“Jesus is a bit of a killjoy.”
So the objection goes – it’s an increasingly common one from people today. “Following Jesus sounds potentially interesting. But one thing that bothers me is that it’s no fun. If I set out to follow him, he’d sap all the joy out of my life.”
Maybe it’s even been your experience as a follower of Jesus. At times, the list of things you have to do to be a proper Christian, and the things you have to avoid doing, turns life from a fun adventure into a dreary, serious slog.
And occasionally you meet a Christian who really doesn’t help, because they give off the impression that if you take your religion seriously you have to look really miserable.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the reading we just had, Jesus is accused of not taking his religion seriously enough.
In his day, all devout Jews would fast regularly, going without food for a day, sometimes longer. Some did it on certain key dates in the year. The really keen ones did it twice a week. But Jesus and his disciples didn’t appear to join in with this. In last week’s passage, Jesus was at Matthew’s house, guest of honour at a roaring party.
That just summed him up. Jesus was flippant and light-hearted, forever having fun. He was vivacious, good fun, convivial, bon-viveur, life and soul of the party. He was great company.
In Matthew chapter 11, verse 19, we discover Jesus’ reputation. Here is a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus was someone who ate too much, rather fond of second helpings of pudding. And he drank too much, having one more drink when any disciplined person would stop. Those charges were clearly false. It is possible to overeat or to drink too heavily, but Jesus never sinned, so we can be sure he didn’t cross those lines. But that was his reputation. It’s how his opponents perceived him.
And so here he’s asked: How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?
Jesus gives two answers as to why his disciples don’t join in with the regular fasts.
J is with us
Firstly, they don’t join in because Jesus is with us. Jesus is with us.
Verse 15: Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
The Old Testament often likens the relationship between God and his people to a marriage. The Old Testament looked forward to a day in the future when God’s rescuer king would come, who would bring about everything God had promised his people. That day will be like a wedding feast; there will be a rich banquet.
In Jesus’ day, weddings would go on for as long as a week. The groom’s family would hold open house, and anyone could come in and eat, drink and enjoy themselves. Many of the people were poor, and this was a rare chance to have a party, to have a good time.
Jesus’ point is simple. Going to a wedding is not the time to look glum. To refuse to join in. To mumble something about trying to start a diet. To say that it’s OK, you ate earlier. It would be totally inappropriate.
He is the bridegroom. He’s the one at the heart of the wedding festivities. The marriage between God and his people is actually a marriage between Jesus and his church. And right now, he’s with them. How could his disciples fast? To do so would be like turning up at a wedding in funeral clothes, looking miserable, and refusing to eat or drink.
Jesus is with them.
But then Jesus qualifies what he’s saying. The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. Someday, Jesus will be taken from them. The bridegroom snatched away from his own wedding. They may not have understood him, but with hindsight, we can see that he’s referring to his own death, his crucifixion. When he’s taken from them, fasting and mourning will be the order of the day.
But how about today? What does all this say about what following Jesus looks like for us?
Jesus was crucified, but since then he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and then poured out his Spirit on his people. Matthew’s gospel ends with a promise of Jesus: Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Jesus is with us, too. The disciples had him with them in body, whereas he’s with us by his Spirit. But he’s certainly with us. It’s just as real. This is the most amazing good news. This truly is cause for celebration. Jesus himself lives with us!
Yet at the same time, we’re still waiting for Jesus to return. When he comes back, he’ll fix everything that’s broken about this world; we’ll live with Jesus, and life will be perfect. But until that happens, there will still be some times of great sadness in life. Mourning is still a part of life’s rhythm. And some of us have known sadness and hardship for years and years of our lives.
But apart from those sad seasons, however long they may be, we have Jesus the promised bridegroom with us. The one who brings all of God’s blessings. God himself – is with us, every moment of every day.
If that isn’t cause for a party, I don’t know what is. And certainly Christians should not be the most miserable people on the planet. Quite the opposite.
Yes, we still experience many trials. Sometimes we face extra trials because we are Christians, especially if you live in a country like Syria. There will be sad times. But in spite of all of that, those who know us should say that we’re like people who have just won the lottery! Full of life! Full of joy!
After all, Jesus is the bridegroom, Jesus is with us.
Through J, God forgives us
There’s a second reason why the disciples don’t join in with all the fasting. Through Jesus, God forgives us. Through Jesus, God forgives us.
Jesus goes on to paint a couple of pictures from the everyday world.
Verse 16: No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.
You know how it is when you buy clothes. Sometimes they fit you brilliantly in the shop, but after a couple of washes they’re all a bit more tight and they don’t fit so well. In the ancient world, this happened much more. Fabrics today have largely been pre-treated so that they don’t shrink too much. In their day, new cloth would need all kinds of treatments before you could wear it, and it would shrink a great deal.
If you had a favourite shirt that needed patching, you wouldn’t take a piece of unshrunk cloth and sew it over the hole. You might get away with that today, but one trip to the ancient laundrette and the patch would have shrunk massively. You’d just get a bigger hole.
Then verse 17: Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.
Today, we ferment wine in barrels, and then it goes into a nice green bottle with a cork. Sparkling wine needs a tougher cork and a wire cage. They used animal skins. They’d clean and cure the skin, sew up all the holes, and fill it up with wine. Unfermented wine. It then fermented and kept in the skin until it was ready to be drunk.
With time, the skins aged, and grew hard and brittle. If you put a new batch of wine into an old, tough, inflexible skin, the whole thing would explode as it fermented. That skin might have been good for other purposes, and the wine might have been delicious if it had been stored properly. Instead, you’ve lost both the skin and the wine. If you’ve got new wine to store, it needs a brand new skin.
Both pictures make the same point. If you’ve got something new, something living, you can’t just use it to patch up something old. It needs a new container.
Jesus is saying that his disciples can’t have joined in with the fasts from the Old Testament and from the other Jews of his day. That would be like trying to put something new into the old religious practices.
Fasting in the Old Testament was almost always associated with confessing your sin. By Jesus’ day, the belief had arisen that practices like fasting would show you were truly sorry, and would speed up God sending his Messiah to come and deal with our sin. The people knew they were sinful, and that one day God would act to forgive them. So they prayed, they killed animals, and they fasted.
That’s what fasting stood for. Jesus used the pictures of new wine and new garments. These are symbolic in the Old Testament as well. Both new wine and new clothing is used to speak of the new life that would come at the end of time, new life that God’s Messiah would bring in.
Well, now the new wine is here. Now Jesus holds out to us the clothing of a forgiven life, we can put on the costly new clothes he gives us, and God will see us as perfect, forgiven people. The forgiveness that the people longed for in Old Testament times has come. And so there’s no longer any need to fast to ask God to forgive our sins. Jesus is here. The disciples can stop fasting.
Through Jesus, God forgives us.
Now, we need to be careful not to overstate this, so there are a couple more things that need to be said.
Firstly, Christians still fast. You’ll find the early church fasting in the book of Acts. But their fasting was occasional rather than regular. And it was more about seeking God’s guidance than his forgiveness. Jesus taught about fasting back in Matthew chapter 6. It’s OK for his followers to fast, as long as you don’t make a show of it.
So Jesus is not saying here that Christians should never fast. He is saying that the forgiveness that previous generations longed for has come. So there’s no need for most of the fasting that went on in his day, and possibly for quite a bit of it in our day as well.
Christians still fast.
The second comment to add is that Christians still confess they sin. We did it earlier in the service.
But there’s a difference. In the old days, they fasted and confessed their sin, longing for the day when God would act to forgive them. Today, we immediately move from confession to remind ourselves that God has forgiven us in Jesus. We confess our sin so that we can have the joy of a clean conscience, of knowing that we are forgiven. We don’t keep confessing our sin, over and over, stuck in a cycle of guilt, hoping that one day God might hear us and forgive us.
Christians still confess their sin.
The good news here is that Jesus has come. The forgiveness that the people of Old Testament times longed for is here. This is new wine. It’s new clothing. There’s no need for us to fast, like in the old days. We’re living in the age of celebrating God’s kindness, his rescue, his forgiveness.
So Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. They get it in the neck for not taking their religion seriously, but there’s good reason for it. Jesus is with us. And through Jesus, God forgives us.
We started by asking the question: Is Jesus a killjoy?
He is the total opposite. With Jesus we have God himself living with us. With Jesus we have the promise of sure and certain forgiveness, paid in full by his death on the cross.
Good news like that ought to put a smile on our faces. Put a spring in our step.
Sometimes, yes, life is tough. The smile fades. That’s life this side of Jesus’ return. But one day Jesus will come back. All sorrow will vanish. And then, the party will never end.