|FASTING & FREEDOM
Series: The Good News of Jesus Christ - Part Eight
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
March 4, 2018
This morning we are at Mark 2 - starting at verse 18. Over the past few Sundays we’ve been moving through a section of Mark’s good news account of Jesus’ life and ministry in which Jesus is stepping into controversy and conflict.
Jesus is getting push back on Who He is and what He’s teaching. More conflict than resolution.
We’ve seen Jesus grant forgiveness of sin. Something that only God has the authority to do. We’ve seen Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners - people that the religious leaders thought He should have no contact with. All of which didn’t sit well with the religious leaders.
There’s growing controversy and conflict. The religious leadership verses Jesus. Their understanding of God verses Who Jesus is. Conflict that eventually leads Jesus to the cross.
If you’re able - please stand with me - and read with me - as we come together before God’s word.
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.”
Verse 18 introduces us to The Conflict - which comes in the form of a question. To fast or not to fast. That is the question.
People back then fasted for basically the same reasons people fast today. Fasting is a good spiritual discipline.
Fasting is a good way to remind our bodies that our bodies are not in charge. That God should be in control of our appetites - physical and otherwise.
Fasting is a good way of staying spiritually in tune with God - helping us to focus in prayer and marinating in God’s word and worship.
Fasting can even be good for us physically. Going without some type of food or without a meal once in a while might not be a bad thing for some. Just saying.
One of the suggestions we make annually is that part of our Renewal Weekend might include a period of fasting. And we have guidelines and suggestions for that online.
Why exactly John the Baptist’s disciples were fasting we don’t know.
John was a kind of “out there” kind of guy. He led a harsh simple God focused life - wearing camel’s hair clothing with the whole eating locust thing. It’s not too much of a stretch that fasting was a regular part of what John did to stay focused on God and to serve Him.
Some have suggested that John’s disciples - following the example of their discipler - were fasting. Most probably they were fasting as a spiritual discipline of turning away from sin - of staying focused on God.
We know that the Pharisees fasted twice a week - on Mondays and Thursdays. Which was fasting beyond what God required.
The Old Testament gives us a number of different examples of fasting but only one command. Old Testament law required one day of fasting which was on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. What is - even today - the holiest day of the year in Judaism - with its focus on repentance and atonement. Which will be celebrated this September 18 and 19.
But the Pharisees fasted twice a week and they took great pride in making a show of their piety - looking all miserable and sprinkling ashes on themselves and not washing their faces - so that others would know that they were fasting.
Then they’d made their tradition of fasting to be a spiritual truth - a spiritual litmus test requirement for being right with God. And then they’d expected that everyone else needed to conform to their standard of righteousness.
Which is what the disciples of the Pharisees - mentioned here in verse 18 - what the disciples of the Pharisees - following the example of their disciplers - what they would have been doing.
Which in a kind of really strange kind of way means that the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees could have been fasting for the same basic reasons - avoiding sin and turning towards God.
But let’s be careful. We know - and John’s disciples would have known - because God tells us - that God is not impressed by our outward acts of piety - like going without food.
The purpose of fasting isn’t about earning God’s approval or proving to God that we’re really serious about our relationship with Him. Because God knows what’s going on in our hearts despite the growling in our stomachs.
Fasting is a means of getting our hearts and minds in sync with God’s heart and mind - leading us into submission to God’s will for our lives. (Zechariah 7:1-10)
Fasting for John’s disciples was a means of going deeper in their relationship with God not a basis for their relationship with God.
Which is where the Pharisees were coming from. Basing their relationship with God on what they were doing for God - using their traditions and righteous acts - like fasting - as what it meant to be right with God and expecting others to do the same.
Mark records that there were people who came to Jesus - with all of that in mind - they came and asked Jesus this question about who’s fasting - or not - and why. In the way that Mark records this the “and people came” some of those people were Pharisees. Matthew’s account of this scene clues us in that some of those people who came were disciples of John. (Matthew 9:14)
For John’s disciples probably there is a sincere desire to understand - to be taught and to learn. “Jesus, we’re fasting. They’re fasting. Why are Your disciples not fasting?”
For the Pharisees the question is potentially loaded with controversy and conflict.
The Pharisees may have been trying to give the impression that they were sincerely concerned for Jesus and His disciples. But - given their understanding of fasting and in the way they’re asking the question - they are really pushing back at Jesus with their question. Pitting the followers of John against the followers of Jesus. Creating a wedge between them. Criticizing Jesus.
“How can Jesus be a legit godly leader of this group of disciples when they’re clearly second rate spiritually compared John’s disciples - who, of course, are not anywhere as pious as we are.”
Growing controversy and conflict.
Verses 19 to 22 are Jesus’ Answer to the question. Jesus’ answer comes in three parts. Jesus gives us three illustrations.
Part One is an illustration about The Bridegroom, Which is an illustration about Jesus Himself. Jesus comparing Himself to a bridegroom.
Yesterday we had a wedding here. Most weddings these days include an insane amount of preparation before the wedding. So that the actual ceremony and reception is kind of like crossing the finish line at a marathon. Those of you that have been closely involved in prepping for a wedding will probably understand that all too well.
After the reception it’s clean up and head out and head home. We’re basically done.
What Jesus is describing - what His listeners would have connected with - was way different culturally than what we might be thinking of.
To get Jesus we can be thinking about the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned the water into really good wine. Familiar. Yes?
The guy who was in charge of the wedding reception was impressed that the bridegroom had saved the really good wine till the end of the feast - the wedding reception.
Because the after the wedding ceremony - the celebration - the reception - could go on as a community event for maybe even a week. They served the good wine first until after a few days went by of people drinking the really good stuff. So when the guests had become slightly less discerning - then they started to serve the not so good cheap Gallo in a box wine.
Point being that a wedding was a community event that after the ceremony and all the blessings and prayers the groom would take his bride home to the “bridal chamber” and then the community would party on… and on.
“Wedding guests” - here in verse 19 - is more accurately translated from the Greek as “the sons of the bridal chamber.” These were the groomsmen. Who were really close friends of the groom. Which they had to be.
In the way things were done back then these groomsmen were responsible to make sure that every thing that needed to be taken care of to prepare the bridal chamber - where the groom and bride went after the ceremony for the wedding night - that all those details were taken care of - without all the possible pranks and stunts and potential embarrassments that could just happen to happen might happen. And these groomsmen also took care of whatever needed to be taken care of for the week long celebration.
So these are more than just “wedding guests.” These “sons of the bridal chamber” are guys needed to be really tight long time trusted responsible friends of the groom.
And - following the example of what happened at the wedding in Cana - the way weddings and celebrations were done back then - after the wedding night the groom would join the celebration and these groomsmen - really close friends - would celebrate with the groom during this wedding feast that would go on for days.
So why would they fast? Why would the wedding guests - why would the wedding party - the groomsmen - why would they fast while the bridegroom is with them? Why would they go around putting ashes on themselves being all gloomy like this is a funeral. It just doesn’t add up.
And… Jesus goes on in verse 20 - there will come a day when the bridegroom is taken away and then they’ll fast.
Being taken away - in the Greek has the idea of being taken… away.
The word actually comes with a pretty powerful image. It has the idea of being taken away by death. Even taken up. What happens to us who are in Christ. We’re taken up into heaven.
Which is a time for fasting. For sorrow. For mourning. Because - at death - we experiences separation from someone who is a really close life-long friend. Like a groom. A funeral being a significant contrast to a wedding celebration feast.
Jesus is applying the illustration to Himself and giving a hint of where what’s behind the Pharisee’s question is leading - the conflict leading to the cross.
Jesus is the groom. The groomsmen are His disciples. When Jesus is with them party on. But Jesus is going to die - crucifixion. And after His resurrection He’ll be taken into heaven - separation. Then there’ll be a time for fasting. But not now.
Part Two of Jesus’ answer comes in verse 21 where Jesus uses the illustration of Unshrunk Cloth. For Jesus’ disciples to fast would be like someone sewing unshrunk cloth on an old garment.
We get this. Right? New material used to patch a hole in an old garment. When the patched garment is later cleaned - the new unshrunk patch will shrink - and pull away from the old part of the garment - which is going to tear the old garment and ruin a perfectly good piece of new material.
Nobody in their right mind would do that. Trying to attach something new to something old.
We get this. Right? In Jesus’ day winemakers kept old wineskins for old wine - wine that had finished fermenting. As new wine continues to ferment it emits carbon dioxide. A brittle - old wineskin - usually goat skin - the old skin just wouldn’t be flexible enough to handle the expansion and it’ll burst. Which isn’t a good thing.
So no one in their right mind would do something like that. Trying to put something new into something old.
Jesus’ illustrations are a comparison of new and old. The newness of what Jesus brings to us cannot be adapted to what was.
The old garment and the old wineskin - those are like the religion of the Pharisees and the Law and what they’d summed up in all their legalist do’s and don’ts of what it meant to have a right relationship with God. Rules and regulations that missed the point of what God had asked for and why.
The new patch and the new wine are like the good news of Jesus and what He brings to us. What God offers us in His Son the Messiah Who has come.
There is a new joy - a new relationship - a new freedom that God offers to each of us in Christ. What cannot be adapted to what once was. They must be enjoyed as they are.
Any attempt to sew together the newness of what Jesus offers with the old religion and legalism of the Pharisees is futile. Any attempt to pour what Jesus offers into the old religion and legalism of the Pharisees just won’t work.
Point being that what Jesus offers to us is new - a new relationship - a new covenant - a fresh new beginning with God. What is a time for celebration not fasting.
Isaiah anticipated the coming of Jesus. Isaiah’s word resonate with us today:
“I greatly rejoice in the Lord, I exult in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness, as a groom wears a turban and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10 HSCB)
Paul writes to the Galatians: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The bridegroom - Jesus - is here and He gives us new clothes to wear for the wedding. (Galatians 3:27 NIV)
John records Jesus telling His disciples: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)
Jesus isn’t against fasting. It’s just that fasting fails to recognize the reality of Who He is and the time for celebration.
Processing all that…
Jesus is comparing His time on earth to the time of a wedding celebration - His presence even with us today - God stepping into our lives and giving to us a new relationship with Him. This is a time of celebration. Party on.
But we know - because we all experience this - we know that there are days - maybe even seasons of life - when celebration and joy do not come easy. There are times when it is easy to be bound by our circumstances or by the past rather than experiencing the freedom and joy of the new - of new life in Christ.
We know - with the coming of Jesus that we can live in the newness of life in Him. But we still live in the shadow of the old life and what is passing away. We all struggle with this.
Two takeaways for us this morning.
Number One: Remember the Reality When we’re tempted to think otherwise it is important that each of us remembers the reality of what it means to be given life in Christ.
The Pharisees held to the belief that keeping the law was a primary religious duty. They’d determined that the law of Moses - originally 10 Commandments and instructions on how to keep them - they’d expanded that to 613 commandments - 248 “Thou shalts” and 365 “Thou shalt nots.”
Then they’d build a protective fence around those 613 commandments. A fence carefully constructed out of a system of additional rules and regulations and interpretations that was set up to keep them and others as far away from the possibility of breaking one of the 613 commandments and the 10 inside the fence. A fence intended to keep them living rightly with God by their own efforts at keeping the law.
To live as a Pharisee meant living a life of radical separation and unending commitment to live in accordance with this burdensome list of do’s and don’ts. And even doing that they still didn’t know if enough was enough.
With all of their efforts there was still no cause for celebration. No basis for joy. No freedom from their failure and sin. Because - even if they said or thought otherwise - in reality they were still living life by their own rules and regulations - not by faith in God and His grace and the good news of Jesus.
Which is like the world today. With all of man’s intellect and philosophy and knowledge and growing understanding of things we still keep coming up empty. Because by ourselves we have no answer to the questions of why we exist and if there is an answer to the uncertainty of death. What is truth? Is there any certainty in life? Any hope? Any purpose?
All of our efforts still leave us with only speculations about what is real? And even if we had those answers we - by our own efforts - we still couldn’t change the reality and the outcome of all that anyway.
There is no joy in that. Only emptiness.
We can come to the Bible like it’s some kind of instruction manual. Which it is. But we can miss the point of it being a love letter from God that comes with instructions.
We can come to the Bible like God gives us this manual so if we just follow the instructions to the best of our ability then God will work out everything that’s messed up in our lives. But that’s still about us and our efforts at living the Christian life.
Or we can attend worship on Sundays. Attendance meaning that we’ve come reasonably on time and we’re occupying a green teal colored chair and we’ve gone through the motions of what’s expected of us in our service for God. Meaning that it’s possible to worship God and in reality we’re actually worshipping ourselves and our own efforts at being religious.
Or we can go on with this. Thinking through prayer and giving and serving and all the different circumstances of our lives and how we approach those circumstances. And the question of whether or not we’re moving through all that by working hard at figuring all that out and working at getting through all that - maybe even trying to do things God’s way - living the Christian life - doing all that by relying on ourselves and not on God.
If we’re doing life where - even the tiniest bit of that - is about us and not complete surrender and faith in God then - like the Pharisees - we’re going to miss out on joy. We’re going to rob ourselves of the opportunity to celebrate even in the midst of what to many is a time of mourning.
So we need to be careful. Because it is way too easy to slip into that. Way to easy to miss out on what God desires for us.
What God offers to us in Christ is so way different than that.
If we’re coming up short on joy we need to grab some reality - to remember who we are Christ. The newness of life that’s ours in Christ. To remember and marinate in the reality of that.
Paul writes in Romans: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2)
God - Who created the atoms that He holds together and breathes life into and that we experience as who we because He’s given us the ability to do that.
That God reaches out to us in the midst of our depravity and sin and unworthiness and inability to know that He even exists and that we need Him.
That God - because He loves us and is merciful to us - God by His grace calls us into a relationship with Him through the full and complete work of Christ on the cross on our behalf.
Because of Christ’s work on the cross we’re forgiven. Because of Christ’s work on the cross we are redeemed and restored - rescued and renewed. Because of Christ’s full and complete work on the cross alone we are set free by God. There is joy in that freedom.
God gives to us His word - the Bible - not as some dry and dusty manual for doing life - but as a love letter to help us understand how greatly we have been loved and how we can experience that loving relationship with Him today and forever. When we get that we experience an insatiable joy in reading and studying His word.
God gathers us to worship Him - not as some burdensome religious duty that we need to perform on days when we have nothing conflicting going on or we don’t need extra sleep - but because as those that He has lavished His love upon by creating us for relationship with Him and each other and given us that relationship with the ability and need to worship Him - the highest and greatest and most meaningful expression of our life is found in coming together to worship Him. When we get that we experience an insatiable joy in gathering to worship Him.
Pray - give - serve - whatever. It’s all because of God. It’s all about God. It’s all because of what He has made us to be in Christ.
Joy is the realized presence of God in our lives - regardless of our circumstances. We always have reason to celebrate because the celebration isn’t dependent on us but what God has prepared for us to enjoy with Him.
First: Remember the reality.
Paul writes to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; [and in case you missed it the first time] again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
Rejoice in who? The Lord. Bottom line: The reason to rejoice is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the good news. The New Testament encourages us to focus on Him and assumes that joy will result.
At the Passover meal - as Jesus celebrated with His disciples - Jesus chose wine as a symbol of the New Covenant - God’s new arrangement for living in relationship with Him - through the blood of Jesus Christ.
Wine which symbolizes blood - life. The life that He offers. Life lived by the power of Holy Spirit. Life that is powerful and dynamic and exhilarating.
Life that is like new wine which is still in the process of fermentation. Life that is way too volatile and active and strong to be contained in stiff - rigid - brittle - old forms of religion and the insanity of our trying to live life rightly with God by our own efforts.
Wine which over and over again the Old Testament associates with joy. Wine which the New Testament over and over again associates with Jesus. That connection is not some random accidental coincidence.
One of the most memorable moments in a wedding is the when the bride enters. Can you picture this? The bride at the head of the aisle waiting to be escorted down.
I often tell grooms to remember that moment. To keep that image in mind. Of your bride - in all of her splendor and beauty - standing - waiting - and then coming. Focus on her. Don’t take your eyes off of her. The rest of the ceremony will take care of itself. There is huge joy in that.
It’s not a stretch - the application of that to us. Jesus the groom. We - the Church - His bride. Those are all images that God uses to describe the reality of the relationship He’s given us with His Son.
Imagine how Jesus views you. Jesus at the front seeing you. Jesus beaming with joy. Imagine walking that aisle your focus fixed on Him. Moving through life - if we fix our eyes on Jesus joy will overtake our lives.
Which is a choice we need to make. Which is a pretty simple choice. But our circumstances way too often tempt us way from.
We can stand on the outside of that celebration like the Pharisees - looking in and being all grumpy and critical and gloomy - rigid and resistant to the Holy Spirit - without joy.
Or we can choose Jesus with His life of increasing freedom and joy. When we choose to lock eyes with Jesus sooner or later we’ll be caught up in His joy.
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).
Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, Volume 2: Insights on Mark (Carol Stream, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2016).
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.