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Wednesday
Apr032019

A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh

Mark 2:18-22.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on March 31, 2019.

The audio for this sermon will be up shortly.

“For everything, there is a season; a time for every purpose under heaven.”  This quote from Ecclesiastes 3:1 is the source of the title.  In life we generally understand what is happening socially around us.  Is it a happy time, or is it a sad time?  What is the circumstance or occasion and how does that affect my actions and words?  The answers to those questions often put a set of unspoken, social niceties upon us.

In our story today we have a situation where certain people are looking at the disciples of Jesus and wondering why they aren’t fasting.  Perhaps, it wasn’t on the order of a bride sobbing uncontrollably at her wedding, but it did stick out socially in the same way.  It was common for the strictest Pharisees to fast twice a week on Sunday and Wednesday.  Israel had been under the power of various world powers for centuries with only a few brief moments of hope.  So, these disciples of this new rabbi were under a lot of speculation.  Their lack of fasting stuck out like a sore thumb.

It is important to recognize that the Law of Moses only commanded fasting on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement.  Thus, this situation is not about observing the Law, but rather it is about establishing just who is more spiritual. Yet, true to form, Jesus answers this question by digging deeper beneath the surface and showing them the truth.  There is a time to weep and fast, but there is also a time to laugh and rejoice.  When a person finds Jesus, this is a celebration time which would cause all who understand it to rejoice as well.  Let’s look at our passage today.

Why don’t your disciples fast

This question that is presented to Jesus is interesting in light of the feast that Levi had thrown right before this.  The Pharisees first objected that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, and now they are objecting to the fact that the disciples of Jesus aren’t fasting.  It is clear that they are only trying to find fault with Jesus and his disciples by nit-picking.  Yet, there are some other things to keep in mind as we approach this.

First, it is odd that the Pharisees come with the disciples of John the Baptist.  They were not natural friends.  In fact, they were quite the opposite.  John was very harsh on the Pharisees who watched him like a hawk for errors as well.  In Matthew 3 we have a scene where John is baptizing those who were repenting of their sins, and the Pharisees and Sadducees show up.  John tells them, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  And, do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.  Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Second, John had publicly vouched that Jesus was the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sins of the world.  He was the Messiah.  So, why are these guys together? 

It would appear that the Pharisees figured out a connection that they had with John’s disciples that was different then Jesus.  Therefore, they most likely went to John’s disciples in order to put a wedge between them and Jesus.  Now, on the surface this is a valid question and John’s disciples are probably asking it in a valid way.  However, the motivation of the Pharisees is illegitimate.  They are using fasting as a pretext to cut Jesus down.  Really, this is a matter of personal choice and preference.  There is nothing wrong with fasting twice a week, but there is something wrong with judging others who do not share your personal choices and preferences.  They were stepping out of bounds.  Let’s look at the response of Jesus.

In verses 19-20, Jesus uses the analogy of a wedding and its bridegroom.  This is important because this is the exact same metaphor that John the Baptist used about Jesus in John 3:28-30 when he was speaking with his disciples.  “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”  John clearly understood who he was in relation to Jesus the Christ.  Thus, the use of this analogy would have great significance to John’s disciples and would go over the heads of the Pharisees.  Just like a bride waiting for her groom, Israel had been waiting for the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, who would rescue them from their oppressors.  The Pharisees did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, but John the Baptist had gone on record that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting.  This declaration created an awkward transitional time.  Some of John’s disciples immediately began to follow Jesus, but others were zealous for John and stayed with him.  Even when John was imprisoned, some of these disciples kept clinging to him instead of turning to Christ.  I do not say that to put them down.  I believe God knew that John needed friends who believed in him to stick with him because he had some difficult things ahead of him.  It wasn’t until John was executed that these who held back were forced to make a choice.

Whether like the Pharisees, or like John’s disciples, we are all tested in times when God begins to take us to the next stage.  Those who are “early adopters” will jump on board quickly and the “loyal laggards” will wait until the writing is on the wall.  The key is always understanding just who you are following.  Are you following a person, or an institution, or the Spirit of God, especially Jesus?  Being an early adopter is neither better or worse than being a loyal laggard.  What is more important is jumping on board what God is doing, whether than what man is doing.

Of course, the key point that Jesus is making is that it is a strange bride who weeps when the bridegroom shows up.  In this case, the disciples of John had more to be ashamed of than the Pharisees.  The continued fasting while the Messiah was in Israel was itself a sign of a lack of spiritual sensitivity against the Pharisees and John’s disciples, and not the disciples of Jesus.  They were only doing what would be natural, rejoicing!

Yet, Jesus notes that this happy time will come to an end because he will be taken away from his disciples.  This is in reference somewhat to the crucifixion, but even more to his ascension into heaven to wait at the right hand of the Father.  During that time, the disciples had plenty of difficulty and persecution with many of them being imprisoned and killed.  Thus, fasting is appropriate for believers during this time leading up to the Second Coming of Christ.  Yet, we should be careful of turning it into a badge of honor, much like the Pharisees were doing.

Fasting always represented humbling yourself in repentance before God.  It was an outward show, which involved wearing sackcloth, tearing your clothes, putting ashes on your head, and refraining from food for a period of time.  As Christians we should fast from time to time, but we should be careful of promoting the outward over the top of the inward.  We should also be careful of hold other Christians in contempt for not fasting as often as we think they should.  Fasting is not the secret to the spiritual universe; Jesus is.  Until you desire Jesus more than this world, no amount of fasting will do you any spiritual good.

This whole scene, and the analogy Jesus gives, implies that the first coming of Christ was not the wedding.  It would more aptly be seen as a betrothal.  Jesus came to Israel and “popped the question.”  A remnant of Israel said yes.  However, that question has been opened up to the Gentiles who want to participate in this coming wedding.  The wedding of Christ to the People of God will happen at the Second Coming (note: I state this without any reference to the specific timing of all the events associated with it).  Jesus will return to rescue his bride and wed her, never to be separated again.  Meanwhile he has been preparing a place for his bride in the heavenly, new Jerusalem.

A deeper point is made

Jesus gives two more analogies, in verses 21 and 22, that takes this point deeper.  This is not just about who has the best teacher in town, and it is not about whether a person should fast or not.  God was doing something bigger than Moses leading the children of Israel out of the bondage of Egypt.  This was a historical moment, not only to Israel and not only to the world, but to the history of the whole cosmos (spiritual and material).

The next analogy that Jesus brings up is that of the old garment and the unshrunk cloth.  In both of these analogies there is something that is old and something that is new.  The old garment has developed tears and holes that need mending if it is intended to be used.  To mend the old garment, one should not used new material due to the fact that the new cloth will shrink much more than the old.  Thus, the cloth will pull at the stiches and ruin the patch job.  Now, our modern society may have trouble identifying with this concern, but the people of that day would understand exactly what Jesus is saying.  So, what is Jesus talking about?

The old garment represents the Jewish religion under the Law of Moses.  Over the years, due to the sin of its people, the institutions and the devotion of the people had developed tears and gaping holes.  Jesus is God’s man to fix things in Israel.  Thus, it could be thought that the Messiah would raise up new leaders who could serve as a patch to the old system.  Jesus makes it clear that he is creating new cloth that cannot be used to patch up the Old Covenant.  He had not come to fix the nation of Israel so that it could continue on in the same mode under the Law of Moses, and within the same institutions.  He was not preparing his disciples to fit into the garment of Israel under the Law.  We could take this further now, but let’s move to the other analogy.

This is the analogy of the old wineskins and the new wine.  It is stating the same thing.  The old wineskins represent the religious institutions and their operators.  The disciples of Jesus represent the new wine that God is producing.  When Moses led Israel out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, they were the new wine of their day.  The Law of Moses was also a part of this new wine in that it represented the container that these people would be placed within.  It is the outward form of institutions and ritual of the people of God.  The spiritual fervor of the people (though not perfect) was focused on following God into this new thing.  Yet, the spiritual work of yesterday does its work much like wine in a wineskin.  The skin is stretched out and the wine reaches an equilibrium between its expanding and the resistance of the wineskin.  Eventually the wine is used up and an empty, dry, old wineskin is left behind.  In Jesus the God of Israel was making new wine, but he was also preparing to pour them into a new wineskin, the Church of Christ.  The new work of Christ could not be put into the institutions of the Old Covenant.  Instead of reinvigorating the old institutions of Israel, the new wine would have completely destroyed it.

Thus, Jesus had come to institute a new covenant with the people of God.  This new covenant would have better promises and new institutions.  By the way, it may be worth realizing that, when Jesus comes back to set up the earthly kingdom, he will be leading us into a new thing again.  The Church institutions of this earth will become the institutions of that age.  Christ will be making new wine and pouring it into new institutions.

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples that the cup they drank from represented the New Covenant in his blood.  Hebrews 8:6-13 tells us that when the prophet Jeremiah prophesied of a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31), it was proof that the Old Covenant had become obsolete and would pass away when the new one came.  This is exactly what took place historically.  This should not be a matter of pride or arrogance of the new over the old because we could not have had the new without the old, which was once new. 

In fact, is it not clearly written on the wall?  The New Covenant is not so new anymore.  Over the centuries it has developed its own tears and gaping holes.  We can be tempted to try and fix everything in the flesh simply by calling what we do, the Spirit.  I encourage you to trust the Lord.  The answer is not to throw the Church and its institutions away, but neither is it to double down upon them as if they are the answer to salvation alone and the finished work of God forever.  I encourage you to trust the Lord and the words of him and his disciples over that of different men and institutions.  Jesus knows that we need a new garment.  So, we must do our best to be faithful with the institutions that he has given us.  Praise God that he has given us the Holy Spirit.  In Christ we can keep experiencing the new thing of God’s Spirit each and every day.  We can keep invigorated and renewed in him.  Yes, from time to time, the institutions of the Church grow hard and brittle, resistant to the work of the Holy Spirit.  It refuses to accept what God is doing.  Perhaps we should look at the history of the Church a bit differently.  Many people look back and see only failure, as one group splits from another and then another.  What if we saw it from the perspective of old wineskins?  Each time the institutions of the Church have grown hard and resistant to the Spirit, God has been faithful to provide new expressions and forms for those who belong to Him.  New institutions have cropped up only to become hard themselves.    No group can point to its beginning and declare that, because they were once new wine, they must still be new wine.  It doesn’t work that way.  Let’s be faithful Christians because our Lord is coming for a people who want him more than a certain religious form.