Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Question on Fasting and How To Deal With The Old and The New (Mark 2:18-22) Close Encounters of the Jesus Kind (Part 7)

The new is here what do we do with the old?

 Of course with an Op Shop around if your talking about clothes we can help you there.  We can tell you exactly what to do. But Jesus wasn’t talking about clothes. Well it might seem like he was because he did talk about the fact that you can’t patch old cloth with new cloth. That would just result in a bigger mess. But he wasn’t giving sewing tips to people round him.

The new is here what do we do with the old?

When they harvest grapes in the Hawkes Bay they don’t use wineskins anymore. However I haven’t seen people frantically hauling out and washing old used wine bottles and plastic bladders to fill with the coming vintage have you? No. They are buying in new glass  But again Jesus wasn’t talking about things like screw tops verses corks it was a parable a story from every day life that had a deeper spiritual reality. There is something more here.  

The new is here what do we do with the old?

Adrian Plass comments that for the disciples to fast would have been like travelling an entire circuit of the world in order to visit the person in the house next door. A waste of time and energy. But the master does say here, there would be plenty of time and opportunity for that after his death. The bridegroom celebrated with his friends but knew full well that before very long his bride would be widowed for a season.

Jesus took an observation about the difference between the behaviour of his disciples and the other religious people of his day the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees to tell people that with his coming things were going to be totally different. The good news of Jesus the messiah as Mark calls it would mean new structures and new ways would be needed for the kingdom of God.

The initial question was about fasting. Going with out food for religious reasons. Fasting is not unique to the Jewish and Christian faiths. Nearly all religions round the world have fasting as a religious practise.

In the Old Testament the people of Israel were instructed to have a national day of fasting once a year on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. This was a day when they remembered their sins and asked God for forgiveness. I the book of Zechariah it seems that the returning exiles from Babylon had at least four national fasting days all associated with disasters for the Jewish people.

There were also occasional fasts for a variety of different reasons: To show penitence, or an expression of grief. Many of you know that when you grieve the last thing you want to do is eat. They also fasted to seek God’s help, like in the book of Esther when all the Jews in Babylon fast before Esther goes before the king to plead for her people, or to seek God’s guidance, Daniel fasts and prays as he seeks the Lord for understanding of the visions he has seen. We see these continue in the New Testament, in Acts for example the Church leaders in Antioch fast before they commission Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. Jesus himself fasts during his time in the wilderness this is another use of fasting in scriptures as a preparation for ministry.

Fasting however became part of a whole structure of religious observance that the Pharisees had developed to keep right with God. By Jesus days the Pharisees and other devoted Jews fasted two times a week as part of their religious observances. They fasted on the second and fourth days of the week. In Matthew chapter 6 where in the Sermon on the Mount we have Jesus other teaching on Fasting it seems that they would make a very public display of the fact they were fasting, it became a public display of their piety and commitment. Jesus said in response that if you fast it’s a private thing between you and God it’s not about earning brownie points.

In passages like Isaiah 58 the dangers of fasting are pointed out. This is what concerns Jesus. It’s not a magic formula, a guaranteed way of getting Gods attention and answers to our prayer. It isn’t a substitute for right living; Isaiah says true fasting is caring for the poor, and seeking to live God’s justice out in the world.

Then Jesus answers the question on a whole different level. He says that the new thing that God is doing isn’t going to fit comfortably with the old ways of doing things. That the kingdom of God will bring in a new way of relating to God that will need new structures and new ways of expressing that new relationship.

The first hearers of Mark’s gospel were gentiles struggling with the issue of just how Jewish did they need to become in order to be Christians. So Jesus parables connected with the religious observance of fasting would have been liberating. It would have freed them to seek new ways to express being followers of Jesus. But historically that liberty has sometimes been used to try and fit the new wine back into old wineskins.  To impose on ourselves new religious observances to earn God’s favour rather than trust in the new relationship we have with god through Jesus Christ. Some Christians adopted the Pharisees two fast days for the week, but to differentiate themselves from the Jews they chose the third and fifth day of the weeks. A hang over of that is the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays. Which is a godsend for fish and chips shops. Lent developed in the west of Europe in the tenth century as the church set up mandatory fast days to prepare for Easter. We traded Jewish prayer shawls and the right number of tassels on garments for our own religious garb and vestments. Note in themselves these things are not bad but religious form can take the place of relationship with God.

Down through the history of the church there have been times when we have rediscovered the Good news of Jesus the messiah and it has meant that we have sort to mould new wineskins to hold that new wine. The protestant reformation made new wineskin moves to strip away a lot of what of it saw as hollow religious observances in light of their rediscovery of the centrality of salvation by grace. They wanted to strip away all the things that had become seen as ways to earn God’s approval in Medieval Catholicism. A move that the catholic church itself continues to do.

Like wise the charismatic movement in the 1970-80's did the same we see that in the way that many new denominations have appeared and adopted their own forms. Dressing down for worship has replaced dressing up. Worship bands have replaced choirs and organs. In this case the sense of new wine helped the church to meet the cultural changes that have come with electroic media.

Leonard sweet sums up where we are now by talking not of wine but that other life giving substance coffee Some like to drink it in a latt√© bowl, or a standard mug or in family heirloom china, or out of a paper cup on the run.  We can chose which one we like however we can get caught up with whichever container we like better and forget that really its all about the contents rather than the container.

What about for us today, what does this passage have for us. How are we to have a close encounter of the Jesus kind in these parables?

 Firstly I think we need to realise that as we encounter the good news of Jesus the messiah more and more and in new ways it will mean that we are constantly going to be looking at new wineskins to put the vintage in and to pour it out for the thirsty. The old ways may need to change. They may not hold this new wine. We can’t simply patch them. However I also wonder if ‘new wineskins for new wine’ hasn’t also been a catchword for Christians to simply embrace the cult of the new. Our consumer society is based on people always wanting, buying and consuming the new. The latest and the greatest, this seasons fashions so we won’t end up being so last year. The word new is the most powerful in advertising. I have to confess that I’m a product of my generation and this society and things hold real appeal for me because they are new. The Op Shop speaks prophetically to this situation by saying well maybe the old clothes don’t just need to be thrown out to make way for the new and there is plenty of ware still in these older garments. We don’t just throw them out because the new has come. Its interesting people are rediscovering a lot of the ancient spiritual disciplines of the Christina faith for today. In the end I think that our form of religious observation will be something like the way the farmers catalogue we got in the mail this week describes its new winter range. It says of it new range, "Be on the cutting edge while evoking eras long past." 

That led on well to the second thing for us today. We not only can evoke eras long gone we can also evoke errors of long gone times and we need to realise that we can fall into the same traps as the Pharisees did with fasting and other religious disciplines. We can see our forms and observances as ways we can control God. That by doing the things we get our prayers answered, simply because we do them. It’s interesting to see that in Pentecostal circles fasting has become in Vogue again. There are many books written about the power of prayer and fasting. While I believe fasting is a good spiritual discipline for Christians, there is a danger in this new emphasis that peoples hope for change can focus on the technique of prayer and fasting not the God who hears the prayers and sees our fating.

The other danger we can fall into is to see our religious observances as what makes us righteous. They are the things that are the out working of our new relationship with God in Jesus and we can forget that the words of the prophet Isaiah are as true for us today as they were for his first hearers. That the true fasting the true way of showing that we have entered into a new relationship with God is not worship style or the disciplines we use but rather the way we relate and care for God world and his people. That the kingdom of God we have come to believe in is good news for the poor, is a motivation to seek for justice and mercy.

In the end the new wineskins we adopt are not simply to store the new wine but to transport it and give it to the thirsty so they can quench their thirst as the new wine has quenched ours. The new cloth is not to patch old garments but is to cloth the naked and to shelter the homeless as it has clothed us and become our home. 

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