Isaiah said, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” This is Our Lord’s Law and Gospel. It’s sweetest Gospel: This is the time of God’s grace! He abundantly pardons! He gives bread and wine and milk without money and without price and living water so that you never thirst again. He gives spiritual food and drink—nourishment, health, healing that have no price tag, no strings attached. But there is law here, too. “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” We live in a time of grace will not last forever. As longsuffering as our God is, the invitation has a time limit. The end of days will come and it will be too late to accept the invitation, to repent of sins, to be absolved, and to have eternal life. So in this life, as long as the call rings out, “The feast is ready. Come to the feast, the good and the bad. Come and be glad! Greatest and least, come to the feast!” it is imperative to heed it. All who reject it will find a place in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This raises a question, a natural question: Why some and not others? Why do some heed the invitation and others ignore it, reject it, hate it, and receive what they deserve instead of what God gives by grace? The answer lies in the attitude of the heart. In the Parable, who heeded the invitation? The poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind and the good and the bad. They knew themselves. They knew they were bad. They knew they were undesirable. They knew they, of all people, in no way deserved an invitation to a wedding, let alone the wedding of the king’s son! But they had been invited, so they accepted. They knew it was a call of grace and love. So they accepted something they could never earn or deserve.
Those who rejected it looked at the indiscriminate invitation and said they were too good to be in that company. They couldn’t be seen with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, the homeless, the bad. They were so far above all of the other guests that accepting the invitation, even though it came from the king, would be beneath their dignity. It should be the other way around—the king should be accepting invitations from them! So, those who find themselves shut out, cast into the darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth are there not because God didn’t call them, didn’t invite them, but because they thought they didn’t need the invitation.
Which is also what is going on with the guest found without the wedding garment. He didn’t think he needed the new clothes. What’s wrong with what he was wearing?! He was certainly dressed better than the blind in mismatched clothes, the poor in stained and torn clothes, and the bad who didn’t even know how to dress! His clothes were better.
But, of course, this isn’t about clothes. He isn’t kicked out for a breach of etiquette. The wedding garment is the robe of Christ’s righteousness. He rejected that clothing, that glorious dress. He knew the wedding was the right place to be, despite the unworthiness of the rest of the guests, but he didn’t think he needed all of it. He just needed to be seen in the right place at the right time and everything would be just fine. But he’s no better than, no different from those who rejected the invitation outright. He doesn’t want the invitation, doesn’t think he needs it, but comes out of curiosity, because everyone else was going, because that’s just what his family did, or whatever other excuse he might give.
So, our concern today is not with those who couldn’t be bothered to come in the first place. Those people aren’t sitting here this morning. The people filling the pews of Epiphany and every other church around the world are the man found without the wedding garment. We’re all in danger of being that guy. It’s so dangerously easy for each and every one of us to fall into that trap, that mindset. I’m not as bad as that guy. I give money. I give some time at events. I’ve got sin, but it’s not that bad. As long as I’m seen here, it has to count for something. The whole rigmarole of changing your ways is for the crooks, the immoral, those who get caught doing something bad. I don’t need to change what I do, because it doesn’t seem that bad to me. As long as I show up, even sporadically, I’m fine.
But being in the wedding hall, even eating the feast, is not a guarantee that the attitude of the heart is right. You can be present, you can eat and drink and be merry, and think you’re not in need of what’s given; you’re just humoring the host. That kind of hypocrite lives in each one of us. It’s dangerous, and it’s deadly. Repent. Do not grieve the Lord. Hear that agony in God’s voice: Friend! Where is your wedding garment? Where is My Son’s righteousness? Why did you think yours was good enough? I offered it free! No money, no price. But you chose your own way, and it is not good enough. I have no choice but to cast you into outer, eternal darkness.
Thanks be to God, that Day is not today. It is still His day of grace. He allows you time to repent, time to confess that you haven’t lived as you ought, that you thought you were okay on your own. And when He hears that confession, He does not come with stern rebuke, with condemnation. He comes with absolution at the price of His only-begotten Son. It sounds like foolishness, like a waste to those who think they don’t need cleansing. But it’s the joyous truth of Christianity. Our God abundantly pardons! God does all the work. He provides all the grace. You haven’t been good enough. You don’t deserve to be in His presence, to eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ, to call God your Father, but He wants all of that for you and He has paid for all of it that you might have it. He remains steadfast in His mercy. He gives His Word. He speaks kindly to you and restores you with His absolution. In Word and Sacrament He speaks you clean, declares you righteous. He gives you a part in His Kingdom.
What all that means is that, as much as we should repent, our hope does not come from repentance, but from the objective reality of Christ’s sacrifice and promise. If you look to yourself, you’ll always be lacking. If you look to your efforts, they’ll always be infected by sin. Our hope is in the objective reality of God. Did Jesus die for the whole world and are you a part of the world? Yes. You are Baptized. God put His Name on you. This is a historic fact. It happened. You are Baptized and you didn’t do it yourself. When He did it, He made a claim on you and for you, that He won’t let go. Jesus invited you to the feast. He sent His servants to gather up the good and the bad from all the corners of the earth. The question isn’t “Am I good or bad,” it’s “Did He send them or not?” Yes, He did. He was sincere in His invitation. It is valid and certain. God’s Word is trustworthy and sure.
So take heart in those words: Return to the Lord that He may have compassion, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
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.