Monday, August 23, 2010

Sermon on Luke 13:22-30, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Many or the Few?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s Gospel reading, a person poses an important question to Jesus, that might often be on our minds. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” As we contemplate Jesus’ response, we’re required to reflect on our own standing in relation to the kingdom of God. “Am I one of the many who will fail to enter or one of the few who will enter?” (Just 550). Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The person who asks Jesus the question is asking not about himself, but others. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” We’ve probably all asked similar questions. I know I always did as a student in the Lutheran school system. We ask about whether or not certain people will be saved, and we usually have a vague group of people in mind. It’s a safe way to avoid involving yourself in the question. But Jesus directs His answer back to the questioner: [You], “strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Jesus doesn’t permit the person to examine others without also examining himself or herself. If we avoid involving ourselves in this question, we may also avoid repenting of our own sinfulness and putting our personal trust in Jesus. Of first importance is that we know whether or not we are in a right relationship with God. Then our concern for our neighbor logically follows.
Somewhere recently I came across a comment where the author was saying how people ask the broad and generic question about whether all these people who haven’t heard the Good News of Jesus Christ can be saved. His response was, do you have someone in particular in mind? “Give me their address and I’ll go share the Gospel with them!” While of course we can’t possibly share the Gospel with everyone, most likely we do have someone in mind that we can tell. What does it really take to share with them the Good News? It’s as simple as telling them that God sent Jesus to die for our sins out of love for us, and now He desires that we know Him and trust in Him to be saved. Put a face on that generic person whose salvation you are concerned for, and tell them the good news! You don’t have to know beautiful or eloquent words to speak of God’s love for them—as the hymn-writer said: “If you cannot speak like angels, If you cannot preach like Paul, You can tell the love of Jesus, You can say He died for all. If you cannot rouse the wicked With the Judgment’s dread alarms, You can lead the little children to the Savior’s waiting arms.” (LSB 826, v. 2) Every person who hasn’t yet believed or hasn’t yet heard, has a face and a name. If you know their name and face and haven’t built up the courage to say something to them yet, start by praying regularly for them, and that God would open up an opportunity for you to tell them the Good News!
When we look at Jesus’ first answer to the question: “will those are saved be few?,” Jesus speaks of striving to enter the narrow door. What is the narrow door, and how do we enter? If we look in other teachings of Jesus where He uses the same language, this is what we find. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus directly answers the question: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” So Jesus portrays the way to salvation, the way to eternal life, as being narrow and hard. Few will enter into heaven. But it’s a broad and easy road that leads to destruction. No effort is required to stumble down along the downward path to destruction. This is really the opposite of the popular way of thinking about heaven and hell. People far and wide proclaim the supposedly “tolerant” view that “all roads lead to heaven” or “all paths lead to God” or “all gods are the same God, just different names and ways of relating to him.” In this way of thinking, its nearly inescapable that everyone is going to wind up in heaven. In this popular way of thinking, a person has to really work hard to be unusually evil or exaggerated in their rejection of God to wind up in hell. Practically no one but the Stalin’s, Hitler’s, Manson’s and Dahmer’s end up in hell.
But Jesus shows the road to heaven is not the “default.” Rather, apart from Jesus, all people are headed to destruction. But the amazingly good news is that this is not what God desires. God explicitly says that He doesn’t desire that anyone would perish, but that all would come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth (2 Pet. 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4). And neither is it truly loving or tolerant to teach that all religions lead to God. Imagine a state roadside information station that gave out maps that completely contradicted each other. You’re traveling on the highway, and you stop and ask for directions to Seattle, for example. The person at the desk then proceeds to tell you, “Go any way you like! Travel North, South, East or West on any highway that you choose, and you’ll arrive in Seattle. And by the way, you can ignore all street signs, and you won’t get lost. In fact it doesn’t even matter if you travel on the right side of the road! Ignore those One Way and Do Not Enter!” What would you think of such a station, or of maps that led to nowhere or anywhere? Obviously none of this would be helpful, and anyone who would follow this advice would be lead only to confusion, getting lost, and even fatal accidents.
But the analogy only can go so far, and breaks down in this way—the city of Seattle may have many different routes that can lead you into the city from each direction. From the North, South, East or West. And while from any starting point you could still get lost, or go the opposite direction, there are various “entrances” to the city. But the picture Jesus paints is different from the analogy in this way—there is a narrow road that leads to heaven, and a broad one that leads to destruction. Two roads. And at the end of the road to heaven is a narrow gate or door. There is one way and one way only to enter. There are not many entrances into heaven, but the only way to God the Father is through Jesus His Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But there certainly are people that are at different places in their journey. They began in different situations in life. Some have started then stopped. Some have turned back the other way to destruction. Some were barreling down the way of destruction but have been turned back by repentance to the narrow way of faith in Jesus. But all share this in common…we are either on the road to life or the road to destruction. This is why Jesus draws the attention back to your own situation first—you, strive to enter through the narrow door. This is why the Bible urges us to pay attention to the kingdom of God and not to lose our way.
So what exactly is that “gate” or “door?” In John 10 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jesus is the door or the gate, and through Him we enter to be saved. Jesus is the one entrance to eternal life. We don’t need to be searching or wondering how to get in. We don’t need to doubt or wonder about alternative entrances. Jesus says loud and clear that He is the door and enter through Him to be saved. Through Christ we find safe pasture, forgiveness of sins, the washing away of our guilt, and eternal life. In other words, all the peace and safety and satisfaction that we ache and long for in a war-torn world, is found in Him. And so long as we live, that narrow door is open. This is a tremendous Gospel invitation. Today, now, Christ calls us to “struggle to enter.” Now is the time to enter. There will be a time when that door is closed, and no amount of regrets after its closed will get us in. The door will be permanently shut when we die and face the judgment, or if Jesus comes back first. The regret of being shut out is truly miserable, with weeping and grinding of teeth.
But some He says will try to enter, but will not. Others will be shut out that thought they would go in. Why is this? Jesus describes some of these as thieves and robbers who tried to “climb in another way” (John 10:1-2). Some heard His Word but never did it or believed (Luke 6:46-49). There are others who spoke falsely in His name, and Jesus does not recognize these. They claim that they ate and drank with Jesus, and He taught among them, but Jesus denies these “workers of evil.” Adding the name of Jesus to your teachings does not mean that you are a follower of Christ if you distort them and teach your own thoughts and dreams.
Jesus says: “struggle” to enter through the narrow door. The struggle of anyone to enter the kingdom of God is to repent. Sometimes we think repentance is nothing difficult at all—just saying, “Oops, sorry!” And then go on our way. But in reality, turning away from our sin and being truly sorry before God is much harder. Everything in our nature rebels against admitting what we have done is wrong. We do what we like and if you don’t like it, we don’t care! With that attitude, it’s no wonder the world has so many problems. Our sinful nature wants to please itself, and the most displeasing thing it can hear is that what we have done is sinful and wrong. Trying to live a holy life is also a struggle. But its far more rewarding.
Perhaps some of you are worried or doubtful right now. You’re not sure of whether you’ll stand among the few or the many. Salvation sounds like a hard road, and you’re not sure that you’re making it. You don’t feel like you’re winning the battle of repentance. You begin to wonder if it all depends on you. So I ask you this: do you know the voice of Jesus, your Good Shepherd? Are you listening to His voice and following His call? If you know Jesus and put your trust in Him, then He is leading you on the path to salvation and it all depends on Him. He is leading you through the valley of the shadow of death, and He knows the way. However soiled you have gotten in your own sins, if you have turned to Him, you are forgiven! Better that our regrets now lead us to repentance and forgiveness, than regrets that are too late, after the door has been forever closed. The Good News is that the struggle of repentance that you don’t feel like you are winning, isn’t one that you win on your own. While we daily wrestle and strive against sin, the battle is already won by Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ teaching about the many and the few, about heaven and hell is ended with a surprise: while the door was narrow and the path was difficult, the banquet of heaven will be filled with people from every direction. Many will arrive there by the grace and blood of Jesus, poured out for the sins of the world. But the surprise is those who were first will be last, and those who were last will be first. It’s not those who put themselves first in line to the kingdom of heaven, who had all the outward appearance and fame of seeming worthy to enter—but the meek and the humble. Those who were last. Not those who were confident of their own goodness and righteousness, but those who were repentant and humble, and confident only of the goodness and righteousness of Jesus Christ. To these, the kingdom is given. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, because of His limitless righteousness and innocence, we who were so undeserving will be able to stand together with all those whom Christ has called and brought to eternal safe pasture. There we will pour forth eternal praises, forever giving thanks to the One who gets all the credit for bringing us there, Jesus Christ.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. In Luke 13:23 someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” How does Jesus answer direct the person back to first consider their own position before God? Why is it important that we put a name and a face on the people who’s salvation we are concerned about? How can we begin to tell them the good news? Look at Hymn 826, esp. v. 2: “Hark the Voice of Jesus Calling”

2. What does Jesus mean by calling the door (to eternal life) narrow? Read Matt. 7:13-14. How does this contrast to the popular idea that “all roads lead to heaven?” Will there be few or many that enter eternal life? Why isn’t it loving someone to say that any road will get you there?

3. What is the “door” or “gate” to heaven? Read John 10:1-2, 7-9. Cf. John 14:6, Acts 4:12; How do we enter by that door? What is found within? When is that door shut? Matt. 25:10; Heb. 9:27.

4. Why will some think that they will enter, but will not? John 10:1-2; Matt. 7:21-23; 25:1-13; 25:41-46; Luke 6:46-49.

5. How does Jesus describe the experience of being shut out of the kingdom of God? Reread Luke 13:27-28. Luke 16:19-31; Matt. 13:41-42; 25:30, 46.

6. How does Jesus describe those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God? Luke 13:29-30; Matt. 22:2; 25:23, 34. To whom will we give all thanks and praise for bringing us there? How long does the feast and celebration last?

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