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Sermon for Sunday 11 October 2020

First Reading                                Isaiah 25:6-9

6On 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. 7And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8He 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. 9It 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.”

Psalm                                                         Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. 3He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. 4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. 6Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Second Reading                       Philippians 4:4-13

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. 10I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Gospel                                          Matthew 22:1-14

1Again Jesus spoke to {the chief priests and the Pharisees} in parables, saying, 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’” 5But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Jesus is the Only Way

I read something the other day that came as a shock, at least initially.  Do you to know what many Americans today consider to be the most serious sin?  My first reaction to this question was heinous crimes like sexual abuse of a child, violence against a spouse or child or even violating the 5th Commandment, “Thou shalt not murder.”  I was wrong.  The person writing the article went further to explain, that none of these ranked number one, saying that most Americans feel that even violence and murder can have mitigating factors.  Would it surprise you to learn that according to an article by Daniel Taylor in “Christianity Today,” many Americans consider the worst sin to be intolerance.

Mr. Taylor then went on to write, that those who were considered to be the worst of the worst sinners by most Americans, were evangelical Christians!  In another article in the same magazine, the writer reported, “Christians are seen as the pit bulls of culture wars, having small brains, big teeth, strong jaws, and no interest in compromise.”  Now to add perspective to the viewpoint of these two authors, they were from the Southern Baptist tradition, so they were speaking from their viewpoint.  No matter, the point they were making is still very valid.

Tolerance today is the blanket people that want to wrap themselves in to excuse sinful behavior and as a way to condemn anyone who would disagree with their perspective.  To further their viewpoint, they themselves, hypocritically I might add, loudly condemn any dissenting view as being hateful, and therefore the person expressing that viewpoint is a phode of some sort, calling the other person any number of disparaging names.  To further illustrate, the following example was given. 

A guest on National Public Radio even shocked his liberal host when he objected to the Christian belief that at the last judgement, there would be people who would be sent to hell.  The guest on NPR offered this rather hateful comment, “The evaporation of four million Baptists who believe that garbage would leave the world a better place.”  Sounds to me like that guest was mighty intolerant of anyone who believed that very clear Biblical truth.  Think about it; if tolerance was practiced like it’s preached, then Christians would also have the freedom to express a proper orthodox and traditionally grounded biblical interpretation openly, without fear of social alienation.  Sadly, this isn’t the case.

Dr. Laura, the popular and controversial radio host, has talked about the large volume of hate mail she receives for believing in moral absolutes.  Her enemies ask her to be more tolerant of alternative moral views, but again, they don’t practice what they preach.  They refuse to show any tolerance for her views.  Here in America, it’s also forwarded that we need to exercise what’s called “religious tolerance.”  Those pushing this idea believe a person can worship whatever or whoever they choose, even satan, and still have their religious expressions protected.  But along with this espousal of toleration has come the dangerous idea that Christianity has no right to make exclusive claims to truth.  

R.C. Sproul says that making exclusive claims of truth in America is “like attacking baseball, hot dogs, motherhood, and apple pie.”  So, it seems that those who preach tolerance are just as guilty as those they preach against.  I wonder what these same people would say to Jesus if He were ministering in the US today?  Jesus, it seems, had a real knack for saying several politically incorrect things. 

For example, consider what Jesus told the woman caught in adultery.  After He forgave her, He told her to go and sin no more (John 8).  Not very tolerant by today’s standards.  A few chapters later, Jesus tells the crowd, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  On the surface this too doesn’t sound very tolerant.  However, when you stop and think about it, that’s a very inclusive, not exclusive, statement!  St. Peter also reiterated Jesus’ statement even more bluntly when he said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Jesus, while showing great compassion, did showed little tolerance for those who refused to follow God’s laws and statutes.  Jesus expects both obedience and sincerity of anyone who comes to Him.

Evidence shows that lots of Americans almost wallow in what they forward as tolerance.  They feel that as long as a person is sincere about their moral views and religious beliefs, it doesn’t matter what they do or believe.  What I find strange is, they apply this logic to their faith, but not to any other area of their lives.  For example, they want the pilot flying the commercial aircraft to be right and follow all the rules, not just be sincere.  They want the accountant who does their taxes to be right, to follow the laws, not simply be sincere.  They want the pharmacist who prepares their prescription to be right, to double check the doctor’s orders and follow all procedures and guidance, not just be sincere.  If this is the case with highly important things, then why is the single most important area of their lives, their relationship with God, an area where they’re willing to settle for sincerity instead of obedience and accuracy?  It simply makes no sense.

What’s important for us to remember is that when Jesus claimed that He was the only way to God the Father, He wasn’t motivated by arrogance, but by compassion.  If you’ll suspend judgment for just a few moments and consider with me the story Jesus told in our gospel reading for today, I believe that Jesus’ claim will show tolerance, inclusiveness and also make complete sense.

Here in Matthew chapter 22, Jesus told a story about a king whose son was getting married.  No doubt, the king rented a large banquet area, tents and all the needed dishes and equipment necessary to throw an over-the-top bash.  In first-century Palestine, most people were poor.  But even among the poor, a wedding called for a weeklong celebration.  This was the one occasion in life when the poor splurged, even if they had to borrow funds.  So, if the king with all His resources was throwing a party, it was probably going to be a Middle Eastern version of Mardi Gras.  Therefore, it would make sense that everybody would want to come to such a party.  However, in Jesus’ story, this isn’t the case.  Many of the specially invited guests refused to come. 

It is important for us to take note, that all of those highlighted had excuses for not coming.  Notice too what those excuses are; all had to do with self-focuses reasons, expanding their wealth, taking care of the things they already owned, etcetera.  Also notice the reaction of those who felt the invitation was an interruption to their lives; they reacted violently against those delivering the message.  By chance does this reaction sound familiar in our society today?

Now for those listening that day, especially the religious leaders, they knew Jesus was clearly referring to the Hebrew nation, those who had been invited to be God’s chosen people.  They were to be His cradle for the Messiah, a chosen race, and a holy priesthood, designed to bless the entire world.  They also knew they had failed as a nation to live according to the covenant made between God and them.  Additionally, they knew their history; of how they had persecuted most of the prophets sent by God, and tragically, they were rejecting the Messiah now that He had come.  We now move to verses 8 through 10 of the story.  

Here Jesus tells us that the king then extended His invitation to everybody, Jews and Gentiles, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor.  Now for clarification, when we read that both the good and bad were invited, please don’t think exclusively of bad as equating to sin.  Remember the Jews saw anyone outside the Jewish faith as bad.  We also need to remember that Jesus ate with the Tax Collectors and sinner, so in the case of this story Jesus is referring to Jew and Greek, saint, and sinner.  All are invited to the king’s wedding banquet.  That’s one of the wonderful promised contained in this story, God through His Son, is sending out this invitation to invite all into the Kingdom of God.  Now comes the difficult and final part of the story in verses 11 through 14.  

The king finds an individual at the party who wasn’t wearing the proper attire and has him physically removed.  Now you may, at this point, be thinking that’s pretty intolerant.  If the king was tolerant enough to let anyone come to his party, why would he get bent out of shape over what someone are wearing?  St. Augustine offers us a great explanation concerning this passage. 

St. Augustine explains that each person who accepted the king’s invitation was given proper attire for the banquet.  The king was aware that those invited wouldn’t be able to obtain the proper clothing for such an occasion.  Not wanting to leave anyone out, the king provides what’s required for all the guests to wear.  Isaiah, in chapter 61 verse 10 reminds us, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”  But apparently this fellow in verse 11 was arrogant at heart.  

This particular guest disregarded the generosity of the king and decided to come on his own terms.  St. Augustine further taught that trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is what constitutes the proper wedding garment.  If you aren’t humble enough to admit your need for the salvation God freely offers, if you’re not grateful enough to accept the king’s gracious gift, then you cannot come to God’s party.  Therefore, the only person who cannot experience God’s forgiveness is the one who is so arrogant, they think they have no sin, that they are good enough on their own.

Remember what St. John tells us in 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  [But],if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  The only person who cannot be saved is that one who feels they have no need for a Savior.  Jesus isn’t being intolerant or trying to exclude anyone.  Those who refuse to accept His invitation are the ones who are rejecting Him, we’re the ones too busy to accept His invitation, we’re the ones excluding ourselves.  Arrogance like this leads also to another problem.

Some people believe that all religions are basically the same.  These folks claim that it doesn’t matter which one you follow, as long as it works for you.  They forward that all spiritual paths lead to the same place.  While it’s true that there is some common ground shared by the world’s major religions, there are also some very significant and important differences.  Only Christianity claims that God has visited planet earth in the form of a person.  Ann Graham Lotz, daughter of Billy Graham, notes there are all kinds of faith alternatives.  Some people follow Mohammed or Buddha or Confucius or Hari Krishna.  But, she says, “Jesus is different.  He isn’t just one of the boys.  He is the only begotten Son of God.  He is God!”

Jesus is the only way to the one true God because He’s the only person in the history of the world who came and provided a cure for our “sin problem.”  Lee Strobel has pointed out that every other religion, but Christianity, is based on people’s performance.  They must “DO” something to somehow earn favor with their god.  Different religions offer different recipes for salvation.  One says that you must use a Tibetan prayer wheel; another that you have to avoid eating certain foods; another that you have to pray in one direction a certain number of times per day; still another that you have to go through a cycle of reincarnations.  These are all attempts to earn enough favor with God to deserve His salvation.  But Christianity is different.

We don’t focus on the word “DO.”  Our emphasis is on the word “DONE,” especially what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  He paid our penalty for sin.  When we in faith accept Him as our Lord and Savior, we are remembering what God has done for us in our baptism.  In baptism, we donned the wedding garment God provided and are ready for God’s party.  But it’s not a once and done thing, it’s not a once saved always saved event.

St. Paul reminds us that we all sin and fall short of God’s glory.  Each time we, in faith, recall our baptisms, each time we confess our sin to God, each time we gather to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, Jesus washes that garment again and makes us ready to be at God’s banquet table.  But Jesus’ message here is clear.  We cannot do this on our own.  We cannot earn our way to heaven.  We must, in faith, receive and be obedient and put on the garment of salvation that God provides.  There is no other way.  And this is a message that, while on the surface sounds exclusive, is indeed very inclusive.  All are invited, and all can receive the garment God provides; but all must come through Jesus.  This is the message we’re called to share.

It’s a message that as D.T. Niles described it, “as one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.”  Jesus in Matthew 7 said, “Enter by the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

What is the small gate and narrow road?  It’s our faith in response to God’s grace offered to us in Jesus.  To go through the narrow gate means to say to Jesus “Nothing in my hands I bring; only to your cross I cling.  I am a sinner who cannot fix my sin problem.  But I believe you offer the one and only cure when you died for me on the cross.  I accept it gladly, and in gratitude I gladly want to follow you.”

One of the most popular places in Memphis, TN is Tom Lee Park, a beautiful open space alongside the Mississippi river.  If you linger there long enough to read the plaque, you find that the park was named for an African American man named Tom Lee.  One day in 1925, a steamer with lots of passengers aboard sank in the river, just below Memphis.  Tom Lee witnessed the tragedy.  He jumped into his small boat and with great courage and determination headed toward those drowning people.  He rescued 32 of those people that day.

Suppose, however, that when Tom Lee approached some of those folks in the middle of the river, they had responded, “Thanks, but no thanks.  Your boat doesn’t look very impressive to us.  We’re going to just keep treading water in hopes that another boat more to our liking will come along.”  You’re probably thinking – that would have been really dumb.  It makes no sense to turn down a sure thing in hopes that something else might come along.  The people who would have refused Tom’s help are like those who refuse to accept God’s mercy, instead thinking they can get to heaven on their own, by their works, by being good enough.  They’re hoping that there’s some other alternative, more to their liking, available to them.  But the truth is that there is no other way to be saved.

Jesus told us plainly, “For God so loved the world that he gave” …not a bunch of ways but one way…. “His only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  There is no compromise, there is no other alternative and we cannot do it on our own.  This isn’t a matter of intolerance or exclusion; it’s a matter of fact.  Jesus is the only way, the only truth and the only life.  No one comes to the Father but by Him.  This is the message we’re called to openly share in love. Amen

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