22 Jesus also told them other parables. He said, 2 “The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. 3 When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify those who were invited. But they all refused to come!
4 “So he sent other servants to tell them, ‘The feast has been prepared. The bulls and fattened cattle have been killed, and everything is ready. Come to the banquet!’ 5 But the guests he had invited ignored them and went their own way, one to his farm, another to his business. 6 Others seized his messengers and insulted them and killed them.
7 “The king was furious, and he sent out his army to destroy the murderers and burn their town. 8 And he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honor. 9 Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.’ 10 So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to meet the guests, he noticed a man who wasn’t wearing the proper clothes for a wedding. 12 ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how is it that you are here without wedding clothes?’ But the man had no reply. 13 Then the king said to his aides, ‘Bind his hands and feet and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
It was the early 90s, and I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I was heavily involved in the music programs of the school. I played trumpet in the concert and jazz bands, and baritone in the marching band. I started out singing with the concert choir, and was asked to join a smaller group called the Chamber Singers that sang some more difficult arrangements. I also played football, briefly, and had been involved in soccer for years prior to entering high school. So, even by my sophomore or junior year I was pretty used to competition. I knew that I had to practice, if I wanted to hone my skills and abilities. I knew that I had to show up to class and extra-curricular meetings if I wanted to stay part of the group. And I knew that, when the big game or concert day arrived, I had to show up prepared mentally and physically, if I wanted to do my best.
So there was absolutely no excuse for what happened that day. I had been to countless concerts already, and knew exactly what I needed to bring with me on the road. Our school choirs were heading to the state competition, which was a big deal for us. We packed up our gear, loaded the buses, and headed out of town. I have always had a tendency to wait until the very last minute to pack, though. Sarah can tell you I still typically pack in the fifteen or so minutes before we leave on a trip, unless I am going overseas. And this day was no exception. I had quickly thrown all my clothes into a garment bag, zipped it up, and rushed out the door in a hurry. I didn’t take time to double-check and make sure that I had everything I needed.
When we arrived at the competition, our teachers sent the guys to go get dressed. I was joking around with my friends, not paying much attention as I put on my tuxedo, until I got near the end of the process. I had my jacket and pants, my belt, my cummerbund, and my tie. I even remembered a white undershirt, which is something, considering I forgot that even on my wedding day. I looked in the mirror to make sure my tie was straight and my hair was perfectly spiked down the part (this was the 90’s folks), and then reached for my socks and shoes. And that’s when I realized that I should have taken more time to pack.
In all the hustle and bustle and procrastination, I had forgotten to pack a pair of black socks. All I had were my very white tube socks I had worn on the bus. Now, this might not ordinarily be a problem. But I had two things going against me that are peculiar to choir competitions. One, my tuxedo was a cheap, untailored, generic-sized uniform intended for long use by as many students as possible. It fit me, but only sort-of. The legs were a little short and exposed my socks. This wouldn’t be a big deal, I suppose, since we sing in a big group and sort of blend together. Except that, secondly, choirs in competition stand on risers on a stage, which effectively places our legs and feet at eye level, and we made something of a show out of walking on and off those risers.
I knew I was in trouble. There was no way I could hide my mistake. I asked every guy in the choir if they had an extra pair of socks. But let’s face it; this was a bunch of teenagers. We were lucky someone hadn’t forgotten their pants. Nobody brought extra anything. I didn’t have a choice other than to either wear my white tube socks, with a black tux, or go without them. I can still remember how embarrassed I was to walk on stage, with my white ankles advertising to the crowd that I was not prepared. I hadn’t dressed properly for the occasion. And, as a result, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
II. We all show up unprepared, from time to time
Your experiences might not be as humiliating as my own (and believe me, this is just one of many), but I would venture to guess that most of us here have – at one time or another – shown up to something unprepared. Maybe you didn’t study for the big test, or you were out of shape for the athletic competition, or you were either under or overdressed for the occasion. Whatever it is, I’m guessing you have experienced that uncomfortable feeling of knowing that you are out of place, and it’s because you neglected to prepare properly. Sometimes being unprepared is just really awkward. But other times it can have a serious penalty. For example, my short time in the military taught me that showing up unprepared for an inspection or muster can have disastrous consequences for the unprepared person and their entire platoon.
For the last few weeks, we have been taking a look at some of Jesus’ parables; stories that he used to illustrate what he was teaching his followers. In several of the parables we haven’t covered, Jesus spoke about the importance of being prepared, particularly about the coming judgment. But he also talked about being prepared as it relates to the kingdom of God.
III. How can we enter the kingdom of God?
So far, we have seen that Jesus used a number of parables to describe the reality of the kingdom. He told his disciples what signs to look for, so they could identify the kingdom, even as they wait for it to fully arrive. He told them how the kingdom is slowly permeating every part of the world, in every time and place, until there will be nothing left that isn’t touched by it. And then he used parables to describe how valuable the kingdom is; so valuable, in fact, that it is worth trading everything we have to obtain. So, we know that the kingdom has come, but not yet fully, and is spreading throughout the world. We know the signs to look for, so we can recognize God’s kingdom activity. And we recognize that the kingdom is of the very highest value, worth giving up everything else to pursue. This leaves us with one final question: How do we enter this kingdom? Jesus answered this unasked question with another parable in Matthew 22.
[Read Matthew 22:1-14]
On the surface, this story illustrates the history of the nation of Israel. The king represents God the Father, who called Israel out of Egypt and named them as his chosen people. They were set apart from the other nations and intended to be a light to the world that demonstrated the goodness and greatness of God. They were given a special place in the Father’s household, and even though they were unfaithful over and over again, God fulfilled his promise to them that a savior would come from the house of David.
God had been preparing them for Jesus for centuries, through the prophets. He had been foreshadowing the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. He had given them all the markers they would need to identify the Messiah when he came. But, just like the people in Jesus’ parable, they still weren’t prepared to receive an invitation to become citizens of the kingdom. God’s people rejected and abused the prophets, even killing some of them, like John the Baptist. They became distracted by material wealth and earthly success, and they failed to heed God’s call to celebrate his Son, when he arrived among them.
Friends, how often has the church fallen into the same trap as the nation of Israel? How often have we allowed ourselves to become distracted by the pressures and desires of this life? How often have we abused those who carry the message of the gospel that demands us to fully love God and others, through surrender of self? How often have we failed to accept God’s invitation to join him in his kingdom work? How often have we failed to recognize the King’s Son and honor him in our daily lives?
As I read this parable and consider all that Israel missed about God’s activity, even though it was right in front of them, I wonder what we might have missed from him, too, in our complacency. And I wonder if we shouldn’t be more concerned than we are about the consequences for being unprepared to receive his invitation. As the parable continued Jesus said that the people’s mistreatment of his servants and unwillingness to accept his invitation to the feast angered the king so much that he sent out his army to destroy those murderers and burn their towns. Their unfaithfulness was rewarded with disaster, because they did not recognize and honor the king’s servants or his son.
But there is a second half to the story.
Because the king’s chosen people did not receive his invitation with joy, he commanded his servants to go out into the streets and invite everyone they found – good or bad, righteous or unrighteous – to come to the feast. Here is where the story took shape beneath the surface. The unasked question was how does one enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ answer was to say that all have been invited, but only those who come prepared will be allowed to remain. Let’s talk a bit more about those two ideas.
- First, God has issued an open invitation to the kingdom. In theology, we call this universal atonement. When Jesus willingly died on the cross, even though he was innocent, he took the penalty for our sin upon himself and turned away God’s wrath. In doing so, he not only removed the guilt of our sin, but also overcame it’s power over us. When we place our trust in him we receive God’s forgiveness for our disobedience and our relationship with him changes. The Bible says that we become adopted daughters and sons of God and heirs to all of his promises, which include the kingdom. Atonement literally means to make us at one with God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we say that the atonement is universal, we simply mean that Christ’s sacrifice was made for all humanity. There is no one who stands outside of God’s love; he willingly offers his grace and forgiveness to everyone who will receive them by faith in Jesus. It is an invitation to the whole world to enter into the kingdom and become God’s children. You don’t have to come from a certain family; you don’t have to have special credentials. There is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s invitation. It is freely given to everyone.
Now that the open invitation has been extended, though, we have to make a choice about how we will respond. We can either reject the invitation, or accept it. But if we accept it, we must come prepared for the occasion, as Jesus’ parable indicates.
- In other words, we must come properly dressed. In the story, the king saw a man who was not wearing clothes that were appropriate for a wedding banquet, and because he was not prepared the king threw him out. It is one thing to accept God’s invitation to the kingdom and come to the gates, but in order to enter those gates we must be properly clothed. But what does that mean?
Revelation 22:14 says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. (NLT)” The proper attire for entering the kingdom is a white robe, which symbolizes holiness. But these robes didn’t start out white; we saw earlier in Revelation 7:14 that they were made white by washing them in the blood of the Lamb.
Christ’s atonement was universal, and God’s invitation to the kingdom has been made to all people, but there is only one way to enter the kingdom gates, and that is by trusting in Jesus alone for our salvation. When we repent of our sins and follow him by faith, he removes our guilt and clothes us with righteousness. There is no other way to enter the kingdom of God.
IV. Application (You)
So, what does that mean for us here today? Friends, we are here to proclaim the good news that God has issued an open invitation to the kingdom, through the blood of his only Son, Jesus. There is nothing you or I can do to earn this. It doesn’t matter if we have been in church every Sunday, since birth. It doesn’t matter if we have read the Bible cover to cover and done everything in our power to obey what it says. It doesn’t matter if our parents or siblings or friends are good Christian people. It doesn’t matter if we know all the right answers in Sunday School or can sing all 300 verses of Just As I Am. None of that matters, if we don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you have never personally asked him to forgive you for your sins and come into your life to take his rightful place as your King, then you will always be standing on the outside of his kingdom gates.
So many people have heard and responded to God’s invitation, but have only done so half-heartedly. They come to church and sit in the pews, they go through all the motions that will show they are good Christians, because it is advantageous to do so, but they have never been clothed with the righteousness that only comes from a personal relationship with Jesus. And because they have only responded to God half-heartedly, when it is no longer advantageous to appear Christian, they leave the church in droves. We are seeing evidence of this now through statistics showing significant changes to the number of people who claim Christianity as their religion in America. Jesus talked about this with his parable of the wheat and tares, where he said there will be those among the church who are not truly a part of God’s people. Though they appear to be kingdom citizens, they are really only standing at its gates, awaiting the judgment that will see them cast out and separated from God’s people and his kingdom for eternity. Don’t make the mistake of having all the appearance of being a Christian, when the thing that counts is actually knowing Christ.
I realize that many, if not most, of us here have, at some point, asked Jesus to come into our lives and make us clean. We have professed him as Lord and trusted him alone to save us from sin and death. And by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus, we have been reborn into the family of God as citizens of his kingdom. I know that I have. I confessed Jesus as Lord when I was five years old at The Federated Church in East Springfield, PA, during a service where we heard from missionaries about the work they were doing in Africa; much like what we just heard this morning.
But since inviting Jesus to come in and make us clean, some people here have been sort of hanging out by the gates of the kingdom. You’ve never taken steps further in, and you’ve never grown in spiritual maturity. You might be technically inside the kingdom’s walls, but just barely. Maybe you feel like a fraud, or you just don’t know where to go from here. Maybe you are still struggling with temptation or sin, and you just don’t understand why you haven’t broken free from its grip yet. If this is you, I’m here to tell you this morning that God has promised you so much more than a life of just getting by. He has promised you a full and abundant life, in Jesus. And to prove it, he has given us the Holy Spirit to all who believe. He dwells in you, and if you turn your worries and temptations and feelings of inadequacy over to him, he will take those burdens and transform them into joy. He will take your weakness, and give you his strength to overcome anything you face.
Some of you need to surrender your concerns to God this morning and ask the Spirit to walk you hand-in-hand away from the kingdom gates and toward the throne of the King. Some of you need to take a leap of faith and trust God to lead you out of temptation and sin, and help you produce a harvest of righteousness in your life. Some of you just need to ask God to help you take the next baby step in your journey of faith.
As long as we are heading in the right direction, with the Spirit as our guide, we will always be found prepared and in the proper attire for fellowship with the King. But if we hang out at the gate too long, we may eventually find that we are heading in the wrong direction, entirely.
Jesus concluded his parable by saying the man who was found without the proper wedding attire was thrown out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Consider this: what good does a freshly washed, white robe do us, if we just go and get it all dirty again? We may enter the gate of the kingdom through Jesus and his blood. But we maintain a right relationship with God, and kingdom citizenship, through obedience that leads to holiness. True faith will always produce spiritual fruit in our lives. We all fall short, at times, of God’s desires for us, and we know that he forgives us, even when he rebukes us. But willfully continuing in sinful behavior, once forgiven, makes a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice and declares to God that our allegiance lies elsewhere. Continue in this pattern for too long, and he may cast you out of the kingdom as one who is no longer dressed appropriately for dinner with the King.
Friends, God is still sending out his servants, the Church, with an open invitation to all people to join in the wedding feast of his Son. The invitation is there to accept, but please do so whole-heartedly. Don’t waste your life standing at the gates, when he has promised you an abundant life in Jesus. Pursue him as your first priority, so that you won’t be found unprepared and underdressed, when you meet him face-to-face.
V. Closing Prayer
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you sent your Son, Jesus to die – not just for a few – but for all people. We thank you that the invitation to enter your kingdom through him is freely offered to all of us; we only need to respond in faith. For those who haven’t yet been cleansed by faith, we ask your mercy. And for those who are hanging out by the gates, afraid or unwilling to take steps forward, we ask for your Spirit to come in power. Set us free for joyful obedience, and make us into the transformed people you desire, so that we might become your servants who carry your invitation faithfully and passionately to the world around us. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.