Written by Holly Lovegrove

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22; see also Matthew 9:16-17 and Luke 5:36-38)

“And no one, after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’.” (Luke 5:39)

I didn’t really know what the Bible meant about “new wine” until I moved to Austria in the early 1980s. There, every autumn ushers in the “Sturm” season. This means “storm”, and after you have drunk some, you will appreciate why that is so.

Sturm is brand-new, somewhat thin wine which is still fermenting. The season for Sturm only lasts a couple of months. It’s sold in large plastic bottles with loose rubber caps, and it must be transported and stored upright, because the air bubbles resulting from the live action of the wine have to be able to escape, or the bottle will explode.

Sturm is not filtered, so it’s cloudy, and sediment settles at the bottom of the bottle. You can get pink/red or white Sturm, depending on which grapes it was pressed from. Sturm is quite sweet, tasting more like a soft drink. It contains a lot of grape sugar, having had no time to mature and deepen to a drier, more rounded state. It’s somewhat like a very raw version of Champagne, in that the bubbles will cause drunkenness much more quickly than one would anticipate from the volume ingested! Especially for people who are not used to older, heavier wines, Sturm is easy to like.

suserIn Austria Sturm is traditionally drunk either on its own or with hot roasted chestnuts. This is a lovely-tasting but deadly combination, since it keeps right on fermenting in you after you’ve drunk it, and chestnuts are known to cause wind anyway… Still, everyone awaits Sturm season with anticipation, because new wine is such fun!

However, if you filter and bottle new wine and wait long enough, you will eventually have old wine. (Or, sadly, if the new wine was of poor quality or contaminated, you may end up with vinegar instead!)

Old wine is the wine preferred by those in the know. Old wine has stopped its natural period of bubbling (which is part of the process by which grape sugar develops into alcohol) and has settled down to developing its character. Old wine has, over time, developed a degree of depth, body, and smoothness on the palate. Sturm is pretty much Sturm, but old wines can be distinguished from one another by their distinct characteristics dependent upon type of grape and region grown.

Both types of wine have their time and place and aficionados. Both are good to drink, and both were well-known in Jesus’ time. New wine is sweet and fizzy and may cause silly behaviour. Old wine is smoother and more complex and goes well with food.

We sometimes think Jesus is criticizing old wine and we should only be looking for the new. But the parable above is, like the preceding one about a patch of new cloth sewn onto an old garment, simply an illustration of the principle that what was can never contain what will be.In context, the old covenant religion of John the Baptist and the Pharisees could not contain what Jesus represented. The past supports the future, but does not determine it. New is new and old is old; the old cannot predict or limit the behaviour of the new.

Ergo, the new wine (whatever is next on God’s agenda) will never fit into the old wineskin (our current expectations and habits) and indeed, will end up damaging it if we try: just as a square peg, when jammed willy-nilly into a round hole, will damage the round hole. We can’t patch an old system (even one developed in the last wave during the 90’s) with just a bit of the new thing and expect the old system OR the patch to survive it. I think that here, Jesus in his response to to the critical Pharisees is also prophetically hinting that the arrival of their Messiah is not a patch to better their old Temple system, but rather will ultimately be the destruction of it. The main point here is that the old is no trustworthy reference point for the new. 

Which makes me wonder: in all the current talk about “the next big move of God”, what I’m often hearing behind the words is our unreflected expectation that what God next brings will be our favourite bits of the last move, just bigger and better: new! Improved! Revival! Many of us seem to be expecting and longing for our favourite manifestations of the 90s, but now on steroids and more widespread.

Remember the heady days of renewal? New wine is exciting, bubbly and drunk-making, but it’s also cloudy. There’s sediment at the bottom. Renewal, too, is always a mixture of divine initiation and human response. We struggled then with developing discernment and a theology for all that was happening. Meanwhile we’ve successfully filtered and bottled much of what was good from those days and continue to have a drink now and then, along with our food of the Word and fellowship.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We just need to recognize we are no longer drinking Sturm. The wine of the last renewal is now 20-year-old wine, no longer new wine. We continue to drink the vintages of yesteryear and we indulge in a bit of nostalgia for its Sturm days… but frankly, what we appear to be praying for when we pray for revival is a bigger delivery of the vintage we know. And I don’t believe that is what we will get.

Those of us who were in the thick of the last wave may think we understand “renewal/revival”. But haven’t we noticed yet that throughout history God does not repeat himself? That every new wave has had something in it to deeply offend the proponents of the previous wave? If we’ve now grown to prefer the smoothness of the aged wine we drink (which we may still be considering new wine, but it’s not), we are very much at risk to judge the new as ‘too thin, too volatile, it’s not in the right kind of bottle and it doesn’t agree with my stomach– so it must not be God’.

The next wave may not look, smell, or taste like “new wine” to us who love the old. We run the very real risk of being so enamoured with our familiar old wine, which we’ve grown to prefer, that we are not interested in, or criticize, a new vintage. I suspect that we River rats, of all people, are most likely to not recognize, or even to reject, the next “new thing” God does because it really will be new; it will not fit into our preconceived ideas of what it “should” look like, feel like, who it will affect and how it will happen. We could all too easily end up missing out on or even persecuting the new thing God does, without realizing that’s what we’re doing. Church history abundantly bears this out.

We simply won’t be able to sew that completely new kind of patch onto our existing ideas of how to do church –or even how to do life. Rather, I believe we will be asked to surrender the whole old, holey garment and be clothed anew.

That’s why I think a healthy goal for those of us who embraced the last move and are still getting life from it would be to become like Simeon and Anna, who were faithful servants of the old ways yet able to recognize Jesus the Messiah in a form unfamiliar to them. Let’s pray that we, too, can be humble and open enough to let God be God; that we be given eyes to see him in, and to embrace, whatever the “new thing” is that he sends– even if it does not (as it probably won’t) come first to those of us who are asking for it.