Sermon 10-25-2020: “Amazing Grace and a Gracious Warning”

Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14; 1 Timothy 3:1-7

I had a “frenemy” in church youth group when I was a teenager. His name was Rick. He was popular, good-looking, girls liked him… So naturally I hated him. But also… he was very conceited about it, and he picked on me… a lot. Anyway, Rick was very predictable. Because every time we went on a youth group retreat or church summer camp—a couple of times each year—you could count on Rick, responding to the youth pastor’s altar call, walking down the aisle… to receive Christ as Savior and Lord in tears… very emotional.

And I wanted to say, “Rick, didn’t you do this six months ago?” And I’m sure he would have said, “Yes, but this time I really mean it, I promise.” And I’m like, “How many times do you have to get saved before you’re finally saved? Besides… maybe if you stopped picking on me so much, you wouldn’t feel so guilty!” 

I make light of it now, but it also makes me sad… Because if I had the knowledge and maturity and wisdom to be Rick’s pastor back then, I would have counseled him by saying something like this: “Rick, the reason you’ve felt the need to accept Christ as your Savior and Lord—a once-in-a-lifetime decision that you’ve made about eight times since I’ve known you… the reason you’ve done this is because you’re not really trusting in Jesus to save you; you’re trusting in Jesus plus your own good works; or Jesus plus your own righteousness; or Jesus plus your ability to prove to him that you’re a good person after all. But you don’t get it, Rick. When it comes to salvation, it’s not Jesus plus anything else; it’s Jesus period

“Put your trust in him for your salvation—in him alone—rather than in yourself.”

And Rick might have responded, “But I’m a really bad person. I’ve sinned so much. I don’t deserve to be saved.” And I would say, “Exactly! You’re almost there! You almost understand the gospel. You’re almost a Christian!”

And if he still didn’t believe me, then I might show him today’s scripture. It shares a lot in common with the parable that Jesus just finished telling in the previous chapter, the Parable of the Vineyard. I preached on that a few weeks ago. As with the previous parable, in today’s scripture, Jesus is speaking to religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Sadducees and Pharisees. He’s pronouncing judgment on them for failing to believe God’s Word about the Messiah. And he’s pronouncing both a word hope and a word of warning for the rest of us—especially those of us who are in church this morning. He wants his disciples to hear this warning.

So hope and warning… that’s what this sermon is about. But hope first. In verses 8 and 9, the king has a problem: The wedding feast for the king’s son is ready, but the wedding hall is empty… because all the powerful, wealthy, important, elite people he originally invited turned him down. In fact, they committed treason against him by murdering his ambassadors. What’s the king going to do now? 

It won’t do to have a wedding feast for a king’s son in an empty wedding hall! That would be shameful. “We’ve got to fill this place up!” he says. So he sends his servants out with this mission: Go out onto the busiest streets in the city and invite literally everyone you find. By the way, Jesus tells a different version of this parable in Luke’s gospel, in which the king sends his servants out a second time—farther afield—because after their first trip, there’s still more room in the banquet hall, and the king wants it to be full. The point is, in both cases, the king is not being picky; he’s not being selective; he’s not choosing people for Harvard here… This king’s admission rate is 100 percent. He’s inviting everyone he can find. Look at verse 10: “And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Both bad and good. Remember my friend Rick at the beginning: if I could, I would show him this verse. “You think you’re bad? Guess what? You are! Yet you are welcome at God’s heavenly banquet table! Your badness doesn’t exclude you.”

And of course Jesus means “good” and “bad” in popular terms—the way his listeners would understand “good and bad.” For example, the prostitutes and tax collectors who were repenting and believing in Christ for salvation were the worst people imaginable, yet, Jesus has said, they’re being saved. 

But elsewhere, of course, when he’s speaking in theological terms,Jesus makes it clear that, really, there are no “good” people. We are all helpless sinners apart from God’s grace.

I’ve been reading and journaling my way through 1 Timothy during my quiet times recently. I didn’t have high hopes when I turned to 1 Timothy chapter 3 and read a passage with the heading, “Qualifications for Overseers.” An “overseer” in Greek is episkopos, which we would translate as “bishops” in our denomination. 

But I was thinking, “This is going to be boring and irrelevant to my life.”

And Paul begins by saying things like, “An overseer must be above reproach”—well, sure, that makes sense. “Sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.” And I’m thinking, “Of course, Paul, these are all obviously good qualifications for a bishop. Tell me something I don’t know.” But then he goes on in the next couple of verses: A bishop must not be a “drunkard”—today we might say an alcoholic or drug addict. He must not be “violent.” Hmm. Would any of you describe yourself as “violent”? He must not be a “lover of money.” He must “manage his household well” and have well-behaved children. He must not be “puffed up with conceit.” And there are other things…

But what struck me—or, I should say, what the Lord struck me over the head with, was this thought: Paul is listing qualifications for becoming a bishop—for serving the highest office in the church. He is not listing qualifications for being a member in good standing of this church! In other words, he is not listing qualifications for becoming a Christian… He is not listing qualifications for being a member of the body of Christ, for being born again, for being saved.

This should be incredibly good news for us! This should be incredibly good news for my old youth group nemesis Rick! 

It should be incredibly good news that Timothy’s church in Ephesus—and other churches that Paul started all around the Mediterranean—were filled with what we would consider worldly, sinful, disreputable people who did not have their act together! It should be incredibly good news to us that members of these earliest churches, back in the “good old days,” were not required to have their act together before they professed faith in Christ and were saved. 

Think about it: Paul actually has to tell Timothy that drunkards—or alcoholics or drug addicts—can’t serve as bishops… why? Because Timothy is obviously pastoring a church where there are plenty of alcoholics and drug addicts to choose from! He has  to tell Timothy that “violent” men can’t serve as bishops because there are plenty of violent men in his church to choose from. He has to tell Timothy that lovers of money can’t serve as bishops because there are plenty of lovers of money in his church to choose from!

What is wrong with this messed up church that there are so many outwardly sinful people—so many “problem people”—so many people who don’t have their act together? What is wrong with this church?

And the answer is, Nothing at all… Nothing at all is wrong with this church! 

There are plenty of things wrong with the Christians who are members of the church. But isn’t that the point?

The church is being exactly the kind of “hospital for sinners” that God intends for a church to be, and that we always say it’s supposed to be! See, I worry that contemporary Methodist churches, and most other mainstream churches in America, are less of a “hospital for sinners” and more of a “Minute Clinic” for Christians who make a mistake every once in a while. Serious cases of sin better go somewhere else for help! 

There’s a very popular megachurch pastor in America, some of you love him and watch him on TV and read his books—and some of you, including myself, often criticize him because his theology, at times, is severely deficient. I’m not going to say his name, and I’m also not minimizing his severely deficient theology. But I watch short sermon clips of his on social media sometimes—and here’s something I notice about his preaching that he gets exactly right: He speaks directly to members of his church who are opioid addicts and alcoholics and who struggle with other kinds of harmful addictions… And he speaks to them with dignity and respect… And he speaks to them as if they are brothers and sisters in Christ—because he assumes they are… And he speaks to them as if their addiction did not disqualify them from becoming Christians in the first place… And he speaks to them with the firm conviction that Jesus did not wait for these sinners to clean up their act before saving them… 

And so this preacher has a very encouraging message even for them: He tells them that Jesus has the power to heal them of their addiction, that Jesus wants to heal them of their addiction, and Jesus will heal them of their addiction… so long as they keep on trusting in Jesus. 

Look, I can criticize this preacher with the best of them, but he’s not wrong about that, is he?

And I know that even Christians overdose from drug addiction. And destroy their lives and destroy the lives of others. Some of you have known and loved Christians who’ve overdosed from addictions. I’ve done funerals for these kinds of Christians. That doesn’t prove Jesus didn’t want to heal them or didn’t have the power to heal them; it only means that Jesus finally and completely did heal them of their addiction after they got to heaven—the same way he’ll completely heal the rest of us sinners of our more “respectable” sins when we get to heaven—and when I say “respectable” sins, I’m not talking about sins that are necessarily less spiritually deadly… only sins that we manage to hide from others more successfully.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I wish church could be more like Alcoholics Anonymous. Because at least in AA, no one is pretending to be someone other than what they are! They tell you up front! “I’m Steve and I’m an alcoholic.” What if church were more like that? “I’m Brent, and I’m a sinner. I’m not any better than you. I’m powerless over this problem. I’m no less in need of God’s grace than you. I’m in recovery from sin, just like you. And I’m trusting in God’s grace to give me the power to overcome my sin. And it’s one day at a time for me, just like it is for you. And if I fall off the wagon, no one’s going to judge me or kick me out. Instead, they’ll dust me off and help me get on my feet again.” That’s what church is supposed to be like.

It’s not this place where we’re supposed to pretend like everything is okay. Or else we’ll be judged or ostracized.

That’s what Paul and Timothy’s church is like—a church that the Holy Spirit surely intends to serve as a model church for us today, which is why the Spirit included these words in the pages of the Bible—this is a church that is filled with both kinds of sinners—the “respectable” ones and “unrespectable” ones. A church that says, “We don’t care which kind of sinner you are. You belong here, so long as you’re honest with God about your sins, so he can heal you of them. A part of the healing is knowing where exactly you fall short.”

But I like Paul and Timothy’s church. Because they understood Jesus’ message of grace in this parable. Because they actually did go out into the streets and invite both the “bad and the good” into God’s heavenly banquet—and when they did, guess what happened? A lot of those “bad” people accepted the invitation! And Paul and Timothy threw the doors of the banquet hall wide open for them and welcomed them in to the feast! Because every single one of them was saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone. None of them was disqualified because they didn’t already have their act together.

And neither are you! 

And if I could be like Marty McFly, get into a time machine, and travel back to 1985—which would be awesome, by the waythat’s also the message I would share with my frenemy Rick, who couldn’t stop worrying about his sins, and whether they disqualified him for salvation. I would tell him, “It’s not your sins that disqualify you, Rick. It’s your lack of faith in what Christ accomplished on the cross that disqualifies you! Confess your lack of faith as one of your sins and see if Christ won’t give you the faith to actually believe him! Say, along with that man in Mark 9:24, ’I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!’”

Friends, do you see the grace here? What’s stopping you from receiving it?

But even as you hear me say these words, some of you are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because you heard me read verses 11 to 14—and those verses are terrifying. There’s a man at the banquet who’s not wearing a proper wedding garment. So the king says, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” These words a recurring poetic description of hell, which Jesus uses. 

Therefore, Jesus makes clear that if we’re not wearing a “wedding garment,” whatever that means, we will not enjoy this heavenly banquet. We will be separated from God for eternity.

So we better make sure we’re “wearing it,” right? Whatever it is!

Let’s figure out what it is: in the ancient world, when a king threw a royal banquet, it was customary to provide his guests the proper clothing to wear. We see this portrayed in at least two places in scripture: Genesis 45:22 and Esther 6:8-9. But even more, notice that the king’s servants usher in all these people from off the streets. And the meal was ready right now. Even if these people owned or could afford the proper attire—and keep in mind that most of whom were poor—they still wouldn’t have had time to purchase what they needed or go home and change.

If they were going to be properly dressed, it was only because the king would supply everything these newly invited guests needed in order to enjoy the banquet. All these guests had to do was to receive what was offered to them, put it on, and show up.

I mean, that ain’t much! It’s shocking that even one of the invited guests failed to meet this bare minimum task! What lack of respect must he have had for this king to not even bother to put on a fine suit—a suit fit for royalty—which he didn’t even have to purchase but was given as a free gift? How does this insolent behavior honor the king who invited you and paid your way. He’s not asking the man to attend a funeral, after all… but the biggest party imaginable. Even an ordinary wedding reception in a small village in the ancient Near East was an event that no one wanted to miss: it was fun; it was a celebration; it brought great joy. Imagine being invited to a king’s wedding reception!

And yet, this parable asks, what about us? God is offering us eternal life with him. And he’s paid an infinite price for this gift that he’s offering us—the death of his Son Jesus on the cross—and he’s telling us, “Claim this life, enjoy this life eternally, enjoy it more than we can enjoy any pleasure that this world has to offer, celebrate this life with me forever.

“It’s yours. It’s available now. It’s free. Just receive it.”

That’s what he’s saying to us right now!

Yet how many of us are like those originally invited guests in verse 5: We pay no attention, and we go about our business, and we go about our busy life—without giving God’s invitation a second thought. Or maybe we think, “I’ll go later.”

Friends, “later” isn’t guaranteed. You know that!

Suppose the Lord guided me to pick this scripture to preach on this morning so that you would hear Jesus’ warning… because you know right now if you were to die, you would be like the man who shows up to the wedding hall without the proper garment. 

Do you still want to take that chance that you’ve got plenty of time? 

The time is now, friends. Repent and believe!

One thought on “Sermon 10-25-2020: “Amazing Grace and a Gracious Warning””

  1. Brent, I agree that salvation is open to all who will receive it, good or bad, and also that no one is “perfect” thereafter, as both Paul and John make clear (certainly I am not!). My only concern, though, is what is involved in your final statement, “Repent and believe!” We are told to “bring forth fruits” that will prove up that repentance has occurred. Also, there are plenty of “hard sayings” by Jesus on the subject of “discipleship,” such as “if anyone does not hate father…, and yes, even his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” So it is clear that any true conversion will result in a changed life, a life more marked with obedience than what came before. Accordingly, we are told to “test yourselves, whether you be in the faith.” I don’t think we are being told, “But do you REALLY, REALLY believe it is just Jesus?” Instead, “But do you REALLY, REALLY see a changed life since you believed?” Although I am sure you agree, I guess I would like to see that pointed out as well in this type of sermon.

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