St John’s, Tolpuddle

Sunday 15th October 2017

Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

 

I wonder if any of you have received a Save the Date card recently. It seems to be the modern thing to do, if you’re planning a wedding. The idea is to let people know a long way in advance that they’re going to receive an invitation to the event at a later date. It’s almost like a pre-invitation.

 

Back in the time of Jesus, something similar happened. The people invited to a wedding would receive notification in advance, and when the feast was actually ready servants were sent out to tell people it was time to come to the feast.

 

But to this particular wedding, nobody came.

 

Presumably the expected guests had responded to the first invitation with an acceptance, but since then something better had come along - to their minds.

We’re told that the first two had excuses – the farm and the business – but the rest? Perhaps they couldn’t think of an excuse, but just didn’t want to go – so they violently killed the slaves. A somewhat over-the-top reaction, but that’s another sermon.

 

Think perhaps about Prince William and Kate’s marriage. Like the story Jesus told, the wedding feast was for the son of the monarch.

 

Those who were invited were a mix of Kate and William’s friends and families but also, because of the nature of this particular wedding, a number of leaders from around the world. There is a lot of politicking around who should be invited to a royal wedding. Guests are vetted very carefully.

 

And just imagine the outcry, if all those who had responded positively to the invitation, didn’t turn up on the day. There would be all sorts of political and global upheavals.

 

The internet and papers would be all over it; the radio and television news would be full of it; the analysis articles would be everywhere.

 

A royal wedding is not just like any other wedding. To turn down an invitation has many ramifications beyond the obvious disappointment of bride and groom. To snub such an invitation may cause all kinds of broken relationships between states and kingdoms.

 

The guests in Jesus’s story are by implication suggesting that they don’t respect the authority of the king, firstly by not turning up, and then killing the ones who had been sent to fetch them.

 

Jesus was telling this story, the third parable of three, against the chief priests and Pharisees.

 

Let’s think about the characters – the king represents God. It is God’s feast to which people are being invited, thrown for his Son.

As with last week’s Gospel reading of the tenants in the vineyard, the slaves represent the prophets who had called people to God but who had been ignored.

 

The ones who had been given the high places in the Jewish faith – the priests and Pharisees – were the original guests.

 

But they had lost their way, and refused to come and sit with God by putting their own righteousness above God’s, by making great demands on people and in so doing deciding for themselves who was in and who was out of God’s kingdom. For many of them, it seems to me, the outward signs of faith had become all important, and the heart cold and hard towards God.

 

And this, I think, is partly because they had the wrong picture of God.

As Gerard Hughes wrote in his book God Where Are You?[1]: “We become what we worship. If we worship a God who is primarily a God of judgement, whose main interest lies in our failings and inflicting suitable punishments, we become like that to ourselves and to others. We become people of the law, hardliners, intolerant, self-righteous, condemnatory, practising a Christless Christianity and calling it Orthodoxy.”

 

The Pharisees and chief-priests knew nothing about the grace of God, but worked only in the moralistic world of rules and regulations, of a God out to get those who broke the laws, many of which were beyond the ability or circumstances of the people.

 

And that is the God they reflected to other people. No wonder Jesus, who mixed with tax-collectors and sinners, attracted so many.

 

I wonder what your view of God is.

Just reflect a moment on how you imagine God to be.

 

Our ideas will be based on different things.

 

Some of us will have uppermost a particular picture from Scripture.

 

Some of us will view God through our spiritual experiences, or even our experiences of how other people have treated us. If we have been brought up with very strict boundaries, we often find that that is the God we worship too.

 

Others will build their image on what they have been taught by others or seen in a painting.

 

It’s interesting how the primitive picture of God as man with a beard sitting on a cloud with angels playing harps all around persists throughout the generations.

 

We can see some the roots of that picture in the pages of our Bible but it’s not a real and true image.

Now, of course, every picture we have of God will be deficient, since we human beings are not God, and can therefore view things only in limited ways – think of what St Paul said about how we see now through a mirror darkly but then we shall see God face to face.

 

God is beyond definition in words – why else did he call himself Yahweh – I am who I am - when asked for his name?

 

Now take the image of God that you hold and lay it aside Hughes’s statement that we become what we worship.

 

Think about how your picture of God affects your life.

 

How have you become what you worship?

 

Or do you disagree with that what Hughes says.

 

It seems to me that there is much truth in his assertion.

 

Certainly, as I grow in faith and my picture of God changes, I know too that the way I see the world changes as well.

 

As I allow God to become bigger in my life, my concern and anxiety for the smaller things of human existence become less. It’s an ongoing journey of transformation, but an important one.

 

The picture of the wedding feast shows a God who reaches out to all – notice that the slaves are sent to get everyone they find, good and bad. While the people who see themselves as the righteous have rejected the invitation to join the party, the king stretches out his hand to everyone, regardless of their behaviour. God’s love doesn’t depend on our behaviour. The invitation to be part of his people is for absolutely everyone.

 

But that leaves a slightly difficult question about the ending of today’s story, which many commentators view as two parables rather than one.

In logical terms it makes no sense. The people who come to the wedding have been literally gathered up from the streets – when did they have time to change into their wedding finery? In those terms it seems very unfair that the man who hasn’t changed is thrown out into utter darkness.

 

God calls everyone to accept the invitation, but it’s not a cheap call or one that means nothing. God’s free grace is available to all, but our choice remains as to whether we accept it or not. And, if we do, then there are certain expectations of those who join the party.

 

The ones who are chosen are the ones who respond with a commitment. Jesus was very clear throughout his teaching that his message was for all, but that each person had to make a decision for themselves whether to accept that invitation or not. The ones God chooses are those who do.

So the man who is thrown out is the person who hears the invitation and initially responds, but is trying to respond on his own terms and not those of God.

 

God requires of those who come to the feast that we recognise our need for God, that we know we haven’t got it right, that we put on the new clothes of Christ, in churchy language, that we repent.

 

Think of some the words of Paul: therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation[2]; clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ[3]; put on your new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness[4]; as God’s chosen people clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience[5].

 

Throughout the Bible there is a constant tension between God’s free of Christ of grace and the theme of judgement.

We feel uncomfortable with the thought that we might face judgement, but how can goodness ever triumph over evil, if there is not some kind of distinction?

 

God has always allowed human beings a choice. But within the choice we make there is also a change of heart required. If we choose to accept the invitation to the feast, we must choose also to clothe ourselves with Christ, lest we find ourselves thrown out because of our own decision.

 

Only something worth very little does not require some sort of response, because it’s of no consequence. If we value something, then we show that in the way we respond.

 

We become what we worship – is our picture of God big enough, loving enough, joyful enough to transform us into being clothed with the finest wedding attire?

 

[1] Quoted in Leith Fisher ‘But I Say To You’: Exploring the Gospel of Matthew (Saint Andrew Press, 2009) p. 278

[2] 2 Corinthians 5.17

[3] Romans 13.14

[4] Ephesians 4.24

[5] Colossians 3.12

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