BUT THERE’S A DRESS CODE! (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 2)

And he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honor. Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. [Matthew 22:8-10 (NLT)]

mute swanIn Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Dinner, after the initial guests refused to come, the king’s servants invited everyone they could find. Since it was a royal wedding, you’d expect the new guests to be dignitaries but everyone was to be called—regardless of social standing, race, nationality, wealth, or even moral character.

What seems like a beautiful example of God’s grace takes a turn when we learn that the king seems to have set a condition—a wedding garment must be worn. When I’m going to a wedding, it takes days (and probably a shopping trip or two) to put together the proper apparel and this was a royal wedding! People came from all walks of life and, with little time to prepare or purchase fancy clothing, we’re surprised when the king notices a man not wearing wedding clothes. Confronting the guest, the king asks how he could be there without proper attire. When the man has no reply, the king has him bound and cast into “the outer darkness.”

It’s easy to think the host’s problem is that the man is poor and has only rags to wear but the host’s anger seems so unlike Jesus that I was troubled by this part of His story. Scripture, however, never says the man was poor or dressed in tattered clothing and the speechless man, by never explaining himself or even asking how to get such a garment, seems to know he doesn’t belong at the feast.

By eating with sinners, touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, and talking theology with a Samaritan woman, Jesus never seemed overly concerned with propriety or etiquette so it’s hard to think He took much notice of clothing. Some commentators speculate that the king must have furnished all of his guests with suitable apparel and that the man slighted the king by refusing to wear it. While it makes for a convenient explanation, there is no evidence of this being a Jewish custom so I’m not sure Jesus’ listeners would have understood it that way. Then again, perhaps “proper clothes” shouldn’t be taken too literally!

Rather than fabric and jewelry, could the wedding garment be the righteousness of Christ? By accepting the invitation, the evicted guest professed his belief, but the absence of a wedding garment testified to the falseness of his profession. A wedding garment would be the evidence of salvation—a way of life showing rebirth, repentance, and the works of righteousness. If we want to enjoy the feast, lip service is not enough; we must be righteous in character!

Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” [22:14] God will not have an empty banquet hall and His invitation has been extended to all. He will, however, reject those who refuse His offer (as did the first invitees) along with those who are false in their acceptance (as was the man without the wedding garment.)

When sinners come in repentance, trusting in Christ, then He clothes them with the garment of salvation, with the robe of righteousness. This is the wedding garment that makes one presentable at the marriage supper. [Harry Ironside]

Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.  [Matthew 7:21 (NLT)]

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? …  Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. [James 2:14,26 (NLT)]

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THE PARTY HAS STARTED (Matthew 22:1-14 – part 1) 

The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servants to notify those who were invited. But they all refused to come! [Matthew 22:2-3 (NLT)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesIn explaining the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told a parable about a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. Weddings are notable events but this was a royal wedding of great significance! Perhaps the most famous royal wedding was that of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. Broadcast all over the world, the wedding was viewed by 750 million people and 3,500 people attended the royal nuptials. In spite of the honor it was to receive an invitation from the Queen, not everyone who got one attended the festivities. The Presidents of the Republic of Ireland and Greece along with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain spurned the invitation for political reasons.

News of the royal wedding in Jesus’ parable would have spread all over the land and the guests already had received and accepted the first invitation (the 1st Century equivalent of a “save the date” card). When the feast was prepared, the king sent his servants to notify his guests that all was ready and the time had come. Unlike the few people who declined Queen Elizabeth’s invite, everyone invited by the king refused to attend: an inexcusable affront to the monarch. Nevertheless, in spite of his people’s deplorable behavior, the king was patient and sent out a third invitation.

A king’s invitation is more of a command than a request, but the people ignored his messengers; some were even abused or killed. When the people’s behavior went from insult to outright rebellion, the king reacted as would any king: by sending soldiers to kill the murderers and burn their town. With the wedding feast prepared but no guests, the king sent his messengers out to invite everyone they could find (both good and bad) until the banquet hall was filled.

Up to this point, the parable isn’t hard to understand. The marriage feast is the Messianic reign—the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God since the two terms were synonymous). The King (God) had sent his messengers (the prophets, including John the Baptist) to invite His people (the Jews) to the wedding feast for His son (the Messiah). Since the original guests rejected His invitation, God extended his invitation to everyone (both good and bad Gentiles). His servants (the Apostles) would bring them into the banquet hall. The punishment of those who abused and killed his messengers along with the promised destruction and burning of their town points to Jerusalem’s fall and the destruction and burning of the Temple (the center of Judaism) by the Romans in 70 AD.

Matthew placed this parable immediately after the Parable of the Evil Farmers in which Jesus warned, “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit.” [21:43] This parable expands on that theme. For centuries, the Jewish people had been invited to the Messianic feast, but they were showing contempt for God’s grace by their refusal to attend.

When Luke relates a somewhat similar parable about a feast, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus taught for three years and, like any good teacher, probably repeated Himself from time to time. Both versions made it clear that, even if the initial guests refused to come, God’s plan would not be stopped. His Son would have a people who would enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom! The parable in Matthew’s gospel, however, carries an unmistakable message with its description of the king’s punishment. The parable then takes an unexpected twist. Just when it seems that all were welcome at the King’s banquet, not everyone who came was allowed to stay. More about that tomorrow!

The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, “Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” After the servant had done this, he reported, “There is still room for more.” So his master said, “Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.” [Luke 14:21-25 (NLT)]

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THE WAGER (Part 2)

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans 1:20 (NLT)]

sandhill craneIn researching yesterday’s devotion, I learned some interesting things about Blaise Pascal. Along with building the first digital calculator (c. 1642), he invented the syringe, created the hydraulic press, and, along with Pierre de Fermat, formulated the fundamental principles of probability theory.

It was when reading about Pascal’s Pensées, a compilation of notes and essays about Christian apologetics, that I saw mention of “Pascal’s Wager.” Curious as to what gambling and Christianity had in common, I read on. Perhaps it was Pascal’s interest in probabilities that led him to present the choice between belief and disbelief in God as a coin toss but, instead of betting on heads or tails, the bet is about God’s existence. After pointing out that making a wager is not optional, he asked how we’d bet. In mathematical terms, Pascal explains that, if God exists, and you bet that He does, you have infinite gain (eternal life) but, if you bet He doesn’t, you have infinite loss (loss of paradise and an eternity in hell). If, however, God doesn’t exist and you bet that He does, you lose nothing and, if you win, you gain nothing. Simply put, a winning bet on God pays off far better than a winning bet against Him and, if the bettor happens to be wrong, the one who’s bet against God has far more to lose than the one who’s bet on God.

If it should turn out that God doesn’t exist, Pascal says to the one who made a losing bet on Him: “Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

Summarizing, Pascal says: “According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. ‘But,’ say you, ‘if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.’ He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.”

Pascal’s wager does not prove the existence of God and wasn’t intended to do so; it simply tells us that belief in God is the best choice! There are, however, valid Christian criticisms of Pascal’s Wager. True faith doesn’t come from probability theory or a cost/benefit analysis; it comes from being born again. Pascal’s Wager seems to base belief in God on a risk and reward system that speaks of a heavenly reward without mentioning loving Jesus, obedience, or bearing fruit. His wager also fails to mention that there actually is a cost to following Jesus—one that is not always easy to pay. Whether we’re betting or choosing, the one thing about which we can’t argue is Pascal’s very first premise—the choice is not optional. We cannot sit this one out, the consequences are eternal, and the stakes are high.

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists. [Blaise Pascal]

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Mark 8:34-37 (NLT)]

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THE GOD-SHAPED HOLE (Part 1)

Wilson Arch - Moab UtahYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)]

Our children gave us a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas and, as I struggled to complete it, I wondered if I should thank or curse them for their gift! After staring at an opening, I’d try to find the one piece out of 1,000 that would fit. Since the puzzle’s edges were one color, I confess to a bit of pride when I completed the puzzle’s border. After assembling several sections of the interior, I ran into difficulty finding the right spots for them. Eventually, I realized why—the left side was shorter than the right! With a puzzle that large, while each piece is unique, some are nearly identical; a close fit, however, isn’t good enough and the border had to be redone. As I struggled to find the perfect fit for each opening, I thought of the phrase about everyone having a God-shaped hole that only can be filled by Him. While it doesn’t come from Scripture, the concept is Biblical and I wondered about its source.

The saying may have been inspired by Augustine of Hippo’s word from his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” As a young man, Augustine attempted to fill his restless heart with things like paganism, revelry, drunkenness, empty philosophies, idleness, and decadence. Having tried to fill that void with everything but God, Augustine still felt empty until he heard a voice say, “Take up and read.” Reaching down, he picked up the book beside him and read the first thing he saw—the words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans urging them to stop participating in “the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness…sexual promiscuity and immoral living…quarreling and jealousy,” and  to “clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.” [13:13-14] Augustine had been living the life of debauchery about which Paul warned the Romans but, in the Apostle’s words to clothe himself in Jesus, he finally knew how to fill the emptiness in his life and immediately transformed. Augustine ended up being one of the most influential voices in both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.

Some sources wrongly attribute a quote about having a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts to the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. While close, that’s not what Pascal said. In Pensées, a book written in defense of Christianity, Pascal wrote of an “infinite abyss” that man vainly seeks to fill with things that aren’t there. Since Pascal came along more than 1,200 years after Augustine, perhaps the ancient theologian’s words influenced him.

Like Augustine, Pascal had a conversion experience but, unlike him, Pascal never led the life of a libertine. Nevertheless, shortly before having a mystical vision in what he called a “night of fire,” Pascal complained of the dissatisfaction, guilt, lack of purpose, and boredom in his life. After his vision, Pascal committed his life to Christ, left the world of science and mathematics, put his remarkable mind to work for God and, like Augustine, left his mark on Christianity.

That “God-shaped hole” is man’s innate longing for something far greater than anything found in this world. Perhaps it’s the “eternity” God plants in our hearts that keeps us from finding complete fulfillment in earthly pursuits and passions. As happened with my puzzle, we often try to fill the emptiness in our lives with pieces that don’t fit and, while some may come close, only the perfect piece works. Nothing—not fame, wealth, education, possessions, shopping, popularity, ritual, false gods, self-indulgence, or even family, can fill that God-shaped hole. As for the puzzle, I eventually gave up and returned it to the box—perhaps, someday I’ll try again. Fortunately, seeking God and fitting Him into the emptiness in our hearts is far easier!

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)]

 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14 (NLT)]

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. Acts 17 27-28 (NLT)]

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TOO DEFINITE FOR LANGUAGE

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. [Galatians 2:16 (ESV)]

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [James 2:24 (ESV)]

Siberian reindeerChristianity seems to be full of paradoxes. We’re saved by faith and not by works but we can’t have faith without works. As for grace and obedience—it’s God’s grace not our obedience that saves us. But, what initially sounds like a free pass isn’t because the saved are expected to have grace-fueled obedience! It’s easy to get confused when we read only isolated verses in Scripture. Rather than inconsistent or even contradictory concepts, however, faith, works, grace and obedience are complementary and interrelated. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from our language rather than our doctrine.

I think back to an exchange between two characters in Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. When the character Ransom is at a loss for words while trying to explain a concept, his companion says, “I realize it’s all too vague for you to put into words.” Looking at his friend sharply, Ransom replies, “On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why it can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” Faith, works, grace, and obedience are so distinct and yet so interconnected in Christian doctrine that it’s a pity we don’t have a wider Christian vocabulary.

According to The Washington Post, there really are at least fifty Inuit words for snow that describe everything from a soft falling snow to a wet snow that will ice a sled’s runners. Along with having a multitude of words related to snow and ice, the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. They have a different word for each year of a male reindeer’s life and I suspect they have one that would perfectly describe the reindeer in today’s picture. It’s done through something linguists call “polysynthesis,” which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information into one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word so that one word can encompass a whole sentence

Language evolves to meet the ideas and needs of the people speaking it. If the Sami people can use a single word like sietnjanjunni to describe a reindeer with the hair nearest to its nostrils having a different color than the one you’d expect from the color of the rest of its hair, we should be able to come up with something for the combined concepts of faith, works, grace, and obedience. Using a little polysynthesis, we could try for the whole shebang and come up with “faithorkobegracience,” but it still wouldn’t capture these concepts because we’re talking of something far greater than reindeer, snow, or ice.

We are finite beings trying to capture an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being with words. No word in any language can come close to the immensity of all that is encompassed in our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith but true faith is obedient and obedient faith leads to works. Simply put, it is our obedience and works that reveal the authenticity of our faith!  We will just have to continue as we have for centuries: by having faith, doing His works, being saved by grace, remaining obedient to His commands and walking the way Jesus walked.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. … By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. [1 John 2:3,5b-6 (ESV)]

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [James 2:18 (ESV)]

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EROSION

Joyful are people of integrity, who follow the instructions of the Lord. Joyful are those who obey his laws and search for him with all their hearts. They do not compromise with evil, and they walk only in his paths. [Psalm 119:1-2 (NLT)]

Yellowstone RiverA few miles from our Illinois home, a giant ski jump towered over the treetops. Originally erected in 1905 by Carl Howelsen and a group of Norwegian skiers living in Chicago, it’s been rebuilt over the years and is still used today. In a curious coincidence, in 1913, the man who loved the mountains and deep snow found his way to the Colorado mountain town we once called our winter home. Although Howelsen returned to Norway in 1922, he left an indelible mark on the town by introducing it to recreational skiing and ski jumping. Not far from the hill named for him, stands a statue of the man known as Flying Norseman.

Howelsen never returned to Colorado, but I heard his son, Leif Hovelsen, speak at the dedication of that statue several years ago. It was then that I learned the legacy Howelsen left his son was even greater than the one he left our mountain town. When Leif was just a boy in 1930s Norway, Carl sent him on a delivery. Upon his return home, it was discovered that the boy had been short-changed. When his father insisted that he return and get the proper payment, the youngster balked. Not wanting to face the man who’d cheated him, the lad offered to make up the difference from his own savings. His father, however, insisted that he return to get the correct payment. It wasn’t about a few kroner, explained Carl. It was that every time we accept things like cheating, thievery, hate, depravity and deception, a little bit of our integrity erodes until none remains.

From Leif Hovelson’s life, it’s obvious that he took his father’s words to heart. Unable to accept the evils of Nazism during World War II, 19-year old Leif smuggled radio parts out of Oslo to members of the resistance fighting the Nazi occupation. Betrayed by a friend, he was captured by the Gestapo in 1943. As he was dragged from his home by soldiers, his mother’s parting words were, “Leif, never forget Jesus!” It seems that he never did!

Although he’d been placed in solitary confinement in a concentration camp, threatened with death, regularly interrogated, and tortured badly enough to lose much of his hearing, Hovelsen set his heart on reconciliation rather than revenge. After the war, he spent years in Germany working to help that country rebuild its moral and spiritual foundations. Choosing to love rather than hate, Hovelsen dedicated his life to Moral Re-Armament, an international movement with Christian roots and based around the “Four Absolutes:” absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity and absolute love. One of the core ideas of the movement was that changing the world begins with making changes in oneself. For Hovelsen, that change began when his father warned him of spiritual and moral erosion.

When I think of Carl Howelsen, I don’t think of the legacy he left to the sport of skiing and to the town that now boasts of 98 winter Olympic athletes. I remember the advice he gave his son and the impact it had on him.

Let us remember that, every time we accept that which is unacceptable, a little part of our soul wears away. While it takes water centuries to eat away at rock, it only takes one bad decision to start eroding our souls. We live in a world where immorality, prejudice, greed, selfishness, corruption, and dishonesty constantly assault us. If we are to be people of integrity, it is God’s standards, rather than the world’s, that must be our standards. Moreover, we can’t maintain the absolutes of honesty, unselfishness, purity, and love on our own; for that we need the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.
[Attributed to both Charles Reade and Ralph Waldo Emerson]

I will lead a life of integrity in my own home. I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar. I hate all who deal crookedly; I will have nothing to do with them. I will reject perverse ideas and stay away from every evil. [Psalm 101:2-4 (NLT)]

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