Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A)
October 11, 2020
Text: Matt. 22:1-14
This morning the Father invites you to the Wedding Feast of His Son, to the Holy Marriage of Christ and His spotless Bride, the Church. It is a magnificent occasion, the event of an eternal lifetime. Even Americans can’t pass up a royal wedding. When a prince and a princess get married, we’re glued to our television screens and we buy all the magazines. Because it is almost like a real-life fairy tale. Cinderella or Snow White, with flesh and blood, castles and cathedrals, pomp and circumstance, and, we hope, a happily ever after.
For the same reason, we love all weddings. I was amazed how many people wanted to come to our wedding all those years ago. Of course, with a bride like mine, who could blame them? But so also, there was the sublime liturgy, the grand procession, the ceremony and timeless traditions, in a Church decked out for the occasion. And, of course, the feasting and champagne, the music and dancing, the laughter and love, all to mark a new beginning of unlimited possibilities. That is the thing about a wedding. No matter how the reality of the thing turns out, we’re hardwired to think of it as a happily ever after. We even use words like “forever” to describe what has begun. Now, that is hyperbole. It is an exaggeration, and we know it is, because we hear the sobering words “Till death do us part” in the exchange of vows, and we know death will rend asunder what God has joined together in holy matrimony. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the sentiment. There is something to this idea. We understand, almost instinctually, that the marriage of husband and wife, and in particular a Christian husband and wife, reflects something, even if dimly, that is eternal and incomparably sublime. “This mystery is profound,” says St. Paul, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32; ESV).
So the invitation goes out. The royal heralds announce it in every pulpit, to you and to all, the invitation from God Himself, the great King: “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast” (Matt. 22:4). But the reaction is incredible. So many would rather not attend. So many refuse to come. Now, it’s not like this is just any wedding. It is a royal affair, only infinitely, exponentially greater. The King pulls out all the stops for the sake of His guests. But those invited pay no attention to the heralds. One goes off to his farm, another to his business. Some treat the servants shamefully, and then kill them, persecuting the preachers and the Church. In the original context of the parable, this refers to the Jews, who rejected the Christ, refused entrance to the Kingdom, and put the Apostles and other disciples to death. But the story repeats itself today. All is ready! The Feast is prepared! Come to Church! Come into the Kingdom! Come into the joy of your heavenly Father at the nuptials of His Son! But the people would rather not. Better things to do. Has this been you, beloved? Repent. So many outright refuse. The Wedding Feast disgusts them. Even to the point of treating the heralds shamefully and shedding their blood. This is the great warning to all who reject the invitation to God’s gracious and lavish Feast! If you will not have His grace, you will have His anger. He will send in His troops and destroy those murderers and burn their city. So it happened, quite literally, to Jerusalem in AD 70 at the hands of the Romans. So it will happen on an even grander scale on the Day of Judgment which is to come.
But the Lord has a Feast and He will fill it with guests. Go to the highways and byways and herald the news. Invite as many as you can find and bring them into My Feast. Let the preaching go out to every corner, gathering all whom you find, bad and good, so that the wedding hall may be full of guests. The Gospel is not just for Jews, it is also for Gentiles. It is not just for respectable Christians, it is for those lost in their sins. Preach it, and so snatch them out of the world, away from their sins. Save them from the devil’s cold grasp and the yawning jaws of hell. Snatch them out of death, and into life. That is what happens as the Gospel is preached and the Holy Spirit bestows faith where and when He pleases in those who hear. That is what happens when the naked, bludgeoned, and bloody sinners are stripped of their tattered and filthy rags and given the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness in Holy Baptism.
Yes, the guests are provided with the festive garment. You don’t have clothing splendid enough to attend this wedding, this Church, not even your Sunday best. Your good works are not good in comparison with what God demands. Your own righteousness is damnable sin in comparison with the righteousness with which God wants you covered. So the King Himself provides the garment for you when you come into the wedding. It is Christ’s own righteousness. In fact, it is Christ Himself. For nothing but the most splendid and spotless robe will do.
This explains the problem of the man attending the wedding without the proper garment. It’s not like the servants pulled him in off the street in his rags, and so there he was in tatters through no fault of his own. On these occasions, kings gave their guests splendid garments to wear. The robe was given him at the door. But what did he do? He preferred his own rags to what was given him. He preferred his own works, his own righteousness, his own fig leaves to the righteousness of Christ with which God had clothed him. Such a one cannot partake in the joy of the wedding. He will be bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Whatever you do, beloved, do not seek to enter the Feast by your own merit or worthiness. Do not amble up to the altar as if you have a right to it because of who you are and what you’ve done. Do not approach the day of your death, or the Day of Judgment, as though you know you’ll be in heaven because you’re a good and decent human being. That is to don your own filthy rags in place of your baptismal robe. The robe is given you by grace, for Christ’s sake, because God is good, and He loves you. Do not cast it aside. Live in it. Always. Only.
But do come! The King wants you at His Feast. Yes, you! In fact, do you want to know a great surprise? You aren’t just any guest. You are the Bride! You are Holy Church, and this is all for you. You want to hear a little more from St. Paul about the robe you’ve been given? It is that washed white in the blood of the Bridegroom. Our Lord gave Himself up for you, dear Bride of Christ, gave Himself into the accursed death of the cross, shed His blood, sacrificed Himself, in order to sanctify you; that is, make you holy, cleanse you from your sins and your filth and your shame by the washing of water with the Word (that is your Baptism into Christ!), and present you to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27). Can you imagine it? You, spotless, without sin, resplendent, shining with the brilliance of His own holiness and righteousness. But it’s not just your imagination. It is the reality now hidden from your eyes, but known before God. On Judgment Day, that is what will be revealed.
And here is the Feast. This is really just a foretaste, but make no mistake, it is the real thing, hidden under bread and wine. All of heaven is in attendance, angels and archangels and the whole company. And here the Bridegroom receives you as His own. He feeds you and nurtures you, covers you and provides for your every need. He gives Himself to you, and all that is His, to be one with you forever. For what God has joined together, no one dare separate.
Christian husbands and wives are given to be a reflection of this, living icons and sermons to the world. One man, one woman, living together in love and fidelity for life. Oh, we don’t always do it very well. Okay, we almost never do it very well, and certainly never perfectly. But Christ redeems it and the Spirit works through it anyway. As Christian wives submit to their husbands, which is to say, receive their husband’s protection and provision and self-sacrifice, they are the living picture of the Holy Church submitting to Christ and receiving all of His good. And as Christian husbands give themselves up for their wives, even into death if necessary, sacrificing their own wants and comforts for the sake of their beloved, covering her faults, protecting her, providing for her, leading and guiding her, they are the living picture of Christ loving the Church and giving Himself up for her. Christian parents reflect how this marriage between Christ and His Church gives birth to children who are fed and nurtured in Christian faith and life. They do this as they bring their children to the Divine Service and Sunday School and Catechism Class, and teach their children the faith at home, raising them in the fear and admonition of the Lord. By the way, couples who have lost children or cannot have children of their own do this, even in their deep, personal sorrow, when they support parents and care for the children of the Church, children in their extended families, God-children, and other children in their communities. And Christian singles are not left out of this either. They are the very icon of the Church waiting upon Christ in faith for companionship and fulfillment and every good, trusting He will either provide them a spouse now in this life, or strengthen them in patience for the Day when our Lord will infinitely repay their loneliness with His manifest presence in the life to come. This is all so important in our culture that despises marriage, desecrates life and children, and glories in unfettered sexual promiscuity and perversion. We repent of our participation in any of that. And we display in our Christian lives and relationships a better vision, a substantial and eternally fulfilling option: Relationships rooted in Christ and His self-giving love for His Church.
That is to say, there really is a happily ever after. Christian marriage in this fallen world is but a dim reflection, but here the Lord invites us to the fulness of the real thing. Christ is the Bridegroom. You, dear Church, are the Bride. Spotless robes. Clothed by Him. Sins forgiven. Joyful and free. The Table is set. All is now ready. A Feast of rich Food and well-aged Wine. Music and dancing. Laughter and love. A splendid liturgy and unbreakable vows. Forever is no exaggeration. This union is eternal. The Bride is coming down out of heaven from God. The Bridegroom comes and our lamps are lit with the oil of faith and expectation. The bells ring out and the heralds proclaim. The princess awakens at true love’s kiss. Bone of His bones, and flesh of His flesh. Death shall never again part us. For Christ is risen. And covered with Him, in His embrace, we all live happily ever after. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.