Proper 23 – Series A
This is one of those Sundays in which the good news and the bad news are rather the same thing. Jesus loves to do this. The parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 was great news for the sinners at his feet but a terrible rebuke for the scribes and teachers of the Law who were grumbling on the outside of that scene.
The preacher will also want to take note of the fact that two of the readings for today are frequently used at funerals, Isaiah 25 and Psalm 23. As the reading of Matthew takes us closer to the death and resurrection of Christ, the central act of Christianity, we get closer to why this is important. At the same time, however, the Isaiah text gives us an occasion to examine that text in its immediate context. In a funeral setting we likely do not want to go too far outside the verses provided, because there we find a complex and difficult message. But this is not a funeral sermon we are preaching, and the attentive preacher will need to embed this reading that context.
The Gospel reading depicts Jesus in the middle of Holy Week. The Lord opens the kingdom to the unlikely and has a word of judgment for the folks who ought to be inside. This is coupled with that familiar passage from Isaiah which plays on the same feasting theme as is found inside the parable but the careful reader who considers the whole chapter of the Isaiah reading notices that Jesus radically rewrites the story, reinterpreting the words to mean exactly what his contemporaries missed about Him.
Again the gist of this is to say that the leaders of Jerusalem are out and the gentiles, the sinners, and the unexpected folks are inside the kingdom, but reading Isaiah we might ask if that extends even to the Moabites. The kingdom of God seems to be made up of sinners, sinners who should be outside but are expressly invited to this feast, sinners who are unworthy and, in their unworthiness, made worthy by a gift from the king. The churchly folk, the Pharisees who have sat on all the committees, pledged to the building campaign, and tend the flower garden out by the sign, they are the baddies in this story. It is the world upside down, but obviously we want to think twice before we start to cast stones here. Jesus sharpest words of censure may be aimed squarely at us.
Paul meanwhile will speak of an imperative to rejoice. That is a little oxymoronic if you think about it. Rather like the command to love God, if you keep the command because it is a command you break it. I always joke with Bible studies about this. I propose that one of the guys in the class, when he gets married, should try and give his wife a dozen roses and then tell her he is doing his duty. In a sense he is doing his duty to love his wife, but if it is a duty then it is not love. This is not actually a recommended course of action. She will not appreciate the humor. Likewise, rejoicing because Paul commanded it is not true joy. And yet, Paul’s words are those of the chief servant at the wedding feast thrown for the king’s son. There must be joy, we all must don the festive garment; there is no other way. 2
This is a Sunday where the inattentive preacher can find himself easily slipping into a sort of legalism. Have a care here. One can be just as legalistic about the formulation of the Gospel as one can be legalistic about the rules of piety or morality. One of the basic rules of good pastoral ministry is that we dare not turn a means of grace into an instrument of the Law. The mystery of which we are given to preach resists such formulaic straightjackets. It tends to spill over into all sorts of sloppy speech. God is often messy this way, much to the frustration of theologians. He hears the simple prayers of a child or the bargain struck by a Jacob at Bethel just as much as the properly phrased orations of the collects. The question is whether there is a relationship behind the words, however poorly they may be said. It is that relationship, in which we are helpless and without recourse, but invited to God’s table, clothed with his righteousness, and completely dependent upon him, that relationship of an infant in his arms, which gives us the joy and moves the heart to serve and loosens the tongue to sing his praises. This mystery will have to find some expression in our sermons this week, but don’t think that we can ever say it perfectly or that we won’t find a better way to say it next month or next year.
Almighty God, You invite us to trust in You for our salvation. Deal with us not in the severity of Your judgment but by the greatness of Your mercy; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
What is up with the word “judgment” used here and elsewhere? Is God’s judgment always to condemnation? Does the judge ever judge us with an eye toward rehabilitation? Does the judge render a verdict which is not to condemnation? After all, isn’t God’s declaration of our innocence a judgment as well?
We are invited to trust in God for salvation, notice, not to trust in salvation. I know it is something of a heresy to speak it to Lutherans who remember “sola fide,” but I get really frustrated by the way we use and misuse Jesus’ and Paul’s words “by faith you have been saved.” Faith saves no one, it is always God who saves. He just does it through faith which of course makes Paul’s point important, but faith itself saves no one. Yet, as soon as we use the faith word, there are those among us, myself included, who will turn our gaze right into ourselves and start asking if there is faith in there when we really ought to be asking if God loves us. This, by the way, is called fideism and is one of the great heresies of the modern American Protestant Church. If you want to read an excellent article consider this one by Philip Carey: https://www.academia.edu/185285/Why_Luther_is_not_Quite_Protestant_The_Logic_of_Faith_in_a_Sacramental_Promise
“Deal with us not in the severity of your judgment but by the greatness of your mercy.” God has every reason to judge us harshly. This flies in the face of the comparative bean-counting that most Christians love to do. In the eyes of God and the analysis that really matters it is not 3
important whether you are better than the drug addicts or the prostitutes, the tax collectors or the sinners of any age. While I am glad you are not a meth addict and I can say that your life is much better for your not being loose in your morals, the simple fact of it is that God does not love you on that account. He doesn’t hold the moral man in some higher regard than the immoral man. The difference between the great sinner and the sweet little lady who sits in the pews every Sunday is not one of essence or nature, but simply whether they are at the head or the tail of a line heading in the wrong direction. They will both end up in the same hellish place eventually unless the Spirit of God comes on them, washes them in the blood of the Lamb, and restores to them the life which sin rips away from us.
But that is so hard for us to see and that makes this prayer hard to pray. We find it so easy to forget that when we start the service with “Lord, have mercy,” as the Kyrie bids us do, we take our place in a long line of sinners, blind people, demoniacs, prostitutes and others. Honesty insists that, with them, we are made beggars for mercy. I have always loved it that those were Luther’s last written words, “We are all beggars.”
Isaiah 25:6-9 The whole chapter is provided here. Cherry picking out the nice verses in the middle simply has to be resisted.
O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. 2 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the foreigners’ palace is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. 3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. 4 For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall, 5 like heat in a dry place. You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down.
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. 4
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” 10 For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain, and Moab shall be trampled down in his place, as straw is trampled down in a dunghill. 11 And he will spread out his hands in the midst of it as a swimmer spreads his hands out to swim, but the LORD will lay low his pompous pride together with the skill of his hands. 12 And the high fortifications of his walls he will bring down, lay low, and cast to the ground, to the dust.
You can see why the editors might have elected to omit the final verses. The image of Moab sinking down and putting out his hands like a swimmer in a sewage pond is not one that lends itself to worship. But the preacher will want to take note of the whole chapter. In the first section, which the pericope also omits, Isaiah praises God for victory over the enemy, a victory which was unexpected and a gift given to the poor and needy. The fortified city is a heap, the fortress is laid low. You might think that this is just another shot of the typical joy many feel at the destruction of an enemy, a theology of glory, but Isaiah, in verse 3, plants the seed for something more. The strong and mighty will see how God has cared for the poor and the weak and they will praise and fear the name of the LORD.
Then we get the passage we are looking at today. On the mountain of the Lord, Zion, where the temple is built but also where Jesus will die, the stone the builders rejected, there God will prepare a feast for all the people, a feast of rich food and fine wine. Then suddenly he shifts the metaphor, God is the one who is devouring, but not the feast, he is devouring the sheet that covers all the nations, he is swallowing up death forever.
Then the Lord is portrayed as wiping away all the tears from the faces of the people and removing the shame that has plagued them, death itself. Does he use the sheet (death!) to dry the tears? I would almost like to preach a whole sermon on that idea. The prophet concludes this section by remembering (or anticipating) the words the people say when God does this. What is 5
the difference between prophetic anticipation and our remembering? In both of them we confess that we counted on him and he came through for us. Let us rejoice and be glad!
Then Isaiah speaks of the mountain again, Zion, the temple mount, the city of Jerusalem, the capitol of Judea. It will be exalted but Moab will be brought low, brought to a stinky awful end. His pride cannot be any lower in the eyes of the ancients. He will not merely dwell in the dump, he will swim in the cesspool. Yuk.
But earlier Isaiah had noted that a strong people, presumably not the people of Israel, would praise God because he had had a care for his weak and lowly people. The Moabites had a long history with Israel. Genesis already notes their shady roots as the product of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. They resisted the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt and when they could not defeat them, they nearly corrupted them with the Baal-Peor. They worshipped Chemosh, a god of death who demanded human sacrifice. At the time of Isaiah they were on the side of the Assyrians who were increasingly flexing their muscles in the area. They were sort of the archetypal bad guys in the OT, yet, Ruth, the grandmother of David comes from there.
Can Moab be all that is wrong with the world? God swallows up death, dries every tear and the Moab’s of our existence, the really bad stuff, get flushed down the toilet like it has always deserved. What I don’t think we can say is that God hates the actual Moabites. The story of Ruth just won’t allow that. The words of Jesus, just won’t allow that.
How does this all fit in? We often have a tendency to say that Jesus died so that I can go to heaven and live forever. But I think we have to remember that this is not really good news for some people. Life is often times, for some folks, not very pleasant. The idea of an eternity like this is not pleasant. In fact, it might even sound a little hellish. In drying every tear, God is not only doing away with death, but he is taking all the bad stuff and flushing it into the cesspool, where it belongs. The hard thing about that reality is that there is a great deal about me that belongs there too. This is what makes the invitation to the feast so remarkable and so terrifying. The purity of the dinner guests must be perfect, and that can only be a gift from God. I will recognize myself in that Moab who sinks and stinks in the sewage. There is a part of me that belongs there. When God swallows up death forever, the old man, that old sinner that clings so closely to me, and whom I sometimes secretly love, he will die once and for all.
The important themes of this text are about the inclusion of all, the wiping away of all tears and the destruction of all the enemies. Moab, for Isaiah has become more than just the geo-political tribe which occupies the land near to Judah, it is the personification of all that keeps God’s people from the Promised Land.
Psalm 23 6
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Do I really need to comment on this psalm? Notice especially the imagery of verse 5 and how it reflects the OT lesson. The table prepared, the feast from God, is prepared in the presence of the enemies. Our cup overflows and our head runs with the oil of anointing. We dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The psalm is deservedly loved by our people and the people of the past 3,000 years. It appears that Jesus was picking up on these themes when he called himself a Good Shepherd. He did so because these were precious to the Jews of Palestine 2000 years ago.
The preacher who is struggling for an outline today might simply take it here. Read a verse of the psalm and find the intersection with the readings. Read another verse, find another place where the readings reflect this. The Psalm would form the scaffolding of the sermon, its progression would be your progress to the Gospel of God’s eternal and unchanging love for his wayward, wandering people.
Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Paul commands joy, in much the same way that the king will demand it in the Gospel reading for today. I wrote about the oxymoronic sense of that sort of a command in my introduction. But there comes a point where words fail us. Christians have always spoken the “sursam corda” as part of the preface. “Lift up your hearts” is the translation that shows up in our English hymnals, but that is weak. The Latin, being a language forged in military units of the Empire, is a command, succinct and to the point “Up hearts!” You can almost hear a Centurion shouting at his legionaries. We have spoken this in times of trouble, anxiety, persecution, and plenty, always the same command. When we are in the presence of God, when he comes to us in his body and blood, we rejoice. He is here, there is no trouble greater than our Savior. We have cause to rejoice.
This Peace of God does indeed surpass all understanding. Satan would rob us of that joy, whether it is with persecution and concentration camps or more subtly with the blandishments of empty possessions and meaningless power, he hates the joy which flows from this peace. His goal is fear, anxiety, ennui, and depression. Once he has you afraid, then all the joy gets sucked right out of a person. Do you close your sermons with those words? I do. My father always did. I perhaps don’t think about them enough. Here is your chance to think about them and preach 8
them to your people. Every time you close a sermon with these words you will in effect remind them of this sermon and this message. That is a powerful thing. A weekly reinforcement of a message and it might be exactly the sermon you want to preach. God does keep our hearts and minds with Christ, even though we are prone to wander.
Paul gives them some insight into the great joy that he has. He is content in anything because he has Jesus. Now he can think about beautiful things, peaceful things, even excellent things. The God of peace is with him. So he doesn’t have to think about the ugly things, like getting even, or competing with this neighbor or how he is in prison at the moment. That is not really the important thing. He can think about the excellent things of God, the love, the forgiveness, the goodness, and more.
I have included the initial verses of this chapter because we need to remember that this was a real and difficult thing for the folks in Philippi too. We don’t know who these two women were or what was the cause of their dispute, but relationships in congregations of the first century were not easier than the same relationships in the 21st century. They fought with one another at times just like we do.
One of the really excellent things he can think about is the good thing that the Philippians did for him when they sent him Epiphroditus. This was an excellent thing to do and Paul rejoices in it too. Paul is not trying to get another sort of gift out of them. Remember, he has Jesus so he does not need things like that. But he also can rejoice in their gift in a completely different way. It was an excellent thing for them to do. They can do all things too through the One who strengthens them and Paul.
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3 and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ 5 But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast 9
him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.
Again with the parables! Robert Capon calls these parables of judgment and they are stinging. This time Jesus compares the Jewish leaders to ungrateful invitees to a feast. Looking at verse 15, should our sermon result in people looking for ways to kill us when we are done with it? If we preach a sermon which results in folks patting us on the shoulder and saying “good sermon, Pastor” when the day is done, have we succeeded in preaching this text?
In the ancient world, a world that was often protein deficient, this was unthinkable folly, not only was it nutritionally stupid but it was also a terrible breach of social graces. Their declinations to attend was incredibly bad manners, an insult. Not only do they refuse to come, but again, just as the tenants in the vineyard last week, they abuse and even kill the messengers (the prophets). After last week’s parable, the message is clear, not only are they the wretches who deserve a wretched end (last week’s verdict) but now they are ingrates and more than a little dense.
The king’s reaction to this is not outside the realm of human experience or even the experience of Israel with God. The parable’s king sends his army and kills the murderers and burns their city. There is some justice in this. This is the greatest fear of the Jewish leaders and the people, that God would revoke his special relationship with them. He had talked about doing this. Once he had threatened to kill them all in the days of Moses and Moses had pleaded for them and God relented (read Moses’ account of this in Deut 9). God had sent the Assyrians and Babylonians in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. He seemed to suggest that it could happen with the terrible sign act of Hosea in which he likened the people to an unfaithful wife. Even the story of Noah and the flood has to give one pause. Did you know that Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather) and his son, who did not live quite as long, both died the same year as the flood, you have to wonder if the judgment of God can come upon the faithful as well. It’s true, go back and do the math on that in Genesis 5. Only Methuselah’s grandson, Noah, would live past that fateful year. God is just not safe to be around.
But then the king does something rather extraordinary. The feast is ready, the tables are set, and without a cooler, the fattened and slaughtered calf is not going to keep, so he sends out the servants to invite just anybody. This time it is not the expected invitees, not the ingrates who were on the original guest list. This is especially galling to the leaders of the Jews. Not only has God removed their special status, but now he is inviting in the Gentiles, the goyim, the unclean, uncircumcised, unworthy barbarians, yes, probably Muslims too. Doesn’t God have any taste, any sense of decorum? But wait, that is exactly what Jesus says they are lacking. God has graciously extended an invitation to them and they have turned it down.
But remember, God is not safe, O Smug Gentile. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 9-11. We are wild olive branches grafted in. We too could be cut out. Perhaps the Christians who welcome 10
Jesus on the last day will include precious few Germans and far more Africans. There is only one way to attend this wedding feast and that is wearing the festival wedding garment that the king has provided to his guests. Yes, this parable is conclusive proof that God does care what you wear to Church. I am sorry to break the news to all the Christians on the West Coast who have been making a point of rebelling against their parents for the past forty years by wearing their worst.
Actually I think the preacher has a marvelous thing to say here, not just to the slovenly dressed among us. You see, being invited off the streets, none of the guests would have had on their wedding finery. The king would have provided it to all of them. This fellow just did not put it on. These garments were intended for the invited guests, but they were given to the rabble who showed up. That is the funny thing about heaven, we will all be quite surprised at who we will see there. God can dress up any bum and clean him up pretty well. He can even clean me up. The point here is not to get the folks to focus on what they are wearing, but to focus on the robe Christ has dressed us in. There is some marvelous hymnody which plays with this as does Paul in his letters where he says we have put on Christ. Luther loved this image too, that we have been graciously clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
In the past this parable has occasioned some important questions on our part. Do we not see both bad news and good news – what does this mean that he invited both sorts of people, a general invitation? It is the servants who go out to fulfill the command of the king, and they do what he says and gather folks, bad and good. Who are these servants? Is the servant to be identified with the members of the church who are part of the gathering work of Christ? They are not particularly concerned about the quality of the folks whom they are gathering. The king can cover them all with his garment. Or are we the guests who have been gathered? Should we see that the king has made us presentable because we have been clothed with the blood of Christ? He will do the evaluating and the exclusion. Is our task simply to throw open the doors and let ‘em all in? But remember, God is not safe. Don’t come wearing some garment of your own manufacture, rather than rebel, revel in the good and gracious gift which God has given.
Is the Gospel really found in the fact that Jesus is talking to these guys? He has not given up on this relationship yet, even though he clearly has no delusions about it either. They are going to kill him, but he is still talking to them. Yes, he will die, but it is not because he turned away from them. He is inviting them once more to the feast in a sense here. They reject the invite, killing the inviter, but the invite seems to be sincerely given. Jesus just is pig-headed that way. He loves far more than I can fathom.
1. God has invited me to the wedding feast but too often I also have begged off. The cares and the concerns of this world are great and a mouthful of bread and wine just have a hard time competing. But this is faithless. That bit of bread put into my hand is nothing less than the secret to the power of the universe, but sometimes I tell myself I just don’t have time. Am I really so idiotic?
2. Have I mistreated the messenger who brought me the invitation to the feast? The single greatest detrimental factor for young people entering the ministry is the manner in which they see their own churches treating their own pastor. We sometimes get what we deserve, if we have a shortage of preachers could it be because we have not treated them well?
3. I have some very big enemies in my life. Death is a terrible thing; it is an undoing of God’s creation. It is evil, and there isn’t a thing I can do about it. It is not that life is so short but it’s that you are dead so long.
4. My death is a serious statement about whether I belong in heaven or not. Heaven is the deathless place, it is eternal and I am mortal. There is so much about me that if it were to go on for even a thousand years would be a living hell. I know myself, and I don’t really belong there if I am to be honest about this.
5. I look at who I am and what I have done, I look at the wreckage of broken relationships I have left behind and the missed opportunities, and I have every reason to be very sad. I look at the brevity of life, the meaninglessness of death, and I do not see something glorious and good, but empty and shallow. I consider my own judgment, and I am afraid, and that fear saps my strength and my joy.
1. God comes with a fresh invitation today. His feast is for sinners like me. Having sent his servants into the highways and byways of this world, they have even come to the street where I live, to the block where my church is located. God’s gracious invitation is extended to me.
2. This morning I have a chance to think of something excellent to do, a kind word, a worthy deed. I bet I know a worthy servant of the Lord who could use a word of encouragement this morning or this afternoon. Why not give him or her a call, write them a thank you.
3. God has come into the flesh of this world, he has born the cross and on that hill where Jerusalem stands today, he has swallowed up death forever. It killed him to do it, but he swallowed that bitter pill and today death is in retreat. It has not fled the field, but it’s power is broken. Jesus has prepared an eternal and rich feast for us.
4. What is more he has not only defeated all our enemies but he has clothed us with his righteousness. Heaven is not going to be simply an extension of this life, but it is a radical rewriting of it. I can only begin to imagine what immortality would be like. I can only begin to dream what perfection is like, but I know that there are parts of me that will not
be found in heaven. Some of them I can easily point out to you, others may surprise me. But I know that my empty places will be made whole, the deformities will be healed, and the beautiful purpose for which God created me will be eternally fulfilled. I cannot wait.
5. But I will wait, because God has also given my life here and perhaps my death as well, a new and glorious meaning. I may be a living invitation to another. God’s perfect love drives out all fear and replaces it with an irrepressible and contagious joy. God wants his Son’s wedding feast to be crammed full of guests. One of his messengers, or more likely several dozen, has brought that news to me, now I have the privilege and the joy of also being a messenger bearing the good news that God has invited another poor sinner to put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness and join the party that is heaven.
1. Living Invitations: (Gospel and Epistle: That the Spirit would call and create in the hearer a vocation to be a living invitation to the heavenly feast.)
Today Jesus tells a religious leadership that is concerned about status and propriety that they have it all wrong. They have missed the point. The point is the party called the family of God, the joy of heaven itself. God would that his party be filled with joyful and celebrating guests. The feast is prepared, there is ample reason to celebrate, even death is undone, sins are forgiven. There is enough for anyone. God even loves the bankers and wall street types and has a place at his table for them. He loves the drug addicts and the prostitutes. He loves the neighbor who is dumping garbage over the fence into your back yard. He loves them all.
After all, he did make room for you. Now he has given a new definition to your life, you are a signed, sealed, and delivered invitation to this world and all the people whom you meet. By the joy you feel, by the excellent forgiveness which is before your eyes and on your lips, by the joyful praise and song which God calls forth throughout your life, he is about his inviting work.
This sermon will connect the Gospel and Epistle lessons by suggesting that Paul is really getting right what the Pharisees at the time of Jesus got wrong. He is the positive value. The quarreling women are a detriment to the mission, so Paul urges them to put aside the fight and consider the excellent things. Likewise the law for our congregations in this may well be that we have majored in the minors, focused on the less than excellent and forgotten the reason we are here at all. Jesus has clothed us in righteousness, he has swallowed up death, he has defeated our foes, this is a party, not some pious gloom-fest. We are the joyful people of God, joyful because he is joyful, he is happy to have saved us. 13
2. Dressed for the party: (OT and Gospel: that the hearer would rejoice in the gracious gift of God to us in Christ – and live our daily lives in the righteousness with which he has dressed each of us.)
We thought that this sermon needed to be preached to a congregation which struggles with apathy and a Christianity which often sees the Gospel as a license to do very little.
This parable ends with a strange and seemingly uncharitable scene. The king encounters a guest who is not wearing his wedding garment. But the garment had been given to him. Is this the Christian who has been received into Christ through Baptism, but by looking at him or her, you would never know it? It is true, we are not saved by what we do, but what Christ does should and indeed must have an effect in our lives. Sanctification is not an option for Christians. It is not some currency by which we buy heaven, but it is what Christ has given us and what the Spirit works in us. If we would deny it, we effectively take off the garment which Christ has given us and with which he has dressed us.
By his rejection he has rejected the king, he wants the feast on his own terms, not on the king’s terms. It is as if he is saying “my shirt is good enough” when in fact it is not good enough, only the garment the king provides is enough. The king is enraged and orders him cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Let’s all face it, I would rather skip that and so would you. So, other than packing a flashlight and a mouth guard, what can we do? The truth is we don’t do this one. The wedding garment was a gift from the host to the guest. The guest, however, had refused to be clad in this festive garment. Now the king’s anger seems a little more reasonable. He was not discriminating against some poor sap whose clothing budget was pinched by the fall in stock prices. This man was stubbornly insisting that his clothes were good enough, better than what the king might give. We do this when we tell Christ that we know how to live our lives and he can butt out of our Monday world. When Christ’s gift of forgiveness does not solve our problems with one another, when we let the world define success for us and chart our course, we are not listening to Christ. The first Christians called themselves followers of “The Way.” It was a way which they followed, not a state of being, but a path upon which their life was charted and which they pursued.
And if you take the parable to its conclusion, that this king is God and the robe is nothing less than the righteousness won at the cost of his only Son’s death upon a cross, the consequences become even more reasonable. Today we proclaim a gift to you, a gift freely given in your baptism and which you have not deserved, a gift which is renewed every time you kneel at this rail and partake of this feast. God has already clothed you with this garment. He first sized you and clothed you on the day of your baptism. That is why we often dress those babies in a white dress. That is why some of us wore a white confirmation gown when we were confirmed. That is why when we are buried, our casket might be draped with a funeral pall. These traditions of Christianity remind us that from 14
baptism to grave, God is covering us with His righteousness, the right-ness, of Jesus. You are dressed for the party. Shall we not come to this altar this morning for a foretaste of the feast to come and to polish our party shoes? The Lord’s Supper is not a solemn moment. We say “up with your hearts!” at the preface – that is rejoicing. This might be a moment to talk about Philippians as well.
We might want to use some clothing metaphors when we approach this sermon. Just try to enter the military and wear the nice shirt your mom sent with you to boot camp. I bet Sarge is not going to go for that. Or perhaps you have been to a restaurant that required a jacket for men? Often they have one or two in the coat room for you to wear.
We might talk about the Lord’s Supper in terms of an appetizer as well, it whets the appetite for the feast which follows.
You might also talk about the many efforts of charities to give a coat to the homeless or poor, clothing them with the garment they need to have or their teeth will chatter in the darkness.
You might also want to work Paul’s admonition to rejoice into this. He is speaking to the guys who are grabbed off the street and find themselves in the banqueting hall (Nave) of the king this morning. “Rejoice, again I say, Rejoice!”
We have spoken of the folks who have been the guy who refused to wear the garment, but what about the rest of the party goers? What is their life like? Paul speaks of this in his admonition to rejoice. Jesus says in verse 14 that many are called, but few are chosen. We are the chosen in Christ.
The preacher will need to remember the parable’s dynamism. The King is not a fellow to be trifled with. The first invitees are destroyed. The guy who rejects the garment is thrown out into the outer darkness. If we have a picture of God who indulges every sinner and never actually condemns anyone, we have a very different picture of God than Jesus does. This King has a temper! If you don’t believe this, just try and live without him. Death is waiting for all of us. Consider the OT lesson and the “sheet which covers all the nations.” There is a “dress” of sorts with which the world will cover us: Death. The day will come when my life slips between my fingers and I cannot hold onto it. I will be helpless before it. God doesn’t have to help me.
As a result we enjoin our people to wear that party dress, live this life which Christ has given us. It does not buy us entrance to the party. Jesus bought that. But it is just plain rude and ungrateful of us to live a life which has no Christianity to it, a life which has no cross to mark it. We are God’s people – created in Christ Jesus to do the good works which God has established for us (Eph 2:10).
3. A feast for all peoples (OT and Gospel – that the Spirit of God would convict the hearer of sinful pride and open his/her heart to God’s mission for the Church.)
We thought this sermon might be fun to be preached from a first person perspective as the servant of the king who has been rejected by the initial invitees, has seen the kings reaction and is now marveling at the king’s gracious invitation to all. He could be at the door handing out the beautiful, royal wedding garments to the scurvy attendees.
This sermon is repeated frequently throughout the pericope system, but it bears repeating. Our human nature is very good at building false distinctions which would somehow set us apart from the rest of the world. I am a child of God because I got something right. But God sets his table for all people, he dries every tear. Jesus will throw his arms wide on the cross of Calvary to embrace the whole world and he will defeat every human’s enemy: Death. He does not do his work for part of humanity, but for the whole of it.
Of course, when we say it like that, it is easy to agree, but when we start to talk about the particulars, this nature of God’s kingdom gets much more difficult. I can say God loves humanity in the abstract, but when I start to talk about individuals it gets harder. But if the general statement has any meaning, it has to apply to the particulars. That means God’s invitation to the fear, his tear-drying action, his death defeating action, his party, is for all humanity and every human.
This sermon asserts that truth and demands that my life reflect that. For if I would play the gate keeper and keep others out of the feast, I must start by excluding myself. The Lord’s Prayer is crushing in this regard. We beg forgiveness as we have forgiven. There is a connection there which makes us each very uncomfortable.
The gospel in this sermon remains the invite. God even invites the Pharisees who are grumping outside the scene in the parable of the lost sons in Luke 15. He came to his exiled people in the days of Ezekiel and Jeremiah and spoke hope. He came to a thoroughly distinction-making Saul of Tarsus, knocked him off his horse and into an apostleship to the Gentiles.
4. The Peace of God which Surpasses all our Understanding (Epistle: That the Lord would call the hearer to a life of peaceful joy which puts into thought and practice the things of the kingdom of God.)
I always end my sermons with the quotation from this pericope. If you do as well, you may well want to preach on it once.
The law here will be anything that disrupts that peace which God has established between the human being and God through Christ. Of course this involves our own misdeeds, sins, and failures. Perhaps that is enough, but the preacher should not feel limited to the moral dimension by any means. Anxiety and fear, troubles, heartache, illness of body or mind, indeed, just about anything can disrupt this peace if we let it.
Paul enjoins his audience, which includes some strife between the women of the parish, to a joyful life. It doesn’t make sense, at least not from the world’s perspective. The 16
world when confronted by sin and strife only knows some variation of score-settling as an answer. But Paul enjoins his audience to think about and put into practice something which defies our understanding but which is excellent, worthy of praise, honorable, beautiful, etc.
Paul does not ask them to understand what Jesus has done, but to think about it and practice it. This is important. We imagine that if we just get our thoughts straight about something the action will follow. But Paul has not lived that way and the Christian does not live that way. Who understands the sacrament? I certainly cannot claim to have grasped it, but I am enjoined to attend, partake, and be blessed. How does that work? Who knows!? But it is not dependent upon my understanding. Likewise the Christian life of joy is not based on understanding life, but in practices which live out the excellent things which Christ has done. He has forgiven the sinner, not understood him. He has helped the suffering, not evaluated the reasons they suffer. He has pursued relationship with scoundrels and fools, people like Peter and Paul, without asking them to meet him halfway. The world and our human nature cannot understand this. Don’t ask your people to either.
The preacher today, with Paul, enjoins his hearer to think about and put into practice the things they have seen in Paul, in you, in Jesus, and in every place that God’s kingdom has broken into their lives. It won’t make sense. Why do martyr’s willingly die rather than forsake Christ? I suppose we can turn that into a calculation of cost and benefit over the long term, but that would completely miss the point. Jesus died for the sinners who killed him. Sometimes, for reasons which I cannot fully explain, we are united to Jesus in this way. Christians have sung on the way to their deaths anticipating this particular union with Christ. I do not pretend to understand all that, but I think about it and stand in awe of it.
This sermon needs to proclaim that this peace of God, this joyful life to which Paul enjoins us, is not a static thing, but a thing which is lived out in real situations and in real tension with the world around us. How exactly that tension finds expression, I cannot say. That is the preacher’s task in his context, but do not simply proclaim joy and leave it there. Point your hearer, as Paul did, to the examples. Invite them to join you in that imitation of that thinking and practice.
Freed in Christ’s great gift to us, we are now able to dwell on what is excellent, what is worthy and honorable, what is good and beautiful. Paul models a perfect contentment which is so alien to our modern, 21st century western culture. Paul does not need the latest and greatest, he has Jesus. Paul is content. Cast the vision of that contentedness for your hearer. Draw them to the practices which live that out. Focus their minds on the gift which is already theirs in Christ. 17
5. Your wedding garment – the holy, the pure, the excellent, the beautiful gift of God. (Gospel and Epistle That the Holy Spirit of God would dress the hearer in the garment of the wedding feast, demanded in the Gospel reading and described in the Epistle reading.)
The Gospel is used here to say that the right garment is necessary to enter this feast. The demand of the king that the festival participant be properly dressed.
What is this garment? It is the very thing that Paul is talking about in the Epistle. This holiness, this purity, this worthy life is the gift of God.
Some will say that this is all fine and good, but it is not fun.
Others will say, “ I have something else to do.”
But some will say, “Yes!” Christ clothes this person with his own righteousness, a righteousness that shows up in the lives of the people involved. Paul was addressing these words to two women in a fight. It was intended to reconcile the fighting women. Paul was not talking about future “heavenly” things that we await, or at least not only about those things. He was talking about the righteousness given to use now, the beautiful, excellent, holy, thing. It has come to us in Baptism, it is refreshed in every sacrament and absolution. Jesus is putting his holiness on us, giving it to us who do not deserve it.
6. Jesus wipes away the tears (OT That Jesus would comfort the grieving)