Sunday, October 11, 2020

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:4-13
Matthew 22:1-14

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who made a wedding feast for his son...

I am planning a women’s retreat that will be next weekend for our church. The theme is Jesus. I know that Jesus is an awfully broad topic, but we have several aspects of His life and ministry that we’ll be covering in our time together which will hopefully act as a catalyst for getting to know Jesus better after we go home. We are going to talk about how we see Jesus, the names He is called, how He defines Himself, and we will answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” We are also going to have several prayer stations that continue the learning.

One prayer station includes a large wooden cross. It is made with plain two by six inch pieces of wood. There will be band-aids at the station on which to write our pains, hurts, worries, fears, and even sins and then we will stick those on the cross. There will also be colored markers available to write words of praise and thanksgiving to God for His mercy and His graciousness. The point of the station is to give Jesus our troubles and to thank Him even before we know the answers to our prayers for help, trusting that God will take those band-aids and make things right for us.

We always talk about how Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, but Jesus took more on His shoulders than just what we have done wrong. He took all the brokenness of the world. He took death, illness, fear, and worry. He took our troubles because the source of our troubles goes all the way back to the Garden when Adam and Eve stopped trusting in God’s Word. Jesus took everything that makes this world imperfect and overcame it so that one day those of us with faith will dwell in that perfect Garden with Him forever.

We will use the band-aids for the things we want Jesus to help us overcome and markers for our thanksgiving and praise because band-aids are temporary, but the ink will never fade. The troubles we experience in this life might seem to last for a long time, but they are temporary. They may end in death, but with faith in God and trust in Jesus, we will enter into that eternity that they have promised to us.

Eternity is going to be amazing. All the brokenness will be gone and we will be whole and restored to a perfect relationship with God. There will be no more tears, no more dis-ease, no more fear or worry. We will praise God constantly, singing Alleluia with the whole company of angelic hosts and all the saints from all time. We will rejoice always.

It isn’t so easy to rejoice always right now, is it? We have so much happening in our world that is causing us grief. We are afraid, not only of dis-ease, but of the future. We can’t talk to our neighbors without getting into an argument about politics. The streets in too many cities are more dangerous than ever. We are cut off from others in too many ways: distance and quarantine have made it difficult to gather with our loved ones and our brothers and sisters in Christ. The masks and other safety recommendations keep us from being able to have any physical contact. We may not even realize how much we are struggling with these things, but it is affecting many people’s lives. Suicide is up, depression is up, and people are getting in ways that have nothing to do with the virus. Too many people are not happy, and it is manifesting in anger and hatred.

Yet, there are those who have found joy even in the midst of all our troubles. Have you ever known anyone who was perpetually happy? Have you known one of those people that no matter where they are, no matter what is happening in their life they have a smile on their face? In the movie “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy played Sister Mary Patrick, an upbeat nun who helped Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi) find her place in the convent. Sister Mary Clarence was actually Delores Van Cartier, a Las Vegas headliner who was in hiding because her boyfriend had threatened her life. The convent life was far from Delores’s comfort zone and no matter how temporary it was to be, she needed people to help her adjust.

In one scene, Sister Mary Clarence and Sister Mary Patrick were sitting together, chatting about their lives. Slightly annoyed by the constant giddiness, Sister Mary Clarence asked Sister Mary Patrick if she was always so happy. Sister Mary Patrick answered, “Yes” and said that her mother thought she would grow up to be either a stewardess or a nun. Most of us look at people like her with the same annoyance as Delores. We can’t imagine always being happy. It is exhausting to be with them, how much more exhausting must it be to be them?

Yet Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.” Always is a very long time. Sister Mary Clarence seems to have found that place where she seems to be always rejoicing, but I don’t know many people who can get there. We go through a whole range of emotions, sometimes in just minutes. Even as we watch the movie “Sister Act” we experience fear, worry, sadness, hope, doubt and happiness. We react to the experiences of those characters on screen and we respond with smiles as well as tears.

However, rejoicing need not manifest merely as giddiness. Sister Mary Clarence has that kind of happiness even in tough times, because she knows God is in control. We can rejoice even as we cry tears of pain and doubt because in this passage Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord.” This is different than mere happiness. This is living out trust in God and responding to the world with a steadfast faith that is visible to the world. It does not mean we have to smile at all moments, but it means standing firm in the promises of God knowing that He is faithful. It means praising God even in the midst of the pain and trouble that we experience. It means being thankful, even when it seems like there is nothing to be thankful for, praising God before we see the answers to our prayers.

Sadly, this letter was written by Paul in part because two fellow co-workers for Christ were at odds. We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche were fighting, but these types of battles seem more common than ever these days. Each is passionate about their opinion and is willing to fight for what they believe to be right and true. That is certainly true right now in the United States as politics has divided our nation. Many are divided over religion, also, even Christians. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.

But Paul says, “Be of the same mind.” Does this mean that we have to agree fully about every detail of our faith? Some might think so, but Paul goes on to talk about rejoicing in the Lord. We have differences because God has created us as unique individuals, we can be of the same mind, praising God in all circumstances, even when things are not going so well. We can share the peace of God as we dwell in the love of God in Christ Jesus, instead of dwelling in our differences. As Paul writes, “whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report: if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, think about these things.” Jesus Christ is all this, and in Him we can rejoice together, singing praise and thanksgiving to God.

We can thank God for His mercy and grace even in the midst of our troubles because we know that God has already made all things right. We just go by a different calendar than God; we are bound by space and time, but God is outside our limitations. And He is faithful to His promises. This is why we can rejoice always.

The retreat has taken a great deal of preparation. I’ve had to figure out a theme, ask people to help, assigned tasks. We’ve had to purchase supplies and create materials. We have had to think through the unique needs of having an event during this time. We have had to work out details with the venue and arrange for transportation. We’ve been working on this for the past few months, and it hasn’t always been easy. The ladies will not know all the work or the struggles that have gone into planning and preparing; they will arrive at the retreat and experience it with joy and peace.

Isaiah 25 begins with a hymn of thanksgiving in which the singer praises God for the things He has done, and for planning them long before there was ever a need. God knew at the beginning that His people would need Him. He knew they would fall. He knew they would be overcome. He knew they would face terrible enemies. And He promised to be faithful. He promised to protect them against the storm and the heat of the sun. Knowing that God has promised these things and that He is faithful, God’s people can go forth in faith even through the storms.

Even now, as we live in a time of fear and confusion, as we wonder what tomorrow will hold, we can sing the hymn of thanksgiving because God is still faithful. We can look forward to a day when things are better, knowing that it might not be comfortable or perfect for the moment because we will face times of trouble, but God is in control. He is with us and He can see beyond the moment. He has great things planned for His people and He will not allow us to be destroyed. There is a feast waiting for us, a feast we will enjoy in the day of the Lord. Our salvation is waiting for us on the other side of our fear and pain. Knowing this, we walk through the times of trouble with faith, praising God for all that will be because He has planned it and He is faithful. The band-aids will be removed, and the praise will remain forever.

Living a life of praise and thanksgiving to God is a life which Paul says will be without worry. Trusting in God’s promises, we look toward tomorrow with peace and joy rather than fear and doubt. Perhaps this is a message that is most relevant to our time today. After all, we are looking at a world that seems to be collapsing and we do not know what is going to happen that we walk with fear. And while I doubt that God is planning a financial takeover of the world banks, I do know that God is in control of the world which He has created. Even if times get frighteningly bad, we can look to Him for peace and hope.

Paul writes that we should rejoice always. It is difficult to rejoice when we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, but we do not face our troubles alone. “The Lord is near.” This promise is the foundation of everything we do today and always. As someone once said, “Worry is unconscious blasphemy.” Worry is self-centered. When we worry we focus on our own inability to handle the problems in the world. It makes us and our works the center of our attention. Worry is the opposite of faith. Instead of worry, we are called to live in prayer and thanksgiving, knowing that God is able.

The guest at the banquet who refused to put on the gift is like the person who worries. The worrier does not recognize that God is near, that He has offered something of great value worth rejoicing always. This is certainly easier to type in words than to exhibit in actions, yet Paul gives us suggestions of ways to begin. Do whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Think about that which is worthy of praise. Follow the lessons learned from those who have walked in faith before us. As we do these things the peace of God will be with us. The peace is with us anyway, because where God is, His peace follows. But as we live in praise and thanksgiving, we will experience that peace and rejoice. We might even bring some hope to our neighbors and change the world by sharing that peace.

We have all probably attended a banquet or two in our time. We like to hold banquets to celebrate all sorts of milestones and accomplishments. When Bruce was in the military we attended banquets for promotions, to thank volunteers, and for days of prayer. We’ve been to school and sports banquets with the kids. There are often banquets at church to celebrate anniversaries or transitions. Who hasn’t attended a wedding banquet?

I went on a tour with an organization when I was a teenager; we visited many cities around our state so that we could introduce our group to places that might benefit from having a chapter in their town. We were fed well during our trip, hosted at banquet feasts every day by the local groups who invited us to visit. We mostly ate ham; ham is easy to fix and at that time it was relatively inexpensive. The side dishes that go with ham are easy to prepare for large groups. The food preparers did well, the food filled our bellies and we appreciated the effort. As with much banquet food, however, it was never fantastic and we were all a little tired of dry ham and lukewarm side dishes by the end of our tour.

What are your memories of the banquets you’ve attended over the years? We were thankful and filled at those banquets so long ago, but they were typical of what I think about a banquet: long lines at buffets with empty trays when the food runs out or plates that were obviously slapped together in an assembly line. It is hard to serve hundreds of people at the same time. That’s why groups choose ham and au gratin potatoes.

How can God possibly serve so many a feast so great? He can because He is God. He will be celebrating the marriage of His Son. This will not be like any wedding any of us have ever attended. This is the consummation of all His promises, the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the world as His bride the Church is made fully and completely one with Him. Death will be swallowed up, tears will be dried. We will have reason to celebrate and this feast is not a party that will end; it will last for eternity as we dwell in heaven with our Father and our Lord Christ forever.

Today’s texts have images of banquets, and in them we are reminded of the eternal feast that God is preparing for us in heaven. As we think about how hard it is to feed a few hundred people, we can’t imagine the feast that God is preparing. It will be a feast for all who have waited for God’s salvation.

Isaiah writes, “Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even space and time by drawing all believers past, present and future into His body the Church. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation.

The wedding feast promised in our scriptures is for Christ and His Church. We know that ultimately God’s salvation is meant for all people, just as we see in the passage from Isaiah, but the invitation was first given to Israel. The scriptures foretold of the time when the Messiah would come. They were given the signs and promises; they knew what they should be looking for. The prophets came and spoke the warnings and the promises, but the people ignored and even rejected them. Matthew’s texts over the past few weeks have shown how God’s people have gone their own way, following their own wants and desires rather than God’s Word. They killed the prophets, and in last week’s lesson Jesus predicted that they would even kill the Son.

At that word, the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus but they were afraid of the crowd. Jesus extended the conversation with a parable about heaven, taking the message of Isaiah to the next level. Heaven will be a banquet with fine wine and rich foods, served for those set free from the oppression of their enemy. The ultimate enemy is death; Jesus would overcome that enemy through His death and resurrection. He was about to fulfill God’s promises by setting the world free to be welcome into the heavenly banquet.

Isn’t it amazing how patient and purposeful He is with His people? Even as they were trying to find ways to arrest Jesus, He was still trying to help them see the truth.

The invitations went out, and like those who said “Yes” in the parable a few weeks ago but did not do what they promised, the guests accepted the invitation but refused to come. More servants were sent and ignored. Like the tenants in the vineyard, some of the invited guests even killed the king’s servants. In both the previous stories, the recipients of God’s promises were those who were deemed unworthy of God’s grace because they proved faithful in the end. The same is true in today’s passage, where the king rejected those who rejected him and invited anyone willing to come. “Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the marriage feast.” The servants went out and invited all those they found, good and bad. The wedding hall was full.

The people in our stories from Matthew over the past few weeks - the son who said yes but did not do the work of his father, the tenants who thought that they deserved the vineyard so they killed the son, and today’s guests who ignored or rejected the wedding invitation - did not trust in God. They trusted in themselves, in their own rightness. They are like those today who still ignore and reject the God who has offered salvation to all who believe. Unfortunately, in today’s passage we learn that there are some who accept the invitation but not the gift. They are the ones who are part of the Church but who have not truly accepted the free gift of God’s grace. They think that they are there according to their own works and righteousness. This is why it is so important to remember that we do not earn God’s grace but in His grace we are called to live accordingly.

In ancient days, the host of a banquet gave clean robes to the guests. The people had traveled far on dusty roads; the robes were given so that the guests would feel fresh and clean for the feast. Rejection of the gift was disrespectful to the host, just as a rejection of Jesus Christ is a rejection of God’s grace.

The wedding garment here has nothing to do with the clothing we wear. It is the righteousness we wear. The robes of the priests and the leaders were a sign of their position and authority. It was also a sign of their piety. But the robe given at this wedding banquet is not self attained by good works or human effort: it is the righteousness that comes from Christ. The warning in this text is for those who think they can attend church but hold on to their own ways. It is a warning to the hypocrites who claim to be faithful but live faithless lives.

See, the wedding robe represents the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the righteousness we receive by faith in Him. We can’t be right with God without Jesus, but God Himself has given us the robe to cover the filth of our sinful natures.

We might think that the guest was cast out because he had not changed his ways or repented of his “grime,” but the robes did not remove the dust and dirt from the road. It was simply covered by the wedding garment. The guest without the robe was still a sinner, but so were all the other guests. It isn’t the act of wearing the robe that made the guests clean. Every person given the robe is still covered in the grime of sin and death, but the wedding garment given by the host makes them clean. We are simultaneously sinners and saints. The guest was not cast out because he was grimy and dirty from the road, but because he rejected the gift that had been given.

Euodia and Syntyche were fighting about something that was probably insignificant. We’ve all been there, though, haven’t we? It seems these days that we are even more a divided people, unable to agree about much, even the color of the carpet. Our brokenness is obvious. Each side is passionate about their opinion and are willing to fight for what they believe to be right and true. Paul encourages us to approach our relationships differently.

Instead of worrying about tomorrow and arguing about insignificant details, let us remember that Christ has called us to be one in Him, of the same mind. We won’t agree about everything, but there is something about which all of us can agree: He has given us the gift of His own righteousness, a robe to wear over our dirty and grimy selves. We are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a feast that has been promised in eternity but which we can enjoy even today. And as we wait, we join in the chorus of our forefathers who knew the words of praise and thanksgiving to sing to experience the peace and joy of living in God’s presence. They failed, as we all fail, with dirty clothes under the garment of grace. But when we feel like we should worry, like there’s nothing else for us to do, let us remember to sing and rejoice and we’ll forget about the fear and pain because we will know that God has already made all things right.

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