(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

Jesus never cared much about his reputation. He certainly scandalised the stuffy religious establishment by attending the great party Matthew organised to introduce Jesus to his fellow tax collectors. Jesus was unusual as a rabbi for having a good time with his disciples. He enjoyed meeting their friends at a meal and was happy to teach at table when people were relaxed and receptive. This did not suit the Pharisees who reminded Jesus that their and, indeed, John the Baptist's students took religion seriously and spent much time in prayer and fasting. Jesus approach in their view bordered on the frivolous. Jesus replies to the Pharisees criticism's with a brilliant series of observations.

(B) It isn't natural. Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?"

Edmund Goss in his autobiography recalls an incident concerning his father: 'He was accustomed in his brighter moments...... occasionally to sing loud Dorsetshire songs of his early days, in a strange, broad, Wessex lingo that I loved. One October afternoon he and I were sitting on the verandah, and my father was singing; just around the corner, out of sight, two carpenters were putting up the framework of a green house. In a pause, one of them said to his fellow: "He can zing a zong, zo well's another, though he be a minister." My father who was holding my hand loosely, clutched it, and looking up, I saw his eyes darken. He never sang a secular song again during the whole of his life.'

The Rev. Philip Goss was happy, light hearted, almost for a moment carefree and he expresses his joie de vivre naturally but innocently in the silly songs of his youth. The workman in the garden, because of his stereotyped view of the Victorian clergyman, indicated, without real censure, that this is not what he expected of the typical minister. Philip was so upset at failing to meet his expectations that from then on he subdued his natural inclinations and was never again to entertain his son with jolly ditties.

How different was Jesus. His life style and that of his disciples did not conform to the expectations of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus and his followers actually enjoyed themselves. There was much party going, eating and drinking, witty conversation and laughter. It wasn't seemly. Genuinely devout folk took their religion seriously and prayed and fasted. The more miserable you looked the holier your reputation.

Jesus' response to the criticism of his disciples and, by implication, himself was not shamefaced or defensive. Jesus was never, never, this. He says in effect, "Look, it isn't natural for my disciples to be unhappy while I am with them. You wouldn't expect the bridegroom's friends to be sour faced and miserable at his wedding reception. They would enjoy the bridegroom' company. In much the same way my disciples enjoy mine."

This is a remarkable statement on the part of Jesus and a pointed rebuke to all those religious people who misrepresent natural, essentially innocent, behaviour.

My mother, as a girl, loved, what was then known as, gym. It was probably this early physical training that encouraged a life-time of good deportment. She walked briskly with a straight back and her head held high. It became unconscious, innocent and natural. Imagine then her shock when she learned that the women of the Suffolk village to which she had moved as the pastor's wife were accusing her of strutting around as if she owned the place. They found the way she walked offensive. Well my mother never did learn to slouch but certainly the bounce went out of her stride. She was not as resilient as her Master.

I am absolutely appalled that churches are prohibiting adults from touching children as part of their child protection policy. Why does the existence of a relatively small number of predatory paedophiles in our society mean that I cannot be affectionate and playful in the company of pre-pubescent children. In Britain today you can stroke a cat and play with a puppy but you must not touch a child. Children enjoy being chased and caught and held and released to go through the same procedure again. They will cry, "More! More!" To ban what is innocent fun would not appeal to Jesus. I do not believe that by prohibiting physical contact in church youth clubs or schools the incidence of abuse of young children is going to be reduced by any significant amount. Most abuse takes place in the home. Does this mean parents are going to be stopped from touching their children? Jesus was not politically correct in his day and age and he would not be politically correct today. There is no way he would condemn innocent behaviour. He might say something about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel!

It is a cruel thing to kill or stifle the natural expression of an inner joy that you do not share and cannot understand. When I was younger my brother Paul sometimes irritated me. When he met people he was, 'all over them'. I accused him in my heart of being smarmy; putting on a show to make a good impression. But I was wrong. My brother liked people a lot more that I did. He was very gregarious. It was a pleasure for him to meet acqaintances and friends and he expressed his delight exuberantly. What was unnatural behaviour to me because of my unsociable disposition was natural to him. If I succeeded by cold and cutting remarks to inhibit his effusiveness I would deny both my brother, and those he made a fuss of, their happiness. I have written in the past tense because it seems to me that as my brother has got older he has become a bit more like me!

There are still those in the church who frown on youthful enthusiasm, friendliness, displays of affection, extrovert behaviour, passionate preaching and even the joy of doing something well. Too often natural and innocent behaviour is modified to pacify the kill-joys. Perhaps we need to follow the example of Jesus, in this as in all else, and tell the old miseries and safety first merchants, those who say, "We mustn't lay ourselves open to ....", where to get off.

(C) Don't be silly. He told them this parable: "No-one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one."

Christmas 1857 was not a very happy one in the Gosse household. Philip, an eminent Victorian Zoologist and Puritan, had come to the conclusion that Christmas should be celebrated free from all its pagan trappings. He gave strict instructions that no difference whatever should be made to the meals on that day. The servants rebelled to the extent of making a small plum pudding for themselves. They felt so sorry for Philip's young son Edmund that they enticed him into the kitchen where he ate a slice of the rich concoction. Unfortunately it gave him a pain. His conscience smote him and unable to contain himself any longer finally blurted out to his father, "Oh! Papa, Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols." After cross-examining his son Philip Goss was soon aware of the plum pudding in the kitchen. Grabbing Edmund by the hand and crying out, "Where is the accursed thing?", he rushed into the kitchen, grabbed the paltry remnant and ran to dust heap where the idolatrous concoction was consigned violently to the ashes.

Our reaction to this sad incident is surely to say, "What a silly man!" Philip Goss was taking the fun out of Christmas for his servants, his son and probably, if the truth be known, himself. Silly hats, fairy lights, crackers, mistletoe, holly, paper chains, cards and mince tarts are not of the essence of Christmas but they do make a small contribution towards its pleasure. It should be possible to reverence and worship the essence, the boy child, and enjoy the peripheral non-essentials.

Jesus was confronted by critics who wished to deny his disciples their happy times with him. The disciples had given up everything to follow Christ and although it was not always easy to remain loyal it was quite often exhilarating to be with him. When the Pharisees suggested that Jesus and his followers should cut out the eating and drinking, the animated fellowship over a good meal, he responded with a short parable, "No-one in their right mind," says Jesus, "Cuts up a new coat to patch an old one. That would ruin both. Don't be silly."

It is foolish to take the fun out of following Jesus - to remove the gilt from the gingerbread.

Many youngsters have been turned off Christianity because Sunday was such an excruciatingly dull day. I must confess that as a small boy Sunday was the worst day of my week and I was not particularly strictly brought up. It was the only day that I suffered from boredom. I got so depressed it bought on my asthma. In the end my father relented and let me do homework in the afternoon. I would have been happier playing football on the village green. I would have been better playing football than struggling for breath in my bedroom. It is silly to make Sunday a penance for children.

An equally perverse tendency has been to take the fun out of worship. It really is appalling that church services are so tedious. On the whole the dullest services are those where participation by the congregation is severely restricted by the predominance of the preacher. I sometimes think that Christians meet together to facilitate the worship of one man - the preacher. Long, long, sermons of mediocre quality that even squeeze out hymn singing definitely take the gilt off the gingerbread. The fun service at our church is the prayer meeting where the pastor speaks for ten minutes and nearly everyone plays some part.

It is foolish to be so earnest in Christian service that you never have any fun in life. This was not the practice of Jesus. He could always find time for a party, a cruise on the lake and a walk in the mountains. Even Paul must have found his long journeys therapeutic.

It is the height of folly for any clergyman or pastor to work so hard that they have no fun with their family or friends. Stress of work is entirely avoidable. The tendency to take on too much may be grounded in pride. A man may be driven by the desire for success or the determination to remain successful. Jesus said, "Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart." Mt11v28. Jesus did not complain of stress!

It is safe to call Christians sinners but it is a brave man who accuses them of being silly. Perhaps that is because whereas we are all sinners some are a lot sillier than others!

(D) Learn from experience. "And no-on pours new wine into old wine-skins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined."

Many years ago Morgan Derham writing in the old, 'Life of Faith', remarked sadly that one of his friends, a Christian of many years standing, had abandoned Christianity because it did not work. This struck a chord in my heart. It is a common Christian assumption that subsequent to conversion the believer's new nature and the indwelling Spirit combine to produce virtue. It is fatally easy to assume that this will occur automatically; that sanctification is the inevitable result of being a Christian. When nothing of the sort happens it is possible to become thoroughly disillusioned.

This problem may seem far removed from Jesus reaction to the Pharisees who believed that holiness was about looking miserable and who criticised the disciples for their exuberance. However their is a link. Jesus countered the Pharisees judgement by telling the parable about the wineskins. "Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins," said Jesus, "because the new wine will burst the skins. New wine must be put into new wineskins." Jesus is referring here to something that is learned from experience. The man who used old skins that had lost their elasticity to store wine that had not finished fermenting discovered his folly the hard way - by experience. The disciples joy was experimental. They had committed themselves to Christ and life was great. It was exciting and invigorating. That was a fact. The Pharisees through unbelief were denied the same experience and so could not understand it. Jesus highlights the importance of experience. It cannot be gain said.

Interpretation of Scripture and doctrinal teaching must harmonise with experience otherwise there will be damaging tensions and much unhappiness for the Christian. Indeed experience is a valuable test of the authenticity of Bible teaching. Disillusion may not be the fault of our experience so much as the result of erroneous beliefs.

The area of difficulty for Morgan Derham's friend and myself was the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification. We both expected the Spirit to add virtue to our lives. Paul says, after all, that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Yet as we examine our lives it seems that the Holy Spirit is signally failing to produce any of these graces.

It is important to examine those few tangible evidences we have for sanctification in our lives to get clearer about how the Holy Spirit produces his distinctive fruit.

My Headmistress persuaded me to change rooms. I abandoned my purpose built Geography room for a large laboratory. It involved a lot of work but was worth while because the new room gave me a lot of storage space. A few years later the Headmistress retired and a fresh Head was appointed. One of his first decisions was to relocate the Geography Department. I had to surrender the laboratory and was consigned to a poky little room much inferior to the one I had in the first place. I was full of fury. I wasn't going to move all the textbooks and equipment again into inferior accommodation. The Headmaster could do it himself. I was eaten up with bitterness and resentment. I hadn't been given much during my fifteen years at the school - but I had a good teaching room. Now even that was being taken away. I was very unhappy and I prayed that God would remove the hatred from my heart. He didn't. Instead, after a weekend of brooding, I was reminded by God's Spirit of Jesus' words, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." Mt5v41. Eventually I prayed and promised God that I would do everything that the Headmaster asked with no more fuss - for Jesus sake. Immediately all the rancour, self-pity and sense of injustice left me and I was at peace.

So in the end I displayed meekness, a fruit of the Spirit. I submitted to God and was able to act with discipline in trying circumstances. What part did the Spirit play in the process?

The Holy Spirit did not act like yeast in a loaf or corn flour in gravy that once added inevitably produces a result. Meekness had not been added to my life so that it was there when I needed it. My first response was anything but meek. Rather the Spirit came alongside as a friend and counsellor and reminded me clearly of the teaching of Jesus, my Lord. That is all he did. The rest was up to me. I could either accept or reject the advice that I was given. However it was genuine assistance. The Comforter gave me just the right text at just the right time. The reason we do not make more progress as Christians is not the fault of the Holy Spirit it is rather our unwillingness to take the advice of our helper. I think, too, that after making the decision the Holy Spirit influenced my emotions. The storm raging in my heart was stilled immediately. It was like receiving a hug from a loving father who is pleased with something we have just done. In this way God's Spirit encourages a similar response in the future.

My experience is compatible with Jesus' promise to his disciples, as he prepares them for his departure, of another Comforter. The Holy Spirit helps as Jesus helped his followers when he was with them on earth. Jesus warned, reproved, encouraged and guided; he exhibited warmth and affection and touched hearts; he quoted and explained the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit assists in the process of sanctification by communicating the truth and sometimes graciously caressing the emotions and imparting love.

It is very important for Christians to give others the benefit of their experience. I have been blessed reading Corrie ten Boom's autobiographical books because she writes about the ways the Spirit guided, prompted, taught and used her. I also found John Sherrill's book, 'My Friend the Bible', refreshing because in it he describes his struggle to live a holier life with concrete examples of how victories were won. There is so little teaching from the pulpit of this sort. A lot of preachers apologise when they illustrate a truth from their personal experience. What on earth for? This is just what the listener needs to hear. There really is no need for everyone to put new wine into old wineskins and discover the consequences the hard way.

(E) The danger of an acquired taste. "No-one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'"

In one of Miss Read's charming books about Thrush Green the formidable Nellie Piggott always ensured that her mashed potatoes were fluffy by beating in an egg. This seemed a very simple way of transforming potatoes and so I tried it. The result was highly satisfactory; it worked superbly. Ever since my discovery I have been urging ladies of my acquaintance to do the same. They don't. I ask them, "Have you tried it yet?" The invariable response is, "No, but I am going to." How can this reluctance to experiment be explained? Perhaps, my elderly lady friends and their families have developed a taste for mashed potatoes the way they are!

Jesus recognised that an acquired taste was a powerful obstacle to change. "A drinker," he says, "who has got used to old wine will have no taste for the new." The fresh new wine in Jesus' day was reckoned to be superior to a mature vintage but, nevertheless, the acquired taste cried out, "The old is better." The Pharisees had acquired a taste for their religion; its legalism, formalism and complexity. It was intellectually stimulating in an arid sort of way and it conferred power and status upon its experts. They had neither taste for the new teaching of Christ nor the lifestyle he encouraged. They criticised the freedom Jesus and his disciples enjoyed. Their old wine was best!

The acquired taste remains an enormous hindrance to Christianity. It is the main reason why conversions from older age groups are less common than from amongst the young. As a man ages he acquires a taste for life as he leads it. He is familiar with his Sunday routine, comfortable with it, and reluctant to change. Sunday morning on the golf course does seem preferable to sitting in the pew of a cold church listening to a dull sermon. The old wine is best!

However Christians should not be complacent - they have acquired tastes too. A small group of elderly Christians meeting week after week in their chapel and going through the same unvarying from of service are reluctant for any change. They may even resent the arrival of fresh faces - they are some how disturbing. The old, closed, cosy, safe, club atmosphere is best. I know, because that is how I felt when the attendance at the prayer meeting during our last pastor's ministry increased from 15 to 25. For some reason I was vaguely resentful.

Numerous initiatives by well-meaning, enthusiastic, workers have been scotched by the chilling words, "We have always done it this way." I can remember speaking up in a large committee against requiring fellow Christians whose work was to be discussed to leave. I felt this was most unbrotherly. The reaction of the Chairman of the committee was, "This is how we conduct our affairs and we are not going to change because of you." The old wine is best!

The tyranny of taste has even worse consequences. It explains the persistence of error in the church. Many practices and beliefs of the corrupt, medieval, Roman church have survived into reformed denominations. I am sure that the popularity of some of these, such as infant baptism, is due to sentiment or acquired taste. I attended a christening in an Anglican church whilst on holiday in Wiltshire. It was a very happy, pretty, touching ceromony. I can well understand why Anglicans are loath to abandon it. The old wine is best! Even some of the most reformed groups are not altogether free from taint. The pagan doctrine of hell, which somehow found its way into the medieval church, with its everlasting, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual anguish is retained on scant Scriptural authority because preachers and, indeed, congregations, have developed a taste, even a smell, for it.

It is enormously difficult to get across an unusual or different interpretation of a familiar Scripture to the majority of Christians. Take, by way of example, Matthew's account of Jesus' confrontation with Peter over payment of the temple tax. See Mt17vs24to25. Jesus finishes reprimanding Peter with these words: "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." It is highly likely from what we know of Jesus' willingness to upset the religious establishment and his indignation at Peter's desperate eagerness to secure the good opinion of the temple officials that this is an ironical statement. Probably most conservative evangelicals are unhappy with such an interpretation. They prefer to believe the miracle occurred. Why? This is what they were taught in Sunday school. They can remember from childhood the picture of the incident in their illustrated Bibles. It is a vivid, satisfying, picture - such a large fish - with the gleam of silver in its gaping mouth. Preachers that they have admired and trusted always treated the account as another instance of Christ's amazing miraculous powers. So Christians have acquired a taste for the traditional approach to the story and they reject a different way of looking at it. The old wine is best!

It is wrong to dismiss any exposition of Scripture on grounds of taste alone. Not everything we learned as children is true. Not all the beliefs of our parents were correct. Old and respected pastors are fallible. It is not reasonable to say, "What was good enough for my parents is good enough for me." Christians should accept the interpretation of Scripture that makes the most sense and best harmonises with the rest of Biblical revelation. In the example given, those who take Jesus' words literally must conclude that he did not wish to give offence to the religious establishment. Yet this was precisely Peter's motive in the first place for telling the tax collectors that Jesus paid his two drachmas. This motive clearly annoyed Jesus. The literalist position fails to explain why Jesus hardly lets Peter close the door before telling him, sharply, that genuine children of God give from love and not under duress. Instead it introduces an inconsistency into the story.

Not only do Christians refuse to change their mind over what is more a matter of taste than of conviction but they can get extremely hostile towards those who offend their taste. It is pathetic when hackles rise and tempers flare over matters of taste. Bitter rows occur in churches over what version of the Bible and what hymn book to use, the appropriate form of service, the dress of the minister and even the mode of addressing God in prayer. I have known Christians to get belligerent when the congregation say the Lord's Prayer as part of public worship.

Not all changes are for the best. Not all unusual or original interpretations of the Bible are correct. We need to possess the spirit of adventure and discernment. The Pharisees lacked both. They never tried the new wine of Christ's ministry. It was new; his teaching on the Sabbath, diet, ceremonial washings, divorce, wealth and forgiveness was more than they could stomach. Jewish Christian always had a tendency to revert to Judaism. They loved the old wine. Today the Jews still claim, "The old wine is best." We know it is as sour as vinegar compared to the sparkling, gospel, vintage of grace.