A Religion of Worship and Grace

       The Internet is a strange and crazy place.  You never know what you are going to come across and

what is going to become wildly popular.  Videos “go viral” and within a matter of days millions of people

hear your message.  Early last year, a spoken-word poem went viral by a young man named Jefferson

Bethke called, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”  He starts his poem like this: What if I told you Jesus

came to abolish religion.  And opening like that resonates with a lot of people.  Religion has developed a bad

reputation.  Bethke goes on saying:

Now back to the point, one thing is vital to mention
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums
See one’s the work of God, but one’s a man-made invention
See one is the cure, but the other’s the infection
See because religion says do, Jesus says done
Religion says slave, Jesus says son
Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see
And that’s why religion and Jesus are two different clans

This poem captivated the attention of a nation that is fed up with religion.  Now we know internet popularity does not determine truthfulness, so are religion and Jesus two different clans? It is popular to say that Jesus hates religion. For decades pastors have been telling churches that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.  Christianity is indeed about a relationship with God, but it is also a religion.  America loves the Jesus that hates religion. But as one pastor notes,

The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion.[1]

Jesus did not come to abolish religion, but He did come to radically change it.  So this morning, I want to ask you several questions through our text this morning to analyze what you believe about religion. First question,

I.                   Do you believe in a Religion of Works?

Certain people came up to Jesus to challenge the religious character of his disciples.  Verse 33 we read, “And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.”  The people were not merely making an observation, but rather, they were making a statement about the character of the disciples.  The statement implies that Jesus’ disciples were not as religious or zealous for God as the disciples of John and the Pharisees for they fasted and offered prayers regularly to God. 

Before we slam the critics for questioning the character of Jesus’ disciples, it is important to understand the reasoning behind their statement.  Fasting was a normative part of the religious climate which usually entailed not eating food for one full day.  Jews were only required to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement.  There were also 4 day long fasts to remember the destruction of Jerusalem.  The other fasts were for repentance and the mourning of sin. Although the Jews were only required to fast once a year, the Pharisees increased fasting to twice a week. Every Monday and Thursday the Pharisees would fast and intercede for the nation of Israel praying for her deliverance. So fasting was a sign of piety and reverence for God. So in Jesus day, you were considered religious and reverent, only if you fasted regularly. 

So Jesus and his disciples enter on the scene, and not only, do they not fast, but they are eating and drinking with sinners.  It is as stark contrast. It was as if I showed up to preach in here in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops.  I would look totally irreverent and irreligious because it would not fit our church cultural framework.  These people looked at Jesus’ disciples and were implying to Jesus that he needs to do something about them.  They were attempting to be obvious without being obvious.  It is like when a well-meaning grandmother tells one of her granddaughters after one of her small children throw a tantrum, “You know that so-so’s children were over here the other day and were so well behaved and respectful.” Code for what is wrong with your children.  People came to Jesus with a statement about fasting which was code for “what is wrong with your disciples?” 

The people questioned Jesus and his disciples because they were living with the mindset of the old covenant or in a religion of works.  They believed that people were justified based on what they did rather than by the grace of God. And unfortunately, this works-based comparison of our religious activities is still active today.  This perspective easily can creep into the life of Christians and the culture of churches.  So we have to ask ourselves, “Do we functional believe in a religion of works?” We may not intellectually believe that, but do we practically live in a religion of works?  Be honest with yourself, do you pat yourselves on the back because your life is a little bit better than the person you are sitting next to this Sunday morning? Do you put yourself over your brothers and sisters by focusing on how their behavior is not quite as good as yours? Do you look down at other churches and/or people because their religious activities do not seem to measure up to yours? 

Now, remember the issue that the people had with Jesus’ disciples, was not only that they were eating and drinking, but that they were eating and drinking WITH sinners.  They were judged to have a weak walk with God because they spent time with sinners.  They spent time talking with sinners. They spent time eating with sinners.  They spent time laughing with sinners.  Bottom line, they spent time with sinners.  So why were Jesus’ disciples spending time with sinners? (PAUSE) Because that was where Jesus was spending His time!!  Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.  The only way to save the lost is to be among the lost. While the religious establishment was focused on their religious activities and on how Jesus’ disciples were not meeting their expectations, Jesus and the disciples were calling sinners to repentance; calling them to turn to the Living God for salvation.   

Beloved, we need to wake up because it is so easy to be confused to think that our spiritual life is connected solely to our religious activities.  God wants us to do good works.  Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Good works are important, but the reasons behind those good works make all the difference.

 As a pastor, I spend a lot of time trying to get people to come to church and to have them participate in religious activities.  And if I am not careful, it is very easy to start preaching and teaching a religion of works. It is easy to judge people’s devotion to God based solely on their church attendance and/or service in the church.  I want people to be more faithful in their service to the church. I want people to be more faithful in their attendance and giving to the church.  But I can say it one of two ways.  “You need to be more faithful to the church. You need to give more and do more. God wants you to be more involved.”  Those are not heretical statements, but I think that they are wrong-headed.  The other way of saying it is, “Jesus Christ is so glorious and so holy.  He came to rescue you from sin and death by giving his own life for your soul.  What a great and glorious God!! This great God that has sacrificed his life for us is calling us to lose our lives for His Sake so that we may truly find it.  Jesus calls you to pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow him.  Give More and Serve More and Sacrifice More for Jesus Christ for He is Worth it.”  The first sounds very works-based while the second is about Worship. Christianity is not a religion of works; primarily it is a religion of worship.  Question number 2,

II.                Do you believe in a Religion of Worship?

Jesus responds to this people who are living in a religion of works by saying in verse 34, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then the will fast in those days.” Jesus turns religion on its head with one question. The question is posed so the implied response is a no.  Wedding guests do not fast in the presence of the bridegroom, but rather they celebrate the wedding.  Jesus is saying that He is the Bridegroom.  The Bridegroom imagery is very familiar in the Old Testament referring to the Lord.  We see this clearly in Isaiah 54:5-6;
“For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.”

The Bridegroom is present and therefore this should be a time of celebration and joy.  What a better way to celebrate His presence than with eating and drinking.  Fasting is about preparation while marriage is about fulfillment.[2] Even the word for guest used here is not just another party attendee, but is those who aid the groom at the wedding. This implies that there should be even more celebration because of the intimacy of the relationship with the Bridegroom.  There is one level of joy at a wedding of a friend, but a different, heightened joy at the marriage of a brother.  

            The Pharisees and John’s disciples were fasting because they did not see their deliverance standing right in front of them.  They were praying for deliverance for the nation while the deliverer was standing in their midst.  They were so focused on rituals and rules that they ignored the object of those rituals.  Jesus was establishing a new religion; a religion that was not primarily based on works, but worship. The Worship of Himself, the Bridegroom.  We see this in the parable he shares where he shows that something entirely new is here. 

Verse 36, “He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.  And no one puts new wine, into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine, desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.” 

Jesus provides two examples and one proverb in driving home his point that He is establishing a New Way.  Both the examples show that the Old way and the New way cannot co-exist, but when they are mixed, both are destroyed.  If you take new garment and rip off a piece to fix the old garment, what you have done is ruined both the new garment and have not fixed the old garment.  Both are ruined.  The same is true for the second example.  New wine cannot be put into old wineskins; for when the new wine expands by fermentation the old wineskins will burst. This ruins them both. The new wine is spilled on the ground while the wineskins are destroyed.  The mood given from both parables is a sense of loss.  It like you can hear someone say, “What a waste.” A new shirt was ruined. All that wine wasted on the ground.

So in order to avoid the waste, new wine must be put into new wineskins.  The new wine or way he is talking about is Himself. Jesus is entirely ushering in something New.  Christianity is not about works, but about the worship of the Bridegroom that has come to rescue us through His life. 

            Life under the old covenant cannot be mixed with life in the new covenant without destroying the new way of Worship.  This was a battle we see all over the pages of the New Testament.  Many Jews believe that in order for Gentiles to become Christians they had to first become circumcised. Jews were forcing Gentiles to follow the old way. God would have no part of it. The Holy Spirit spoke through Paul in his letter to the Galatians 2:15-16, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law (circumcision), because by works of the law no one will be justified.” We are NOT justified by works, but through faith in Christ Jesus. The way to be made right with God, or to be justified, is faith in Christ Jesus.  We need always keep this in front us. It is so easy to believe that it is about works because if it is about works than I can control it.  It is not about me or how hard I work or how many good things I do.

Listen to the proverb that Jesus ends with in verse 39, “And no one after drinking old wine (justification by works) desires new, for he says, “The old is good.” We can make several applications from this proverb.  This proverb shows one of our greatest obstacles in evangelism.  People are drinking old wine.  They are living in a religion of works.  They believe that by doing things their way and doing good works that they can inherit eternal life.  Every major religion is about works: Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.  It is a salvation that is depends on one’s labors and efforts.  So when we share our faith, we have to help people see their need for “new wine” or a new way. We need to show them their need for Jesus Christ and the salvation that only He can bring. 

There may be someone here today that does not realize their need for anything new. Maybe you believe in a religion of works and are trusting in your works to win God’s acceptance.  Can I encourage you to abandon that way? You will never do enough to overcome your sin.  Good works cannot erase your sin.  If you believe they can, then how many good works? How many would be enough?  The Bible says that sin needs to be punished and the biblical punishment is death and Hell. But God is merciful and sent his Son, Jesus Christ to take that penalty for us.  Jesus will take your punishment for sin, if you turn from trusting in a religion of works to trusting in a religion that is based on worship of Jesus Christ: trusting in his life, death and resurrection as your only hope for salvation. 

            But Beloved, this is important not just in helping others in our evangelism, but for our lives. The church is also in danger of reverting back from a religion of worship to a religion of works. God speaks through Paul about this very thing. The Galatians have already slipped back into the old way.  Listen to Galatians 3:1:

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

The church has always been and will always be in danger of falling back into a religion of works.  We have to fight against this with every fiber of our being.  For a church that falls back into this way of thinking becomes a cold, critical, judgmental, harsh place.  People feel they are constantly being measured up and held to a standard that is not prescribed in the Scriptures.  But we were NOT saved by works, but grace. 

            This is why the Bridegroom imagery is so beautiful. We were not attractive.  We were not desirable.  We were enemies and rebels. We were outcasts and deserted.  We were not a worthy bride, but an unclean one.  And yet, God in his mercy sent Jesus Christ as the Bridegroom to bring us into His perfect and righteous family.  A dirty bride was redeemed by the perfect Bridegroom.  It is all of grace.  And if it is all of grace, why would you ever want to fall back in the old way? Which brings me to the last question,  

III.             Do you believe in a Religion of Grace?

Christianity is a religion of grace.  We have been redeemed by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, but are we living in that grace.  Are you more concerned with rules, rituals, and traditions than we are with saving lives? Do you want to extend grace to the hurting? Or are you one of those who say the “old is good,” meaning we do not need the new way? Beloved, we have to examine our hearts and our practices to see if it enhances our worship of Jesus or enhances a religion of works.   

 Look at the how the complaints against Jesus and His disciples reveal the accusers lack of care for the lost and hurting in our world. These accusers are worried about others eating and drinking, but are not concerned with sinners needing repentance.  One of the greatest dangers of the church is that we are more concerned inwardly than we our outwardly.  Jesus came to call sinners to repentance by joyfully celebrating the coming of the Bridegroom, should we not do the same?

Two or three years before the death of John Newton, when his sight was so dim that he was no longer able to read, a friend and brother in the ministry called to have breakfast with him. Their custom was to read the Word of God following mealtime, after which Newton would make a few short remarks on the Biblical passage, and then appropriate prayer would be offered. That day, however, there was silence after the words of Scripture “by the grace of God I am what I am” were read.

 Finally, after several minutes, Newton spoke, “I am not what I ought to be! How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall be out of mortality, and with it all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!” Then, after a pause, he said. “Now let us pray!”[3]

How different would our churches be if we lived with that ever in front us, “By the grace of God I am what I am?” We would not look down at others. We would not compare ourselves to others.  We would live and walk humbly, knowing that all we are and all we have is by the grace of God.  Let us live our lives for the worship of Jesus Christ rejoicing that the Bridegroom has come in grace.  Let us pray. 

[2]  Schurmann 1969: 295 quoted from BEC. Bock, Darrell
[3] Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times. Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc.