The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (C)
“The Narrow but Open Door”
August 25, 2019
Sermon Text: Luke 13:22-30
“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” It is a natural question in our day. Who’s right? The Christians? If so, will it be the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutherans, or the Reformed? Will it be the Moslems? Sunni or Shiite? Jews? Strictly observant, conservative, or reformed? Or are the atheists right? No salvation at all? Or will it be everyone?
Jews in Jesus’ day asked that question with a different set of options in mind. There were the Pharisees, who were very much like the strictly observant Jews of today. There were the Sadducees, who had largely thrown out the supernatural aspects of the faith and focused entirely on the do’s and don’ts of the law. There were the Essenes, who were out living in the wilderness, waiting for the end of the world and loudly proclaiming that everyone besides them was doomed. There were the foreigners, the Samaritans, who said that they were all wrong. And then there were the Romans and the Greeks, with their own set of gods and their own way of looking at things.
Nothing has really changed. And nothing really had changed. As much as the Old Testament promised that the Lord would save all of Israel, it was obvious from the Word of the Lord and from history that not all who were of the race of Israel were counted by the Lord as being part of Israel. One of the major themes of the Hebrew Scriptures was the idea of the remnant. From Cain and Abel, only Abel was the remnant, the true child of God who was part of the kingdom. From all the world only Noah and 7 others were saved from the Great Flood. From Isaac and Ishmael only Isaac belonged to God. From Jacob and Esau, only Jacob was accepted and blessed. How many times during the Exodus was a small portion of the nation divided away from the rest, who were unfaithful? The Northern Kingdom of Israel disappeared and Judah, Benjamin, and Levi were separated out from the other tribes. How few were the faithful who listened to the message that Jeremiah brought from the Lord? Again and again and again, only a remnant, only a few, were saved.
And so there was nothing new when Jesus came along. There were those who outright rejected Him. There were those who were intrigued by Him and considered Him, but then finally went away because they just couldn’t accept something that He did or said. And then there were those who listened to Him, watched Him, followed Him, and finally clung to Him as their hope and salvation. But they were the few; they were the remnant.
And there is always something in our human nature that will see this and ask, “Can it really be true? Is it possible that God would do such a great work among men, and yet so few receive it?” Consider what it’s like for us on a great day such as Christmas or Easter, when we worship and celebrate God’s great gift of salvation to all the world. And then we go back to work or school and we are surrounded by people, by friends, who couldn’t care less about what Christ has offered to the whole world. You come to church today and you worship and you receive His blessings in Word and Sacrament and you hang all your hopes and dreams on these gifts. And 24 hours from now you will be back at a desk or a workstation or in school or sitting in traffic with people who have not received what was intended for everyone, and they will value the doughnuts that someone was nice enough to bring to the break room far more than anything that God has given to them.
It is a natural question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And it is natural in our text that people direct that question to the One Who has the answers, to the Lord, to the One they have become convinced has come from God Himself.
But though it is a natural question, and though it is directed to the right place, it is also a distraction. It is a distraction because it turns our attention from where it should be properly focused and it sets our attention on the issue of salvation as some kind of academic issue that we can consider and study from a safe distance. It is really a harmless question, a question with no repercussions for the person who asks it, a question that can be asked and answered without making any demands for change on the part of the one who receives the answer. It’s kind of like the kid who breaks the rules and becomes careless and winds up putting a baseball through his neighbor’s window and then feels a little bad about it and goes to mom or dad and says, “Um, I’ve got a question, my friend, see, my friend now, let’s say he broke something that kind of belongs to someone else, it’s not a big thing, it’s just a little thing, and, um, what should my friend do, um, if it’s not really such a big thing, does it really matter, um, what do you think my friend should do?” He goes through all this nonsense instead of just coming home and saying, “Dad, I need your help, I broke the window next door with a baseball, what should I do, and can you help me do it?”
A big part of the art of being a pastor is getting people to rethink their safe academic questions as unsafe and dangerous personal questions. That’s what Jesus does here in our text. He will not keep the conversation friendly and cordial and academic and non-threatening. He immediately turns the question into a personal exhortation, a demand from God Himself, something that can only be obeyed or disobeyed with no safe grey area in between. “Will only a few be saved” is removed to uncover the deep, dark question that lies beneath: “Will I be saved?” Anyone else’s salvation really has nothing to do with you, you’ve got nothing to say about it, and it doesn’t really concern you. So don’t use it to distract yourself from the most important question that you will ever ask: “Where do I stand? Will I be saved?”
Jesus rams this home as only He can. He tells the crowd, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. Many will seek to enter, and will not be able to.” There are those who are trying to be saved who will not be saved. And then Jesus presents the most terrifying scenario that any human being can imagine. There are those who will not only be trying to be saved, but they will in fact be sure that they are the ones who are saved, but when they come to the door they will only hear the horrible words, “I do not know you or where you came from.” “But, Lord, we knew you, we ate and we drank with you, you taught in our streets.” “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, you evildoers.”
Imagine what it will be like for those who have ended this life thinking that they have peace with God and they are going to be with Him when they die, and when they get on the other side of death, this is what they hear. Heaven does not put you on probation, it does not send you to some purgatory to think it over for a while, and there is no court of appeals. There is only one word – “I never knew you, I do not know where you come from, get out of here you evildoers.”
This is where it gets intensely personal for each and every one of us. As St. Paul wrote, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. It is good that we have faith, it is good that we trust in Jesus, and He desires that we be certain of our eternal life with Him. That’s exactly why He gives us the gifts of Word and Sacrament. But at the same time, we should daily be asking ourselves the question, “Is there something that maybe I’m wrong about? Let’s go back and study the Word again to test this doctrine that I believe is true. Let’s go back and re-examine my life to see if there is some unconfessed sin that I need to drag out into the open. Let me look again at the ground upon which I think I stand, and Lord Jesus Christ, please correct me anywhere I may be mistaken. I want to be with You. I want to be known by You. I want to be pleasing to You. Please dwell in me and change me from the inside out in any way that You want. When it is my time, please don’t tell me, ‘I never knew you, get away from me you evildoer.’ Please, let me hear you say to me, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ Anything I have to suffer to hear those words will be worth it.”
There is One Who suffered so that you can hear those words of blessing. There are so many things to keep track of, so many opinions out there, so many doctrines that people debate. But there is one central truth upon which all your hope for the future can safely rest. Jesus suffered and died for you to make atonement for your sins. Jesus rose again to give you eternal life. Jesus ascended to the throne of His Father to pray for the church in which you find rest for your soul. And Jesus is coming back someday to give you your inheritance. Rest in Christ and what He has done for you and won for you and the narrow door will be open to you.
That’s why the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone by the merits of Christ alone is so important and central. Back at the time of the Reformation the Roman Catholic theologians were baiting the first Lutherans into debating over the marriage of priests and the position of the Pope and the details of the Mass and so on and so forth. And Luther always reminded his brothers, don’t go charging down all those rabbit holes. Keep everything centered around the Doctrine of Justification, keep your focus, make sure that we always make the main thing the main thing, because that is what is important and all these other issues are really only important insofar as they affect that main doctrine of the Christian Church – that Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. St. Paul wrote that the Christian message is simple and clear, “We preach Christ crucified,” a stumbling block and foolishness to others, but God’s salvation to us.
That’s why one of my professors in seminary told us that we should always remain humble enough to consider the possibility that one day we may wake up in heaven and find out that, oh, wow, the Baptists or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics were right all along about something that is surprising to us. It may be that our view of this or that detail of our faith may be a little out of focus. But one thing I know that we’re not wrong about is Jesus and what He promises to each of us because of what He’s done for us, because this entire book is crystal clear about that, from beginning to end. That work and those promises are the entire reason this book has been given to us.
With that in mind, with that certainty and that hope and that joy, we set ourselves to striving to enter the narrow door that is open to us. We work out the details of our salvation with fear and trembling, humbly seeking His wisdom and His guidance.
This is where confession comes in. The word confess has a very distinct meaning. To confess means to say the same as what someone else has said first. You don’t confess your own ideas. You confess what you have heard someone else say first. And that means that when we confess our faith, we are speaking truths that we believe that we have first heard from somewhere else, specifically from right here in this book. If it is not in here, we cannot confess it because God has not said it first. Everything you believe about God and your faith must be tested by the question, “Where did you get that idea?” If it cannot be found in this book, read in the way the church has read this book for 2000 years, then throw it out. Striving to enter through the narrow door means striving to hold on to only those things that can be found in here.
I don’t need to tell you that our society has become increasingly overrun by people spouting ideas about God that they did not find in here. Christianity is a religion based upon historical facts and revelation. It is not based upon human speculation and human wisdom. In the beginning God made mankind in His image. And in 2019 a lot of mankind is trying to make God in our image, the way we think He should be, the way we like Him, the way that He makes us comfortable in our pet sins and prejudices and opinions. We may put it in a negative way – “I just can’t believe in a God who [fill in the blank].” Or we may put it in a positive way – “I believe that God is a [fill in the blank].” And then they may go the extra mile and find a Bible verse or two that they twist out of context to back up their newly created god, as we saw not long ago with the guy who was actually teaching from Bible verses that God loves abortion.
Always the question is, where did you get that idea? If it can’t be found in the Bible, honestly read and interpreted, and if it runs counter to the way the church has read the Bible for 2000 years, throw it out. That’s what Luther did. The popular idea of Luther is that he sat down with his Bible and created a whole new set of doctrines from his reading of the Bible. The truth is that Luther worked out his salvation with fear and trembling, he was tortured by the idea of teaching against the entire contemporary church of his day, and he went through great pains to dig back 1500 years into the writings of the church fathers to show that it was not he but it was in fact the Roman Catholic Church that had deviated from the historic teachings of the faith.
And to confess also means to say the same as God regarding our sin. We always dig into the Word and examine ourselves against it and we are always open to the possibility that we will learn some ugly new truth about ourselves that needs to be confessed. “Yes, Lord, I see that You’re right about that. That is a sin, that is something that I don’t like about myself, please forgive it, have mercy upon me, please take it away from me, please change me.” If you’re in practice with it you know that when the Holy Spirit is usually done bringing one thing to light about you that needs to be confessed and forgiven, He then moves on to something else that you never considered before or hadn’t thought about for a long time. That is not fun, but that’s okay. That’s what our Epistle lesson from Hebrews 12 is all about this morning. That’s part of striving to enter through the door that is narrow but stands open to you. That’s part of belonging to Him. That’s part of the discipline that a loving Father brings upon His child. That’s how you know that you are His. And because of Christ, He always stands ready to forgive you and renew you and rejoice over you as His beloved child.
The warning is that the door to salvation is narrow. It is not as wide and tolerant and all-embracing as the world demands that it be. It is narrow and it puts demands upon us to enter only in the way that the Lord has given to us. But the good news is that this narrow door is open to us. The door that the Lord has opened to us is Jesus Christ, and if we belong to Him through the miracle of His work among us in Word and Sacrament then we are His forever, and He will never cast us out. Amen.
“The Narrow but Open Door,” 8/25/19, Rev. Richard J Bellas