Sermon for Sunday, March 29, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
FREE BUT COSTLY
It's the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, so it's right to celebrate his legacy. People think of predestination, but it's best to start with a more fundamental contribution – his grasp of the gospel and discipleship. The gospel was the first great theme of Calvin and the Reformation: Salvation is God's gift through Christ, presented by grace alone, received by faith alone. Yet this gift is costly. We need do nothing to earn the gospel, yet to trust Jesus is to embark on an arduous journey of discipleship. There are points of contact with our culture.
1. The best things in life are free, but they are costly, too
The best things are free: A breath of fresh air, the fresh air of the mountains or the oceans; good health, physical energy and vitality. Love - the love of husband or wife, of parents or children is free and good.
But the best things are also costly. Good health is free, but its cost is exercise, eating, drinking properly, saying "No" to cheesecake and raspberry tarts.
The ocean is free, but to enjoy it fully, one must pay the price of learning to swim, overcoming the fear of waves that lurks in the heart. Love is free, secure and lasting; but genuine love demands a costly commitment and exposes us to the prospect of pain and loss.
We want the benefits of the best things, but we shun the costs. We like the idea that someone is committed to us, come what may, in plenty and in want. It gives great peace to know my spouse won't let me down. But I must also swear to be faithful to my spouse, come what may.
In the land of Oz, every groom thinks he is marrying Dorothy, but there is an hour when he thinks he accidentally married the Wicked Witch of the West. And in Disneyland each woman thinks she married Prince Charming, but then Shrek shows up. Then what? Commitment is free, but not cheap. So it is with all relationships, including our relationship with God.
Calvin compared the Christian life to self denial. That is, it is a blessed, but difficult relationship. So it is in Luke 14.
Setting: Jesus is at dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee on the Sabbath (14:1-14). It is a somewhat tense affair. Scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus to see if he will heal a sick man on the Sabbath, contrary to their tradition (14:1-6). But Jesus also watches them (14:7). He notices how they vie for "seats of honor" closest to the host of the banquet.
He says: if you truly want honor, give up the attempt. Grasping for prestige never brings true honor. Therefore, when you host a banquet, don't invite friends of your social status. They will repay in full for your generosity.
Instead, live God's way. Renounce status games. When you host a party, invite people who cannot repay - the poor, crippled, blind. Today: the homeless. That is God-like generosity; He will repay you at the resurrection (14:12-14).
One guest loudly agrees with Jesus (14:15). "Blessed is anyone who will eat in the Kingdom of God." This man likes Jesus' message - all sorts of people will eat at that banquet of the blessed – and assumes his people will enjoy that day.
But Jesus may not agree. He tells a parable that warns: Don't presume on God. Are you so sure you will be at that feast? Make sure!
2. A Parable of a Banquet: God's free invitation
The first invitations
A man of means planned a great banquet and invited his guests. According to custom, much as today, he invites everyone twice. The first secures commitment, so he will know how to prepare. There are no clocks, but we expect an evening meal. As the time for the feast draws near, a servant will go to his friends and neighbors and invite them again. "Come. It is ready" (14:16-17).
Then as now, people ordinarily invited friends of their social status. The list and activities shows a wealthy group agreed to come. But when servants went out to declare that all was now ready, they all began to make excuses. I must do this; so excuse me, I cannot come. These excuses are strange, especially since they had accepted the first invitation. Rate their excuses with me.
The first said, "I bought a field and must go and see it." One would examine a field before buying it. Land was scarce. A new owner would know every inch of a purchase. Besides what is point of examining field after one buys it? If he wants to inspect his purchase again, it will be there in the morning.
The second said, "I bought five yoke of oxen and [must] try them out." A team is tested before purchase; if they cannot pull together, they are worthless. Second, anyone rich enough to buy five team of oxen could send a worker to inspect them. Today: "I have bought five trucks and a new computer system, and must go see if they work." The excuse is preposterous, insulting.
The third said, "I have married a wife." This means he is newly married, but that is no excuse. In the Old Testament, marriage is an excuse for not going to war, not for going to banquets. And even if he is newly married, he did accept the first invitation. Besides, couples can attend banquets together. So it's absurd. All three said "Yes", then "No" at the last minute. All prefer other priorities. It is an affront!
The second invitation
The host is angry, but not stymied. He responds graciously. He tells his servant to invite -- literally go and lead -- lower classes from his town. In the story, the host does what Jesus told the Pharisees to do - he invited poor, crippled, blind and lame to his feast. The master in the story does precisely what Jesus commands outside the story 14:21. These folks are needy; they can't make excuses. The poor have no money to buy fields and the lame can't test oxen.
The party will go on - but graciously, with those who deserve no invitation. They cannot reciprocate. The servant leads them in, but there is still room, so he invites people outside the city, from the countryside (14:22-23).
This is really gracious, for there is no basis for this invitation. That is why the servant must compel them to come in. Custom and honor required them to decline. They don't know the master. He cannot be serious! The servant must convince them, "He means it" and gently compel them to come (Luke 24).
But there is little time to bask in Jesus' generosity, for he quickly adds: "But none of those who were originally invited will taste my banquet." This warning is the host's last word: I have invited another group and the original group shall not enter. It is also Jesus' comment on the story. In both the story world and the real world, those who reject the invitation will not taste the banquet. Jesus has begun to apply the parable, and so must we.
We apply it first by asking: What does story represent? Who are these people, then and now? The answers are fairly obvious:
The host and servant represent God and his messengers. The topic is the feast of heaven (14:15). God and his servants invite people to it. In fact, as the master and the servant invite people in the story, Jesus is inviting people to himself outside the story. Jesus always invites people to himself.
Those who initially agreed to come are Jewish leaders such as those at the Pharisee's party. They said “yes” once, but when Jesus announced "the hour has come" they refused to come. To this day, many say yes, then “no”, to God. Jesus tells them "None of those who were called will taste my feast." The parable is about them. If they reject his invitation, they will miss his feast.
The poor and crippled who come later represent flawed Israelites, all who seemed to be unworthy of the feast. But now they fill his hall and table!
The people from the countryside represent all who seemed so far from the kingdom, especially the Gentiles. The gospels predicted a mission to Gentiles from the beginning. Jesus is a light to Gentiles. All flesh will see his salvation (2:32, 3:6). It is astonishing that the God of Israel invited them. The Greeks and Romans had their own gods. But the Lord insists that they can become his people, children of the living God.
Jesus invites all to enjoy his kingdom. Many, especially religious people, initially say “yes”, then back away. The religious like the idea of grace; they like the ethic of Jesus. But they also see things they dislike and decide, "This is not for me."
Understand: it is not enough to say "Yes" once, vaguely to God. It is necessary to mean it, to live it, to reaffirm it, to act on it. Some people are baptized, catechized, and sanitized from major sins. But that isn't enough! We must say “yes” to Jesus, the Lord, trust him and enter the relationship represented by the banquet – a fresh relationship that begins with a call and ends with a celebration. But if someone declines the call, they exclude themselves from the feast.
Invitations today - serious business
For little children, there is great joy if a child is invited, but great lamentation if a child is not invited, to a certain birthday party. For teens, most parties are open – if you hear about it, you can come. But others are closed. Social skills, looks, athletic ability, clothes, music preferences, and approach to school – any of these may become the gold, silver and bronze of the world of teens. Some have it and some don't, in the judgment of this circle or that.
Among adults it can be extremely important to be invited to certain parties, lunches, meetings. We present credentials and present ourselves, hoping to get in.
But there is gathering for which no credentials are required. The host is most impressive. The guest list is breathtaking. If we see the list – Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Paul, Luther, Calvin, Wesley - we think we don't belong. Yet the party isn't exclusive. Everyone is invited. The messenger says, "You are invited!" Reply: "There must be a mistake. You cannot mean it." It is too good to be true.
In the story, the host invited people from the countryside. The messenger must compel people to come in, "You have no standing with the host, but he really wants you to come."
This parable is about the free gift of the gospel. It's a metaphor for eternal life. Some people have a hard time accepting that God cares about them. Others may be amazed at the terms, or rather the lack of terms. They think, "Surely something is required! I must do something to prove my merit!" But no, there is nothing one can do to get into the feast. Jesus did it all for you.
God saves on basis of grace alone, not by merit, credentials, resume, lineage. He saves by Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Faith unites us to him, puts us on his team. But even faith has no merit. We must not boast: At least I had the sense to take the offer. Faith isn't an achievement to be proud of. Faith doesn't look inward, to the believing self. It looks upward to Jesus, in whom we trust.
3. God's invitation is free, yet it has costs.
My first child was born in the middle of the day, after twenty hours of labor and thirty-three hours without sleep. Nurses and doctors cleaned her up, performed the required tests. We had our moments of bonding. Then Debbie said, "Here, I need to sleep."
I accompanied Abby on the next phase of activities. They undressed and weighed her - small protest. They stretched her out to measure her. She screamed. My emotions stirred, "Why are you doing this to my baby?"
Next came a tube down her nose, then in her mouth. More tears. Then they smeared gel in her eyes. In my sleep-deprived state, I had to restrain myself from shouting, "What are you doing? Leave her alone." My emotions startled me – I feared headlines "Area pastor wrestles nurses…" I felt waves of protective love! I wanted to snatch her from them. I wondered, "Where did this come from?"
But that is parental love. It has nothing to do with the child's merit. Parental love is free. Yet my children would tell you it has costs. Everyone had their chores to do - even though they were known to complain that it is impossible to match all white socks correctly.
And we have rules: Tell the truth. Treat each other with respect. Don't hit your sister, unless she really deserves it.
But why do my children obey the rules, show me love and respect? In order to obtain my love? In order to obtain a father? No! They listen because I love them. They obey because I am their father.
In the human family, there is all a world of difference between obeying to gain love and obeying because you are loved. Parents must keep the order straight. The order is the same in the kingdom and we must keep that straight, too!
The order of faith and works goes this way: Salvation is a gift of God's love, received by faith alone. Works play no role at all in obtaining the gift. That is the gospel. Good works are our response to his love. We do not perform works in order to obtain his salvation or favor. We obey because we have his favor.
Everything hangs on conjunctions. We obey, not in order to obtain God's love and salvation but because God has redeemed us. This rests squarely on the message of Jesus. Right after Jesus finished describing the free invitation to the banquet, he declared the cost of discipleship. The order of Luke 14 is clear: first the gospel, then Jesus presents the strenuous path of discipleship. Calvin said, "The sum of the Christian life is the denial of ourselves." See it in Luke 14.
The parable in Luke 14 contains key themes regarding faith and works addressed by the Reformation and Calvin. We're invited to God's family by his grace alone. We enter God's presence by faith alone, not merit, works or credentials. We simply accept an invitation, which comes through Christ alone, by his work and his will.
Yet Calvin knew it was deadly to hold to right doctrine and fail to live it. We must follow the life of Jesus – his teaching, his pattern – or we will fall into complacent self-confidence.
That was part of the problem with the Pharisees who fought Jesus at this time. They believed they had arrived. Religious people - and that includes us - are prone to this error; to celebrate our theology and goodness. We must walk the path of discipleship, costly discipleship, every day. We must count the cost.
The cost of discipleship is loving Jesus more than family (14:26-35)
To come to Jesus, one must hate his family. "Hate" is an idiom (Genesis 29:30-31). We don't literally hate, but we prefer Christ when loyalty to family and Christ conflict. We love Jesus more than family (14:26). If your family does not share your faith, your supreme love for him may seem like hatred to them. No one can be a disciple without giving first allegiance to Jesus.
We must bear the cross
"Whoever does not bear his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Jesus meant what he said; his hearers grasped the dreadful image. We have trivialized the idea of bearing the cross. Today's crosses are polished, gleaming, decorative. They are so light - they float off the ground. They serve as jewelry.
When Jesus talked about the cross, he meant that heavy, rough crossbar, that dry instrument of dreadful torture. Calvin knew what it meant. He knew the essence of the Christian life is self-denial.
Jesus says that we belong to God; so we should live for him, die for him. We yield to him and put our abilities in his service. When Scripture bids us to leave off self-concern, it erases "the yearning to possess, the desire for power, and the favor of men. [It] uproots ambition and all craving for human glory and other more secret plagues [We learn] to look to God in all we do."
It's a stirring but daunting ideal – and Calvin lived it. His life plan called for quiet scholarship. But he was driven off-course to a teaching post by a small war. He had to pass through Geneva, Switzerland. Farel, the main pastor there, knew who Calvin was and judged him to be the man to perfect the reform of that unruly city.
Farel pleaded with Calvin to stay and help. Calvin refused, but Farel pressed on. Farel prayed "that it might please God to curse the rest and quietness [Calvin] was seeking, if in so great a necessity" he refused to help. This horrified Calvin. He stayed and spent most of his life in tumult rather than peace. He sacrificed his preferred life for the gospel.
He started a seminary at Geneva. He knew he sent his students into opposition, persecution, even death. Upon graduation, they received "certificates for hanging." These men knew what Jesus meant when he said, "Take up your cross."
Do you? Even in hard times, our lives are comfortable. We live in pleasant homes, wear nice clothes, relax in soft furniture, pray in a beautiful building. Some days our greatest struggle is heavy traffic or lower back pain. Real suffering is far from us. It isn't wicked to enjoy comfort. But we must know ourselves. Even in hard times, we are used to comfort and it influences us.
We talk about suffering for Christ, but what would happen if we faced a real suffering for him? Are we ready? I notice the way we talk about the choice of a church:
1. I love the preaching and teaching ministry.
2. I love the music program. What a choir! What musicians!
3. I sought a church with strong ministry for youth, children, singles.
These sentiments aren't evil. We should celebrate strong ministries. Yet it's sad if we choose a church chiefly for programs we like. Then the consumer mentality dominates even decisions about the place of worship and Christian service.
Is it foolish for me to long to hear people say: "We joined this church because we believed they needed us." Or when someone chooses a place of service: Not "It's my gift," but "I saw a need and I wanted to pour myself into it."
Two analogies tell us to take the issue seriously: tower and war. The question: Would anyone start a project unless they were sure of the ability to finish? Jesus mentions a tower; we might mention a large home. Either way, inability to finish a grand project leads to ridicule. Finish the course! There is a cost of discipleship; if you start as a disciple, be sure you are resolved to finish.
The king at war makes a different point. If the tower says, "Count the cost of discipleship" the "king at war" says, "count the cost of not being a disciple." The story takes the perspective of a king whose land is about to be invaded.
Jesus says, "Before you decide to fight back, calculate the cost of not settling with one more powerful than you." In this parable, we are the weak king; the other king is the Lord. Do we think we can resist him, his power? It is best to make peace with him. The tower says, "Count the cost of discipleship." This says, "Count the cost of neglecting God."
It costs much to be a disciple. Know that. But for honesty’s sake, know that it costs even more to refuse.
Conclusion (14:33). "Anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." This is a challenge and a paradox. The gospel is free to us – we don't pay for it. Yet the gospel is costly; it costs all we have.
This is the dual truth of discipleship, especially in this season when we think of Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus did everything to accomplish our reconciliation to God. We can do nothing in order to be saved. We must believe, but we bring no personal merit. Not even our spirituality can draw God's favorable attention. Jesus the Christ gave himself to us in order to restore us forever.
But he also commands us to walk in his ways, to conform our lives to his. Just as Jesus gave himself freely and completely to us, he asks that we give ourselves freely and completely to him; not to obtain a relationship with God, but because we have a relationship. This is more than an idea. It's an idea that requires a commitment. In the name of the Lord, receive the offer of the gospel - free, but costly. His reign of grace has come. Count the cost and receive his gift – the invitation to his great, free banquet.