Rows of empty chairs have been one of the saddest, most recurring sights over the past six months, haven’t they? Coronavirus restrictions have forced most professional sports fixtures to be played behind closed doors. Row upon row of empty seats have been seen at football fixtures, cricket test matches and, most recently, at the French Open tennis tournament.
As a consequence, sporting events have lost a lot of their atmosphere as well as a major source of income. Pubs, restaurants, cinemas and churches have also had to leave many of their seats empty, haven’t they, to maintain social distancing?
Empty seats were also the problem facing the king in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning. A king who had “prepared a great wedding banquet for his son”, yet discovers that none of his original invited guests could be bothered to come. They all declined his generous invitation.
Like so many managers of sports clubs and hospitality venues today, the King finds he has unfilled seats for his great event. He has room for more people to experience an amazing banquet, a right royal feast, a party to remember. He was no doubt sad to think that some of his subjects might miss out on such a great occasion. Sad to think that his delicious food might go to waste.
This is an especially poignant problem when we appreciate that the King in this parable represents God – and when we appreciate that his wedding banquet symbolises God’s Kingdom. To miss out on the King’s banquet means missing out on all the benefits of being a Christian – the benefits of being a citizen of Heaven, a child of God, forgiven forever and destined for glory. For any human being to miss out on such things is truly tragic.
As we look at this parable this morning, I want us to look at the reasons why so many foolishly forsake the king’s invitation – and learn how people can avoid making the same mistake today.
Three negative reactions: Apathy, Ambition and Aggression! (v.1-7)
At the outset, it seems that the king in our parable experiences at least three different types of rejection to his wedding invitation – three negative reactions that we may also encounter today, as we seek to share our Christian faith with our family, friends or colleagues. Three negative reactions I’ve called apathy, ambition and aggression.
The first negative response the king receives is apathy. Verse 5 tells us that some subjects “paid no attention” to the King’s generous invitation. These people weren’t interested in what the King had to offer and couldn’t even be bothered to listen to what his servants had to say.
I personally find it so sad when people display a similar attitude to Christianity today. I expect we have all had times when we have told someone we go to Church and seen their eyes glaze over. Or when we’ve tried to explain to a neighbour what our Christian faith is, and heard them reply that “it’s just not my cup of tea”.
Whenever we encounter that type of apathy, can I encourage us to persevere and pray? Persevere in showing the value of Christian faith by our words and our lives. And keep praying too – pray that God’s Holy Spirit will open people’s minds to appreciate the truth of the Gospel, and will soften their hearts to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
Returning to our passage, it seems that people’s personal ambition was also more attractive than the king’s invitation. They preferred to go off to their field or their business than attend the wedding feast (v.5). Again, sadly, this is another common reaction to the Gospel today. Many people still claim to be “too busy” to seriously consider the claims of Christ. Now work is a good thing, of course, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong in seeking to successful at what we do. But ambition can be dangerous if people put their career ahead of a relationship with Christ. It is tragic if people make their ambition to be wealthy, successful and well-respected a higher priority than knowing God.
Such people need to be gently reminded that retirement and redundancy both put an end to working life. They need to be reminded that their career and their cash can’t be taken beyond the grave. Only a relationship with the Lord of the universe can truly ‘set us up’ for eternity. Following Christ is the only sensible long-term investment.
In our parable, after apathy and ambition comes aggression. Verse 6 tells us that some of the king’s servants are “ill-treated” and “killed”. Sadly this isn’t just fiction either. Throughout history God’s people have always faced opposition and aggression from some quarters. Think of Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, or New Testament apostles like Paul, who all faced physical and verbal abuse because they proclaimed God’s word to the world.
Today, in places like Iran, North Korea or Sudan, Christian faith can still cost you your life. Even in this country, aggressive opposition to Christianity is on the increase. The so-called new atheists denounce us as deluded, whilst aggressive secularists are working hard to drive any Christian influence out of public life. Faithful servants of King Jesus have always faced aggression from a hostile world, and we must expect more to come in future.
Confronted with such aggression, the King’s patience runs out and in verse 7 of the parable he punishes those subjects who have rebelled against him. He sends his army to “destroy” them and their city – much as the Roman army did indeed come and destroy the city of Jerusalem in 70AD. That verse is a sober reminder that God will not tolerate hostility towards himself and his people indefinitely. A day of judgement will one day come upon all the forces of evil.
2. An open invitation! (v.8-10)
Despite the apathy, ambition and aggression of his rebellious subjects, the king in our parable doesn’t abandon his wedding banquet altogether. The king doesn’t throw in the towel and cancel his son’s marriage feast. Quite the opposite.
Rather than throwing in the towel, the king throws open the doors of his palace! In an amazing act of generosity and grace, the king tells his servants in verse 9 to invite “anyone you find” to the banquet. They are to search the streets and invite anyone they meet to the wonderful feast. It’s the epitome of an open invitation, an indiscriminate offer!
The great news is that God has exactly the same generous attitude as this king. God wants his Kingdom to be full, and calls everyone to come to him, whoever they are and whatever their past.
When Jesus first spoke this parable its message would have been particularly shocking. He was standing in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, the historic home of God’s chosen people, the Jews. And the Jewish religious elite, the chief priests and Pharisees, were listening to every word he said. And he was telling them was that they weren’t the only ones invited to God’s Kingdom. Socially respectable religious Jews weren’t the only type of people God had called to himself. Sinful Jews and even unclean Gentiles were invited too. Even prostitutes and pagans could come to God through Christ!
In short, everyone in society was invited to the heavenly banquet, and they still are today. God’s grace means those who don’t deserve his favour are still offered it. God’s grace means that a seat at his heavenly table continues to be offered to all.
This would have been a shocking, surprising message for the Jewish leaders of Jesus day to grasp. It’s still shocking today. So shocking that even Christians can be tempted to qualify or constrain God’s gracious invitation to the world. We can be tempted to share the Gospel with only those people we know personally, or only with people like us, or only with people we respect or admire. Yet in this parable Jesus invites everyone to enter God’s Kingdom, and we must do likewise.
It follows from this that we should work hard here at St. John’s to ensure we’re reaching out to everyone in our community with the love of God. We should be thinking creatively and imaginatively about ways we can better engage in mission and ministry amongst every demographic group in Ashton and Mouldsworth.
When this building is complete and coronavirus is finally over, this place will be a great base for mission and a wonderful venue to welcome people to. In a few years time we’ll know if our strategy is working if our congregation gets more diverse. We’ll know if we’ve really been sharing Gospel with everyone if we see our congregation becoming more representative of our parish as a whole. It will be a great sign of success if we see our church fellowship grow in size and be better balanced between young and old, male and female, of working age and retired. Please join with me in praying for this goal!
3. Wear clean clothes to the wedding! (v.11-14)
Before we finish this morning, its worth noticing the unexpected ending of our parable. In verse 12 we read that a man had arrived at the wedding feast wearing the wrong clothes. Rather than wearing his best suit and a crisp white shirt, he was under dressed. Maybe wearing a scruffy T-shirt and jeans, or a mud splattered rugby shirt, or oily overalls?! Whatever he was wearing, it wasn’t right! So in verse 13 the King has the man “tied up hand and foot, and thrown outside, into the darkness”.
Like this man who arrived at the royal wedding reception in inappropriate clothes, many people think that they will be able to turn up at “the pearly gates” of Heaven one day and able to get in on their own terms, not on God’s terms. This will be another tragedy, because it will reveal that their spiritual lives have been built on false foundations, not faith in Christ.
In my personal Bible reading at the moment I’m reading the book of Revelation (it seems an appropriate book for the dramatic and demanding times we are living under!). And Revelation chapter 7 contains a wonderful description of Heaven, and wonderful vision of the real wedding banquet that every Christian can look forward to in the world to come.
That vision describes a countless multitude of people, of every nation, tribe and language, who are rejoicing in the presence of God. Like the Wedding Hall in the parable, Heaven will be packed with a people from every walk of life. God’s chosen people from every corner of the earth, forgiven forever. And what will unite them, what will distinguish them, is faith in Christ. As that chapter puts it, they are those who “have washed their clothes in the blood of the Lamb”. They will all be people (like you and me I hope) who have put their trust and hope in the crucified and Risen Christ – the Son of our great King!
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