You’re invited to a celebration!

We had a lovely time at Sherston’s Harvest Festival last week. There was a good service in the evening, and when that had finished, in no time at all, platefuls of food started appearing from the kitchen. It was a wonderful spread, generously provided, and a great atmosphere as people mingled and chatted and enjoyed a glass of wine. Good company, laughter and a truly enjoyable evening!

It reminded me of one of the things the Archbishop of Canterbury said when he came to Malmesbury: ‘The church should have fewer meetings and more parties’. I wholeheartedly agree!

Not least because, according to Jesus, a good party is a foretaste of heaven. Many of Jesus’ parables use a banquet to describe what the Kingdom of God is like. Think of the celebration thrown at the return of the Prodigal Son; the shepherd’s party when he finds his lost sheep; the rich man and Lazarus; and of course today’s story. Jesus may have drawn on the images of the Old Testament Isaiah reading, where God destroys evil from the world, wipes away all tears, and provides a feast for all peoples. Heaven, says Jesus, is full of people, full of celebration.

Of course, that’s not the only Biblical image of God’s new creation. Revelation speaks about a city full of life, light and beauty. The Old Testament talks about every person sitting under their own fig tree – a picture of pastoral contentment. But the party is an important picture. It connects with most people – even if you’re someone who’s a bit shy and doesn’t enjoy networking events, still it’s a rare person who doesn’t appreciate a get together with people they love, their friends and family.

What a contrast to the common images of heaven. No fluffy clouds and bored angels playing harps in the Bible! What a challenge to those misconceptions of Christianity: that God at best tolerates people; that anything fun is a bit suspect; that if we enjoy it it’s probably sinful; that being religious is self-restricting, boring. Apparently Nietschze said ‘I would believe in the Redeemer if his people looked more Redeemed’

You have to ask: where do people get those misconceptions from? It certainly wasn’t from Jesus. Nor was it from the apostle Paul, who although he has a forbidding reputation, writes in the Philippians passage we had today ‘Rejoice in the Lord always – again I say rejoice.’

That’s not a kind of false, shallow joy, pretending that all is well. Paul was in prison when he wrote this! Instead, it’s a much deeper joy founded on the promise of what is to come; as v6 and 7 in the reading show, it’s a confidence that when we have entrusted everything to God, his peace will stay with us.

So the first thing to learn from this parable is that God wants knowing him to be life giving, affirming, the best way. Even in the midst of difficulty, following Christ can be transforming and inspiring. He invites everyone to this life – but we need to accept the invitation.

Maybe another good reason Jesus liked talking about heaven as a banquet is that it allowed him to explore the idea of invitation. In the parable the king, who represents God, throws a banquet and invites lots of people. He sends out his slaves to tell them it’s time to come. But the guests reject his offer.

Because you can receive an invitation and not go. You can put it on your mantelpiece so all your friends can see you have an invitation from Lord so and so – but you don’t need to tell them you can’t go! An invitation is like a cheque – it’s no use unless you do something about it. If you don’t cash the cheque it’s just a worthless piece of paper. If you don’t accept the invitation, it doesn’t do you much good.

The meaning of the parable is clear: God invites people to be part of his Kingdom life. He asks us to join in the party. He gives us an invitation, but it is up to us what we do about it. Jesus explores various responses in the parable.

In v.5 they make light of it. Some people are like that when you speak of faith, they brush it off, no interest. Others feel they have better things to do: one goes to his farm, another to his business. If they were to respond to God’s invitation it would take up their time and effort, and they don’t want to do that.

The excuses may seem trite – I’ve got some shopping to do, an animal to look after, the family are busy – but maybe that’s part of the point. Jesus asks, you’re turning down God’s invitation for what exactly? Finally v 6. reminds us of the angry persecution that we hear about in the Middle East: the rest seized his slaves, maltreated and killed them.

If this sounds familiar it’s because we had something very like it last week. Both parables have developed into an allegory for the way God’s prophets were treated by the leaders of Israel.

The religious leaders one might have expected to receive Jesus joyfully often did not. Those who responded to him were from all levels of society, some who had been waiting for the Messiah, others very much from the wrong side of the tracks but seeing hope in Jesus. As v.10 says: ‘The slaves went out into the streets and gathered all they could find, both good and bad.’ Like the king, we shouldn’t give up when rejected, nor restrict God’s invitation to the obvious candidates. Anyone can accept God’s love for all by turning to Christ and being forgiven!

But as someone asked the other week at Foundations – does response matter? If Jesus died for everyone, do we need to do anything about it? If God wants to forgive us and offers forgiveness through Christ to us all, is it conditional on believing or accepting him as Lord?

I think there are three ways of replying to that. Firstly, if we know Jesus died for us and we can be forgiven through him, it’s a bit rude not to make the effort to live his way. This is the point of the little story in verses 11-13 about the chap who turns up without a wedding robe.

Basically he can’t be bothered. He’s been invited to a special do but ignored the dress code. How can he really claim to be part of the celebration? It is no use accepting God’s gracious invitation and then carrying on living our own way, not allowing it to make any difference.

For, secondly, God invites us to a transformed life. What he offers is a new existence lived in relationship with him. A different way of being which is grounded in God and which reflects the way that humanity was meant to live. The good news is about finding a meaningful life in God – it’s much more than just being legally absolved and released.

We often understand ‘being forgiven’ as being like a legal cancellation. As if someone had committed a crime in the past, but society moves on and decides maybe that’s no longer a crime anymore, so the Queen sends a Royal Pardon. That person is forgiven, in a legal kind of way. But God’s forgiveness is reconciliation and sharing in his life – it’s as if that Royal Pardon also came with an invitation to spend a weekend at Balmoral. God adopts us as part of his family. It’s a relationship.

And thirdly, God gives us free will. He respects our ability to choose. If we decide we don’t want to have anything to do with him, how could he then force us to spend eternity with him? God’s love means we can make that choice.

It may sound odd that anyone could turn down heaven. One of the most psychologically convincing books I’ve ever read about it was by C.S. Lewis. It’s called the Great Divorce, but don’t let the title put you off. Read it if you can find it. It is remarkably touching, and challenging, as various characters respond in different ways to the love, forgiveness, and self-acceptance that heaven offers.

For today’s parable has a very simple message. You are invited to be part of God’s Kingdom. It is an invitation to a thrilling journey with a wonderful destination. But like all invitations, you need to respond. Will you decide to come, and to make it your own by living that way? Don’t just display the invitation on the mantelpiece, come on in and join the party!

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Harvest

There’s a farmer I often meet at services – he’s a regular member of one of our congregations. From time to time I ask him how things are going – have you ever done that, asked a farmer how the year has been? He has a tongue in cheek proverb: ‘You never meet a happy farmer’. It’s his way of saying that no matter how well the farm has done, there’s something that could have done better. If the weather is sunny and perfect for harvest then a farmer may be grateful for that, but you’ll find him complaining about the one crop that needs rain. It might have been a great year for grass, the livestock are thriving and wheat yields are high – but because there’s so much around the price per ton is low.

I have an inkling of what this like. My garden is full of cabbages. Green cabbages, red cabbages, Savoy cabbages, pointy cabbages, round cabbages the size of footballs. As you can imagine, the girls adore cabbages, they can’t get enough of them. Chantal says there’s a prize of a cabbage for the first person to say they enjoyed today’s sermon!

On the other hand the leeks have fallen victim to moth, maggots, molluscs and mould. I remember that when I come to Harvest: Harvest festival involves being grateful to God for what has been produced, thankful for what we enjoy, being humble in the face of what nature can do and remembering those who depend on the earth for a living, for whom an agricultural accident can be a calamity.

The prophet Isaiah obviously knew what it was like to pour your labour into an agricultural project and get no results. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 5:1-7, he sings a song about a man who plants a vineyard and gives it everything it could possibly need. But it yields only small sour wild grapes.

What is he to do? In verses 3 and 4 Isaiah invite his hearers to judge. And in then in v.5 tells us his response. The landowner gives up on his vineyard. He breaks down its protective wall, allows it to grow wild. It will become rough ground, a place for hunting and for picking blackberries. That’s the only use for this failed vineyard.

But commanding the clouds not to rain, in v.6, goes even further, into angry rhetoric. It’s almost as if the landowner has put his heart and soul into the vineyard. Like one of those people who starts a new life abroad, all his savings and time have been pumped into this dream. And now he feels let down, disillusioned, angry and bitter. He’s beyond making the most of a bad job, he’s beyond cutting his losses. He’s just sick of the whole project and wants to chuck it in.

Imagine how the Israelites felt when they heard the punchline in v.7. ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel’. The very people whom Isaiah had invited to judge his little story now find themselves in the frame. They are the unproductive vineyard. God’s own people were like a vine he took care of, but they failed to produce.

Like the vineyard, that was not for lack of support and essentials. The Bible tells of how God rescued his people from Egypt, transplanted them into a rich and fertile land. He protected them from their enemies – like the watch tower in the parable. They had everything they could ever desire, yet they failed to produce. And God’s patience is running thin. Of course the point of Old Testament prophecy is to explain what God is doing – and also to bring people to repentance. All is not yet lost. They can change. Jonah shows us God is happier when his word is not fulfilled, because the hearers listened and changed their deeds.

It’s an unusual take on Harvest. Usually at Harvest we thank God for the produce of the land; we come to church and bring the fruits of the soil as a sign of thanksgiving to God. Harvest is usually about being grateful for the things the earth produces, for the harvest God gives us.

But the passage set for today reminds us: God has his Harvest too. God seeks a Harvest from us. God, whose character does not change, looks for a harvest from his people. The message of Isaiah was addressed to Israel, but it’s a message for people throughout the world and across the centuries: us too. The message is: From all people, and especially those who claim to follow him, God seeks a harvest. Out of his grace he has showered goodness upon us. We are forgiven, saved by his grace alone. Producing a harvest for him is not an attempt to put ourselves right with God, but a response to his love

But a harvest of what? The second part of v.7 shows us what God was looking for: ‘God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; he expected righteousness but heard a cry of distress’. Like the farmer looking for grapes, God looks for a fair and just society, but all he found in Israel was violence and sorrow. The verses after our reading give a bit more substance to it: v8 speaks of those who buy up more property and land, turfing the poor off their ancestral acres. V11 and 12 talk about conspicuous consumption and leaders who are more interested in satisfying themselves than governing wisely. We may think of equivalents today – the rich getting richer, increasing luxury while half the people in Africa live on less than a dollar a day.

God’s people were meant to demonstrate a perfect society to the world. God’s plan was that Israel would show what justice was like. They were intended to be a light to the world, revealing how good life could be under God’s law. Instead they became indistinguishable from the nations around.

When God looks at our society what does he see? When he looks for justice in Britain, does he find it? And what can we do to establish righteousness? Over the past few weeks, during the political party conferences, we’ve heard several different visions of how to bring about a better society. There are genuine debates about the facts and what works: for instance what is the best way to support people on low incomes – lower taxes or more benefits? What will ensure work pays?

I do not believe there is a Christian political party. On these complicated issues, true Christians can genuinely differ. I remember as a curate going to vote in the general election. The candidates’ names were up on the polling booth – along with the names and addresses of the people who had sponsored them. And in that tightly contested marginal, on both lists of sponsors, were members of our church.

I thought that was a wonderful witness. Not that there was a clear cut Christian answer – there wasn’t. But that Christians were involved, active, thinking and praying through the issues that matter.

Now some might say that this isn’t a Christian’s responsibility. That our work is sharing the message of the gospel; so getting involved in social action, working for justice somehow distracts from the church’s central call. Leave justice to the rest of society and let Christians focus on evangelism. And there was certainly a while several years ago when I felt like that – thinking that the church should focus solely on what it alone can do.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what Jesus’ taught. It’s not what we see the Early Church doing when they go around healing and providing for those in need. Nor does it make theological sense. For God created us all equal. Jesus died for us all, and because he loves us all, he calls us to love one another and treat each other fairly.

He has made us physical and spiritual beings, so we cannot care for the spiritual side of humanity without also being concerned for the physical, and vice versa. Non-Christians recognise that too –sharing our faith is almost always more successful when people realise that Christians care about them, when they can experience physical help or love which is explained and motivated by the Word.

This belief in a God of justice is why Harvest often includes a concern for the poor. The gifts that we give today are shared out among the needy through the Doorway project. The coffee that we drink after the service is usually Fairtrade – promoting a fair stable price, good working conditions and reinvestment of profits in local communities. We support charities like Tearfund, building wells in Uganda. And we collect for Christian Aid, campaigning for corporate transparency and against tax evasion, so that the world economic system can be rebalanced to be fair to the weak and poor.

These things matter to God. He hates it when his children are treated unfairly. He longs for justice and righteousness. He is a God of love and justice – and he calls us to be like him. Amen.