One day last December, an invitation to a Christmas party arrived in our mailbox. Inside the card were a festive holiday greeting, a time and date, and a handwritten invitation saying, "We're having a party; hope you can come." We were delighted. There was only one problem: there was no signature, no RSVP number, and no return address on the envelope. We had no idea who had invited us to come to their Christmas party.
As we thought about what to do, we had this nightmarish thought: what if they made the same mistake on all the invitations they sent out? We imagined this poor couple preparing for a partysprucing up the house all week and working busily in the kitchen to make Christmas goodies. Finally, the big day comes, and they are eager for that appointed hour when guests will flood their home with holiday cheer. They wait and wait. Nobody comes. The time passes when even the latest "fashionably-late" guest would ever arrive. Imagine throwing a party and having nobody show up. What could be more awful?
The King's gracious invitation
Now imagine a king preparing a partynot just any party, but a wedding banquet for his own son. This is what Jesus says the kingdom of God is like. Nowhere do we see the revolutionary character of Jesus Christ more clearly than here at the Communion table. Who would ever dream that God's kingdom would be a partya gala to end all galasto which we are invited?
How strange Jesus' words must have sounded to the people back then. Nobody then thought of the kingdom of God as a party. In fact, John the Baptist thought of God's kingdom as a great military confrontation, a grinding holocaust in which the powers of light would obliterate the powers of darkness. The Pharisees saw the kingdom of God as a vast courtroom in which the good would be vindicated and the wicked obliterated by God. Even today, I hear people say things that betray a pharisaical understanding of the kingdom, as though the kingdom were a dreary courtroom instead of a joyous banquet. I hear people say, "I'm really trying hard to be a Christian." I hear people wondering if Aunt Susie lived a good enough life to make it to heaven.
Nowhere does Jesus ever speak of the kingdom as an awards banquet to which we must earn entrance by feats of moral heroism. Instead, he offers us a simple invitation to come and enjoy the feast and share in his joy. In fact, Mark's gospel says that when Jesus called the disciples, he called them "that they might be with him."
Today we gather around the table "that we might be with him" in Communion. All our theologies and doctrines come down to one thing: God has made possible our being with him through the cross. So remember the cost of the spread before you on this table as you come this morning. Our king spared no expense; he offers us his very finest.
The guests' lame excuses
Let's imagine what it must have been like there at the castle while they waited for the arrival of the guests.
We can smell well-marbled steaks cooking on the grill, as the aroma wafts into the festively decorated, cavernous hall where dinner will be served. A nervous cook grabs her final taste of a subtly spiced salad. The corks are all popped, and the wine is airing in a corner. A first-century equivalent of a string quartet is warming up on a chamber piece. Meanwhile, the servant of the king is decked out in his opulent regalia reserved for such high occasions as this. He strides through the center of the city, rapping his knuckles on selected doors, and calling out in pear-shaped tones, "My master, the king, requests the honor of your presence at the marriage feast of his son, the prince. Come now, for all is ready."
This little story vibrates with expectancy and hope until we read: "But they would not come."
The king, first of all, is incredulous. He's sure there must be some mistake, so he graciously sends other servants, saying, "Tell those who are invited, 'Behold, I have made ready my dinner. My oxen and my fat calves are killed. Everything is ready. Come to the marriage feast.'"
But the invited guests make light of the invitation. Luke records their excuses: One who is concerned with real estate has just purchased a field and must inspect it. Another is in the throes of a big energy deal: he has just purchased five teams of oxen. Still another has just gotten married and has certain unnamed responsibilities. But it's all the same; the king has been stood up. Adding injury to insult, others of these would-be guests kill the king's messengers. The king is furious andas the fate of these people in the parable reflectswhen you infuriate a king, there is hell to pay.
What gives me a chill as I read this story is that I find it easy for us to identify with these busy people who are so caught up in the affairs of daily life that they have no time to go to a party. I think it's too simplistic to call busyness the great sin that kept them out of the banquet. Their problem is not that their calendars are occupied. Their big problem is that their minds are preoccupied to the point that they refuse to tear themselves away from business as usual to experience the opportunity of a lifetimeto attend the marriage feast of a king. The demands of business, the cares of the home, the concerns of the family, the lure of powerthose things time and again cause us to say, "Well, Lord, maybe someday; but for now I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain check."
The warning we must hear in this parable is while there's nothing inherently evil about our errands and appointmentssprinting from meeting to meeting, shuttling children, keeping in shape, making deals and drawing plans, meeting friends, and all the restwe need to beware the golden handcuffs. Beware the almost imperceptible shift that your life takes when you stop running it and it starts running you. Beware the way busyness puts a stranglehold on your interior life. Beware those perilous days through which you sprint out of touch with all except the nuts-and-bolts dimensions of life, because nothing fails quite so totally as success without God.
There is no life in this world more miserable than the life so caught up in itself that there is no room for God to break in. Look at the irony of the story: These people are so caught up in their private struggle for fulfillment in life, that when the answer to that struggle comes knocking on their door, they're unable to recognize it. One fellow put a piece of dirt ahead of the salvation of his soul. Another puts cattle ahead of the invitation; still another his honeymoon. So it goes even today.
Many more are called
The king is not about to let these party poopers thwart his desire to have a feast. He turns to his servants and commands them to invite anyone who will accept the invitation, including the lame, the blind, the halt, and the hungry. They would be thrilled at the opportunity to attend the banquet of a king! In the next scene we see waves of beggars are skittering as fast as they can up the steps of the castle into the banquet of the king. We see blind people groping ravenously for hors d'oeuvres. The invitation has gone out to everyoneto the good and the bad.
Today, as servants of the king, our mission in the world is to invite all people to this banquet. We are called to preach the gospel to every creaturethe good, the bad, and the ugly. All are invited to join here in the feast of our King.
The guests feel good. They look around, and they say, "We made it! We're in! Isn't this wonderful!" But then the story takes a weird twist. Because many of these new invitees lack the sartorial splendor appropriate for a king's wedding feast, the king is handing out gowns at the door for people to wear over their rags. In ancient times it was common that a special robe would be given to guests of the king as they entered into his banquet. It is the same way in our lives: God invites into his banquet people of every stripe and ilk in the world, and he clothes them in righteousness.
Not all are chosen
Verse 11 is a real shocker. When the king comes in to look at his guests, he sees one man without a wedding garment. The king has the man bound and cast out of the castle, "for many are called, but few are chosen."
What is this wedding garment, and how do we lay our hands on one? It says here that both good and bad wear it, so obviously it is not based on the character of the wearer. Clothing is something visible and external. The external tokenthe wedding garmentis the imputed righteousness that comes to us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. Our own righteousness "is as filthy rags," says Isaiah, so we must "put on the Lord Jesus" (Romans 13:14). We must put on the robe of Christ's righteousness before we come and enter into this banquet this morning.
Have you put on the robe of Christ's righteousness? Have you accepted the Cross of Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient sacrifice for all the sins you have ever committed? Are you able to say with the prophet Isaiah, "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with his robe of righteousness, as the bridegroom decks himself with garland and as the bride adorns herself with jewels"?
Let Christ drape you in his righteousness. He wove that garment himself as he hung dying on the cross. Now this morning he offers you his robe of righteousness that you might wear it and become spotless and clean and holy and acceptable in his eyes. We are bums at a banquet. Yet we're welcome here because of the eternal graciousness of our kingly Host.
Won't you slip into that robe and meet me at the Feast?