I planted a twig-like clematis vine in the garden several years ago.
Its roots are shaded while the plant itself receives several hours of southern exposure sunlight – just the conditions that clematis prefers. Bonus: it’s near the waterspout, so it receives lots of extra moisture, too.
Over time, this little plant has grown mammoth and has wound itself up the trellis and around itself many times over. The view out my kitchen window is nearly taken up by this plant. Not that I’m complaining. The tender-green leaves and curling tendrils and gorgeous purple flowers bigger than my hand present a lovely view.
However, in a region where the four seasons turn each year in the fullness of their regalia, autumn is always the season of withering and falling away and winter, most certainly brings months of frozen lifelessness to the garden. The dry, dull-brown, curled leaves of the clematis cling with amazing tenacity through every windstorm and snowfall for months on end. The vine may be weighted with glistening icicles or furred in enveloping hoarfrost, yet those leaves remain intact.
All winter long, my view through the window is dead, crunchy leaves on the vine.
Last November a windstorm called “epic” and “historical” ripped through the northwest and Spokane was hit with hurricane force winds. Roofing shingles and anything not tied down flew on the whim of the wind. Fences toppled. Trees, hundreds of them, were uprooted or snapped in two, their branches grasping power lines in their crashing descent to the ground. We were left in the dark for days, many of us for a week or more while tree and line crews cleaned up the mess.
Yet my clematis leaves cling to the vine.
The only force strong enough to push those dead leaves off the plant is the quiet steady power of new growth.
It is March and the bright green leaf buds, curled tight as babies’ fists, reach through the brown stems. A miraculous pop here, there and everywhere, of green. These exclamation points of life never fail to surprise each spring because the clematis looks absolutely dead. The power of life within revives the entire plant.
When Jesus met Matthew, the tax collector, and looked into his eyes and said, “Follow me”, Matthew was by all appearances, spiritually and morally dead. While Andrew and John and Peter may have followed John the Baptist into the Jordan, while other disciples vigilantly looked for the promised messiah, Matthew was entrenched in the world’s system, a turncoat of sorts, making a fortune collecting taxes from the Jews for the Roman government. He didn’t appear righteous, like the religious leaders of his people, the Pharisees. He didn’t work at being in the religious elite. He’d given that up for money. No religious pulse. No tender branch. No leaf of green.
Matthew turned away from his little booth, his livelihood and identity by following the man who looked into his soul (Matthew 9).The juices of life began to flow in his spirit. He held a dinner party and Jesus came, as did his disciples and many of Matthew’s outcast friends, some of John the Baptist’s disciples, too, and a few of the religious elite. A varied assemblage, indeed. Jesus was blowing the winds of change.
At this party, some of John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t fast in the ascetic way John’s did. Why did they not abstain?
Jesus plopped a little duo of parabolic gems about patches and wineskins as response. This is one of those passages in the gospel of Matthew that have most of us scratching our heads and wondering, “What exactly did Jesus mean by that?”
I think, and this is pure supposition, I admit, that when Jesus said these words, he may have given a little wink to Matthew, his host and new disciple. Because Matthew understood exactly what Jesus meant by this:
“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 wine wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)
Before we return to the lesson in my garden, a few contextual insights might help in understanding the exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples.
- John, Jesus’ cousin, had been called since before his conception to be a prophet to the people of Israel (Luke 1).
- His message was simple and profound. Turn from your sin, as individuals and a nation, repent of it, confess your sin and be baptized.
- Baptism was not a new concept for the Hebrews, and full immersion baptism was predominantly a symbolic act taken by Gentiles who wanted to become Jewish and follow the terms of the Mosaic Law. A Hebrew person who chose to be fully immersed or “overwhelmed” by water baptism, as did the multitudes that came to hear and obey John’s message, would in effect be saying “My sins are as bad as if I were a Gentile! I will turn from them and look to God for forgiveness”.
John himself declared that one would come after him who baptized in holy spirit (hagios pneuma) and in fire (pyr). John’s ministry was definitely one of preparation for something/one infinitely superior. Yet even after Jesus entered a life of ministry and healing and teaching and making disciples and revealing the kingdom of heaven, John the Baptist himself (as far as we know), nor many of his followers converted to discipleship under Jesus. There’s a problem for scholars there and a lesson for you and me.
See there is a human predisposition to resist change.
Some people love the predictable nature of routine more than others. Humans are animals who create institutions. Government, school, religion. We crave the boundaries and rules and rewards systems and even the justice of our institutions. Indeed civilized society depends upon institutional governance in many aspects because it maintains safety, protection, education.
The Holy Spirit and the fire don’t play by human rules, however. Both go wherever they wish and consume what may exist.
The kingdom of heaven that Jesus spoke of, the teaching he dispensed in his Sermon on the Mount, were white-hot to the touch. Dangerous. Any preconceived notion about the redemptive messiah who would bind the wounded and free the enslaved and reconcile all creation to its creator would invariably burn in the reality of this coming king who’s baptism would be Holy Spirit and fire. It’s obvious that Jesus’ new kingdom would be unlike anything anyone could conceive of. What would the establishment with it’s “pre-understanding” of this Messiah do with this radical notion of fulfilling the law and establishing an entirely new covenant?
Well, we know. Jesus was wrongfully charged by the Jewish leadership and crucified as a common criminal by the Romans. John was beheaded for his moral purity perhaps not even himself a full convert to Jesus. His disciples scattered. His friends, the disciples we know by name betrayed, denied and deserted him.
And Jesus clung to the stem stuck in the hard scrabble soil of Israel. All the power was within him to fly off and demonstrate his deity. Yet he remained. And died.
You do not put new wine in old wineskins. You don’t sew unwashed, unshrunk linen onto old garments whose fibers have been washed and worn over and again. No, says God, See I am making all things new. (Isaiah 43:18, Revelation 21:5)
New covenant. New and changing and well, unpredictable. The Holy Spirit power that would push through the dead cells and muscles and ignite the heart of Jesus to beat again is a force unstoppable. That force that raised his body from the dead, gave his divine person a regenerated but recognizable tent to walk around in again is the same force that pushes our planet around in space and brings the seasons and pushes green buds onto the dead-looking clematis vine by my window. It follows the laws of creation and remains consistent with the nature of God himself—loving, just, faithful, true, creative—yet refuses to be contained or defined by man-made systems.
So why do we try to contain what God himself has deemed uncontainable? Why do we not grow and spout and flame?
Christian, are you comfortable with the predictability of a contained Christ? Have we become so ingrained in our institutional regimen of sanitized church, the 501c3 tax status, by-laws and membership agreements, that we have our backs turned to the fire? Are we really a demographic?
God, and I mean this, I hope not. GOD! Please make me see like Matthew did, the consuming grace and power of your truth. When I look into your word, as Matthew did into your eyes, might I see myself for what I could be in a kingdom that is here and will be? Might I see Jesus more clearly for who he is and not informed merely by my evangelical experience?
Might I shed my demographic status quo and join a movement propelled toward growth and love and eager anticipation of Jesus’ return by the very power of Jesus’ baptism: holy spirit and fire.
Might I abandon the tax table, like Matthew? Might I let go of the “way things are done” like John’s disciples who did follow Jesus?
Might I let go of the critical judges that surround me, voices of my past and in my head, and instead look at that line Jesus draws in the sand that points to him and only him? Might I rise up from the dirt new and forgiven and whole, not by a system, but a person and a look and wink and a loving gaze and an outstretched arm: Jesus? And might I be abandoned and courageous enough to grow where the spirit pushes me to grow, blow where the wind takes me, and burn in that consuming holiness of heaven, that kingdom so different and terrifying that anything I’ve known?
Might I realize this is a kingdom established on loving? Loving God. Loving people.
Abandon the wineskin. Toss the old garment. Open my eyes. And see what comes. Love extravagantly the people whose eyes I see. Bloom in my backyard. Shed the dead leaves of winter.
Grow in grace.