I’m Here for Dinner! (hope in suffering)

Once upon a time there was a rich and powerful king who lived in a massive castle and had a vast kingdom.  He decided to invite peasants from the farthest villages to his castle for a feast at the close of the harvest.  Heralds were sent and announced the banquet, gave directions and warmly invited everyone to come. 

None of these people had ever seen the castle or the king—although they’d heard stories since they were little.  Nothing like this had ever happened before.  You would think that the kingdom would be bursting with joy.

The reaction was mixed.

Some were nice to the heralds and assured them they would come (although they knew darn well they wouldn’t).   Others were excited and wanted to come.  However, they more they thought about it their hesitancy grew—it would be a long journey and dangerous and expensive.  Some didn’t believe the invitation was legit.  Why would the king invite us to his castle?  How do we know this isn’t some sort of joke by rogue heralds?  Maybe this isn’t a joke at all but a means to lure us off our land for others to steal.  Still, there were some who were excited and counted the days with enthusiasm. 

After the harvest many left on the journey.  It was a hard one.  The way was hard and far and none of them had ever been this way before.  It was also getting colder.  Nevertheless they (mostly) persevered.  Many hard and long weeks later the castle came into view and they were in awe.  For most, their excitement grew.  Others became very afraid.  They felt so backward and poor and inadequately dressed.  Why would we be invited here?  Some left in fear; the rest carried on.  They came to the castle and it was overwhelming.  They came in through the gate and there was a vast courtyard with many beautiful pavilions. These pavilions had abundant appetizers of a quality that these people had never even imagined.  However, by the time they got there most of the pavilions were full of people who lived closer and were just hoarding the food for themselves.  So, most waited in the courtyard with only scant food.  However, castle servants assured them that dinner was coming and soon they would be ushered through the huge double doors into the castle proper for the feast.  Groups had been entering for days (remember, the whole kingdom had been invited).  They may have to camp here for a while before it was their turn. 

Many were excited and didn’t mind the wait.   Those few who had access to the pavilions with abundant hors d’ouvres were happy to wait—in fact most of them hoped they’d never be called in.  Life was great in the pavilions.  Most were camping off to the side though (although occasionally a few from the pavilions would share a little bit).

Rumors were stirring in the camp.  Some said that the dinner would be awesome beyond anyone’s wildest imagination–well worth the trip and the wait.  Others said this whole thing was like the candy house of Hansel & Gretel.  There was no dinner behind the doors—only death and suffering awaited.  Some left scared.  Others just hunkered down in the pavilions and tried not to think about it.

It is odd that on the threshold of their greatest opportunity for joy and satisfaction, the mood of the campers was rather heavy.  Many who were so tired, cold and hungry after such a hard journey were sorry they came and wished they were back at their cottage in the country.  They were a bit ticked that they had come all this way just to camp in the cold while they watched small packs of gluttons devour most of the snacks.  The more they thought about it the more their negative emotions grew.  The castle with its big imposing door and massive walls and armed guards was nothing but fear-producing.  Even the folks in the appetizer-intensive pavilions had fears–they didn’t want to give up their “bird in the hand” for whatever was “in the bush” (it was probably bad).   Interestingly, some of the most optimistic and joyful folks never made it to the crab dip in the pavilions.  They were just as tired and hungry and cold from the long journey, but they sincerely believed that they were going to see the King and have dinner in the castle!  They waited joyfully in hope.

In the midst of this scary pandemic I’ve heard so many Christians (in rather light, glib, dismissive tones with smiles on their faces) say things like, “Don’t worry.  God is in control.”  “God’s got this!”  “It’s all according to God’s good plan.”   Sometimes they will go on to quote scriptures—particularly Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air:  they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?  And why are you anxious about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

This passage is the word of God to us.  It is true and important and relevant.  HOWEVER, when we proclaim it I think we need to proclaim it like we would in a battered women’s shelter, or a Syrian refugee camp or a slum in Calcutta.  These are truly words of life and cause for great joy!  Nevertheless, they are spoken into a post-Genesis-3 world that is full of suffering.  I mean SERIOUS, AGONIZING, DESPAIR-INDUCING, TERRIFYING suffering.  So when we see even more dark clouds on the horizon we need to speak life and hope and truth and joy with the tone and attitude and heaviness appropriate for the occasion or we will end up communicating something far different than God desires and people desperately need.

My little parable helps me keep perspective.  I’m not afraid of going into the castle for dinner.  I look forward to it!  Yes, I have been truly born again.  What does scare me, I must sadly confess, is losing my primo spot in the pavilion where there are abundant appetizers.  I don’t want to camp hungry and cold in the courtyard.  Why does that scare me so much!?  Why is my “bird in the hand” held with white knuckles?  I don’t know how to camp!  What would happen if I ever have to look my wife in the eyes and tell her I don’t know how to get food or toilet paper while we’re literally starving!?  I know what to do in the shrimp cocktail pavilion, but I have no clue how to camp rough in the courtyard.

What if the people who know how to camp rough in the courtyard only help me as much as I’ve helped them?

Do I believe that the King has invited me?  Do I believe that this is the King’s courtyard?  Do I [wrongly] believe that the King cares more about the people in the pavilions?  Am I 100% confident that dinner in the King’s hall is worth any amount of suffering on the hard narrow hard way that leads to life that few find (Matt 7:13)?  Does a review of my life suggest that I’m laying up treasures in heaven or on earth?  Why, then, am I scared of (and even surprised by!) moths and rust and thieves?  (Matt 6:19)

So I exhort you, brethren, stand fast in hope!  I say this with absolutely no glibness or lightness or saccharine-sweet smile.  Let’s pray for each other.  Let’s encourage each other.  Let’s help each other.  I’m not the only one who needs it.

This is the King’s courtyard!  We are invited to the King’s dinner!  This light momentary affliction is producing an eternal weight of glory beyond what we can image!  (2 Cor 4:17)

However, let us always remember that the same apostle who described his affliction as “light momentary” also wrote three chapters earlier, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.  For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.”  (2 Cor 1:8).

There is no room for a glib, saccharine-sweet dismissal of that kind of agony.  However, there is room to offer hope and encouragement.  Paul continued, “Indeed we felt that we had received the sentence of death.  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.  You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” (2 Cor 1:9-11)

God delivered Paul again and again and again and again.  And then the Romans chopped off his head.

I’m not here for appetizers in the pavilion.  I’m here for dinner!

May God help us all remember why we are here.