This year, my wife and I will celebrate our tenth anniversary. As I look back over the time we’ve been married, I think about all the important lessons I have learned. Some of those lessons began even as we were planning our wedding. Some women, like my wife, look forward to their wedding from the time they are young girls. As they eventually near the real thing, there are wedding books and magazines that are three inches thick to help guide them through the entire process. Everything from the wedding ring to the flowers to the invitation has to be just right, and these guides ensure that the wedding will be perfect. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a book…so I had to learn all of this the hard way.
It happened as we were picking out our invitations. When you’re announcing the biggest moment of a bride’s life, you simply cannot send out just any old invitation. Of course, I had no idea how important this was! So, after the first hour of looking at invitations I made a terrible mistake. I said to Nanci, “Can’t you just come back sometime and look by yourself?!” Since this is Sunday morning, I won’t try to recreate the look I received, but I will tell you that I quickly heard in no uncertain terms, “This is your wedding too Matthew Judkins…and you will have an important part in making the decisions for it.”
So, being the wise person that I am, I stayed and helped pick out invitations. And in the process of picking out invitations that afternoon, I learned a couple of very important lessons. First, a groom simply cannot be too careful in pre-wedding preparations, and second I learned that invitations are very, very important.
As we enter 2009 here at Church of the Servant, we are going to focus on the second lesson I learned that day. Invitations are very, very important!! They simply cannot be taken for granted. In fact, for the coming year we’ll be focused in a variety of ways on a single word: INVITE.
As simple as the word invite sounds, in practice it can be a little complicated. To what are we inviting people and who are we called to invite? Today’s Scripture begins to give us the answer to both of these questions as we see the prophet Jeremiah inviting people to an incredible celebratory feast.
Throughout Scripture we have extraordinary pictures of what God has in store for those who trust in him. Many times words failed to capture the magnitude of what God was doing, and so the prophets had to resort to images and metaphors to capture the full picture of God’s work. One of the central images that the prophets returned to again and again was the image of God’s Kingdom as a joyous and abundant feast – more like a wedding banquet than anything else they could imagine. When ancient Jewish people though of a wedding banquet, they didn’t think of dresses and flowers; they thought of one big party. Wedding feasts were the richest, most lavish celebrations of the ancient world: the best food and wine, non-stop music, singing, and dancing. Old and young alike, celebrating together at full throttle!
Now, hold that image in your mind as we start to think about the people to whom Jeremiah was inviting to the celebration feast. They were not in a partying mood. Imagine for minute what it would have been like to be in their shoes at this point in history. You live in a small nation on the brink of utter ruin. Powerfully destructive enemy forces have invaded your country, and you don’t know anyone’s family who has been untouched by the national disaster. Brothers and sisters have been sent into exile. Fathers and mothers have been killed, and sons and daughters have been taken as prisoners of war. Your leaders have also faced death and deportation. It’s the kind of environment that kills hope and makes the future uncertain at best. Celebration, in that environment, is beyond imagination.
That’s the situation Jeremiah was facing. What do you do when hope dies, when celebration is impossible, and when the future is in serious doubt? What do you do? It’s not too hard to relate to this, is it? Maybe you’re going through a divorce. Maybe you’ve just buried the love of your life. Maybe you’ve lost a huge chunk of your family’s wealth. Maybe your plans have been wrecked in one way or another. Maybe you have a family member going through things you never dreamed were possible. If any of those things, or countless others, can describe your situation today, you’re just the kind of person who needs to hear Jeremiah’s invitation today.
Jeremiah stared the darkness and hopelessness of a shattered world right in the face and offered God’s words…and of all things he offered a party invitation. He described, of all things, a party in God’s Kingdom – singing, dancing, the best drink, the riches foods – a miraculous party, and everyone is invited. It isn’t a party for the people who feel like celebrating, it’s a party for everyone. Jeremiah paints a picture of people streaming back home from the land where they’ve been deported – blind people, people who struggle to walk, and women who are pregnant. The people who are the least prepared to move, those who have the lowest expectations of celebration, are the ones who leading the march back to God’s homecoming feast!! Jeremiah’s invitation is a invitation to transformation. Mourning turns to joy. Sorrow melts into gladness. Jeremiah’s invitation was God’s invitation, and it was made out to everyone: no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re facing, you’re invited to the greatest feast of all time.
If it isn’t clear yet that this is our invitation too, let me point out a few more things. These people were called by streams of water. Their lives would be like a well-watered garden. They were coming from whatever they had faced to a feast of grain and wine. Both young and old were coming together to an incredible feast of celebration!! Is it an accident that we’re here today in a place we call the Celebration Center? Is it an accident today that we’re gathered for worship in a beautifully watered garden? Is it an accident that we’re looking at a table piled high with a feast even as the sound of water falls on our ears? This is that feast, and the invitation is yours…no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re facing….it’s not an accident at all.
God offers the same invitation to each one of us that he offered to Israel so long ago. James Moore once told a story about a minister in San Diego. One of the custodians called him into the sanctuary early one Sunday morning. There on the Lord’s Table he found a strange offering. There were a pair of brown corduroy pants, a belt, a pair of boots, a white T-shirt stained with blood, and a note which read, “Please listen to God,” followed by a name and phone number. The minister hurried to his office to dial the number, sensing that someone might need help. A 19 year old man picked up the phone, and told the pastor his story. The young man had run away from home and had finally hit rock bottom. He spent most nights drugged out of his mind, drifting from one palace to another, getting in trouble at every turn. Just the night before, he had been in a fight on the street, and both men came out bloodied and broken. After a trip to a nearby emergency room, he found the church’s door unlocked and he stumbled into the sanctuary. Once there, he stayed all night, crying, praying, and thinking. He asked for forgiveness and direction from God. In the darkness of the sanctuary, he told the minister he felt God’s presence like never before. He literally felt forgiveness go through his entire being. He sensed a peace that he had never known before, and he committed his life to this God he barely knew. He felt clean and fresh, as though his entire future lay before him. To symbolize this new life and commitment, he took out some new clothes from his bedroll, left the others as a kind of offering, giving God his old life. He walked out the door early that morning as a new person, with a new hope, a new future, and a new beginning.
As we begin this year, many of our thoughts turn to new resolutions and new beginnings as well. Like that young man, we’re invited to make a fresh start. We’re invited to leave our dirty clothes behind. We are invited to leave our mistakes and disappointments as well. The invitation God offers assures us that we aren’t defined by our weakness, our worst moments, or our disappointments. You aren’t defined by your addiction. You aren’t your divorce. You aren’t destined to grieve forever. You aren’t the mistakes of your life. You are a beloved child of God, and as such your invitation has been written out and I’m giving it to you this morning! You’re invited to a feast of grace and forgiveness; you’re invited to leave your dirty clothes behind. You’re invited to turn from your mistakes. You’re invited to a new beginning. And if that isn’t reason to celebrate, then nothing is!!
But, I have to warn you! Even though this all-you-can-eat gourmet feast of grace is free….it isn’t cheap. It will end up making a claim on your entire life. The invitation you open this morning, will be the invitation you will want to offer to everyone you meet! When I find a great little out-of-the-way restaurant, I tell everybody about it and you probably do too. When you find the greatest feast of all time, the feast of God’s grace and forgiveness, the party of parities, keeping it to yourself simply wont’ be an option. There’s no such thing as a feast for one!!
You may have suspected that the idea of invitation is related to evangelism, inviting others to Christ, and you would be right! But inviting isn’t about manipulation or coercion; none of you would be motivated to invite someone to misery or guilt, and neither would I! But, I can definitely invite someone to a celebration of forgiveness and grace, and I know you can too. A wise Christian once said, “evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread,” and that’s still true today! It’s about one confused person telling another confused person where to ask their deepest questions. It’s about one lonely person telling another lonely person where to find relationships. It’s about one hurting person telling another hurting person where to find care. It’s about one person who has feasted on Christ’s forgiveness and grace telling another person who needs forgiveness and grace just where it can be found. You don’t have to have all the answers. All you have to do is invite people into God’s presence, the one place where the answers to life’s hardest questions will always be found.
You’ve received your invitation to the feast. It’s a place to start over. It’s a place to find the grace and forgiveness we all so desperately need. It’s place to commit your life to Christ. It’s a rich garden, where celebration is not only possible, it’s expected! It’s a place to invite your friends, because this feast never ends…no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what they’re facing. Come to the feast, and then go and invite everybody you know, because as I learned a long time ago, invitations are very, very important.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.