We’re going to have a quick history of songbooks in the Christian Reformed Church. The very first songbook was called the “Psalter” and contained only psalms. Then in 1934, it was the red Psalter Hymnal, containing both Psalms and hymns. That was then replaced with the 1959 Blue Psalter Hymnal and then in 1987, the grey one and now we have a new red one again. Each time, critics said that the new one was not as good and should not replace what was there before. There are still some churches who maintain that the old blue is the best and look down on those who use the “new” grey hymn-book. It has always been a debate between old and new and which is better. And this was true in Jesus’ day as well.
The teaching about old and new that Jesus gives here comes after a question about fasting. Jesus again takes a question that seems to us to be a valid question and gives it a depth that goes far beyond what anyone could have imagined. Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God is now here and the old ways simply won’t do any longer. Let’s read Mark 2:18-22.
I. Let’s look first at the question about fasting in verse 18.
First notice that both the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees were fasting. Now technically the Pharisees did not have disciples who followed them like Jesus’ disciples followed Jesus. There were some scribes who did have disciples but for the most part the Pharisees were more of a political party than theological experts. And so the Pharisees’ “disciples” were likely the group of people who were strongly influenced by Pharisaic ideals, politics and practice. The same thing may be true for the “disciples” of John the Baptist. John did likely have some followers who did literally follow him like students following a rabbi. However, these disciples here were people who had taken John’s preaching to heart and were following his ideals and teaching in general.
It’s important to notice that the reason for fasting was different for each group. The disciples of John likely had the Old Testament firmly in mind in their fasting. In the Old Testament, only one day was specified as a mandatory fasting day for all of Israel: the Day of Atonement, a day designated for cleansing from sin. For them fasting was an act of repentance in preparation for God’s judgment. The Pharisees had the same Old Testament roots for fasting but had built upon it. By the close of the Old Testament other occasions of fasting had become traditional, and these observances continued into the time of Jesus. It was customary for the Pharisees to fast voluntarily on Monday and Thursday of each week. The fast of the Pharisees was an expression of devotional piety.
Both groups notice that Jesus’ disciples weren’t fasting at all and ask Jesus why they weren’t. Quite likely it was some of the disciples of John who asked Jesus this. They thought of the coming kingdom as being defined by repentance and sorrow. To see Jesus’ disciples not doing what they believed John taught was a bit offensive to them. They may have wanted to prove to those around them that their way and their leader was the better way to go. The Pharisees wanted to show that they were more “godly” and upright than Jesus’ disciples were. They were afraid of losing their influence over the people and wanted the crowds of people to follow them and not Jesus.
The question was asked within the setting of a power struggle. Sadly such things continue in the church today, don’t they? “Do you sing praise songs or just traditional hymns?” “Do you use the King James Version of the Bible?” “Do you speak in tongues or allow women to preach?” Christians today also try to win points and gain followers to their specific way of doing things or specific set of beliefs. Jesus’ answer puts things exactly in the right perspective for all Christians.
II. First, let’s look at how Jesus uses the picture of a wedding in verses 19-20.
A wedding, then as now, is a time of great joy as a couple begins their life together! To mourn during the wedding feast would be completely inappropriate! The bridegroom is there and you want to share in the joy of that occasion with him. Now the rabbis did use the imagery of the wedding feast to describe the coming of the Messiah but Jesus is not making that connection to himself here. The full meaning of what Jesus said would only be understood later on. Jesus’ point is that the disciples don’t have to mourn now because he is with them. Sorrowful fasting is inappropriate to the new situation that Jesus brings. Jesus is both the center and the cause of the joy that his disciples experience and they should fully enjoy that right now.
Jesus says that when the bridegroom is gone, that then is the time for fasting. Jesus is referring to a time when he as the bridegroom would be taken away and then the disciples would understand the meaning of the word sorrow. Jesus is simply saying that he would not always be with them. Later on the disciples must have understood more after Jesus ascended to heaven. Now what is the “day” that Jesus has in mind when they will be fasting? The Roman Catholics believe that Jesus was referring to the day of his death. As a result Roman Catholics view Good Friday as a day of fasting. But Jesus is simply saying that he will not always be present with them and when he is gone is the proper time for fasting.
So what is the lesson on fasting for us since we have Christ in us through the Holy Spirit? We can and should fast, not as an expression of sorrow but rather as a time of joyful focusing on our Lord. God himself is with us! We don’t fast to get his attention or to gain points. The danger of the Pharisaical view of fasting continues to be a danger today. Some feel they need to fast or do something else to prove to themselves or others that they are better or holier than others. For example, researchers at Cornell University have conducted what they call “holier-than-thou” experiments to see just how generous people think they are, compared to how generous they think others are. In one experiment, students were given $5 each, and then asked how much of this money they thought they would give to charity. On average, they thought they would give $2.50, and their peers would give only $1.80. In reality, the students gave $1.53 but they all felt better than others. It’s easy for us to want to do religious things in order to judge others, impress others and try to impress God. We, however, live in a whole new situation and that is what is reflected in the next section.
The images used by Jesus are very vivid. You don’t patch an old garment with a new piece of fabric. Natural cloth fibers shrink and so the new piece will shrink and pull away from the old leaving the hole again. Moreover the new piece is valuable; you don’t try to patch something old with it. New wine in an old wineskin means that the wine will expand and the old wine-skin won’t be able to withstand the newness of the new wine. It will burst and all will be ruined. The idea is that the old is used and tattered and is just not up to the task.
Like the wedding metaphor, the sayings about the new garment and the new wine describe inappropriate or foolish actions. For example, here is my old briefcase. I got this briefcase when I first started seminary 40 years ago. I really like this briefcase and I remember toting it back and forth from home to my classes every day. I used it all during my seminary days and for about the first 7 years of my first church. And then it started falling apart. It got a split in the bottom and things were falling out of it. It’s still very special but not very useful. If I had important papers or books that I wanted to carry, I wouldn’t use it. It served its purpose but it would be foolish of me to try to use it again. If Jesus’ disciples were to follow the practice of the Pharisees or John the Baptist, they would be like people who put a new piece of cloth on an old garment, or who pour new wine into old wine skins.
The newness of the kingdom cannot be contained by showing repentance alone. John’s message was one of repentance in order to be prepared for the coming kingdom. There is a clear message of judgment in John’s message and that is why they fast. Jesus came proclaiming that the time of the kingdom is here now! The behavior and actions of his disciples reflect the joyful certainty of this. They are experiencing the joy of the Kingdom because they belong to Jesus. It’s completely different now and well beyond preparation time.
We have the tendency to revert to the old ways of fearful repentance. We like to convince ourselves that if we repent and are good enough, if we read the Bible enough or if we fast or do this or that, God will be pleased. We live in the age of grace and that means God is pleased with us because of Jesus, not because of how sorry for sin we are or how good we are We still have to live in obedience to what Jesus taught but we do so as an expression of love and gratitude not in fear or dread.
We live in grace and we have to realize that the kingdom of God means we live our lives in a way that is totally new and that may well be different from our traditional ways. Now tradition in the church is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s a marvelous source of stability and connectedness with the past. There’s nothing like a classic hymn that has stood the test of time. Yet, on the other hand, tradition can get in the way of adapting ourselves to the demands of mission to a rapidly-changing world.
We live in the new age of the kingdom of God and we must be prepared to joyfully live with him to be effective on that mission. The kingdom of God is here and it’s far greater than any tradition or practice. What can you do this week to reflect to others that we joyfully live in a new situation and thus demonstrate that things are not going to be the same anymore?