Not So Fast!
A sermon based on Mark 2:18-22
Sunday, February 8, 2015 – Epiphany 5(8)B
Okay. So I'm back at it. I'm working out again about 4 times a week. I'm trying to get fit again and care for the body that God has given me. But my doctor likes to remind me that working out really isn't going to help me lose that much weight. If I want to be a thinner me, he says it's all about diet.
Okay… so what diet works? Obviously my "see-food diet" where I "see food" and eat it, isn't working. But there are so many out there. There's the Atkins Diet where I can eat all the meat and cheese I want, but cut out the carbs. There's the Paleo Diet where I eat nothing processed. There are diets that cut out white wheat and sugar. There are diets that cut out everything but juiced fruit and vegetables. There are diets that recommend controlled fasting. If you put zero calories in, your body will have to feed off of your fat reserves and you will lose weight.
And in Jesus' day it was a common practice to fast, that is to eat nothing twice a week. Every Monday and every Thursday, certain sects would eat no food at all all day long. Was that healthy? I guess that's debatable. But they weren't fasting for health reasons. They were fasting for religious reasons. They were fasting in order to be closer to God.
The disciples of John the Baptist were fasting. The disciples of the Pharisees were fasting. And even Jesus had preached about fasting and prayer in his Sermon on the Mount. But now Jesus' disciples weren't fasting. In fact, they were feasting on a Monday or a Thursday! They were feasting at the house of a tax collector of all people and it made some wonder: "Why didn't they fast? Did they care nothing about piety and propriety? Didn't they want to be closer to God?!"
But Jesus told them, "Not so fast! You misunderstand fasting. Fasting doesn't bring you closer to God." And he taught them about fasting with Moses and about feasting with him. Our text for this morning is found in Mark 2:18-22…
18 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?"
19 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. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
21 "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. 22 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."
I. Fasting with Moses
One lesson in the Latin class that I teach introduces the discipuli (or students) to Latin manners. And one of the phrases in that lesson is how to say "please" in Latin. But good Latin manners sometimes make for horrible theology. You see, the phrase, "amabo te," (translated "please") literally means, "I will love you." Implied is that I will love you if you do what I ask. So, "May I please have a cookie?" is literally rendered "I will love you if I can have a cookie," in Latin.
That's how many of Jesus' day viewed God's love—that there were strings attached. He would love them if… He would love them if they kept the commandments. He would love them if they followed the Mosaic laws. He would love them if they fasted twice a week.
Now, fasting was commanded by God through Moses for one day of the year: on Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16:29 and 23:27). It was to be a time of repentance and sorrow in view of God's judgment against sin. But the Pharisees took it a step further. They made it a tradition to fast twice a week in commemoration of Moses' ascent on Mt. Sinai on a Thursday and his descent on a Monday. And now they were offended that Jesus' disciples were eating and drinking and having a good time on those days.
But why did they fast? As a devotional aid to help them remember the words and promises of God? Or because they thought that by it they were earning God's favor? They thought that if they did right by God that God would love them more.
And that "amabo te" view of God's love is still around today, isn't it? Have you ever felt that if you do the right things God would love you more? If you were more productive, if you could get out of debt, if you could accomplish some goal, if you could lose more weight, then you would be more loveable? Then God would love you more?
Well, how's that working for you? Do you feel closer to God when you work hard to earn his love? Not really, right? That kind of thinking puts us on the path of a cut and paste approach to religion that make ours just like everyone else's: either a religion of works and self righteousness (choosing to fast, but ignoring the lust, or choosing to pray, but ignoring the greed), or a religion of smorgasbord Christianity—a little of this and a little of that, but nothing that really gets in the way of what our selfish nature wants to do.
But Jesus warns us, "Not so fast!" This old religion of earning God's love is already stretched and shrunk and worn out. It simply won't work. If you want to do right by God and earn his love, he tells us how: Be perfect. And since we aren't perfect compared to his holy standard, we're left feeling guilty and burdened and burned out when we approach God thinking we can make him love us. And so trying to earn God's love is like running on a treadmill: You work hard, but go nowhere. But unlike running on a treadmill that offers health benefits, trying to earn God's love keeps you away from him since you really put your trust in you.
Fasting with Moses may have health benefits, but it cannot ever get you closer to God. Serving God and following the rules and keeping his commands may give you a better life, but it cannot help you face God after death. But there's a better way to get close to God… A way that actually works…
II. Feasting with Christ
In college, I suddenly became a little more popular when I started making homebrewed beer. I'd helped my dad make beer a few times growing up and already knew how it worked: Yeast eats the sugar in the brew which produces the alcohol. But it also creates a lot of gas as a byproduct. And that gas needs to escape while you brew or later the bottle caps will shoot off the bottles. So brewers use an air lock filled with water. The gas escapes, bubbling through the water, but no air can get back in down through the water, keeping the brew from becoming contaminated.
But back in Jesus' day, they didn't have airlocks. Instead they had leather skins. And as the gas would expand, it would simply stretch the skins. Of course, if you had already used the skin and it had already been stretched, they couldn't stretch any more. Put new wine in an old wineskin and it would burst, obviously ruining both the skin and the wine.
Okay. Got it. But what's Jesus point in this colorful illustration that seems to take a jab at their very complaint as he uses wine-making to teach about fasting?
Well, Jesus' point was that he was doing something new—something new that the old way of thinking simply couldn't contain. The old way was the Law. The new way was Christ himself. The Old Testament covenant with all of its laws and rules kept God's people separate, and distinct, and focused on and looking for the promised Savior. But Jesus changed it. He fulfilled the law and burst the Old Testament ceremonies. They no longer needed to fast even on the Day of Atonement.
Paul put it this way in Colossians 2:16-17, "Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ."
The old wineskins of the Law can't contain the new thing Christ was doing. The unshrunk Gospel rips apart old legalism. And you can't put the two together in some hybrid or you ruin both. Chocolate is delicious. So are pickles. But chocolate covered pickles sound disgusting. Both would be ruined. Likewise you can't mix a little legalism with a little Gospel or you ruin both. In fact, mixing law and Gospel into some hybrid religion is eternally disastrous.
Jesus said that fasting as a sign of sorrow and repentance did have its place. A time would come when the disciples would fast—a day when Jesus would be taken from them—on Good Friday. But that sorrow did not save them. What Jesus accomplished on the cross did. And even the sorrow of Good Friday gave way to Easter Sunday joy! As Jesus burst from the tomb, he burst through the law! Jesus lives! Your sins are forgiven! You have peace with God! You have the unending, unconditional, love of your bridegroom without having to do a thing. He says, "amabo te," "I will love you… period." "I will love you… for Christ's sake." "I will love you… always."
And that, dear friends, is cause for celebration! No more moping! No more whining and complaining! No more walking around with our heads down! No! Not so fast! We no longer need to fast with Moses! But can feast with Jesus as we rejoice that Jesus has done everything for our salvation! We can feast on the love of our faithful groom just as Hosea described it even as we look forward to the culmination of that love in the Marriage Feast of heaven as John described it in Revelation. (cf. Hosea 2:14-16, 19-20 and Revelation 21:1-6)
And we feast, as we live our lives in joy, confident that we don't have to do a thing to earn God's love. We feast as we enjoy the peace that that brings. We feast as we share this heavenly food with others. We feast as live to serve our Savior and return the love he's shown to us.
Fasting might help you lose a few pounds. But it won't get you closer to God. What will get close to him? Not so fast! You are already close to him through Jesus. You're married to him, not until death do you part, but until death brings you fully together! So don't fast with Moses, but feast with Jesus! Celebrate him and his love! And live for him in thanks! In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.