Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, “Rejoice!”
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.
There was a scene in a movie I watched recently of two people trying to decide what to serve at a wedding. It was a destination wedding; the maid of honor and the best man were making decisions for the bride and groom who had not yet arrived to the place where the wedding was to be held. The maid of honor was insistent that it was a most important decision, but the man wasn’t very interested. He asked her about the last wedding she attended. “What did you eat?” When she couldn’t answer, he asked her if she would forget if the food was so important.
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. I’ve experienced long lines at buffets with empty trays at the end or plates of food 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.
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. How can He 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 we have 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.
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 time and space 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 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 in a matter of days after He spoke this parable 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.
Matthew writes, “For many are called, but few chosen.” Who are the chosen? We automatically put ourselves into that category, but we would do well to remember that we aren’t invited to the banquet because of our works. We don’t deserve the invitation; we are invited out of God’s grace. We are welcome into the banquet is fully and wholly based on God’s gift. If we expect to enjoy the banquet based on our own good works, our own righteousness, we will be sadly mistaken. It is only by the gift of the wedding robe, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that we will be received at the great and glorious banquet which God is planning for us.
What does it mean to be chosen? Certainly the synonyms for the word “chosen” in Greek include words like selected and elect, but the word ‘eklektoi’ can mean exalted, precious, or especially beloved. Many will be invited, but few will be set apart. The ones who are humble enough to live as the king demands will find themselves at the center of a marvelous feast. There will be those, like the ones first invited and the man who refused the robe, who will find that they are left out in the cold.
God knew at the beginning that His people would need Him. He knew we would fall. He knew we would be overcome. He knew we would face terrible enemies. And He promised to be faithful. He promised to protect us 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 now 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. It might seem like the world has been destroyed around us, but it has simply been cleansed so that it will be healthier and better in the end.
It won’t always be easy. The guests at this great banquet won’t always get along in this life. Take, for example, Euodia and Syntyche, two fellow workers with Paul in the Gospel. They were at odds about something. Perhaps they disagreed about the color of the carpeting. Perhaps they disagreed about politics. Perhaps they had different visions of the mission of their congregation. We are a divided people, unable to agree about much. When we begin to discuss real issues, we become separated from one another, breaking the bonds of brotherhood and peace. Each side is passionate about their opinion and we are willing to fight for what we believe to be right and true. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. Things haven’t changed. 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 about every detail of our life and faith? Some think so, but Paul goes on to talk about rejoicing in the Lord. Was there something special about the people who were welcomed into the banquet? Were they all from the same neighborhood? Did they all come bearing the same gifts? Despite our differences, we can be of the same mind because we are given the same robe and join in the same song of praise.
Together we praise God in all circumstances, even when things are not going so well. We 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, “Finally, brothers, 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.
David knew the great and marvelous things God had done when he penned the words of the beloved Psalm 23. David knew what it was like to walk in the shadow of death. He knew what it was like to experience darkness. He knew what it was like to suffer the consequences of his failures. But he believed in his heart that God was merciful and right. He trusted that God would make his mistakes into something good. He looked forward to the banquet table that God would set for His people.
David glorified God at all times, even when it seemed like nothing was going right. I can hear his voice from the caves where he hid from Saul. I can see David singing this prayer when he was mourning over his dying son. I can imagine that David found these words even when God told him that he could not build the Temple. He didn’t try to blame others or get around God’s Word. He simply accepted God’s Word and did what He could, glorifying God in his life.
Paul calls us to join in the songs of praise, rejoicing in God’s graciousness. We are welcomed into the banquet to share in God’s goodness forever, even though none of deserve to be His guests. Let us remember, then, 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: that He has given us the gift of His own righteousness, a robe to wear over our dirty, grimy selves.
We are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a feast that is greater than any banquet we have enjoyed in this life. It has been promised into eternity but we are invited to the table as we celebrate communion together with our brothers and sisters in Christ in every time or place. As we wait, we join our forefathers living humbly in God’s presence, rejoicing in the Lord always.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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