Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Unwanted Gift?

Another seasonal sermon from my archives:

Luke 14:15-24

One of the inevitables at Christmas is unwanted gifts. From the stereotypical ugly tie to who knows what, many people will be given gifts this Christmas that they really do not want. Most department and discount stores have come to expect this. The service desk expands from one counter to maybe a dozen tables which take over a whole area of the store to give extra help for returns and exchanges.

I distinctly remember one gift I received when I was maybe thirteen years old that I thought was an insult to my years. One of my uncles was a widower and usually ate Sunday dinner with us. As I remember it, he must have noticed that I liked model cars (at that period of my life), and so on this particular Christmas he gave me a car.

The trouble with this car was that it was not a model. It was made of formed plastic and had snap-on axles with wheels. It was the kind of toy car that four-year-old boys like to push around on the floor while making motor noises with their lips. Now remember, I was thirteen.

I had a cousin who would have been just the right age for that car, so I thought my uncle had gotten our presents confused. That was my immediate reply when I opened the car from its gift-wrap: "Oh, you got my present confused with Eddie's."

My mother about keeled over with embarrassment. She understood what I did not, that my uncle only saw me liking little cars; he did not understand the difference between a model and a toy. All I knew was that I was stuck with an unwanted gift. This passage from Luke is about another unwanted gift, but it's more serious than a toy car. This gift is something from God.

What we actually have here is another story-parable which Jesus gave while He Himself was at meal. He had already said something about the attitude of guests at special meals, and about the motive of the host. One of the guests at this meal where Jesus was had the insight to see that Jesus was telling of values in God's kingdom, and his reply to Jesus causes the conversation to turn to the kingdom in an explicit way.

In keeping with the overall theme, Jesus compares the kingdom to a great banquet. In Jesus' time and society when someone gave a banquet, a person would send an invitation telling the day but not the exact time. On the announced day, the host would send servants to those who had accepted the invitation to tell them the time had come. It was an insult to accept the invitation beforehand and then not go once the time came. But that is what happened in Jesus' story –– the banquet was an unwanted gift.

Before we go on with this theme, there is something else to keep in mind. When dealing with Gospel accounts, there are three stages to consider. Stage 1 is what the story or teaching meant in its original setting with Jesus. Stage 2 is how the gospel writer adapts and uses the story or teaching. Stage 3 is how the story or teaching is applied on a more universal level. We tend to look for Stage 3 truth to help us with our own living, but we cannot truly understand Stage 3 unless we first have some understanding of Stage 1 and Stage 2.

The Stage 1 meaning of this parable has to do with God's invitation to Israel. Now that God has sent Jesus to tell them it is time to embrace His kingdom, Israel isn't responding. The result is going to be that God turns to Gentiles and other outsiders to find people who will fill His kingdom. There's more here, though, than a lesson on God going outside of Israel and a good illustration of bad interpretation. The implications of not wanting God's gift are for us.

What is it that makes a gift undesirable? Gifts that we receive at Christmas are either too big or too little, not the right style or color, or maybe we already have one like it. Whatever the specific reason might be that we would not want a gift, the underlying reason is that we do not need it. We have other options. One big reason I didn't care about the toy car was all the other things I had. If I had no other toys –– no hopes for any other gifts –– that car might have been the most wonderful gift in the world, even for a thirteen year old.

Let's apply that to the setting Jesus gives in the story. The reason the people who were originally invited did not come is that missing a banquet was no big deal to them. The host in this story had evidently not done what Jesus had recommended in the previous story. He had not originally invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He had invited people who had resources much like his own. One man had bought a field. Another had five yoke of oxen which were new. These were not people who were anxious about their next meal. They were likely people who could, themselves, give a banquet.

This is a story, among other things, about people who have options. And people with options can afford to be more finicky than the person with little or no options. Offer a rather nice gift to a person who has the means to choose and buy what he likes and the chances are you may give an unwanted gift. On the other hand, offer a humble gift to a person who has nothing and it will be gratefully accepted.

That is why the host in this story turned to the people who were down and out. He had prepared a banquet. He wanted his house full of people enjoying his hospitality. And if his own circle of acquaintances would not come, then he would turn to people who would.

I have already said that part of the application here is understanding that God turned to people outside of Israel in a special way when most of the Jews would not accept the gift of His kingdom. But the application does not end there; what God was doing to Israel as a collective people He also does to us as individuals.

Just as God invited all of Israel to join in His Messianic kingdom banquet, He invites all of us to His kingdom table. And just as Israel thought she had no need of what God was offering through Jesus, there are many people today who treat God's invitation as an unwanted gift. Stage 1 is being continued in Stage 3.

Maybe you right away think of a neighbor or someone you work with who does not go to church, someone who is profane, someone who is a womanizer or some other notable sin. If that is what we think of here when the idea of rejecting Jesus as God's gift comes up, then we are not staying in the context of Stage 1. In Stage 1 it was the religious people who thought they did not need what God was doing. In Stage 3 we need to be careful that we do not do the same thing. Just as the Jewish people in Jesus' day thought God accepted them as they were, so we have people today who are products of the church who think they are really good enough. People who are outwardly moral.... people who have been through the church's rites of initiation.... people who are respected in the community.... people who have been elected to church offices.... The list could go on.

The dangerous thing about these people –– and some of us could be among them –– is that they think they have spiritual options. All of us are used to having options. We have options in the way we relate to the material world. We can decide whether to eat out today or fix the meal at home. Most of us had options of what to wear to church today. We have options of what we will do this afternoon. Maybe you never seriously think about it, but we have options as to what job to work and what state to live in. We live in a culture bombarded with options.

That does something to the way we see ourselves spiritually. We think we have options. If a person does not like the way it is at one church, he can go to another. (It would be interesting to see if people think God's requirements change from church to church.) But when it comes to our salvation.... when it comes to being accepted by God, we do not have options. God gave His greatest gift –– the One we celebrate at Christmas –– and in giving Jesus provided the one way that we can have salvation.

I guess there is no one who is seriously involved in a Christian church who would disagree with that on the cognitive level. But when it gets to living out what it means to accept Jesus Christ as one's Savior, the consensus falls away. God's gift is for people who know they have sins which need forgiveness. It is not for people who think they are already pretty good, and for whom the Christian faith is merely a good option.

This story is a warning to people who are too proud to openly repent. This story is a warning to people who are self-sufficient. It is a warning to people who think they are good enough and so do not need redemption. It is a warning to people who will not admit their need of healing so long as everything looks good on the outside.

The warning is that God has no mercy on people who think they have spiritual options. People who think they are spiritually full have little reason to accept the invitation to God's banquet table. People who think they are good enough have little reason to openly and humbly accept the gift of God's Son.

Jesus says here that those who say no to the dinner will not taste it. Those who are excluded from the banquet have only themselves to thank. God will not drag the unwilling into it against their will. Jesus makes two things very clear: First, no one can enter the kingdom without the invitation of God. Second, no one can remain outside but by his own deliberate choice.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear what happens to people who treat God's great gift with contempt –– whose response to Jesus Christ is like that of an unwanted gift at Christmas:

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:28-29,31).

The people who are most likely to truly find the kingdom are those who know that life doesn't offer any other good options. God's gift does not come to us like a toy car to a boy who has other toys. The kingdom is not something we can return for a different model or style that we might like a little better.

I invite you to think again what it means for you that God gave us the gift of His Son. Is your response to Him one of convenience, as though you had other options? God wants us all at His banquet table, but He wants us on His terms. Do you treat God's Son as an unwanted gift?

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