Step into the study, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable and let’s enjoy the Gospel of Mark.
Our scripture this week is Mark 2:18-22 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”
This selection of scripture actually combines two that are usually dealt with separately; however, it seems to me that Mark is placing these together thematically and linking both to the previous (and following) sections. The theme is the profound break that Jesus’ Kingdom message makes with the religious status quo, particularly with that of the Pharisees and their strong orientation towards tradition. This theme is first sounded in the banquet (party!) Jesus enjoys with Matthew and other religious non-persons; an obvious joyous celebration of a new appreciation of what God is doing in His Kingdom. And, of course, the sick person who is healed experiences both joy and newness.
Fasting is an aspect of many religions. Judaism required only one fast day, the day of Atonement (Lev. 16:31-34.) Fasts were sometimes called for by leaders and prophets in response to particular events, such as times of national danger, repentance or humility. (2 Chron 20:3, Ezra 8:21-23, Neh 1:4-11, Jer 36:9, Joel 1:8-2:17) Fasts also were observed privately for various reasons. (2 Sam 12:15-23, I Kings 21:27, Psalms 69:1-15, 35:13-14, 109:4-21). Jesus never repudiated fasting, and fasted during his time of testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2), but we do not find any extensive advice for his disciples to regularly fast though apparently the early Jewish Christians did continue to fast on some occasions.
During the time of Jesus, stricter Jews “fasted” two days per week from sunup to sundown. Some of their practices in fasting prompted Jesus’ strong words in Matthew 6: 16-18 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Clearly, some of the Pharisees were guilty of fasting practices that were a public performance. Barclay suggests they may have whitened their faces to appear pallid. Jesus’ attitude towards public religion was quite severe. He frequently warned against the hypocritical tendencies that accompany public fasting, prayer, giving and worship. (What would he say about today’s contemporary Christian music scene!?) Like the prophets before him, he discerned that human beings are easily motivated to believe that impressing the audience is impressing God. Jesus bluntly says that “they have their reward.”
One time that fasting was forbidden was during a wedding celebration. For as long as two weeks the bride and bridegroom were surrounded by feasting and friends, known as the “children” of the bridegroom. For many people, this wedding celebration was the biggest “party” of their life and was an occasion of joy by the entire community. Sorrow was banished and fasting would have been ridiculous and insulting. Jesus first century audience would have laughed at such an idea. Jesus is comparing himself to the bridegroom. The bride may have waited for years for his arrival to bring her into his family, just as the Jewish people had waited for the promised one. This time when Jesus is present and bringing the joy and freshness of the Kingdom is no time to fast, but a time to soak in the joy and gladness of such an event.
The illustrations of the “patched” garment and the “new wine/old wineskins” contrast the old and the new. Jesus is not breaking with Judaism, but with the “old” orientation of the strict religionists who teach the keeping of tradition over the mercy of God. The Pharisee’s gripe with Jesus and his disciples is plainer in other passages, but we can already see that those who sneered at Jesus’ fellowship with tax collectors and sinners were threatened by a “new” teaching that presented a God who is not confined behind traditions, but reaches out to include sinners in surprising ways. It was not the laws of Judaism or the God of Judaism or the heart of the serious Jew that Jesus spoke about; it was the loyalty to a kind of religion that did not move with God into the future and hope, but moved backward into tradition and, as a result, bound people to their old sins.
Jesus did not come to patch up such a system. He did not come to pour the new wine into the old wineskins. Traditional religion will always tear away under the dynamic pressure of the Holy Spirit at work in the Kingdom. God is active in His Kingdom, breaking down walls, setting people free, healing the hurting and including the outcast. This can’t be fit into a system that says God is a cosmic bookkeeper, counting our acts of loyalty to tradition. Some have felt these sayings reflect the early Christian movement justifying a break with Judaism and the creation of a new religion. More likely is that, from the outset, Jesus was confronting all who knew him with fundamental choices as to what relationship with God was all about and what God himself was like.
With Jesus comes joy and celebration. The time is foreshadowed when the bridegroom will be taken, but that is not the time Jesus is speaking. And it is not our time, when the resurrected Christ is alive in His people through the Holy Spirit in a way even the disciples during Jesus’ ministry could not appreciate. With Jesus comes a new dynamic. Not new, in the sense that Jesus proclaims and embodies the same God who delivered slaves from Egypt by His mighty hand, but new in contrast to all those human systems of religion that are predictable, stale and moribund.
Now some application and observations. First, there are two fundamental characteristics of true Biblical religion: Fear of God and Joy in God. These are not strictly “Old testament/New testament” opposites, but their general character is strongly affirmed in each testament. Without the fear of the Lord, i.e. the genuine appreciation of the character and reality of God revealed in scripture, our faith becomes shallow, trivial, filled with vanity and entertainment, man-centered and trendy. These are the curses of modern Christianity, so full of a diet of candy-flavored preaching and entertainment-oriented worship that the fear of the Lord is not even desired, but considered bizarre. In this kind of environment grows a church with no appreciation for moral standards, no reverence in worship, cheap grace and a low view of scripture. However, without Joy in God, other symptoms develop. We look to material pleasures and human relationships for our deepest satisfactions. We place God “up there” and do not desire his manifest presence. We un-empower the Gospel and are afraid to pray for the miraculous or the supernatural. We become legalists and moralists, suspicious of those who are intimate with God. Both these emphasis are needed in healthy religion.
Secondly, outward actions hold a dangerous potential of seducing our pride. No matter what it is we do, if it becomes a performance evaluated on what people thought rather than an offering given to the Lord, we are hypocritical. At this point, human pride is its most seductive and dangerous. How easy to pray for human ears, to view our giving as our support of the church, to preach for applause, to sing for fame and to witness for the adulation of others. The Christian life is lived Coram Deo, before the face of God. Beware when all men speak well of you.
Third, God is moving forward into hope and true faith pursues His heart. The sound of Christianity that should be heard in the world is Joy. Christian people should be holy and happy. Worship ought to lift us up to God. There are a hundred ways to apply this truth, and many more ways to miss it. This is not a suggestion that church should be entertainment. Far from it. But it is saying that if, after all our insistence that we are worshiping and experiencing and proclaim Jesus, we are dusty and dead, something is wrong. Christian Joy is not the manipulation of emotion, but the response of the whole person- spirit, mind, will, body and emotions- to the presence and the truth of God.
I am no great fan of the phenomenon of holy laughter or the entire current fascination with bizarre manifestations. I am highly skeptical of much of it. BUT….those of us who have worshiped for years in joyless, dry, boring, sleepy, unmoved lethargy have no place to criticize those who occasionally seem to affirm the observation that Christians have been into the new wine. May God visit us and bring the joy of the bridegroom! May the joy of the resurrection and the joy of Pentecost fill us! May the joy of David’s worship and the blind man’s healing and Mary’s surrender engulf all of us! May we desire all of God and may we be thirsty for more and more of His presence and power in our experience, as well as in our doctrine.
Finally, we should realize that the “bursting, ripping” power of the Gospel is a continual application. Anywhere that the old, i.e. the human and fallen, dominates, the Gospel brings dynamic life and new life. This is part of our commission to go into the world as leaven, as a new colony, as pilgrims and aliens, as lights in the darkness. And once in the world,, we represent not the old, but the new, Christ and His Kingdom. This being true, why are Christians so often sided with and loyal to the old? Why do we so often fight that which brings liberation, freedom, life and joy to the world? Why have Christians been found among racists, among communists, among those who bomb clinics and among those who oppress women? The new is one new race in Christ. The new is God’s Kingdom over human utopias. The new is radical love not violence. The new is an identity in Christ that affirms gender and transforms relationships. I do not want to be judged progressive by the so called progressive liberals of this age, but I do want to be found doing exactly what Jesus would do if he were here.
# Questions How can we relate this weeks passage with last week’s (the calling of Matthew and the words to those who disapproved)?
# Do Christians put too little emphasis on fasting? What is the principle in fasting that we always need to strongly affirm?
# What sorts of behaviors today equate Jesus’ observations about the hypocrites public show of fasting?
# How does pride work its way into almost everything we do?
# Why should Christians be joyous when the “bridegroom” is in heaven?
# How would you answer someone who says heaven will be boring?
# How do you think Jesus saw God differently than his religious critics?
# What reasons do religious people find for criticizing joyous people?
# When Christians and Jews relate, Christians often come off as arrogant. Why is this wrong and how should we relate to those who are sincere Jews?
# Can you develop a presentation of the Gospel that launches from Jesus’ words in 2:21-22?
# Jesus was criticized for being a partyer and a consorter with partyers. Is this embarrassing for modern Christians? Should we imitate Jesus?
# React to Michael’s observation that true Biblical religion needs both the fear of the Lord and Joy in the Lord. How does the presence of God relate to both of these? How can we have both in worship? In our lives?
# How is it helpful to offer all our actions to God rather than people? How does this defeat pride? How does it help us recover from failure?
# What is the cause of joyless Christianity? What has the absence of joy done to our image of Jesus? What are the results of Joyless Christianity as we relate to other people, particularly lost people? Can Christians just have a good time without feeling guilty? (Is Michael getting hyper on this one????)
# What is your opinion of Holy Laughter and similar phenomenon? How do you evaluate it biblically? What would Jesus think of it?
# How do Christians often side with the “old”? What sort of “newness” would God like to bring into your world: family, work, personal life, etc.
# Should we pray for joy or simply rejoice? What stops us? When we pray, why so many more prayer requests than praise the Lord’s?