A sermon based on Luke 13:22-30
Sunday, August 21, 2016 – Pentecost 14C
I served my vicar year—that's what we call an internship in our church body—in Austin, Texas. My wife taught 3rd and 4th grade there. And over Spring Break we were given the opportunity (i.e. "orders") to chaperone a youth group trip to the Apache Indian Reservation. During our mission trip we had a few hours of free time each day and one of the local attractions recommended to us was a day hike to Geronimo's Cave. After climbing Cardiac Hill and visiting Chimney Rock and the Devil's Slide, we came to our destination.
And all of us were all impressed with Becky, who, in spite of the fact that she was several months pregnant with Josiah, apparently found it easy enough to keep up with the rest of us. But finally, we came to a point where she couldn't go—not because she wasn't in shape, but because… (and don't worry, I made sure she was okay with me sharing this…) she couldn't go on because… she was too big.
The rest of us got down on our bellies and did the army crawl through the only narrow opening into the ancient native dwellings. And yes, I did leave my pregnant wife behind. After all, I didn't come that far up the mountain just to turn around. J (And, by the way, she did encourage me to go on without her. I'm not really that big of a jerk.)
But this morning in our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that the door to heaven is a narrow door. Not everyone will get in. We, therefore, should make every effort to make sure we do. This morning we'll take a look at Jesus warning and encouragement to us in Luke 13:22-30. We begin with the first two verses…
22Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"
As Jesus taught the crowds about the kingdom of heaven some unnamed person asked him a question, "Are only a few people going to be saved?" I'm not sure what he meant by the question, whether he wanted it known that he was one of the elite few, if he was genuinely concerned that he might be left out, or if he was simply curious how many would make it. But no matter what he meant, Jesus took the academic question and made it personal.
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."
Someone asked "Are many or few going to get to heaven?" But Jesus answered the more important question: "How do I make sure I am one of those few?" "Yes, only a few will be saved," he said, "and many will be locked out. So you do all you can to make sure you get in." (By the way, the Greek word for "make every effort" has the same root as our English word, "agonize.") "The consequences are serious—they're eternal. So do all you can to get through that narrow door!"
I. With All of Your Effort You Can't Get Through
And with some pretty stern warnings Jesus first points out what doesn't work…
25Once 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.
What are the requirements in getting through the narrow door to heaven? Simply put, "Perfection." Jesus said it quite clearly in his Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)
So a single sin makes someone too wide—a single impure thought of lust, a single moment of laziness, a single word spoken in frustration that was meant to hurt—any one of these sins or any one of countless others makes a person ten miles wide so he just can't get through the door. No wonder Jesus said, "Many… will try to enter and will not be able to." Literally, won't be "strong enough." They can't be perfect.
And to make matters worse, our own efforts to get through only add to our weight and our width. Once the door is closed, Jesus warns, those outside will pound on it pleading to be let in—genuinely shocked that they're on the outside. Thinking they were among the few saved they'll argue, "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets." But none of this will matter. In fact, the thought that because they knew who Jesus was meant they didn't need his forgiveness will only make them wider.
Jesus will sweep away these flimsy cobwebs with the blunt truth, "I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!" And stuck in their sin, too wide to enter heaven, they'll be thrown out. They'll be forever banished to hell where, "There will be weeping… and gnashing of teeth…"
What a warning for us friends! It makes us examine ourselves and see where we're putting our confidence. Will you get through the narrow door? If you've even thought, "Yes, because I go to church regularly, in spite of the long drive. In fact, I even get extra credit because I go to Bible class…" If you've ever thought, "Yes, because I give generous donations to the church and even to charities outside of church…" If you've ever thought, "Yes, because I volunteer my time and because I'm a good person…" then watch out!
All of your efforts to earn your way into heaven won't help you one bit! In fact, any thought that you deserve to be there is a sin of self-righteous pride and only adds to your girth. And like that guy in the airplane trying to stuff his oversized "carry-on" into the overhead compartment—no matter what you try, you just won't fit! With all of your effort you just can't get through.
II. With None of Your Effort You Easily Get Through
But that doesn't mean the situation's hopeless. Jesus doesn't say no one will get through the narrow door. In fact, he says people from all over the world will get through. He says…
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets [are] in the kingdom of God… 29People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last."
So some will get through the narrow door to heaven! And often it will be those who one might least expect. While the first, those who look like good candidates for heaven by their outward life, will be last, and will be banished forever from heaven, others who seem least likely—the worst sinners, the lowest of the low, the last—those will be first in the kingdom of God!
How can this be? Moses even records some of the embarrassing sins of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for us, so obviously it's not by their own efforts or by their own strength. It must be some other way. And of course, you know what that way—or really, who that way—really is. Jesus said, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved." (John 10:9) Jesus not only helps people through the door. He is the door!
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and countless other sinners from the four corners of the earth put their trust in Jesus—the Messiah—the Savior from sin. And through him they made it through the open door!
And in the same way, dear friends, we get through that narrow door!
Maybe some of you, like me, are trying to lose a few pounds. Or if not right now, maybe you have tried to lose weight in the past. If so, you know what a struggle that can be! How you have to agonize just to lose a little bit. Can you imagine if there really was a diet out there where you could shed all your unwanted pounds and have a perfectly sculpted body overnight without any effort at all?
Dear friends, Jesus has the best diet plan of all! He makes us skinny enough to fit through the narrow door into heaven—not by taking away a few unwanted pounds, but by taking away much, much more! He's taken away our every sin!
By his sacrifice on the cross, every one of our sins has been paid for! By enduring the hell that each of our sins has earned he's removed every one! Every sin of lust, of laziness, anger or greed, every sin of self-righteous pride has now been removed. We're sinless. We're holy. We're perfect. We're skinny enough to fit through the narrow door into heaven. And it took no effort on our part! He did it all! We believe in him and spiritually speaking, we're perfectly sculpted with no room for improvement! With none of our effort we easily get through that narrow door.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door…"? How do we agonize to get in? We examine our hearts often to see where we're placing our trust. We abandon our efforts to get to heaven on our own and repent of the sinful pride that ever led us to believe that we could. We repent of our every sin, even our hidden faults—those sins of which we're not even aware. And we cling to the cross and to the promises of Jesus. In this way, we make every effort to keep the weight off.
III. With All of Your Effort Help Others Get Through
And finally, dear friends, as we live to thank Jesus for getting us through the narrow door, we follow his example and make every effort to help others get through that narrow door. Luke tells us… Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.
Notice where Jesus went to teach: through the towns and through the villages. No place was too big or too small, too important or too unimportant for Jesus to stop and spend some time teaching the people the good news of how he made them all skinny enough to fit through the open door. He didn't write anyone off as lost until their time of grace had ended. For the ones who were most considered the least likely to get to heaven, well… those would be first.
Jesus said, "People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last."