It’s God’s party. We need to respond

20th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14
Church of Scotland, Geneva, Auditoire de Calvin, October 15 2023

Jennifer’s party

Jennifer had a birthday: she was nine years old. Her mum and dad organized a birthday party.

Tom, Dick, and Harry all came. Tom gave her a present of a box of Lego. She liked that. Dick gave her a present of a bow and arrows to shoot at a target. She liked that even more. Harry gave her a present of – well, Harry didn’t give her any present at all. He didn’t even wash his face, or comb his hair, or put on nice clothes.

Jennifer was surprised. She was disappointed. And – let’s be honest – she was a little bit angry.

Afterwards, her mum asked how she had enjoyed the party. “It was great!” she said. “But that Harry – I’m never going to invite him again – not if I live to be 90.”

And she never did.


Happily, God is not as unforgiving as Jennifer was. But the question God puts to each of us, whether we are nine or 90, is this: Are we like Harry?

We sang our next hymn when Christine Colliar led worship last month, and this is what teachers call “reinforcement”.

CH4 163: Grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve

God’s party. RSVP!

Bring many names,” we sang in our opening hymn. Or some of us did.

The chorus of the hymn on the previous page says this:

May the church at prayer recall
that no single holy name
but the truth that feeds them all
is the God whom we proclaim.

We have many names for God, many stories and symbols in which to picture God. But the truth is that the truth that underlies the names and stories and symbols is not accessible to us.

We do not know God. No one has ever seen God.

But at some point, we must decide which of our many images of God is the dominant image.

Is God a judging God, furious at our bad behaviour, only too keen to punish us? Or is God a merciful and compassionate God, only too anxious to forgive us?


Take first the story of the golden calf.

God says to Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against these people and I may consume them.” And Moses has to talk God down. These are God’s people, whom God brought out of Egypt. Consuming them will be not be good for God’s public image.

Is this God of wrath the God we really believe in, even as we say out loud that God is love? In the darkness of the night, do we secretly worry that God’s wrath burns hot against us?


Now turn to Matthew.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

This is how Matthew summarizes the message of John the Baptist in chapter 3 of his Gospel: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It’s also how Matthew sums up the Gospel of Jesus in chapter 4 of his Gospel: From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The very same words, but with quite a different meaning.

God is always king. God, after all, is the creator and ruler and sustainer of all things, including you and me. But what Jesus and the Gospel writers mean by the kingdom is the climax of creation, the climax of God’s covenant with Abraham, that moment in our human history where God publicly asserts God’s rule for all to see.

Jesus and John the Baptist believe that this moment is now. That’s what it means to say that the kingdom “has come near”.


But they understand this in quite different ways.

John preached the judgement of God on a sinful generation – the crunch was coming, and only those who set themselves apart would be saved. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’…’ Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John’s God was a judging God.

For Jesus, the coming of the kingdom was radically different: not a grim day of judgement, but rather the day of the Lord’s forgiveness.

His God is merciful and compassionate. His God is the one he calls Father, a father who runs to welcome the returning sinner.

Jesus shows us this God. He shows us this God by refusing to condemn a woman taken in adultery – a story that in the early church some were not slow to find scandalous. He shows us this God by eating and drinking with all manner of people in all manner of settings – on the side of a hill, on the shore of a lake, in the home of an outcast. And eating and drinking is his favourite image of the kingdom: Many, he says, will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.

It is in these terms that he draws a contrast between himself and John. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”

Jesus takes sin seriously. He calls it out where he sees it, and he often sees it in places we ordinarily don’t think to look. He takes it seriously enough to die on a Roman cross.

But the God he proclaims in word and mirrors in life is above all a God of forgiveness, a God of welcome, a God of love. The new community he forms around himself is to rejoice that God shows mercy and that mercy extends to all.


Like all the evangelists, Matthew wants to preach the Gospel, the good news, of Jesus. But more, perhaps, than any of the others, he is also influenced by John.

Only Matthew gives us the parable of the sheep and the goats, that terrifying parable of the last judgment. Jesus, I suspect, might have preferred him to stick with the sheep and forget the goats: the point, after all, is not about the dreadful day of the Lord, but about how we are to live faithfully here and now.

And we can’t read Matthew’s Gospel, even superficially, without noticing that he likes to throw people into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.


In today’s parable, Matthew is at it again. He offers us the picture of a king who – like the God of Moses in Exodus – is enraged. A king who sends his troops to destroy his invited guests and burn their city. A king who is displeased by a guest who shows up not wearing a suit and tie and has him bound hand and foot.

But to zoom in on these details is to miss the point. This may be a parable of the kingdom, but it’s not about God. It’s about us, and how we are to respond to the kingdom into which Jesus, and God, welcome us – in changed lives and in a changed approach to the world around us.

The grace of God is answered by gratitude and a commitment to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.

It’s God’s party, but we need to respond!


Last Sunday, Mark Jeffrey invited you to join in prayer for Israel/Palestine but wisely decided to say nothing in his sermon about the horrific events unfolding there, and still unfolding as we worship.

Later, I shall also invite you to join in prayer. But, a week on, and with the death toll mounting by the minute, I don’t think I have the luxury of saying nothing.

Fear not! I shall spare you my penetrating analysis of the geopolitics of the conflict. There’s a time and place for that, and this is not it. Let me say something else.


Gal Gadot is an Israeli actress, perhaps best known for her role as Wonderwoman.

Last week, she posted a message on Instagram: “Killing innocent Palestinians is horrific. Killing of innocent Israelis is horrific. If you don’t feel the same, I think you should ask yourself why that is.”

In Israel, this created outrage. TV presenter Ofira Asayag told her, “Sit down and be quiet, for the sake of all of us.”

Gadot deleted the post and apologized: “I am sorry if my words were not understood in the way that I meant them. All I want is to speak out for Israel in the world and to show the horrors that we are experiencing and to help obtain worldwide support in the face of our critics.”


Here’s how I understand this short exchange.

Gadot’s post was a challenge to the West, to people like me – and perhaps like you – who support or sympathize with the long downtrodden people of Palestine: “If you say that killing innocent Palestinians is wrong, why don’t you say that killing innocent Israelis is also wrong?”

To which my answer, and I hope your answer too, is, “I do say that.”

Killing the innocent in the service of any cause is always wrong. It’s what Jews and Christians and Muslims traditionally call murder.

But this is not how Wonderwoman was heard by her fellow Israelis. Enraged by last weekend’s atrocities, they wanted to kill Palestinians in Gaza, and to hell with innocence!

We may understand that, but we cannot endorse it.


Decades ago, in the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle published by the World Council of Churches, I read the prayer of a Palestinian Christian. Actually, it’s not so much as prayer as an instruction. It reads like this:

Pray not for Arab or Jew,
for Palestinian or Israeli,
but pray rather for yourselves,
that you may not divide them in your prayers
but keep them both together in your hearts.

Even in these dark days – especially in these dark days – that is what we must all do.

Further reading

Thomas O’Loughlin, The Didache: A window on the earliest Christians (London: SPCK, 2010)
EM Sidebottom, Good News of God: The teaching of the Gospel tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982)
Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 2008)

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