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“Stretching and Shrinkage: How Open are You to God’s Initiatives?”

Feb.19/12 Mk.2:18-22


Did you ever have those situations where you were feeling mighty pleased with yourself, and everything went fine until you opened your mouth? Two ducks and a rather egotistical frog developed a friendship. When their pond dried up, the ducks knew they could easily fly to another location, but what of their friend the frog? Finally they decided to fly with a stick between their two bills, and with the frog hanging onto the stick by his mouth. All went well until a little girl looked up and saw them in the sky. “What a clever idea,” exclaimed the girl; “I wonder who thought of that?”
    “I did,” said the frog.(!)
    Today’s passage is a little bit like that. Two groups of people who were pretty proud of their accomplishments and elevation in religious society made the mistake of opening their mouths to question or criticize something Jesus was doing. But His response shows their idea of righteousness falls rather short of God’s definition. We can get stuck in our habits and prejudices when the Lord has new ground He wants us to cover.


Before we look at vv18-22 in Mark 2, let’s back up a minute and check the context. Earlier sections in Mark show Jesus’ ministry beginning with wonderful healings and miracles: driving out an evil spirit; healing Peter’s mother-in-law, and many more; cleansing a man with leprosy; and healing a paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through a hole in the roof. Healing people is all very well and good, but we saw how Jesus used that healing of the paralytic to make a much larger point – that He was the Son of Man, God’s agent who had authority on earth even to forgive sins: something that was scandalous, outrageous, blasphemous as far as the religious leaders were concerned.
    Then in 2:13 Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi (whom we also know as Matthew, who later wrote the book that comes first in the New Testament by the same name). This was also a ‘wonder’ to onlookers, but not in the same way as a miraculous physical healing. Tax collectors in Palestine at that time were despised, viewed as traitors; they’d bought tax franchises from the Roman government - a licence to extort, to get rich at the expense of your poor neighbour. They were allowed to keep any amount they collected over what Rome required, so became wealthy at the expense of their own people. (So, be thankful for CRA when you fill out your income tax this year!)
    Not only did Levi follow Jesus (surprise surprise), he threw a party to invite all his friends to meet Jesus, too. V15, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him...” The term ‘sinners’ here represents a broad group – tramps, rejects, those from the ‘red light’ district...in short, anything BUT your good respectable pillars of society. This was all those at the other end of the spectrum: and they banded together for company, because no one who was anyone would dare have anything to do with them!
    This must have caused the religious folk who’d bothered to check Jesus out to stand there with their mouths wide open. V16, “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: "Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?"” Let’s put a little more emphasis on that, and add an exclamation mark: “WHY?!”
    If you’ve been reading through Leviticus this past week following the Bible-in-a-year chronological plan, you might understand some of their horror: in the law of Moses there’s a big distinction between clean and unclean, holy and profane. It’s important to ‘draw the line’ both in what you eat and how you behave. The Pharisees sought to put a ‘hedge’ around the Old Testament law so there wouldn’t be even a slight chance they might inadvertently sin; consequently, they wouldn’t even associate with anyone whose track record morally was the least bit dubious. Yet, here Jesus was actually EATING with these low-lifes!
    They saw outcasts; Jesus saw people in need, people hungering and thirsting for relationship, for spiritual healing and reality. He replies it’s the sick who need a doctor, not those who are well; He has come to call sinners, not the righteous. He saw possibilities for people to be reclaimed when others just saw failures to be written off.
    What about our church? Are we a hospital for the spiritually weak and sick, or a holy club of those who think God is privileged to be on speaking terms with them? Is anybody here who really feels they NEED to be here – or are we here out of a sense of grudging obligation, almost that if we come, God ‘owes us one’?!
    The Pharisees and teachers of the law were stand-offish, supposing that by separating themselves from certain broad groups of people they could somehow insulate themselves from sin. But sin is far more insidious than that. Do we ghettoize ourselves with our Christian friends and concerts and small groups, or are we out there ‘rubbing shoulders’ like Jesus was? Are we getting to know any non-Christians well enough to begin to ‘cross bridges’ and speak authentically about how Jesus has helped us?
    Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes it would be different if there were “evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.But (he adds) the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”


So, Jesus’ association with tax collectors and their ilk bugs religious folks who’ve been checking Him out. And one more thing. It seems that perhaps Levi’s spontaneous party he threw to introduce his buddies to the Saviour may have taken place on a Tuesday or a Friday. Pharisees fasted twice a week on these days, because they chose to, not because they had to: Moses’ law stipulated fasting just once a year on the “Day of Atonement’. It seems the disciples of John the Baptist had also adopted the practice of regular fasting. So onlookers can’t help but pass comment that Jesus is snubbing the ‘in’ religious protocol of the day. V18, “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?"”
    Let’s recall who these two groups were. John’s disciples must have been at a bit of a loss; their leader was now in prison for daring to criticize King Herod’s sleazy takeover of his brother’s wife. But his disciples, these revivalist upstarts, kept plugging along as best they could without their charismatic fiery leader. So, what do you do when the inspiration has left and there’s no new leading of where God’s going? You do what you did last week...and last month...and last year. So even this recent upstart group was quickly falling into bondage to religious custom. John had preached repentance and multitudes were baptized; he pointed people to Jesus and many responded by following the Nazarene. But those of his disciples who didn’t were left behind in a sort of spiritual dead-end, fasting and waiting for something that would never come - because it already came. They missed the point John had prophesied about.
    Then there were the Pharisees. These were champions of outward appearance when it came to religiosity, but they fooled no one. Both John and Jesus criticized them harshly. Easton’s Bible dictionary describes the Pharisees as “extremely accurate and minute in all matters appertaining to the law of Moses, their system of religion was a form and nothing more.” They had a very lax morality, and were noted for their self-righteousness and pride. Jesus described them as honouring God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. These were men who tithed mint and dill and cummin but swallowed widows’ houses, whom Jesus describes as full of greed, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and wickedness.(Mt 23:23,25,28; Mk 12:40)
    There’s a British sitcom called “Keeping Up Appearances”: the main character, Hyacinth, is always trying to impress the neighbours in hopes of climbing the social ladder. But her attempts to always make things look good cause her to be very cruel to those who know her. For example, in one episode her husband finds he has a case of athlete’s foot, but she doesn’t consider that ‘posh’ enough so insists he has to treat it as if it’s gout, which is a more ‘respectable’ rich person’s disease. She even steps on his foot to make him holler with pain as if it really IS gout. As the episodes progress, her pretense is almost unbearable. The Pharisees were experts at ‘keeping up appearances’!
    Religious habits can be helpful, or they can become empty (as in the case of John’s disciples) or, worse, a basis for pride and hypocrisy (as with the Pharisees). Are you ‘stuck’ in any practices that have become empty, meaningless? Maybe it’s time to ‘switch it up’ a bit! Last summer our church opted to do something different for summer services and met at people’s homes, generally outdoors. That was refreshing.
    Our devotional practices can also become stale and lifeless if we’re not careful. For years I read a Psalm and one chapter of either Old or New Testament for my morning devotions. This year I did something radical: inspired by others in the congregation, I’m trying the chronological Bible-in-a-year reading plan and commenting with others on the online blog. Another refreshing change. What new approach might you try? One of our daughters tried to read a different hymn every day when she brushed her teeth. Praise AND polish!


How does Jesus respond to this ‘slam’ that His disciples aren’t very religious because they don’t practise regular fasting? He offers three word-pictures that give us little glimpses, cameo appearances as it were, of what God’s kingdom is really like. The first cameo or glimpse is found in v19: “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.” Jesus didn’t present a relationship with God as some dull duty or burdensome observance; several of His parables refer to the Kingdom as a ‘banquet’, metaphorically. Here, he uses the word-picture of a wedding celebration: the bridegroom’s groomsmen and guests can’t help but be jolly when their buddy’s getting hitched. They want to rejoice with him.
    Jesus may be capitalizing on some references in the prophet Isaiah where God presents Himself as Israel’s bridegroom: “For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name...As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Is 54.5; 62:5) The apostle Paul also points to God’s Kingdom as something marked by joy rather than religious dietary rules: Romans 14:17, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and JOY in the Holy Spirit...”
    Christians can and do fast; it can be a helpful spiritual discipline, for a time. The early church fasted during a time of discernment in Acts 13(2f) before sending out Paul and Barnabas on a mission trip. But overall the tone of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom resounds with celebration.


That brings us to Jesus’ second word-picture responding to his critics, a word-picture you hear far fewer sermons about than the third one. I mean, church growth advocates are always talking about “new wine in new wineskins”, but how many sermons have you heard about “the unshrunk cloth”?!
    What’s He say? V21, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.” What’s the danger? The new patch-piece shrinks and tears away some of the older section of the garment, worsening the hole. The new piece is too aggressive, its energy or power to shrink damages the existing useful garment.
    When we trust in Christ, we can become so zealous we’re not sensitive to where people are at; if we’re not loving while we’re evangelizing, people may want to shove us away because we’re not caring for THEM as individuals, with a unique history and hurts. We need to ADAPT the gospel to express it in ways people will be able to hear it. Just because you’re saved doesn’t give you (or me!) a licence to be inconsiderate or judgmental. Jesus did go to Levi’s party, He adjusted to hang out with tax collectors and ‘sinners’ - without compromising His own purity. He enjoyed a good meal even though some religious folks may have viewed it as a ‘fasting’ day; Jesus knew He wasn’t breaking the law of Moses. Be adaptable, love people where they’re at – with the
Holy Spirit and your conscience as your guide.
    A question you might ask is, “How can I accommodate or adapt to get to know this person without compromising my key beliefs?” When I was a chaplain in the reserves, I hung out at times with others in the Officers’ Mess, even though there was a bar and drinking going on. It didn’t seem to bother anyone that all I had was a ginger ale and orange juice half-and-half. It was one more opportunity to build bridges of relationship with others, and ‘be Jesus’ with skin on.
    I read a book about a female Salvation Army missionary who worked with women in the red light district of Amsterdam – one of the most immoral places on the planet. Yet even there Jesus used her to reach out with His love and redemption to those caught in sex trafficking. Adapt His message to dark places without shuttering the light.


So Jesus’ word-pictures offsetting the religionists’ criticism centre on Celebration, Adaptation, and (lastly) Transformation. This is one you tend to hear the most about because churches as institutions lending stability and moral strength to society (generally) are by nature conserving, preserving, careful about matters of authority and tradition; people shaken and hurt by sin’s damage in the world may come to church looking for a ‘safe’ place marked by faithfulness and predictability, not unwelcome surprise. The church’s mantra often (the so-called ‘Seven last words of the church’) goes like this: “We never did it that way before!”
    And along comes Jesus – rattling our cages, our social order, by saving tax collectors and hanging out with ne’er-do-wells. Robinson comments, “Jesus here seems iconoclastic to the ecclesiastics and revolutionary in emphasis on the spiritual instead of the ritualistic and ceremonial.”
    Stability can be helpful, but the danger is that it stagnates. We need to hear afresh Jesus’ reminder in v22: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.” There’s the risk of double-loss: when the wine ferments, builds pressure, and bursts the rigid skin sewn together from a goat-hide for example, not only is the wine spilt and lost, but the wineskin too is ruined and unusable.
    The lesson here is: if you are convinced you’re practially perfect in every way, you’ve reached a ‘sweet spot’ in your existence and never want to change a thing or be challenged ever again – a relationship with Jesus is not for you. He didn’t come to call the righteous - perfect folk like yourself! - He came to call sinners, the Levis and others who knew deep down they ached for something more, to be a better person, but kept getting caught in the same old weaknesses and failures, ‘falling short of the target’. In other words, if you’re aware and willing to admit there’s some variance between you and where you sense you COULD be with God’s help, the ‘ideal’ you, the glorious you that God intended – Jesus is able to (and wants to) work with you.
    New wine ferments and changes its nature, its content, it becomes rich and flavourful and mature through the process and time. Likewise the Holy Spirit doesn’t leave us just the way we are: He produces pressure in our lives, pricks our conscience, makes us uncomfortable about perpetuating our sinning. Like new pliable fresh goatskins, we need to be flexible in order to grow along with the Holy Spirit, letting the Lord shape and mold us to re-birth us into the person He knows we can become. Hold onto your seatbelts, here comes transformation! 2Cor 3:18, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” And Eph 4:24, “...put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”


So, are you ready to celebrate a new start with Jesus? Are you adaptable, yearning for transformation? How flexible are you when the Spirit calls you in a new direction?
    If you’re not comfortable rubbing shoulders with those from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ – maybe you just need to do it more often. Some churches have outreach ministries going into prisons and correctional centres to minister to inmates. When in the Sault area, I had a special clearance so I could meet with prisoners in a separate room for pastoral counselling. A couple of times I’ve been called on to post bail for someone. A few years back it required about 8 court appearances to deal with one young man’s case. In the course of driving him to and from his appointments, we had some meaningful conversations about the role faith in God can play in one’s life.
    Are you flexible enough to see your family suddenly expand from 4 to 6? Our daughter and son-in-law Emily & Trent recently welcomed two little boys into their home, alongside Aiden and Kasher. Their mom was a young girl they’d worked with in youth ministry in Edmonton some time back; she didn’t feel she could cope any more as a single mom, so Em & Trent arranged with social services to look after her sons for a while. Four boys 4 & under – that will be a stretch! But Emily & Trent prayed hard about it and feel this was God’s leading.
    Celebrate God’s reign, His in-chargeness, in your life! He’ll help you adapt, and re-shape you gloriously. Let’s pray.