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Room For All

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Room for All, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday October 15, 2017. The Reading was Matthew 22:1-14.

Banquet invitations

Is there anyone who wouldn’t like to get invited to a banquet? To get one of those invitations where you know that there’s going to be lots of food, and often the best food, there’s going to be all the big names, all the important people, and if you get an invite, then you might get to meet them as well. And, best of all, you know that you don’t have to do the dishes that night – even better!

Now, it may not be a banquet that we get invited to, but maybe it might be a dinner party? They’re just as good, and you know that you’re still not going to do the dishes. Or maybe you’re the type of person that loves entertaining and sends out the invites for the dinner parties. Do you realise that when you hold a dinner party, there are actually two points of invite? The first is the initial invite, to say “I’m holding a dinner party, on Saturday. Please come at 6pm.” But the food isn’t on the table at 6pm. You wait for all the guests to arrive, and they might sit in the lounge room, having a chat, maybe a drink. And then, when everyone’s there, and the food is on the table, the host comes out and says “Dinner is served. Please come to the table.”

And this is much like how banquets were done in Jesus’ day. But there were some significant differences. Firstly, houses were quite small, so banquets were generally held outdoors. Because banquets were held outdoors, the day the banquet would be held would be flexible. They didn’ thave the five day forecasts that we have today, so if the weather wan’t good, the banquet would get delayed. So the initial invite would be “I’m having a banquet soon. Will you come?” And you would say yes or no. And based on the number of people who said yes, the host would then order the food. If there were lots of people coming, he would order more food, maybe have a whole cow instead of a sheep. And sometimes this food would take a while to arrive, so again, the date was flexible. When all of the food had arrived, the host would send word to say that the banquet was near. This let the guests know to be on the lookout for a fine day, as that might be the day of the banquet. When the weather was good, the host would decide that it was the day, and order the animal to be killed. With no fridges, the meat had to be killed and cooked that day. When it was all ready, he would send word to say that the banquet was ready.

So for the guests to then say that they couldn’t come was a huge insult to the host. It would be like the guests of your dinner party arriving, and having been settled in the lounge room suddenly announcing that they had to leave as soon as you had announced that dinner was ready, and leaving.

Am I Ok?

Some may say that the only thing worse than having someone leave your dinner party might be not getting invited to the dinner party at all. How incredibly rude! And if you discover that there was a dinner party on that you weren’t invited to, you might start all these questions that can be summed up in this question that we have all asked ourselves at some stage: Am I OK?

Am I OK? Is there something about me that puts people off? Is there something about me that means people don’t want to invite me to things, am I OK?

And It’s not just about dinner parties either. I suspect that at some stage, we have all questioned whether we are OK with God. Have we done enough? Have we said the right prayers, done the right things, ticked all the right boxes – are we OK and will we get into the Kingdom of God?

For the Jews, this Banquet as the kingdom of God ideas wasn’t a foreign concept. In Isaiah 25:6-9, Isaiah dreams of a huge banquet held at the end of time, where “the LORD of hosts” invites all the people, including from all the Gentile nations, and serves them the food of kings, where death will be at an end, where tears will be wiped away and it will be a glorious day of salvation. But, Isaiah’s vision didn’t really go down so well with a Jewish people who had always seen themselves as God’s chosen elect, to the exclusion of all others. After the Jewish exile in Babylon, when their descendants returned to Judea, their everyday language wasn’t Hebrew, but Aramaic. But the scriptures were read in the synagogues in Hebrew, and then translated into Aramaic. An Aramaic translation called the Targum was eventually published, and served as an aid to those who only knew Aramaic. This translation was expanded upon, and it reflects the theology of the translators. For this passage, The Targum reads:

Yahweh of hosts will make for all the peoples in this mountain a meal. And although they supposed it is an honor, it will be a shame for them and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.

Not exactly the banquet for all people. Similarly, there’s a book that was written in 2BC called the Book of Enoch, which also includes a banquet with the messiah, but also includes the angel of death, who will use his sword to destroy the Gentiles and have the banquet hall run with blood. Even in the Dead Sea Scrolls, they believed that it would only be pious Jews who observed the law who would be allowed to attend the Messiah’s banquet, being sat in order of their dignity.

The Jewish understanding in Jesus’ day had turned this beautiful, inclusive piece of scripture into one that enforced their pious, exclusive view of their faith. And this was reflected in their views and behaviours – they didn’t need to worry, their place at the banquet was set because they were Jews. They were God’s chosen people.

But we don’t have that certainty. We aren’t Jewish. So how do we answer that question of “Am I OK?” Am I Justified? Are you getting invited to this banquet?

God turns Anger into Grace

The Jewish people are those that were first invited. They had said yes. But, when the time came, they rejected the invitation. Why would they reject it? Why would they give up their salvation? Why would they pass up free food and drink and not having to do the dishes? Their responses show the answer: They’re too busy, they have things of the world to focus on, or they kill the messengers.

I’ve started going through some of the responses to our community survey that I announced a number of weeks ago now, and one of the questions I asked was “Why do you think people in general don’t attend church regularly?” At this stage, the most common response has been that they are too busy. There’s sport, there’s work, there’s all these other things on that mean they don’t come to church. There’s also a feeling that people in the church aren’t trustworthy – the church in general has lost the position of trust it once held through many different things – the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, Tele-evangelists who seem more intent on you sending through money than actually doing anything, preachers who seem to only ever tell you what you’ve done wrong and that you’re a bad person. Over time, this has meant many in society are switching off – or killing the messenger – and not listening to those who are actively following God’s call on their lives.

And it’s not something new either. Phillip Yancy, in his book “What’s so Amazing About Grace” tells this story:

“A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter two years old!-to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable-I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.

Yancy, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011.

Stories like this can make us angry. And it should! It sure made God angry. In this parable, the behaviour of those who were invited were so appalling that the King sent out his armies to totally destroy their towns. But that anger is turned into grace. The food is ready, so the slaves are sent out to bring everyone into the wedding banquet. Those who weren’t invited, those who weren’t on the A-list, who weren’t good enough, they were granted a place at this table.

All are welcome

We read that they gathered everyone whom they found, “both good and bad.” And this is a challenging reading for us. Here, we see Jesus saying that all are invited to the messiah’s banquet. Jesus is getting away from the Jewish thinking where only the Jews were invited, where only the pure were holy. Instead, Jesus is extending the invitation – there’s room for all at this table. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, or who you are, or who you’re not. Jesus invites you to sit with him at this table.

And this is a challenge for us. It’s easy for those who have been in the church to act like the Jews of Jesus’ day. To become complacent with our own state of salvation, believing that we’re saved, that we decide not to share the Good News with those we deem to be “not worthy”. When the single mum with three noisy kids walks through the door, how do we react? When the homeless man who hasn’t showered in a week and hasn’t been sober in a month sits down at the back of the hall, how do we react? When the refugee, the bikie, the criminal, the homosexual, the drug dealer, the prostitute, the politician, when anyone walks through that door, how do we react?

Will we be a church that acts like the Prostitute thought of church – and make people feel worse than they already do? Or will we be a church where people in dire situations flee towards us, knowing that they are fleeing towards Jesus. A place where all people, no matter what they’ve been through, will be welcome?

Be transformed by God’s Grace

I certainly hope that this will be a place where all people will be welcome. Where everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, will be welcome. There’s room enough at the table for all – and if not, then we’ll set another place before turning someone away.

But once the dinner has started, there are still certain things we must do. We can open the doors to everyone, but as we see in this parable, there are certain expectations. We hear of the man who wasn’t wearing his wedding clothes. And this is actually hard to hear. Why should the King be so angry at this man who 10 minutes beforehand didn’t know he was coming to a banquet? Why do his clothes matter?

I want to suggest to you that while the invitation to God’s banquet is open to all, there is an expectation that when we take up that invitation, that we will allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, to re-create us into a new being in Christ, and take off our old clothes of the world, and put on the new clothes of the spirit. We are to be in a constant state of transformation, with God constantly renewing us and our spirit. If we refuse to do so, then we risk being thrown out.

So take up God’s invitation. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. We are all invited to come to God’s table, to eat, and to be transformed.

As we reflect on this message, I invite you to reflect upon and sing these lovely lyrics from a song by Lorraine Wolf Nelson, called Room for all. If you would like to come and pray, the place of prayer is open for all, for whatever reason.

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