Our culture teaches a doctrine of soul mates, perfect matches, and happily ever after–and because that’s no one’s real experience, we’re left feeling inadequate, unfulfilled, even betrayed in our marriages and single lives. But a spouse was never what you needed to be fulfilled in life, and no person is able to carry the weight of that expectation. You need Jesus if you’re ever going to find the fulfillment of your most honest desires.
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 22.
We’re in a series right now surrounding the topic of marriage and singleness, two great gifts of God, one or the other given to each of us, and all week in our small groups we’ve been talking about how we use these gifts we’ve been given. Like most gifts of God, marriage and singleness are given to us, but they’re not meant just for us, they’re meant for our churches and our communities.
Singleness is a gift of personal freedom, the ability to go whenever and wherever needed without having to think about your duty to your family. Marriage is a gift of boundness, binding together two people in a way that is not meant to split apart again. This bind is strong enough to hold together churches and communities, hold families together, give the stability we need to grow.
We’ve spoken, too, of the ways in which our culture misunderstands and misuses both singleness and marriage. I’ve been allowing, in my sermons, our culture to begin the conversation, starting each week with a cultural conception of marriage, and then inviting people into the truth of God revealed in Christ Jesus, our Lord, brought to us in the words of Scripture. Today, we’re going to begin with our cultural idea that marriage is meant to be a fulfillment of longing.
We see this idea is all of the stories we tell which end happily ever after. We see it in every scoff of a confirmed bachelor who believes the whole idea of marriage is rubbish, wives tales, foolish optimism. Every time we tell ourselves the perfect man or woman is out there, or we tell our spouse that they are our world, our everything, “you complete me,” we are repeating this cultural idea that marriage is meant to fulfill our longing, make us happy, satisfy us.
To be clear, I’m teaching against this cultural conception that marriage is going to satisfy us, cure our loneliness and desire for companionship. I’m saying marriage will not fulfill your longings, which I know sounds like a real buzzkill. That sentence will probably not make it onto a Hallmark anniversary card. I’m imagining a candlelit dinner, and I’m sitting across from my wife, and I look into her eyes and say, “You do not satisfy me.” I wouldn’t do that—that would be sad. Worse than sad, when a person realizes they aren’t satisfied with their spouse, they aren’t having their longings fulfilled, their needs met, every time, it’s tragic.
But as Buechner reminds us, the Gospel is always tragedy before it’s good news. The reason we aren’t able to be satisfied fully and completely in our relationships is because we’re each sinful. I know we like to think the perfect woman is out there, but she’s not. We have to know we’re sinners before we can know anything of forgiveness, so I have to tell you a tragic, true thing this morning before I can tell you good news. The tragic part of this gospel sermon today is that your spouse—either the real one you have or the imaginary one you’re still wishing for, or have given up on finding—that spouse will never satisfy you, and you will never fulfill their deepest longings.
With that in mind, I want us to read what, to be honest, is a fairly upsetting passage. I’m not going easy on you today, but I think you can take it, and I promise this sermon ends with good news, the best, but for now read with me, Matthew, chapter 22, vs.1-14. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me.
I’ll confess something to you—I’ve never liked this passage. I didn’t intend to preach on it this morning, but “God does what he wills.” I don’t like how cruel the king is, burning cities to the ground and throwing the one man out of his feast just for wearing the wrong clothes. It seems angry and cruel, and I don’t like thinking that God is cruel. I’m saying this as a confession, of course, because this is the word of the Lord and the right response is to give thanks to God for it—I just don’t always have the right response when I read scripture.
But I’m glad the Spirit drew me to it. Usually the passages I don’t like at first are the most beautiful to me and most effective on me when I sit with them, and so it was this week with this passage. This is a parable about salvation and our resurrected life—those left in the outer dark being those who don’t accept the invitation to spend eternity with Christ—but it’s also a parable about a marriage, the wedding of a king.
The first thing you have to realize is how great a gift it would be to be invited to the feast of a great king, what an honor. Think about the great banquets and events of our time—the kind with red carpets, and the guests only ever need first names because we already know who they are, and we watch from our homes miles away through cameras and TV screens. They’re all so glamorous in the gowns and suits people give them for free, just so the designer can say, “I’ve designed for her.”
I’ve never been invited to a party like that, much less a royal wedding. No one in my family has ever been, but my brother got the closest. I have a picture. When my brother was living in England, Prince William Married Kate Middleton, and as a part of the celebration, the royal family declared it a national holiday, closed all the businesses and schools, and then they paid train fares that day for everyone named either William or Kate. My brother Will just so happens to be married to a Kate, so they took a free trip to London that day, but if they had tried actually to go to the wedding, the servants of the Queen wouldn’t have allowed it.
Usually, that’s what the servants of a great king are doing at a royal wedding, keeping out anyone who tries to come in without being invited, so already in the first verse, the first sentence of the parable, we see something strange: why are the guests not already there? I imagine a huge crowd gathered—I have a picture of that, too, from prince William’s wedding. So I imagine at the wedding feast in our parable, a huge crowd gathered, they roll out the red carpet, and the time comes and no one shows. The king’s own people, he sends his servants to tell them that they’ve made some kind of mistake about the day or time, but then, my Bible says “they would not come,” but the word is “willing,” they weren’t willing; they didn’t want to go. They didn’t care. They’d rather go to work than celebrate the holiday. The king sends other servants, and unthinkably, they kill the servants of the king.
Imagine Brad Pitt brutally murdering the mailman who invites him to the Oscars. It’s absurd. Jesus is trying to get us to ask the question, who would do such a thing? How can you explain that kind of behavior? Obviously these people should have been friends of the king, or in his family—these are his own people—otherwise why would they have been invited? And even though they should have been friends with the king, they turn enemy to him. This is rebellion. And strangely, it’s not an angry rebellion against anything unjust, it’s a casual rebellion, of not caring at all about the king or his son or the honor of being invited to this celebration. Casual cruelty and violence against his servants.
Then the king tells his servants, go let the crowd into the feast. All the ones who came, even though they weren’t invited. And then the man is thrown out who’s not wearing the right clothes—what I was missing in my understanding was this: if a king invites you to his son’s wedding, like I said before, the clothes are free. The king would have given robes to his guests, fine clothes, very valuable. This one man not wearing the clothes—he’s not a poor man, someone who had not, he’s someone who was given a thing of great value and despised it, left it on the ground.
Who are these people? The king, of course, is God, the Father, and the Son is Christ. And we can talk more in small group, about how his original readers would have fit in, but really what today I want to draw your attention to, when we ask who are these people in this parable, we are. We’re all of them. We are the ones who are invited and refuse. We’re the unworthy people outside the gates who are brought in. We are the servants inviting everyone to the feast. We are the man who wants to sit and eat the king’s food even though we despise and cast off his clothing given at great cost. We are even the bride, and there’s a lot we could say from this but I only have time for a few things.
We are the people who refuse or cast off the generosity of our God. We’ve all been these people, these enemies of God who refuse his invitation, at some point in our lives, and even now, those of us who are redeemed and restored, we bear traces of the old man. We still delude ourselves into thinking that other things and people will satisfy our longing, but other things and people are at best a reflection of God’s goodness, he is the source.
In the parable, these people who are invited to the feast, they refuse, and for what? To go to work, to earn a wage. But the irony of the passage is, the king is offering them far more than a day’s wages. They are satisfying themselves with what they can do and earn, when the king’s invitation is to a greater wealth and feast than they could possibly do for themselves. Why do they not see the poverty of what they have in comparison to the incredible riches offered by the king? And by that, of course, I mean to ask why do we still cling to lesser things when perfection is given to us freely?
Every one of us has a deep desire for intimacy, to be known fully and loved fully at the same time. Every book, every movie, every person knows this. We look at marriage, and we see the honesty of it, how well your spouse will know you, and we think, ah! There’s at least part of what we’ve been desiring—fully knowing and being known—so we seek out the other half: to be fully loved. And when we think we find love, we add marriage to it, thinking we’ll find what we’ve been longing for, and we will be known fully and loved fully.
But then, we all know what happens. We’ve all seen it in our parents’ relationships, friends’, and in our own. The tragedy I spoke of earlier happens. Because of sin, you won’t be able to know or love your spouse—not fully, not the way she really needs to be known and loved. And she won’t be able to know and love you fully, not the way you really need to be known and loved, not the way you’ve always longed to be known and loved.
At its worst, this failure to know and love looks like these things we all dread, the reasons we’re all scared of marrying the wrong person: either it’s the complete collapse of knowing each other—your sex life dying completely, and your spouse is hiding things—bank accounts, affairs, entire lives. Or just emotionally, you don’t know each other. You’re two strangers who happen to live in the same place.
Or it’s the complete collapse of loving each other—you stop doing anything to submit to or help the other; constant fighting, tearing each other down, pointing out every flaw, rules laid down, ultimatums given, actually wanting ill for the other, neither one willing to apologize or give grace.
When we have these relational breakdowns, we see the tragedy clearly, but what I’m telling you is, even in the best marriages in their best moments, the tragedy is still there, and it’s still tragic. No matter how amazing a person is, expecting another person to fulfill your desire to be known fully and loved fully is like a starving man eating a painting of a feast and expecting it to satisfy his hunger—his hunger won’t be satisfied, and he will have ruined a beautiful image, both.
Because the truth is: marriage is not meant to fulfill your longing, it’s meant to image the relationship in which our longing to be known fully and loved fully is actually able to be satisfied. Marriage is not meant to fulfill your longing, it’s meant to image the relationship in which our longing to be known fully and loved fully is actually able to be satisfied; I’m talking about Christ’s relationship to his church.
Ever more fully knowing and loving God alongside others seeking to do the same is able to fulfill the deep longing each of us has to be known and loved, and to know and love. And apart from that, you cannot fulfill your desires—you’ll just eat and eat more images and paintings, all trying to point you to the wedding feast in our passage. That’s the real thing. That’s where you’ll find actual fulfillment of your desires, and not just copies—water that won’t just leave you thirsty again.
For single people, this means marriage is not necessary to live a fulfilling life. You don’t need to get married to complete your life in some way, to find fulfillment for this longing to love and be loved, because Christ knows you fully and loves you without end. Marriage is just an image of the deep reality of Christ’s love for his church. You don’t need to be able to paint a feast to eat at the feast and be satisfied. You don’t need to take part in the image because you are able to take part in the reality.
For married people, this means expecting your spouse to fulfill your longings, to make you happy in life, is an unreasonable expectation. And that’s such a heavy expectation, it’s crushing to anyone on whom it’s placed. He can’t make you satisfied in life. She can’t fulfill your every desire. You’re both going to fail, make mistakes, get old, falter. This is our human condition since the fall. But God is good and satisfying, he never fails or leaves you. He does not change, and he always provides. Find your joy in him. Bring your longing to him, and know that he is good.
Going back to our parable, I said we are all the people who refuse or cast off the generosity of our God. That’s true of all of us at some point in our lives; we all start in the outer darkness, but see in the parable that God also invites us in to his feast and his kingdom.
Can you put up the picture of the crowd again? Can you imagine if Harry and Kate let open the gates of Westminster Abbey and let these people in, anyone who would come into their wedding? I’m imagining people with signs and felt top-hats with the British flag on them, sweatpants, sandals with socks, babies crying over the vows. Cockney accents making slurred toasts at the reception.
God invites the people—all of them—into his feast. Even us. We are the people who aren’t really worthy to be there. To quote Keller, “[Jesus] said, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ He loved us, not because we were lovely to him, but to make us lovely.” It’s important to realize you’re not really worthy to be at the King’s feast, that you need his robe, his righteousness to cover you. That’s the first step in coming to his table.
So we’re the people gathered outside, and we’re the servants, who are sent to tell people about the wedding. To bear the message that they are invited into the kingdom of God, into unimaginable grace and blessing. And when they refuse, to go a second time, even if it kills us, to bring them into our fellowship, not for anything we have or might gain, but for their own sake, and to honor the Son and the King.
We’re the servants, but remember, too, in contrast, we are also the bride. John writes in Revelation 19 that the church is the bride of Christ in his kingdom. In that culture the bride would make her own wedding dress, and John says our deeds, the good things we do, are like a bride sewing her own dress, not dressing up because he won’t marry her without a fancy dress, but only to please him. To stand before him and not be ashamed at having neglected this simple act of love.
This passage is not alone in scripture imagining the kingdom come as a wedding feast. Throughout the Bible, the end of this age is related to a wedding feast. There’s a reason why we all love stories that end in a wedding and happily ever after—it’s because that’s kind of how things do end, or rather how they start anew. But with the real wedding, not our images of it. But even the picture of it is beautiful, and we can look in awe at what Christ has done.
The last thing I’ll point out—if this is the wedding of the king of kings, creator of heaven and earth, there’s no one who is equal to him. Whomever he marries, even if it is the church universal revealed in her splendor, he is marrying beneath his station, as the British royals would say, and there’s only one real reason to do that. It’s if you find great joy and delight in this person, this Church, this people.
I’m inviting you this morning, myself a servant of the King, to the wedding which is the deeper truth behind any of ours, the reality which we image. I hope you will not refuse and go about your life here. There is so much darkness outside of the Kingdom, and so much fulfillment in him, and I want good for you. You’ll have to admit that you aren’t really worthy to be there, but then when you are there, and when you are there because of his great joy and delight in you, the telling of that tragedy turns to comedy and joy. Your life needs another chapter for the story to turn into happily ever after, and you can’t write it, but Christ is able. Won’t you come pray with me or with the person next to you? Confess and apologize to the spouse beside you. Pray for Christ to fulfill your longing. Pray with me now.