If You Want to Attend the Wedding Banquet, You’d Better Dress Properly

Sermon delivered on Trinity 17A, Sunday, October 12, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

All of our lessons this morning get around to asking the same questions. Exactly whose people are we? Our own? God’s? Someone (or something) else’s? Of course Scripture’s consistent answer is that we are God’s. And if that is the case, what is expected of us as people of God? It is the answer to these questions that I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our OT lesson we come to a major turning point in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Moses has gone up to the mountain to receive God’s commandments for his people. But he is delayed and God’s people get restless. They seem to be confused as to their exact identity. Are they Moses’ people or God’s? They apparently think (mistakenly) that they are Moses’ people because they demand that his brother Aaron make them a god to worship in Moses’ absence and sadly (and quite astonishingly given that Aaron is an ordained priest) he obliges them and makes an image of a golden calf.

God’s reaction is swift and predictable, not to mention terrifying if we have the good sense and humility to put ourselves in the midst of this story. He tells Moses that he had better go back at once to his people that he brought out of Egypt. In other words God is scornfully agreeing with his wayward people’s assessment of their identity as Moses’ people. God is essentially saying to Moses, “It didn’t take long for the children to misbehave in your absence because they have violated the first two commandments! So leave me alone that I may put an end to your people and start afresh by giving you new offspring so that they can be my people.”

Moses’ response is quite astonishing (even foolish—who wants to argue with God when he is whipping up his wrath?). Moses reminds God that Israel is not his people, they are God’s people and it was God who delivered them out of their slavery in Egypt. Moses then appeals to the covenant God made with the patriarchs to make a people (Israel) for himself and to give them the promised land so that they could become beacons of God’s light and love to bring his healing to a sin-sick world. God, of course, could not be unfaithful to his covenant with his people and so God relented. More accurately, the actual Hebrew says that God changed his mind or repented! Imagine that. Here we see an act of sheer grace on God’s part as he spares his people after they violated the Prime Directive of worshiping no God than the one Lord.

But we miss one of the main points of the story if we focus on God’s grace instead of looking at what is required of us if we are to be God’s people. Clearly the writer of Exodus wants us to see that Israel was not Moses’ people but God’s. It was God who rescued them from their slavery and delivered them out of pharaoh’s hands. But God rescued them so that they could be his people to fulfill their part of the covenant agreement God made with Abraham to bring his healing love and blessing to a broken and hurting world (Genesis 12.1-3, 15.1-5). To do that meant that God’s people had to be and act differently than the rest of the world’s people. First and foremost it meant that they could not worship false gods or idols like most of the people around them did because we become what we worship. They had to worship the one true and living God so that they could get to know him and be shaped by him so that God could use them to be a blessing to others. Almost 3500 years later the same challenge remains for us as God’s people in Jesus our Lord. With privilege comes the awesome responsibility to be God’s light and salt to his broken world.

And like God’s people Israel who wandered in the desert in search of their true identity, so we as Christians wander in our 21st century deserts in search of our true identity in Christ. We have been rescued from our slavery to sin and death and reconciled once and for all to our Creator in and through the blood of Christ shed for us. But do we really believe that? Some of us don’t because we simply cannot believe God is that merciful, choosing instead to believe a false stereotype of a God who is vengeful and angry, a stereotype that is derived from misreading stories like our OT lesson. Others of us want the rewards and benefits of being saved but we don’t want the attendant responsibilities. And so we fashion our own idols and worship them instead of the one true and holy God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a serious problem, folks! Not only for us, but for the world to whom we are called to witness because when we act and think in these false ways we rob ourselves and others of the real Good News of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ with its promise to heal and redeem his broken world and its creatures.

If we understand the identity issue that our OT lesson raises for us, we are ready to hear Jesus’ parable in our gospel lesson this morning because it echoes what’s going on in our OT lesson. Jesus, of course, is debating his opponents in Jerusalem, the same opponents who will bring about his death on the cross. Characteristically, he uses a parable to castigate them for not receiving him as God’s Messiah despite the many warnings of the prophets and God’s continual invitation to them to be the people he called them to be. And here Jesus issues an equally chilling warning to them (and us) that their time is about up and there will be no more chances to be part of the Son’s (Jesus’) wedding banquet. Notice Jesus is addressing the same issue of Israel’s identity that is raised in Exodus. Jesus is the Messiah and it is only by following him that we become true Israelites so that God can use us to bring his healing to the world. But Jesus’ opponents would have nothing to do with that and they were thus calling down judgment on themselves.

But now the parable gets even more, um, interesting because Jesus tells us that God will invite all sorts of folks to be part of the Son’s wedding banquet, even those who are outside Israel! At first blush we are all about that because Jesus is telling us that one and all are invited to the banquet and we dare hope that even we might be invited! And of course, Jesus always meets us where we are, no matter what kind of spiritual or moral shape we are in.

But thanks be to God that Jesus loves us enough not to leave us where we are and this is the point of the second part of the parable. The man who was not dressed in proper attire, i.e., who was not willing to act appropriately at the banquet, was thrown out and this ought to make sense to us. What if we were invited to dine with the president at the White House? Would we dress in our worst clothing and act in rude and boorish ways? Of course not! We’d put on our best clothes and be on our best behavior and this is the point Jesus is making here. Being invited to his wedding banquet is a great honor. It means that we are rescued from sin and death and are invited to join him in celebrating his glorious new creation future that is about total and complete healing and eternal life! What could possibly be better or more important in life?

But we are called to the banquet with the expectation that we act accordingly, just like we would if we dined at the White House, because we are called to be Jesus’ light and salt to the world (cf. Matthew 5.1-16). And to be Jesus’ light and salt to the world, we have to imitate him in our character and actions. If we are unwilling to do this, like Jesus’ opponents, we effectively decline God’s invitation to join in his great feast and bring judgment on ourselves.

Again, this should make sense to us if we understand that when we become like Jesus in our character and actions, we are healed. Think, for example, what happened when sick people came to Jesus. He didn’t tell them they were all right as they were. He healed them! Likewise with tax collectors and prostitutes. He didn’t tell them they were all right just as they were. He invited them to follow him so that he could heal them. To be sure, Jesus loves child molesters and terrorists and ruthless business people. And yes, even you and me. But he loves us enough not to want to leave us where we are because if we do not change, we cannot stay at the banquet and he wants us to stay! Think about it. In the new creation do you want to live for an eternity with evil and evil people, yourself included? God’s judgment is a terrible thing. But part of the point of judgment is to bring healing and justice to a badly broken world. So when we are called to the Son’s wedding banquet we are forgiven and called to change, to come and die, so that we too can become like the Son and act like we belong there.

So how do we do that? It right about here that I need to speak a word to those of you who struggle to believe that God really has rescued you in and through the blood of Jesus because like David, you know your transgressions and your sin is ever before you. Part of being a Christian and living our lives with joy and power and purpose is to accept the grace of God offered us. At one level it literally is unbelievable. But if we don’t accept it, we open ourselves up to despair and being picked off by the dark powers and principalities. That is why it is absolutely crucial that we appropriate the gift of salvation offered freely to each of us irrespective of who we are or what we have done, and here Paul has a word for us in our epistle lesson.

If we do not want our life to be a field of weeds that is filled with darkness and despair and hopelessness and idol worship, we have to sow lots of healthy grass and flowers so that the weeds do not have a chance to sprout and take root. How do we do that? Paul tells us. We are to rejoice always. By that, Paul doesn’t mean we put on a happy face when everything is crashing down around us, but rather to hold public celebrations over the fact that we are Jesus’ people who have been bought with the price of his own dear blood and whose future is resurrection and new creation. We do that, of course, every week in worship when we participate in a foretaste of the Son’s wedding banquet by coming to his table to feed on his body and blood.

Next, Paul tells us we are not to worry about anything. Why? Because the Lord is near! Therefore we can bring our hurts and sorrows as well as our joys and thanksgiving to God in prayer through Jesus our great Mediator. “That’s baloney,” you scoff. “Life’s tough and it is naive to say to us not to worry about anything. There’s plenty in my life to worry about.” All true. But here’s where Paul is eminently practical in his advice because he uses the Greek verb logizomai again. Do the math, he says. Think about all that God has done for you. Remind yourself that he is near. Say to yourself that you are rescued by the blood of the Lamb and keep repeating it until you believe it! Think about the good things in life and the goodness of God’s creation. Focus on those things. Doing so will help you counter the darkness you hear or experience in your daily living. Do these things and the Holy Spirit who lives in you will honor your work and change you so that you will indeed develop the character and actions that are befitting of the Son’s banquet.

We’ve been offered the gracious invitation to participate in the most wonderful of feasts. We are no more worthy to be invited than most of us are worthy by worldly standards to be invited to dine at the White House. But invited we are and doing these things will show everyone involved, God included, that we really are thankful for and covet our invitation to feast in the new creation. It’s hard work, but it’s the most rewarding work in which we will ever partake because we are living out our identity as God’s chosen people in Christ to embody his healing love to others. Only then will we discover that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.