The end of the church as we know it? (And you’ll be fine)

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)

“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)

We’ve all heard the saying “change is good.” In the church, change is slow.

In one of his spot-on metaphors, Jesus predicted the disastrous consequences of forcing new ways too quickly: wine and wineskin are both ruined.

This is a truth no one can ignore simply because of the way we grasp—and cling to—our understanding of the faith. Even a nominal believer stubbornly guards certain principles that he thinks exempt him from the necessity of a wholehearted commitment. How much more then does someone who sincerely believes he is in possession of the truth hold onto it ever so tightly?

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the force of unusual circumstances such as the COVID pandemic may be instrumental in our refining and sanctification. For if there is one common thread that has run through my 40+ years as a believer, it is the consistent application of pressure—sometimes great, sometimes gentle, but never truly absent—that has pushed me ever higher and further in the faith. And when it amounts to discipline, it may not have been pleasant but ultimately it’s always been productive.

As I mentioned in my last post, church is different in times like these. It may be that the restrictions have cramped our spiritual style. That seems to be the underlying message in the response to lockdowns and their slow and cautious–too cautious in the eyes of some–lifting by state and local authorities.

It may also be pruning that we might bear more fruit. “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener,” Jesus taught his disciples. “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (Jn 15:1-2).

I used to live in an area–the Finger Lakes in western New York– home to thousands of acres of wine grapes and small “farm wineries.” Vineyards draped the hillsides above the long, narrow lakes. But less pleasing to the eye was the occasional abandoned vineyard: woody, twisted, arthritic-looking vines and branches, bereft of foliage and, of course, fruit. Still living? Kind of. Fruitful? Definitely not.

Pruning is one of those paradoxical activities whereby reducing something yields something greater. Are we to believe that the one who said he will build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it will be stymied by the CDC or your county health department? (Mt 16: 18). Do you honestly believe that?

But is it not possible that we are seeing governing authorities after the pattern of Nebuchadnezzar allowed, still subject to the sovereignty of God, to take the church captive, clipping its wings, blocking the way to the church door and dispossessing it of its inheritance for a limited time set by God, just as Babylon took Judah captive? Could that even happen?

“Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed,” the Lord said to Habakkuk. “For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.

“They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor” (Hab 1:5-7).

Before I go any further, a couple of words of clarification. I am not envisioning church buildings being bulldozed as the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, or believers being herded into internment camps as the nation in the 6th century BCE was literally taken into captivity far from Judah. Present spiritual realities may have their historical precedents, but that does not mean a literal repetition of every historical detail.

However, there are a couple of aspects of adopting this interpretation of events that will correspond to this ancient event. For one, Jeremiah was vilified for preaching such a message to the people of God. He was regarded as a traitor and defeatist:

“Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that this house will be like Shiloh [i.e., which was destroyed] and this city will be desolate and deserted?” [i.e., the Babylonians will prevail] (Jer 26:9), said “the priests, the prophets and all the people.” No one’s going to name a Study Bible after you if you’re prophesying something that sounds like surrender.

But the other, more positive, aspect is worth quoting at length:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place [i.e., the Promised Land]. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile’” (Jer 29:10-14).

That’s right, the “I know the plans I have for you” verse that we print on fridge magnets and coffee mugs was spoken originally in the context of the Babylonian captivity.

It’s not a Word of Faith or prosperity teaching proof-text, but a message of hope and a declaration of the Lord’s intention in the midst of severe pruning. So take heart. The Lord will make you a new wineskin. And new wineskins can take new wine.

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