October 15, 2017 “In the World” – Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14
“In the World”
October 15, 2017 –
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We didn’t show up for Dave’s wedding. My friend Jay and I were invited. We planned a crazy long car trip from Indiana to Texas, driving all night and day. But we decided it was too long and too expensive and gave up the idea. Then we forgot. Finally, a month or two after the wedding, we went in together on a nice gift and mailed it off. But we never heard from Dave again. Not a thank you note, no answer to our letters, nothing. We still wonder where Dave is and what he’s doing now. We spurned his wedding and he spurned us.

That’s what happened to the guests invited to the wedding of the king’s son in our parable for today. They turned down not one, but two invitations to join the young man’s family and friends at the party of the year. In verse 3 they turned down royal servants. They glanced at the invitation, checked “No” on the RSVP card and didn’t give it a second thought. But the king gave them a second chance.

In verse 4 the proud father sent servants back with a menu: fattened oxen and cattle. Steak and prime rib with all the trimmings for everyone and, he said, “everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” But they didn’t care. They had other things to do.

Verse 5 shows us that some of them had excuses. If you’re going to farm or run a business, or go to school or care for your family, you can’t just take time off to party whenever you feel like it. But this wasn’t just any old party. The king had invited them. And other guests, we’re told in verse 6, were just plain mean. They mistreated and killed the king’s messengers. They wrote their negative RSVP in blood.

To this point, the story sounds like the one Jesus told us last week, the tenants in the vineyard. There’s a ruler with unruly people, messengers ignored and abused, and a dear son that should have gotten more respect. It’s clearly aimed at the lousy reception Jesus got from the Jewish leaders. Their ugly attitude toward God’s messengers began long before, with persecution and murder of the prophets.

Yet this story is different and has a different point from last week’s. For one thing, in this parable the son is not killed. He stays home, getting ready for the wedding. For another, and more importantly, we hear how God will replace the people who refuse His invitations. This is where this parable connects with our vision statement today. We are seeking God’s kingdom in the world. God is sending us out into the world to invite anyone and everyone we can find into the celebration of His kingdom.

This parable focuses our attention on the fact that not everyone invited into the kingdom of God wishes to come. As we consider how we walk with Jesus in the world, we recognize that world is often not a friendly place for God and His people. Some of our men heard that Friday morning from James 4 verse 4, to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. Our church council just read and discussed Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which is all about living as Christians in an unfriendly and hostile world.

In America we used to imagine that the culture around us was mostly friendly to our faith and to the Lord we serve. I use the word “imagine” because I think we were mostly kidding ourselves. We thought that mentioning God in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our money meant that almost everybody around us had some sort of real commitment to the God of the Bible whom we worship. That was never really true. Now it’s just more obvious that most people out in the world around us have no genuine relationship with God and with His Son Jesus Christ. Many are openly hostile, just like in the parable.

On November 5 we will celebrate All Saints Day, remembering our Christian brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us. But we will also remember the many Christians around the world who are suffering and being persecuted for their faith right now. We complain about not being able to say “Merry Christmas” while Christians in China are having their church buildings torn down. We worry about the bad influences on our children in public schools while Christians in Sudan or North Korea wonder how they will feed their children.

Like those servants of the king in the parable, Christians often go out into the world at risk of their lives. Dan and Kay will be at some risk this week as they head for India where Christian missionaries and organizations from the west are being banned and sent home. There are plenty of people in the world playing the part of those thoughtless guests who were first invited to the king’s feast. They are spurning the true King of the earth and His Son who came to save them and they often treat His people miserably.

How should we respond? How should we walk with Jesus, seeking His kingdom in a hostile world? Let’s take a look at who does what in this parable and let’s take note of what does not happen. First, note that while the people who turned down the invitation got punished in verse 7, the king did not force them to come. He didn’t try to pass a law making attendance at his feast mandatory.

That king did deal with His recalcitrant guests. He mounted an army and sent them off to kill the killers and burn down their city. It doesn’t quite make sense that a fancy meal, with everything ready, is going to sit around until a little war is over. But the action here isn’t happening in real time. It’s happening in parable time. And this part of the parable was fulfilled in real time when Rome invaded Jerusalem in 70 A.D., killing thousands and burning down the Temple.

In the parable and in real history, it’s not the king’s people who are supposed to deal with the hostile people. In the parable it’s not the slaves who are sent out to punish a city full of reluctant wedding guests. And in ancient Israel it was not the followers of Jesus whom God sent to punish the city of Jerusalem. Christians were never meant to be the police force of the world, making it safe for believers, and for democracy while we’re at it. No, God has other plans for that. As Romans 12:19 says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Folks, that means it’s not our job to punish all the evildoers in this world.

God has another job for us, the job that the king’s slaves were sent out to do after he sent someone else to take care of vengeance. You would think the king might have just kept them all home where they would be safe. He could have had a nice little private party for his son. As your church council read The Benedict Option, that was the impression we got about what the author was saying. While Dreher would and has denied it, he seems to be telling Christians that we need to stay home and keep ourselves safe. Take all our children out of public school. Shop only at Christian businesses. Live in communities where most of the people around us share our faith. Huddle up and abandon this cruel world.

In that most famous of all psalms, Psalm 23, we recited today those lovely words, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” You might get the idea that it’s a private table, a place set just for one or for a few privileged guests whose cups the Lord will fill to overflowing with His blessings. In the midst of darkest valleys, God will gather the faithful lambs and take care of us. We can just ignore the rest of the world and let it go by.

Back in the parable, the king has a different plan. Verse 8 says “The wedding is ready.” He still wants to throw a feast, a party for his son, “but those invited were not worthy.” So he forgot those first invited guests, the social movers and shakers who would have brought nice gifts. Now that their city is burning, they’ve got a fire to put out. Instead, he prints up a whole new batch of invitations to be delivered in the street. Invite anyone, he tells them. A-list or alcoholic. Ballerina or bum. Car thief or commodities trader. Drug dealer or debutante. They were all welcome, and many of them came, “both good and bad,” we’re told. Verse 10 concludes “the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

In the real world of Jesus’ own ministry, we know He extended God’s invitation of grace to tax collectors and prostitutes, peasants and soldiers, possibly a terrorist or two. Yes, there were people of status, a physician and a Pharisee, but they were the minority. The Lord filled up His Church with smelly fishermen and humble women, with the poor and with slaves. They flocked into God’s kingdom to eat and drink at the feast of the King’s Son. As we read from Isaiah 25:6, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.” That’s what the king in the parable did and what God Himself is up to.

Like any good preacher, Jesus told this story, this parable we’re reading, more than once, telling it a little differently each time. In Luke chapter 14, Jesus told it in the context of a dinner party and the point was that the people of God have the job of inviting everyone to join them at the great feast God is offering. Jesus prefaced the story with a direct command not to invite to dinner only your friends and family, but to invite people who can’t pay you back, “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”

In both tellings of the story, Jesus teaches us that the role of His people, of His servants, is not to stay home where it’s safe. It’s not to just gather round His little table by ourselves. Our job is to go out into the wide world and offer anyone we meet an invitation to come and join the party. That’s how we seek the kingdom of God in the world.

So Valley Covenant Church is praying over Dan and Kay as they head for India with our gift for the Lord’s work there. People from Valley Covenant have gone to Ethiopia and to Kenya, to Alaska and to Haiti, to Egypt and to Chile. Our Lord has sent us out into the world to invite people everywhere to the feast of His kingdom.

Even those of us who stay home are not just focused on our lives here. So our missions group meets monthly to pray for those we support in ministry throughout the world. So we will welcome Rene Mbongo from West Africa on the last Sunday of the month and hear a word from him about how he and his wife invite new guests to the party. So we send money and help to victims of hurricanes and of fires, to people who are hungry in dozens of countries. We want them to receive the invitation and a place at the table which the Lord prepares for them in the presence of their enemies.

Our vision statement pushes us out into the world because Jesus sent us there. He lived His whole life on earth in one tiny country, but what He did and said was constantly aimed further out. That verse we know so well tells us that every time we say it, “God so loved the world…”

Let us remember the basic premise of this parable. We are inviting people to a celebration. We’re not a bunch of gloomy hermits living rigid, miserable lives. We are people who come each week to celebrate an abundant life, a gift of grace and blessing, a feast of joy our Lord has prepared for us. You and I have something good and beautiful and true to offer a world that is desperately in need of goodness, beauty and truth.

Last year in Bend, there was a news story about a birthday party for a nine-year-old boy. They gave out lots of invitations, but no one showed up. The boy was left crying while his mother tried to console him. The family took him bowling instead of having the party.

On the other hand, in May this year in Hurst, Texas, no one showed up for a boy’s eighth birthday. So his parents drove to the police department. The boy had talked about being a policeman, so they asked if an officer might visit to cheer him up. She also posted the party on a neighborhood blog. Nine police officers and firefighters showed up, and several neighborhood families as well. The boy totally forgot that the kids he invited did not come to his party.

Our vision as a church is like the vision of that second boy’s parents. We’re not going to sit around wondering why nobody is showing up for our little party. We have a king whose celebration is meant to include the whole world. That’s where our eyes are aimed. We envision people of every nation, of every race and language coming together to celebrate Jesus. That is our focus and that great mosaic of people is ultimately the family that we are saying we want to be.

The parable might have stopped in verse 10, with the wedding hall full of guests. That’s how it happens in Luke 14. Like those parents in Texas, God is unflappable. If His love and salvation are rejected by some, He will send us out to find others ready to accept. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has set a kingdom Table to which any and everyone is welcome, if they will only come.

But there are four more verses to the parable, another little story within a story. It’s a bit of a warning for those of us who are here today, those who have accepted God’s invitation, put our faith in Jesus, and arrived to celebrate with Him.

In verse 11 the party is in full swing. The music is loud, the food is hot, everyone’s having a good time. The king is walking around, schmoozing with his guests. All of a sudden, a man catches his eye. Someone is here who doesn’t fit. He’s not dressed for a party. He looks like he came in off the street, which, of course, he did. In verse 12, the king confronts him, “Friend,” (the word is not all that friendly, we might say something like, “Buddy”) how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

Here in Eugene, who knows what to wear to a wedding? Appropriate attire might be  coat and tie or shorts and a T-shirt. But in Jesus’ time it would be a deep insult not to put on clean, fresh clothes. That’s the problem here. This guest was failing to honor the importance of the day, the nature of the celebration.

God’s invitation to the world is “come as you are,” with all your faults and failures. The problem is thinking He means for us to stay that way, that nothing changes when we enter His kingdom and sit down at His table. That guest in the story failed to change out of his dirty street clothes into something clean and fit for a party. We do the same when we come to Jesus but fail to make any changes in our lives.

The man with no wedding robe is you and I when we take grace of the invitation for granted. Even in Eugene, you don’t wear cut-offs and a tank top to the prom. Or show up for a backpack trip in high heels. It’s not so much the clothes as the attitude. You may show up, but you also need to join in.

Our invitation to the world is to be part of a life-changing celebration, an event that transforms anyone who enters into it. But we can’t expect that invitation to be accepted or even to be believed if we aren’t being changed ourselves.

Verse 14 says, “For many are called…” We’re all invited, anyone, everyone. The King keeps sending out invitations to His Son’s banquet until no one is left uninvited. There are only two questions. The first and most important is “Will you go?” Will you accept the free grace of forgiveness for your sins and put your trust in Jesus Christ and nothing else? If so, then you are on your way to the feast of the kingdom of God.

Yet verse 14 continues, “…but few are chosen.” The other question is, “How will you arrive?” Will you start getting ready, dressed and prepared to meet your King in the clean clothing of a better life? Or will you find yourself like the man in the parable, still in the same old clothes you started in, speechless when the Lord asks how you got there that way?

How is the world going to see us? We dress up for all kinds of reasons. We put on our best for a special date, for an important graduation, for the boss’s invitation to dinner. We buy new clothes for the start of school, for that dream vacation, for the wedding of someone we love. If we want people in the world around us to know that we are dressing up for our king, then we need to look like it. I’m not talking about coming to church in fancy clothes. It’s our lives that need to look like something special, something different from what the world usually sees.

Every Christian worship service is a rehearsal for God’s great celebration. May you and I use these opportunities to get dressed up, to amend our hearts and our actions, to show ourselves and the world what His kingdom really looks like. May we clothe ourselves with truth and beauty and goodness that is wonderfully inviting to others when we go back out into the world. May everything we do and say let the world know there is a party they don’t want to miss, because the festivities and the joy will never end.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj