Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 12th October
“If only politicians would tell us the truth”. Mind you, if they did we might see pigs flying! We’ve heard claims and counter-claims about who’s best to run the country – but it’s getting serious now because they’re all after votes, so truthfulness is once more at a premium... l
We’d be much more willing to support someone if they told us the truth: if their election sales pitch went something like this: ‘Listen, the world’s a dangerous place with lots of selfish, wicked people trying to exploit one other; what I’ll do is my best to steer you through, but I’m not going to promise you anything.” (Now there’s a thought - wouldn’t it be great if people were that honest?).
Mind you the church can be just as bad: “Come to Jesus and everything will be hunky-dory” We’re so eager to tell people that God loves them, that everything’s going to be alright – and then ordinary Christians have to live in the real world where people lie and cheat and grab what they want, where they see people in churches abusing their power, and imposing on others all their own issues – and sometimes there doesn’t seem like there’s much personal consolation at all. Somehow it doesn’t all fit.
And then we read parables like the one we have today – and it bothers people – ‘certainly does me – because it doesn’t say what we want it to. We want to hear a nicestory about God throwing the party open to everyone – (& Luke’s version of the same parable in chapter 14 is much less edgy than Matthew’s). We want to be ‘inclusive’ as they say these days – to let everyone in, no questions asked. We don’t want to hear about judgement on the wicked, or about God’s exacting standards of holiness, or about weeping and gnashing of teeth. And we don’t take kindly to the idea that there might be a cost to our discipleship, which I was talking a bit about last week. After all doesn’t the Bible say that God will wipe away every tear from every eye? Well yes it does, but we have to see that and other promises in their proper context if we’re to understand them properly. What it doesn’t mean that is that God is going to act as a soothing parent settling a small child back to sleep after a nightmare. As Tom Wright says in his commentary on this parable: “God wants us to be grown up, not babies, and part of being grown up is that we learn that actions have consequences, that moral choices matter, and that real human life isn’t like a game of chess where even if we play badly the pieces get put back in the box at the end of the day and we can start again tomorrow. The great mystery of God’s forgiveness isn’t the same as saying that whatever we do isn’t really important because it’ll all work out somehow.”
This lesson about the costs of following is a difficult one that none of us really wants to learn – and what we need to remember is that it cost God everything when he gave his only Son to die for us.
Of course when Jesus told this parable it had a particular target and a particular purpose. There’s that strange bit where a king sends an army to destroy the murderers and burn down the town or city. What Matthew’s doing of course is making sure his readers made the connection between what Jesus was saying and the devastating events of 70 AD when Jerusalem was actually razed to the ground. And the story about a wedding party thrown for the king’s son was probably told a number of times so Jesus could make sure they were also getting the message that this is all about the coming of God’s kingdom and in particular the arrival of the Messiah - his Son.
So let’s have a look at the parable. Israel’s religious leaders are likened to guests at a wedding: God’s wedding party – the party he’s throwing for his Son. (& marriage is the supreme scriptural metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with his people). But for various pathetic reasons they refuse the invitation, despite the mouth-watering glimpse we get of the kind of menu on offer from our old testament reading: well aged wine and choice cuts of meat. Here’s God planning the great shindig for which they’d waited so long. The Messiah has arrived...and they just don’t want to know. They’ve already abused and killed the prophets who’d tried to tell them about it – and the result is that their precious city – the seat of all their power and influence and pride is going to be destroyed.
But now for the good news – though perhaps not so good for those who were originally invited! God sends out new messengers – this time to all the ‘wrong’ parts of town – to tell anyone and everyone to come to this heavenly ‘mother and father of all parties.’ And they turn up in droves. Matthew’s already told us who to expect (hasn’t he?) tax-collectors, prostitutes, the riff-raff, the nobodies, all those whose faces don’t fit, the blind and the lame – all the people who thought they’d been forgotten.
And they’re thrilled to discover that God’s message is for them too – after all!
But there’s a difference between this wide-open invitation and the message so many want to hear today. What we want to hear is that everyone’s all right exactly as they are; that God loves us and couldn’t possibly want us to change – could he? We often say this when we want to justify particular types of behaviour, don’t we? We want to have our cake and eat it too. 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.
And when the prostitutes and tax-collectors – the extortionists - came to him, he didn’t say – “you look okay to me”. Sure his love reached out to them where they were, but his love also refused to let them stay where they were. Remember how the first disciples in John’s gospel ask Jesus – ‘where are you staying’– and he says come and see where he is – leaning on the very heart of his heavenly Father. Love always wants the best for the beloved (and oh if we could only realize just how very much we’re loved!). On encountering Jesus, people’s lives were/are transformed, healed, changed.
No-one surely believes that God wants everyone to stay the same. Yes he loves serial killers and child molesters, arrogant bankers, even extremist terrorists! He loves manipulative and abusive parents who can damage their children’s emotions for life. But the point of God’s love – expressed so powerfully and wonderfully through the cross - is that he wants them – and us - to change. He’s in the life-changing, attitude-transforming business. “Behold I will make all things....?...new!” He hates the evil people do: the effect it has on everyone else – and the destructive impact it always has on themselves. If he’s a good God, he cannot allow that sort of behaviour, that sort of person if they refuse to change – to remain forever in the wedding party he’s throwing for his precious Son.
There’s no doubt about the main thrust of the parable: that God calls all and sundry to a party to end all parties. And it’s that that helps us get the point of the end of the story – which would be puzzling otherwise. You might be asking where did all these other guests get their wedding clothes? If the servants had just herded them in, how did they have time to change? Why should this one man be thrown out because he didn’t have the right outfit to wear? Isn’t that just the sort of judgmental social exclusiveness that the gospel rejects?
Well of course it is – but the point of the story is that Jesus is telling the truth that political and religious leaders often like to hide: the truth that God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which extravagant love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness reign unhindered and unspoilt. These are the ‘clothes’ we need to wear as one of God’s wedding guests. And if we refuse to put them on, what we’re saying, in effect, is we don’t want to stay at the party!
We need to say this again: we can’t have Christianity on our own terms, much as we’d like to. When we learn to bow the knee to Jesus – when this faith-thing starts to get really real and personal – guess what?... it’s time to allow the Holy Spirit to change us. It’s not like we’re members of a leisure club and just because we don’t like the staff or the treatment we’ll rescind our membership and join another one elsewhere.
This is serious stuff – at least from one perspective.
But it’s also an incredible adventure and hilarious (actually) to see what God can make of you and me if we dare let him. Personally, after years of repeated travelling around the block and ending up where I started (you know what I mean), I think I might just want to see what he might do. I wonder what about you?
Is there a reluctance to go deeper? Does it seem safer to go so far and no further? If we really have ears to hear, Jesus is actually warning that that’s a precarious place to be – and so this is an important message for us not just to hear – but to respond to. Just maybe you’re also hearing his call to follow – to go deeper into him.
I pray that his grace will continue to work on us – in you and me as we determinedly fix our eyes on Jesus.
Ö (song) Jesus take me as I am