Michaelmas II (Trinity 20) 2017
In today’s introit we praised God for His “steadfast love.” If you’re a Psalm reader, you know this phrase well. “Steadfast love” is the English Standard Version’s translation of the very important Hebrew word hesed. NIV translated it as “unfailing love” and the King James used “lovingkindness.” This word is used in the Psalms 127 times, and it is in more than half of the Psalms. Obviously steadfast love as one of God’s many attributes is an important thing. David and the other Psalm writers felt it was so important that it had to dominate their writings. The translations of hesed give us a bit of an understanding of the definition of this major word. It’s much more than mercy. Mercy, while it is something wonderful, especially when it comes from God, falls short. Mercy can be a one-time event. “I had mercy on the passenger behind me on the airplane who kicked my seat, but next time he does it I’m going to get angry.” Hesed endures. It is rooted in patience. It is not temporary or measured.
Hesed is the only reason we can pray, the only reason we can approach God and not be destroyed. God is merciful. He does not hate us because of our sins. He loves us for the sake of His Son. In the Old Testament God established the Temple so that the people would have the means to be cleansed, returned to God’s favor, so they would be declared to be good and holy because the blood of the sacrifice was covering them. In God’s mercy He gives His goodness and holiness to people who do not deserve it. Without God’s steadfast love giving us what we do not deserve, His goodness and mercy are terrifying. They demand things of us that we cannot give. But because God is patiently, enduringly merciful, we know there is forgiveness.
That is why Psalm 48 is paired with today’s Gospel Reading. On its own, this Parable is terrifying. Not everyone invited is saved. Why some, not others? Psalm 48 direct us away from ourselves and to God. We don’t focus on God’s holiness, on His demands. Instead we think, pray, meditate on God’s steadfast love, His mercy that endures forever, that forgives sins lavishly, in ways that make no sense to human reason. We can go to the altar of God, our exceeding Joy, because as Isaiah promises, our God will abundantly pardon. No one goes to the Temple, to God’s altar pure or worthy. They go defiled by sin, in need of cleansing and forgiveness, needing to hear the declaration that they are holy.
It is the same with the wedding banquet in today’s Gospel. Those who were invited were not worthy. No one is. The servants went out looking for anyone and everyone. They didn’t go to get soccer moms from all the right suburbs, surgeons who are male models in their spare time, and just enough homeless people to make it look like they tried. The servants go to get literally everyone. They go looking for any sinner, anybody still breathing, the good and the bad. Just as there is no one who is worthy, there is no one who is without need.
They all need wedding garments. No one comes ready or worthy. They need to be washed and covered. They bring nothing to the banquet except that they are loved in Christ. They are dressed as though they were the bride. This is a banquet of grace, of mercy, of the Lord’s steadfast love. Jesus does all things necessary for all to be saved.
And that is what makes the man who refuses the garment so horrible. He was welcomed as more than a guest, allowed a place even though he was not worthy. But he would not repent. He insisted on his own way. He kept his own garments. He dared the Lord of the banquet to notice and complain.
The Lord of the banquet did notice and He did complain. He had the man cast out. The banquet is for the unworthy, but not for the impenitent. It is for those whose sins are covered by Christ, not for those who want to stay in their sins, who want to thumb their nose and God and tell Him, “I’ll do it my way, thanks.”
This Parable is a call to repentance. Each one of us live on the edge of falling into that state of impenitence. Every time we sin nonchalantly, we act as if sin is no big problem. We think we’ve stumbled on the greatest bargain ever known to man. I love to sin; God loves to forgive. What a match! Except that is not true Christianity. That is not the repentance demanded by Jesus in His first sermon and again in today’s parable. Repentance means there is sorrow over sin and an intention never to sin again. But the devil doesn’t want us to talk about repentance or to look carefully at how we walk, as today’s Epistle admonished. He wants us to think our own garment is good enough, that we don’t need Jesus’ Blood and righteousness as our glorious dress. But relying on our own actions, our own disposition gets us thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Instead, the only thing on which we can rely, the only thing that gives complete certainty is God’s steadfast love. None of us come here pure or worthy. We come defiled by sin, in need of cleansing and forgiveness, needing to hear the declaration that we are holy. And God in Christ Jesus rights every wrong. He makes us pure, worthy, forgiven, and holy. And not just once, but daily. At our Baptism we were given Christ’s righteousness, Baptized into His death and resurrection. And by daily contrition and repentance that Old Adam drowned so many years ago is drowned again and put to death with all sins and evil desires. This is the work the Holy Spirit does as He dwells in us. He points us to the cross, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, where we find balm and healing in His holy wounds. From that cross we receive goodness and mercy that we could never deserve. But it covers us, preserves us, and gives to us eternal life.
What about keeping that gift safe? Is that up to you? Do you have to keep yourself in the faith? No. The God who gave you salvation as a gift preserves it as a gift! Because your salvation could easily slip through your fingers if you were the one who had to cause it and hold onto it, and because God desired to guarantee it so completely and certainly, He placed it for safekeeping into the almighty hand of your Savior, Jesus Christ, from whose hand no one can snatch you away. As St. Paul asks, “Who can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus [your] Lord?” (FC SD XI 45-47)
Take heart, dear Christians. Your salvation is won by Christ, and you stand today covered in His wedding garment, His righteousness given at your Baptism. Your place at the eternal wedding feast is guaranteed, not because of your own action, but because of the steadfast love, the never-ending mercy of God, who abundantly pardons.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.