Sunday, August 28, 2016

When Upside Down is Rightside Up

Luke 14:1-14
It would be easy to think that the two stories Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson are just about good manners. But if we think that, we will be missing important lessons Jesus wants to teach us.

Take a look, please, at our Gospel lesson, Luke 14:1-14, starting at verse 7: “When [Jesus] noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable.”

A parable, of course, is a special sort of story. A parable is a story woven from people's everyday experiences, with another story of deep significance rolled alongside of it. The term parable has been transliterated into English from the Greek word, parabolos, a compound word composed of para, a prefix meaning alongside (as in parallel) and bolos, related to the terms throw or ball. A parable is a story with another story, a deeper story told alongside it. Jesus’ parables always tell us something about the kingdom of God that Jesus brought into the world and still brings to those who believe in Him.

Jesus told the two parables in today’s Gospel lesson while He sat a banquet at the home of a Pharisee. We know something about the Pharisees, of course. Although they wouldn’t have expressed themselves in quite this way, the Pharisees didn’t believe that rightness with God—what the Bible calls righteousness—is a gift from God given to those who repent for sin and believe in the God we now know in Jesus. Instead, they believed that, by their actions, they would earn a place in heaven.

Despite their seeming faithfulness, the Pharisees really tried to whittle God down to human size, to turn God into a deity they could force to make concessions to them because they were such good people.

Today, people don’t worry so much about God’s favor. We moderns seem to have whittled God completely out of our lives. Or we’ve twisted the Bible’s teaching that God is love and turned the mighty God of the universe into an indulgent sugar daddy.

Many people, even those identifying themselves as Christians, seem to think that all roads lead to heaven. Polling, in fact, repeatedly shows that Christians in the United States accept Jesus’ teaching that there is a heaven. But much smaller numbers of Christians accept the word of Jesus that there is a hell. How it's possible to accept some of Jesus' teaching, while not accepting other of His teachings, while claiming Him as Lord is something these folks can't explain very well.

Let’s face it: The Bible is filled with inconvenient truths we would rather not hear about. I know that this is true for me. We’re like the rebel people of God the prophet Isaiah addressed some seven hundred years before Jesus. “Give us no more visions of what is right!” they tell the prophet in Isaiah 30:10. “Tell us pleasant things…”

By contrast, for all their many faults, most of the Pharisees would never have knowingly taught things contrary to the will of God. In fact, like the dumb sheep that populated many of Jesus’ other parables, they unknowingly and thoughtlessly drifted into their false beliefs.

Christ’s Church always struggles to resist such unintentional drifting from God. That’s why the Reformation begun by Martin Luther and others back in the sixteenth century must be a continuing part of our lives today. We need to constantly return to God, to God’s Word, to God’s will, to Jesus Christ.

But many Christians seem to have settled into a new kind of Pharisaism in which we are expected to passively go along with what I call Christianity Lite, the religion of anything goes so long as it conforms to the shifting standards of society. Someone has said that if Jesus were to come to a typical Christian congregation in North America and teach, as He did to the Pharisees in first-century Judea, “Stop trying to earn righteousness and salvation,” the response would be, “Who’s trying to be righteous?”

Many churches and many Christians--even we ourselves, we must confess--have wandered from surrendering trust in Christ and from reverence for God’s Word and will.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, warned Christians against what he called “cheap grace,” which he described as “the grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession.”

Still and all, in this time with so little consciousness of God or concern about the will of God, people are, as in first-century Judea, still in a frenzy to push themselves to the top, to be noticed, to win, to die with the most toys. These impulses are bred in our sinful bones. And Jesus’ two parables are aimed as much at us as they were at His original hearers.

The first one was told specifically to the guests who were jockeying for places of honor at the banquet. Take a look at it, please, starting at verse 8. “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus came into our world to flip humanity’s standard operating procedures on their head. His mother, Mary had it right, when she said, in what we call the Magnifcat, “[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 1:51-53]

Mary knew the truth that Jesus affirms in today’s first parable, that those who humble themselves before God, even if despised by the world, are exalted in God’s kingdom.

Jesus calls us to live in confidence not in ourselves or our achievements or our shrewd exploitation of people and circumstances, but in the God Who loves us just as we are and Who is committed to helping those humble enough to confess their sins and their need of Him to enter the process of becoming more Christ-like in this life.

Those who trust in Christ are God’s children forever. There’s nothing you can do or need to do to earn that exalted status. When you have Jesus living within you, you most certainly will try to be and do your best every day. You’ll want to do everything to the glory of the God Who made you and sets you free from sin and death. But you also will know that the God Who sent His Son to die and rise for you will honor your repentance and shower you with a sense of your infinite value in the eyes of heaven, whatever your job, irrespective of how many degrees you have acquired, however large your income, no matter how good your health, however popular you may be, or even if you get the best spot at the banquet or the football game.

In Christ, I hope and pray that you know that no matter what you’ve done, or how guilty you may really be for some past wrong none of us could guess, or how inadequate you may feel, you could not possibly be more loved by God than you are at this very moment.

And if we are willing to let God tear down all the walls we have that can block out His grace and love, if we are willing to repent for our sins and receive forgiveness, we become God’s personal reclamation projects. Not only can God erase the power of sin and death over you, He can, for those who surrender each day, decrease your taste for the sins that may keep you from knowing peace with God and peace with yourself.

The Lord wants you to take a place of honor at His table even if you think that you’re too lowly or too unworthy to take it. God loves you and all people are welcome to, in the words of Scripture, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” [Psalm 34:8]

Jesus next tells a kind parable to His host, a scenario in which He asks the man (and us) to imagine himself (and we ourselves) as the lead character. You can read it, starting at verse 12. ““When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus isn’t making deals here. He’s saying that we who have been welcomed by God our host into the kingdom of God are called to also welcome others. All others.

Jesus is here expressing again what He says in the Great Commission: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19-20]

Filled with God’s Spirit, you and I are to be the instruments God uses to invite others to hear God’s Word, Law and Gospel, to hear God’s call and command to repentance, to hear God’s call and command to believe in Jesus and know life everlasting.

We have no control over whether those we invite to follow Christ with us will let go of their sins to grasp hold of the grace offered in Jesus. But we must never stop telling them, by our words and our lives, either the inconvenient truth about human sin and our need of God or the incredible, life-changing, good news of the God Who, in Christ, can turn our lives upside down and in doing so, turn our souls right-side up, facing God for life, following Christ for hope, being filled with the Holy Spirit to give us a joy that will never end. Amen!

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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