↓Audio link to the sermon:(1st worship recording)
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2023 is well under way. I wonder what kind of year you have waiting for you. I am planning to get married in the summer so for me that’s the main thing on my mind. It’s very exciting of course, but at the same time I do have a bad memory from a wedding in Japan.
If I show you photos from the wedding, maybe you can work out what happened. You see there’s one thing wrong about me. Can you spot it? Something about the way I’m dressed that makes me stand out from the others. That’s right, my necktie.
See I knew that in Japan black neckties are for funerals and so I thought the obvious choice was to go for something colourful. But then just as we had taken the group photos I was looking around and I mentioned to my Japanese friend, “Hey, I’ve just noticed that all the other men are wearing almost the same colour tie.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I got a bad feeling, which my friend confirmed for me. “Yeah, Levi, I was wondering whether I should tie you, but actually for weddings in Japan neckties are really meant to be white or silver or gray. Oh but don’t worry it. Nobody will mind.”
But I did worry about it. I was really conscious of the fact that I was wearing the wrong colour tie. I did my best to hide it. And of course nobody said anything, but I was just not able to fully enjoy the wedding celebrations.
Now the reason why I share that story is that sometimes Christians can fall into feeling and thinking the same way about our relationship with God. We know that we are forgiven by his grace and that we’re saved by faith and not our works. But when we mess up in some way, or something happens to remind us of our sin, we start to act like I did at the wedding. We go to church and sing the worship songs, but we’re not worshipping from our heart because we’re trying to cover up that part of us that we’re ashamed of. We pray, but we lack confidence in approaching God. And we want to share with our family and friends about Jesus but we don’t have boldness to do so because we’re afraid that if we tell them about Jesus’ love, they’ll point out the ways that we’re not like Jesus.
Maybe you even have times when you’re afraid that God will kick you out of his kingdom. I did. I grew up in a Christian home but in my pride I thought that I was loved by God for being a good Christian boy: for going to church and praying before meals and not doing the ‘really bad sins’ that my school friends were doing.
But at university I made Christian friends and through them I realized for the first time what grace was. As it is written in 2 Timothy 1:9 ‘he has saved us and called us to a holy life, not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.’ That grace was so amazing to me that it changed my heart. But as I changed and grew as a Christian I began to see sins in my heart that I hadn’t noticed before. I realized these broken, wrong parts of me and I became ashamed and afraid and doubted whether I was saved.
But whenever I get those doubts I go back to the Bible and am reminded that we truly are saved by God’s grace alone. So I really want to encourage us today of God’s unconditional love for us in Jesus. And I’ve picked a passage that at first might not seem to be the best for that. But I pray that as we look at this parable of Jesus together, the Spirit will open our eyes to see God’s grace that saves us and changes us.
Now there’s a lot in this passage and we can’t look at it all in detail, but I want to focus in on verses 11-13. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 22:11-13) Like I said, these don’t seem like very comforting verses! But let’s look more closely to see who is the person this is referring to.
But first, just to quickly explain verses 1-10. This is an overview of the history of Israel. God sent his prophets to the nation of Israel over and over again, telling them to trust in him. But over and over again the prophets God sent were rejected. So God handed them over to nations like Babylon and Rome, which is the situation that Israel is in when Jesus came.
Jesus has been teaching and healing and the religious leaders have started to question Jesus ‘Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23) so Jesus is explaining who he is and what he’s doing: he’s calling all people to repent and accept God’s offer of salvation, to accept the invitation to the wedding feast.
So now we’re back at that question: who is Jesus referring to when he talks about the man not wearing wedding clothes?
Well in Jesus’ famous ‘sermon on the mount’ he says “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) So the thing that ensures we don’t get thrown out of the wedding feast is being as righteous as the pharisees – is what the pharisees would want to say! But what Jesus said was ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees’ so how do we do that?
Jesus gives us the answer: ‘Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”’ (Matthew 21:31-32)
This is the surprising good news of Jesus: the thing that makes us worthy to enter the kingdom is not whether we have enough righteousness but whether we will accept that we need Jesus’ righteousness. The person who is not wearing wedding clothes is the person who refuses to believe in Jesus.
Because Jesus was not just another prophet, like the ones who had come before him. He came to fulfill the promises that God had spoken through the prophets. Promises like this one from the prophet Isaiah.
‘I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.’
Jesus came so that we could be clothed in righteousness. Clothed in his righteousness. And so there is actually another answer to the question of ‘who is the man not wearing wedding clothes?’ As I said, in one sense it is the person who refuses to accept Jesus’ offer of salvation. But in another, deeper sense, the man who gets thrown out of the wedding feast for not being properly dressed is, Jesus.
After this parable Jesus taught many other things and then he explained to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:1-2)
Which is exactly what happened. Jesus allowed himself to be betrayed and arrested, and when he was put on trial and asked to defend himself, ‘But Jesus remained silent.’. (Matthew 26:63; 27:11) then he was stripped of his clothes and nailed to a cross ‘When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.’ (Matthew 27:35) and then ‘from noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over the land’ (Matthew 27:45) Jesus is cast into darkness, and the physical darkness signifies a deeper darkness. ‘Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)’ (Matthew 27:46)
In order to fulfill his mission and make it possible for us to be saved, and welcomed into the wedding feast, Jesus remained silent and allowed himself to be stripped, to be mocked, and to be cast into darkness, forsaken by God.
And then the story suddenly switched location. ‘And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’ (Matthew 27:50-51)
Why does the story jump from Jesus dying on a cross to the temple curtain? Because the curtain was the thing that separated the most holy part of the temple. Only the high priest was allowed behind the curtain and only once a year, and then they had to do all these preparations including to wear the correct clothing or they would die because the holiness of God was so great!
That is how holy God is. That is why Jesus said that even the pharisees, who were trying as hard as they could to be righteous, could not enter the kingdom of heaven. When we become aware of our sin we tend to feel a bit awkward when we go to church, and a bit ashamed when we sing, or maybe we think we need to leave it a few days before we pray. But actually, the righteousness that we have by ourselves is not like a necktie that is the wrong colour. It is like a necktie that has written on it a record all of the worst things that we have ever done, or said, or thought. All of us are like that person who tried to get into the wedding feast without the right clothes.
But Jesus died for us. He lived a perfect life. He has perfect righteousness. And he offers to take our sins, all of the things that we are ashamed of, all of our guilt and uncleanliness. And he offers to cleanse us and make us righteousness.
When we become aware of our sinfulness, we need to look to the cross and see that our sins – all of them – have been nailed to the cross. That is the thing that will give us the confidence to pray to and praise God from our hearts, and it is the thing that gives us the strength we need to fight our sin, and to share the good news of Jesus with boldness. We can say with Isaiah :
I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)