This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached today. The gospel reading was Matthew 22:1-14.
As Lutherans, we talk a lot about grace, God’s love freely given. We understand that grace is God’s primary way of relating to us. Relying on insights that Luther rediscovered in Paul’s letters, we teach that Christ’s death and resurrection means that God loves us. That God saves us. That God makes us holy. And that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do to earn that love. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do to lose that love either. We are saved by grace, and all the good works we do are responses to God’s love. As Martin Luther said, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.” We are set free from worrying about our status with God, so we can focus on doing good for the sake of the world.
But then we hit stories in scripture like this one. On the surface, it really doesn’t look like grace at all. A king throws a wedding banquet for his son, and invites people to attend it. They don’t bother coming. So what does the king do? He destroys them and burns down their city. Then he invites others, but one of them is dressed wrong for the banquet, and the king throws him out into the “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This king appears violent and demanding. Jesus says this is the kingdom of heaven is like this, so does that mean God is equally violent and demanding? That if you don’t keep to the straight and narrow, you’re in for it? Sure sounds that way.
And that doesn’t mesh with grace at all. So what do we do with it?
Well, we remember something else Luther said: Allow scripture to interpret scripture. When you read a story in the Bible that is confounding, that you can’t figure out, then use what you know from scripture to help interpret it. So we know that grace abounds. We know that God is love, and in him there is no darkness at all.
What does that tell us about this tough story?
It tells us that if this is about God, then the death and fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth are not punishments for failing a test, because we know that’s not how God operates. They aren’t punishments; instead, they are the consequences of ignoring grace.
Let me explain. Imagine you’re invited to a wedding next Saturday, and you already rsvp’ed “yes”. But then at the last minute, something comes up and you decide not to go. What will happen to you? Well, that depends on who you are. Say you’re the bride’s coworker, and you don’t show up. What will happen to you? Well, maybe the bride will be upset for a while, but she’ll get over it. Maybe not even that.
Say you’re best man, and you don’t show up. Your absence would cause some problems for the couple. You may even lose your friendship with them. Not the worst thing in the world, but there are consequences.
But say you’re a bride in the wedding, and you don’t show up. That will affect your life. Big time. From that moment, your life is very significantly changed. Skip your own wedding, and there will be big consequences.
And that’s the thing about this story Jesus told. Do you know who we are in this story? Well, if the king is God, and the king’s son is getting married, then that makes the groom Jesus Christ. And then who is the bride? Whom does Christ marry? It’s us. The church.
The Bride of Christ is an ancient image of the church, that is still in some of our hymns today. Our relationship with Jesus is like a marriage in some ways, just as powerful, just as intimate as a marriage, just as committed.
God is inviting us to our own wedding banquet. The marriage between Christ and his church. We’re invited to exchange vows. Christ vows to save us and live in us. We vow in response to trust him and follow him. The invitation we’ve received is to feel his life flow through our veins. To be his body in the world. To experience the truest love, now and forever. God invites us to that banquet. How can we say no to that?
Well, we say no, because we forget what the banquet is, or we just don’t believe it. We forget how amazing Christ’s promises really are. And because other things are so distracting: they seem so much more pressing, more urgent, more important. We’re so busy with our worries, our frustrations, our endless tasks and heartaches, and we feel overwhelmed. Alone. And we have way too much on our plate right now to worry about God.
And that is exactly what happens when we say no to God’s invitation. When we leave God at the altar, things are different. When we leave God at the altar, we become overwhelmed and terrified; it feels as though the city is burning around us. It’s not God’s punishment; it’s simply a consequence of not embracing God’s grace. It feels as though we are in the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And isn’t that where so many of us are right now? When I read the paper, or my Facebook feed, I feel like we are in the outer darkness. I see an awful lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth all around us! That’s where we are.
But we can turn back. We can always turn back. That’s the beautiful thing about God’s grace. It’s never exhausted. There is always more grace. Turn back, and go to the banquet. Turn back, and go to your wedding. How? Well, this is a good start. Gathering for worship is a very good start for turning back. In fact, in a very real way, gathering for worship is the beginning of the banquet. The meal we share together each week is the first course of that feast. Holy Communion is the cocktail hour of heaven.
So keep gathering for worship. And pray. Trust. Listen. Cling.
It’s not too late. It’s never too late to turn back. God is still waiting at the altar for us. Turn back, and go to the banquet. You will find there that you are never alone. You will find there courage and strength, healing and hope, to be a sign of hope for all those weeping and gnashing their teeth, and to be able to deal with the darkness that is all around us. The darkness that can never defeat the Light of the World.
You have been invited to the banquet. Come.