The article of election drives us back to the Word of invitation

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Sermon for Trinity 20

Isaiah 65:1-2  +  Ephesians 5:15-21  +  Matthew 22:1-14

Many are called, but few are chosen.  So Jesus closes the parable of the wedding banquet. The word “chosen” is the same as the word “elect.” We’re talking here about that difficult article of doctrine called “election” or “predestination” — that God, in eternity, before the foundations of the world were laid, graciously chose the individuals who would feast at the heavenly wedding banquet of His Son, Jesus Christ.  It’s a difficult teaching because our human reason wants more information than God reveals in Holy Scripture.

And since what God has revealed doesn’t satisfy our human reason, people throughout the centuries have fallen into grave errors trying to fill in the blanks.  They figure that, since God predestined some to salvation, He must have predestined the others to condemnation, like some horrible game of eenie, meenie, miney, mo.  They try to pry into the ‘hidden will’ of God and figure out why He chose some and not others, looking for some sort of goodness in the elect or some sort of special badness in the non-elect.  Either that, or they totally mess up the doctrine and end up, either in what we call carnal security or in despair.  In other words, they either figure, “Hey, I must be one of the elect.  I belong to a church! So I can sin as much as I want and I’ll still be in heaven.” Or they figure, “I can never be sure if I’m one of the elect, so it doesn’t matter that I believe in Jesus.  If I’m not among the elect, I still won’t be saved!”

In fact, recently a member told me about an interaction he had with a friend who gave this reason for not wanting to come to church (something like this):  God knows everything already.  He already knows who’s going to be in heaven and who’s going to be in hell.  So it doesn’t matter what I do, or if I go to church or not.

Doesn’t matter?!? Is that what Jesus teaches us about election in today’s Gospel? That God’s gracious wedding invitation doesn’t matter, or that it doesn’t matter how you respond to it?  On the contrary, Jesus both warns us and comforts us in this Gospel by putting an end to our idle speculation about what God hasn’t revealed to us about His will, and urges us to focus on what God has revealed to us about His gracious will.  And His gracious will is that those who are called to the wedding banquet should go!

Let’s look at the parable again. The King who gave a wedding feast for His Son is God.  The Son, the Bridegroom, is Christ.  The marriage is between Christ and the Bride, His holy Church—holy, not because her members have led sinless lives, but holy because Christ loved her “and gave Himself up for her that He might make her holy, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word,” as Paul says to the Ephesians.  The wedding feast is the kingdom of God, which came to earth when Christ came to the earth in humility and finds it fulfillment when He comes again in glory, as our catechism students are memorizing this week:

Thy kingdom come. What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.

Those who had been invited to the wedding feast ahead of time were the Jews.  The King had sent forth His servants, the prophets to tell them beforehand about this feast that was being prepared, the coming of the Messiah to make atonement for the sins of the world.  Then, when Christ finally came into the world, angels announced His birth, and Simeon sang his song, but the Jews didn’t come to the feast, didn’t pay any attention to Jesus.

The King sent out other servants,  John the Baptist, Christ Himself, and the Apostles.  And this was their commission: “Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”  Come to Me, Jesus said, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. But the Jews, for the most part, despised the Word of Christ.  They “made light” of the invitation.  They “went their ways,” one to his farm, that is, to his own works, trying to please God by them; another to his business, that is, to the worries and cares of this life, more interested into living in their sin than in repentance and faith in Christ.  Still others seized His servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them, as they did with John the Baptist, Christ Himself and the holy Apostles.

Now, was there something defective in the invitation to the Jews?  Was it that God wasn’t serious about His invitation?  Was it somehow God’s fault that they didn’t repent and believe in Christ?  Of course not!  God pleaded with them; His Spirit called out to them through God’s Word.  In the very next chapter of Matthew, Jesus mourns over Jerusalem: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

“You were not willing.”  There is where the fault lies. You didn’t want Jesus for a Savior.  You didn’t care.  You preferred your own works or your own sins to the invitation God sent out.

And see how forcefully the King responds: When the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.  See, those who claim that God is the one who, from eternity, predestined some people to condemnation run into a big problem here.  If God Himself determined that these people could never be saved, if God Himself made them so that they could never believe in His Son, then how does God become angry with them for doing what He supposedly predestined them to do?  How does God blame them for rejecting His invitation, if He was never serious about it in the first place?  No, God was serious, and His Holy Spirit was active in the Gospel call, working through it to create faith in them, too.  He wanted them to believe and be saved.  It was their fault that they didn’t want to come.

So Jesus’ warning rings out still today.  If this Gospel invitation is spoken within your hearing, you can know for certain that God intends for you to take it to heart, to repent of your sins and come into His kingdom through faith in Christ who paid for all sins with His holy, precious blood and His innocent sufferings and death. You don’t have to worry about God’s election in eternity.  Hear His Words now.  Listen to His call now.  He wants you to be saved.

You know that, because what did the King do next?  He said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests.  See, He wants His wedding hall to be filled with whomever His servants find with the Word.  His servants—ministers of the Gospel—still go forth and call everyone to repentance and faith in Christ.  They find “both bad and good” and call them in, because your place in the kingdom of God has nothing to do with how bad or good you are.  It’s about leaving your works behind entirely, hearing the preaching of the Gospel, and coming to Jesus for mercy, for forgiveness, and for eternal life.

But we still have the last portion of the parable to consider.  But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. At the end of time, when Jesus comes in glory, then the King Himself will come in to see the Church, no longer through pastors and preachers, but in Person.  And unlike pastors and preachers, the King can see the heart.  This “wedding garment” was a special garment that the rich host would provide for His guests.  They didn’t have to go out and spend $10,000 on a nice suit or dress.  The King provided it.  So to come into the wedding hall and not wear the wedding garment provided by the King was a great insult.

The wedding garment is nothing but Christ and His righteousness and the faith that puts Him on.  God provides faith through the Means of Grace.  He provides this garment already in Holy Baptism.  And part of His decree of election in eternity is that He will continue to provide the Word and Sacrament to keep His elect people in faith, to protect them from the devil, the world and the sinful flesh, to sustain them in their great weakness and to lift them up when they fall, and to strengthen and comfort them under the cross.  What great comfort for us in every trial, that not only has God chosen us in eternity, not only has He planned out the time and place when we would hear His Gospel and be baptized into His kingdom, but He has also provided everything necessary to keep us in His grace and to bring us at last to everlasting life.

But if someone comes into the Church and then stops listening to God’s Word, distances him or herself from the Sacrament, becomes lazy in prayer and stops being concerned with things like repentance and leading a holy life of faith toward God and love toward the neighbor, then that’s like taking off the wedding garment you were given.  That’s falling away from the faith, even though you’re still technically here within the visible Church.

What does the King do with such a one when He comes?  So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ So, does the Gospel invitation matter?  Of course it does!  Does Baptism and coming into the Church matter?  Of course it does!  Does the continual hearing of the Word and receiving of the Sacrament matter?  Of course it does!  Does prayer matter?  Of course it does!  Does daily repentance and fleeing in faith to Christ for mercy matter?  It matters more than anything in this world.

So this “faith thing” is a serious matter and the Holy Spirit’s always-sincere call in the Gospel is urgent, and is truly intended for all who hear it.  And in the midst of it all is the doctrine of election.  Its purpose isn’t to lead us either to idle speculation, or to carnal security or to despair.  Its purpose is to direct us constantly back to God’s invitation, right here, right now in the Gospel, so that we take it heart, trust in Christ, and never imagine for a moment that we’re safe in this world without God’s faithful and continual care.  That’s how you know you’re one of the elect, one of the chosen.  Once you get that, then the true purpose of the doctrine of election is fulfilled, to comfort the saints of God—believers in Christ—with the knowledge that, in eternity, God graciously and individually planned everything necessary for your eternal salvation, and that God has carried it out in time, and will continue to carry it out until the doors of the wedding hall are closed, and you are safely feasting at His heavenly wedding banquet forever. Amen.

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