In the name of Jesus
Dear brothers and sisters called to the banquet hall of Christ:
Imagine receiving in the mail tomorrow an expensive-looking parchment envelope sporting simply your mailing address in beautiful calligraphy. You open up the fancy wax seal and pull out of the envelope an engraved dinner invitation, the letters embossed with gold foil. Everything about the invitation gives witness to the "spare-no-expense" character of the offered banquet.
This is the kind of communique that would instantly gladden our hearts and motivate us to openly share our excitement and thanksgiving with anyone who would willingly share our joy. "Look at what I received in the mail!" we would say as we paraded the invitation before the eyes of our quite-possibly jealous friends.
But what if you knew in your heart-of-hearts that someone had made a great big mistake? What if you actually knew that the calligrapher had inadvertently switched the numbers of the street address? Or actually had sent the invitation to the resident who previously lived at your address? What if you had convinced yourself that there was just no way this invitation should have come to you? Would you go anyway and try to convince the doorkeeper of your worthiness to partake? Or, would you finally discard the invitation or drop it back in the mail after writing on the front of the envelope: "Delivered to the wrong address."?
It's hard for me to imagine anyone not getting excited about receiving a special dinner invitation. It's just part of who we are as human beings, created in the image of God himself. Dolphins might be intelligent, monkeys might be able to communicate, but show them a fancy dinner invitation and they'd just as soon eat it than R.S.V.P. It is Adam and Eve and all their children who were uniquely created to respond with joy and thanksgiving and trust to a call to table, to fellowship with fellow diners and the host of the meal.
In the garden of Eden, our first parents were given the most lavish of spreads as the Lord of the Table spared no expense to make available everything our first parents might even want, and more. It was as if God was saying, "All this has been provided for you, that we might enjoy each other's presence in one of the most special ways possible: at morning and noon and evening meal.
Pastor Norman Nagel says it this way:
The Lord loves a banquet. He is happiest when his people are gathered at the table with him. The Lord delights in giving out good things — ordinary, everyday things, and things far beyond the ordinary. It has always been that way.
When he created the world, God was so pleased with it that he couldn't keep it for himself and simply had to share it with some who would delight in it with him. And there is always more — more than we could ever imagine. ... Half a dozen different birds would surely [have been] enough, perhaps a dozen kinds of fish. But no, we have some of the craziest looking fish. Some from deep down in the darkest depths of the sea we have only recently [seen]. ... [We wonder,] "Why on earth did God make something like that?"
Why on earth did the Lord make something like you? There is only one like you — ever has been, ever will be. The Lord multiplies his delight. He doesn't have the same delight in any hundred of the same. He has a different delight in each unique one of us, and he invites us into delighting with him in each one. (Norman Nagel. Selected Sermons. 161)
But when Adam and Eve took to heart the demonic invitation to doubt God's goodness and his grace and believe the lie that their Creator was less than generous with his gifts, fellowship at the table — and our delight in the gracious differences God made between us — came to a very messy and abrupt end. And we've been unsuccessfully attempting to regain a place at the Lord's table — or replace it with one of our own — ever since.
That's why God had to quickly step in and set in motion the one thing that would restore our fellowship with him and one another. That's why the almighty creator of heaven and earth promised Adam and Eve — and you through them — that at just the right time things would be brought back to the center: God and his redeemed people delighting in each other in an eternal heavenly banquet hall.
You see, the history of salvation can be read — should be read — as the unstoppable unfolding of God's central promise to send the One who would make it possible for every fallen child of Adam and Eve to be cleaned up, properly dressed and escorted to table in the kingdom of heaven, there to enjoy not only the food and drink and song of the banquet, but most importantly, to delight in each other and the good and gracious host of the feast who made it all possible and sustains it with his all-powerful Word.
In today's Gospel we have Christ's take on the feast to come — who's invited, how the guests are prepared for the meal, what's being served, who's doing the serving — contrasted to that of the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day. And the contrast couldn't be greater, and more costly for Jesus.
For you see, who Jesus invites and prepares and serves at table leads directly to his arrest and trial and suffering and death. That's how much the Pharisees felt about his table manners. No less than three times in Saint Luke's Gospel account we hear that they grumbled at Jesus, saying, "This man stands condemned as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors — a table companion of sinners! (Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:2)
The Pharisees desired a festal meal of their own making, one that would put the spotlight on their self-created status as the dining elite. They enjoyed their mutual applause. They guarded it and got rid of anyone who threatened to expose it as hollow.
Whether it is received in faith or rejected in unbelief, Jesus did come to be the friend of sinners. That is his title. He came to save the likes of religious outcasts and spiritual misfits who had all but given up hope that heaven's banquet table would ever be open for them. Jesus came as the friend of all who believed the only thing they could place before God's altar of salvation was their sin.
Jesus came to willingly, joyfully give hope to the hopeless and faith to the despairing. The great exchange: his righteousness for their unrighteousness. His life blood to redeem the poor and crippled and blind and lame.
Who may properly be escorted to the Lord's banquet hall?
Those whom the Lord has prepared as he comes in his Word with water to wash and cleanse and cloth with the only garment worthy of the great banquet hall: the unstained robe of the Son's perfect life in our place. His keeping of the Law, his pure delight in the love and grace of God the Father. His sinless response as he bowed to the will of the One who sent him and clothed himself with a lowly servant's towel to prepare those who could never earn an invitation for an eternal meal with their Creator.
Who may properly be escorted to the Lord's table?
Those who approach, as Luther often reminds us, in faith, truly believing that from Christ and his table they receive his very body and blood, in, with and under the bread and wine, for the forgiveness of all of their sins.
Who may properly be escorted to the feast that will have no end?
Those who are given the grace to examine their unworthiness, their constant need for Christ's word of absolution. Those who confess before heaven and earth that outside of the perfect life and sacrificial death of Christ, they would be found outside the hall for all eternity.
Who may properly be escorted to sit with the Lord of the Banquet and his ransomed guests?
Those who by God's mercy acknowledge that God's forgiving gifts at the Cross of his Son are never to be hoarded or kept locked away in a vault, but allowed to spill over into the lives of those who have trespassed against us.
This morning, believe in your heart and confess with your lips that God was most pleased, most delighted with us, when he baptized us, through the Holy Spirit, into his Son. On that day we first believed, we were marked with the Cross and sealed for his eternal feast.
"Friend of sinners." This is the title Christ received at his one-of-a-kind baptism, as he was sent forth to make all things ready — to be the true friend who lays down his very life for those he loves.
Believe and do not doubt. It is not a great big mistake. Christ has spoken his Word over you. "I take from you all that bars you from my Father's heavenly hall. I have washed you and clothed you. I delight in being your butler, cook, host — your food and drink. In me and my righteous sacrifice in your stead, you are my Father's beloved guest. In repentant joy, come to my table."
In the name of Jesus. Amen