In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. Those who are first invited make excuses not to come. More messengers are sent. Those invited refuse to come. The treat the messengers shamefully and kill them. The king responds by burning their city. He destroys everything, kills everyone. But he still wants guests. So he sends out messengers to invite anyone they can find. There is no discrimination. The good and the bad are invited. Any breathing body, completely without merit, is welcome. Winos, drug addicts, pimps, crazy people, filthy, smelly people are welcome. Anyone and everyone is invited. The tactic works. The hall is nearly full. But then a surprise. Someone has come who won’t wear the wedding garment. He is bound hand and foot and tossed into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, into eternal, solitary pain and sadness. He is sent to Hell. For many are called, but few are chosen.
There are two warnings. The first is that if you reject the invitation you will be destroyed. The second that is even if you accept the invitation, if you won’t wear the wedding garment you will be sent to Hell. The invitation comes from God. It is His grace. He invites the good and the bad to be clean and holy in Him, to be forgiven and welcomed as honored guests. He invites everyone. The second warning is chilling. For is it not enough to be baptized? To be cleansed and have His Name upon you? How do you keep the grace He gives and not be thrown into the fire? Where do we get and how do we keep the garment?
Fearing Hell, or desiring an effective fund-raising technique, men have often thought that the way to hold on to grace, or to make Baptism effective, was the performance of good works. We’ve come to Christ by grace, they reasoned, but if we stop doing good works we will lose that grace and be cast out. Good works are the wedding garment that keep us in God’s favor.
That is false. It is a subtle but important error. Grace that has to be earned or kept is not grace. Consider how you speak to your children. You do not tell them that you love them as long as they behave or that you brought them into this world for free but now they must prove worthy of your love. You tell them that you love them . . . no matter what. That is far more true of your heavenly Father than it is of you. His love is not conditional. He loves you no matter what.
Good works please your Father in heaven, but they do not convince Him to love you or to keep on loving you. He needs no convincing. His love is perfect and without limit. It creates something from nothing. He causes rocks and beasts to sing His praise. He calls saints out of sinners. If you reject that love you will be destroyed. That is the warning. For while it is possible to reject Christ out of hand, like the city that was destroyed in the parable, the more important warning for Christian is that His grace can be rejected even after Holy Baptism. It is possible to come to the banquet and insist on your own way, to reject the invitation while seeming to accept it, to walk into the Temple of the Most Holy God with a list of demands and begin remodeling. That path leads to Hell. And we have all flirted with it. We have all set ourselves up as God’s judge. We have twisted His words to fit our mood, sometimes excusing sins that are convenient for us in the false name of the Gospel, as though we were more loving and kind than God, and other times, condemning those whom He loves in the false name of the Law, as though we were righteous and worthy to judge. Repent. You are but a guest in the House of the Lord. You don’t make the rules.
But good works are not the answer. They are the proof that faith is living, a demonstration of the love of God. For the love of God works itself out in the love of neighbor. Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. Anyone with faith will perform good works. Anyone who does not perform good works has no faith. There is a subtlety here that must not be missed; for the devil builds all his lies around grains of truth. Good works are only the proof that faith is living. They are not faith itself. They do not save or keep salvation. Your salvation comes at the word and grace of God who is worthy to invite and has the authority to forgive. The same grace that made you a Christian keeps you a Christian. Any self-analysis of good works will lead to despair because our good works are never completely pure. We always have mixed motives.
Ask yourself why you have come to Church today. Because hearing the Word of God is a good work. A part of you probably came out of guilt. You are seeking to appease God’s wrath by works. Or maybe you want something from God. You think that you might stand a better chance of obtaining it by buttering Him up, like children trying to get on Santa’s good list by a last ditch effort at being nice on Christmas Eve. Some of you might be here without any thought at all. It is just a habit, or because this is the one place left in America where common people still sing together. You come for the music. Or you come because this is YOUR Church, founded by YOUR parents, the altar or the paraments or the Chalice is a memorial to YOUR family. The professional church workers have the worst motives. They need to be seen at Church. It is part of the job. None of us has perfect motives while we abide in this fallen flesh. But still worse are our actions, our thoughts. Coming to Church is a good work, but you make a filthy rag when you despise the Word of God while here. Do you dare to be bored in the presence of God? To daydream of evil things in the midst of holy things, of mammon, of flesh and food and fame? If your salvation must be kept by the goodness of your works, you are damned. For they are not good enough.
Here is the irony. The greater your awareness of this: the greater your faith. Strong faith never says, “I am strong.” Strong faith does not feel strong. It feels weak. When it feels weakest, when it is most dependent upon the grace of God, when it recognizes how frail it is, then it is strong. When you feel strong you are deluded and easily misled. Faith lives best on its knees, ears and mouth open to hear and receive the Word of God and forgiveness of sins. Strong faith is not so given to praise as it is to confession. The devil seeks to drive you to despair by showing you your unworthiness. He thinks he make you quit. But he is God’s devil. Awareness of that unworthiness is actually good for faith. It directs the believer to the One who is worthy, to the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. The Law serves the Gospel. You repent that you might believe and be saved.
It doesn’t matter why you came here today, how pure or impure you motives were, or how attentive you have been. You were invited. That is the objective reality. God wants you here. The holy angels conspired together to get you here. The risen Christ sent His messengers to bring you in. You are baptized. He has bestowed His Name upon you. He sworn an oath in His Name to you. He will not forsake or forget you. He will love you to the very end. He keeps His Word. He provides the garment you need. It is not your good works that are needed: it is His righteousness. He covers you with His works, His perfection and His grace, with His holy death and blessed resurrection. So it really does not matter how bad your motives were or how inattentive you may have been. He has been attentive to you. And He is here for you, in Word and Sacrament, to give you what you need, to keep you safe by faith in Him.
So you have no money? Your works are not good enough to earn heaven? Come, buy and eat. Here is the Bread from heaven that feeds the soul, given to you without price. It is what you really want, what is good for you. He gives it for the forgiveness of your sins, as a foretaste of the resurrection to come. The King Himself, risen from the dead, will have mercy on you. He will abundantly pardon you. He will keep His promises. Come be His guest.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.