Today we come to week 3 of our journey through Mark’s Gospel. Between now and Easter we are working our way through Mark to meet with Jesus and learn what it means to follow him. I hope today is no exception – I hope today’s reading will help us see why Jesus is someone to celebrate, and someone to turn to for true and lasting rest. But let me pray before I start: Father God, we believe the Bible is your inspired, infallible word. Please speak to us now as we study it. Please bring us face to face with Jesus as we read it. In his holy name we pray, Amen.
- The Bridegroom has come: A time to feast not fast!
January is the month for diets and detox isn’t it? After the excesses of Christmas, people cut back on fatty foods and strong drinks to lose weight and get fit. January is when many of us try to eat less and cut back on the booze to improve our physical health.
But have you ever considered going on a diet to improve your spiritual health? Because in many religions of the world, including Judaism at the time of Jesus, people would fast to get closer to God. People would deny themselves food to improve their spiritual health.
At the time of Jesus, the most devout Jews would go without food twice a week. They would go on a fast for several spiritual reasons:
- Above all, fasting was a way of expressing sorrow and repentance for sin. It was a way of showing God how sincerely sorry you were for whatever you’d done wrong.
- Fasting was also a way of expressing your dedication to God. Abstaining from food was a way for people to show God that they hungered and thirsted for him. Fasting was a way to show God that you valued him even more than your daily bread - a way to show you hungered for his kingdom to come.
As we join our passage today, in verse 18 we’re told that John the Baptist’s “disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.” These spiritual ‘keen-beans’ were denying themselves a square meal for some of the reasons I’ve just mentioned.
But Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, and that caused quite a stir – why were they not joining in with everyone else? Jesus’ reply comes in verse 19. If you’ve got your Bible open, please look at it again: “Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.’”
With those words, Jesus is using the image of a wedding to rule out fasting. Jesus is saying that with him around it is time to feast, not fast. To be in Jesus’ company is a cause of celebration, just like being with a groom at his wedding. I’ve never been to a wedding where people went without food or drink. It would rather kill the party atmosphere - and hardly help the bride and groom celebrate their special day!
If you were here a fortnight ago, you’ll remember we looked at the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel. Verses that introduce us to Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord himself living a life on earth. And if that’s who Jesus really is, then there was no need for his disciples to fast! If you fast to come closer to God, then there’s no need when his Son is standing right next to you. How lucky those first disciples were!
And if you were here last week you would have heard Ken preach on the second half of Mark chapter 1, when Jesus really got to work. And it was an amazing work wasn’t it? Healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, forgiving sins and proclaiming God’s kingdom. Not the sort of thing to be sorry about - but to celebrate! As long as Jesus remains with them, its more appropriate for his disciples to feast, not fast! (In fact, just before today’s passage, in verse 15, we’re told that Jesus loved to dine with his disciples - he loved to eat with men like Levi, who had chosen to follow him).
Now, of course, we’re not lucky enough to have Jesus physically with us today. Since his death and resurrection, Jesus has been at the right hand of his Father in Heaven, not here on earth. And so there may be times when it is right for us to fast. It may be right for us to sometimes go without food for a short while to express our sorrow for sin, to focus our minds, to recommit ourselves to Christ and so on. According to verse 20 today, even the first disciples would fast once Jesus was no longer with them.
But fasting is not forever. Because every Christian believer will feast with Jesus in glory! One of the Bible’s most popular descriptions of heaven is to compare it to a wedding feast. Being with Jesus for eternity will be like a great banquet, where he will be our groom and the whole Church will be his bride. Heaven is literally a mouthwatering prospect!
- The Lord of the Sabbath: Come to Christ for rest!
What do you do to relax, I wonder? What activities do you find most restful? Sleep of course, plus maybe a long bath, or reading a good book, walking the dog, watching TV or going for a swim. Because we all need regular rest don’t we? Rest for our bodies and rest for our minds - its what professional athletes call recovery time, and I gather its almost as important for them as time spent on the training ground.
But as well as needing rest time for our bodies, we also need rest time to invest in our relationships. Time off from work gives us precious time to invest in our family, in our friendships, in our church, and (above all) in our relationship with God. You see, regular rest really is good for body and soul. And that’s why in Old Testament times God gave the people of Israel the Sabbath.
As far back as the book of Exodus, we’re told that God told his people to take off one day a week. A day that would be a break from work and an opportunity for rest and relationships. The Sabbath was given as a day to recharge one’s physical and spiritual batteries. A day for recovery and recuperation, a day for worship and for fellowship. All in all, a great idea - a weekly day of rest we should still try to have today.
With that in mind, let’s look at the second half of our Bible reading today, from chapter 2 verse 23 to chapter 3 verse 6. In my Bible it’s the section headed “Lord of the Sabbath”.
Twice in this section Jesus is challenged for breaking the Sabbath - or, to be more precise, challenged for breaking some of the restrictive religious rules that had grown up around the Sabbath. You see, at the time of Jesus, particularly zealous Jews like the Pharisees had compiled a detailed list of things that could not be done on the Sabbath. Things they defined as ‘work’ that could not be done on the day of rest.
So, for example, these rules specified how much you could carry and how far you could walk on the Sabbath before it became ‘work’. Another of their rules stated that you could not collect corn on the Sabbath. And verse 23 tells us this rule brought them into confrontation with Jesus. Listen again to what it says: “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’”
And if we jump forward to the start of chapter three, we see that some other Pharisees also tried to accuse Jesus of breaking the law - this time by healing a man on the Sabbath. They thought they could accuse Jesus of doing wrong when he miraculously healed someone’s shrivelled hand!
Jesus’ reaction to both of these accusations is interesting and important. His response to the Pharisees tells us something about himself and gives a lesson for us all to learn.
Firstly, the way Jesus responds to his accusers tells us something about himself. For a start, in verse 25 Jesus compares himself and his disciples to King David and his companions hundreds of years earlier. If David was allowed to re-write the rules on what to eat and when, so could he! You may know that David had been Israel’s greatest king, handpicked by God for his role and still held in high esteem by the Pharisees and every pious Jew. David was a man who had enjoyed a close relationship with God, a man who wrote many of our Psalms, a king who began a great dynasty. So by comparing himself to David, Jesus was making a staggering claim to greatness. (Imagine a British politician today claiming to be as important as Winston Churchill, and you get hint of what Jesus was saying!).
But in verse 28 Jesus goes even further, doesn’t he? He says “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”. As we read Mark’s Gospel, you will see that “The Son of Man” was Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself. You may know that the “Son of Man” is a title given to a person predicted back in the Old Testament book of Daniel. A heaven-sent person who head-up a worldwide kingdom, a kingdom that would never end. A God-given king even greater than King David, even greater than the Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs meeting in Davos this week.
And to top it all, Jesus also calls himself the ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ - a simply staggering claim! Jesus is claiming to be the Lord who invented the Sabbath, he is identifying himself with the God who gave Israel their Sabbath rest right back at the time of Exodus. It’s a claim that from anyone else’s lips would be ridiculous, but coming from Jesus – coming from a man who has already healed the sick, cast out demons and claimed to forgive sins – it is much more credible.
But there’s a deeper sense in which Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath too. He is the true Sabbath, the real rest we are all looking for. As Jesus said on another occasion, “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). In our busy, stressful, sinful world, Jesus offers us real rest, true forgiveness, and inner peace. He offers us a Sabbath rest that will last not just a day, but for eternity.
- Be a humble Christian not a proud Pharisee!
So that’s what Jesus said about himself, but what is the lesson for us to learn? Well, the lesson for us is to avoid the attitude of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were more interested in self-righteous religion than a relationship with Jesus. They were more interested in following their religious rules and rituals than in following Jesus and doing good. No wonder verse 5 tells us Jesus reacted to them with “anger and deep distress”.
And the underlying reason for the Pharisees attitude towards Jesus was their pride. They thought they had earnt God’s approval and made themselves superior to other people. They were too self-righteous to admit they were sinners in need a Saviour. Too stubborn-hearted to turn to Jesus for forgiveness, grace and rest. And too spiritually blind to recognise God’s Son when he stood right in front of them.
Now I don’t expect there are any paid-up Pharisees in our congregation here this morning, and I certainly haven’t bumped into one elsewhere in Gidea Park! But there are millions of people in our society who are Pharisees in their heart. There are countless people engaged in one-upmanship, trying to put themselves above other people. And there are thousands today trying to justify themselves in God’s sight, trying to work their way into heaven.
- We see a twenty-first century Pharisee whenever we see someone (perhaps ourselves!) trying to justify themselves by the success of their career, the amount they earn, or what they own.
- We meet a modern-day Pharisee whenever we meet someone who’s proud of how ‘religious’ they are, but has no living faith in Jesus Christ.
In contrast, a true Christian is someone who does not try to justify themselves in God’s sight, someone who sees no value in trying to be superior to other people. A true Christian is someone who has come to Jesus with empty hands, someone humble enough to acknowledge they are a sinner in need of a Saviour - someone who recognises that real rest and true forgiveness can only be found in a relationship with him. A relationship built on faith alone. May we all be humble Christians, not proud Pharisees - and encourage others to do the same.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, forgive us for our pride and foolish self-sufficiency. Help us to be humble, repentant sinners - and thank you for being our true Sabbath, our source of eternal forgiveness, joy and rest. Amen.