What's Worse Than Not Going to Church?
What's worse than not going to church? Nothing, right? What could be worse? Not going to church is a sin against the only cure for sin, death, and the power of the devil. A person could be engaged in any other sin and have hope if he or she still attended church because the cure for their sin would be available to them. But what can be done for the person who sins against the medicine? Therefore, the worse sin is not going to church.
Not so fast there. O don't get me wrong; not going to church is bad, very bad. You can tell that from the parable in front of us. Look at what not going to church does. The Divine Service, the place where the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth, is pictured as a great wedding banquet which a king puts on for his son. The king does everything for the banquet. The guests do nothing. The expense is all on the king. He provides two kinds of meat to eat, for guests who might eat meat once a week.
But they turn up their noses at all of this. Their earthly pursuits are more important. They have fields to tend, businesses to run, money to make, mouths to feed. But the king can't believe that his guests didn't "wish to come," so he sends more servants out and has them explain how the dinner is all ready and the meat all butchered. All that is lacking is them coming and eating. But these guests didn't care for the fact that the king has hundreds of pounds of butchered meat and no refrigeration, no deep freeze. They don't care that all this food might as well have been dumped on the ground and left to rot if they don't come to eat it..
If you read Ann Landers, you know that people who put on wedding receptions get really fried over the sins of their guests. They go to a lot of time and expense to offer receptions freely to guests. But what people go through to put on their banquets is nothing compared to what God went through. God didn't butcher oxen but His own Son. He didn't give up His one and only fattened calf, but His only beloved Son. People who don't come to church aren't turning their noses up at beef and wine but at the Body and Blood of God's own Son!
Don't believe me? Check out Hebrews 10. There it talks about those who trample under foot the Son of God and regard as unclean the Blood of the covenant and insult the Spirit of God who invites them. And do you know whom it is that Hebrews says does all this? Murderers? Abortionists? Child Molesters? Homosexuals? No, those who "stay away from our worship services."
That does it. There is no greater sin then not going to church! Think so? Read on. Turning your nose up at a wedding invitation, that you already agreed to come to, (By the way I forgot to mention that like today ancient people sent out invites and got an idea of how many to prepare for.), is bad. But there is something worse. Persecuting those bringing you the invitation is worse. It's bad to turn your nose up at the call of the Lord to come have your sins forgiven, your death defeated, and your devils dethroned, but it's worse to punch the nose of the messenger who brings you the invite. Of course, in our text they didn't just punch God's messengers in the nose; they violently seized them, outraged them, and killed them.
Who would do that to messengers bringing news of a free banquet? You've heard the phrase "don't shoot the messenger." It comes from the fact that in ancient times the bearer of bad news was often killed. But what's bad about being invited to a feast where everything is provided, not just food, but drink and clothes too?! Do you see how senseless it is when people persecute a slave of Christ, a servant of God, a pastor? Friends, even when a pastor comes to you with the harsh, sharp, blunt Law, his only goal is to see you at the wedding banquet of the Son feasting on His body and blood. He comes to you to forgive your sins, to rescue you from death, and to give you victory over the devil. Why would anyone persecute one?
There is a senselessness about turning up your nose at the Divine Service. You can see this in Jesus weeping over the Jerusalem that had snubbed Him. He cries, "How often I would have gathered you together as a mother hen gathers her chicks underneath her wings, but you would not." There is a senseless rage about those who persecute the servants of the Lord. You can see this when the chief priests rush at Stephen with their hands over their ears or when the Jews drag Paul out of Lystra and stone him. Where does such rage against God's servants come from? Straight from hell. The Book of Revelation says that when the devil was thrown out of heaven he came to earth with great wrath against the Lord's people.
And God responds in kind to such wrath. Our text says He is "enraged." There are two Greek words translated "enraged." One of them denotes flash in the pan type anger that goes away as fast it comes. The other indicates settled, determined, and continuing anger. This is the word used here. God's face is set against those who persecute His servants, and He doesn't just destroy them but everything that belongs to them.
Thanks be to God that we neither turn up our nose at God's banquet nor persecute those who bring us the invite. Thanks be to God that we're in Church being given all the fruits of Christ's sacrificial death. Thanks be to God that we have no part in not going to church or in persecuting the pastors of the Church. But friend, there IS something worse than either one of these things. It's going to church.
How's that? How can GOING to church be worse than not going and even worse than persecuting? Well, look at the text. Of the three types who turn away from God's graciousness who is the only one thrown into hell? Not those out in their fields or at their businesses, not those who killed the Lord's servants, but the man inside the wedding feast is the only one thrown into the outer darkness to weep in pain and gnash his teeth in rage.
This whole long parable is meant not for those who don't go to church or who do persecute pastors, but for those who go to church, for you and me. You can tell this from the Greek text. Our translation says, "Jesus spoke to them again in parables," but the original language says, " And answering Jesus again spoke in parables to them." Who is the "them" He's answering? The end of chapter 21 tells you that it's "the chief priests and Pharisees." Folks, these people went to the Temple every day. These people gave their offerings faithfully. These people were the ones who claimed to be "friends" of God. These people did everything for God. But they rejected what God wanted to do for them.
In the parable the man rejects the wedding gown the host normally provided freely for all his guests. What could that gown stand for but for "Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness, my beauty are my glorious dress?" The man in the parable thought his clothes were good enough. He was wrong. The only thing that avails before God is the perfect blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. All your good works, all your offering, all our dedication, devotion, and sacrifice does not. Isaiah tells us how it is saying, "All our righteousness is as dirty rags." Isaiah doesn't say our sins are dirty rags but our righteousness: what is good, best and holiest about us!
But go the other way with this thought too. Yes, while our best clothes aren't good enough before God, Jesus is. And what does St. Paul say we have put on in Baptism? He says, "As many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ." And what does Jesus say about the Absolution spoken over us? "What I have called clean, you no longer consider unclean." And if the blood of an ordinary Passover lamb painted on a doorpost was able to cause the angel of death to pass over a home full of sinners, what do you think drinking the blood of the Lamb of God, God's own Son shed for the remission of our sins does?
But I'm too sinful, too dirty, too lost to dare take shelter in the clean waters of Baptism, or in the forgiving Word of Absolution, or in the Holy Communion. O, that sounds pious, that sounds religious, but that is so wrong. Do you realize that's exactly what the man in the parable could of said to himself? I'll show the king how humble I am by not putting on His wedding garment. That's why he is speechless when the king confronts him. He thought the king would be pleased with his refusal. He is dumbfounded that he is not.
Yes, what pleases Christ our King is to forgive sinners, to wash dirty sinners, to feed empty sinners with His body and blood, and to clothe naked ones with His righteousness. His forgiveness, His righteousness, His body and blood are meant, according to the parable, for "whosoever," not only the outwardly good but the outwardly bad too. You see this is what the chief priests and Pharisees could never come to terms with: Jesus ate and drank with those they considered too sinful to be able to be covered by God's righteousness. He preached that the tax collectors and prostitutes they despised would be in the kingdom of heaven while they themselves would be cast out.
Folks, we who come to church have made it, by God's grace, over two hurdles. We're where the Means of Grace, Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion are spread before sinners, and we're not open persecutors of the servants of Christ who administer these things. But, this makes us vulnerable to the third hurdle. Thinking we're not so bad that we need Jesus's blood and righteousness, or thinking we're so bad that they couldn't really be for us. Either way we don't take refuge in Jesus' blood and righteousness. And this before the Lord is the sin of sins. You would've thought the man in the parable had made a pass at the bride or at least was drunk and disorderly, but no he just thought he could get by without Jesus' blood and righteousness.
Friend, and I use that word intentionally, friend if you have tripped in either way, you need to know it's not too late. You've not been bound and thrown out into the outer darkness. God is still your Friend in Jesus Christ. Even if you've been taking refuge in what you do for Jesus, your Baptism is still good; it still clothes you with Christ; you can still dive in there and lose all your self-righteous stains. And if you have been thinking your sins are so heavy they could never be lifted from you, think again. Jesus is the Lamb of God that has carried away the sins of the world. Your sin or sins didn't somehow fall off of Him on the way to the cross. Your sins were nailed to, paid for by, and left on the cross. Even if your sins are more than sands upon the ocean floor, the flood of Jesus blood has swept them all away.
What's BETTER than coming to church, and having God's servant spread before you an endless feast of grace, mercy and peace? Saying, "Amen," and pulling up a chair at His banquet table." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XXI (10/17/99), Matthew 22: 1-14