Spiritual Shrinkage

Mark 2:18-22

It’s hard to forget the episode of Seinfeld that revolved around the term “shrinkage.”  As usual, George was trying to impress a woman; and, as usual, everything backfired on him. While George was taking off his swim trunks after being in the pool, a woman accidentally walked in on him.  She giggled and then quickly left the room.  Immediately, desperately, George yelled out, “Shrinkage!“  Later, in an attempt to salvage some of his male dignity, he asked Jerry, “Do you think she knows about shrinkage?  Does she know…after being in the cold pool…it shrinks?”  

Feasting or Fasting

Long before the relationship woes of George Costanza, Jesus also spoke of shrinkage.  We pick up where we left off last time, with Jesus feasting at Levi’s home alongside tax collectors and sinners.  Evidently, this party took place on a Jewish day of fasting, which was a solemn day of abstaining from food.  Some people noticed they were feasting, while everyone else was fasting, so they asked Jesus, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18).

Wedding Symbols

To explain why, Jesus used the rich imagery found in wedding celebrations—quite different from a day of fasting!  He pointed to three items in a wedding, the new clothing, the fine wine, and the invited guests.  As for the clothing, Jesus imagined a scenario where someone wanted to wear his old outfit to the wedding, but had to patch it up a bit to make it look better.  Jesus said, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.  If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.” (Mark 2:21).  In other words, when it comes to making your clothing better for a wedding, you have to beware of shrinkage!  If you try to fix an old shirt with a new patch, when the patch inevitably shrinks with use, it will tear the shirt apart.  

Then Jesus used an illustration of wedding wine to make a similar point, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins.  If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins.  But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:22).  In a more dramatic example, the same thing will happen if you put new wine into an old wineskin, shrinkage will strike again!  Even worse, you’ll lose both the wineskin and the wine, having nothing to bring to the wedding to celebrate.

Shrinkage Today

So what’s going on here?  What does shrinkage have to do with either fasting or feasting?  The Bible is teaching us something quite profound, which many Christians need to hear today.  Jesus is teaching us the danger of trying to apply the grace of God to your old way of life.

Your old way of life is the old outfit you wanted to wear to the wedding, but decided to patch up a bit first.  Your old way of life is the old wineskin you tried to put new wine into for the wedding celebration.  The one who tries to add the grace of God to his or her old identity will ultimately come apart.

Again, the old garment and old wineskin represent the old identity projects we all have.  It’s our attempt to look a certain way in order to impress, win favor, and be somebody.  Just as we put on clothing, we put on an identity every time we leave our homes.  It’s how we want everyone to see us and how we seek to justify our existence.  The Pharisees wore an identity of moral performance.  They wanted to be seen and respected for their allegiance to God’s word, even if it meant stepping on those who didn’t line up with them.  There are countless “outfits” we can put on, identities we wear like a jacket.  We can be seen for our abilities, knowledge, reputation, family, heritage, or possessions.  We can also wear a victim’s garment, being seen for what has been done to us; sometimes, when all else fails, at least we can get a little acceptance from being a victim.  

A New Kind of Fabric

Then along comes the grace of God, like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.  The grace of God is his unconditional love for us, which seems to be cut from an entirely different piece of cloth, because it is.  It’s his forgiveness in Christ.  So we take this new kind of cloth and put it over the rips and tears in our lives.  However, there’s a problem: new cloth cannot go on an old garment, for shrinkage will tear the garment apart.  

Torn 

And that’s exactly how some of us feel.  Spiritual shrinkage is no laughing matter, because it causes our lives to come apart.  

Yet, this is exactly how God wants it, for he does not want us simply patching up our old way of life.  The grace of God is not simply a “get out of jail free” card, something to get us out of a bind.  I’ve lived my Christian life like this for a long time, as maybe you have, too.  I had an identity project I was working on, the persona I was putting on for the world to see.  I might have claimed to be doing it all for God, but deep down, I knew it was for me.  My agenda and my name were more important to me than God’s will or Name.  And if I ever messed up, I could use the grace of God to get some forgiveness; but then, I’d continue on as before, living life for myself.  

All the while, my life was tearing apart.  

Can you relate?  

Not Duct Tape

God’s grace in Christ is not merely a superficial fix for sins.  If you treat the grace of God like duct tape, then you’ll make your life worse, not better.  I tremble as I write this, but you have to know it’d be better if you never knew the grace of God at all, than to apply the grace of God to an old identity project.  

The grace of God is supposed to bring your life together toward integration, but when used simply as a bald patch, it causes your life to fall apart toward dis-integration.  The Christian life is not a matter of pouring spiritual wine into your old life, hoping to make it more godly.  If you do that, you’ll lose both your life and the wine!  

A New Identity

How do we avoid spiritual shrinkage?  We must abandon our old identity projects and put on the identity of Jesus Christ.  And it makes perfect sense!  The grace of God will adhere to your new identity in Christ.  The grace of God will not shrink away from the one who is clothed in Christ.

Let’s return to the first response Jesus gave when asked about fasting.  He said, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” (Mark 2:19).  In those days, weddings were the highlight of the community.  They were full of sensual delights and celebration.  The guests were not there to serve or make a name for themselves; the guests were there to party and celebrate the bride and groom!  In a sense, the “identity” of a wedding guest is wrapped up in the marriage ceremony.  Were it not for the wedding, there would be no wedding guests!

Children of the Bridechamber

But there’s more here, which our modern English translations hide.  The term “wedding guests” is a modern translation for an underlying Greek phrase that actually means “children of the bridechamber.”  The Greek idea of “wedding guest” is deeply rooted with the couple being married, so much so, a wedding guest is technically the offspring of the bridechamber.  The guest’s identity comes from the celebration to which he is invited, rather than the old life from which he came.   

This means a child of the bridechamber can abandon any aspirations of stealing the spotlight, for that would be ridiculous at a wedding.  A child of the bridechamber can leave behind any deep desires to impress or earn a place, for a child of the bridechamber is a beloved guest already.  

Can you see the new kind of identity that is emerging?  A child of the bridechamber can leave his or her old identity project at home and freely attend the celebration as a beloved guest.  

Ask yourself, did you show up to life today to party?  Or simply to please?

Sin Boldly

Counterintuitively, this enables you to be yourself more, rather than less, because you can drop the pretenses of your old identity project.  You can simply be yourself.  You don’t have to hide behind a mask, you don’t have to impress, you don’t have to lie to cover up your mistakes and flaws.  You don’t have to hide your rips and tears, but you can be honest.  If you live from your new identity as a child of the bridechamber, your life will begin to come together, rather than tear apart.  You’ll experience the kind of integrity that can only come when you trade in “performance” for “celebration.”

If you have an identity in Christ, you can be a sick sinner, for, as we learned last devotional, Jesus came for the sick, not the so-called healthy (Mark 2:17).  I think this is what Martin Luther meant when he said, “Sin boldly!”  It means we can finally be ourselves, be real, and be there, for the celebration.  We no longer have to put on a show or be the kind of person everyone else wants us to be.  We don’t have to live up to cultural standards or critiques.  We can simply be saved sick sinners, beloved children of the bridechamber, guests at the wedding party. 

JoJo Rabbit

Our new identity in Christ is for celebrating what our Groom, Jesus Christ, is doing in this world.  He is finding his bride and making her ready.  The wedding guests have no other agenda than that.  

There’s a captivating line in the recent movie JoJo Rabbit, which takes place in Nazi Germany.  In the middle of brutality and despair, even when his dad had already been killed, JoJo’s mother tells him, “Life is a gift.  We must celebrate it.  We have to dance, to show God we are grateful to be alive.”

That’s the mindset of a wedding guest, someone who is clothed in Christ.  We are not here for a pity party, but for a wedding party!  We’re not here to earn ourselves accolades or to earn someone else’s approval.  We are here to dance.  We are here to celebrate the life God is pouring into us, just as wine into a new wineskin.

The Final Test

“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:20).  Jesus left us with a test, so we can see if we are truly living as children of the bridechamber or as those who are torn.  When he is taken away, will we mourn?  For true wedding guests, the greatest source of sadness in life is when Jesus is absent (just as the greatest happiness is his presence).  If Jesus is missing, then true children don’t care if their reputation is soaring or their resources are pouring in. 

Again, our greatest sadness is his absence and our greatest joy is his presence, regardless of our worldly circumstances.  

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.  No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins-and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” —Mark 2:18-22

The Breakdown

  1. Can you relate to the idea of using God’s grace just to patch up your old life?  Identify some ways you’re doing this.
  2. Could you give your old “identity project” a name?  What is it trying to do?  What does it want?  What does it fear?
  3. What would it look like if you simply were a wedding guest?  How could you change your life to match your status?  How could you celebrate? 
  4. Is Jesus present in your life right now? Why or why not?

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