Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, October 13th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Wedding Garments – Matthew 22:1-14, Isaiah 55:1-9
Nothing seizes one’s attention as fiercely as the proximity of death. I had a plan for today’s sermon, an outline and a sure direction, and was in fact just sitting down to write it when my brother Bill called to tell me our brother Karl had died. The very unexpected death of my oldest brother Karl seized my thoughts. Amidst the shock and sadness another thought forced its way upon me. While making phone calls and shedding tears, I realized, as God would have it, there was a different sermon I needed to write, the sermon that flows from the interaction of my brother’s death, and today’s parable.
For death is also in close proximity for Jesus, as He tells this parable, just a few days before He would go to the Cross. And it seems, at least in my reading, that our Lord’s attention is very tightly focused. It is Monday of Holy Week. Just the previous day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed as the new King David by the crowds. Jesus rounds off His Palm Sunday with a little Temple cleansing, and some very pointed parables, told against the chief priests and Pharisees. Now it is Monday, and these Jewish leaders are plotting how to arrest and kill Him without causing a riot. At various times in His ministry Jesus taught about many different aspects of life, about family, and reconciliation in the Church, about charity and good works, and humility. But at this moment, His death bearing down, Jesus focuses. In His telling of the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus focuses on the most fundamental question – who will spend eternity feasting in the grace and glory of God’s eternal wedding banquet, and who will be cast out, into the outer darkness, that place of weeping, and gnashing of teeth?’
There are many players in this drama, but the focus, as is normal in the kingdom of heaven parables, is on the actions, directions and words of God. The King, the Father of the Son, prepares the banquet, slaughtering His oxen and fattened calves, or, if you prefer, sacrificing them, another meaning for the Greek word thuo. Everything is ready: the servants have already delivered the invitations to the guests, the sacrifices are complete, the King even goes so far as to re-send the servants, to seemingly beg the invited guests to come to the best party in town. But they are rebuffed. For the invited guests are busy, distracted by work, by business, too busy to be bothered with the feast.
Jesus in these kingdom of heaven parables compresses all of salvation history into a few words, so we should not be surprised to see ourselves in them. The immediate referent of Jesus’ description of the invited guests who refuse the King’s hospitality is certainly the people of Israel, who again and again spurned the Lord, His ways, and His prophets. But we too, Christians living two millennia later, all too often behave the same way. Can any of us truly say we have never ignored the invitations of our Lord to sit and dine and celebrate with Him, ignoring Him because we have “more important” things to do? When Christians make a habit of declining the feasts of the Lord that He provides in this life, then the coming of death is much more troubling. We may know he is baptized, and how he used to confess and exercise his faith, but we haven’t seen him in Church lately. Such drifting away is a troubling thing to consider, when death comes. Christians care about one another, and so when a brother or sister in Christ drifts away, we hurt too.
I struggled with something like this yesterday. Not that I know my brother Karl wasn’t attending a Christian Church, but rather I simply don’t know if he was or wasn’t. Karl was a bit of a hermit, rarely communicating with his brothers and sister. I’m not much better. If I weren’t married to Shelee, I’d be pretty hermit-like, too. Karl and I got along fine, we just didn’t communicate much.
Karl was baptized, confirmed, and through the years, actively wrestled with faith. But I don’t know what had been happening lately, an uncertainty which made yesterday even harder. Don’t be a hermit. Paul tells us we should, as much as it lies with us, be at peace with everyone. I think for brothers to be at peace implies more communication than Karl and I could muster, so that knowledge and familiarity can drive out uncertainty, which is the enemy of peace. I’m left with uncertainty because of our lack of communication, but that of course does not shorten God’s arm. My knowledge of Karl’s faith is not the deciding thing, thanks be to God.
But, as with the invited guests in Jesus’ parable, sometimes people do leave the Church, and there’s no uncertainty. That is an eternally frightening thing. The Jews who killed the Lord’s prophets, and the priests and Pharisees who plotted Jesus death both come to mind. They were called, invited guests to the Lord’s feasts, but they wanted their own glory, they preferred their own banquets. Big mistake. For there is only one everlasting feast, only one way to live happily ever after, and that is by taking a seat at the heavenly feast of God.
And, as Jesus goes on to tell us, everyone is invited. The feast is prepared, the sacrifices have been made, and the King sends out His servants to bring in everyone, bad or good, no matter, go get ‘em, fill my table. What, you don’t think your worthy to attend such a fine celebration? You’re low class, lacking the proper clothes? Well, that’s exactly right. But come anyway. Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. This King is so determined to have a full table at the wedding feast of His Son that He sends messengers to bring in anyone and everyone they can find. The King even provides them with the necessary wedding clothes.
God has to do this of course, if He truly wants to have the wedding feast of His Son filled with guests. God has to provide the wedding clothes, because no son of Adam has proper clothes for heaven. All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. Our sinful nakedness is plain to see before the judgment seat of heaven. Not one of us deserves a seat at God’s eternal feast. But God has prepared His sacrifice, the death that takes away our unworthiness. God has given His very Son to take away our sins, paying the price in suffering we deserve, on His Cross. The feast is truly prepared, by the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, come, join the feast, marvel at the wedding clothes God has prepared for you, and, wearing them, rejoice that you have a seat at God’s eternal table.
How do you wear these wedding garments? What are these wedding garments? Good questions, especially since the King will be making an inspection of His guests. ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ We do not want to hear those words. Anyone found trying to wear his own clothes will be cast out. The wedding garments are the righteousness of Christ, which He gives to you by faith. Your sins make you dirty, unfit for the Kingdom of heaven. But Christ’s perfect righteousness, both His sinless life of service, and His sacrificial death, are His gift to you, given to you first in your Baptism, a gift renewed and restored whenever you hear the Word of forgiveness.
To try and enter the feast in your own clothes is to trust in your own righteousness, to trust in your own goodness, that you have somehow overcome your own sins and earned your seat at God’s table. This is impossible. This is not tolerated by God, the King. Only clothed in the righteousness of Christ, only by wearing the garments of baptismal faith, can you take the seat God offers you.
This is the invitation that God sends His servants out to deliver on the main roads, out in the world. Sadly, as with the original invited guests, so also today: the invitation is often not well received. No one wants to be told their own goodness is worthless, that all their righteous deeds are as filthy rags. But it is true, and only when we despair of earning God’s favor are we ready to receive the death and resurrection of Jesus as Good News. Until we sinners know our need, the Cross is an insult and an embarrassment. But once we know the outer darkness our sinfulness has earned, then we are eager to wear the wedding garments, the free gift of forgiveness.
So, to go out and seek more people for God’s wedding feast must include thankless work of pointing out human sin. Not just to unbelievers, but also to believers, for unbelief clings to us all in this life. Unbelief clings, but God’s wedding garments cover all sin. So rejoice, and come to the wedding feast.
Three final thoughts. First, that last line of the parable might be troubling you: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Sounds scary. Sounds like uncertainty may be inescapable. But only if we ignore the rest of the parable. The King, that is God, invites all to the wedding feast, that is, to come into His heavenly kingdom. The “unchosen” one, the one who is cast out, is the one who tried to take his seat, without wearing the gifted wedding garments. You are baptized into Christ. Cling to, believe in, celebrate this mysterious, wonderful gift of righteousness given to you through the washing of water and the Word, and then relax. You are not nor will you be secretly “unchosen,” for God has baptized you publicly. He won’t go back on His Word, you can trust it – in your Baptism you were clothed in Christ. He is your wedding garment.
Second, you may be worried because you are still a sinner, and all too regularly stain your baptismal garment. You should be worried. It is the great shame of Christians that we are still such sinners. Repent. Amend your ways. But even more, come, come and wash your robes in the blood of the Lamb, make them white as snow again, and again. Your faith makes you want to stop sinning, and you should strive to live without sin. But your remaining sinful nature means you will not conquer sin in this life. However, by confessing your sins, receiving the absolution, and kneeling to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed to forgive you, Christ make your robes white again, and again, until that day when Jesus will separate you from sin forever.
Third, you may be doubting that simple water, bread and wine can do such great things. Sadly, there are many Christians who deny and argue endlessly that anything real happens in Baptism and the Supper. Well, water, bread and wine do not do great deeds. But God, by combining them with His Word, can and does do whatever He promises. Remember what He said through Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways. God is not bound by what makes sense to us, but He has bound Himself to His Word. And His Word most certainly promises that Baptism is your death and resurrection with Jesus, that in Baptism you received forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit, and that Baptism now saves you. The Lord has also promised that His Supper is a communion, a participation in His Body and Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper is like the rehearsal dinner for the heavenly wedding banquet, but one at which the Host never tires of cleaning up your stained wedding garments, once again. To keep you in forgiveness is God’s great joy in this world. You too can rejoice, and rest, in this Good News, until the day you die, and then live again, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.