2280) A Sermon on Going to Heaven (part two of two)

Matthew 22:9-10  —  (The king said to his servants), “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you can find.”  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

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     (…continued)  Jesus isn’t done yet.  The outrageous story continues.  In verse eight, the king says, “The banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  So go on out to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you can find, ‘the bad as well as the good,’ don’t even check their ID’s, just tell them all to come on in.”  This time, the king gets a response, and the wedding hall is filled with guests.

     The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is a place to which everyone is invited.  Everyone.  Have you made some wrong turns, lived a bad life, done much that you are ashamed of?  Jesus said, you are invited anyway.  Do you struggle with doubt, have a hard time saying your prayers, or feel like a fraud and a hypocrite?  Jesus said, you are invited anyway.  The kingdom of heaven is like a king’s banquet to which everyone is invited, good and bad.  Just come on in.  You are welcome.

     Those who first heard the parable would have known that this was outrageous.  King’s didn’t invite just anyone and everyone.  But Jesus was talking about a different Kingdom and used an earthly king only as a sermon illustration.  Everyone, says Jesus, gets invited, and that’s wonderful.

     But, says Jesus, don’t refuse the invitation.  Even then this heavenly king will be patient for a while.  But be warned.  If you wait too long, he will be enraged.  That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Do not be like those who pay no attention.  There will be, on the last day, a parting of the ways, a separation.  Not everybody automatically goes to heaven.  The last verse of the text makes it clear one more time, when Jesus wraps up the parable by saying, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

     Now for the most important, but also most difficult part.  That is the application of these general principles to yourself.  Who are you in the story?  Are you one of the good people, close to the king; one who gets invited first, but then doesn’t pay much attention, and in the end refuses?  Or, are you one who accepts the invitation that goes out to everyone, and then comes right on in.  The parable speaks of refusing and of accepting the invitation.  But what does that look like in day to day life?  How do you refuse God’s invitation?  How do you show you have accepted it?  And how do you know where you are at right now?

     Making this even more difficult is that odd part right at the end, about the man who was not wearing the proper wedding garment.  Even though he did accept the invitation, for some reason, the king was not happy with him.  “Friend,” the king said, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes?”  And the man was speechless.  The king had him tied up and thrown out.  What’s that all about?

     First of all, let me say this:  I do not know what that part is all about.  I can make a guess, but that is all it would be; a guess. Or I could look in this book or that book (I have lots of books), and tell you what kind of a guess this scholar or that scholar made.  But the more books I would look in, the more guesses I would find, and I don’t find such guesses all that helpful.  Some things in the Bible are easy to understand and some things are not, and parables of Jesus are not always perfectly clear.

     The purpose of the parables seems to be different from the purpose of Jesus’ clearer teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, or in Paul’s step by step theological explanations in the book of Romans.  Parables are not designed to spell things out clearly in a neat package, like “The banquet means this, and the wedding garment means that, and you are this guy in the parable, and that unbeliever over there is the one that gets thrown out, and now we can all feel good about ourselves.”

     Parables like this one are more ambiguous than that, a little wilder, and a bit harder to nail down.  They are told to get into your head, to unsettle you, to challenge your thinking, to change your perspective, and to give you something to mull over from now on.  They defy the easy explanation.  So I’m not going to try and wrap this all up in a neat little package.

     Each of you, on your own, needs to look at what is clear, and then make your own sense out of it.  And as you think about it, think not so much “What does this or that mean?” but “What is this story doing to me as I hear it?”

     Look again at the main points.  The kingdom of heaven is like a great banquet that everyone is invited to, including you.  The door is always open, the invitation is always there, for good folks and for bad folks.  Just come on in.  What does that do to you?  This is a message of hope for everyone.  It should comfort you, give you confidence for the future, bless you, and make you love God and have faith in him.  Do you want to have assurance of life after death in heaven?  There it is.  You are personally invited by the king himself.  Tell Jesus you want to be there, and be at peace.  Let the parable do that for you.

     But some folks in the story, and in life, ignore and refuse the invitation.  They disrespect the king, they put him on hold, and they don’t pay much attention.  What does that mean?  I don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t spell out any specifics.  So think about it.  Might that be you?  Do you give God the attention he deserves, do you take with all seriousness his call to obedience in everything, or do you find all kinds of ways to neglect and ignore his call on your life?

     Add to that the part about the man without the wedding garment.  He accepted the invitation, but he still messed up and missed out.  How?  What did he do wrong?  It’s not clear.  What does this part of the parable do to you?  It should make you uneasy, a little less likely to take God for granted, a little more likely to keep listening to obey God’s Word, and to keep paying attention before you settle into a faith that is too comfortable and too easy.  Do you know for sure who you are in the parable? 

     Might Jesus be directing all parts of this parable to each of us?

    Is that the kind of answer you want in a sermon?  Maybe not.  But that is how these parables work. They work to wake you up, to unsettle you, and to get you thinking.  The parables are there to comfort you, AND, to keep you on your toes

     So don’t let Oprah, Joel Osteen, or anyone else explain away all the rough edges of this parable so you can “feel good about yourself.”  Jesus didn’t tell this parable so you could feel good about yourself.  He told it so you could learn about going to heaven– and that is by not ignoring Him and refusing His invitation.

     The catechism says over and over again that we should fear and love God.  Do you remember learning that?  This parable should make you do both.  Love God, of course; he has invited you to his eternal home.  Fear God, of course, there is enough in this parable to keep you from taking that love of God for granted.  So keep listening.  Don’t expect one parable to answer all your questions.  There’s a lot to this life of faith.  You aren’t going to get it all in one sermon.  No one text and no one sermon says it all.

     That is why we worship here each week, and not just every once in a while.  Keep listening.  Keep in touch.  The purpose of this text is to comfort you and to unsettle you.

     Just before the sermon we sang, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.”  That’s a nice song about that wonderful invitation.  After the sermon we will sing, “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.”  That is a nice song too, but it has in it a command, a command reminding us to not ever take that love for granted, but to keep looking to Jesus, to keep seeking, to keep God first in our life.

     This parable reminds us to do both.

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“Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling”

by Will L. Thompson  (1847-1909)

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As sung by Alan Jackson (only first and last verse; all verses are printed below):

< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkRTfrLBii0 >

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1) Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, 
calling for you and for me; 
see, on the portals he’s waiting and watching, 
watching for you and for me. 

Refrain:
Come home, come home; 
you who are weary come home; 
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, 
calling, O sinner, come home! 

2) Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading, 
pleading for you and for me? 
Why should we linger and heed not his mercies, 
mercies for you and for me? [Refrain]

3) Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing, 
passing from you and from me; 
shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming, 
coming for you and for me. [Refrain]

4) O for the wonderful love he has promised, 
promised for you and for me! 
Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon, 
pardon for you and for me. [Refrain]