The wedding invitation in law and Gospel
Sermon by Guest Preacher Pastor Jim Pietsch on 15 October 2017
Reading was Matthew 22: 1-14
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Thank you, Allister and people of St John’s, for the invitation to come and share God’s word among you this morning. Thank you for commemorating the Reformation. This year is the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, the posting of the 95 Theses.
This commemoration is wider. How did Luther and the reformers who followed reshape our Christian faith and reshape the church, and we are finding more and more, reshape the way people think, and thus reshape the direction of our Western society. I have been amazed at how widely the Reformation is being commemorated this year.
Today, I would like to preach on the Gospel of the Day in a way that shows how Luther reshaped the way we read and interpret Scripture. And as Luther always said, He had no intention of building a new faith or a new church, but always bringing people back to the Scripture, and to the faith when Scripture is truly heard and believed.
But reading Scripture can be a problem. There are some verses in the Bible, quite a few really, that I do not like to hear. Do you have the same reaction? There was one part of this Gospel reading that may have set you back.
We heard Jesus’ parable about a King, putting on a royal wedding feast for his Son. He has the authority to summon his aristocratic friends and vassals to come and attend his wedding feast. But they refuse to do so. And then we see an angry King: A despotic king. Wreaking his vengeance against his unworthy subjects. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
When we make the obvious application, that this King is a figure representing God, it gives us a picture of an angry vengeful God. We can go back and ask, why? Why was the King so angry? We hear how these subjects had responded to him, and how they had treated his servants.
Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
These are the people who would be considered entitled. They are the ones who would expect to be invited, who think that they have the right to attend any important function in the palace. But when the time comes, they decide that they have better things to do. So it is really a story about subjects who insult their king, and the king who then rises up in indignation against these rebellious servants, and punishes them for their insolence.
So we could say that the King has good reason to be angry, and to punish these citizens. But it still sounds harsh to our ears. At best it is a case of strict and severe justice. At worst it is a case of despotic vengeance.
If we apply the story to God, it is a story that illustrates God’s Law at work. God’s Law tells us that God has made us and we are his subjects. God’s Law tells us what he expects us to do. In the story he summons his subjects to attend the feast.
God’s Law exposes human sin. In the story the subjects decide that they have better things to do. They place their own will over the will of God. They tell the King that they are too busy.
God’s Law tells how God punishes those who defy him. In the story when the punishment comes it is swift and severe.
We hear the Law of God. We might not like it. But it comes out of the holiness of God, and the righteous demands of God, and it exposes our human sinfulness.
There is another completely different message in the Bible. In the story it is the second invitation to come to the wedding. The King sends his servants out with this message:
Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Here we meet a totally generous King, with an invitation that goes beyond all expectations. He invites the people off the street, people who by any standard have no entitlement, no right to expect an invitation. He does not even try to find the deserving poor. He says invite them all, the bad as well as the good.
In terms of Biblical understanding, this is what we call the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news about the love and grace of God. It is all about what God gives, not what people deserve.
If you apply this story to God, God is now kind and generous, inviting people unconditionally. His invitation is now not a summons that must be obeyed, but a genuine welcome and pure gift. It is the sort of message that is so encouraging so warm and affirming. It is the sort of message that we love to hear. It is the God that we want to know.
As Martin Luther grew up he learned about the angry God. He heard all about the Law of God. He heard what God demanded. And often that was dressed up in what the church also demanded. He felt under constant threat, mortal threat. He knew that he could not face God, and he was terrified of dying, when he would have to face God. He said later: I hated God.
You might know the story of how as a university student he was travelling through the forest and he was caught in a thunder storm that was so close and threatening he thought he was going to be killed. He prayed for safety, and he promised that he would become a monk. When he was spared, that is exactly what he did.
In terms of the story, he decided to give up all his business, his ambition to become a successful lawyer, and to devote himself to responding to the summons of God. He became a monk, and as a monk he tried to live a holy life according to all the commands of the monastery, and he tried to please God, fulfil God’s Law that way.
But this still did not work. He continued to experience terrifying guilt and fear. Because even his best and most conscientious efforts could never meet God’s holiness. God remained a terrifying power hanging over him. Jesus Christ was the judge whom he would have to confront. He heard them speaking about the grace of God. But it was always what he had to do to merit the grace of God. And he knew he could not do it. And that was not really grace at all.
This was Luther’s Deformation. He was crushed by the weight of God’s Law.
When Martin was growing he was taught the Scriptures. But it was always the Scripture as the church wanted to teach it. The church had its own vested interest in keeping people afraid and obedient through fear.
But as a monk for the first time in his life Luther had the opportunity to start reading the Scriptures for himself. And now he started to read a message which was so different to what he had been taught.
He read how God loves and accepts people even when they are disobedient and sinful. He read how God is just and righteous, but how God also makes people righteous out of his own goodness.
He read how Jesus came to be the Saviour of the people, and how he shared the life of the people who were in so much trouble.
He read how Jesus accepted the judgement against sin on himself, to free people from judgement.
He learned to see Jesus as his loving Saviour.
Luther read the Bible and he rediscovered the Gospel. Which changed his life around totally. He learned to love God rather than fear God. And he discovered that when he loved God, then he could serve God and obey God out of love, not from fear.
This was Luther’s Transformation. He was set free by the Gospel of Christ.
As Luther was appointed a lecturer at the Wittenberg University, and as a pastor to the Wittenberg people, he found that the people were living under the same oppressive understanding of Scripture, and how the church powers were exploiting them with fear. Not only were they compelled to earn their salvation out of fear, but then given the false promise of buying forgiveness through the sale of indulgences.
Luther confronted the sale of indulgences – that is the story of the 95 Theses. And over time confronted the whole teaching of earning your salvation.
Luther pointed people to the Gospel, where Scripture proclaimed that salvation was a free gift from God that you cannot earn and you cannot buy, but you can receive as a gift of grace from God.
He shared the invitation of the Gospel. It does not depend on who you are. Before God there is no such thing as entitlement. It is an invitation to all, and he had a special care for the ordinary people of his community. It does not depend on fulfilling a whole list of duties. It is living with a humility that faces your own sinfulness. It is a faith that trusts the gift of life that God offered to you.
This was Luther’s Reformation. He brought this message of God’s transforming Gospel to the church, and led the church in a way that was always response to the Gospel.
This gives us Luther’s way of understanding Scripture. When Luther read Scripture and taught Scripture, he taught that there were these two different messages in scripture – the Law and Gospel. The two messages were there in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Although the Gospel reaches its climax with the coming of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. There we see the total self-giving of God, and pure gift of grace as Jesus gives his own life, and the invitation which is an invitation to all people across the races of the world.
Luther learned to understand the difference between Law and Gospel. But he never did what we are tempted to do. He would never pick and choose. He never said that he would ignore God’s Law and just listen to the Gospel. Rather he learned to honour both messages, and put them into a right perspective.
He proclaimed that God is the holy God and that God has every right to place his commandments over us, and God’s law will always expose our sinfulness, even when we are doing our conscientious best. He proclaimed that God has the right to judge and to punish. That is all there in the truth of God’s Scripture.
He taught that whenever we think that we are entitled to God’s gifts because of who we are, because of our race or cultural background, even because of what church we belong to, then we lose God’s favour. Then we lose God’s favour, and earn his condemnation. And we may even be tempted to despise and persecute God’s messengers of truth.
But Luther called the work of God’s Law, God’s alien work. It is true, and it is important, but it does not describe what God is really like.
The Gospel on the other hand is God’s proper work. And the nature of God is love and grace and mercy.
He says that we must face the Law of God. But we will never succeed in perfect obedience. And so we must never place our faith in the Law of God as the way we can save ourselves. We never get to the feast that God provides because of our goodness or our own worth or entitlement.
Rather the Gospel proclaims the love and mercy of God. It shows us Jesus Christ as the Saviour. It teaches us to know God as a loving Father. It invites us to a faith where we live in the grace and mercy of God.
So how do we hear God’s Word in Scripture? We do not have the right to pick and choose to suit ourselves, even though we might like to do so. But we can put the messages of God into the right perspective. We must face the Law of God, all that God demands and expects of us.
In our story, God’s law exposes our desire to look after our own interests and business, and to ignore God’s invitation to come and devote ourselves to his work. It shows how we can lose our place in God’s kingdom, because we don’t want to trust and follow our king.
But a right perspective shows that God’s Gospel message always has the final word. God sends his invitation with no conditions to people in need. He gives and he invites, he invites people to come and share in his kingdom, to celebrate at his banquet.
Following the Reformation of Luther means taking God’s demands absolutely seriously. But trusting that God then gives much more in his grace than what he has demanded and what we have failed to deliver.
But there is still one more twist to this story. Did you notice the final part – the man who was welcomed into the feast, but who was then thrown out because he was not wearing the right wedding robes. What is that all about? How does that fit in to the message of Law and Gospel?
If we think of the invitation into the feast as the Gospel message, why should anyone then be thrown out? This is Jesus’ way of challenging us to think what it really means to be living in the grace of God. Again we have the temptation today to think that God is good, that we will take his grace, and that we will still go on doing what we want to do, and living as we want to live.
God in his grace gives us a life with Jesus Christ. We receive God’s forgiveness and life through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther loved the Biblical picture of being clothed with Christ, of having the love and the whole saving work of Christ wrapped around us.
And so the man who is not wearing the wedding gown is the person who wants the grace of God without Christ, without a true faith. It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’, which is no grace at all.
Grace is totally God’s gift. But God’s grace involved us totally in trusting Christ and following Christ and receiving from Christ. There is no other grace.
Luther preached on all the Gospel readings. But I could not find a recorded sermon on this text in my collection. So I have had to reconstruct what Luther might have said. His principles of Biblical interpretation are so strong and consistent that is not going to be too far from the mark.
The question of the parables is ‘where do you fit in’? Luther would have heard this parable, and thought of himself first of all as one entitled to God’s goodness. But he then realised that he had failed to respond, failed to satisfy his God. And he felt the full weight of God’s condemnation. He learned that he was one of those out on the street, and he heard the invitation that he had no right to hear. The very last recorded words of Luther, before he died, were:
We are beggars, that’s for sure.
The only way we receive the grace of God is as someone who deserves nothing, but receives everything from the mercy of God. That is our great joy and privilege.
And then the rest of his life was the challenge to live with that grace. And even then there was the temptation to ignore it, to take it for granted, to use it as if were his right.
Where are you in the parable? Do you think of your place in God’s kingdom, at his feast, as your right and entitlement? If so, you are placing yourself under God’s Law, and under God’s Law you will always fail.
Do you hear the invitation of God reaching to you as a beggar out on the streets? Not asking how good or bad you are, but showing how gracious God is?
And what do you do when you have heard the message of the Gospel? Do you take it for granted, and end up abusing the grace of God?
With Luther, let’s hear this parable as Christ’s challenge. A challenge to be transformed and reformed by the Gospel, and to be reformed repeatedly, by the gracious invitation to come and share in the feast of God’s kingdom.