Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Invitation

Luke 14.15-24
You’re in the middle of dinner, all sitting round in your flat – for once you’re all eating together! Someone’s filling you in on their view of a particular band, and you’re chatting happily about Astonbury. There’s a slight pause and someone says, ‘Tell you what – I’m looking forward to the Graduation Ball – meal, wine, music – can’t wait!” Everyone agrees. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Now what doesn’t happen, is that someone says in reply, “Well, I don’t know if you’ll be there actually! We can’t just assume we’re graduating! And to be honest, I’m not sure we’ll all bother to get tickets.”

But this is a leeetle bit like what happens here.

Jesus is at a dinner party. He's been talking about invitations, feasts, and the resurrection of the just. And “when one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, "Blessed are those who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God."” And rather than everyone chiming in in agreement (aw yeah – that’ll be awesome, I’m so looking forward to it!), Jesus responds with a story with a sting in the tale. Now, Jesus could provide wine for a wedding feast, but here he’s kind of spoiling the party. When someone looks forward to being in heaven, you’re supposed to agree with them. Especially here – everyone knew what the guy meant by the feast at the resurrection of the just. People have all sorts of ideas of heaven, but this is the real deal - they’d been told about it in Isaiah 25.6-9:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God;
we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
So this guy was joining the dots right – Jesus mentions a feast, and the resurrection: that’ll be this – we were told about it 600 years ago, and been looking forward to it ever since! We’ve got our invitations!

So Jesus tells this story, in 3 scenes.
Scene 1 – invitations go out (15-17)

Jesus replied: "A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many
guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had
been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.'
You’ve had the invitation: yes, we all know about God’s resurrection day feast! And Jesus says, ‘Come, it’s all ready.’ The Jewish people he was among wouldn’t have missed the point. They’d been waiting for this 600+ years. Here he is, dining with them – the promised one, announcing the feast is ready. The King is here. Accept him.

Scene 2: the refusals come in (18-20)

Now we're used to giving excuses - and I'm sure our tutors have heard a fair few from our classmates. These are some of the excuses people have given on their insurance claim forms: 'I started to slow down but the traffic was more stationary than I thought.' 'My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle.' 'I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment.' They’re not going to work, are they? They’re ridiculous. But what’s this? Not half as ridiculous as the excuses that come in to God’s invitation!
But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought
a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master.
- I’ve bought a field and must go and see it. Eh? You bought a field without seeing it? And what, is this some amazing magical moving field, that you can’t put off seeing it for one day? “I’ve just bought a house over the phone without seeing it, and I need to go check it’s really there.” Pull the other one.
- I’ve bought 5 pairs of oxen to plough with, and am going to go examine them. Riiiight. You’ve got a brand new combine harvester on ebay, and you want to see how it goes. Check it works. Cos again, clearly that can’t wait. If possible, this guy is even more rude than the first – he’s already on his way!
- I’ve got married, so I can’t come. He doesn’t even try to be polite & excuse himself. Or ask to bring his wife along!

These excuses are lame. They blatantly don’t want to go. “Sorry, I’m washing my hair.” “I’m feeding the cat.” They just prefer these things to going. They’re so pathetic they’re funny.

And yet they’re not funny. Because Jesus is talking here of people invited by God, to his feast, in the new creation following the resurrection of the just. Jesus is talking here of guests to the celebrations of God’s kingdom, when it finally comes in fully, and those guests are rejecting it! But if they’re not in God’s kingdom when it comes, then there’s only one thing for rebels against a King when he comes in power! It would be funny, but it’s tragic! It’s scary! People prefer other things and cry off with lame excuses.

What would bring people to reject God’s invitation to feast in fellowship with him? A field, a good job, 5 yoke of oxen, company shares, a new PS2, a wife, a boyfriend,… Other priorities. The old invite doesn’t seem quite so important now. It’s ok: I’m still invited – the invite’s in the drawer. I think… but for now I’ll get on with these things – the party’s a long way off yet. It’s ok, I’m still keeping that night free – I’ll still greet Jesus when he comes back. He wouldn’t want me to give up this relationship though – this job, this thing I like doing. And then suddenly, “It’s today? Already? Oh. Please give my apologies, I just can’t make it.”

Their excuses revealed their priorities, the true desires of their hearts. Other things had crept in. The invitation to God’s resurrection feast was a done deal – it was forgotten, issued long ago. It was presumed upon. Every now and then remembered: “Blessed is everyone who’ll eat at the feast in God’s kingdom!” And everyone was just assuming they’d be there.

Now Jesus didn’t say this into a vacuum. Luke tells us clearly what was going on. You can read it in what comes before – ch.13.22-14.6. In the run-up to this parable, we see other questions join our question of why would people reject God’s invitation like this? Who will enter through the narrow door? Why will people be shut out from the table of the kingdom of God? Why will those invited so long ago not taste the feast of God at the resurrection of the just? How could anyone get in that state? How can we avoid being like that?

The answer that is given each time is that it all hangs on what you make of Jesus. He’s the invitation, the King, the host. Would they gather to him for safety, like chicks run under the wings of a hen? No, they would not. Would they welcome him as Lord of the Sabbath, in charge of God’s law, as the Law-giver, the ruler himself? No, they would not – they’d rather keep in control of their own spirituality. They refuse him. They reject Jesus.

Now you might think, ‘Phew! I don’t ignore Jesus!’ But they’re just ordinary everyday things we reject him with. Put something else in front of treasuring Jesus – your pride in being good, your knowledge of the good news of the kingdom, your enjoyment of things, job prospects, a relationship, family, the desire for a relationship, friendships, money – put anything else in front of Jesus as what you cling to, seek after, and prize: and your heart screams out its pathetic excuses to God. Because Jesus is God’s invitation. To prefer anything to God’s invitation, to Jesus, is to bar to yourself the narrow door. All preferences must go.

Most people would want the life of God’s kingdom. It’s attractive. The feast sounds great. (The alternative doesn’t sound great – weeping, gnashing teeth, being shut out, never tasting the feast of blessing…) But the feast sounds great – the glory, the beauty, the new earth to play with, no corruption or war of guilt – remember Isaiah 25: no tears, only gladness, a huge party!

But the whole point is that it’s God’s feast. It’s being with Jesus. If we’re not welcoming Jesus, loving to submit to his rule, to trust in him like a chick runs to its mother when in danger, to let him define our ways of life and spirituality, then we are rejecting God’s invitation. In fact, it’s the fundamental of sin all over again: it’s wanting God for his gifts and not actually wanting him. It’s idolatry, and rebellion. It’s certainly not accepting the invitation. The good news of the Kingdom is God, and the invitation of the Kingdom is Jesus, to come to God.

Now how do we know that, check we’re not stretching the parable? The parable is the negative side: the danger of presuming to be ‘in’, without welcoming Jesus’ rule, prizing him. Then Jesus expands on it: [14.25-27 & 33]

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. ... those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
It’s all about Jesus. Cling to him, not anything else.
Look! He is infinitely precious. Not just as a bridge or a ticket to what we want. He is infinitely precious.

So scene 3: the refusals are accepted (21-24).

Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'
" 'Sir,' the servant said, 'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.'
"Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.' "

God is rightly severe with those who reject Jesus – his gracious invitation to be part of his kingdom welcomed as children, not punished rightly as the rebels we are against the King. Hearing the proclamation of the good news is not enough: cling to Jesus – he is the invitation in person, its goal and its joy.

For God is not only rightly severe with those who snub his invitation, but also so gracious that he invites all sorts. Jesus was being criticized for hanging out with a rough crowd. Not the sort of people who’d be invited to dinner with God. But the religious leaders, the ‘nice’ people, the people you’d want in your flat, the establishment, wouldn’t have him! And when people who trust in ‘knowing’ or being in on the invitation reject it – reject Jesus – he goes to the riffraff.

If you know that you should never be invited to sit down and eat a meal in the new creation, with a newly resurrected body, in the presence of a holy God – if you know that should never be you, then you are in a good place: embrace Jesus.

God’s generosity is not thwarted by people rejecting him. It spills out to others, so they can glorify him for his mercy. What an encouragement in telling our friends. And more, in telling people who weren’t the ‘privileged few’ to be our close friends – those different to us at uni, the weird ones, the workaholics, those from different cultures to us, the permanent drunks, the annoyingly intelligent,… Jesus is out in the roads and alleys of… the bars, the computer labs, the library, wanting you to tell people of him: the invitation to disgraceful rebels to have dinner with the King of Grace.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"”

That servant must've had beautiful feet! So go into the lost places and compel them to come in, because nothing can go wrong. Rejection doesn’t thwart God’s grace – it will overflow to many and the house will be filled.

“Won’t it be fantastic in heaven, when God’s kingdom comes in fully?”
“Yes,” says Jesus, “but make sure that you’ve accepted the invitation – that nothing comes before me.”

Cling to Jesus – everything else is worthless by comparison.
Beware of presuming you’re ok with God if other things take your attention and count for more with you than Jesus.
Go out and find people just as undeserving of God’s invitation as yourself, and tell them to come in, in Jesus. Because none of those who reject Jesus will taste God’s feast, but people will come in from the east and the west, from north and south, and sit down at the feast table in the kingdom of God.

[With thanks to Chris Hobbs for some illustrations & the 'scene' idea.]

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