Struggle Through the Narrow Door
A sermon based on Luke 13:22-30
Sunday, August 29, 2010 – Pentecost 14C
During my vicar year, I had the privilege of leading our church's youth group on a mission trip to the Apache Missions in Arizona. While in Arizona, on one of our days off, we took a day trip to some ancient Native American dwellings. After climbing up a steep hill, we reached the dwellings built into the side of a cliff. And as we entered the dwellings and moved from one room to the next, it struck me how small or how limber they must have been. While I'm not that big, I could barely fit through the small entrances and really had to twist and turn and struggle to get through some of the openings. There was no way that I could have ever made it wearing a backpack. It was difficult enough without anything making me bigger.
This morning, as we hear Jesus teach the people on his way to Jerusalem, we hear of a similar tight fit. A man came to Jesus with a question – a question that provided Jesus with an opportunity to lovingly warn the whole crowd to struggle through the narrow door to heaven. He warned them (and us) to get rid of the complacent attitudes that made them too wide to get through. And he encouraged them to trust in him as the only way to heaven, for only in Christ will we be recognized by God on the Last Day. Listen again to Jesus' loving warning as it's recorded for us in Luke 13:22-30…
22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" He said to them, 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. 25 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.' 26 Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' 27 But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!' 28 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. 29 People will come from the east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last."
I. Rid of Our Extra Baggage
When Jesus had completed his ministry in Galilee, it was time to head south to Jerusalem. Time to begin the long march to Calvary and to his sufferings and death. But before his death and crucifixion, he had one more opportunity to teach the crowds. As he journeyed south then, he took his time, going through all the towns and villages looking for opportunities to teach the gospel.
On one occasion, an unnamed inquirer asked Jesus a question: "23 Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" Of course, Jesus knew that this person's question wasn't really all that important. The important question is not how many will be saved, but whether or not you will be saved. Get that question answered. Then they could worry about getting others to heaven too. And so, in love, Jesus used this question to address the whole crowd. He warned them to make sure they would be among the saved, whether few or many…
He said to them, 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." Jesus told them, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door." He told them to struggle as if they were contending for a prize in an athletic contest. From the Greek word translated here as "make every effort," we get the word agony. In a certain sense, he's telling them to agonize about getting into heaven.
But what does that mean? Struggle to get to heaven? I thought heaven was free! In this verse, Jesus isn't saying that one can work out his own salvation. That's impossible. On our own, we could never get through the door to heaven. We have more than a backpack of sins that we lug around and we add to our size daily. With each impatient word spoken to a child, parent, or spouse, with each hateful thought about a coworker or stranger, with each doubt that God will be true to his word, we grow wider and wider. But really, it only takes one sin to make us too wide to fit through that narrow door because God demands perfection.
If Jesus meant that we are to struggle to save ourselves, we're all lost in our sins because there's no way we'll fit through that narrow door! But that's not what he meant. Let's look at the context of that statement in Jesus parable to better understand what he's saying. Jesus said…
25 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.' 26 Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' 27 But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!' 28 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."
Those who thought they knew Jesus and that Jesus knew them were locked out. Even thought they begged to be let it, it was too late. And even though they were already locked out, they continued to beg the owner trying to plead their case. They said, "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!" They tried to argue with him, "We're close to you Jesus! We ate a meal with you! You taught in our neighborhood! How much closer could we get?!" They thought that by their association with Jesus they deserved his favor. But they never put their trust in him. Without faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice, their sins remained. They continued to be "workers of unrighteousness." So the same reply remained, "I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers."
For those who were left outside, there was only bitter regret. Weeping that they didn't make better use of their time of God's grace on earth. They would grind their teeth in anger and frustration, seeing others in heaven, but knowing they were excluded and by their own fault. And they would weep and gnash their teeth in the suffering and pain of being separated from God—of hell.
Jesus' words seem pretty harsh here don't they? All this man asked was, "How many people are going to be in heaven?" and Jesus responds with all this talk about hell. Though it seems harsh, it's really out of love. Is it loving for a doctor who's diagnosed the cancer patient to keep his illness from him so he won't get worried about having cancer? No! He tells him the hard reality of his disease… so he can act! He tells him the dangers he faces so he can get chemotherapy and destroy what's threatening his life. In love, Jesus warned the crowd. In love he warns us too. Don't let anything hinder you from entering through that door that is so wide open right now.
When Jesus says, "agonize to enter the narrow door," he is not suggesting that our own works can save us. Instead he is lovingly warning us against a complacent attitude regarding the eternal destiny of our souls. If we fail to take our salvation seriously, a time is coming when it will be too late. Don't be complacent or apathetic in spiritual matters. The door is open today, but tomorrow it may be locked forever…
Jesus is not suggesting that our own works can save us. Instead he's warning us that our own works, when we trust in them for our salvation, keep us from being saved! It will be of no help when some try to argue on the Last Day, "Jesus, I was raised in this church. I was confirmed here. I went to church every Sunday. I came to every work day. I gave my offerings regularly." If you don't have faith in Jesus, that is, if you don't trust that his death on the cross has removed your every sin, you will be locked outside, no matter what you've done in this life.
Jesus lovingly warns us to take off that extra baggage. Just like I couldn't get through the narrow door of those ancient dwellings with a backpack on, so we can't get through the narrow door of heaven with our extra baggage. He warns us to abandon any idea that we can save ourselves by any of our efforts, or by just going through the motions of worship, which we at times think associates us with Christ. Our own efforts to save ourselves and any thoughts we may have of earning God's favor only heap more upon our wide load making it impossible for us to enter the narrow door.
In love, Jesus uses harsh words to encourage us to get rid of any complacency we may have and rid ourselves of any self-righteous attitudes or empty formalism. In love he helps us lose the extra baggage.
II. Recognized by God
But these words of Jesus are not without their gospel comfort. At this point the crowd may have wondered, "If the door is so narrow and the way so difficult, how can we ever expect to get through?" Jesus reminded them that there were those who were recognized by God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets were in the kingdom of God and more would join them. Jesus said, "29 People will come from the east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God."
It's not impossible to enter through the narrow gate. Many would go through. Many from all across the world will go through. But how? Jesus tells us. In John 10:9 he said, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved." Jesus himself is that narrow door! How do we enter through Jesus? He tells us in Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved."
That is, whoever believes in Christ and trusts that his death on the cross has paid for his every sin, whoever is buried with Christ in the waters of baptism to have his every sin removed, he will enter through the narrow door.
Whoever does not depend on her own righteousness, but recognizes Christ as the only door to heaven, she will be saved. Those who put their trust in Christ alone and aren't just going through the motions, by their sincere faith they will be recognized by God as his own sons and daughters! And they will join him in his kingdom right along side Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets. They will be taken from the four corners of the earth to enjoy the feast of salvation! They will walk through that open door to glory!
Finally, Jesus concludes this text by summing it all up… 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last." Those who think themselves first in line for heaven, who presume that by their works they have earned God's favor, those who choose Mt. Sinai over Mt. Zion, will be in for a shocking surprise at the Final Judgment. They will be last. Locked outside to weep in misery and gnash their teeth in torment.
But, on the other hand, those who think themselves last, who see what wretched sinners they truly are, abandon any hope of earning salvation on their own, and fall upon God's mercy, trusting that, in Christ, their God has removed their every sin, they too will be in for a surprise. They will find themselves first in line for heaven. They will go through the open door!
In thanksgiving to God, who opened the narrow door for us and removes our extra baggage of sin and self-righteousness, we can share his gospel with others. We can reach out to those who are still last, and don't know of God's grace, that they too may be first. And we can warn those who have the means of salvation but reject it, that when his blessings are disregarded and his grace despised, the riches of his mercy in eternity will never be known. We can warn them, that they too might be recognized by God and join us in heaven! That we might all take our place at the feast! The door is still open. Amen.