Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lectionary 28A
Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Jehovah; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation

Another fire is burning near Bastrop, Texas, where a devastating fire recently burned thousands of acres and homes. The current fire has threatened some buildings, and families have been evacuated, but so far the flames have only touched wilderness areas. This fire is miles away from the previous fire, but it is still frightening for the people of that city and county. The wounds are too fresh, the fear barely gone, and they are reminded once again how fragile the lives we have created for ourselves really are. There is no silver lining for those who have lost their homes and those who fear for their futures.

There is a silver lining, though, for the forests that are being affected by these fires. Drive through the wilderness areas around Texas and you’ll see that the ground is covered with brush and debris that is dry and making new growth impossible. Forest managers agree that occasional fires help keep a forest healthy because it removes the unwanted growth at the base of the trees that steals nourishment and moisture from the trees and makes it difficult for seedlings to grow. Forest managers will often set a controlled fire to remove that unwanted brush and debris so that the trees will grow stronger and taller. Fire might destroy, but it also cleanses.

Locally, I’ve noticed that one dry creek bed is so overcome by this growth, that we’ll face threats of floods when it finally begins to rain again. The small brush will be pulled loose by raging waters and will then get caught up by the larger trees that have grown. The accumulation of these branches will create dams that will back up the water, perhaps even into someone’s backyard. An out of control fire would be dangerous to those homes, but a controlled burn would help restore that creek bed so that the water will run off safely. The destruction might not make sense to some, but ultimately the cleansing will make things better.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, a faithful person praises God for the destruction of a city. This destruction is said to be of an enemy state, a strong nation that has oppressed God’s people. Now, it makes sense for the people of God to praise Him for His protection over them; He has been a refuge. But the singer goes on to say that the strong nations will glorify God. Why would they do so if God has destroyed their city? The festival to celebrate God’s kingship is given for all people, they are welcome into Kingdom of God even though they were once enemies. Destroying their city freed them from their lives separate from Him.

The cleansing will come not only for those enemies, but also for God’s people; the passage looks forward to a time when God will destroy everything that stands in the way of their relationship with Him; the suffering inflicted by war will be gone. He will destroy even death. All nations will be invited to the feast; through the destruction there will be hope.

Will all answer the call? This is where we take up the story in the Gospel lesson. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem triumphantly and has started the final journey to the cross. He has turned over the tables in the Temple marketplace and upset the leaders with His parables about authority. They know He is talking about them, that He is threatening their place in God’s Kingdom. They are like the enemy in Isaiah, but the destruction will not be to their city, it will be to their mistaken understanding of God’s relationship with His people. They have created a religion that burdens God’s people, oppresses them and keeps them from growing in faith. Jesus is about to change all that, destroying the walls that keep God’s people, and all people, from Him, even death.

The destruction will come on a cross, where God’s Son is given over to death. It makes no sense to us that God would have to crucify the perfect lamb, but it is the only way to save His people. They did not know it, but we do: when the destruction is over, Christ will be raised and all people will be invited to a great banquet.

The wedding feast is for Christ and His Church. We know that ultimately God intended for this salvation was meant to be given to 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. We have seen the past few weeks 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 we saw that they would even kill the Son.

At that word, the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus, but they were afraid of the crowd, and Jesus continued to talk. He told a parable about heaven, taking the message of Isaiah to the next level. Heaven is like that banquet, with fine wine and rich foods, given to the people who are set free from the oppression of the enemy. The enemy is ultimately death, which would be destroyed in just days, and through His own death and resurrection, Jesus would set the world free to be welcome into the heavenly banquet.

Israel is invited first. They are like those who in the parable who would not go. When called a second time, the people responded negatively to the invitation. Some gave excuses why they could not come, others made jokes about it, and yet others grabbed the servants and killed them. The king was enraged; he sent his troops to destroy the murders and their city. Then the king told his servants to go out into the streets to invite guests to the wedding. The slaves went out and invited everyone, no matter who they were; the text even reads, “…both good and bad.”

I wonder if the king destroyed all those who were first invited, or just those who’d murdered the slaves. It is possible that when the servants went to find guests for the banquet, the ones making excuses and the jokers came to realize how important the event was to the king. Perhaps the survivors went along with the other guests who were invited last, and despite their immediate rejection were welcomed into the banquet. Eventually the banquet hall was full and the party could begin.

When the king arrived at the banquet, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding garment. During our discussion this week, our class was bothered by the idea that someone would get removed for their clothes. These people were grabbed off the streets and sent to the banquet. They didn’t have time to go home. Many of them probably didn’t even have good clothes to wear. I was surprised to find a commentary that even took this point of view about the passage. The writer said that this is a warning to church goers to give respect to the Lord when entering into His presence by dressing properly. This particular writer was bothered by those who would attend church in blue jeans or shorts. “Take heed,” he said, “Your disrespect for God shows in your clothes.”

But we know that the wedding garment here has nothing to do with the clothing we wear on our flesh. 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.

The last verse of this passage is the most bothersome of all, so troubling that many people even ignore it. I’ve searched for commentaries that speak on the subject, but have found little but silence. Matthew writes, “For many are called, but few chosen.” This seems to speak in terms familiar to predestination, inferring the idea that only a few will be welcome in the wedding banquet. The problem with that point of view is that only one is rejected from a gathering of many. How can it be that God is limiting those whom He has “chosen?”

Some of the commentaries point us back to the end of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where Jesus warned, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” So, we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be chosen? Certainly the synonyms for the word ‘chosen’ in Greek include words like selected and elect, terms that point to this idea of predestination. But the word ‘eklektoi’ can mean exalted or choice or precious. Or specially beloved. If we consider these terms in light of the idea that the last will be first, we can see that this does not remove others from being loved or welcomed, but perhaps there are some who have been raised to special privilege. If we look to the twelve disciples, we can see that is true. Jesus had His close friends, though all were loved and beloved. He had those on whom He could count and those who were still part of the group. Though we know very little about most of the twelve, we know they were faithful even if they were not set apart for greatness.

So, instead of looking at this passage in light of the story of the man who does not wear the wedding garment, we should think in terms of those who came to the banquet. 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, will find that they are left out in the cold, but God has not limited the banquet to a few. He has provided salvation for all who will take on the robe of His grace.

We who have been saved can join in the hymn of thanksgiving in Isaiah, which 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 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 fully about every detail of our faith? Some might 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, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good—think on 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 to today’s psalm. 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 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 not in the building but in the preparation for the work his son would do.

Paul calls us to join in the songs of praise, rejoicing in God’s graciousness even when it seems like nothing is going right. We are welcomed into the banquet, to share in God’s goodness forever. 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. Out of the destruction, we are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a feast that has been promised into eternity but which we can enjoy even today. And as we wait, we join in the chorus of our forefathers who experienced the peace and joy of living in God’s presence humbly singing words of praise and thanksgiving.

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