I don’t know if you’ve managed to spend much time outside this week. But if you have, well, it’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?! First decent bit of spring sunshine all year, and it’s like we’ve skipped straight to mid-summer! (We’ll leave aside last night’s fireworks for the time being.) It’s such a relief, though, isn’t it, to be able to enjoy the outside at last.
I love that saying of Robin Williams about spring. Do you know the one? Spring, he said, is nature’s way of throwing a party.
I think there’s something in that, isn’t there? Nature’s way of throwing a party.
That said, there’s no doubt where the real party action is to be found this year. It’s not out with the flowers. It is of course at Windsor Castle in 4 weeks time. The wedding reception of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. That is the one you want to be at, isn’t it? In fact this would probably be as good a time as any to share with you the news that Libby and I have actually been invited to Harry and Meghan’s wedding. It would be… if there were any such news to share. Sadly, we’re still waiting for that invitation to flutter through the letterbox. We may just have to dream.
But it does sound a pretty amazing prospect.
• I mean to start with, there’s the host. It’s the Queen herself who’s throwing this party. That’s going to make it a bit of an occasion from the word go
• Then there’ll be the food. I don’t know who’s handling the catering, but I’m guessing it’s not the Debenhams café evening shift. More likely a Jamie Oliver or someone of that ilk, you’d think.
• And then there’s the scale of the thing. 800 guests. Two hundred members of the household cavalry for ceremonial purposes. And another couple of thousand members of the public, I think it is, who’ll be invited to the pre-party bash.
And on it goes. It certainly does sound like one not to be missed. I’m guessing even those who by default tend to steer clear of big social occasions wouldn’t let an occasion like this pass them by.
So maybe it’s not surprising that when Jesus of Nazareth reached for images to capture the joy God wants people like you and me to share in, he came up more than once with the picture of the big party at a royal wedding.
And I wonder if it it might be worth listening to what he had to say. Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were – Jesus and the parable of the wedding feast. You’ll find the text inside your sheets there – and X is going to read it for us.
I don’t know what thoughts came into your mind as you read that. There may have been a few surprises. Some rather intriguing bits. Maybe even the odd sting in the tail. And I’m going to suggest that before we get to the baptisms themselves, we ponder some of the features of that little story together.
As Jesus tells this story, this parable, there do seem to be a few features of this party which are particularly intriguing.
One is that that the party is lavish, but it does come at a cost.
It’s lavish. Well that much is obvious given the context. Verse number 2 there:
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.’
Well there it is. This party is laid on by the king. It’s for the king’s son. Obviously it’s going to be not too shabby. But in case we’re in any doubt, look at the word used to describe it. It’s a ‘banquet’. This isn’t some bring your own do, with a few nibbles from Aldi and some 3 for the price of 2 Merlot from the local Bargain Booze. It’s not that kind of do. It’s a feast! This will be one to remember. Nobody’s going home hungry tonight!
But lavish banquets don’t just materialise out of thin air. There’s a cost to laying these things on. We’re not given a figure. But just as an indication, check out verse number 4 and all those oxen and fattened cattle that are having to be slaughtered. This king is taking a serious hit. His position in the Forbes Rich list is going to drop through the floor after this party.
But it’s interesting that Jesus should have painted a picture like this. Because just a few days after he spoke these words, something huge was going to happen. God himself was going to throw a party. He was going to – in a sense – throw open the doors of heaven itself in a new way. God was about to make possible an experience of greater joy, more long-lasting contentment than had ever been known before. The joy of sharing in his heaven with him forever. That may not sound all that promising. It might sound like it has the potential to get a bit tedious. But no. Things are only tedious if there’s something else you’d rather be doing. And Jesus is at pains to point out that this lasting experience of joy in God’s presence will be so rich, so intense, so gripping, so utterly fulfilling that the thought ‘this is getting dull, I’d rather be somewhere else, where’s my phone?’ would never even cross your mind.
As Jesus tells this story, the doors to the kingdom of heaven itself are about to be thrown open.
But at what cost? The price to be paid to secure entry would far exceed the slaughter of cattle. It would require the death of Jesus himself. That was the price. Talk about taking a hit. I mean, this is God himself allowing his one and only son to be slaughtered so that the party of heaven could go on!
There’s a reason why I chose that title: ‘the party to die for’.
But why is this? Why does such a price need to be paid? Well because for you or me to come into the presence of God as we are would mean certain death for us. That’s what happens when the white-hot perfection of God encounters the moral and spiritual ‘dubiousness’ (shall we say) of someone like me or you. There’s no way we could enter his presence in and of ourselves. Death is inevitable.
But just a few days later Jesus would willingly go to an undeserved death, in order to draw that sting – as it were – away from us and onto himself. So that we could indeed enter the presence of God
Four weeks ago an Islamic State gunman went on a rampage in Southern France. He killed three, then took hostage a supermarket cashier called Julie. His demand was for the release of a suspect in the Paris attacks 3 years ago. There’s no way that release was going to happen, so clearly Julie was doomed to be killed. But at that point one man, Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, stepped up.
There he is. Beltrame made an extraordinary proposal. He volunteered to swap places with Julie, and the gunman accepted. And so when things went south, it was he who was shot dead, not Julie. Julie said afterwards: ‘He gave his life for me. He was killed so that I could have life’.
What could have provoked such a sacrifice? Well it’s impossible to know for sure. But it turns out that a few years ago Beltrame had become a Christian, a follower of Jesus. So of course he’d seen what it was for one to give his life for others. Maybe then it felt natural to him to do likewise. To take the hit himself so that another could enjoy life.
In any case, that is the kingdom of heaven. The party is lavish – but it does come at a cost.
But there’s more here in this parable. Do you notice, second, how the invitation is out – but it does need a reply.
Let’s have a look at Harry and Meghan’s invitation.
There it is. Very nice. Apparently they were printed with American ink on English card, using a process called die-stamping. They were burnished to bring out the shine. Then gilded around the edge. I’m sure they could have just set up a facebook event, and people would still come. But it’s nice to have some frills sometimes I guess, isn’t it?
In the culture of Jesus’ day, an invitation came in two stages.
First of all there was a kind of ‘save the date’ thing. ‘It’s coming soon’. And then when the party ready to get started, you got a verbal invitation: ‘it’s happening - come now’.
And it’s the second of those we see in verse number 3. Servants are despatched to tell the guests ‘to come’. Again, end of verse 4: ‘Come to the banquet’.
Well, what a wonderful offer! What a privilege to be invited to the king’s banquet. This is the big event. Presumably anyone with an ounce of sense would drop what they’re doing, get cleaned up and head straight to the palace?
You might think so. But no. End of verse number 3: ‘they refused to come’. Verse number 5: ‘they paid no attention’.
That’s quite shocking, isn’t it? But actually there are many people today who hear the invitation to join in with God’s party in heaven, as I suppose we’re all hearing it today – and yet who drag their feet. Or even get downright hostile.
And both are here, aren’t there?
• There are those who hold back because of competing priorities. Verse number 5: ‘one went off to his field, another to his business’. I’ve often come across people who just feel too busy to give the offer of Jesus the time of day. ‘Look, I’ve got exams to prepare for; I can’t think about this now. Work in the office is crazy right now; I’m just trying to get through the days. I’ve got a wedding to plan; a house purchase to negotiate; a baby to look after; a new employer to impress. Whatever it is. I haven’t got time or the mental space to think about these big questions of God and heaven and Jesus right now. There are other bigger priorities.
• And then there are those who hold back because of determined rebellion. Verse 6: ‘the rest seized the king’s servants; ill-treated and killed them’. That’s the other approach to the Christian faith, I suppose. Again, I can think of a number in this camp. Overtly opposed to Christian faith. Maybe it’s a cynicism about religion generally, or a working hypothesis that science will one day make faith unnecessary, or something like that. Most likely it’s the refusal to hand over the keys to my life to someone else in a way that would limit my freedom. But whatever it is, the hostility is clear: I’m not having any of that in my life.
And so the offer of heaven, and all the joy of knowing my creator, enjoying him and all the good things he has to offer – is pushed away. It’s an interesting choice, though, isn’t it? Can there really be a priority greater than investigating where we stand with God? Is it really wise to declare war on the one who holds our existence in his hands?
But there’s one final feature to this party Jesus is describing that stands out. It’s that entry is open to all – but does require a change of clothes.
25 years ago, when I proposed to Libby, I wasn’t sure enough of myself to risk buying her a ring ahead of time. I mean she has an aesthetic sense that I can only dream of. So we made a daytrip of it, and went to Piccadilly in London to choose the ring together.
It was a wonderful autumn day. We chose the ring, and it was as though violins were playing sweetly in the background.
We had a couple of hours while the jeweller sized the ring. So we strolled outside in Berkeley Square. I may even have serenaded her and stolen a quick kiss behind a bush. The violins were soaring now.
We came out and there – right there across the road was one of the royal family, Princess Diana I think. She was turning on the Piccadilly Christmas lights. On they came. And the violins – well, it was a whole orchestra now.
Out of the corner of my eye I spied a building with a familiar name. The Ritz Hotel. I did a quick mental calculation of where I was with my overdraft limit, and said: ‘Come on, I said, let’s really make this a day to remember: let’s have tea at the Ritz.’ In we went. ‘Tea for two please I said, smiling at my wife like the cat that got the cream.’ The violins were getting ready for the great finale now.’
‘Er, no I don’t think so sir.’ Said the man. ‘Not dressed like that’. The violins stopped instantly. And I was momentarily flummoxed. It was ok. We decided to go and slum it at Fortnums instead down the road.
But you see what was going on. There was a dress code at the Ritz. There was a dignity about the place. You couldn’t just waltz in wearing ripped jeans and trainers. It was a jacket and tie job. If you didn’t have that, you were out in the street.
Look back at the story of Jesus. Do you notice how open the invitation become? In the end, anybody can go to this party.
10 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.
Doesn’t matter who they are, or where they come from or what sort of a mess their lives are, anyone can come. And that’s how it is with the invitation to follow Jesus into heaven. It’s for anyone. Anyone at all. Even you. Even me. But see what happens next. Verse number 11.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
And so the king has hum thrown out.
But you see the point. Here is someone who was prepared to come to the party but only on his own terms. Happy to accept the king’s invitation, but not to conform to the king’s standards.
And once again, I suppose, we’re being given a picture of a dangerous response to God. Not competing priorities this time, not downright hostility either. Just a controlling attitude. I’ll come but I’m not going to change. The way I live, the way I conduct my relationships, the way I use my time, the way I spend my money. I’m going to hold on to that. I won’t have that taken away from me. I’ll come to the party, but only on my own terms.
But God won’t have that. And if that’s where we stay, we just might find we’ll miss out.
This is the party to die for. Jesus died to make the invitation possible. But it’s so wonderful, it really is worth you and me giving everything to be part of it.
We’ve heard this morning from 7 people who’ve done that. Who’ve given their lives over to Jesus as a response to his invitation. As they go down into the water, it’s a symbolic act of death! They’re dying to who they once were, in order that they might live to God.
And my prayer is that others here might want to follow in their footsteps.