First Sunday after Trinity 2010
Readings: Deut 20:1-9; Ps. 76; 1 John 3:13; Luke 14:16-24
13 June a.d. 2010
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. AMEN.
Today’s readings present us a contradiction, something altogether contrary to our expectation & understanding: The New Testament lesson is more stringent, more demanding, than the Old Testament lesson.
We are used to thinking of the Old Testament of a set of long, complicated rules that the Hebrews couldn’t keep no matter how hard they tried. Then in the New Testament Christ abolishes all those rules and ceremonies and pretty much leaves us free to run along our merry way. We’re under grace, not law, after all, and grace requires nothing at all from us, just that we love God and love everybody and are nice.
Oh, how wrong we are. How utterly, totally wrong.
In the Old Testament lesson God through Moses actually hands the people several ways to dodge the draft. That’s right, when the people of Israel go out to war with their enemies and God’s, you’d think that everybody would have to be there, sword in hand. Not so.
When you go to war, God says, and you see enemies more numerous than you, don’t be afraid for I am with you.
However, before the battle the priest shall go out and make this announcement:
1. Do not be terrified of your enemies, because the Lord Your God is with you to fight against your enemies and save you.
2. But wait: send the officers also out to give the people excuses on these grounds.
a. If you have built a new house, and haven’t yet dedicated it, go home.
b. If you have planted a vineyard, but not yet eaten of it, go back.
c. If you have been engaged but not yet married your wife, go home
d. Finally, if any one of you is fearful, and faint hearted, go back. No shame, no blame, just go back.
All this is awfully generous. It addresses all the regrets a man might have going into battle – he might lose property and wife before he ever gets to enjoy them – and even gives cowards an excuse. Just admit you are a coward, and go home. This is not very strict.
But in today’s Gospel, we find the same excuses blown to smithereens.
You know this parable well. A man made a great supper, maybe a wedding feast for his son, and sent out invitations, just like the invitation to go to war in the OT lesson.
But when he sent his servant to call the guests to supper, they all began to make excuses, and they are excuses nearly identical as those in the OT lesson:
? One says, I just bought a new piece of ground I have to go inspect. Property I haven’t been able to use yet
? Another says, I’ve just bought five yoke of oxen, and I need to go test-drive them.
? Another says, “I have just gotten married, so I can’t possibly come.”
Does the host then back off and say, “Well, those are pretty strong excuses. I will just forgive those people and maybe change my feast to another date.”
Not at all. When the servant told him about these excuse-mongers, these ingrates, his eyes flashed with anger. “You go out into the streets and highways and you find the people sleeping under the bushes, the worthless, the poor, the crippled and lame and the blind, and you drag them in to fill my supper table – and I promise you this, that none of those men that spurned my invitation will taste of my supper.”
Whoa. No much understanding or generosity there. No way out. Come to my supper, or that’s the end of you.
None of this is so subtle that we cannot penetrate its meaning. In fact, it is very plain. Christians have always understood the Christian life as a kind of warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The conquest of the Promised Land symbolizes and foreshadows has the Christian life, the life of warfare against giants in the land and against our enemies and God’s. It is spiritual warfare against our own sin, the lusts of our flesh, the temptations of the world and the tricks and deceit of the devil, but is it still warfare, and far more arduous warfare than physical warfare. And no Christian, not a single one, is exempted from this warfare.
Then there is the Feast, the Great Supper. Wherever it appears in Scripture, from
? the sacrifice of Abel to
? Melchizedek’s meal to
? Abraham’s meal with the angels
? to the Passover
? to the wedding at Cana
? to the Last Supper
? to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb,
the Supper is that event where God meets with man, offering with the food peace and fellowship. The feast of God feeds both body and soul. It is the unique event that assures us that God really is with us that he forgives and accepts us and has adopted us into his own family. The Feast, in other words, is shorthand for the whole Christian life, for all of life with God.
“He prepareth a table before me in the presence of my enemies, my cup runneth over.”
“Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sin. Do this as often as you shall eat it, in remembrance of me.”
And this parable clearly represents the Feast. Jesus is warning the Jews, his hearers, that they must come to his feast, or God will utterly reject them, and in their place he will substitute the unworthy and the lowest of the low. They think themselves too good to come to the feast, too righteous. Well, God will show them. He will beat the bushes and drag the dirty, the poor, the lame and blind in to fill up the tables at his feast. He will find those who know they have no claim to righteousness, and drag them in kicking and screaming, but he will fill his table.
Clearly, God has upped the ante hugely since the Old Testament, because NO excuse satisfies now to allow you to dodge the Christian life and Christian warfare. None.
GRACE IS TERRIBLE
Yesterday Johnny Bain and I were talking about a book he had recently read by a Presbyterian pastor. He had taken up a new church and was preaching the grace of God. One of the members, a woman, came to him and said, “What you have been preaching is completely different from what I have been taught and understood of Christianity my whole life. The way I understand it, if I keep the rules and do what God commands, God has to accept me. I’ve earned it.
“But what you are teaching me is terrible. It isn’t terrible because my good works don’t count. No, it is terrible for another reason.
“You see, all my life I knew that when I had kept the rules, done my duty, that was enough. God couldn’t demand anything else from me. I could know when I was done. But now, with this grace, there is no end. God can demand everything.”
Of course, she was absolutely right. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “when you have done everything you are commanded, say, we are unprofitable servants. We have only done our duty.” (Luke 17:10).
But this poor woman only saw grace halfway, ignorantly and suspiciously, and without love. She feared God, but the wrong way, the same way we fear a mousetrap, that it will suddenly spring and hurt us.
According to the Gospel, the only obedience that pleases God is obedience that springs from love. Love, not gain or merit, is the reason that we obey God, and we obey solely to please him.
And certainly, just like this poor woman, fear holds most of mankind away from God’s table and the Feast. “Oh,” they say, “if I submit myself to God, if I give myself wholly and without reserve to God, why, there’s no telling what he will make me do. For starters, he’ll certainly make me give up smoking, and probably drinking, and I can’t cuss anymore, and then he’ll make me go to deep, dark Africa to spend my life as a missionary.”
Oh, how wrong we are. How utterly, totally wrong. How utterly we misunderstand God and his love. We believe that we will LOSE when we abandon ourselves to the love of God, when in fact we become infinite gainers.
She was right about this part: With grace, there is no end of what God can demand of us. The terrible love of God knows no limit at all. He won’t take half of you, or even ¾ or 9/10s. He will have you all, or none.
But she was wrong about this part: how the grace and love of God change us. How the love of God, growing in our heart, changes all our desires, so we no longer clutch tightly houses and wives and position and money. Instead, the love of God, our love for him and his love working in us, changes our desires, so that just has he has not withheld his only begotten Son from us, so we cannot, would not withhold anything from him.
We don’t have to, because whatever we ask of him, he will give to us. And because his grace gives us the will to obey him, and the power.
All those things we were afraid God would make us give up, all those things we were terrified of losing if we abandoned ourselves to God, suddenly fall out of the equation altogether. We are glad to give whatever God demands, because we love him.
Beloved, we are ready to set out on Trinity season to lead the Christian life, wholly offering ourselves to God and not holding anything back. These last two Sundays we have heard again and again that for that warfare, the one indispensable piece of equipment we must carry with us is love: love of God, and love of our neighbour.
Beloved, you have your marching orders: go forward, in love. ?
Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning,
Is now and ever shall be,
World without end, Amen.
The Collect for Second Sunday after Trinity
O LORD, who never failest to help and govern
those whom thou dost bring up
in thy steadfast fear and love;
Keep us, we beseech thee,
under the protection of thy good providence,
and make us to have
a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen