March 11, 2012 - Third Sunday in Lent
†††††††† We looked at a couple
of beautiful steaks and groaned. Terry and I had just come down from a long,
cold backpack trip in the high Sierras of California and arrived at his
grandmotherís house in Santa Barbara. We should have been famished and ready to
devour the meal his grandmother wanted to cook for us, but there was no way.
†††††††† The problem was that
we stopped on the way at the Big Yellow House. It was a family style restaurant
just south in Summerland. They just kept bringing wonderful food to our table,
all we could eat. We walked out stuffed. Terry should have known his
grandmother well enough to know it was a big mistake, but we were young and
foolish and hungry. We hadnít yet learned much about taking other people into
consideration. So we ate when we shouldnít and didnít eat when we should have.
†††††††† When to eat is the
lesson Jesus wanted to teach the people who asked him about when His disciples
were eating. Why were Jesusí disciples enjoying their food at a time when other
disciples, those of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees, were fasting?
†††††††† Thereís a little turn
here in Mark. In our last two texts, people complained about what Jesus did and
said. Now in this text and the next, they shift to griping about His disciples.
Mark is a storyteller. Heís selected these controversies to show how Jesusí
opponents came at Him from every angle. If they couldnít pin Him down, they
would try for His associates.
†††††††† Fasting was one of the
three pillars of Jewish piety. A devout Jew offered regular prayers, gave alms
to the poor, and engaged in fasting. Fasting was a sign of your devotion to
God, a way of expressing repentance and atoning for your sin. It helped strengthen
your prayers. It was out of the ordinary like it feels for us. Every good
Jewish person fasted to some extent.
†††††††† We donít know exactly
what Johnís disciples practiced, but we know from Mark that he ate an austere
diet (honey and bugs) gleaned from the wilderness where he preached and
baptized. Other historical sources tell us that the Pharisees would fast each
week on Monday and Thursday, usually from sunrise to sunset. Itís likely
someone observed Jesus and His disciples enjoying a hearty meal on a Monday
afternoon when all the other holy people were going hungry and wondered,
ďWhatís up with that?Ē
†††††††† One comforting fact
about Jesus is that though He suffered and even fasted for forty days at one
point, He definitely liked to eat. He made no bones about it. On a similar
theme in Matthew 11 and in Luke 7, we find that people griped about John the
Baptist because he fasted so much, but then turned around and griped about
Jesus because He didnít fast enough, calling Him a glutton.
†††††††† Jesus defended His
disciples by offering three little parables. The first is an image He used over
and over to describe Himself. He is the Bridegroom arriving for a glorious
wedding. Throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophet Hosea, we get
the picture of God as the husband of His people Israel. Now Jesus claims that image
for Himself. Itís another subtle way of expressing the fact that He is God. He
came to complete that marriage between God and us.
†††††††† Just like you need to
be ready to eat when you show up at the home of your grandmother who loves to
cook for you, you need to be ready to eat at a wedding feast. Jesus says, ďThe
wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?Ē Youíve
been to wedding receptions where the food is all held back while the guests
stand around waiting for the bride and groom, who are changing their clothes or
getting pictures taken or whatever. You all stand around fasting, starving,
eyeing the cheese and crackers, longing for a shrimp, wishing you could sneak a
handful of mixed nuts, just wishing the young couple would hurry up.
†††††††† When they arrive,
though, itís time to eat and drink. Itís not the moment to stand in the corner
and think about your diet. Lift a glass of punch in a toast. Take a slice of
wedding cake. For awhile there it would have been rude and inappropriate to
eat. But when the couple shows up it would be wrong not to join in
celebrating this happy beginning of their new life together.
†††††††† Jesus is the
Bridegroom in Godís wedding celebration. He has arrived. Our new life with God
began when He became one of us, walked and talked with us, lived like we live.
It was the start of something gloriously new between human beings and God. So
those who joined Him at the beginning had an attitude of celebration. They
didnít need to fast and be gloomy like the Pharisees. They enjoyed the presence
of God Himself living among them.
†††††††† Itís all in the timing.
Terry and I should have fasted just another hour until we got to his grandmaís
house and she broiled our steaks. Wedding guests need to fast until the bride
and groom arrive. In verse 20, Jesus says that a time would come after the celebration when fasting would again be appropriate. ďThe days will come
when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that
†††††††† That was a hint of
what was to come. At this point Jesus had not told them anything about the big
plan. They didnít know He was going to die and rise again and ascend into
heaven. But here was the subtlest suggestion of a time when He would not be
with them in the same way. It wouldnít be time just for celebration any more. They
would need to fast once again, to be sorrowful for sin, to be humble before
†††††††† Please keep verse 20
in mind as we move on. Jesus gave us two small images from daily life in the
ancient world in order to support what He said about the time to eat and the
time to fast. We might imagine these mini-parables teach us to focus
exclusively on whatís new. Everything old is worthless. Only the new is good.
But verse 20 reminds us thatís not quite it.
†††††††† These parables do show
how the new things God does through Jesus can be incompatible with sticking
rigidly to our old ways. Verse 21 is about sewing a patch of new, unwashed, unshrunk
cloth on an old cloak or garment that has been washed many times and shrunk to
its final size. If you do, says Jesus, the new patch will itself shrink and
pull at the corners of the tear, making it worse.
†††††††† The wine and wineskins
need a little explanation. ďNew wineĒ didnít mean just a recent vintage. It
meant the fresh pressed grape juice which would become wine. You put it into a
leather skin and leave it to ferment. Thereís tremendous force in that amazing
process by which wine comes to be. Carbon dioxide is generated. The gas expands.
Those of you whoíve made beer or wine know that if you are not careful, corks
or tops can pop off. A bottle can even explode. Ask my wife Beth to tell you
the story of the exploding bottle of sangria in the closet of their apartment
in graduate womenís housing at Notre Dame.
†††††††† In ancient times the
pressure was dealt with by putting grape juice into containers sewn out of
leather. When the wine fermented and gas built up, the leather stretched to
accommodate it. New wine, new leather wine skin, and all was well. But if you
tried to put your new wine in an old skin that had already been stretched out,
there was no place for the pressure to go. The skin would pop and your wine
spilled out on the ground. As Jesus says, ďthe wine is lost, and so are the
skins.Ē Both old and new suffer when you put them together in the wrong way.
†††††††† Itís especially
important in our time to keep all the parts of this text together. We live in
age which almost worships whatever is new. The new iPad came out last week and
techies all over the world waited breathlessly to see what wonderful new features
the ghost of Steve Jobs would produce. But no matter how marvelous it is, it
will be considered old in a few months.
†††††††† But itís not just
tech, itís almost anything. Weíre already forgetting last yearís films that won
Academy awards and looking toward new summer blockbusters. Your phone company
or your favorite department store probably has a new name. We look for new
items on the menu when we go out to eat. We live in a culture that idolizes the
new, that lives for novelty.
†††††††† We go for the new, the
novel, even in our faith. Whatís the latest Christian music? Whereís the hot
new church in town? Who is writing the best new Christian book? Whatís the most
recent translation of Scripture? Is there some fresh approach to spiritual
life? Whatís new? Whatís new?
†††††††† Please notice that
Jesus did not ask us to embrace the new for its own sake. He was not concerned just for whatís new. There would be a time again to do the old discipline of
fasting. If you put new wine into old wine skins, He pointed out, the new wine
is lost, but He also said, ďand so are the skins.Ē Jesus loves and is concerned
about both the old and the new. He just doesnít want whatís old to hinder the
new life He brings us.
†††††††† These parables are not
teaching that faith in Christ is all about chasing the latest fad, even if itís
a spiritual fad, a Christian fad. No, what Jesus wants us to grasp is that His
presence is vital, powerful and life-changing in a way that cannot be
constrained by a mindset that wants to keep everything the same. When you meet
Jesus, things change.
†††††††† If you want to get
married, you canít just keep your life exactly as it was before, but just add a
wife or a husband. If you go into marriage thinking that you can go on living
just the same as when you were single, except for sleeping with someone else in
your bed, itís a mistake. Your habits will have to change. You wonít go out
with your other friends as often. Youíll have to compromise when you buy a new
couch or when you decide how to spend a vacation. Youíll have to eat new things,
watch new TV programs, meet new relatives. You canít just think of it as the
same old life plus a new partner. Itís a whole new life.
†††††††† Thatís how it is when
the divine Bridegroom shows up in your life. Donít think that itís just the
same old thing, plus Jesus. If youíve got a job, donít think that all Jesus
wants is to help you do that same job better. If youíre a student, Jesus wants
more than just to get you better grades. If you are an investor, Jesus isnít in
your life just to strengthen your financial portfolio. And if you are married,
Jesus isnít there just to make you a better spouse, to help your relationship
work better. All those old things may stay with you, and some of them
definitely should! But Jesus wants to change you, change the focus of
†††††††† Jesusí disciples
didnít stop fasting because fasting was now an old-fashioned, outmoded,
unnecessary practice. They didnít fast because their attention was all on Jesus.
They didnít have time to do that spiritual discipline right then because they
were concentrating on what Jesus had to say, on the miracles He was doing. They
didnít fast then, because Jesus was changing who and what they were.
†††††††† Krisann works for our
North Pacific Conference of Covenant churches. Part of her story is that she
used to work for one of the big cruise lines. Sheís a talented manager and she
directed and arranged the various programs and entertainment which happened
aboard the companyís ships. She says it was an exciting and interesting job. It
paid well and she got to travel and meet all kinds of exciting people. She
really wanted to believe that she could follow Jesus and make that job her
†††††††† Then she began to
notice some things about the company. The white owners, captains and crew of
the ships had a status and privilege that she enjoyed as well. But the non-white
people who cleaned the cabins and cooked the food and served in the dining
rooms had a different experience. They were paid poorly, worked long hours, and
had very little recourse if the crew treated them unfairly. She began to feel
the injustice of it.
†††††††† For awhile Krisann
thought she could just keep the same old job and be a witness while she did it.
But she began to feel the pressure of the new wine of her faith in Jesus who
loved everyone the same. She couldnít keep enjoying her old privileges while
people around her were suffering. In the end, she felt God calling her to quit
and find a new place and way to work that would have room for seeking the
justice she knew Jesus desired. Thatís what Jesus meant by new wineskins.
†††††††† Whatís new in your
relationship with Jesus Christ? Where do you feel pressure that may call for
setting aside something old, perhaps for awhile, perhaps forever? Do you need
to make some changes at home, at work, in your habits, in your prayer life?
Into what new wineskin will you pour your own walk with Jesus?
†††††††† Not everything old has
to go. Sometimes what is old in Christian life and faith might be new to you.
For some of us, this business of Lent and fasting and spiritual discipline,
which has been around for centuries, is brand new. Weíve never experienced it
before. For those disciples at that time, being with Jesus meant enjoying their
food. For us, it might be time once more to do the opposite and give attention
to Christ and His sacrifice by giving up some of what we eat.
†††††††† Yet itís not rigid. My
wife shared with me an article by a woman reflecting on fasting in Lent and
what it might mean for a person with anorexia. The suggestion she gave one
struggling person was to eat a chocolate strawberry every day in Lent. That
reverse fasting was a profound experience as a way to honor and celebrate her
new life in Christ. New wine and new wineskins are not the same for everyone.
Itís Jesus who stays the same.
†††††††† The little bit of
liturgy we do here, the saying of ďThanks be to God,Ē and singing ďGlory Be to
the Father,Ē after we read Scripture, may be a new experience for you, even
though itís ancient practice in the church. Or maybe joining a small group or
serving the homeless in one of our shelter ministries will be the new thing you
†††††††† Each of us and each
generation needs to discover its new wineskins. In the Reformation, Luther and
Calvin and others didnít plan to start something new. They saw themselves as
recovering the old and true faith. In the Christian church sometimes the old is
the new ďnew.Ē Jesus isnít asking us to constantly reinvent faith or church or
what it means to be a Christian. Jesus only wants us to see the freshness and
newness that is always there in Him, that He is always bringing to our lives.
†††††††† May the Lord pour out
the new wine of Jesus Christ into your heart and soul. And may He give you
grace and strength and courage to let the joy and power of it fill you
completely. May Jesus always be whatís new in your life.
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2012 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj