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February 17th, 2013

There’s such a thing as being more spiritual than the Bible.

Mark 2:18-22

February 17, 2013

Amazed

If you were with us for the Ash Wednesday service, today’s sermon introduction will sound familiar.  It’s important background for those who were not able to join us.

For the first few weeks of 2013 at Corinth, we have been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans.  During Lent, however, we will take a break from Romans to study stories of Jesus’ earthly life from the Gospel of Mark.   As I began earlier this week to review how and when Mark was written, a bright light bulb flashed!

The Gospel of Mark was most likely written in Rome by John Mark, in the late 50s or early 60s AD.  Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth in about AD 57.  So, the Gospel of Mark is to Paul’s letter to the Romans what the Hobbit is to Lord of the Rings.  Mark is a prequel to Romans!

Paul wrote his letter to a small but growing Christian community in Rome, a city he had never visited.  Paul’s letter talks a lot about Jesus.  Paul is a servant of Jesus Christ, declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection.  Paul’s gospel is one of faith in Jesus who died for sinners to reconcile us to God and give us eternal life.  If we died with Christ, we will also live with him.  He is the Judge, but nothing will ever separate us from his love.  You must follow and serve him.  Paul says all these things about Jesus Christ our Lord, but tells you virtually nothing about his life on earth except that he died and rose again.  To be sure, these facts are the most important.

Meanwhile, Peter was already in Rome, having arrived there a few years before Paul’s letter.  Peter, in fact, may have been responsible for the converts who had formed the church to whom Paul wrote.  If you read Peter’s sermons in Acts and his own letters in your New Testament, you learn that Peter’s message was similar to Paul’s in that it mainly focused on the larger themes of Jesus’ mission – salvation through the death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus.  But Peter knew something Paul didn’t know.  As an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly life, Peter knew the stories about Jesus and occasionally told them.  A frequent companion of Peter and Paul was Mark.

An early church father named Eusebius, writing in AD 312, says that Peter’s hearers “were not satisfied with a single hearing…but with every kind of exhortation besought Mark” to write down what Peter was telling them.  In my view, this urging became even more critical with Paul’s letter to Rome.  If you have become convinced that Jesus is who Paul and Peter said he is (the Son of God), and that through his death and resurrection you have eternal life, don’t you want to know more about where he lived, what he did while he was alive, whether he taught anything memorable, and whether people’s lives were changed by him while on earth?

And so Mark’s account of Jesus’ life starts this way:  “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).  As I said, Mark is the prequel to Paul’s letter.

Wednesday night we looked at Mark 1:21-28,where the twice-repeated word that captured my attention was “amazed.”  Mark says in verse 22, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as teachers of the law.”  Then Jesus cast out an evil spirit, and verse 27 says, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this?  A new teaching – and with authority!  He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.”

Two years ago I burned a CD of Bob and Linda’s love songs, and one of those is from a country group called Lonestar:  “Every little thing that you do…Baby, I’m amazed by you!” I know that’s a bit sappy, but you know what it’s like to be amazed not only by someone who loves you, but by “every little thing” your lover does and says.

To be amazed is to be “blown away,” to be immobilized and speechless.  Mark wants us to be amazed by “every little thing” Jesus does and says in his earthly life.  He will in this way validate what Peter and Paul say about the significance of the big things.  That perspective helps me immensely in reading Mark’s gospel.

Our study of Mark is going to explore some of the less familiar stories about Jesus.  For example, between the text we read Wednesday night and the one we are reading today, the most familiar story is the one about the four friends who brought a paralyzed man to Jesus and cut a hole in the roof to let him down.  Another is the calling of Levi (or Matthew) and Jesus’ dinner party with tax collectors and sinners.

Today, as we look to understand “every little thing” Jesus did and said, we are looking at a lesser known teaching and parable in 2:18-22.

Fasting

The first subject that our story in Luke addresses is fasting.  Fasting seems like an appropriate topic for the first Sunday of Lent, when many Christians “give up” chocolate or soft drinks or Facebook for the 40 days of Lent.  There’s more about Lent in your bulletin insert if the concept is new to you, but fasting is certainly part of it.  Roman Catholics are encouraged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday at least, and not to eat meat (except fish) on Fridays during Lent.  Other denominations and Christian groups practice fasting, often in connection with personal or group prayer.

Fasting is not unique to Christians.  Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, one month of the year.  Buddhists fast during retreats.  Hindus tend to pick a day of the week for fasting.  Jews today observe several days of fasting.  Only one is prescribed in the Bible – the annual Day of Atonement – but there are several recorded instances of national mourning or prayer accompanied by fasting.  The most religious Jews of Jesus’ day fasted twice a week

What I find interesting is the lack of emphasis in the early church on fasting.  There are a couple of references in the book of Acts where church leaders fasted and prayed about a decision, but there is nothing – nada – in the letters written by Paul, John, James, Peter, and others that requires or even encourages religious fasting.  The closest text I can think of will come later in our study of Romans (with a parallel in 1 Corinthians), when Paul deals with a divisive issue in the early church over whether a Christian should eat meat or drink wine.  Paul’s answer: “Don’t offend someone else.  Make your choice based on faith.  And don’t judge someone who makes a different choice than the one you make.”

But if you believe in Jesus and want to know about “every little thing” he did and said, don’t you want to know what he thought about fasting?  We find out in Mark 2.

As Jesus emerges into regional prominence, as happens with most people who become famous, he comes under scrutiny.  Notice it’s not the religious leaders who are criticizing Jesus (that happens in the story before and after).  This seems like an innocent curiosity from regular folks.  They observe that the disciples of John the Baptist (Jesus’ forerunner) and the Pharisees (strict religious leaders) made a practice of fasting.  But Jesus’ disciples do not fast.  The people want to know why not.

Jesus’ answer comes in the form of two short parables, or analogies.  The first brings to mind a wedding.  Jesus says in verses 19-20, “Nobody fasts at a wedding.”  When you are in the presence of the bridegroom, it’s insulting to fast.  When the wedding is over and you are no longer in his presence, then you can fast.

Here’s one of the “little things” Jesus does that I love.  I love how he can give a short quip or tell a brief story that makes several different points and still leave some mystery behind.  It reminds me of what Dan Jones, the first senior pastor under whom I served fresh out of college, taught me to say three decades ago when someone would look at all the books in his office and ask, “Have you read all these?”

Dan would answer, “I’ve read some of them twice.”  In those few words he made several points.  I do read.  These books are my treasures.  I have read many of them.  I haven’t read them all.  Some of them are worthy of re-reading.

Jesus does that sort of thing with his answer on fasting.  Fasting is good.  There are times to fast and times not to.  Just because someone else religious is fasting doesn’t mean you need to.  There are also times to party, and you shouldn’t let others burden you with false guilt if their practice of fasting is different from yours.

This is consistent with other parts of the Bible on the subject of fasting.  Fasting doesn’t get you spiritual “brownie points.”  Don’t give up food to impress God (Luke 18:12) or other people (Matthew 6:16).  Don’t let your practice of fasting falsely soothe your conscience when you ignore people who are hungry, homeless, and unclothed (Isaiah 58:6-7).

Fasting in the Bible also helps you focus more intently on prayer – either privately (Luke 2:37) or in a group (Acts 13:2-3).  But in prayer, don’t think of fasting as putting God in your debt, like, “I gave this up for you, God, now you need to come through for me.”  God doesn’t work that way.  In summary, the purpose of fasting is not to impress God; it’s to change you.

I probably should fast more.  I fasted recently for two days, but prep for a colonoscopy doesn’t count, especially accompanied by all that whining.  I don’t eat on Monday mornings as a rule, just because I want to remember that, as Jesus said, life is more than food (Matthew 6:25).  I decided last July 24 to give up Diet Coke for a year.  But I still drink Cokes and Coke Zeros and other soft drinks.  What’s the rationale?  I was drinking 5-6 Diet Cokes every day.  There was no moderation.  I needed to give up Diet Coke, because it had become an obsession.

This Lenten season, what has become an unhealthy obsession for you?  There are some obsessions that need to be abandoned permanently.  As Pastor Paul said this week, “Don’t give up porn for Lent.”  Find some help so you can give it up, period.  We even have a new support group for that one.  If alcohol is controlling your life, there’s an ongoing group for that one that meets here every Sunday night – AA.

But for most of you, on most issues, fasting is about asking, “What thing, even a good thing, is obstructing my relationship with Jesus?”  Fast from it during Lent.  If you feel distant from God or are in need of some focused prayer for guidance, fast to spend that time and energy with the Lord.  But however you might be prompted to fast, this is clearly one area where you shouldn’t expect all disciples of Jesus to do what you do.

In with the New

Jesus then uses another brief analogy, apparently still in answer to the question about fasting.  Well, really two analogies, but they are similar.  First, he says that you don’t patch an old garment with a new patch.  Nobody patches clothes much anymore, so this doesn’t make a lot of sense to us in our day.  But we all know the experience of washing a sweater or t-shirt that is not preshrunk, or washing it accidentally in warm or hot water, or even putting it accidentally in the dryer when the label says don’t do it.  This is a common male strategy for not having to do any more wash.  Your wife says, “You ruined my good sweater!  Let me do the laundry from now on!”

Both in Jesus’ day and in ours, people made clothes larger than necessary so they would shrink into a comfortable fit.  Now, if you have a hole in such an article of clothing and sew an unshrunk patch in it, what’s going to happen?  The patch will shrink, but the garment will not, causing a tear.  The problem is made worse.

The second story also deals with something unfamiliar to us – wineskins.  These were flexible containers made from the skins of small animals, especially goats.  But over time, the tanned hides lost their flexibility.  New wine expands as it ferments, so the new wine couldn’t be stored in an old, rigid wineskin, or the container would burst.  Once again, the effort to be frugal or efficient by using that old wineskin again causes a greater problem.

What is Jesus saying?  As with the fasting during a wedding, several points can be made from these brief points.  New times call for new methods.  But not everything changes, nor should it.  You still have wine, still have clothes, still have wedding.  And it seems an overarching point from Jesus is that in his time, joy takes precedence.  When Jesus shows up, party!

When I don’t like Christ

I don’t know how this passage speaks to you today or what you came to church looking for.  Here’s what I’m looking for.  “Every little thing” Jesus says or does matters to me.  I want to know how he thinks, how he responds, what he connects.

I find Jesus at times perplexing, mysterious, even confusing.  Because of that, I find him intriguing.  It bothers me when both Jesus’ followers and unbelievers try to put him in a little box.  Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was once asked why he did not become a Christian.  He famously answered, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I understand why Gandhi didn’t like Christians.  Our behavior – past and present, others and even mine – offend me as well.  I look around the church and I don’t like us much either from time to time.  I do wish Gandhi had taken time to get to know more Christians.  My own grandfather was his contemporary in India, and I wonder if Gandhi would have liked Christians more had he come to know Grandpa Thompson.  At any rate, I get his comment that Christians are often the worst advertisement for the Christian faith.  Maybe your goal and mine during Lent should be to make Jesus more attractive for those who don’t believe in him.

What I don’t understand is why Gandhi said he liked Christ.  I know Gandhi liked the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor in spirit, turn the other cheek, don’t lay up treasures on earth, don’t judge, do to others what you want them to do to you, and so forth.  But did Gandhi like other parts of Jesus’ message?  Did he agree with Christ that “the smallest letter” and “the least stroke of a pen” in the Hebrew law had to be fulfilled?  How about where Jesus said that everyone who has will be given more, and those without will have even what they have taken from them?  Did Gandhi like the Christ who said you’ll always have the poor with you, so don’t make them your only concern? Did he like the Jesus who said he’s the only way to the Father?

Do you “like” our Christ?  If you say yes too quickly, you’re not thinking deeply enough.  Mark’s prequel to Paul’s letter to the Romans presents Jesus as far more complex than what Paul wrote about him.  When I read the Gospels carefully and openly, I come to realize Jesus came to save us; he didn’t come to be liked. He didn’t even come necessarily to be understood.  Every person and system who ran into him went away challenged and changed.  As soon as you think you have Jesus figured out, he says something to throw yo off.

I think part of the Lenten journey is about letting ourselves be shocked by Jesus, maybe even confused.  He should throw us off a little, no matter what our previous understanding or background.  As soon as you think you have Jesus, or the Bible, or the Christian life, all sewn up, you’ll find a passage of Scripture or have an experience that humbles you.  That’s a good thing.  On the subject of fasting, Jesus fasted, but he didn’t require fasting; nor did he set guidelines for fasting.  We are left with a few basic principles to apply not only to fasting but to other areas of life.

The Christian life is discipline balanced with grace.  Discipline without grace makes you self-righteous and judgmental.  Grace without discipline makes you careless and lazy.  If you never fast, never give up anything for the sake of time with God or release of an addiction, Lent is a great time to start.  If you are rigid and showy in your fast, then maybe during Lent you should fast from fasting.

There’s such a thing as being more spiritual than the Bible.  I owe this phrase to Robertson McQuilkin, another longtime mentor, who served as President of the Bible college and seminary Linda and I attended.  It’s really hard to argue with people who are so sure of their own logical, careful application of the Bible and the Christian life – those who give up wine for Jesus or spend an intensive hour in prayer every day or witness to every person they meet or workaholic themselves into the grave for love of the Lord.  But when my spirituality robs me of all joy and makes me disdain those on a lower plane than I am, I’m being more spiritual than the Bible.

Don’t think you need to make everyone else’s decisions for them.  Jesus is here teaching what Paul says in his letter to the Romans about food and drink:  “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To his own master he stands or falls.  And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand”  (Romans 14:4).  Amen.

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