Sermon 06-15-14: “Few Are Chosen”

June 20, 2014

Wedding Receptions

The religious elites to whom Jesus is speaking in Matthew 22 didn’t believe they needed the gift of forgiveness that Jesus offered. Why? Because they didn’t believe that they had a problem with sin. As I suggest in this sermon, we contemporary people aren’t so different from them.

Sermon Text: Matthew 22:1-14

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I’ve only met a few people in my life who went to Harvard. One of them went to my previous church in Alpharetta. 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? I was kidding. I know that Harvard is no one’s safety school. In fact, just this year, 34,295 people applied for admission into Harvard. The university only accepted 2,023. That’s an acceptance rate of a mere 5.9 percent, which makes Harvard the most exclusive of all colleges.

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Some of the 5.9 percent at Harvard.

In today’s scripture, the first group of people that the king invited to his son’s wedding banquet—they were like Harvard’s Freshman class. They were an exclusive bunch. They were the elites. They were the 2,000 out of the 34,000. They were the 5.9 percent.

The king invited them… and they said no

You know how on Facebook, friends send invitations to you to attend a party or event, and you can RSVP for it—or turn down the invitation? I saw something online about what your response to these Facebook invitations really means. If you get an invitation to an event and click “Yes, you’ll attend,” you really mean “maybe I’ll attend”—if nothing better comes along in the meantime. If you click “Maybe,” you really mean “no”—unless absolutely nothing better comes along in the meantime. And if you click “no,” you don’t just mean no, you mean “heck no—I don’t even like you!” Finally, if you don’t respond at all it means, “I know you friended me on Facebook, but I’ll be honest: I have no idea who you are.”

So what does it mean when these elites say “no” to the king’s invitation? It says in verse 5, “They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.” They believed they had better things to do with their time than attend the king’s banquet. They were unimpressed by what the king had to offer. They were indifferent to it.

And what point is Jesus trying to make about them? Well, let’s recall whom he’s talking to. Our passage begins, “And again Jesus spoke to them…” If we go back to the previous chapter, in verse 23, we see that he’s speaking to the chief priests and the elders of the people—all the religious leaders, in other words.

And these religious leaders were asking Jesus by what authority he was doing all these things, and where his authority came from? They couldn’t believe that Jesus’ authority came from God, because, well… they believed that their own authority was from God. They believed that by following all these laws, and observing all these fasts, and performing all these rituals, they made themselves acceptable to God and approved by God. They earned their standing before God. They deserved God’s love and favor! They were the 5.9 percent, after all.

The point is, they didn’t believe they needed the salvation that Jesus offered because they didn’t believe they had a problem with sin!

Are any of us like them?

I used to be on speed-dial for a funeral director at Roswell Funeral Home. He would call me when a family needed someone to conduct a funeral but didn’t have church home and didn’t have a pastor. So I’ve done literally dozens of weddings for people whose deceased loved ones were nominally Christian at best. And when I asked them about their loved one’s Christian faith, the subject of heaven would come up, and they would reassure me that, despite the fact that the person hadn’t attended church in 50 years, never prayed, never read the Bible, never did anything remotely religious, they were confident that their loved one was in heaven. And how did they know? I asked. Nine out of ten times they would say, “He was a good person.” And then maybe talk about some charitable work he was involved in, or some people that he helped.

He was a good person.

And I’m sure most of them were relatively good and decent people, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t also sinners in desperate need of God’s saving grace! Which goes to prove what I heard a pastor say once: What stands between us and God is not our sin so much as our “damnable good works.” What stands between us and God is not our sin so much as our “damnable good works.” This is why Jesus told these religious leaders that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering God’s kingdom ahead of them; that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees if we’re going to be saved; that the tax collector who prays at the Temple rather than the Pharisee is the one who’s made right before God. Unlike the religious elites, these well-known sinners knew that their good works couldn’t save them! They knew they were only saved by God’s grace. They knew it was a completely free and unearned gift from God.

Friends, if you’re counting on the fact that you’re a good person to secure your place in heaven, you’re in trouble! You’ve misunderstood the gospel. You haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that your sins have separated you from a holy God, and you can’t do anything about it apart from the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross! You are utterly helpless without Jesus!

So the elites turn the king down, and who does the king invite next? Literally anyone that his servants can find—both “the evil and the good,” Jesus says. We’re not talking about the Harvard Freshman class anymore; now it’s Georgia Perimeter College—and I say that as a proud alumnus of that institution. Just as Georgia Perimeter will accept anyone who wishes to attend, so the king will now accept anyone who wishes to attend! And the advantage that the Georgia Perimeter kids have over the Harvard kids is that they know they don’t deserve to be there! They know they didn’t earn it!

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 college 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. Because God took care of of our sin 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.”[1] 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: Remember the hymn: “Just as I am without one plea/ But that thy blood was shed for me.” Our only plea, the only thing we can say in our defense when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ is not, “But I did all these good things; I helped all these people.” No! The only thing we can say is, “I did nothing. Jesus did everything! He shed his blood for me, and that’s the only basis on which I can stand before God!”

Amen? 

The truth is, we would all be more comfortable if the parable just ended right there. We like the part where the king just invites everyone—both the good and the evil—to come to the wedding banquet. We want to be inclusive, after all. We don’t like the part, however, where the king comes around and finds someone not wearing the proper wedding attire and kicks them out of the party. After all, we Methodists like “Open hearts, open minds, open doors”… We don’t like: “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Where’s the grace in that, we wonder? Sure, anyone can come into the banquet, but you can only stay there if you’re well-dressed? That doesn’t seem right. That doesn’t seem like grace! Does it?

On the contrary… I would argue that this second part of the parable, which none of us likes, is also about grace. See, we know this one guy wasn’t dressed properly, but what about everyone else? These were people that the king’s servants literally ushered in off the streets—they didn’t have time go home and put on suit and tie, and most of these poor, dirty, smelly street people couldn’t have afforded these expensive clothes in the first place!

So the question is, Where did they get their wedding garments?

And the answer is, The king gave them their wedding garments when they entered the banquet hall. The man who got kicked out wasn’t wearing a wedding garment because he didn’t accept the gift. Oh, I’m sure he wanted the feast that the king had prepared, but he wasn’t willing to accept the terms under which the feast was being offered: You want to attend my banquet? You’re invited and it’s completely free. You want to enjoy this sumptuous meal I’ve prepared, you’re free to do that too: on one condition. Put on this garment—I’m not making you pay for it; I’m giving it to you for free. But you have to put it on. If not, you can’t stay here.

When we accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we give up the right to live our lives on our terms. Otherwise how on earth can we say Jesus is Lord of our lives? If we’re not willing to surrender our rights, repent of our sinful lifestyles, and submit to the lordship of Christ, then it’s worth asking: Have we really accepted Christ as Savior and Lord in the first place? And if we haven’t, well… then we are sinners lost in our sins and bound for hell.

By all means, Jesus accepts us “just as we are,” but we are not permitted to remain just as we are. If we insist on remaining just as we are, well, then that’s like the man at the banquet who’s rejecting the wedding garment that the king has offered him as a free gift!

This is why church should be more like Alcoholics Anonymous! I’m serious—like a support group for sinners! People in A.A. meet together each week because they already know that they have a serious problem with sin. They acknowledge the problem up front, they admit that it’s too big for them to solve, and they admit they need God to solve it… But what else do they do? They take steps to change. They make amends. They do all in their power to keep from falling off the wagon—falling back into this terribly destructive sin.

They would never dream of saying, “This particular sin of alcohol abuse is really no big deal. This is just the way I am, and there’s nothing I can do about it!” They wouldn’t be loving themselves or loving others—especially all the people they’ve hurt—if they said that!

No! They commit themselves to change. And that’s what we Christians ought to do. If we understand who we truly are—as sinners—then that’s what we will do.

It’s Father’s Day today. My father died almost 19 years ago—how is that possible? Growing up, I wasn’t close to my dad. I was always a bookish kid, a little geeky, not very athletic, not popular or outgoing—and I constantly felt like I wasn’t living up to Dad’s expectations. And during my teenage years, this created a lot of distance between us. I’m happy to say we became friends before he died—and during that last year of his life, when he was dying of cancer, I saw him nearly every day. It was a sweet time in my life. But I wish he could see me now—know the person that I’ve become now; know my kids… his grandkids. He would be proud. Someday he will know them! Because before he died he certainly did come to know Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Regardless, when I think about how I treated my dad growing up, when we weren’t close, it still hurts a little. He wasn’t perfect, but good heavens! He gave so much of himself for me! He sacrificed for me! He did so much to shape me into the person I am today—and I just took it all for granted.

And I’m haunted by one painful memory in particular. What happened was so small, so insignificant… Dad had probably long forgotten about it before he died. But it still fills me with regret to this day. I was 15, and, as I said, Dad and I weren’t close. And Dad recognized that, and he tried to do something to fix it. There was some auto show at the World Congress Center, and he wanted me to go with him to it. He had tickets, and he was excited to invite me to it—he knew that I used to be into cars. It just so happens it was on a Wednesday night, and I really didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to miss youth group—it was my favorite time of the week. So I told him no. And I remember the look of disappointment on his face. He shook it off; he didn’t get mad or anything. “Oh, O.K., that’s no problem.” But I hurt his feelings, and I knew it.

So I turned down Dad’s invitation. It was a very small thing—but see how large it looms in my memory? What I wouldn’t give for a time machine, you know? Go back in time; go with him to that auto show. Heal the rift between us; bridge the gap. But I was so selfish, so self-centered, so sinful!

I’m wounded by memories of hurting my father, but brothers and sisters, think of how often we’ve treated our heavenly Father this way but even worse—infinitely worse! Our heavenly Father has only given us everything, after all! This gift of life and breath; this gift of time and health; the gift of this amazing world which supports our lives so well; the gift of this great nation; the gift of our mothers and our fathers and family; the gift of teachers and coaches, doctors and nurses, people who’ve cared for us, and looked out for us, given of themselves to shape us into the people we are today; the gift of our talents and skills, which enable us to do meaningful work and create beautiful things; the gift of music, and literature, and dance, and art; the gift of friendship; the gift of romantic love.

Our Father gives and gives and gives…

And when he says, “Come this way,” we often say, “I want to go my own way.” When he says, “Walk down this path,” we often say, “I want to choose my own path.” When he says, “Spend time with me,” we often say, “I don’t have time for you.” Our Father invites us to his party, and we often respond—through our actions, if not our words—no, no, no.

Yet he’s so patient with us… so merciful.

If we understand—if we truly understand—how unworthy we are of this greatest gift of all, paid for by the blood of his Son Jesus, well… there’s no question but that we’ll repent and changethat we’ll “bear fruit worthy of repentance,”[2] as John the Baptist said earlier, that we’ll show up at that banquet properly dressed.

So you have a decision to make… [invitation]

[1] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[2] Matthew 3:8 NRSV

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