Sermon for Michaelmas 1 / Trinity 20
Isaiah 65:1-2 + Ephesians 5:15-21 + Matthew 22:1-14
You heard in the Gospel the parable Jesus told about the marriage feast. If the king sent His messengers to you to invite you to the marriage feast of His Son, would you come? If God the King sent His messengers—prophets, apostles, and pastors—to invite you into His kingdom, to feast with His Son, would you come? You have come. Here you are, baptized into the wedding hall, awaiting the arrival of the King on the Last Day.
Now, understand: the invitation of the King is not first and foremost to come to the Divine Service every Sunday, and this church building is not the wedding hall. But the wedding hall is the Christian Church, into which God invites all men through His appointed messengers, and the Divine Service is the place where God sustains the faith of those who have come, so that when the King comes to see the guests on the Last Day, He may find a Church full of people still clothed in the wedding garment of faith.
We have in this Gospel a story of God’s plan of salvation, and specifically, how many people are called into His Church, where He wants them all to come and remain, to feast with Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom, and yet how few are chosen to stay and enjoy the eternal feast with Him. It’s a sobering Gospel, with both a joy-filled encouragement and an urgent admonition: The worthy will feast with the King.
The king in the parable is God the Father, and His Son Jesus is the bridegroom whose marriage feast is at hand. This is the spiritual marriage between Christ and those who are grafted into Him by faith. Paul says in Eph. 5, just after the verses you heard this morning in the Epistle: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. Baptism, that washing of water by the word, gives a person entrance into the Church, and the marriage feast is the joyful day when Christ will return to bring His Church to be with Him in the new life of the new heavens and the new earth He will create.
Right up until that day, God invites people into His Church, the wedding hall. He has to invite them, because no one is born into it. People will talk that way: “I was born a Lutheran, Catholic, Christian, etc.” But that’s not true. Everyone descended from Adam and Eve is born a “bad person,” according to Scripture, born a sinner, born outside of God’s kingdom. Everyone is, by nature, a rebel living in rebellion against God, doomed to death and eternal destruction.
But since the beginning, God planned to save mankind out of that death and destruction. The parable Jesus told in the Gospel doesn’t talk about what the King’s Son has done to earn this marriage feast and to purchase the Bride out of slavery, but we can’t pass up the opportunity to mention it. The King’s Son became one of us, became a man, a sinless man. He joined Himself to our flesh forever so that He could die for our sins and became an everlasting source of righteousness for us poor sinners. As Paul said, “He gave Himself for the Church.”
With that in mind, think about how awesome a thing it is that God not only gave His Son for us when we were all sinful and weak, but then sent out messengers to call people to the banquet, to preach faith in Christ, to bid people to come into God’s kingdom.
The first invited were the Jews. They were invited since the time of Abraham. And prophets were sent to preach faith in the coming Christ. But for the most part, They were not willing to come. So the king sent other messengers: John the Baptist was sent; Jesus and His apostles were sent to announce the good news, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel! All things are ready! Come to the wedding!” But the Jews, as a whole, didn’t believe in Christ, didn’t want any part of this marriage feast. They made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them.
People rejected the invitation to be saved by faith in Christ for various reasons. Some people simply “made light of it.” Others had worldly concerns that interested them more than Christ. And still others were vicious, violent and full of hate, because an invitation to be saved through faith in Christ meant that they couldn’t save themselves, meant that God was calling them bad people, sinners, unworthy to go to heaven based on their own works, and that made them angry. So they killed the prophets. They killed John the Baptist. They killed Christ Himself. And then they whipped and imprisoned and killed any number of the apostles.
What did the King do when His gracious invitation was rejected and when His servants were mistreated and killed? When the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Those were strong words Jesus preached to the Jews during Holy Week. People in our day don’t often think of God as this God of vengeance that Jesus describes. But He is. “Vengeance is Mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Sin has earned God’s wrath and vengeance for every person, and God Himself has provided a shelter from wrath in the Person of His Son Jesus. But if people won’t have Jesus, if they won’t take shelter under the protection of His blood shed for our sins, then the King will come with vengeance against them. We see a portion of that vengeance poured out on the Jewish people 40 years after they crucified Jesus, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city laid waste.
But the King does not give up on the wedding or on the marriage feast. The King says, The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Now, what made the Jews “not worthy”? Was it their many sins against God and man? Were they just such awful people that God didn’t want them? No. What made them not worthy was their refusal to repent and trust in Christ for forgiveness. Christ is the destroyer of sin, who welcomes sinners into His presence and into God’s house. But where someone finds something more precious to himself than Christ, where someone has better things to do than to be with Christ, there all sins remain.
This matter of worthiness is important to understand. No one is worthy of heaven, or of Christ. God always and only invites the unworthy into His kingdom, as we see in the next words of the parable: The King commands His servants: 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! There was no distinction in who should be invited and who shouldn’t be invited. The King extends His invitation to all. Come to the wedding! Come to the feast! These people along the highways who were invited—that’s you and me and all the Jews and Gentiles since the time of the apostles. We’re the stragglers, like wild olive branches that have been grafted into the tree of Christ after the natural branches, after the Jews were cut off because of unbelief, as Paul describes in Romans 11. People who have led outwardly good lives and people who have led bad lives—the kingdom of heaven is full of them all, because the King is allowed to invite whomever He wishes.
What makes a person worthy to sit at the feast and to remain when the King finally comes? Only faith in Christ, faith that no one has the ability to conjure up in him or herself, but faith that is kindled by the message of the mercy of Jesus, by the promise of forgiveness for His sake, by the gracious invitation to enter God’s kingdom, to enter the One, Holy, Christian and Apostolic Church through Holy Baptism.
But understand: it is possible to be baptized at some point and call oneself a Christian without actually believing in Jesus on the Last Day, and that’s the last point that Jesus makes. On the Last Day the King Himself will come into the wedding hall to see the guests. Jesus doesn’t even mention here what the King will do with those outside the Church. He simply refers to everything outside the Church as “outer darkness.” The King will come into the wedding hall of the Church to begin the marriage feast that has no end. When He comes, He will see who is wearing the wedding garment and who is not.
The wedding garment was a special garment given to every guest at a wedding. In Jesus’ parable, the King finds a man who is not wearing it, and it does not go well for him: Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ What is the wedding garment that God gives through the Means of Grace? Again, it is faith in Christ. As Paul says to the Galatians, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Baptism happens once and gives us Christ for a garment. But faith in Christ—that’s not something that “happens.” That’s something that a person wears, like clothing. To trust in Christ is to wear Him around all the time. It’s that garment that God sees and counts a person worthy because of it—worthy to remain at the feast and spend eternity there. But many will be found on the Last Day who called themselves Christians, who entered the wedding hall of the Church, but who, at some point, walk away from faith, who take off Christ, even if they never officially leave the Christian Church.
And so Jesus brings us back once again to the reason why He insists that Christians come to church, to gather around the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments. You’ve been baptized. Wonderful! But between then and the Last Day God wishes to sustain your faith and keep you wearing Christ all your days, all the way up to the Last Day. It is God’s will to sustain your faith through Word and Sacrament, to continually forgive your sins, to keep you listening to Christ and, at times, to call you back to repentance and faith, so that when He comes He doesn’t find Christians in name only, but Christians who are eagerly waiting for His arrival, because the Bridegroom is their all in all, the Savior with whom they long to spend eternity.
Many are called, but few are chosen. Few are chosen, because few actually want the Jesus described in Holy Scripture for a Savior. May all of us here be counted among those few, those happy few—among those who do want Jesus for our Savior, among those who trust in Him who makes us worthy to feast with the King. Amen.