Lord, we thank you for the words of that song, and we pray they would be a reality in experience, in our hearts and our minds and our wills for the rest of this evening. In your name we pray. Amen
Well you’ll find the talk that we’re going to look at from the Bible on page 3 of your service sheet. I’ve called it ‘Hoping for Heaven’. So let’s just dive straight into it and see how it shapes up. V15 says:
15When one of those at the table with him [him being Jesus] heard this, he said to Jesus, "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God."
Verse 15 says ‘when one of those at the table with him heard this…’, well obviously the question is ‘heard what?’. Well if you had all of chapter 14 in front of you you’d find that in 14:1 it says this:
1One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.
Jesus was invited to dinner by the authorities, who were carefully watching him. That’s pretty insidious: they’re after him! And so for the whole of chapter 14 to this point there’s a series of dialogues across the dinner table where the heat is on and it’s a little bit tense. So the chap we come to tonight is a really nice bloke. I bet he is. You’ll see now why. Look at this, v15, he’s sitting with Jesus and he turns to Jesus in the midst of a rather tense experience and says: ‘blessed is the man who will eat at the feast of the kingdom of God.’
‘Hello, very nice to meet you. I know they’re all horrible, but I’m quite religious and I quite like you too. We’re both going to heaven really; you and me.’
He’s a peacemaker, which is a nice thing, isn’t it? It’s nice to create peace when it’s all a bit stressful. Now you’d think that Jesus would be very glad that someone wanted to be a peacemaker in this, and to suck up to him a little bit, and that Jesus might say:
‘Yes, indeed. Blessed are all who will eat at the feast of the kingdom of God’
But if you look at page 3 he doesn’t say that at all. In fact what he does say looks a little bit rude. See v16:
Jesus replied: "A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.
What kind of reply is that?
‘Hello, I’m very religious too, and I like you, can we be friends? Let’s make this a very nice party even though they’re nasty to you.’
‘There was this guy who was having a party and he invited many guests’
‘Sorry? Excuse me? Did you hear me properly? Is it a bit noisy in here? Don’t you hear so well?’
When you read the New Testament it is remarkable. If it’s not part of your culture to have a Bible and access to it then often if you get hold of one you want to have a look and see what it says. For so many of us who come from this culture: ‘well, it’s the old Bible isn’t it. It’s just the old Bible.’ It’s electric. The stories in it are electric.
And you know the Christianity Explored option; let me say right at the beginning: get yourself along to find out more about the heart of the Christian faith if you’re exploring, and to ask questions. Because Jesus was the consumed questioner, and he loves us to ask of him what he really wants us to understand. Here he poses a different angle on the story. He says ‘so there was a guy preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.’ So here he tells a story about a party at a party. Quite clever really! It would make a good television programme!
Ok, let’s go with the story. V17:
At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.'
Now do remember that the context of the story is people trying to catch Jesus out. And so he tells this story and they’d all have been able to hear this story. Now in those days if you threw a party it was a bit like living in my part of Wales. You know, we didn’t move very far and we all lived in the same place all our lives. So if this guy threw a party he was the richest man in the village. There was no Facebook or text, so he would just send his chap into the village and he’d say ‘Party next Saturday, Lord of the Manor. Everybody there?’ ‘Yes sir, we’ll all be there.’ ‘Lovely, thank you very much.’ It’s that kind of culture. So they all say yes they’ll be there, thanks for the invite.
But, when the time comes, you see v17, he would send then his servant back into the village to say ‘remember last week you were invited to the party, well now’s the time. In the house. Ok?’ Hmmm, not so ok. There are many ways that we make excuses when we’re asked to go somewhere with someone. It can be tricky, socially very tricky. When someone says ‘We must get together some time for a coffee. Inside you’re thinking ‘no thank you’, but you can’t say ‘no thank you’, can you? That would be absurd. ‘I mean you’re a nice person but I really don’t want to spend half an hour with you.’ So you say ‘I would love to’ and you give them an engaging slap on the back as you move on your way, ‘We’ll definitely do that sometime’. But here’s the worst thing is, when you really do get pinned down and someone says ‘We’d love to have you for dinner’. You say ‘that would be lovely sometime’. How about next Saturday or a week Thursday?’ Now you’re caught; it’s not even one date, it’s two. Aargh! And then your brain says ‘If we go to them they’ll have to come to us, and who knows where it will end!’
So you know, there are all kinds of social difficulties with these things! I mean I never feel like that, but you know how it is! I’ve just watched other people!
And of course, there are a few things that are quite useful. Children are great. If you’ve got children what a bonus this is. I’ve had this phone call a number of times. These days texts, but in the old days phone calls. It’s half past seven, people coming at eight:
‘Hi Graham, how are you?’
‘Hi John, how are you? You’re round in 20 minutes aren’t you?’
‘Yeah. Listen, the baby’s been a bit sick. A bit under the weather. I know you’ve kids; don’t want to pass it on. What do you think?’
That happened to me regularly when my children were young. A lot of sickness where I lived! These days it’s really easy isn’t it, it’s a text isn’t it: ‘Mate, sorry – struggling.’ Does that happen with you? ‘Struggling’ What a great euphemism: ‘I’m not coming. Don’t want to, thanks. Don’t like you.’ ‘Struggling’, what a great euphemism! ‘Struggling!’ Well on this occasion they’re just going to be barefaced about it. Or will they be? Because when the second invitation comes that’s what tells if you really want to come. Do you really want to go, or were you being polite but you didn’t fancy it really? Remember the context: Jesus is telling the story at a party where the authorities want to catch him out, because they despise who he is. Because he was saying he was different. He was actually intimating at this stage of his story that God had come in the flesh. In fact the story of the gospels, the four accounts of the life of Jesus, is that God has come into the world. And he’s come into the world so that men and women, who are rebels against the Creator of the universe, and who are under judgement by the Creator of the universe for our rebellion, can meet the One who can save us and get us into a place where we’re accepted by the very Creator who made us, must judge us but loves us and came to die so that the judgment price could be paid. And the authorities, in getting a hint of this claim from Jesus claim, despised him for it. So here we are in the story He tells them.
17…'Come, for everything is now ready.' But they all alike began to make excuses.
Listen to these excuses. I bet you haven’t used any of these! V18:
18…'I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.'
No one’s ever done that one on me!
19Another said, 'I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I'm on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.' 20…another said, 'I have just got married, so I can't come.'
‘She won’t let me!’ No, that’s really rude, sorry!
Look, if you can afford to buy a field you can afford to go to a party and not look at it, because you’re loaded. Five yoke of oxen would have cost you tons of cash, it means you’re totally loaded with money if you could buy five yoke of oxen in that time. You’re really wealthy. If you could afford to buy five yoke of oxen you didn’t need to go and see them. They’re rubbish excuses from people who are used to being invited, knew they should be invited, knew they had the social standing and relationships and wealth to be invited, and should be at the party. Of course they should be at the party! And they dismissed the invite because they’ve got too much going on.
Can you hear what Jesus is saying to his critics?
‘Oh my friends, you’re hoping for heaven. Blessed are those who will go to heaven and eat in the feast of the kingdom of God.’
‘Yes, indeed. It’s so obvious that I’ll be there, because I have my own ideas of how I should get there. Jesus you have nothing to do with it. I’m decent enough; I’m on my way there. Thank you. I don’t need to do it your way. Goodnight.’
How does the story continue? This is Jesus’ tale to them:
21The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'
22'Sir,' the servant said, 'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.'
23Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.
To buy more fields is to be wealthy enough to add to your possessions. To buy more working animals is to add to the capital base of your business. To get married is to concentrate on relationships that really matter. All in themselves good and valid things. Excellent things – in their right place. Someone once said ‘what couldn’t you bear to have taken away from you?’ Or what are the first couple of things that come to mind when you wake up in the morning about your hopes for the day? Answer those questions personally and you’ll be very close to your idol. We wouldn’t want to admit, maybe, about the things we don’t want taken away from us. It’s easy to talk about someone who has an addiction, that they couldn’t bear it. Idolatry in the Bible doesn’t just mean creating kinds of images in primitive times that you bow down to instead of God. The core of idolatry is what we can’t live without. What must come first. What we’d hate to have disappear on us. And you see it usurps the position of God. And so relationships, business, possessions can be the ones that usurp the place of Jesus Christ in one’s life.
And that’s what’s behind this story says. It really doesn’t matter what the façade says. It doesn’t matter how we fit into the cultural norms of church going, or respect for God. What’s at the heart of my life? And the men Jesus is speaking to here are very respectable and very decent, and sure they’re doing the right thing to go to heaven. And do you see what he’s saying in response to the point ‘I’d like to go to heaven too. I’ve my hopes set.’ He says ‘my friend, what do you love the most?’
No, they’re complacent and they don’t need to come. You can see the picture can’t you: We don’t need Jesus Christ. We don’t need God to save us. We don’t need someone to come into this world and say ‘it’s not your way, it’s my way. I’ve come to take the punishment that you deserve that you can’t earn yourself. I’ve come to pay the price for you. You must come empty-handed and turn to me before all other things. It’s your only hope of heaven.’
Did you notice the people who are then invited to come? Isn’t it a stark contrast for the original listener and maybe for us today? V21:
'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'
There was no social security in those days, and so those who were allowed to live in the town were at least part of the community of Israel. They were allowed to live in the streets to beg, to be helped by the people who lived the town. They knew they had a need. They weren’t the first invited to the party. They weren’t the precious ones. They weren’t the upstanding ones in society. They would never have been invited. They can barely believe they are invited at this stage. But they jump at the chance. V22:
22…'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.' 23Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.
The people who weren’t in the ‘inner part’ of the culture, as beggars, would have to live in the shelter of the hedges outside of the town; they had no right to ask for help, for social security from the people inside the town. You can imagine these people saying
‘no, you’ve made a mistake. I can’t be going to the party of the big boss man. It really can’t be me. Don’t be absurd – I’m a beggar who lives under a hedge. The people who go to the party are the people who are the ‘well-to-do’ ones who buy five yoke of oxen without blinking. They’re the people who know they’ll be invited to everything the master calls them to, and they can go any time or not. Not someone like me, surely?’
‘Make them come in’.
He had to make them come in because they just wouldn’t have come. They said ‘it’s ridiculous, how can I fit there? Me!’
Well, why does Jesus tell this story? And why does it matter tonight on an October evening here in Jesmond? I’m a guest. I don’t know who else is a guest as they think through the Christian faith this evening. But has it ever occurred to you that there really is a God of the universe? I imagine you’re here because you have some inclination that there just might be. Did you know that the Christian message is that this God is personal? He’s a moral God; he believes in right and wrong. He is right – he’s the definition of right and good. And when he sees us he doesn’t just see those who are extremely wicked in obvious social ways; he sees into the heart of every one in this room this evening. He sees the idols of our heart. Who am I? What defines me? Is it my status? Where I grew up? My education? My wealth? My abilities? My relationships? My networks? Ladies and gentlemen, can we be defined by that this evening? Answer: Yes, most certainly. It’s innate to the human condition that we find our value and our identity anywhere but in the Creator who made us. And I’m sorry to say this evening the Bible teaches that we will account for that on the day when we leave this world and meet him face to face.
‘Why didn’t you worship me with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?’
That’s God’s standard, did you hear it?
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all you soul, all your mind and all your strength.’ (Luke 10:27)
Who can keep that up? And so the very Jesus in this story comes into the world. And he does love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. He does love his neighbour as himself without fail. Because God became a man. And He died on a filthy, bloody cross to take the punishment for my worship of things that are not of first importance.
And for some of us this evening we might say:
‘thank you very much indeed. It’s a very nice offer. It’s a very decent thing. I can understand it. I can empathise a little with people who believe it. But you know, I think I’ll pass. I mean, let each one choose his own way – that’s the kind of world we live in, don’t force things on people. You go your way, I’ll go mine. Thanks very much indeed. I shan’t come to Jesus Christ.’
But maybe as you sit here this evening you’re a person who’s thinking:
‘I don’t think I’ve got any rights. How do you know me? I am the kind of person who has no right to come to the party. And if it’s true that Jesus died on a cross for people who aren’t good enough then you can count me in. Because that’s me – if only you knew the things about me that people don’t know. If only you knew the struggles I have. If only you knew the things I’ve done. Could I really come to the party? Did Jesus really die for me? Not just the decent people?’
Once you get that you’re on the way. I mean, how upside down is it to what we think religion is? Once we get that we’re on the way. I could come in from hiding under a hedge:
‘Does God really want me? Does he love me enough to die for me? Will he really take me? I don’t know anything about Christianity really. And I could never keep it up.’
Hurray! If you’re thinking that you’re en route. Because there are people in this room tonight who accepted that specific invite years ago, didn’t you? And even tonight, as you hear this again, does your heart say ‘Yes! He accepts me despite my failure!’
Maybe tonight for those of you who’ve been Christians for some time, maybe it dawns on you yet again, as we meet together in corporate worship: ‘Oh my goodness, I think I’m getting worse rather than better as I get older!’ Do you ever feel like that? ‘Goodness me, if they really knew! I seem to be going backwards.’ Look, you’re not going backwards – you’re just human. And the lovely Spirit of Jesus in you is shining this light in and saying:
‘hey, you haven’t got much better but guess what – I haven’t gone anywhere and I love you and I’m staying here and you’re all mine.’
It’s the same gospel for those who are about to start with Christ fifty years later. You don’t have a right to come to the party. No right! There’s nothing good enough in any of us to come to God. But Jesus Christ has made it possible for those who will come to God through believing that he died on their behalf, and accepting his gift. And 20 years after you come to know him, he acts the same way this week. What were you like Thursday? What happened Tuesday? What did you do on Monday? Are you ashamed? God knows. But guess what – if he knows that you know that you live somewhere under a hedge spiritually, and you’ve blown it again, he’s going: ‘come here darling, you’re mine!’ It’s true! This is the gospel of grace. This is life, isn’t it? Life. Hoping for heaven?
‘Blessed is the man who will eat in the feast at the kingdom of God’ (v15)
But you can’t come your own way. Lay it all down. Lay down your own plans to get there. Lay down how well-respected one is. Lay down that we have a right to it. And accept that we have nothing to offer, but to flee to the God who dies on a cross in his own Son, on your behalf, that you may not just hope for heaven – question mark. But let’s change it to:
‘I’m hoping for heaven because I’m sure that God has opened the door through the cross of Christ for me to come in.’
This is the promise of the gospel and it’s the grandest promise ever offered to the human race.
If you want to think these things through further and get the chance to ask questions please pick up that blue leaflet and get yourself along to a taster for Christianity Explored to wrestle with the most significant issues in the world. And if you know Christ is your Saviour tonight rejoice in your heart that it’s not what you can do for him, but what he has done and is doing through and in and for you.
Thank you Father that the gospel is true and powerful and lovely. We ask that it might be a great reality to us, in our minds and hearts and wills this evening. We ask this for Christ’s sake. Amen.