“Excuses, Excuses, Excuses!” (Luke 14:15-24; Isaiah 66:10-14)

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 7, 2019

“Excuses, Excuses, Excuses!” (Luke 14:15-24; Isaiah 66:10-14)

Recently I read this quote from an observer of the American church scene: “15 years ago, 40% of church members attended four times a month. In 2018, only 10% attended four times a month, a 37% drop in worship attendance. So you could have the exact same membership church, and on Sunday mornings it looks like you’ve lost over a third of your members.”

Now a certain amount of this can be attributed to aging. There are people still on membership rosters, but now they are homebound and no longer able to make it to church. And others who were in the pew fifteen years ago who since have graduated to the church triumphant. But at the same time, this big drop in attendance shows that we haven’t replaced those people. In our own congregation, attendance is down compared to what it was when I arrived here 13 years ago. And if you look across our synod–indeed, all across the American landscape–church attendance is down pretty much everywhere. Lots of empty pews, everywhere you look.

Friends, we are swimming against the culture. There has been a perfect storm of factors converging to militate against church attendance. I think we’re living in a time much like what Jesus described in our reading from Luke 14. The feast is ready, the invitations have been sent out, but everybody is making excuses. Back then it was “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.” Or, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.” Or another, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”

What are the excuses we hear today? “Uh, my kids have soccer on Sunday mornings, so we can’t make it.” Or, “Sunday is the only time we have for family.” Every pastor has heard these excuses. And then there are these: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” “I believe in God, but I’m not into organized religion.” “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Excuses, excuses, excuses! There is nothing new under the sun.

What is this but a breaking of the Third Commandment? “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Let’s call these excuses what they are: Sin. Sins against God, the despising of his Word. A rejection of Christ, who has promised to be present in the gathering of his people and who wants us to be here when he’s speaking to us and giving out his gifts.

But look, it’s not just the crowd who skips out on Sundays who break God’s commandment. It’s us, too, us regular churchgoers. Yes, even us pastors. We let God’s Word go in one ear and out the other, without taking it to heart. We hear God’s Word on Sunday morning–we may even preach it–but do we let his Word have its way with us on Monday afternoon? Or Friday night? And we make our excuses for that. “Well, God will forgive me, so I’ll just tune out the Holy Spirit for this little bit, and I’ll repent later.”

Luther and Walther would talk about the gracious visitation of God’s Word as a “fahrender Platzregen,” a “passing rain shower.” When God is showering his gospel upon a people in a land, it’s a beautiful thing. The Word of the Lord grows, and the church flourishes. But when that people become complacent, ungrateful–well, then that gospel rain shower may travel on to somewhere else. Today the gospel rain is falling in Africa and Asia, but in Europe and America the land has grown dry and hard and increasingly barren. Ingratitude. Complacency. It’s what Luther describes in the Large Catechism as the sin of “acedia,” apathy, boredom. For us, the Good News has become old news, and frankly, we’re kind of bored with it.

Excuses, excuses, excuses! And so the church pews are empty. But still there is hope for the church! You know, the prophet Isaiah spoke a word of hope to the church of the Old Testament at a time when things looked pretty grim and hopeless. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple was destroyed. And yet, what does the Lord say to the remnant that survives? “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn for her.” That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Rejoice over the devastated city of God? But why is there cause for joy and hope? It is in the Lord’s promise: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream. . . . You shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart will rejoice.”

Joy and hope in the midst of devastation. The Lord will restore the fortunes of Jerusalem. And that came true. The exiles returned from Babylon, and they rebuilt the temple and the city. But more than that, the promise of rejoicing and restoration we read in Isaiah pointed ahead to the fulfillment in Christ and his church. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Take heart, Jerusalem! Take heart, little St. Matthew’s! God has not abandoned his people! He never has, and he never will. Jesus has promised to be with us till the end of the age. The numbers may wax and wane, but you will always have Christ in your midst. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The church will not only survive, it will thrive! With Christ as her head, the church has a glorious future! We are longing for and looking for the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, the dwelling place of God with man, in a restored and renewed creation. At that time the Lord God and the Lamb will be the temple in the city of God, and the river of life will run through it.

For now, people may make their excuses, and pews may be empty. But the banquet hall is ready, God is faithful, and God will have himself a full house for this banquet! It is the feast of victory for our God–and for his Christ! For our Lord Jesus Christ has won the victory for us! Jesus took our sin of apathy upon himself, and he was passionate about it! The Son of God went to the cross and suffered the punishment that our haughty excuses and our arrogant indifference deserve. Now your sins are covered and atoned for, all of them. Jesus paid the price with his innocent suffering and death.

Jesus’ ear was always attentive to God’s Word. He was obedient; he was not rebellious. That is perfect righteousness. It’s what you need to stand before God on Judgment Day. And Jesus gives it to you, just what you need. With his forgiveness, with his righteousness, you will share in his victory over sin and death. You will share in his resurrection and his eternal life. You will recline at table with Jesus at his heavenly feast, along with the great multitude that comes from the east and the west.

So heed the invitation and come! This is the best good news you will ever hear! There is nothing boring about it. Come as the poor and crippled and blind and lame. For that is what we are on our own. Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and Christ will give you rest. Come as those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and you will be satisfied at Christ’s royal banquet.

Dear friends, today let us say with the psalmist: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” “Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.” “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

Enough with the excuses! On with the party! God will have himself a full house. And the good news is, there still is room, and you are invited. Come, for all things are now ready.

Published in: on July 6, 2019 at 6:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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