Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: Luke 14: 1-24 Come Dine With Jesus

I wonder if you’ve ever seen the TV programme ‘Come Dine With Me.’ The format is simple. Contestants take it in turns to host a dinner party, with the other participants secretly scoring their efforts. The person with the most points wins a cash prize of £1000. It seems that the producers work hard to put together the most bizarre combination of guests to make memorable TV moments, with a few confrontations and shocks along the way.

Our reading today is a bit like an episode of Come Dine With Me. We’re told in the very first verse that Jesus has gone to eat in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and he’s being watched carefully. As the dinner party unfolds, we’re given glimpses of what life in Jesus’ kingdom is like, in the four episodes Luke tells us about:

Scene 1. In the house, there’s a man with dropsy, abnormal swelling. Jesus asks the Pharisees and experts in the law (those who are very religious) ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ When the assembled men don’t answer, Jesus heals the man and sends him away.

The Pharisees considered healing to be a work, something that shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath. And yet, as Jesus explains, it’s a work of mercy: “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (5)

It would be unthinkable to shout down the well to your child to keep paddling until the next day, when you would be able to work to pull them out. No, you would get them out straight away, Sabbath or not. In the same way, this healing, doing good, isn’t something that should wait.

The atmosphere is also tense after the first confrontation. But then in scene 2, as the guests choose their seats and make sure they’re in the places of honour, right up beside the host, Jesus tells them a parable:

Imagine that you’re at a big function. You want to be seen to be there, noticed by everyone, so you plonk yourself down at the top table. You’ve got the best seat in the house, it’ll be a night you’ll never forget. The only thing is that someone more important than you has been invited. You’re sitting in the Lord Mayor’s seat; you’re in the place where the Queen should be sitting; you’re where the bride and groom have been placed. What will happen? Everyone will notice you all right, as you’re escorted from the best seat to the lowliest. You’ll be humiliated.

Instead, Jesus says to put yourself in the lowest place - the host may then come and promote you to a better seat. You’ll be honoured. Then Jesus gives the principle: ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (11)

Have you ever seen it? Someone puts on a display of self-importance; they brag about their skills; they look down on others and are full of themselves - but in exalting themselves they are soon humbled. The story goes that some celebrity or other was in an airport, wanting special treatment as they were checking in - maybe an upgrade to first class. The assistant wasn’t playing ball, and the celebrity started up with ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Quickly, and calmly, the assistant lifted the microphone and broadcast to the whole airport the following: ‘There’s a gentleman at desk 12 who doesn’t know who he is. If someone does know, could they please help him?’

It’s funny to see in others - it can be painful when it happens to us. But remember that this is a parable - an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Who is Jesus addressing? - the Pharisees and teachers of the law - they were exalting themselves in the religious way; they thought they deserved the top seats, but Jesus says they will be brought low.

As we move on to scene 3, Jesus turns from the guests to the host, and exposes the motives of his heart. You see, in throwing his grand dinner party, he has invited the great and the good. It’s the place to be, with the celebrities of the day. Why? Well, because they will have dinner parties and you’ll be invited back. You’ll be repaid, it’ll all be pleasant. An endless round of fuzzy fellowship with good food and nice people.

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Do we only help those who will in turn help us? Do we dare to only use the gifts God has given us for us and our friends? People we like and people like us?

Jesus challenges us to use them to share with those in need; those who really do need them. Or will we continue with our comfortable round of entertainment? It might be costly, and yet there is ample repayment - on that day, at the resurrection of the just / righteous; when those who belong to Jesus will rise to life with him; righteous because of Jesus, not because of their own goodness.

Now you might have noticed that up to this point, Jesus has been doing all the talking. The Pharisees had nothing to say when Jesus asked them about healing; they have ventured no opinion on the things that Jesus have been challenging them with. It’s almost as if there’s an awkward silence (ever experienced one of those?!) when suddenly one of the guests seizes on what Jesus has just said: ‘Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’

One of the promises of the Old Testament, one of the pictures of the completed kingdom is of the feast, the banquet. And the man rightly declares that those who will be there and eat in the kingdom will be blessed. But in scene 4, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom, about who it is that will be present. It’s another shocker:

The invitations have been sent, the replies received, and when everything is ready, then the servant is sent to tell the guests to ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ Just at that moment, the invited guests start to drop out. The excuses start, and what poor excuses they are: ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go out and see it... I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them... I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ Feeble excuses - would you buy a field without seeing it? Would you buy a car without test driving it? Would you suddenly get married in a flash?

Those who were invited refuse to come. They back out at the last moment. Now what will happen? The feast is ready, the food has to be eaten. The servant is sent out: ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ and then again ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.’

Those who were expected and invited refuse; the most unlikeliest of people are welcomed in. The great and the good, those who exalt themselves and think they are worthy are excluded; those who are no-hopers and down and outs; those who are humble are welcomed in and exalted.

It’s a picture of Jesus’ ministry - the Jews, those who had been invited through the promises of the Old Testament, refuse to come in, they refuse to listen to Jesus; they exclude themselves. In their place, we who were on the outside are brought in; we’re given a place at the table, a share in the heavenly banquet, as we hear the good news and respond to it.

And yet there’s a danger that we, respectable upright church-going people, might presume on our place and think ourselves worthy, and exalt ourselves. Well, obviously God will welcome me - heaven would be a worse place without me and my wonderful goodness there. But by such an attitude, we’re refusing the invitation; we’re shutting ourselves outside; missing out on the joy of the heavenly feast.

No. the heavenly banquet is for the poor, crippled, lame and blind; for the sinner who recognises their unworthiness, and comes humbly to the Lord Jesus, pleading their sinfulness and trusting in the saving blood of the Lord Jesus, who welcomes us in.

We’ve been looking at an episode of ‘Come Dine With Jesus’. This dinner party was memorable for all sorts of reasons. Yet through it, the invitation is extended to us - we too can ‘Come Dine With Jesus’ in his heavenly home for eternity. Will you come? Will you be drawn in?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th January 2016.

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