The next in a series on the red-letters of Jesus by Daniel Harrell
Now that the presidential candidates are set it’s time for five more months of being bombarded with promises of change. No matter the election year, change is always the rage. This despite the fact that every promise of change rarely results in change. Change, ironically, is politics as usual. And yet we remain suckers for it. We love the idea. And therefore every candidate promises it. And every voter votes for it. Change is always the rage. Always has been.
First century Jews longed for change. Granted, there was no voting back then. On the one hand, Israel was an occupied land, its people subject to the tyranny of Caesar. On the other hand, Israel was a God-fearing people for whom God’s word was final. Neither Caesar nor God ran democracies. Nevertheless, God did give his people a voice. They could pray and he would heed them. Then as now, prayer was the way to make your needs known. Likewise, then as now, fasting was viewed as a way to put prayer on the fast track. If you wanted something from God, you prayed for it. If you really wanted something from God, you fasted too. To abstain from food demonstrated sorrow and contrition. And if you’re sorry enough, God will have pity and act. And if he doesn’t, at least everybody else will feel sorry for you. Which in its own twisted way is sometimes better. At least if God doesn’t act you have somebody besides yourself to blame when things don’t change. And you get a lot of attention too. It’s probably why Jesus warned, “When you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.”
The Torah did authorize fasting. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Israel was to fast in preparation for their annual purification for their unintentional sins. The Day of Atonement worked as a cover all for all the mistakes for which you failed to confess or didn’t know you did. (There was no forgiveness for deliberate sin.) Of course if fasting once a year was a good thing, more would be even better. By the time we get to the New Testament, Pharisees were fasting twice a week. Tired of suffering under Roman oppression, they wanted God’s kingdom to come. Convinced that fasting could hasten kingdom come, and knowing that they’d garner public acclaim and power even if it didn’t, the Pharisees poured on the righteousness.
As for John’s disciples, they fasted too. Like the Pharisees, they also longed for God’s kingdom and for his judgment against Roman oppression and human wickedness. John the Baptist had vehemently warned people to prepare for God’s pending doom. Fasting was a mark of this preparation, a sign of one’s seriousness. The more you fasted, the sooner Caesar and sinners would meet their Maker.
As a good Jew, Jesus was all for God’s coming kingdom and all for throwing off yokes of oppression, Roman and otherwise. The issue was in the way that he showed it. Jesus and his disciples did not fast, apparently unconcerned about the effect their behavior may have on God’s favor. And not only were they eating, but they ate with deliberate sinners—tax-collectors and felons whose sins the sacrificial system provided no sufficient atonement. Jesus shared a table with these outcasts as if they were forgiven members of society! What was he doing? People needed to know, “Why aren’t your disciples fasting like John’s disciples and the Pharisees”
“How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” Jesus replied. The allusion here was familiar. Read the prophets and you’ll find the relationship between God and his people portrayed in marital terms with the Lord as the husband and Israel his bride. However, read the prophets and you’ll find it had been a rocky relationship. Isaiah narrated the wedding. But Hosea and Ezekiel exposed the infidelity. Jeremiah filed the divorce. Yet because God still remained in love with his people, this could not be the end of the story. “Your Maker is your husband,” declared the prophet Isaiah, “the LORD Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. … ‘For a brief moment I abandoned you,’ says your God, ‘but with deep compassion I will bring you back.’”
And he would. First in Jeremiah he promised his people a new heart and new start, and then he seals it with the promise of a new marriage. The audacity of change! And now the bridegroom arrives. Jesus launched the gospel of Mark by preaching: The kingdom of God is near. At hand. Close by. Right here. Repent and believe the good news. He then cast out some demons (which only God can do). Cured a man of his paralysis (which only God can do). And forgave sins (which only God can do). Do the math. If power over demons plus disease plus sin equal kingdom come, wouldn’t you think it time to strap on the old feedbag? When’s the last time you went to a wedding banquet and you didn’t eat any food? This wasn’t a funeral. It was time to celebrate. So why don’t John’s disciples and the Pharisees join the party? Wouldn’t they want a part of the very kingdom they’d been fasting for? Apparently not. The Pharisees’ problem was Jesus’ pedigree. As far as they could tell, he didn’t come from Messianic stock. There were the shady rumors surrounding his conception and birth. Not to mention his impoverished upbringing and working-class roots. And now he was living on the streets? Granted, the miracles had been impressive. But those got canceled out by his blasphemous insinuations of power sharing with God. We’re familiar with the Pharisees’ sanctimony. It’s easy to imagine them snubbing any wedding that featured such a scandalous bridegroom.
But why John’s disciples? Wasn’t John the Baptist the one sent to point Jesus out? Upon seeing his cousin, John identified him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” whose sandals he was unfit to untie. “His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John warned, “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the righteous wheat into his barn. But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” John got thrown into prison for rabble-rousing, but he figured he wouldn’t be there for long. The lamb was on the loose. Judgment loomed. But then came the reports. Reports about how Jesus showed up in his home church to read Scripture, only to have his friends and neighbors turn on him and run him out of town. John would have never stood for that. He’d have lit into those folks like he lit into the Pharisees whom he vilified as snakes and viper spawn. Jesus, however, didn’t light up anybody. There was no fire, no flaming judgment in response to their rejection. Not even a fiery temper tantrum. Not even when those same Pharisees accused him of blasphemy and jumped on him for eating with Levi. John also heard about Jesus’ preaching. Not much heat there either. Just one sentence so far. “The kingdom is near, repent and believe.” That was it. No unquenchable fire. Not even quenchable fire. Locked up inside his dark, dank prison cell, John started to worry. Matthew tells how he called a couple of his disciples and told them to go find his cousin and ask him: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we be expecting somebody else?”
Despite the infidelity and divorce, God promised his people a new heart, a new start and a new marriage. God keeps his promise in Christ. And yet the people fasting for it hesitate. As much as people love change, is it something we really want? Some years ago before Park Street went to four services, we thought that it might be a good idea to see if there was a struggling church in the area that might benefit from some growth. Perhaps we could help. The Allston Congregational Church was down to 24 members when we approached them. They didn’t have a minister or the means to support one. Would they like some more people? They answered enthusiastically, “yes!” How would they feel about a free interim minister? “Free?” Sure! What if we send over a couple hundred people and a minister with the proviso that none would become members and vote them out of their building (since our help could have been viewed as a takeover). We’d simply attend as fellow believers and pray some life back into their church. They loved the idea. They’d been praying for it themselves. But when the time came to change, all they changed was their mind and turned us down.
A couple years later I got a phone call. It was the Allston Congregational Church. They were now down to 12 members. Was the offer still on the table? By this time we’d added a fourth service, but sure. We’re all on the same team. If they wanted to give it a go, we’d rustle up some folks and try again. I’d come over and be the temporary minister myself. We drew up plans and got all the requisite permissions and were just about to launch when they changed their mind again. As much as they said they loved the idea, they just couldn’t do it. A few months and fewer members later, they disbanded their 120-year-old church and sold the building.
Jesus explained why. “You can’t sew a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,” he said. “You can’t pour new wine into old skins.” The new cloth will pull away from the old and make the rip worse. Pour new, unfermented wine into an old wineskin fully stretched out by previous fermentation, and the new ferment will blow the old skin open and spill everything. Before you think Jesus’ is coming out of left field here, remember that nice clothes and good wine both belong at weddings. “You have to pour new wine into new wineskins,” Jesus said. And you have to buy new clothes too if you’re coming to the wedding feast. If you’re going to change, you have to change everything.
The Pharisees and John’s disciples all believed that fasting would hasten the kingdom, but the kingdom Jesus preached was not the kingdom they had in mind. For the Pharisees, the kingdom was all about religious adherence. Obedience was crucial even if you had to fake it. For them, fasting displayed their spiritual passion and focus. For John’s disciples, the kingdom was all about justice. For them, fasting fueled their righteous anger—they longed for a kingdom that would come with a vengeance and annihilate oppression and wickedness and vindicate their righteousness. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was all about obedience and justice too. But first it was all about grace: a grace that fostered true obedience out of gratitude and a grace that promoted true justice laced with mercy. Thus Jesus came not as an intimidating preacher eager to point fingers or as a passionate revolutionary ready to fight, but as a bridegroom ready to party. And as far as he was concerned, his party was open to everybody. Yet as much as the Pharisees hungered for a kingdom of obedience and John’s fasted for a kingdom of justice, neither were willing to come to this reception to eat. Apparently you have to be starving to want Jesus.
Sadly, Jesus announces that even his disciples would end up hungry. Verse 20: “The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away, and on that day they will fast.” Fasting is an appropriate expression of mourning and sorrow. And there would be sorrow as Jesus would be arrested, beaten, executed and buried—the enormity of human disobedience and injustice laid on his back. But when he showed up alive three days later, the feast resumed in full—Jeremiah’s promises of a new heart, a new start and new marriage fulfilled. And yet, the early church, full participants in the kingdom’s arrival having witnessed the fall of Rome, the remarkable growth of the church and change everywhere, nevertheless interpreted verse 20 to mean that since Jesus died on Good Friday (that day), every Friday thereafter would be a fast day. The solemnity remains in present day communion practices where the table spread as a precursor to heaven’s wedding banquet still gets treated mostly like a funeral wake. No matter how many times I try to get us to insert some joy into the communion service, it feels inappropriate. Jesus died for our sins. We should be sad about that.
Our sin is a sad thing. And we should grieve it—sometimes maybe to the point of being unable to eat. Fasting is sometimes necessary. But once you’ve grieved, you need to repent, get it forgiven and move on. In Christ you have a new heart and you get a new start. Your life is already changed. It’s time to live that changed life. At least that’s the idea. So why is change still so hard? Perhaps it’s because as much as we love the idea, we don’t really want change. The Pharisees sat near the top of their societal ladder. People admired their piety, read their books and came to their classes and, respected their opinions. John’s disciples were associated with one of the most popular and fiery revolutionaries in recent history. They drew energy from their anger against injustice and passion for vengeance. Jesus sets a table for deliberate sinners and declares forgiveness of enemies. If you’re a Pharisee or a revolutionary, that’s a hard table to join. And yet, by inviting us all to sit down, Jesus tells us to our face that we are deliberate sinners and enemies of God too. We all need to change. And if you’re going to change, you have to change everything. “The kingdom of God is near,” Jesus preached, “repent and believe the good news.”
But instead of repenting and doing things differently, most of us opt for remorse and staying the same. We opt for saying “I’m sorry” and feeling bad since as long as you feel bad you don’t have to do better. Repentance opens you up to all the scary implications that come with actually being the changed person Jesus died to make you. I prefer the friends who when I confess my screw-ups respond by putting an arm around me and telling me not to worry about it, that I’m only human, it could happen to anybody. But what I need are the friends who get in my face and tell me to knock it off and that I am forgiven and I can do better and that I can make things right and need to move on and get with the grace and live like the new person in Christ I already am.
How can you fast when the bridegroom is here? Why try to patch up your old self when in Christ you wear a new set of clothes? Why pour new wine into an old way of life for which you feel bad rather than feel forgiven? Why settle for the idea of change when you can actually live it? New wine is for new wineskins. In Christ you have a new heart and a new start. Drink up and enjoy it.