But They Would Not Come: A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

empty-pews

Sermon audio here.

Today our Lord told a parable to which we here at Zion & Immanuel can relate. The Master gave a wedding feast for His Son and sent out invitations, but they would not come. The people just weren’t interested in what our Lord has to offer.

A question about this recently came up in confirmation: if we teach the truth, why don’t more people come to church? This question came up in a discussion about the 2nd Commandment, which forbids us from swearing falsely by God’s Name.

Now provided we tell the truth, the Commandment doesn’t forbid us from giving sworn testimony in court, for example. Christians also swear to live in wedded faithfulness to one another “till death do us part.” And vows are also made at the ordination of pastors and the confirmation of Christians.

One of the more significant parts of the confirmation rite is when the catechumens make a vow before God to suffer all, even death, rather than join a church which teaches false doctrine; that is to say, a non-Lutheran Church.

As Christians, we have an obligation to avoid churches whose teachings disagree with Scripture. And so in confirmation, our catechumens study our doctrine (“what does this mean?”) and compare it with Scripture (“where is this written?”). Since our doctrine and Scripture agree, we pledge, when we are confirmed, to abide in this teaching and church “till death do us part,” no less solemn of a vow than those made in marriage or at ordination.

We can’t turn our back on God’s Word to follow the pope, who burdens men’s consciences with delusions of purgatory and works righteousness; who torments his own clergy by forbidding them to marry when God’s Word teaches the opposite.

While marriage isn’t a prerequisite for ordination, it certainly is the norm. As St. Paul says, a pastor should be husband of one wife and manage his household well. Priests were allowed to marry until the 12th century, and even several popes were married. Even so, the pope imposed celibacy on his priests, disregarding nature, Scripture, and the Roman Catholic Church’s own history.

As Christians, we must teach what Christ teaches. This also means we can’t join denominations that insist, also contrary to history, nature, and Scripture, that women can serve as spiritual fathers (pastors). Our culture and other denominations may delight in blurring the distinction between the sexes, but God’s Word does not.

Nor can we join Baptist, Methodist, or non-denominational churches, who insist that baptism does nothing for you and that the Lord’s Supper is a mere symbol of Christ. God’s Word couldn’t be more explicit when it says, “baptism now saves you.” Our Lord says “Take, eat; this is My Body; this is My Blood.”

In a time when everyone is encouraged to believe what’s true for them, it’s not popular to insist upon the reality of objective, universal truth. But if there isn’t, God’s Word is meaningless and we ought to close the doors right now.

We have an obligation to uphold God’s Word, which means not joining denominations who follow popular, politically correct doctrines or popes. The confirmation vow is a refusal to compromise God’s Word. But as our Lord found out, such faithfulness does nothing to endear us to the world.

Is it any wonder our Lord’s invitation falls on deaf ears? The world simply isn’t interested in what our Lord has to offer. Neither the prophets and apostles nor our Lord had an easy time in this world, and He tells us we should expect no different. “When the world hates you, remember it hated me first.”

Because of the world’s hatred, much of the Bible was written to help Christians to confess the faith under persecution. When we preach the Gospel faithfully, when Christ’s invitation goes out and we don’t tamper with it, we shouldn’t a different response than what we saw in the parable: “they would not come… many are called, but few are chosen.”

There’s no greater miracle than when churches that teach God’s Word faithfully grow in numbers. The world hates Christ and His Word, and so usually the opposite happens. 

Sometimes congregations operate with the false assumption that if they do x, y, or z, God will reward us with numerical growth. We have no such promises, and we can’t force God’s hand. There is no simple cause-effect between faithfulness and numerical growth. If our sinful flesh is really as hostile to God’s Word as Scripture says it is, we shouldn’t be surprised when people respond to our invitation by sending their regrets. 

If it makes you sad or angry that there’s no promise that our congregation will grow even though you want it to, then repent, because you have in mind not the things of God, but the things of men.[i] This is Christ’s Church, and He loves it more than we ever could. He will provide as He sees fit.

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom. Americans want success in the marketplace, prestige in the world, and a big building. But “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, folly to Gentiles,” and a rebuke to Americans.[ii]

Christ hasn’t called us to get a bigger share of the market. We’re not sacramental entrepreneurs. It’s not our job to change the world. Our job is to preach Christ crucified and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest.[iii] We send out the invitation, but He does the choosing. It’s not even up to those who were invited. It doesn’t say, “Many are called, but few respond.” It says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

Sometimes we speak falsely about mission, as if it were our work. God’s mission was accomplished on Calvary, when Christ bore the sin of the world on His shoulders. There, He reconciled the world to Himself. There is no desperation, hand-wringing, or back-room plotting in heaven.

Many in the Church have fallen prey to the demonic lie that the salvation of the world depends on our efforts, as if our missionary zeal could affect the size of heaven or hell.

This is to regard human action, our work of sharing the Gospel, as the cause of salvation. This is to make the Gospel into Law and turn the Christian faith on its head, as if it were about what we do for Christ, rather than what He does for us.

This is the same pride we saw in the Garden. We’d never in a million years take credit for our salvation, but we’ve acted as though we are responsible for the salvation or damnation of others. What power! In the day we eat of this theology, truly we will be as gods.

This creates false pride when the Holy Spirit gives growth and a very powerful guilt when He doesn’t. If salvation is dependent on your action or inaction, St. Paul was lying when he said nothing can separate you from God’s love—all it takes is a selfish and lazy human being.

This is madness. God doesn’t make Himself hostage to use when He promises to save us through the means of grace. His will is always done. Even if you don’t do a single thing, the very stones would preach the Gospel, and none of God’s elect will be lost. If you horde your money and our church closes, all of Christ’s lambs will remain in His fold.

If you’ve ever felt guilty about the unbelief of another, you’re giving yourself too much credit. You’re not the Holy Spirit. Faith is His work. He does the choosing.

And if salvation were dependent on you, you’d need to seriously rethink your priorities. No more college education for your children. That money could go to missions! And forget about hobbies. That time could be spent in door-to-door evangelism! For surely, a soul saved is more important than a fishing trip.

And how can you in good conscience spend hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars for family vacations when that money could have been used to save a soul? If we can save people with our actions, if we must do whatever we can to get people through the doors, then woe to us if we don’t raffle off cars every Sunday or straight up pay unbelievers to come to church.

This is, of course, the road back to monasticism, which teaches that the best thing you can do is dedicate your whole life to the saving of souls, and that everything else—being a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker—is selfish and carnal.

This false theology of missions makes us, and not the Holy Spirit, responsible for conversion, and it leaves no room for the enjoyment of God’s creation. We’re not bureaucrats in the Department of Salvation. We’re not cubicle dwellers who trudge through one sharing of the Gospel after another, never giving thought to any other matter. Part of good stewardship means enjoying the gifts God has given you.

God will save His elect, with or without you. If you do nothing, none will be lost. If you do everything, the number of the elect will not increase. This is the doctrine of grace alone. It’s the doctrine of election. Nothing depends not on man’s will or effort, but on God alone, who has mercy.

So why preach? Why give? How can we not? It’s what we, who confess Christ as Lord, do. How can we, who died to sin, live in it any longer? How can we, who are saved by grace, resist giving a reason for this hope within us? Asking why you should share the Gospel is like asking why you should tell your loved ones you love them.

We don’t do good works to earn salvation or to avoid damnation—for us or for anyone else—but because we belong to Christ and love to please our Lord. We don’t share the Gospel to collect feathers in our cap or out of fear that God might lose one of his elect, but because we live and breathe and have our being in this Gospel.

A father loves his son just because. Christians love the Gospel just because. The Christian life is full of freedom and joy, not guilt and high pressure sales tactics. The Gospel is God’s action, not ours. The Gospel does not create guilt, but removes it. The Gospel calls us to be the Church and let the chips fall where they may.

God doesn’t get a buzz off of a big crowd. He’s into individuals. He cares about every hair on your head, every cell in your body. He doesn’t care that there are only two or three or twenty or thirty of you. He loves you. The fact that you are here today is enough for Him.

We don’t have to grow in numbers to please God. But we could learn to count differently. Christians who die aren’t lost to the Church. They’re still with us in the great cloud of witnesses. They are those who gather with us around the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s what we mean by “all the company of heaven.” We mean

+John Luetje+, +Jean Derting+, and +Gladys Schauer+;

+Ray Dolgner+ and +Eunice Kayser+;

your mother, father, child or grandparent. We mean Christ’s people from every time and every place join us, along with angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven, around the body of Jesus.

And they never miss. They aren’t as foolish as we are, so they never get the idea that there’s something better or more important to do. They’re always here when the sacrament is offered. Nor do they ever stop praying for you or this place.

Christ has promised to be present with you in preaching and in the Sacraments, whether that means numerical growth or not. It doesn’t matter that the world doesn’t notice what goes on in Summit or Hodgkins or that we’re not a megachurch. Bethlehem and Nazareth were small towns, too. God has this habit of doing His greatest work in the least significant places when the fewest people are watching.

Soli Deo Gloria


+Rev. Eric Andersen
Portions based on Rev. David Petersen’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 (Gottesdienst 24:3), p. 4, and H.R. Curtis, “The Liturgy as Beacon for the Elect.”
St. Matthew 22:1–14
The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 2016
Zion, Summit
Immanuel, Hodgkins
Around the Word Bible Studies

[i] Petersen, sermon on 1 Cor. 1:18–31 (Gottesdienst 24:3), p. 4.

[ii] Petersen, 4.

[iii] Petersen, 4.



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