Everything Is Ready! Come to the Banquet!

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The text for today’s message is the Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:1-14.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When the last empress of China (1835-1908) lived in the historic “Forbidden City,” she held extravagant banquets, sometimes serving as many as 150 different dishes for a single meal! It was an extremely exclusive affair. Only members of the royal family and their chosen guests were allowed to attend. For ordinary citizens there was no room!  
God rules in His kingdom in a totally different way. He does not exclude ordinary people. He includes them! He invites everyone in—“the good” and “the bad,” hypocrites and sincere believers. Anyone who will accept His invitation. He has also reserved a place for you at His banquet table! Please listen to Jesus’ parable again and we’ll talk more about this wonderful, gracious invitation.
A certain king prepared a marriage-feast for his son. Although it seems strange to us, that’s the way it was done in Middle Eastern culture. The bride’s family provided a dowry. The groom’s family was responsible for the wedding celebration itself. Such a wedding-festival was not an affair of an hour or two, but often lasted for days, sometimes as many as seven or even fourteen days (Judges 14:17; Tobit 8:20).
Certainly it was quite an honor to be invited to such an event, and the host would make lavish preparations. Invitations were sent out well ahead of time to announce the upcoming festivities. Then, at the appointed time, servants were sent out to announce that all the preparations had been made and it was time to come to the banquet. In Esther 6:14, we see them even making arrangements to pick up the nobility for a special banquet. (I guess that would be like someone sending a chauffeur-driven limousine to pick up someone today.)
The result, in this case, however, was a flat refusal of the invitation. But the king was patient. He sent other servants with a more urgent message for the invited guests. But they still refused. They were completely indifferent to the king’s urgent call!  The majority turned away and devoted themselves to their own private affairs—the landholder to his farm, the merchant to his store.
But a few of the invited guests were not satisfied with merely indicating their disapproval of the king and their contempt for the wedding feast by simply ignoring the invitation. They vented their ill feelings on the messengers. They seized them, mistreated them, and finally killed them. Such acts of open war and rebellion demanded the king’s swift, just retribution, which he did.
When the servants reported their failure to persuade the former guests, the king ordered them to invite new guests. Time was pressing. Everything was ready. Great hurry was demanded. So the servants were to go out onto the highways, to the crossroads where there was the heaviest traffic and the chance of finding guests would be greater. No care was to be exercised about who was invited. The unworthy guests who refused to come should be replaced as rapidly as possible by others, good and bad, whomever they might come across.
The servants followed the command literally. Going out, they brought in all whom they found, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. The king was naturally pleased over the success of his plan, and as soon as the guests were placed and the wedding-feast was in progress, he came in to welcome them all.
But while passing down between the rows of tables his attention was drawn to one man who, although reclining with the rest at the table and partaking of the food, still was not clothed in the proper wedding garments. It was a case of foolishly and deliberately despising the generosity of the king. And so the king ordered his servants to tie the guilty one hand and foot and throw him outside in the darkness, where he would have plenty of time to regret his foolishness.
Jesus sums up the parable simply: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” God’s call, His invitation, goes out to all Israel (v. 3) and to all others—good and bad (vv. 8-10); but His grace working through His Word achieves its goal only in the few whose response marks them as God’s chosen, His elect. All are invited, but not everyone will accept that invitation.
Still, the Son will be honored, and the celebration will take place, regardless of the reaction of those invited. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The day of the great wedding feast of the Lamb will come. The only question is who will join in the celebration. As Martin Luther writes in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “The kingdom of God certainly comes without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.”
You’ve probably figured out that God Himself is the king of this parable. The wedding feast is that of Christ’s kingdom, the marriage of the Lamb. The first invitation was issued to the chosen people of the Old Testament, Israel. The prophets came to them in increasing numbers with increasing clearness of message. Yet how strangely the people of Israel responded! Their refusal to attend the royal wedding would only make sense if it were a protest born of fear or hatred toward a terribly cruel dictator. But why would a ruthless despot graciously invite them, free of charge, to a joyful celebration?
Verse 5 clears up the matter. The fault was not with the King, but with the unwilling guests who were mysteriously apathetic toward the invitation. While our ESV translation says “they paid no attention”; the Greek word is much stronger, used elsewhere to describe people spurning salvation (Hebrews 2:3) or failing to use their spiritual gifts (1 Timothy 4:14). Motivated by self-centered pride, these people considered the wedding unworthy of their time and attention. Their personal business was more important than the King’s invitation, or His Son.
The parable emphasizes the root problem of our sinful nature. When we do not fear, love, and trust God above all things, our pride becomes our god. Our own agenda, our own wants, our needs, concerns, or desires become more important to us than our relationship with God. And it can easily cause us to foolishly despise God’s gracious invitation. It happened back then and it happens today.
Following the Old Testament prophets, God sent John the Baptist, Christ Himself, and the apostles with their urgent call to repentance and salvation. But the answer was still indifference, hatred, blasphemy, and murder. Then God’s patience with Israel was exhausted, His judgment was executed upon the Jewish nation, as the Romans destroyed both Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D.
Since that time the Lord has faithfully attempted to get other guests for His wedding feast. His messengers have gone forth on the highways and byways of throughout the world. The Christian Church has spread to practically every country of the earth. Men of every tongue and nation have been assembled in the great hall of the Lamb’s wedding feast. Good and bad, hypocrites and sincere believers, are joined in the outward communion known as the visible Church.
Jesus told this parable of the banquet to show how God’s gracious kingdom works. But please do not confuse this parable as teaching you what you must do in order to be saved. Rather than focusing on something you must do, the story of the banquet focuses on what God has done for you. That’s why the analogy of a banquet works so well.
For example, when you attend a banquet, you are not there because you are qualified. You don’t earn an invitation by your own merits, but are invited solely by the host’s grace and hospitality. And, when you arrive, you contribute nothing to the whole affair. You don’t purchase supplies. You stay out of the kitchen. You don’t have to help prepare the food. You don’t set the table or put up decorations. The host simply welcomes, seats, and serves you as an honored guest.
God’s kingdom works in the same way. You do not earn your place in heaven by your own worthiness, but by God’s grace. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, your heavenly Father has prepared everything for the celebration. His Holy Spirit calls you through the Gospel. He invites you to a table set with the richest of fares, including Christ’s very body and blood. And because the Son has given Himself as payment for your admission, no matter who you are or where you are from, heaven’s King promises He’ll always welcome you as His honored guest.
Perhaps you have said to yourself, “Because of my sins and failures in the past, God would never accept me. God could not possibly want to spend eternity with me. I have to get myself together first, then maybe He could accept me.”
But that’s not true! This is why the truth Jesus proclaims in this parable is so important to you. Jesus sharply rebukes the Pharisees for teaching that you have to earn your seat in heaven. In fact, in the Gospel lesson two weeks ago, we heard Him say to those self-righteous Pharisees, “The tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). If the Lord of the banquet forgives tax-collectors and prostitutes for their past failures and makes room for them in His kingdom, He’ll certainly do the same for you.
At this very moment, God is calling you to His banquet as one of His guests. Your seat at God’s table is already paid for! When Jesus shed His blood upon the cross to wash away your sins, He prepared a place for you in God’s kingdom. When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished!” He announced that the meal is ready and declared that all sinners, including you and me, are invited to attend.
If you have stayed away from hearing God’s Word in church because you fear what people might think of you, or if you have delayed to repent of your sins and believe the promise about heaven because you thought you could never be worthy, be encouraged by St. Paul’s words, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).
Your Lord has included, not excluded, you from His kingdom. Heaven is no “Forbidden City” where only the rich and famous and powerful are invited. Just as the lord of the banquet sent His servant to gather all kinds of people, even those unworthy in the eyes of the world, so the King of heaven sent Jesus Christ to declare you worthy and prepare a place for you in His kingdom (Mark 10:45). Don’t delay! Respond to God’s invitation. He wants His banquet to be filled!
But as you do, there’s one more aspect of the parable you must remember. After many invitations and turndowns, the wedding hall was finally “filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10). Then came a puzzling moment. When the king came to look over the dinner guests, he saw one who was not dressed in proper wedding clothes. “Friend,” the king asked, “how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” The man was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 22:11-13).
One cannot imagine anything more horrifying than to be forever thrown out of God’s presence because of a lack of proper attire. Unfortunately, these warning words of Jesus have the potential to move us to try, in vain, to prepare ourselves for the feast by sewing together our own garment of self-righteousness. In doing so, we hope, in some way, to do something that would please God and make us acceptable to Him. But such a hope will never be acceptable.
You may have wrongly believed that if you feel sorry enough, and maybe if you can do a few “nice things,” God will accept you back. You may have also been misled by the devil to believe that God has given guidelines in the Bible for you to follow so that if you only try hard enough you can do His will, earn His love, and gain a seat at His heavenly banquet. But God says that all of your righteous deeds are “like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6), and that’s a whole lot worse than the homemade suit the man tried to wear to the parable banquet!
But, here is the Good News! In Jesus’ day, the one giving a wedding feast usually provided free wedding garments for the invited guests. You didn’t have to bring your own or worry that you might not meet some strict dress code standards. The host provided you with proper garments. In the same way, God is not only inviting you to come to the wedding feast of His Son, He’s clothed you with garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10).
 In your Baptism, God strips away your filthy, unrighteous clothes and covers you with His robe of perfect righteousness. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27). Now your heavenly Father does not see all your sins and failures, but Christ and His robe of righteousness. Even though you may stumble in the future, even though your mind and heart are not always filled with good thoughts, God has forgiven you and reconciled you to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
So, don’t be one of those permanently cast out of God’s presence. Instead, consider your heavenly Father’s gracious invitation to the glorious wedding banquet of His Son. Enabled by the Spirit, be fully prepared. Join St. Paul in confessing: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
Rejoice and thank God. This is a new day for you. You have a standing invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb. You are covered with Jesus’ robe of righteousness. And all of this is certain, for you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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