The Wedding Banquet
Mt 22.1-14, Is 25 1-9
“For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin”
Destroyed cities loom large in the Old Testament.
It’s a recurrent theme and it comes in many different forms. It comes as histories and chronicles, recounting the destruction of cities like Jericho, Sodom, Gomorrah. It comes as lamentation, in poetry and prayers and psalms, as a people forced to flee the city grieves for the loss of loved ones and of the city they called home.
And of course it comes as prophecy. Over and over again, the prophets warn the people of the impending destruction of the city. Jonah, sent to warn the people of Nineveh. Micah, prophesying the destruction of both Jerusalem and Samaria. Jeremiah, Daniel and of course, in our reading today, Isaiah.
Very often, it is the city of Jerusalem which is destroyed. Jerusalem, the city of God, where God dwells in the temple, the spiritual home of all Jewish people – the destruction of the city of Jerusalem means an end to safety for the Jewish people. And since God has promised to make the Israelites his treasured people, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem seems to suggest an end to the covenant between God and the people of Israel, an end to the special relationship, to God’s protection and goodwill towards his people.
The destruction of the city of Jerusalem is a Very Big Deal in the Old Testament.
Which is why one little sentence, almost a throwaway line, in the Gospel reading today is also a Very Big Deal.
You all know your Bible. You know something about how to interpret Jesus’ parables. So you know that when Jesus told this parable about the Wedding Banquet, he wasn’t talking about a nice reception in a fancy room at Forty Hall. No. You know and I know that the person throwing the wedding banquet is God. And the son whose wedding was being celebrated was, of course, Jesus. And we are the guests.
For now, I am going to leave you to worry quietly about whether you are the guests who refused to come, the ones who turned up, or the one who came in the wrong clothes. For now, I want to look at what happened to one little sub-set of the people invited, the ones who turned on the servants. The king, we are told, was enraged. “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”
Burned their city. To us, as we read this story, it looks like a little aside, a minor point – it’s often even written in brackets, like a little curiosity that isn’t really part of the story. But to the Jewish people listening to Jesus, it was much more than that – it was a reminder of the constant worry that God might destroy their city, that God might destroy and abandon the city of Jerusalem. That God might destroy and abandon them.
And it’s not an empty worry. Our Gospel reading today is a reminder that God sets high standards for us and expects us to step up. The invitation – to the wedding, to God’s feast, to salvation – goes out to absolutely everybody, high and low, good and bad. All of us, everyone, makes a choice – to go to the wedding, to the feast, to choose salvation or not. But as that perplexed guy at the end of the parable reminds us, showing up is not enough. We have to make an effort. It’s not enough just to show up, out of curiosity, for the wine and the snacks – we have to put on our wedding robe, show God that we are there for the Son, that we are there because we understand how important this is.
God burned their city. Sometimes, it feels as if our lives are going up in flames, as if we are standing on a burning platform, that our life, our city and our church are under threat of destruction. I’m sure you can name for yourselves all the forces that seem to be assaulting us, with Covid-19 at the top of the list. But I’ve had other threats on my mind too – a meeting about all the work that needs to be done to make this church building safe and the terrible report into historic sexual abuse by clergy which was in the news this week. Our church – this church, but also the Church of England – feels like it might be under threat of destruction.
But thinking about all of this, as I go back to the reading from Isaiah what I see is not the threat of destruction from God, but the promise of faithfulness. “For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.”
God, I am reminded, continues to offer us a feast, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.”
God destroys – but destroys in order to make new. God takes action in order to still the song of the ruthless, as Isaiah puts it, in order to provide shade and shelter, in order to wipe away the tears from all faces.
So there are two things I am taking away from these readings today. One is that God takes action to put things right. And the other is that God expects us to do better, to do more than just show up.
Which makes me ask – while we are sitting here waiting to see what will happen after Covid-19, while we pray and wait for God to sort things out – what is God asking us to do? We’ve received the invitation – what do we need to do next?
What are the wedding robes that we need to put on, to show God that we’re not just here for the snacks?