St Barnabas and St Michael’s 9th October 2011
Reading – Matthew 22:1-14
I’d like you to think for a moment about the most special invitation you ever received. Has anyone here ever been invited to Buckingham Palace? Or to attend the premiere of a film? Would anyone like to share the most special invitation they have ever received?
So how did you feel when you received that invitation? Honoured, proud, maybe a little bit nervous? Did anyone simply chuck it in the bin or say, “Sorry, it’s on a Saturday and I really must catch up on Strictly“? Of course not. You cancelled dates in the diary, you made an appointment with the hairdresser, and most importantly of all you replied to those little letters RSVP. From that point on, you spent the next few months looking forward to that event, planning, preparing, even lying awake at night thinking what it was going to be like.
I want to think about this whole theme of invitation as we come to our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning. It is the story of a king who, as we read in verse 1, has prepared a wedding banquet for his son. Who is this king? On one level the king is the sort of political leader the crowds hearing this story would have been very familiar with – petty tyrants who get upset and are quite happy to burn down cities when their will is refused. That was what politicians were like in those days.
But on another level the king in the story stands for none other than God Himself. We know this because on many occasions Jesus talked about life in God’s kingdom as a feast, a banquet, a party. Indeed Jesus Himself often spent time in people’s home sharing food and drink, talking and laughing and telling those stories that would later be written down as great pearls of wisdom called parables.
Does that surprise you? I guess when you talk to most people about the Christian faith, they think of dull, dreary religion taking place in dull, dreary buildings with dull, dreary vicars like me droning on at the front. Or they think of people trying to live by all kinds of rules and regulations and pointing out the faults and failings of others. But that is not the image of the Christian faith that Jesus ever, ever uses. For what Jesus came to give us was not religion, not rules, but a living relationship with God Himself.
Jesus came to invite us to know God the maker of heaven and earth as Father. He came to offer us forgiveness of sins and a deep, inner peace through His death in our place on the cross. He came to promise all who believed in Him the gift of the Holy Spirit and the joy of life eternal. And that’s why He compared life in God’s kingdom to a party. The Christian faith was never meant to be dull and dreary, and I am truly sorry if that’s ever been your experience of church and believers. It was meant to be full of life and colour and indeed to give us the very real sense of having discovered the purpose for which each and every one of us has been created – to know and love God for ourselves.
But the great tragedy, and it’s one that Jesus describes in this story here, is that even today so many people decide to ignore the invitation that God sends them. Jesus says in John 6:35: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. And He still says that today, offering to meet all our deepest desires for acceptance, forgiveness, and so much besides. Yet what so often is the typical response? A shrug of the shoulders, maybe, or an “Am I bothered”?
In our passage we read of those invited to the king’s banquet – verse 5: But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business. Whoever these people were, their prize possessions, their work, their opportunity to make money was what really counted. They were blind to the special invitation they had been given, and they did not see the need to make a response.
And there were others as well, who seized his servants, ill-treated them and killed them. Sad to say, that too is a very common reaction to the invitation Jesus gives them. I don’t know how many of you have been following the story of the Iranian pastor who has been sentenced to death because he has thrice refused to convert to Islam. But the hostility to the Christian faith isn’t simply confined to other countries.
I can’t fully explain it, but I am sure you have come across folk who seem to hate anyone who has anything to do with Jesus. More and more, Christian organisations come up against a culture where praying in public, wearing a cross, even using terms like BC and AD are frowned upon. And you ask our children here today how easy it will be for them to explain at school tomorrow they have been to church.
So what does the king in the story do? Does he simply leave the door open and let people come along later? Does he offer a general pardon for those who have abused his messengers? No, he sends his messengers out again and invites others.
Please hear very carefully what Jesus is saying here. So many people think they can ignore God’s invitation, or maybe think about it later on when the kids have left home, or they’ve retired, or the grandchildren come along. Because, after all, at the end of the day everyone’s going to get to heaven, aren’t they?
Not if you’ve understood the point of Jesus’s story. God has prepared a party for us. He is offering a life of love and joy and peace. And at the bottom of his invitation is an “RSVP”. If we simply chuck it in the bin, and refuse to answer, we mustn’t be surprised that when we come to the heavenly gates, we find there is a no entry sign in front of us with these words, verse 8: The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.
Won’t that be a truly terrible prospect? Knowing that we had the opportunity to respond God’s love, but now we are separated from our Father, not just for a little while, not just even for a lifetime, but for all eternity. In fact, Jesus calls that prospect hell. Forget the images of devils with toasting forks, or angry preachers preaching fire and brimstone. Hell is quite simply knowing that you had a chance to say “Yes” to Jesus and you blew it. Big time. Forever. No wonder Jesus talks about the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I struggled long and hard with myself before deciding to talk about the consequences of rejecting Jesus’ invitation. It would have been very easy to say, “Jesus loves all of you. Come to His party. Everyone welcome”. But at the end of the day I couldn’t do it. Because Jesus thought it important enough to warn what happens when we ignore His invitation, and who am I to think I know better than Jesus? And also, and more positively, because when you read the rest of the story, you begin to see why Jesus’ offer really is such good news.
For what did the messengers do when the king sent them out again? Verse 10: So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. There’s something almost scandalous, isn’t there, about the way the king tears up the guest list and brings in anyone He can find on the street. Certainly it was scandalous to the crowds who heard Jesus tell this story. They had been taught that God was only interested in religious people, people who made an effort to live decent, honest lives, people who didn’t have any chequered histories or dubious pasts.
But the king welcomed everyone in both good and bad. And that’s what God still does today. He doesn’t care whether you think of yourself as good or bad. His generous invitation to life with Him still stands and it really is for everyone. How many times do I hear things like: “I’m not worthy enough to receive God’s love” “I’m not good enough” “I’ve done too many bad things”. That is absolute nonsense.
Because, if you think about it, no-one is good enough for God. God is totally pure, totally true, totally honest. None of us can match up to His standards. There are no VIP tickets into His party for the good, the famous or the wealthy. All anyone of us can do is say: “Yes, Lord, I’ve messed it up. I don’t understand why you love me. But I thank you that you love me anyway, and have sent Jesus to die in my place for my sins”. And when we do that, whoever we are, whatever we have done, God our Heavenly Father comes to meet us and says, “Welcome home. I’m so glad you’ve come back to me”.
That, put very simply, is the heart of the Christian faith. Whether you think of yourself as good or bad, whether you are young or old, whether you are male or female, whether you have lots of qualifications or none at all, God is still out looking for you. Because how God sees you is as one of His precious creatures who needs to come back to Him. And the way back to Him is open because this Jesus not only told about God’s great love for us, but showed it by dying for each and every one us upon the cross and conquering the forces of sin and death and evil.
So, yes, there is bad news in this story for those who ignore or reject God’s invitation. But there is also very, very good news for those who have the faith to respond, to say “Yes”.
We’re nearly at the end of this story but there’s one final twist. We shared earlier about those special invitations we have received … So let me ask you, what did you wear when the big day came? T-shirt and jeans? A special offer from down the market? No, of course you wore your best finery with all the trimmings. You wanted to show your respect for the occasion and for the person who had invited you.
And this helps to explain the curious ending to the story about the man who did not have any wedding clothes. We know this man had responded to the invitation and come in, indeed the king calls him His friend. But this invitation had made no impression on this man’s life. It wasn’t simply the fact He hadn’t changed his clothes. He hadn’t changed his attitudes or his behaviour.
The point Jesus is making here is that saying “Yes” to God’s invitation must be more than saying the right words, or maybe coming to the odd church service. We have to let Jesus be our King, to take control of the way we think and act and do. With the help of His Holy Spirit we have to get rid of our old habits, our old ways of doing things, and become the person that Jesus wants us to be. After all, when that special invitation comes in the post, we spend so much time and energy planning and preparing so we are ready for the big day. Shouldn’t we spend even more time and energy making sure we are ready to meet with God who is Lord over heaven and earth?
Because – and this is the point where I want to close – this story is not just an interesting story Jesus told two thousand years when He walked this earth. Nor is this story meant for other people. Nor even is it in one sense a story. It is actually a description of how the living God is calling you – not the person sitting next to you, or the long-standing church member who’s been here for donkey’s years – to share in the life of His kingdom, to experience the love, the joy, the peace, the forgiveness that comes through believing in His Son Jesus.
So what is your response? A shrug of the shoulders? Walking off in the other direction? Or is it a “yes” that’s more than just words, but a new attitude of heart and mind and will as you give your life to Him? That is the question each one of us needs to know how to answer. Not later, when it may be too late. But now.
I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. Take the challenge and respond today.