Sunday, October 15th, 2023

They Were Not Worthy

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.  Let us pray.  O Lord, send forth your Word into our ears, that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen.  The Lord’s prophet Ezekiel was given a vision. Now to understand that vision we have to remember back to the days of king Solomon, actually David before him, even as far back as Moses before him. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, the Lord acted upon the promises that He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He visited and redeemed his people, setting them free from Pharaoh’s yoke and He did so by taking the form not of a mighty warrior, but that of a pillar, a pillar of smoldering holiness. Like the embers of a campfire, it glowed in the dark of night but it was ashen and smoky in the sunlight, appearing as would a cloud. The glory of the Lord was in the pillar of cloud and fire, which came to be known as the Glory Cloud. When Moses finished the building the Lord’s Tabernacle, that Glory Cloud took its place in the tent of meeting, resting on the Ark of the Covenant, between the angels carved on either side, enthroned between the cherubim. And so, the Lord dwelled among his people to bless them. He was truly Immanual, God with us. The present of God. In the days of King David, the Lord greatly blessed his people. Jerusalem became a thriving city, and David lived in a beautiful palace. The Glory of the Lord still lived in a tent, even though David lived in luxury, and so David sought to fix that situation. He sought to build the Lord a temple, a palace fitting for the king of the universe, but the Lord told David no; that task was given to David’s son Solomon. Upon the completion of Solomon’s temple, the Glory of the Lord left the tent of meeting, and once again entered the Holy of Holies, once again enthroned between the cherubim, but still a Emmanual, always God with his people. But the Lord’s people continued to live in blatant sin for too long, and so no longer was the smoke of their sacrifices and aroma pleasing to Him. It was odious in his nostrils. The time had come for his people to be handed over to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. About 400 years after Solomon built the temple, Babylon destroyed it, but God would not be taken prisoner of war by Babylon, and so the Lord’s prophet, Ezekiel was given a vision. And he watched. He watched as the Glory of the Lord, the Pillar of Cloud and Fire left the temple in Jerusalem before it’s destruction, exiting out the Eastern Gate, passing across the Kidron Valley, and heading out over the Mount of Olives. Later, the prophet Ezekiel would be given a vision of the future temple being restored, a new temple, a better temple, and as part of that vision he saw the Glory of the Lord returning along the same path that it had left. Back over the Mount of Olives, back through the Kidron Valley, entering the Eastern Gate of the Lord’s temple. Emmanuel returning to be with his people once, never to depart. Some 500 years later Ezekiel ‘s second vision began to be fulfilled. The Word became flesh and dwelt among his people, tabernacled among His people and His people beheld His glory, the Glory Cloud, the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, and when the Son of God grew, John no longer referred to his body as His tabernacle, but Jesus Himself calls it His temple that would be destroyed, and restored in three days. And then, when the time was right, Ezekiel’s prophecy came to pass. The Glory of the Lord returns to the temple, riding on a donkey this time. Over the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, entering by the Eastern Gate, just as the prophet had foretold. But here’s where the confusion sets in. You see, Ezekiel was given a vision of restoration. He did not see the Glory of the Lord returned to his temple in judgment, he saw the Lord return to his temple to be Emmanuel, to be God with His people once again. And yet, as we’ve heard over the last few weeks, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, through the Eastern Gate, Matthew records for us several acts of judgment. The cleansing of the temple, flipping over tables, chasing people out, the cursing of the fig tree, and the three parables that have been our gospel readings for the last three Sundays, the parable of the two sons, the parable of the wicked tenants, the parable of the wedding feast that we heard today. In these parables, the chief priests and the religious leaders are chastised for their failure. They are the son who refused to do the Father’s will, after promising that they would. They are the tenants who beat and killed the Master’s servants, and even his own Son, and they are the invited guests who were not worthy to join the King’s celebrating His Son.  How is it that Ezekiel can foretell the Lord returning to his temple in restoration, but Jesus seems to do so in judgment. Perhaps the solution can be found in five simple words from today’s parable. Those invited were not worthy. And in the context of the parable itself, that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Just think about the story. It doesn’t fit the story. In the parable, the people did not attend because they have excuses. They have schedule conflicts. One went off to his farm. One went off to his business. The rest seized the king’s servants and as did those in the parable before this, treated them shamefully and even killed them. But that sounds more like they’re absent by choice, rather than they were somehow unworthy of being in the King’s presence. But a moment’s reflection shows that this is the third parable, the third parable of judgement against the religious leaders, and even though it’s a parable of judgment, Ezekiel ‘s vision of restoration holds true. You see ultimately the Lord is not returning to his temple in judgment, He comes to restore His people for their blessing. As we hear the gospel John, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. And that’s the point Jesus is trying to make. In the midst of all this judgment, the flipping over tables, the cursing of trees, the parables against the religious leaders; in the midst of all of it, Jesus wants to remind us that what’s actually happening here is a cause for celebration. The son of God has finally come to fulfill His work as Savior of the nations. He has invited all the nations to celebrate with Him. In this morning’s parable, our Lord offers us a word of caution, and also a word of hope, a word of law and of gospel. First the parable reminds us that the events of Holy Week, beginning with the Glory of the Lord returning to the Eastern Gate, riding on a donkey are a cause for celebration, not just for the Israelites who were first invited, but for all people. As the King says in the parable, as many as you can find out in the streets, both good and bad. That means that this feast is for you. The King of the universe has invited you to join him in celebrating the death and resurrection of his Son. That’s the gospel of this parable. The gracious invitation of the King is for you and that invitation has made you worthy. You are not worthy because of your accomplishments, you’re not worthy because of your personality, you’re not worthy because you attend church, or give to charitable causes, or help little old ladies with their groceries. You’re worthy because on that cross, God shed His blood for you. The death of Jesus in your place has forgiven your sin. The blood of Jesus has covered your unrighteousness. The son of God has declared you worthy. You are invited to the feast. In the parable, those who were declared worthy to celebrate with the king, despised his generosity. They refused to live as what the King had declared them to be, they refused to live as His guests, people worthy to be in His presence. They came up with lame excuses. But excuses aren’t the point. The point is their attitude toward the generosity of the King. All He wanted to do was celebrate with them, to feed the a feast of rich food full of marrow and aged wine, well refined, but they said no.  And by rejecting the King’s invitation, they made themselves unworthy. Accepting the invitation would not have made them worthy, they were already worthy.  The King had already seen to that. But their rejection does make them unworthy. Instead of being in the presence of a generous host, at a heavenly banquet, they end up facing the wrath of a scorned and a dishonored royal. That’s the warning in the parable. So also for you so also for me. We don’t make ourselves worthy of God’s generosity. We don’t make ourselves worthy to be in His presence by accepting his invitation. The invitation itself has already made us worthy. Jesus made us worthy through His life death and resurrection in our place. Jesus is the groom; we are His bride the church. Being joined to His, name we are covered in His righteousness. When the son of God came in human flesh, it was like He had proposed marriage to the world. The Son of God was betrothed to the world, each day bringing Him one day closer to the wedding. But now the engagement is over. The wedding has happened. The groom did not wear a golden ring around His finger, but a ring of thorns around His head, and He did not seal His promise with the words “I do” but with the anguished cry “It is finished.” To use the image of the parable, now that the wedding has happened, it’s time for the feast. You’re on the guest list. There’s a chair for you, wine glass for you. This little tent-folded name card with your name on it. The King has invited you to celebrate the marriage of His Son, the celebration of His Son. And I know that we as Lutherans get uncomfortable with language like invitation, and rightfully so. I mean, after all, there are Christians around the world who have misunderstood and misapplied the language of invitation, teaching people that the cause of their salvation is not the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, but rather an act of their own will that make a decision to give their lives to Jesus, to accept Him as their personal Lord and Savior, and it’s true that such a false misunderstanding must be refuted, because it robs people of the gift of certainty and of confidence and it robs God of His grace. And so, we cannot and should not leave false teaching unchallenged, but neither should we let the misuse of a word or concept rob us of the gospel in this parable, because it’s beautiful. The language of invitation in this parable makes it abundantly clear that you are included in the Lord’s feast. You are on God’s guest list. Of course, we don’t make ourselves worthy to attend the feast. There’s nothing left for us to do. You’ve already been included. The King took care of that. All that’s left is to join the celebration, approaching our Lord’s altar to participate in his feast, to be fed with heavenly food by our Lord in his Supper, receiving from Him the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and anticipating the day when we will together, with all his Saints celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. So remember the quote from Luther that we heard last week: “You get the god that you asked for.” We have a God who is taking care of everything for us. He has forgiven our sin and made us worthy to be in his presence. He has set a table before us, in the presence of our enemies, a table of a celebration of His Son. He has given us the gift of His Spirit to the proclamation of his Word so that we can receive this invitation with joy and with repentance, and He himself said, there is much rejoicing in heaven when sinners repent and participate in the marriage feast of the Lamb. And so that’s what we do. Ezekiel’s vision has been fulfilled. The glory of the Lord has returned to His temple and entered through the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem to die for the sin of the world. And it’s here among us today in the gifts of bread wine on this very altar. The Lamb’s high feast is ready. You are invited. So lay down the excuses, set aside the pride, rejoice in the gifts of the King. Welcome to the Lord’s feast. In Jesus’ name, Amen.