Jubilate, The Third Sunday after Easter May 6, 2001


Unnatural Pairs

Mark 2:18-22


293, 396, 375, 39

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. And they came and said to Him, ‘Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.’ Here ends our text.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, Whose grace is new to us every morning, Dear Fellow Redeemed,

Some things just naturally go together. Like Mom and apple pie, corned beef and cabbage, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. You think of one, you think of the other: they’re a natural pair. On the other hand, there are certain things that everyone recognizes do not belong together. Loud jokes at a funeral, gasoline and cigarettes, oil and water. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that one is incompatible with the other.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all the choices in life were that easy to make? Unfortunately, it’s not always so clear to people which things belong together and which things don’t. For example, marriage and commitment belong together, but a heart-breakingly high divorce indicates that many couples haven’t learned that. Drinking and driving obviously do not belong together, but accident statistics show a lot of people haven’t figured that out yet. In the sphere of Christianity, you’d be surprised how many people can’t tell the difference between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and legalism. Legalism is the idea that you’ve got to put on a certain front and keep certain outward rules in order to please God and get to heaven. This idea has been around for a long time—in Jesus’ day, it was the Pharisees who had a corner on the legalism market. But as our Lord points out in this morning’s text, the Gospel and legalism cannot possibly go together. As a Christian, it’s essential that you be able to tell the difference! Our theme today is:


  1. Drummed-up sorrow doesn’t belong with Christian joy.
  2. Pharisaic legalism doesn’t belong with Gospel freedom.

In the Jewish religion, fasting—that is, going without food—was originally meant as a sign of sorrow over sin and repentance. The law of Moses had required it for one day out of the year, the Day of Atonement. But over the centuries, the self-righteous Jews had gradually imposed more and more days of fasting. By Jesus’ time, orthodox Jews went without food twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. For most of them, fasting had lost its meaning of sincere repentance, and turned into simply another way to look good in the eyes of others. Jesus warned His disciples, “Do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.—Mat 6:16.

As the account of our text opens, the disciples of the Pharisees and the disciples of John had been fasting. You dieters—have you ever had to pass up food when the people around you are eating all they want? Irritating, isn’t it? Well, Jesus and His disciples had just come from a big dinner at the house of Simon, and this evidently rubbed them the wrong way. They said to Jesus, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” Look at us! We’re acting sad and going without food! Why aren’t Your disciples doing likewise? In answer, Jesus used the illustration of a wedding celebration. He asked them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?

…Now there’s one thing that hasn’t changed! Think about the last time you were a member of a wedding party: how many sad faces did you see? How many members of the party were so depressed that they refused to eat anything at the reception? What a silly idea! A wedding is a time of joy, a time when people put aside their troubles and celebrate with the bride and groom. Sadness and a wedding…that’s certainly an unnatural pair!

In the Bible, salvation is sometimes pictured as a wedding celebration, at which Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom. As Christians, you and I are guests at this feast of salvation. We are members of the bridal party, invited to share freely in the joy of our Lord. What confuses me is how many believers there are who go around with sad faces all the time! They act as if being a Christian is some kind of huge burden they have to bear. They seem to think that if they don’t work their face into a constant frown, people will think they’re not as pious and devout as they should be.

On the one hand, sorrow—on the other, joy. That’s an unnatural pair—two things that just don’t go together, at least not for us. Drummed up sorrow doesn’t belong with Christian joy! Jesus said, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” For Jesus’ disciples to mourn and fast while Jesus was still with them wouldn’t have made any sense. Worse, it would have given a wrong impression—the impression that Jesus was not the Savior of the world, like He said He was. A proper time to mourn was coming, Jesus said; it would arrive on Good Friday, the day when He would give up His life on the cross. But not even that sorrow would last! It would be completely overshadowed by the triumphant victory of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Jesus told His disciples, “Most assuredly, I say to you that you…will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy.—John 16:20.

Likewise, there is a proper place for sorrow in the life of a Christian. Paul said, “Godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted.—2 Cor 7:10. When you look at the cross, you see the suffering that your sin inflicted on Jesus, and it naturally makes you sad and repentant. But how can you stop there, at the cross? Jesus didn’t! He rose from grave and proclaimed victory over sin, death and the devil. And the Bible promises that His victory is your victory, as we read in Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Easter was three weeks ago. But if you’re a Christian, then the Easter joy is for today, and tomorrow, and for every day of your life! Think about it—what sorrow is there left in your life that the open tomb of Easter has not conquered? Do the sins of your past trouble you? Look up Romans 4:25—the open tomb says you’ve been declared not guilty. Are you worried about the details of this life—money, bills, your future? Look up Ephesians 1:20-22—the open tomb says that Jesus lives to rule in your life and help you handle your problems. Are you saddened by the thought of death? Look up John 14:19—the open tomb says you’re going to rise to eternal life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has given us the freedom to be happy…so let’s use that freedom!

Drummed-up sorrow just doesn’t belong in the presence of the Savior. Jesus explained that to those fasting Pharisees. But He went on to probe a deeper problem they had—the problem of legalism. They recognized Jesus as a skilled teacher, but they thought He ought to bring His new teachings into line with their old teachings. Theirs was a religion of do’s and don’ts: do fast on Mondays and Thursdays, don’t have anything to do with Gentiles; do wear certain kinds of clothes, don’t eat certain kinds of food. It was a religion that said “if you look good on the outside, then you are good.” In short, it was the legalism of the Pharisees.

On the one hand the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, on the other hand, the law-oriented religion of the Pharisees. That’s an unnatural pair if there ever was one! Pharisaic legalism doesn’t belong with Gospel freedom.

To illustrate, Jesus said, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined.” Meaning? You can’t sew a little patch of Gospel on a robe made out of Law and expect to wear it into heaven. You can’t force the sweet wine of grace into the cracked old wineskin of the Law, and think you can drink eternal life from it. I’m sure that heaven and hell will both contain people who did a lot of good works during their lifetimes. The difference is: the ones in heaven did them because they were saved by Jesus, the ones in hell did them in order to try and save themselves. That’s exactly the difference between the Gospel and legalism. The two definitely do not belong together! The Bible says plainly, “By the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified.

You know what a plumb-line is. Well, if you hang a plumb line from the top of a wall, it can tell you that the wall is crooked…but it can’t straighten the wall out, can it? The Law is like a plumb line: it can show you your sins, but it can’t save you from them. For that, you need the pure Gospel. The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus has kept the Law perfectly in your place, and that His death pays for all the times you’ve broken it.

And what about all those Old Testament rules and regulations? How come you and I aren’t required to worship on Saturday, and sacrifice animals, and observe Old Testament holidays like the Passover? It’s because all these things were designed to point God’s Old Testament people toward the coming Savior. Once Jesus arrived, they became unnecessary! As Jesus said, “New wine must be put into new wineskins.” God has done away with the Old Covenant and given us, in Christ, the New Covenant of the Gospel. It’s a covenant of Christian liberty, where our actions are directed by love for our Savior, and not by a bunch of prescribed rules and regulations.

This is the Gospel freedom we enjoy, and this is one place where the old Pharisaic legalism is completely unnatural. The Apostle Paul said, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.—Gal 5:1. Don’t let anyone tell you you’ve got to worship on Saturday, or skip meat on Fridays, or chalk up a certain number of good deeds in order to get to heaven. If you have a Spirit-worked faith in Jesus as your Savior from sin, then you’ve already got everything you need to get you into heaven. As for good works—they’re the fruits of that faith. They’ll come, as naturally as apples grow on apple trees.

Christian joy and Gospel freedom. These are two things that belong together in our lives as believers. God grant us the wisdom to distinguish them from the things that don’t belong there, and to cultivate them till the end of our days! AMEN.

—Paul Naumann, Pastor

Sermon Preached May 14, 2000
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA

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