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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Narrow Way (Luke 13:22-30)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 23, 2007

Thursday night Heather and I watched Survivor: China. We haven’t watched Survivor since the first show a few years ago, but checked this one out because, Leslie Nease, one of the DJs from our local Christian radio station (New Life 91.9) is on the show. If you don’t know what Survivor is, it’s a reality game show where two teams of people are put in a remote location for 16 weeks. They have to survive on their own and along the way they compete in various games and challenges, with one contestant being sent home each week.

Well, set in China, this show kicked off with a “welcoming ceremony” in a Buddhist temple. Anticipating Leslie’s reaction, the show host made clear that this was not worship, but just a welcome. What did Leslie do? When they were asked to bow down and pray before the statues of Buddha, she left the building. When they asked her about it afterwards, she said, “That felt like worship to me. I’m not religious, but I do have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and I will bow down and worship him alone.”

Good for Leslie! We are interested to see how she does on the show.

What did she mean, though, when she said that she is not religious? Why define her faith in terms of a relationship with Jesus?

That is exactly what our text this morning explores! Someone asked Jesus about who would be saved (presumably by him as the Messiah). Jesus’ answer surely was not what they were expecting. Let’s look at what happened.

Who (and how many) Will Be Saved? (v. 23-24)

As with the distorted understanding of Messiah and the Kingdom of God, “being saved” was understood in terms of God’s rescuing the Jewish people from the oppression of their day through a military revolution (or perhaps by some by a return to the purity of Law-keeping). The expectation behind the question put to Jesus, then, was that only some of Israel would be looking for the Messiah and be saved by Him.

As he did with explaining ‘Messiah’ and ‘Kingdom’, Jesus had to redefine ‘salvation’ and reset the expectations around what being saved meant. While our modern (and often distorted) expectations around salvation do not match the ancient (and also distorted) expectations, Jesus response to this question is timeless in application and just as important for us to hear as it was for the audience of his day.

There are several key principles which I’ll state up front, then look at with you in more detail.

The time to attend to faith and salvation is now, not later. While there may be positive elements to religion and religious practice, there are very real limits to what they contribute to our salvation, and not a few potential dangers of religion practiced for the wrong reasons. While “the door” is narrow, the invitation given is extraordinarily broad.

Let’s look more closely…

Now, Not Later (v. 25)

Jesus spoke with urgency. The time is now to enter through the narrow door. There is a time coming when the head of the house will shut the door and it will be too late. I’ll return to this at the end, but don’t miss what Jesus is saying. Salvation isn’t something to put off as if it were a convenience to fit into our otherwise busy schedules. His imagery here brings to mind Noah and the Ark. There was no one who would enter the ark when Noah was building it as a living demonstration of God’s salvation. It was only when destruction was obvious and imminent, and the Ark sealed up, that so many cried out to be let in.

Hear the Good News inside the warning: the door is still open today! There will come a time when it is “too late,” but today, this moment, it is not too late to run to Jesus.

For you who know Jesus, hear the urgency of this as well. Sharing the news about Jesus is, similarly, not something to put off as if it were a convenience to fit into our otherwise busy schedules. To not point someone to Jesus as if their life depended on it is unconscionable. I believe that failure to speak will be one of the sins of omission that will make us weep when we bow before God’s throne.

If we don’t see the urgency of that, then we need to think long and hard about what we think salvation means.

The Limits of Religion (vv. 26-28)

I find the next few verses very interesting. Listen to what those who are stuck outside are saying:

We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets. (v. 26)

He is, of course, talking to the scribes and Pharisees who followed him around constantly, but who didn’t “get it” in terms of who he was and what he was teaching. He is saying that being in the right place and even hearing the right words is not sufficient.

When I try to understand that in terms of church and modern Christianity, it makes me really uncomfortable. But I believe it is true. Being in the right place (church) and even hearing the right words (the Bible taught clearly) will not save you. Think about the old drowning man illustration. Just because someone throws you the life-saving ring and you correctly read the words on the side – “Life Saving Device” – does not mean that you will be saved. You must lay hold of the ring to be pulled to safety. Now that illustration has theological limitations, but you get the point. When you bow before the throne of Heaven, Jesus will not say, “Are you a member of Good Shepherd or a Presbyterian in good standing?” or even “How many sermons did you hear in your lifetime?” He will simply say, “Do you know me?” Or simpler still, he will either recognize me as his or not. This is what he describes in verse 27…

I tell you, I do not know where you are from…

He appeals particularly to his audience, who find such continuity with their Jewish ancestors, saying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood salvation and the narrow door, for they are in the Kingdom of Heaven. He says that it will be all the more tragic when these people who will not believe and follow him realize that they have indeed forgotten the face of their fathers.

Going to church, participating in church – that is, being religious – is not a bad thing, unless those things become a substitute for the relationship with God through Jesus. It’s like confusing movie nights, candlelight dinners, flowers, and phone calls with love itself. The two are related, but they can also be tragically disconnected.

Jesus invites us not only to hang around and listen, but to “Come, believe, and follow.” That is the door. There are not multiple doors; there is just “Come and follow me.” There is only Jesus Christ.

What is Not Narrow (vv. 29-30)

Jesus concludes with what may have been the most scandalous part of all for his Jewish audience. While the door is narrow (trusting Jesus, the one the Father sent), the invitation is extraordinarily broad. The scribes and Pharisees were probably not thinking beyond the Jewish community in asking this question, and in fact, were looking for Jesus to talk about a narrow ethnic and religious door. He surprised them the first time by saying the narrowness of salvation was through himself. He scandalized them a second time by suggesting that the invitation was broad.

They will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. (v. 29)

Again, this should not have surprised them; the promise to those same forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had been that they would be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

But, years later, this part of God’s promise had been misplaced.

What does that mean for us? Most directly, I think it challenges our self-centeredness as American Christians. That ties into the confusion about what exactly Christianity is. It is not our comfortable buildings, trained choirs, black robes, and large budgets. Those things are ok (if they don’t become idols!), but not the heart of Christianity. Rather, it is a living relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I can guarantee you that there are millions upon millions of believers around the globe who have a far clearer understanding of that than we do, despite economic and educational limitations. We do not dare look down upon them as “poor third worlders” or “developing nations who are as children.”

Whenever you start sweating the narrow door part of Jesus’ invitation, that he is the only way and no one comes to the Father except through him, remember also the extraordinary breadth of the invitation. God’s invitation is exceedingly broad, so that every tribe and tongue and nation will be represented before the throne of God for all of eternity. That is one of the things that makes Christianity so gracious. It is not faith based on ethnicity or nationality, but on personal response to a loving God.

In the coming chapter of Luke, Jesus will go on to press this illustration and this theme, that God’s Kingdom is like a great banquet, and all are invited. Some who might be expected to come do not and some who might be expected not to come will. And so, Jesus says:

Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (v. 30)

What’s Really Important

At the heart of Jesus’ words today is this: we will be surprised, he says, at who is saved, not because there are other ways to God, but because many of us don’t have a clear understanding of what (and who) saves us. And yet, even to those who are confused, Jesus speaks clearly that we might hear. The way to God is through Jesus Christ alone. And the time to come, believe, and follow Jesus is now. It is not tomorrow; it is not when we stand ready to be judged. The time is now.

So, beloved, hear the good news: God has come all the way down to where we are through Jesus Christ that we might turn and see Him face to face, know Him personally, and follow Him obediently. There is no sin, no past, no weight, that is too great for God. He invites you now to the banquet. You are His guest; come in!

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