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Tales With a Twist: God Threw A Party But Nobody Came!

Matthew 22:1-14

Did you hear about the husband who came home after a long, hard day at work, to be greeted by his wife, who also had had a difficult day. She said: “I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?” He replied: “Golly, I’ve had a miserable day. Please give me the good news first.” And she replied: “Okay. The good news is that the airbags on our new car work!”

Sometimes the good news doesn’t seem quite so good. Sometimes there is bad news wrapped up in the good news. That’s exactly the case in this parable of Jesus known as the “Parable of the Great Banquet.” The message of the parable is that God is offering people a glorious life in Jesus Christ. That’s the good news. But wrapped up in the good news is some bad news. Too many people fail to respond. Jesus is rejected. As we have learned from studying the parables, many times Jesus drew His stories from actual events or incidents which would have been familiar to those who were listening to Him. I submit to you that that is the case with this parable as well. It seems that a king had a son who was being married, and this king sent an invitation to the festivities surrounding the wedding, and that invitation was addressed to an exclusive list of very special people. Now, understand please, that in those days invitations did not contain the time and the date of the party or the celebration. The invitation simply put the invited guest on notice that such a party or celebration was going to take place at some point in the future, and then, when the appointed time did occur, it was then that the host would send his servants around to make personal calls on the invited guests to let them know that the party was now scheduled for today. That’s the way it always worked, and that’s exactly what was happening in this particular story. The king had sent out the invitation to the exclusive guest list, and on the appointed day the servants went to visit each of the invited guests to give them the time of the party. And every last one of those invited guests offered a reason or an excuse for not attending. The kind was throwing a party, and nobody came. Needless to say, the king was disturbed, and so he ordered his servants to simply go out into the community and invite anyone and everyone, regardless of who they were to come to the party. Well, that’s the good news of the story, but tucked away in the good news is some bad news, because it seems that one fellow showed up for the party without wearing proper attire, and he was dealt with rather harshly.

Well, there it is. That’s the story—the good news and the bad news tucked within it. What in the world are we to make of this message from the lips of Jesus? We need to remember that all of Jesus’ parables had a timeless quality about them. They managed to transcend both the time and the audience to which they were originally addressed. And in fact, they wind up becoming stories about us. And in this case, the story is that we—you and I—are the ones who have received God’s invitation. God is throwing the greatest party in all of history, and yet so many of us are manufacturing excuses for not attending. Now when you stop to analyze the message Jesus is delivering, we begin to discover some important things we need to know about ourselves, but much more importantly, we begin to discover some important things we need to know about our God. And so today, I would like to take the sequence of events in that particular parable, and build one segment upon another.

First, God invites.

This is paramount. It is God who issues the invitation. The whole premise of the Bible is that God makes the first move. God takes the initiative. God pursues us, trying to win us to all of the glories He has planned for us in life. God invites. The message that Jesus is trying to deliver to us is that God is throwing this incredible celebration, and we are invited. God doesn’t force us to come. God doesn’t coerce us into attendance. God doesn’t demand that we make ourselves worth in order to appear. God simply extends the invitation. God invites. That’s the message that the parable is delivering. The invitation comes from God. God is so concerned about you and about me, that He invites us to this great banquet.

Now wait just a minute. Before I go any further, let me say a word about this banquet. I want you to understand that this was not a fast food meal at McDonald’s. This was not a light snack to which the airlines have given a whole new meaning. This was not even a cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres. This banquet in its sumptuousness and in its smorgasbord of delights surpassed any White House state dinner that we could ever imagine. Not only that, but there was a party atmosphere around this celebration. It was, after all, a royal wedding. The king’s son was being married. And so it was the social event of the ages. Now isn’t it interesting that that’s the image that Jesus uses to describe the life that God is inviting us to participate in. He is saying to us that the good life that He is offering us in Jesus Christ is like a great feast. It’s like a wonderful party. A triumphant celebration. An experience of absolutely indescribable joy. It makes you wonder why anyone invited to such a celebration would not attend. Of course they had excuses which they offered.

I read, not long ago, about a high school teacher who had managed to collect some of the absolutely astonishing excuses his students had offered over the years in order to excuse themselves for failing to hand in their essays at the designated times. The excuses were an absolute riot, but the two trophy winners—and he designated these as the two students who won the trophy for the best excuses of all—one of those students said that he had his essay when he boarded the bus that morning, but the bus driver wanted to see his essay and the bus driver read it and was so impressed with it that he asked the student if he could just keep the essay and read it to all of the other passengers on his bus throughout the day. I want to tell you, that kid deserves an “A” for creativity! But the second trophy-winning student was the one who said that as he was walking to school that morning, he was robbed, and the thief didn’t want his money or his watch, he wanted his essay! I can tell you that my education was sadly lacking when it came to making excuses. These students play in the major leagues!

But you know, I got to thinking about it. And to be perfectly frank, I’ve heard just as astonishing excuses from people who do not wish to partake in the glorious life that God offers us through Jesus Christ. We become just as creative when we try to duck the invitation to God’s party. We tend to let other interests and other activities get in the way. We tend to become so involved, so busy, so preoccupied that we miss out on the great banquet of good friendships or a good marriage, or good relationships with parents or children, or the good, fulfilling life God offers us in Jesus Christ. God extends the invitation. So many fail to come. It’s such a shame. And think what they are missing.

The truth is devastatingly revealed, I think, in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim. In that novel, Jim is the chief mate on a ship. The ship has a collision and starts to sink. Jim notices that the captain and the crew are preparing to abandon ship to desert the passengers. There are 800 passengers on board, and only 7 life boats. Apparently, they decided that all of the passengers were doomed anyway, and so they would save themselves. And Jim, without ever really knowing why, just jumps into the life boat with the captain and the crew, and they row away from the sinking vessel. They all agree that they are going to tell the same story later on about the deaths of the passengers on the sinking ship. But unfortunately for them, the ship wound up not sinking. Another ship came along, and rescued the passengers and towed the stricken vessel into port. There was a trial, and everything surrounding it, and Jim was then left to spend the rest of his life branded as a coward, moving from port to port to port, trying to find some way to regain his moral courage and his sense of self-respect. He had no success at that until, at the end of the story, he winds up being executed in the place of another person. And only in that moment did he begin to win back some of that lost sense of self-respect. But even then, he knew, sickeningly, way down inside that he had missed out on the opportunity to live a full and fulfilling life in this world.

That’s exactly the message of this parable. God, in Jesus Christ, is offering us a full and fulfilling life. My beloved, don’t miss out on it. God invites.

God invites all.

That’s what the parable says—that when the guests on the original list declined to attend, the king sent his servants out into the community to invite all—everyone, good and bad—to invite them all to come to the party. That’s good news for us to hear; to know that we are invited—no because we are perfect—in fact, just exactly the opposite is true—we are invited because we are not perfect. We are invited because we don’t measure up. We are invited because it doesn’t matter who we are, or what we may have done—good or bad—we are invited just because God invites all. No one is denied the invitation. The invitation to life in Jesus Christ is extended to everyone, no matter who they or we are. No matter what we may have been or said or thought or done in life. God invites all.

You know of my great love and admiration for the ministry of the Salvation Army. Let me lift up for you a wonderful story from the early days of that remarkable ministry. William and Catherine Booth, the co-founders of the Salvation Army had died, and their son, Bramwell, became the Captain of the Army, carrying on the work of his parents. One day Captain Bramwell Booth was informed that a young man, who was a member of the Salvation Army, was critically ill. Captain Booth went to visit the young man. He lived in a poor section of London, down in a one-room, dimly-lit basement flat, tattered furniture, an old bed. It wasn’t much of a place to live. The young man was lying in that old bed. The young man’s name was Reggie. Reggie was mentally challenged, and Reggie was suffering from tuberculosis, and they didn’t know much about how to deal with either one of those things in those days. Death was very close. Young Reggie was overwhelmed with emotion that the great Captain Bramwell Booth would actually come to his room to visit him. Then, after he regained his composure, he asked Captain Booth to open the little closet in that room. When he did, there, hanging on the door, was a brand new Salvation Army uniform that had never been worn. Captain Booth turned to Reggie and he said: “Reggie, I don’t understand. Why have you never worn your Salvation Army uniform?” And Reggie said: “Captain, I saved my money for a long time, and I worked hard and bought that uniform. But then I realized that people don’t think very much about me. They say things about me. They say I’m not very bright. And I didn’t want to wear that uniform and have anyone say anything that would bring shame to it. But Captain”, Reggie said, “do you think that when I die I might be buried in my Salvation Army uniform?” Now it was Bramwell Booth’s time to be overwhelmed with emotion. And he said: “Yes, absolutely.”

Shortly thereafter, Reggie died, and Captain Bramwell Booth ordered soldiers from the Salvation Army all over that part of England to gather in the east end of London, and he pulled together the largest Salvation Army Band that most people had ever seen up to that time. And that day, they had an incredible procession all through the streets of London to the cemetery. They were waving white pennants and banners and they were wearing—not black armbands—but white armbands, signifying the resurrection. It was the most astonishing procession they had seen in London in years. Some of the people on the streets said: “Wow! Who died? Must be somebody big.” And others said: “No, it’s the strangest thing. It’s a nobody. Some poor, young, mentally retarded fellow.” They were wrong. They were so wrong. Because, you see, what Captain Bramwell Booth understood was that that day a young prince entered the great banquet hall with the saints of God in the Kingdom of Heaven and received the welcome from the King’s own Son. That’s grace. That’s God’s grace. And, my beloved, it is extended to us all.

So…

God invites. God invites all, but God invites all on God’s terms.

In the parable, it’s noted that one of the people invited showed up without the proper attire, and the king ordered him bound and thrown into the darkness. What are we to make of that? Listen to what Jesus is trying to tell us. God invites all, but on God’s terms. The wedding garments, the wedding attire, that is the symbol for faith in Jesus Christ. And so the invitation is extended to all, but it comes with the expectation of commitment—commitment in faith. The party is not just for party-goers. The party is for those who undertake the message that God calls us to a glorious life and we gain entrance into that life through our own commitment in faith to Jesus Christ. Wearing the wedding attire means that you are a full participant in the party. That’s what Jesus is trying to say. It is our faith in Christ that makes us full participants in the great celebration.

Did you see in our newspaper not long ago that the mayor of Miami had appointed a blue-ribbon committee of 25 people to study ways to make Miami a better place to live. And when that announcement was made, a lot of other people expressed interest, and the mayor wound up putting 131 people on that committee. The problem was, at the first meeting, only 10 showed up. Sounds like the church. You know, the Gallup poll says that 94% of the people in America believe in God? Far and away, the highest percentage on the face of this earth. Looks good. Until you look at the practice. The same poll says that of the 94%, only 38% regularly attend worship. God’s throwing a great party, and everyone’s invited, but a lot of people don’t show up. Understand please, that it is our commitment that gains us entrance to the party.

Today is the day that many of our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Just a few weeks ago now, some 40 of us from here at First Presbyterian were visiting in the Holy Land, and one day we took time out from visiting the Biblical sites in order to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in the city of Jerusalem. It’s a very moving experience to do that, but I must tell you that for me, the most moving part of the whole experience is walking the Avenue of Trees, where there are memorialized the names and the lives of Christians who helped to save Jewish people from the horrors of the Holocaust. There was one name in particular which struck home to me. He is one of the great heroes of our time, but most people have never heard his name. His name is Raoul Wallenberg. He was a Swedish diplomat, and he was a Christian. He was asked by President Roosevelt to go to Hungary to help the people there fight against Hitler’s plan to destroy the Jewish population. Time and time and time again, Raoul Wallenberg risked his life, using his authority as a diplomat in order to intervene and save men, women and children from the gas chambers. Once, for example, he had Swedish passports printed up, and he gave them to every Jewish person he could find, and then he declared that those people were under the protection of the Swedish government. On two different occasions during those dramatic days, he confronted face-to-face the infamous Adolf Eichmann and in both instances, bluffed Eichmann into releasing a significant number of prisoners. He built shelters where more than 10,000 Jewish people were given sanctuary. Time and time and time again he put his life at risk saving his sisters and brothers who were Jewish. Single-handedly, when it was all said and done, Raoul Wallenberg had saved more than 30,000 people—infinitely more than the better-known Oskar Schindler saved. Why did he so risk himself to save so many? He answered himself in three words: BECAUSE OF JESUS. He understood that acceptance of the invitation to kingdom living carries with it the obligation of commitment in faith. And that was the secret of the power and the joy of his life.

My beloved, if you want to know that kind of power and that kind of joy in your life, then accept God’s invitation to Kingdom living. If you have a good friend about whom you deeply care, extend to that friend the invitation to Jesus Christ. If you have a son or a daughter, a parent, a sibling or a spouse whom you dearly love, hurry with the invitation. You see, God is throwing the greatest celebration in all of history. It’s the one event in time and in eternity that we dare not miss!

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