I want to spend some time getting back into the words of Jesus. Not that the words of Paul or Peter or James, or any of the prophets of the OT aren’t important, but last week I encouraged you to fix your eyes on Jesus. And part of that means that you have to see things through his eyes – understand the world the way he understands the world – and there is no better place to do that than in the parables.
I’m sure you know what parables are. They are short little stories with a powerful point. They aren’t usually literal, and the analogies that they contain can’t always be stretched beyond a single inference. But when Jesus told parables, they always knocked his listeners back on their heels because they forced people to look at familiar assumptions in a new way.
He usually took common, everyday kinds of things like coins or wheat or trees or seed and made you see them from an entirely new and different perspective.
And people always went away saying, “We’ve never heard anyone teach like this before. He teaches with authority and not like the teachers of the law.”
We won’t look at every parable, but we’ll take a broad look at things that Jesus thought were important for us to see in a new way. And the thing that most often is the focus and subject of his parables is the kingdom of God.
And I think it would do us a lot of good to spend some time thinking about the kingdom of God, because God’s kingdom isn’t just out there somewhere beyond the blue. The kingdom is here and now, and it touches and impacts everything we do. God’s kingdom can’t be located with a GPS; you can’t find it’s coordinates on any map – because the kingdom of God is where God rules in the lives of his people. If Jesus is your Lord, if God is your king, then you are a citizen of the kingdom of God and that kingdom has an outpost in you. God has staked his claim and not only calls you his citizen, but makes you his ambassador to this world. So, let’s spend some time getting to understand the kingdom the way Jesus understands it.
Let me share some of the current mental health statistics that have an impact on our lives and on the lives of the ones we love.
6.9% of American adults live with major depression
18.1% live with anxiety disorders
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10-24, and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. (NAMI 2015)
This old world isn’t always a great place to be. The demands it makes of us, the price it extracts for failure, the day to day struggle of keeping all the ends tied together and the plates spinning is more than many of us are able to handle. For all too many of us life seems brutal, lonely and meaningless.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms – “The world breaks everyone… Those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”
And when the world has finished brutalizing and mangling a person, he winds up bitter and disillusioned and old before his time. And the truth is, it doesn’t take many experiences with the world to come to the conclusion, you aren’t going to win on its terms.
For the average person in this world, simply trying to fight the system, knock off a few rough corners and maybe even add a few moral improvements isn’t going to make the difference.
The world values and glorifies four qualities: Beauty, Strength, Wealth and Intelligence.
If you’re handsome or beautiful, you’re going to do alright.
If you’re not good looking, but you’re athletic and strong, the world will still adore you.
If you’re not good looking, and you’re clumsy and weak, but you’re rich – you’ve still got it made.
If you’re not good looking, you don’t have any athletic skills, you don’t have a lot of money, but you’re smart – there will always be a place for you.
But - if you’re ugly, clumsy, poor and dumb, you’re in trouble – the world doesn’t have much use for you.
And even if you happen to make it, there are no guarantees. Names like Curt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams and Heath Ledger are scattered among the celebrities who seemed to have it all, and made it to the top, but found their lives in utter despair.
That’s why, when Jesus began his conversation with Nicodemus, he didn’t start with knocking off a few rough edges – he said, “You’ve got to start over at the beginning. You need to be born again.” Reform won’t make it – it isn’t enough. We are torn between two worlds: One world in which we don’t fit -- another in which we can’t fit – unless we are willing to begin again.
Jesus made a powerful announcement at the beginning of his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) There is hope for those who don’t fit into this world!
So many of Jesus’ parables shout out with such force about this new day that is coming – that in the midst of this world’s priorities – the kingdom of God plants its seed like the seed of a tree. It begins in a small, seemingly insignificant way – a seed that becomes a young sapling, but slowly it grows and expands and moves those concrete slabs and eventually crumbles them through its own immovable force – imposing its priorities, setting its agenda for your life.
The parable of the fig tree in Matt 24 tells us – watch for the signs – you know when you see the first buds on the trees, when you see the first robin, that winter is almost over – spring is just about here. And likewise, when you see God’s power displayed, you know the kingdom isn’t very far off.
Jesus told the parable of a wineskin. You don’t put new wine in old wineskins. It will burst them – the old dried leather doesn’t have the elasticity to mold and expand with that new wine that is fermenting and growing with life. Here was Jesus with a new agenda, a new covenant – but whether it is an old worn out Judaism with its threadbare forms and traditions, or a person’s hardened, inflexible heart, they can’t welcome the newness of the kingdom. It has to start with a new wineskin.
Jesus was sitting in the middle of the enemy’s camp when he told the parable of the banquet. One of the prominent Pharisees had invited Jesus to a banquet in his home on the Sabbath. Of course, all of the Pharisee’s friends were there, and Luke bluntly lets us know they were watching him carefully – he was being tested. And what a coincidence!! A man with a severe illness is placed in front of him. He’s not there as an invited guest at the banquet, he’s there as the entertainment. Jesus asks “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They don’t answer – he heals the man – and you can just feel the gasp that goes out and the sudden flood of whispers – “did you see what he did?” “Well I never…” “Just like that, no respect for the Sabbath.”
You see, when Jesus steps into the lion’s den, it’s the lions that better watch out. When Jesus walks into the banquet room, it’s like a shootout in the old west. Everybody runs for cover and waits to see who draws first. Jesus’ main target was the “beautiful people” – those who felt like they had it all together and sat in judgment of others.
They didn’t’ care about the crippled man who had just been healed. They were worrying about who was going to see them sitting where and by whom. Banquets were a time to strut your stuff and politic for position.
Jesus didn’t just heal the man and leave. He tells them a parable and teaches three lessons:
First, he turns to the guests and says, “Don’t choose the place of honor, but take the lowest place…. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The kingdom of God isn’t made up of pride and position and power – it’s filled with those who are humbled and broken.
Next, he turns to his host and says, “You’ve invited the wrong people.” If you only invite the people who can repay you, what kind of a reward is that? But you ought to invite the people who could never repay you – the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then your reward won’t be an invitation to another banquet with the same old folks – but you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous. That’s where it really counts.
Now, all of this has been getting pretty tense, and one of the Pharisees decides he’s going to lighten things up a bit. He shouts out, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” This man sets the stage for what Jesus really wants to say to these men who love banquets, but are going to attend one banquet too few.
Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” Luke 14:16-24
The excuses they make are inexcusable. To reject the invitation of the master after already having made the commitment – unthinkable.
But that’s the point Jesus is making – all of these men sitting around him, schooled in the law, committed to God, having accepted the invitation long ago. Yet, now the feast is ready – the banquet preparations have been completed, the Master has arrived – the summons goes out – but one by one they offer their excuses.
The men in the parable? Their excuses, in and of themselves, had nothing wrong with them – a business transaction, a new acquisition, a new bride. But in the context of the banquet invitations – they are all feeble excuses.
The Pharisees at the banquet? Their excuses are worse. The Messiah they had waited for hadn’t come like they expected. If this was the Messiah, if this was the kingdom – they didn’t want any part of it. It would mean an end to everything they had worked for – the loss of position and prestige and power.
And so, the master, outraged at these rejections, sends his servants to fill the banquet hall with every kind of person – the kind of people these Pharisees wouldn’t associate with – that’s who the master invites. And God, when his invitation to come into the kingdom is sent out – the great banquet has been prepared – the Jews reject it. God sends his servants out to invite every kind of person who will receive the word of God.
Hear what Jesus is saying to the church today:
The kingdom isn’t made up of those who are the elite – the super spiritual, who give the impression that they have their act all together. The kingdom belongs to those who need it most – the poor, the blind, the struggling, those who don’t meet the success criteria of the world. If you aren’t perfect: the gospel is for you. Jesus said, “The son of man came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Some of the most complacent Christians are those who think they have it made – that somehow they know everything they need to know; have done everything they need to do – so don’t bother them. They are perfectly content and happy in this world and don’t really have much of a stake in the next.
The second lesson has to do with the kind of symbol Jesus uses for the kingdom. He doesn’t use a rowboat out on the sea – what a journey, what a struggle ahead. He doesn’t use a slave camp – a heavy burden under a cruel master. He says the kingdom of God is like a banquet – that there is joy and feasting and laughter and happiness. We’ve been invited to a banquet, not a funeral.
For too long, we’ve presented a picture of Christianity as a burden to be born. We sing, “Tempted and tried….” You can’t be redeemed and look like a sour pickle. The church is filled with people who belong to God – we are feasting at the banquet table of God – let’s at least try to look like we enjoy it!
The most pointed message is to the man or woman who hears the invitation and excuses himself.
How many times have you heard the invitation – and rejected it? Oh, your excuses are all legitimate: He’s talking to someone else / I’m just too busy / I’ve got to work / If you knew what I knew about some of those so-called Christians / God has done me wrong. But when the banquet begins – you won’t be there – excuse or not. What excuse do you have for your complacency and lukewarm attitude toward God? That’s all it is – an excuse.
Jesus didn’t come to announce that a new loftier version of God is now available; he didn’t come to put a Band-Aid on the hurts, but to transform our lives from the inside out. Jesus’ invitation is in Revelation 3:20 – “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
That’s his invitation to you – to open the door and invite him into your life.