come! The Spirit and the Bride say come! The Spirit and the bride say come! So what in the world, what in the world, what in the world, are you waiting for?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.




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