Sermon, August 28, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade
The Gospel’s New Wineskin
Mark 2:15 - 3:15
One fact that Mark’s Gospel and all the Gospels make clear is that Jesus was a Jew, and he lived among Jews. His appearance on earth was a fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures. The Gospel he preached was Good News because it was a message that God was keeping promises he made to the chosen people of Israel. The Kingdom of God that was at hand in his person would be a reign in which he himself, as Messiah (the “anointed king”) would rule heaven and earth the way David and the other kings of the Old Testament were meant to rule over Judah and Israel.
Why, we might ask then, did the leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ time not welcome him as the message of Good News from their God that he was? Why did they question just about everything he did, the way the scribes do in 2:16? And the way the Pharisees do in 2:24? Why do they accuse him in 3:2? Why do they take counsel with the bureaucrats of Herod in 3:6 to destroy him? Over and over again in this Gospel and the other 3 in the New Testament, the Jewish leaders are found opposing this man, Jesus, who came, he said, to bring them every good thing their Bible had promised God was going to do for them. Why did they fight it?
The answer, of course, is that the leaders of Judaism had made their religion into something different from what Moses and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the other prophets of their scriptures had taught and intended. And these Jewish leaders were more interested in supporting what they and their predecessors had made of Judaism than what their scriptures had actually taught.
So when Jesus said let’s get back to the Bible, let’s get back to what the Law and the Prophets and the Writings really taught and promised, they rejected that as something new and dangerous. From the vantage point of what Judaism had become, Jesus did bring something new and dangerous. Dangerous to the political interests of the status quo.
Dangerous to the self-exalting practice the Jewish leaders were promoting to use the very effective tool of pride in accomplishment to motivate the compliant behavior of the people in the synagogue’s pews.
Dangerous to the “willpower religion” that invited people to think that sacrificing their time in prayer, and sacrificing their appetites in fasting, and sacrificing their money in giving is God’s goal in recruiting spiritual heroes; as if love were all about my being a giver and seeking my own in unselfishness, and not about the benefit of the beloved in receiving what I have to give.
Dangerous to the pride that turns the Law into a standard of performance that I can pretend to live up to instead of a loving prescription for how to flourish and find joy in this life that God gives us.
Jesus takes all three of those alleged dangers on in the text Robbie just read for us this morning and flips our perspective on them from the Jewish leaders fear of them to his own, and the prophets’ original, perspective -- from which the laws and practices of Judaism aren’t chores that demonstrate how righteous we are, but loving instruments that reveal how needy we are and how sufficient God is to meet our deep needs.
First, in 2:17, he says God isn’t our employer who wants us to follow the practices of Judaism to be so righteous that we earn paychecks and benefits from God. God is our Great Physician who prescribed Jewish practices to help sick and sinful people get well.
Second, in 2:20, he says his disciples will fast, but not like the fasting of the Pharisees who think they need to show how disciplined they are, or even like the fasting of John’s disciples, who show how hungry they are for a Kingdom they haven’t yet tasted. Jesus’ disciples are going to fast after he, the Bridegroom, is taken from them, to keep themselves hungering and thirsting for a Kingdom that they have tasted and seen is so good it is worth giving up anything and everything else to feast on it again. at the wedding feast of the Lamb with a Bridegroom that is already theirs.
Third, in 2:28, he says that the Sabbath law was not made to require men to serve it, as the Scribes and Pharisees were demanding. Rather the Sabbath Law was made to serve the needs and requirements of humanity.
All three of these episodes are included between Jesus second and third calling of disciples to follow him here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.
In Mk 1:16-18, Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John, and said “follow me.” Then in Mk 2:14 he called Levi, and said “follow me.” Last week we looked at the teaching and healing that came in between those callings and found in Jesus’ teaching and healing a declaration of his authority over the people and the demons and diseases, and even over sin.
In Mk 3:13-19 he calls again those whom he desired, and they followed him. And he appointed 12 of them to be his disciples. Mark names them in vv.16-19, just after the verses that we heard read for us this morning.
So, in between the first and second callings of disciples, Jesus demonstrates his authority over personal powers: over people, over demons and diseases, and over sin. Now, in between the second and third callings of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates his authority over Judaism: over (1) its religion and means of salvation, over (2) its practices and means of discipline, and over (3) its Law and means of regulating human life.
On his authority we learn that Judaism is and always should have been a religion of repentance from sin not of righteous earning of points. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners. Salvation in Judaism means that the Great Physician came to cure the sick, not to arrange award ceremonies for the self-doctorers.
On his authority we learn that Judaism is and always should have been a discipline of desire for delicious delights, not a demand for dedication to disciplined discharge of one’s duties. The discipline of fasting is supposed to be a way of enhancing the deliciousness of a feast to come, not a feast, itself, of heroism and personal accomplishment.
And on his authority we learn that Judaism is and always should have been grounded in a Law that brought its obedient observers ultimately to sing and not to suffer. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of man, not man for the benefit of the Sabbath.
Jesus sums up all three of these claims about the Jewish leaders’ distortions of Judaism with his first two parables in the Gospel of Mark. They’re there in vv.21-22. Judaism is an old, shrunken garment.
Jesus’ Gospel is a new, unshrunk piece of cloth. If you try to patch the Gospel onto the Judaism of the Scribes and Pharisees, you’ll need to expect tears and rips in the old Judaism. Its shrunken view of Moses and the Prophets just isn’t going to stand up to Jesus restoration of the original cloth.
Changing the image, Jesus says his Gospel is like new wine, but Judaism has become an old wineskin. Try to put the Good News of the fulfillments of Jesus’ Gospel into the container of expectations that Judaism has become in the hands of its self-important teachers, and the fulfillments won’t fit the reshaped promises any more. Jesus’ Good News is too good and too big to fit the shrunken expectations of Judaism any more and the old wineskin is going to burst with the Goodness of the Gospel!
Yes, Jesus’ Gospel is new cloth and new wine. Yes, it needs a new cloth and a new wineskin to contain the Good News Jesus comes to embody. But its newness is relative to the oldness of Judaism, not of Moses or any of the Prophets.
Yes, the Gospels stand at the beginning of a “New Testament” or a “New Covenant.” But the newness of this covenant is relative to the oldness of what Judaism had become and to the state of prophetic expectations as promises still without fulfillments. The newness of the New Covenant isn’t an invitation to set the Old Testament aside as though that’s where the opposition lies.
This is how the Gospel writer, John, puts it in his first epistle (1 Jn 2:7-8):
“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard.
“At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”
Heb 8:6 says “ Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” But what he says is responsible for the “faults” of the Old Covenant is not in the covenants themselves. V.8 goes on to say, “He finds fault with them:” Israel did not continue in my covenant (he quotes from Jer 31).
The covenant and the cloth and the wineskin are new, over against Jewish leaders and their faulty self-exalting interpretations, not over against the Judaism that Moses and all the Prophets revealed in the Old Testament.
That’s Jesus’ point here in Mark 2-3, too. The Gospel is going to sound new to you. But that’s only because the old, old story is coming back to compete with the misinterpretations of teachers who wanted to appeal to human preciousness and sufficiency instead of the preciousness and sufficiency of God.
Look with me briefly at each one of these three aspects of Judaism over which Jesus is exercising his authority in this morning’s text.
First, in 2:15-17, Jesus corrects the scribes’ understanding of salvation. Then, in 2:17-20, he corrects the Pharisees’ understanding of the practice of fasting. And then in two further episodes of plucking grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28) and of healing an incapacitated hand, also on the Sabbath, (3:1-5) he corrects the Pharisees’ understanding of Sabbath observance as a case study in Jewish Law.
All three of these messages are crucially relevant to the lives and practice of each one of us as Christians. Jesus isn’t just clarifying that the Jews are mistaken if they think his Gospel doesn’t apply to them. He’s also stating what the Gospel is positively and clarifying for his Christian disciples that we are mistaken if we think the salvation and the practices and the Laws of the Jews don’t apply to us.
What Jesus says about salvation in 2:17, when the scribes of the Pharisees find him eating at the same table with tax collectors and sinners, is one of the most central and important messages in all of God’s Word. Our right relationship to God and our eternal salvation in the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with our being good enough to earn those blessings from God. God never acts out of any obligation he has to us, to our actions, to our status, to our niceness as people.
Nothing about us will ever earn God’s attention to us. In fact, the more we try to earn favor with God, the more repulsive we will come to be in his eyes, because we are putting ourselves into competition for his attention with the one thing that is worth his paying attention to, and that is his own glory. That merits his attention. That deserves his worship. God would cease to be just and righteous if he were to honor anything less than his own worth and perfection. Nothing else deserves to compete, and that includes the best worth and dignity and niceness we humans would ever succeed in mustering.
God does not save us because we are nice. He saves us because we are needy, and because in our need we call upon his divine sufficiency as the Great Physician to heal us of our spiritual sickness and honor him as the one who alone is able to fill up the profound depths of our deficiency.
People who think they can doctor themselves don’t bring any honor to the medical profession. If anything they pour contempt on it by insisting on how redundant and unnecessary professional doctors are.
What honors God is our need, if we bring it to him with our soul-cries for help. That trust in the Great Physician is what the Bible calls faith. And that is why Jesus teaches here, as Scripture teaches everywhere, that salvation is by grace alone thru faith alone in Christ alone.
The first episode in today’s text may make the most central and fundamental point. But the second and third episodes make what, in modern Protestant churches, may be the most misunderstood points, so I want to focus on these a little more heavily.
In 2:18, people notice something unusual in Jewish culture about Jesus’ disciples: they don’t fast. Religiously observant Jews fasted. Pharisees fasted every Monday and every Thursday. When the Pharisee prayed next to the tax collector in Lk 18:11-12, he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
There’s the relationship between the first and the second and third points: the Pharisee’s assumption is that God will save him because he is righteous (as determined by the things he does that ought to earn God’s attention). The tax collector simply says: Be merciful to me, a sinner. There’s the righteousness of faith that God honors himself in responding to.
But if the first point is about the motives for Jewish practice (shall I tithe and fast to earn God’s salvation? or to show my neediness for and my trust in God to rescue me?) this second episode is about the substance of these old, Jewish practices (should Christians still carry on the practice of fasting? Should Christians still be observing the Sabbath?)
The question of fasting in particular is a timely one, because one of the elements of the Fire and Reign emphasis that we will begin as a church in January involves observing a day of fasting on the first Tuesday of every month. This is in fact an element that Fire&Reign will invite any of us who are willing to participate in for an entire year. There is a monthly book of meditations to accompany the first-Tuesday fast, and there are twelve short chapters of meditation in it.
So what about this practice of fasting? Is it Christian, since Jesus disciples stood out in their day by not doing it? Should we be engaging in the practice today? If we did, why would we do it? What good is supposed to come of it?
The answer to that first question, Should we do it? is clear from what Jesus says in Mk 2:20. “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” Disciples of Jesus will fast. There don’t appear to be any qualifiers attached to that: they will fast, if they are so inclined; they will fast, because a shortage of food won’t leave them any option. Disciples of Jesus will fast, he says.
A late-first-century Christian book called the Didache says, “Let your fasts not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays [that’s the Pharisees it seems to be referring to], but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” Fast, it says, but not like the Jews and for their reasons. Fast, but in a different way and for different reasons because there is something new, a new wine, a new cloth, at play with the arrival of Jesus Christ.
The same kind of answer comes in response to the Sabbath question: Should we be Sabbath observant? Do any of the other of the 10 Commandments get set aside because Jesus has come? Disciples of Jesus observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy. And six days a week disciples of Jesus labor because God labored for six days. And the seventh day he rested. So the seventh day is a day of rest. Like God’s 7th day.
Is God’s 7th day a day of inactivity? No, not that kind of rest. It is an active day of being finished and resting in and celebrating and living out the sufficiency of God to provide everything we need in 6 days of labor, just as God is actively doing right now in this long history of his seventh day of his creation.
So Christians observe the Sabbath, but we don’t observe it on Saturday, the 7th day, as the Jews do. We observe it on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in celebration of the most important day of Christ’s incarnate life on Earth: the day of his resurrection.
Fasting and Sabbath keeping: observance like the Jews, but differences that reflect the decisive importance that in the course of God’s dealing with his chosen people, the Messiah has now come. And that makes a massive difference.
As the meditation in the bulletin says, we do not fast because we need to feel and to portray our hunger for something we have not yet tasted. We fast because we want to keep alive our appetite for something we have tasted and seen is good.
We fast because it keeps our senses alive to the anticipation of an indescribable wedding feast that we live in preoccupied expectation of sharing.
We fast because, in the words of Richard Foster in his Celebration of Discipline, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.”
[The book from which the meditation is drawn [John Piper’s A Hunger for God] is an excellent and inspiring invitation to cultivate our hunger for God by means of the practice of fasting and I commend it to you to fill out so much more than what I have time to say of its benefits here this morning.]
And likewise we keep the Sabbath because of its wonderful benefits to us as disciples. It ought to be a delight that six days of labor suffices to supply enough provision for seven so that we can freely concentrate that seventh day on what we live for. And we at College Baptist confess in our mission statement that we live for praising the glory of God.
We keep the Lord’s Day as a Sabbath because the rhythm of work and rest every seven days gives a structure and pattern to our weeks and years. We grow best and healthiest when our stresses are interspersed with times of rest and replenishment and when our rest is interspersed with times of labor and challenge. No one flourishes with a steady and relentless diet of leisure or of work.
Fasting and Sabbath keeping persist in the Christian life, Jesus is teaching us today in his Gospel because they continue to promise rich and priceless treasures of putting Christ at the heart of our living. But they persist for Christian disciples for reasons and purposes that differ from those the Scribes and Pharisees urged them on the Jewish people of their time.
Jesus came with the authority of the Father to recover the true meaning of these practices, to set them on a foundation of faith in God’s provision of priceless benefits to children that he loves. He came to re-introduce his people to fresh wineskins for the treasure of the new wine of his Gospel.