Sermon for 11-06-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 8: The Wedding Banquet”

John Harvard statue

Today’s sermon is Part 8 of our 10-part series on Jesus’ parables from Matthew’s gospel. Our scripture is Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. 

God loves us with a love that we can’t comprehend. Like the king in the parable, God invites all of us into this heavenly banquet. But as verses 11-14 make clear, simply accepting the invitation and showing up isn’t enough. As I emphasize in my sermon, living the Christian life isn’t mostly about getting started; it’s about finishing. As football coaches sometimes say, “We’ve got to finish the drill.”

Are we living our lives in such a way that we will “finish the drill”? Even if we’ve gotten off course, as long as we have life and breath, it isn’t too late to repent and change. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 22:1-14

The following is my original manuscript.

I think I’ve only met a few people in my life who went to Harvard, and one of them is a member of this church. I was talking with her at a Christmas party once, and… well, she probably doesn’t like me very much. When she told me she went to Harvard, I turned on the charm and said, “Harvard? Isn’t that a safety school for people who can’t get into Yale?” [Rim shot.] I was kidding. Trust me, I know that Harvard is no one’s safety school. In fact, just this year, of the 34,950 people who applied for admission into Harvard, the college accepted only 2,158. That’s an acceptance rate of 6.2 percent, which makes Harvard the most exclusive of all colleges.

The good news is that once you get into Harvard, you’re very unlikely to flunk out. According to U.S. News and World Report, they have the highest graduation rate, 97 percent, among the top colleges. I’m proud to say that my alma mater, Georgia Tech, has the lowest graduation rate among the Top 40 best schools in the U.S. News rankings!

I bring this up because, well… in the parable Jesus tells today, it seems like God’s kingdom is exactly opposite of Harvard University. What I mean is, the acceptance rate into the kingdom is very high. The graduation rate… maybe not so much… 

In the Baptist church I grew up in, we sang the old hymn “Just as I Am” at least once a month as a response to the sermon: “Just as I am without one plea/ But that thy blood was shed for me.” There were, like, 50 verses to the hymn! But the idea is that we can come to Jesus “just as we are,” and, no matter how great a sinner we are, we can find forgiveness.

And I couldn’t agree more! After all, isn’t this what the first part of the parable is saying? That first group of people that the king invited—they were like Harvard’s Freshman class. They were an exclusive bunch. They were the elites. They were the 2,200 out of the 35,000. They were the 6.2 percent. For some reason, they turned the king down.

So who does the king invite next? Anyone that his servants can find—both “the evil and the good,” Jesus says. Supper is ready, and the food is getting cold. There are places at the table that need to be filled! In the parable, the king doesn’t have the luxury of being choosy. It’s not Harvard anymore; now it’s Georgia Perimeter College—and I say that as a proud alumnus of that institution as well. Everyone is invited to attend!

Do you hear the good news there? If God is inviting everyone to this great party in heaven, both “the evil and the good,” then that means he’s inviting you, too! You’ve received the big envelope in the mail. You know what I’m talking about? The one the colleges sends you when you’re accepted; the one that has all the forms and instructions and paperwork; the one that includes the letter saying, “Congratulations! We are pleased to have you join us.” In God’s kingdom, you don’t receive the little envelope with the letter saying, “Thank you for applying, but we’re sorry.” You are not being denied admission to this heavenly banquet! Your application has been accepted! There is no longer anything standing between you and God, between you and eternal life, between you and heaven, between you and salvation.

Nothing! Think of the worst sin you’ve committed in your life. Forgiven! Think of the thing you’re most ashamed of. Forgiven! Think of the thing you feel most guilty about. Forgiven! Our sin—yours and mine—no matter how great, cannot stand in the way of God’s forgiveness—if we accept that forgiveness through repentance and faith. Why? Because God took care of that problem, once and for all, by coming to us through his Son Jesus, and suffering and dying on a cross on our behalf. As the apostle writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, and he said, “It is finished,” he meant, “I have paid the price for all the sin and evil in the world”—and that includes yours and mine.

God accepts us just as we are, that’s true. “Just as I am without one plea/ But that thy blood was shed for me.” But because God loves us, he won’t permit us to stay just as we are. Did you hear that?

God accepts us just as we are. But because God loves us, he won’t permit us to stay just as we are. God will not have it. God would be far less than perfectly loving if God said that his children’s sin was no big deal. Theologian N.T. Wright, as he so often does, says it better than me. He writes:

We want to hear that everyone is all right exactly as they are; that God loves us as we are and doesn’t want us to change. People often say this when they want to justify particular types of behavior, but the argument doesn’t work. When the blind and lame came to Jesus, he didn’t say, ‘You’re all right as you are’. He healed them. They wouldn’t have been satisfied with anything less. When the prostitutes and extortioners came to Jesus…, he didn’t say, ‘You’re all right as you are’. His love reached them where they were, but his love refused to let them stay as they were. Love wants the best for the beloved. Their lives were transformed, healed, changed.

And so our lives need to be healed of sin!

Remember the woman who was caught in adultery, and the Pharisees wanted to stone her, and they asked Jesus what he thought? He said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” And the crowd walks away. Jesus says to the woman, “Who condemns you?” And she says, “No one, sir.” And he says, “Neither do I.” And in our popular imagination, that’s where the story ends. “You’re fine just as you are.” But Jesus doesn’t end it there, does he? He says, “Go and sin no more.” And if we accept God’s invitation to this heavenly banquet, then we can be sure that God’s Son is telling us, “I don’t condemn you. You’re forgiven. Now go and sin no more.”

If we have this terribly misinformed idea that once we become Christians, the way we live our lives no longer matters, and that sin is no longer a big deal, then we need to hear the second part of this parable: Do we risk becoming like this guest who accepted the invitation and showed up at the party but wasn’t dressed properly? And what happened? He got escorted out—and thrown out into the darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I know that we don’t like to hear these frightening words of judgment, but it seems clear to me that Jesus is aiming these words directly at us—at the church. As a warning. These are harsh and discomforting words. But maybe one reason Jesus puts it so sharply, so severely is because he knows it’s better for us to be judged now—while we still have time to repent and change and, as Jesus says elsewhere, to “live a life worthy of repentance”—than to face eternal consequences later on, at final judgment.

It’s a cliché in college football. Maybe you’ve heard it. Coaches say, “You’ve got to finish the drill”—which means you’ve got to give it all you’ve got from the beginning of the play to the end of the play, from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. If you follow football, you know as well as I do that your team can be playing great for 59 minutes, 59 seconds, only to lose the game at the last moment on a Hail Mary pass in the end zone. Being successful in a game or in life isn’t mostly about getting off to a good start. It’s about finishing. You’ve got to finish the drill!

Brothers and sisters in Christ, my message to you is: You’ve got to finish the drill. I would especially tell our sixth-graders going through confirmation class right now, “If you devote yourself to confirmation class lessons and assignments, and if you sincerely place your faith in Jesus and accept for yourself the promises made on your behalf at baptism, your Christian faith will get off to a good start. Turner Lee, our middle school youth minister, is making sure that you get off to a good start in your faith. But you’ve got to finish the drill.”

And I would tell parents of all children at our church: Your children’s faith is getting off to a good start. But they’ve got to finish the drill. And whether they do or not depends in large measure on you—and your own faithfulness. You communicate to them day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and moment-by-moment how important being a Christian is. What are they learning from you about the Christian faith? You’ve got to finish the drill, too!

Last spring, my family and I went to the Big Creek Greenway. I ran, Lisa walked, and the kids rode their bikes. Elisa and Townshend, my two oldest kids, rode alongside or near me the whole way. At one point, when the two kids were a short distance ahead of me, a pedal on Elisa’s bike fell off. She and Townshend were trying unsuccessfully to repair it when I came upon them. I stopped, turned off my iPod, and helped them put it back on.

I didn’t think it was any big deal, of course. But while I was helping them, Elisa said, “Dad, you’re being unusually patient.” Townshend told her, matter-of-factly, “Elisa, he’s always calm when he’s running.” He paused. “And when he’s drinking coffee.”

Yikes! What are my kids learning from me about my Christian faith? Am I really someone who loses his patience so easily? Am I really someone who flies off the handle so quickly? Am I really so often stressed out? Do they see that? Am I not someone in whom they also see the fruit of the Spirit? Are they seeing me demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control? If not, what am I doing wrong? If not, I need to change!

Living a Christian life isn’t mostly about getting started. That’s only a blip. That’s only a moment—incredibly important, by all means, but still only a moment. Living a Christian life is mostly about finishing. These saints that we are honoring today on All-Saints Sunday… These people who’ve inspired us, who’ve made our lives better, who, through their example, have made us more faithful followers of Christ… They didn’t just start living the Christian life; they finished.

Don’t you want to be like them? Don’t you want your children and grandchildren, the children in this church or the children in some future church, the children of your friends, and the children that you serve in your ministry to one day say of you, “This person made a difference in my life. This person showed me the love of Jesus. This person showed me what being a Christian is all about. I’m able to be a better, more loving, and more faithful person because of their influence in my life. I saw Jesus in this person.”

Do you want that? That’s what I want!

Maybe you got off to a great start in your own journey of Christian faith, but maybe you’re no longer living your life in a way that will enable you to finish the drill. If so, everything I said before about God’s love and mercy still holds: God will forgive your sins, and give you a second chance. Or even a 202nd chance. As long as you’re living and breathing, it’s not too late. Confess and repent, and you’ll find forgiveness. And you’ll find a Savior who stands ready to throw his open arms around you and welcome you to the heavenly banquet.

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