Based on a sermon preached on 12 October 2014 at St Aldhelm’s Doulting, from Matthew 22:1-14. The important background to bear in mind is a) a lady called Mary sitting in the second row, and b) a box of chocolates I had brought with me.
I always feel the best talks are those that include chocolate. I like chocolate, and I’m sure most of you do too. So in order to avoid disappointment, I brought some chocolates with me this morning. Lots of chocolates. A great big box full of delicious chocolates. But these aren’t any old chocolates, oh no, these are special chocolates. They’re set aside for something. They’re reserved. For Mary.
You may want these chocolates, you may like chocolates (I do too, as it happens), but that makes no difference at all, because these chocolates are still reserved. They can only be eaten by this lady called Mary sat in the second row. And you’re not called Mary, sat there in the second row, and therefore you are not eligible to eat these chocolates.
However, we have a problem. Mary doesn’t want these chocolates (I asked her). They’re specially reserved for her, but she doesn’t want them. You still can’t have them, because they’re still reserved for Mary sat in the second row. And that’s a problem, because these chocolates aren’t going to eat themselves.
Let’s leave the chocolates for a moment, and let me take you back to Genesis 17, which wasn’t the reading for this morning, but which does give a little background to it. In Genesis 17 God is talking to a chap called Abram, and is telling him about the plans he has in store for him.
“You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
What an amazing promise! God is telling Abraham that from him will come many nations, and that God will be with them. Abraham’s descendants will be God’s chosen people, set aside for God, reserved for him alone, chosen to represent God to the world! What an amazing privilege to be given. Any guesses as to how long it is before God’s chosen people falls flat on their face? Nine verses. God goes on for a few more verses, giving some more details about this covenant, and just nine verses later we hear Abraham’s response – he laughs at God’s plan. ‘Really?’ he says, ‘I haven’t even got a single child, and my wife and I are old, do you really expect me to believe that whole nations will come from me?’ Abraham fails to live up to God’s expectations. And that really sets the tone for the rest of the Old Testament; read through and you’ll find countless more instances where God’s chosen people fail to live up to his expectations.
That’s the context for this parable that Jesus tells us. In case you missed the connection, Jesus tells us that the King is throwing a banquet and had invited a load of people, but those people failed to turn up when the time came. They failed to live up to the King’s expectations. Jesus is drawing the parallel with the Jewish nation, the chosen people, the original invitees, and saying that they have failed to live up to God’s expectations. That would have been very hard for Jesus’ listeners to hear, because not only were they Jews but they were the Jewish leaders and teachers! Harsh words indeed.
Now, back to these chocolates. As you’ll remember, they are reserved for Mary in the second row. You are still not Mary, so you still can’t have them. However, I spent good money on these chocolates, and I’m not going to let them go to waste. So I’m going to open these chocolates and share them round, so that everyone gets a handful of chocolates. You’re still not Mary, you’re still not sat in her place in the second row, and so by the original definition you are still not eligible to receive these chocolates, but because of my love for you all I am sharing them with you anyway.
This is the kind of scene Jesus is describing in this parable. When the King learns that the original invitees were not coming to the banquet after all, he sends his servants out to gather yet more people, only this time he sends them to the street corners. Now, street corners have a bit of a reputation. That’s not where you find respectable people. No, these servants are told to gather the dregs of society. These are sinful people, dirty people, people who have been excluded for whatever reason, people who were not chosen, people who had failed, people who were damaged. People not unlike you and me. The banquet is prepared, and the King is not going to let it go to waste.
Let’s skip forward now to the book of Acts, which is also not today’s reading. In Acts 10 we find Peter visiting a chap called Cornelius. Now, Cornelius was not a Jew, so Peter wasn’t entirely comfortable, and had to be persuaded by God to even go in the first place, but once he was there he began sharing the gospel about Jesus, about the wonderful gift of salvation, about how all the scriptures point to him.
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.”
Even to gentiles! Let’s not forget who the gentiles were. By definition, they are anyone who is not a Jew. Look back at the Old Testament and you’ll see that gentiles were those people that God pushed aside for the sake of his chosen people. The gentiles were often seen as the enemy. Thousands of years later, most of us here are probably descendants of those gentiles. And so what we see here in this passage is the beginning of the fulfilment of Jesus’ parable – the Spirit being given generously to those who were not the original invitees, growing the kingdom through grace.
I’ve mentioned a few times about this gift of salvation, and I think it’s worth just refreshing our memory as to what that is. I’m not great at remembering scripture, but John 3:16 is one of those verses that is so important that it’s worth memorising by heart. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Notice what’s required of us in that statement. Nothing about how much effort we put into it, nothing about what we give to God, nothing about what we need to give up or take on. No, all that is required for our salvation is that we believe in Jesus. By our own efforts alone we cannot gain eternal life, and therefore we are not eligible, but through faith in Jesus and through his love, he gives it to us anyway. That’s amazing grace!
A word of warning, though – our faith is not to be taken for granted. You may remember at the end of our reading that there was a man who was thrown out of the party? I want to be clear about this, so that no one misunderstands what’s going on here. It is not the case that the King was picking on this man for being poor, because that doesn’t fit in with the message of grace at all. No, what’s going on here is that his man does have wedding clothes, but deliberately chose not to wear them. He’s not interested in the King, he’s not interested in the wedding. He’s come for the party, he’s come for the food, he’s come for the wine, he’s come to have a jolly good time and someone else’s expense. He has not taken his invitation seriously. The man is thrown out because he has a lack of respect for the King.
Imagine if you were invited to see the Queen. You’d go down to London, you’d go to the palace, you’d walk through those ornate corridors, and find yourself in a magnificent room, and there on the throne is the Queen herself. And you’re stood there in your jeans and t-shirt, hands casually stuffed in your pocket. I’m sure the Queen would have every right to have you thrown out for such disrespect!
The same is true, if not more so, with God. When we come before him we should recognise that he is our King, our Lord, our God. We should be respectful. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should never come to church wearing jeans and t-shirt, because I do pretty much every week! What’s important here is our attitude, our heart. If we don’t take our faith seriously, both in church on Sundays and throughout the week, we run the risk of offending God.
However, the main point I want to get across, if you remember nothing else apart from there being chocolate, is that this gift of salvation is something to be excited about! In the parable the King throws a banquet to celebrate a wedding. This wasn’t some small private affair in a back room, no this was an extravagant party! The King was excited, and so is God, and if God is excited then we should be excited too! No matter who we are, no matter what our background or age or position in society, we should be excited about this amazing gift of salvation we have been given. And the important thing to remember about excitement is that we don’t keep it to ourselves, we share it with our friends and family, we talk to people about it on the bus, we post about it on Facebook. So that’s what I encourage you to do today, to go out there and be excited about your faith with other people, remembering that you don’t deserve it, but through God’s amazing grace he gives it to you anyway.
Be excited, take your faith seriously, and share that excitement with others.