Sunday, August 29, 2010

Welcome to God's Upside Down Kingdom

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Luke 14:1, 7-14
It would be easy to think that the two stories Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson are just about good manners, fables complete with  morals. But if we thought that, we would be missing important lessons Jesus wants to teach us.

Once more today, please pull out the Celebrate inserts and go to the Gospel lesson from Luke 14. Look at verse seven with me: “When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.”

A parable, of course, is a story. But a parable is a special sort of story. In the Greek in which the New Testament was written, the word that we transliterate into English as parable is parabole. It’s a compound word that literally means to throw or roll alongside. A parable is a story woven from people's everyday experiences, with another story of deep significance rolled alongside of it. Jesus’ parables were always meant to tell us something about the kingdom of God that Jesus brought into the world.

Jesus told the two parables in today’s Gospel lesson during a banquet at the home of a Pharisee. Pharisees, you’ll remember, were Jews who, like Jesus, believed in the physical resurrection of the dead. But they also believed that if they adhered to certain rules, most of which were made up by human beings and did not come from God, then their behavior would force God to give them places in the heavenly banquet hall.

In the end, of course, the Pharisees did not believe that rightness with God—what the Bible calls righteousness—is a gift from God conferred on those who repent for sin and trust in God. Instead, they believed that, by their actions, they would earn a place in heaven that not God, the devil, or the world could deny to them. Despite their seeming faithfulness, the Pharisees really tried to whittle God down to human size, to turn God into a tiny deity they could force to make concessions to them simply because they were such good people.

Today, people don’t worry so much about God’s favor. We often seem to have whittled God right 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.

Let’s face it: The Bible is filled with inconvenient truths we would rather not hear about. We’re like the rebel people of God the prophet Isaiah addressed some seven hundred years before Jesus. “Do not prophesy what is right,” Isaiah heard them saying, “speak to us smooth 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, they unknowingly and thoughtlessly drifted into their false beliefs.

And 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.

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 regarding what is politically correct.

Someone has said that if Jesus were to come to a typical Lutheran 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?”

That’s how far we Lutherans have wandered from Martin Luther’s belief that whenever God’s Word is proclaimed—whether from a pulpit or in all Christians’ everyday interactions with others, we must include the Law (the revelation of God’s will for human beings) and the Gospel (the Good News that in Christ, we who don’t measure up to God’s will for us, can be forgiven and made new and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to turn from our sins and sinful impulses and receive eternal life from God).

We’ve wandered, too, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, who, in The Cost of Discipleship, warned Lutherans and all 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 in their possession. These impulses are bred in our sinful bones. And Jesus’ two parables are aimed as much at us as they were His original hearers, the Pharisee host and all his guests.

The first one was told specifically to the guests who were jockeying for places of honor at the banquet. Read along with me, starting at verse 8. “’When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you,”Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all 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. A few weeks ago, we looked at the words of Jesus’ earthly mother, Mary, who said of God: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the powerful from their thrones; and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; and he has sent the rich away empty.” 

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.

As believers in Jesus, we can live each day knowing that, whatever the world may think or say, we are God’s children forever. When you have Jesus living within you, you most certainly will try to be and do your best every day. 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 be, 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 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 the goodness of the Lord.”

Jesus tells a second parable to His host. You can read it, starting at verse 12. “He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for 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 puts it this way in the Great Commission, “Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you.” 

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 or welcome 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!


Unknown said...


Great proclamation. I said yesterday to the folks at Roselawn: Watch out for the Great Reversal in Luke, just as we saw again here: WATCH OUT! Things are going to move upside down and inside out. G-d is breaking through with good news for all the people. Rejoice!

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you, Bill!

I love the way Luke's gospel proclaims that great reversal!

Have a great week and God bless you.