Sunday, August 21, 2016

Following the Narrow Way (audio and text)

Audio version, here.

Luke 13:22-30
Today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 13:22-30, begins with two seemingly simple verses. They tell us:
Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
Simple though they may seem, these two verses reflect the tension and apprehension that many people, both the disciples and the curious crowds following Jesus, are feeling.

For the disciples who have been paying attention to Jesus’ words and actions, there was a dread about what was coming in Jerusalem. For a long time before this point, Jesus has made it clear that in going to Jerusalem, He’s also heading to His death.

From the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, in fact, it was clear that He had come with a singular mission, to live a sinless life, then offer that life as the perfect sacrifice for our sin.

There are some megachurches that have chosen not to have crosses in their sanctuaries. "The cross is such a downer," they reason.

Listen: The cross is the place where Jesus would fulfill His mission and destroy the power of sin and death over all who take up their crosses--owning the reality of their own sin and their need of a Savior--and follow Jesus.

The cross is the place where all who believe in Jesus are saved.

The cross is the place of Jesus’ victory for us. That’s why I love the story about the Lutheran being asked by another Christian, “When were you saved?” The Lutheran answered, “On a hill outside Jerusalem three thousand years ago.”

Jesus’ resurrection serves as confirmation of Jesus’ Good Friday victory. But it's at the cross that His victory for us came about.

The apostle Paul, a learned man, deemed the cross so transformative, so powerful, that he told the Corinthian Christians among whom he'd worked that he decided when he was them not to use any of his vast knowledge to convince them to follow Jesus. "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you," he writes in 1 Corinthians 2:2, "except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Jesus' cross is that powerful!

Even Satan understood that the cross is the whole ballgame; it’s why He was constantly trying to keep Jesus from going to Jerusalem and the cross, tempting Him with worldly kingdoms.

After Jesus asked the disciples Who they believed Him to be and Peter rightly answered that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus told the disciples bluntly: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” [Luke 9:22]

After setting His face to go to Jerusalem [Luke 9:51], Jesus told the disciples, referring to His crucifixion as His “baptism”: “I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”

So, by the time we get to our lesson from Luke’s gospel narrative, the disciples are feeling extremely apprehensive.

But the curious, if unbelieving, crowds are feeling tension at this point.

You see, most first century Judeans assumed that because they were Jews, they would be saved from sin and death and be resurrected. It was all a matter of DNA. All Jews were righteous, they thought. All non-Jews, Gentiles, were not righteous. All Jews would therefore be saved, they reasoned.

But Jesus had been saying things in chapters 12 and 13 of Luke that said their confidence about salvation because they belonged to the club was misplaced. Salvation comes only through faith in the God now revealed definitively to the world in Jesus Himself.

The crowds of Jesus' fellow Jews needed to follow Jesus, to repent for sin and trust in Jesus, and submit to Jesus’ Lordship so that His grace could transform them. They needed to become disciples of Jesus.

This upset a lot of the crowds' preconceived notions. So, it was with apprehension that the man asked Jesus, “Lord, are only a few going to be saved?”

Jesus responds in Luke 13:24: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”

We live in an age when people, if they ever think of God, say that God is such a nice guy that He won’t send anyone to hell.

Let’s be clear: Jesus, God in the flesh, did die for everyone. But He doesn’t force salvation on anyone.

He doesn’t force anyone to repent or believe in Him.

He gives us the freedom to say no, to eat, drink, and be merry in this world, presuming to be gods unto ourselves until this life ends.

The doorway to a self-centered, self-indulgent, whatever-seems-right-to-us kind of life is wide open to everyone of us here on earth. But Jesus says that there’s only one way--a narrow way--to life with God.

And that narrow way is through Jesus.

“I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me,” Jesus says in John 14:6.

If we don’t enter God’s kingdom through Jesus, we can’t get it in, we won’t get in.

Jesus expands on this theme in the next verses: “Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”

There will come a time when another door, the door allowing us to escape a life of apart from God, will be closed to us.

Death will come and then it will be too late to enter eternity with God.

No matter how much they pound at heaven’s door, those who haven’t entrusted their lives to the God we know in Christ will pound in vain.

And it won’t do any good for them to say, “We made big offerings to the Church. We sang hymns and praise songs...even the ones we didn’t like and almost never complained about them. We volunteered for outreaches.” To people like this, the owner of the house--God Himself--will say at the Judgment, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!”

You see, Jesus doesn’t claim to truly know those who have no relationship of faith with Him. No matter how many good things we may do, even when we do them through and with the Church, Christ only knows those who have opened the doors of their own lives and let Him into the very center of their beings.

Without such humble surrender and a daily discipleship relationship with Christ, we’re just playing at religion.

To a church filled with lukewarm faith mentioned in the book of Revelation, the crucified and risen Jesus is recorded as saying: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” [Revelation 3:20] Jesus offers a relationship of intimacy and trust with Him, not just because it feels good, but because we need this relationship today and in eternity! Without a relationship with Jesus, we are dead now and we are dead for eternity.

With a relationship with Jesus, we are alive, even in life’s darkest and most difficult times. Five years ago yesterday, the young woman in whose remembrance I wear these two blue wristbands, Sarah, passed from this life at the age of twenty. She was a remarkable person, who fought leukemia through two bone marrow transplants, five remissions, and amazing faith! She lived her life with purpose and humor. She loved receiving Holy Communion. She loved helping young people. Even while she was fighting to live, she volunteered for the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization near the campus of Denison University. I wrote a song in memory of her a few months back called Phenomenon, motivated by the fact that from an early age, she knew that her life was going to be about helping kids. (And it was.) The first verse goes like this:
Fourteen years old and you know exactly what you're going to do
Listening and watching, I know you're bound to follow through
It's a mystery how one can be so young and yet so wise
When most of us go through our years and barely ever come to life 
Sarah was alive through circumstances of life in which other people who don't know Jesus would give up, more alive than most people I know who live each day in perfect health. With Jesus as our Lord, we are alive even when life is at its darkest and most difficult.

And one day, all who trust in Christ will be alive in a kingdom of perfection with God for all eternity.

To His fellow Jews, suffering from the delusion that being Jewish was all they needed to be saved--the way some people today think that all you need is to be Lutheran, Baptist, or on the church rolls somewhere--Jesus says: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.”

Do you know what it means to gnash one’s teeth? It means to grit our teeth and say, “I blew it! I blew it!”

Those who turn from Jesus or who take Him for granted in this life, will have that kind of regret. They’ll be left out the way Tim and I were when our morning flight out of Dallas was canceled last Sunday.

But Jesus doesn’t end His answer to the apprehensive crowd member at that. He says in verses 29-30: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. [Even Lutheran Christians! Even people from Dayton, Centerville, Springboro, Miamisburg, and West Carrollton, who have trusted in Jesus as their God and King!] Indeed [Jesus goes on] there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

I take great comfort from these final words from Jesus. They echo what Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches us: “ is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

I belong to God not because I’m good, because, in fact, I’m not. I belong to God because God is good and He covers me with the goodness of Jesus and the power of His sacrifice over death, accomplished on the cross.

And, just as I didn’t care last Sunday if I was boarding the plane from Dallas with group 2 or group 4, I don’t care if I get into the kingdom of God first or last. All I want to do is be a part of be with Jesus! Like the psalmist, I say: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” [Psalm 84:10]

When I consider that one day I will see the Lord Jesus face to face and that, because of His grace, I won’t have to hang my head in shame, I'm overwhelmed.

The world may consider me (and you) to be part of its gallery of losers, the least, the last, the pointless, the powerless, the unknown. But Jesus views no one in that way.

Every single human being is a child of God for Whom Jesus died and rose. 

Every single person can be part of that vast throng that gets a table at the feast that never ends, if they will only trust in Jesus enough to follow Him today and everyday.

Today, as we receive Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we will be given a foretaste of that feast. It’s the inheritance, the prized possession, of all who trust in Christ and let Him reign over their lives, who let Him into be their God and Savior and King and Redeemer.

It’s funny: Jesus never gets around to answering the question of how many will be saved. You see, He’s not into the mathematics of salvation; He wants everyone to be saved. And He refuses to give up on the possibility that every human being for whom He gave His life will give their lives to Him in return!

Today and everyday, trust Jesus and live confidently, joyfully in the knowledge that for all eternity, there’s a place reserved just for You in the kingdom of God. Live in that certainty...then go share Jesus with everyone you know so that they too can know and believe in Jesus and so, come to the banquet that never ends. Will you do that, please? Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This is the message from worship this morning.]

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