Friday, February 17, 2017

Parable of the Weeds


My yard normally starts turning green before most others in town.  I don’t spray and seldom put anything on it.  So, in late February or maybe March, my yard is turning green.  It’s mostly weeds mind you, but it’s green.

I have walked this church parking lot with my jug of Round Up probably 50 times in the last 10 years.  Why?  Because in the hottest of days on pavement that you would not walk on barefooted, weeds find a small crack, grow, and sometimes thrive if not brought to justice by fast moving fishing line or chemically induced death.

Were I preaching in Colorado or Oregon, I might have a typo on the Facebook post a week before the sermon.  It would just be a missing letter.  The notice would read:  “Join us this Sunday to see what Jesus said about weed.”  That might put a few extra in the pews.

Of course the following week, I might have Colorado farmers protesting in the parking lot when the literalists planted marijuana seeds in their wheat fields.

The parable of the weeds is interesting.  It came at about the same time that Jesus delivered the parable of the sower.  Both of these parables he explained to his disciples after he gave them to the crowd.  Think about the dynamic at work here.

Jesus spoke to the crowd.  The crowd then had time to discuss the parable and Jesus had time to explain it to his disciples.  That means that the disciples were likely in the boat with him, at least as he was speaking to the crowd.

For Hebrew families that often spent much time in the Synagogue, discussing what the rabbi said, was probably a common thing.  Today we demand a constant influx of information.  We want audio, visual, and in some cases the ability to interact.

Two thousand years ago, the interaction was probably taking place, but in small groups.  Some of those groups may have been families.  We don’t know exactly how the teaching and parables that Jesus delivered were received and discussed, but think about the power of that dynamic.

You hear the morning’s message or perhaps messages and then you discuss them the rest of the day.  A certain hymn strikes a chord in your spirit and you have to share it with the people with whom you spend the rest of the day.
Most modern workshops have some lecture and demonstration and then small group activities.  Some people just love a good lecture but most learn better with small group discussion or activities.

Jesus teaches the crowd and then he spends some more time just talking with those closest to him in the boat or later in the house which he had left earlier that day.  Was the crowd just sitting there dumbfounded waiting for the next teaching?  I doubt it.

Parables seem to naturally evoke follow on discussion.

I think the parable struck a chord and evoked many, many discussions while the crowd was gathered or while they were on their various ways home.

So, what do we have in this parable?
·     The Sower or the Farmer is the Son of Man.  Yes, Jesus is talking about himself.  He sowed good seed.
·     The field is the world.
·     The seeds here are those who have received the Kingdom of God.
·     The weeds are the sons of the evil one.
·     The evil one is the devil.
·     The harvest comes at the end of the age.
·     Angels are the harvesters.
·     The weeds do get plucked out and thrown in the fire.  That won’t be a good day to be a weed in any parable.
·     That leaves the wheat for harvest and what a fantastic and wonderful harvest it will be.  The righteous will shine like the sun.

There is the parable in basic Kiplinger or PowerPoint format.  Again, we have a parable told by Jesus followed by his own explanation.  Do we need further explanation?

Have you ever wondered why?  If not, check to see if you have a pulse.  We ask that simple question all the time. 

Why?
Why was that the answer to my prayer?
Why didn’t I get an answer to my prayer?
Why did she have to die?
Why did he get cancer?
Why does March Madness continue into April?
Why do bad things happened to good people?
Why doesn’t God pluck the weeds up sooner, like now?

The answer to that question and the other why questions lies in the answer to two other questions.

First, do you believe there is a God?  By God, I mean an all-powerful being that brought everything into existence.  I am talking about a sovereign being over and above all things through which there is nothing in this world or in this universe that he did not bring into existence.  Do you believe in God?

Considering the target audience here, I would expect an overwhelming number of yes answers to that question.

Second, do you believe that God is a God of love.  

Specifically, do you believe that he loves you and will never stop loving you?

I would expect most Christians to answer in the affirmative; however, I know that many still wrestle with God’s love and their circumstances being dynamic.  But the truth is that God’s love is steadfast.  He never stops loving us!

So the answer to why didn’t God answer that prayer or why was this the answer or why must the weeds be allowed to grow with the crop until harvest is that God loves us and will never stop loving us.

Some folks will not like that answer.  It doesn’t square with my question.  Well, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact that some don’t like that answer.  Jesus answered a whole bunch of questions with something that did not fit into expectations. 

Sometimes we think that we can frame our questions so that God can only answer us in one or two ways.  Good luck with that.  Sure, that’s going to work.

God is love.  God loves us.  He will never stop loving us. That’s the answer.

But it doesn’t make sense.  Think about it.  When God told the people whom he had delivered from bondage in Egypt to go into the land he was giving them, he told them not to make any treaties with the people in the land.

If they don’t die in battle or run away, don’t make treaties with them.  Why?  Your sons will marry the good-looking gals, have kids, and before you know it they will all be worshipping some false god.

God’s instructions seemed brutal, but simple.  Don’t have anything to do with them.  Smash their altars and other religions symbols.  These people will lead you away from the one true god and you will prostitute yourselves with images of wood and stone.

God was directing some segregation.  He didn’t want any weeds in his wheat then.

Paul counseled that bad company corrupts good character.  Don’t hang out with people of bad moral character.  Share the gospel with them but don’t become who they are.  Your mission is to lead them to Christ not let them lead you away from him.

Paul is stern in his admonishment.

But Jesus says that God will let the wheat and the weeds grow up together.  He does note that some of the wheat might be lost when you pulled up the weeds.  He does offer some facts in mitigation here.  God’s desire is that none perish.

He didn’t say that he would not pluck up the weeds, he just said, “Not now.”  Everything can grow until harvest.

The weeds grow in judgment.  We grow in grace.

There are casualties in every war.  This is good and bad, good and evil, disciples of Jesus and disciples of evil.  But, if we were careful—if God was careful—we could minimize those casualties.  Right?

Jesus won the victory at Calvary.  I have decided to follow Jesus.  Do I really have to follow him through all of these weeds?

The wrestling match going on inside of me between my old self (who wants to be in charge again) and my new self is enough challenge without having to live in the midst of evil.  Why do we have to wait?

God will never stop loving you.  But we want God to pluck up all the weeds that the evil one planted. 

He will.  When it is time for the harvest.  God loves you.

From the time sin entered the world until the time when God will send his angels to pluck up anything and anyone that causes sin or does evil, there will be sin and evil and people doing evil in the world.

We must believe that God is sovereign.  He is just.  His timing is perfect.  He is a holy God.  He detests sin and rebellion and everything that turns people from him.

But more than all of these things that we seem to readily comprehend, God is love.  His love for us is everlasting.  So as we grow and the weeds grow on the same earth together, know that God loves you and will never stop loving you.

There is evil in the world.  The Evil One is still at work. People do evil things.  Sin seems to continue unchecked in vast parts of the world, some of them too close to home for our liking; and God will never stop loving you.

While the comparison seems to fit awkwardly with this parable, we do have a commission to take the gospel to the entire world.  This parable doesn’t say that we can turn a weed into wheat, but the point of this parable is not all inclusive and does not discount what we have been commissioned to do and what we have learned from the entire biblical witness that we have.

It is a parable of the end of the age and between now and then, evil will be in the world.  Every generation from now until the end of the age will have to contend with evil in the world.  There is no worldly formula that gets rid of evil.

Listen to Jesus explain this parable once more.

The One who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; and the good seed—these are the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.  Therefore, just as the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Anyone who has ears should listen!

If your heart and your mind is inclined to receive the word of God—the truth—then receive this parable as Jesus gave it to us.  Have ears to hear.

God will remove sin and evil from our dwelling place in his time.  So, we must trust that he is sovereign and holy and just and that he knows precisely what he is doing.  More than that, we must know that God loves us.  In the middle of this weed infested world, God loves us.

God will never stop loving us.  We are called to love one another.  We scatter seed everywhere that we go.  We grow in God’s grace fully trusting that he will never leave or forsake us even when we can’t tell if there are weeds in the wheat field or just a little wheat in a field full of weeds.

Maybe, if we are faithful to our commission, there won’t be quite as many weeds for the harvesters to pluck at the end of the age; but our walk, our race, our earthly journey will have some weeds.

We who have answered the call to follow Jesus will accept that fact, we will know with certainty that God loves us and will never stop loving us, and we will focus on our mission and commission and being God’s love in this world and not the weeds and obstacles planted in our path.

If you have ears, then hear and understand.  This is the way that Jesus said it will be.  This is the world into which we have been sent with God’s love.

Whether we like it or not is irrelevant.  God loves us.  He has sent us into this world full of weeds with love and good news.

We live lives of love and proclaim the gospel as long as we live or until the harvest, whichever comes first.

Amen.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Parable: The Sower


Is there a Christian anywhere who has not heard this parable.  It seems to be one of the most popular. 

Since the time we discussed the Parable about things that don’t go together, Matthew’s account of Jesus records many healings, a sending of the disciples on a mission to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, and a listing of the 12 disciples that followed him for about 3 years.

Simon—Jesus called him Peter—and Andrew.
James and John—the sons of Zebedee.
Phillip and Bartholomew.
Thomas and Matthew—the tax collector.
James and Thaddaeus.
Simon—not Peter but the Zealot and Judas—yes, the disciple who would betray Jesus.

Jesus had more direct and stern teaching.  If you acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge you before his Father in heaven.  If you disown him, he will return the favor.

We also received some of the most comforting words in the New Testament. 

“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves.

For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

The encounters with the Pharisees became more intense.  Jesus healed on the Sabbath and told the Pharisees that was Lord of the Sabbath.  The Pharisee wanted their own sign.  They wanted Jesus to perform for them.

As we set the stage for this parable, we find Jesus venturing from a house, possibly even his own house as he was in the region of Galilee.  He went to a lake and finding that large crowds were gathering, he constructed his own amphitheater by getting into a boat and pushing off from the shore a little.  There he would sit and teach this large gathering that surely had common people and the Pharisees alike.

You need to read ahead just a bit to his explanation of the parable, but Jesus was talking about sharing the Kingdom of God and so the told the parable of the sower.


The sower sows the seed which is the word of God.  Who is this? Jesus and his commissioned fit the bill; otherwise known as the church.  Yes, we are these people.

The seeds falling on the road represent those who hear the word but dismiss it almost immediately.  Comparing synoptic gospels, we see that the wicked one (Matthew’s version) or Satan (Mark's wording) is what takes the word away.  That sorry ole…

The seeds falling on the rocks represent those who hear the word, but only accept in a shallow way, perhaps only intellectually.  These types of people reject the word as soon as it causes them affliction or persecution.

The seeds falling among the thorns represent those who hear the word, and take it to heart, but allow worldly concerns, such as health, money, relationships, jobs, and other cares of this world to choke it.  In the Proverbs 3:5 dichotomy, they rely on their own understanding.

The seeds falling on good soil represents those who hear the word, and truly receive it spiritually, causing it to bear fruit.  This is our memory verse for the month being lived to fruition.

Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action.
1 John 3:18 HCSB

Good soil produces truth and action.  These folks respond as doers of the word.  They produce fruit for their Lord and for the Body of Christ.

Here is a question for your consideration.  Jesus told the parable and then he explained the parable to his disciples, so who would be crazy enough to try to preach a parable that Jesus already explained?

Have a great week.  See you same time and place next Sunday. Amen.  Right?

Maybe, not so fast on the wrap up.  Here is another question.  What are we supposed to do with this parable?

The beginning of the answer lies in verse 18. It says:  Listen to what the parable of the sower means.  Most of our Bibles give subtitles to different sections to include the parables, but here Jesus gives the parable a title.  He called it the Parable of the Sower.

What difference does that make?

Consider our human inclination.  We would probably title this the parable of the soils:  Road, rocks, thorny, and good.

Our own understanding would lead us to come up with standard procedures for evangelism with accompanying corollaries.   Such as:

·     Roads are for traffic not planting.  Save you seed for more fertile ground.
·     Rocky soil should be better prepared before planting.  If you are not up for the serious labor of cleaning up the rocks, then save your seed for other opportunities.  Leave the rock clearing to people with stronger backs and save your seed.
·     Weeds and thorns are only in it for themselves.  They don’t share well so don’t waste your seed there.  Really, are you going to carry a weed eater with you?  How many gallon jugs of Round Up do you want to haul around.  You’re an evangelist.  Leave the weed clearing to people who are out of work.
·     If you follow these basic tenants of seed sowing, you will have plenty of seed for the fertile ground.

If left to our own understanding, we would probably start classifying people we know as rocky or thorny

“Man, sharing the gospel with that yahoo was like dropping good seed on a newly paved interstate.”

If left to our own understanding, we might just skip sharing the gospel with a lot of people.  What’s the point?

Most of us would probably not make this parable about the seed.  That part is simple.  The seed is the word of God.  There is no bad seed.  The seed is good.

So let’s consider this parable from the perspective of the sower as this is how Jesus titles these analogies.  The sower scattered seed.  It went everywhere—on the road, in the rocky soil, among the weeds, and even in the best of ground. 

Why was there no rebuke from Jesus about where the sower scattered seed?  Should the sower not have planted more wisely?  Should Jesus not have titled this parable the Mostly Foolish Sower?  Really, seed was landing everywhere!

Consider what Jesus charged his disciples with at the beginning of Acts.  He told them that once the Spirit had come upon them, they would be witnesses of Jesus and his gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the world.  Think about that.  Put yourself in the shoes of these Hebrew followers of Jesus who were soon to take this good news and share it.

Jerusalem—of course.  God’s chosen people, you betcha!

Judea—yeah, ok, sure.

Samaria—Really?  Nobody likes those people.

The ends of the earth—the rest of the world is full of pagans, heathens, and people who don’t put gravy on their chicken fried steak.  You can’t be serious.

But Jesus was to be shared everywhere.  The gospel was to reach the ends of the earth.  God’s desire was and is for none to perish.  Of course, Jesus did not reprimand the sower in his own parable.  The sower did exactly what the sower was to do.  He scattered seed.

So, what is the point of the parable?  Win some. Lose some?  Some get rained out?

So baseball metaphors don’t work well with the parable.  What then?

This is the parable of the sower.  It is about the sower.  The sower scatters seed.  That’s what he does.  He or she does not carry the burden of the response around after the seed is scattered.  Jesus told us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Could we possibly bear the burden of not only sowing seeds but bearing the responsibility for the hearer’s response?  That’s a double-edge sword for sure.

Our human nature would be to claim the credit when the seed landed upon good soil and produced good fruit; likewise, we would accumulate guilt and blame and probably even remorse when the seed landed upon the road or in rocky soil or among the thorns.

We are the sowers.  We scatter seed.  Elsewhere in our instructions, we do find that we should do some watering and fertilizing when appropriate, but in the context of this parable; we are the sower and the sower was not judged for where his seed landed.

The sower did what sowers do.  They scatter seeds.

Jesus did not say to save your seed for good ground.  He did not say to be stingy with your seed so it doesn’t run out.  The parable is about the sower and the sower scatters seed.

We must resist our human nature to classify people based on this parable.  To do so leads us to some outcomes inconsistent with a God who loves us all and gives us all a chance to respond to his grace.

Jesus did not further explain the parable.  We are left to discern in the full biblical witness that we have received or just leave the tough parts alone and stick to what we know.  I will proffer a perspective at the former.

The soil is not a classification of people ranging from eternal reprobate to the elect.  It is the condition of the heart, perhaps the mind and soul as well.  Those conditions can change.

Not mentioned in the parable is the Holy Spirit.  The sower does his or her part and sometimes, the seed lands upon fertile ground and the response is immediate and we celebrate.

Often, the seed will not germinate in our presence, but we are not to be discouraged.   We must not be discouraged!  The parable tells us there will be a variety of responses.  It does not say that the sower is witness to them all.

The sower distributes his seed and it lands where it lands.

We also need to realize that among the people who heard this parable in its first telling where some Pharisees.  Despite what Jesus had already done, these religious leaders wanted Jesus to prove himself by doing something at their beckoning. 

Jesus told them, “Tough luck guys.  You get the sign as everyone else—the sign of Jonah.” 

He told his disciples that he used many parables because some of these yahoos would only take the true meaning of what he taught and try to put more burdens on the backs of men.  He told his disciples that they were blessed to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Jesus told his disciples, who always seemed to be dumbfounded, that many prophets and righteous men would have loved to have gained their understanding.  Jesus used the words of Isaiah to tell his close followers that true understanding comes from the heart.

So many had calloused hearts and therefore they had become blind and deaf.  They could not understand the parables with hearts so hard.  Jesus spoke to those whose hearts were good soil and ready to receive the seed and produce fruit.

The disciples would come to understand what Jesus taught not because they were intellectuals, but because he was shaping their hearts.  What he did not finish, the Spirit would complete.

This is the same Spirit that can take a hardened heart and break it in an instant or over the course of years and decades.  This is the Spirit that we must trust as we witness to others.  When we share the gospel with others, we trust fully in the Lord and we do not rely on our own understanding.

We do our part.  God has not given us more than we can handle and we should not be claiming personal glory when people respond and become fruitful disciples.  We don’t drown in guilt when they do not respond.

We do our part.  We scatter seed, among many other things that we are called to do; but in the context of this single parable, we scatter seed.

The parable is titled The Sower.  It is not titled The Seed.  It is not titled A Study of the Various Types of Ground—Parable by Jesus and 10-year study by Oklahoma State University.  The parable is titled The Sower

We scatter seed wherever we go.  We take the gospel to the folks across the street and to the ends of the earth.  That’s what we do.

We don’t judge who might receive and who will be as hardened as a blacktop road in January.  We don’t walk away thinking that the seed we planted will be burned up or choked out before you know it.  What a waste of time and effort.  To do these things discounts the work of the Holy Spirit.

We scatter seed.  We pray for God’s Spirit to precede us and be with us and be with us as we share the good news and continue to work when we have departed.  We scatter seed.

Our desire must be as God’s desire, that it land on good soil and produce much fruit.  That is always our hope.  God desires that none should perish.  That is our motivation with every seed that we scatter.  Consider this part of the parable once more.

As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the Word and grasps and comprehends it; he indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundred times as much as was sown, in another sixty times as much, and in another thirty.

What are we to do?  Scatter seed with an easy yoke and a light burden.  We do our part.  We scatter seeds.

We share the gospel wherever we can.

Amen.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Parable: New and Old


It is hard to believe that we are into the second month of the new year.  February has arrived.  Groundhog Day has come and gone.  In Oklahoma, we don’t care much if the little critter saw his shadow or not.  We will have doses of winter, spring, and summer interspersed for the next two months, often with appearances by all seasons in a single week. 

If it’s the middle of March, it’s time to plant potatoes.  Don’t put out your tomatoes until after the first of April.  You will wait until tax day if you really want to miss the overnight frost danger.

Time marches on.  We have some landmarks that we use with time.  Birthdays come every year.  Sweet sixteen can be a special one, at least until parents realize that their kids are legal to drive.

At age 18 you can legally buy tobacco and be drafted, not that tobacco is good for you or that anyone has been drafted for 4 decades.  You are almost considered an adult.  At 21 you have generally reached the last milestone and now we have to call you an adult.  Give it 10 more years and it might even be time to move out of your parent’s house and get a job.

Oops!  There is one more milestone regarding age that I left out.  When you are 35 you are eligible to be President of the United States.

We mark the year with seasons and important dates.  Few remember when the summer solstice is, but we shouldn’t feel badly about that because there are actually two dates.  The northern hemisphere’s is on 20 June while the southern hemisphere’s is on 21 December.  Sometimes we forget that there is another half of the world.

Most of our state won’t remember that the Supreme Court of the United States convenes on the first Monday in October.  That is 2 October for this year.  Most of the state will remember that bow season for deer opens on 1 October.

I don’t even know if the rule about wearing white shoes after Labor Day still applies in this century or not.  I had some white shoes back in the 1970’s, but not anymore, so I don’t keep up with all the fashion dates much.

We probably remember that this is Super Bowl Sunday, which is followed by weeks of depression for football fans.  They normally come back to life for March Madness, even if they are not a big basketball fan.

We divide our calendars, clocks, and lives into things that we can measure.  We have time zones and daylight savings time.  I’m not really sure where the time we saved went.  We have metaphors for time.  He was gone in a New York Minute.

Using terms such as Tempus fugit makes us sound intelligent.  Time flies sounds so much more sophisticated in Latin.  When time seems to be dragging on or we are doing something that we don’t really want to do, we can break out our sarcastic nature and say that time flies when you’re having fun.

Solomon said that for everything there is a season.  There is a time for every purpose in creation.  It seems that God has even ordered time in accordance with his purposes.

From the psalmists to Peter, whom Jesus called The Rock, God’s people knew that time was different for God.  A day could be a thousand years.  A thousand years could be just a watch in the night.  If you do the math, that means that a day for God could be six thousand years to us.

But time is not just time.  It has purpose.  We know that waiting on the Lord is a good thing.  People don’t like to wait, but we need to learn to wait upon the Lord.

Sometimes we think that we don’t have enough hours in the day but when we live with purpose, God always seems to make just enough time for us to accomplish the tasks that he has given us.

There is a time for everything.  Solomon had quite the litany of examples:  birth-death, planting-harvest, weeping-laughing, mourning-dancing, being quiet-talking, and many more.  The verses unite both time and purpose.

John’s disciples came to Jesus.  Remember that John noted that his prominence would lessen as the Messiah’s recognition grew.  But John’s disciples were perplexed.  They thought they were good guys and wanted to play by the rules.  They and the Pharisees—surely an interesting pairing—both continued the practice of fasting, but Jesus and his disciples did not.

So they ask Jesus, “What’s up with that?”

Jesus answers with a parable of things that don’t go together.  Trying to mend an old garment with new cloth might work for a bit but everyone knew not to do that.  The rigidity of the newer cloth would not give way with the older and soon it would actually cause the garment to tear even more.

It’s a tough concept for today’s generation that pays extra for the tears in their jackets and jeans.  Some of us remember iron on patches that worked for a while but usually started peeling at the edge.  The worn out jeans moved with your body and the patch tried to stand firm.

Some suit jackets understood this principle and could have a little extra cloth on the inside that could be used for small mends.  The cloth would wear with the jacket and be suitable for mending.

Jesus used an example that people understood. These two things don’t go together.

He continued with the example of putting new wine into old skins.  The new wine would be too potent and burst the old skins.  These were pairings that the people would think to themselves, “Who would do that?”  It was like an insurance commercial.

You don’t put new wine in old skins.
Everybody knows that.
Well, did you know that you can save 15% by switching to Jericho Insurance.

Had Jesus used that example in this century, people would be lost.  Wine is something that goes into a bottle or if you are really classy, it goes into a box.  We need to understand the parable in the times it was told.  Some things just don’t go together.

New cloth on an old garment.
New wine in old wineskins.
Analog connections in a digital age.
Texting and driving.  Had to sneak in a public service announcement.

God with us in the flesh and fasting.

Why didn’t Jesus and his disciples fast?  This was a time of celebration.  God had come in the flesh and was walking the earth.  If you wanted to draw closer to God, you just had to follow him, listen to him, and do what he said to do.

We don’t mourn the dead in the middle of the wedding celebration.  And Jesus and his followers had no need to fast while he was with them.

Fasting is something that helps us break away from our reliance upon things of this world and place our focus and dependence completely in God.

Remember the time when Jesus and his disciples went through Samaria, stopped in Sychar, and Jesus talked to the woman at the well.  The disciples had gone into town to get food.  When they returned and asked Jesus if he wanted something to eat.  He said that he had food they did not yet comprehend.

His food was to do the will of the One who sent him.  His food was to complete the work that he had been given.  His nourishment came from his Father in heaven and not from bread.

Yes, Jesus ate regular meals but his true sustenance came from living his purpose.

Fasting played a big role in the lives of the Hebrew people.  It still has a place today.  When we find ourselves drifting away from God and need to initiate a wakeup call, fasting is effective.  We live in a time and place where even the poorest among us live in comfort.  We know very few people who actually go hungry.  If we know them, we feed them.

There are hungry people in the world and we help feed them; but in our locale, someone is always ready to help with food.  So for even the least wealthy among us, there may be a time for a deliberate fast.

It seems though, that through the ages, God’s people never really caught the rhythm of the fast.  They got so wrapped up in one-upping each other or identifying blame that they did not really draw closer to God.  Listen to what God says about fasting though his prophet Isaiah.  Why did he need to say this?  The people had made fasting into only a ritual.

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

Fasting seeks to bring us closer to God not only by physical denial but by loving the least of our brothers around us.  Jesus came and did these things while he was walking the earth as a man in the flesh.

Isaiah 61 begins:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
 To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

Jesus read this from Isaiah.  He gave the scroll back to the attendant and then while everyone was waiting the see what he would do next, Jesus said, “Today in your hearing, this prophecy has been fulfilled.”

The people didn’t know how to take that, but we know that Jesus had come to bring joy not mourning.  He would have people trade in their ashes for beauty.  Heaviness would give way to praise.  He brought God’s righteousness and favor with him.  Who would even think of fasting in his presence?

Give John’s disciples and even those who followed Jesus a little slack here.  They didn’t quite know the whole picture, but we have so much more of the story.

So do we fast?  We believe that we have God’s own Spirit within us and beside us and are never alone.  Do we fast?  Would our fasting be as absurd as putting new wine in old wineskins?

We fast if we need to.  Jesus said there would be a time when he would be gone.  He would be taken from them.  He said then you will fast.  If we need to fast, the fast is still available to us.  It is not a requirement in the freedom that we know in Christ Jesus.

But if the Spirit leads us to fast, then don’t resist the Spirit of God that is guiding you.

The three decades that Jesus walked the earth were like no other in human history.  It was incongruous for his followers to fast while he was in their presence. 

The parable is about things that don’t go together.

New cloth on old.
New wine in old skins.
Fasting in the presence of the bridegroom.

It is a simple parable that even makes sense even in a time when we pay extra for rips in our clothing and get a discount for wine in a box.  But we know that mourning at the wedding is still incongruous.  The two don’t go together.

One day we too will know a time when we will be physically in the presence of our Lord and Master.  If we have any tears, he will take them away.  If we have something to mourn, he will take it from us.  We will know only joy and thanksgiving.  We will be singing praise.  It will be a wondrous time.

For now, we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  We rejoice in the day that he has made.  We serve and pray, and sometimes if we need to, we fast.

But we look ahead to a wedding banquet where there will be only feasting and no fasting.  We long for the time where all tears will be tears of joy.  We know that one day sorrow will give way to joy and laughter and all chains of oppression will be broken.

And we know that between now and then, there are still some things just don’t go together.

A disciple without grace and mercy.
One who is forgiven who does not forgive.
One who is blessed with abundance who is not generous.
A disciple who hides his light.
The commissioned who do not take the gospel to the world.
Those who are so loved by God and do not love one another.

There is still plenty of application for this simple parable.
Sometimes time and purpose seem to be a thousand-piece puzzle to us.  Life and our discipleship seem too big to figure out, but more often than we realize we know the time and the purpose that God has given to us.

Consider the parable once more.

No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.

Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.

Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear your purpose and your timing for us.

Amen.