A Question About Fasting
This past Thursday we celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary. I remember it like it was yesterday. We stood in this room, on this platform and made vows before God, each other, and this church. I remember that one of our groomsmen was super late and didn’t even make it into some of the pictures. And don’t try to get me to spill the beans on which it was because I’m not going to tell you that it was Andrew Vadnais. I remember that we had our reception in the gym, where we ate, and laughed, and celebrated this new covenant together as a church.
Can you imagine if we had gone to the reception and there were people there who refused to eat? The function of a wedding reception is to eat, drink, and be merry; it’s to dance and celebrate, to laugh and rejoice. Can you imagine someone just sitting at a wedding reception and not touching a morsel of food? Can you imagine if the wine bottles remained empty? This is the picture Jesus is describing to us in Mark 2.18-22.
Mark 2 is full of questions about how Jesus fits in with the religious practices that the Jews had observed for hundreds of years. At the beginning of chapter 2 the Pharisees question Jesus about saying that he forgives the paralyzed man sins. Chapter 2 ends with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about picking grain on the Sabbath. And this morning we see that some question Jesus about fasting, or the lack there of.
As we wade back into the Gospel of Mark this morning let’s remind ourselves of the big picture. Tim Keller helpful notes that Mark’s Gospel can be divided into 2 acts: King’s Cross. The first 8 chapters of Mark are revealing to us that Jesus is the King. He’s the King of the world, and he’s the anointed King that Israel had been waiting for. He’s the King who’s going to unite the Jews and Gentiles under one kingdom.
And the last 8 chapters of Mark reveal to us how he’s going to do it – through the cross. The meaning and mission of the life of Jesus is to die on the cross in the place of his people for their sins. He is uniting the nations through his penal substitutionary death on the cross. So let’s look this morning at what Jesus has to say about fasting, how it reveals his kingship, and what in the world it has to do with CCC.
Verse 18 says, now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Fasting was a common practice for STJ. Fasting is only explicitly required once in the OT. Leviticus 16.29, 31 requires the Jews to fast on the Day of Atonement. Though by the time of the restoration fasting had become common practice (Zech 7.5; 8.19). So important was fasting for ancient Jews that an entire tractate of the Mishna, Taanith, was devoted to it.
Fasting was linked to remembering sad times, like the destruction of the Temple, or the Exile. The Pharisees themselves fasted every Monday and Thursday. So when we get to Mark 2, it’s no surprise that the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting. That’s not the strange part. The odd thing is that the disciples of Jesus are not fasting. And so they ask him about it.
Jesus answers them with a parable. Verses 19-20, and Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. Jesus tells them that there’s an appropriate time for fasting and an inappropriate time for fasting. It is inappropriate to drink and dance at a funeral. But it is appropriate at a wedding. In fact, it would be inappropriate to abstain at a wedding.
Why? Because it’s a celebration! The very nature of a wedding demands that we eat, drink, and be merry. To have the countenance of a funeral while attending a wedding would just be odd. It would be to miss the point. Like a wrestler who continues to starve himself after weigh in. Like abstinence on your wedding night.
Jesus is revealing to them that fasting (and all religious practices in general) is not an end unto itself. Fasting is a means to an end. Fasting has a goal. Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus instructed us about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6.16-18). Paul fasted when he was blinded by Jesus (Acts 9.9), and the church fasted when they set aside Paul and Barnabas for missionary work (Acts 13.2-3). Fasting can be a godly and healthy discipline, but only when it’s properly understood.
Fasting is a means to an end. The goal of fasting is to draw our hearts to Christ. Fasting makes us aware of our own weakness and mortality, and forces us to rely upon God. The disciples didn’t need to fast to draw near to Christ; Christ was right there with them. The wedding guests can miss the groom when he goes on his honeymoon, but at the wedding reception, it is their duty to party.
But Jesus is also revealing to them that something new has come. There is further understanding. By calling himself the groom, Jesus is evoking OT language. The prophets refer to YHWH as the husband of unfaithful Israel. Jesus is declaring himself to be the true groom. He is YHWH, the faithful husband who’s come. And if that’s true, then these old paradigms just wont do.
Verse 21, no one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. Jesus says you can’t take a piece of unshrunk cloth and connect it to old shrunken cloth. If you do, it will tear and the whole thing will be ruined. In verse 22 he puts it this way, and no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” If you try to make the new fit with the old, you ruin both the old and the new. You waste perfectly good cloth and perfectly good wine.
Jesus is telling them that the old way of things was good for its time, but that time is over. God spoke in many ways before, but he has now spoken finally through his son (Heb 1.1). The covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David sustained for their time, but a new wine is here.
The Kingdom the Jesus is bringing was foreshadowed by the story of Israel, but it is much bigger than the story of Israel. Jesus is telling the story of humanity and he is initiating a new humanity. His kingdom will consist of people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and time. Jesus is not merely the husband of Israel, but of the church made up of the nations. The old wedding garment of Israel’s law will not fit the new cloth of Christ. The old wineskins of Jewish rituals will not fit the new wine of the Kingdom of Christ.
There are two implications this morning from the story of Jesus – one about fasting specifically, and the second a more general principle. What does the teaching on fasting mean for CCC? Fasting is clearly a matter of Christian liberty. Because Jesus lived perfect righteousness in our place, died for our sins, and resurrected on the third day inaugurating the new creation, there is no mandatory fasting. That being said, Jesus did say that his disciples would fast after he left, which probably refers to the time after his death and even after his ascension. Jesus did give instruction about what to do if you fast, look at Matthew 6.16-18:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
When you do fast, like during Lent, or if you’re praying about a major decision, or struggling in sin, don’t make a show about it. Make sure that you appear normal to everyone else. Fasting is a practice that involves you and your Father in heaven. If you make a show of it, then you’re missing the point. But the point is also that fasting ought not be a regular part of the Christian walk like the Lord’s Supper, weekly sermons, or prayer. Fasting is occasional because we ought to live in a state of feasting. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!
The broader point is that we must not get bogged down in the old wineskins of religious activity and miss the wine that is Jesus. For the Jews this meant that they shouldn’t serve fasting or the Sabbath and neglect God himself in their presence. We can create our own golden calves that distract us from Jesus. I’m not saying that we ought to neglect religious practices. God forbide! That would be to disobey Jesus. He commands us to preach the Word, to baptize, to observe the Eucharist, to pray, and sing, and make disciples, but these practices aren’t ends in and of themselves. These means of grace exist to draw us to Christ.
Jesus beckons you this morning; don’t live in a state of fasting, live in a state of feasting. The bridegroom has lived righteousness in your place, he has died for sinners, he is risen indeed. You can be justified by faith and your sins forgiven. He is coming again to make everything sad untrue! That’s good news! That demands a party. It necessitates that we dance and celebrate; that we eat, drink, and be merry.
Jesus isn’t contained by the old covenant. The old covenant paved the way for Christ, but it will not restrict him. Fasting is for Jesus; Jesus is not for fasting. James Brooks wrote, “The way to God is not through religious practices but through joyful association with Jesus.” May CCC be a people who feast on the new wine that is King Jesus!