Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 28, 2010

Sermon on Luke 13:22-30

THE NARROW DOOR TO HEAVEN

  1. It is too narrow to assume your automatic entrance
  2. But it is wide enough to welcome people from all nations

Text: Luke 13:22-30

Introduction

If you are relatively new to the Lutheran Church, today’s order of worship might be hard to follow.  But if you have been around the Lutheran Church for a while, and especially if you were born before 1980 or so, you probably remember the order of worship that we’re using this morning.  As a change of pace to our usual orders of service, we are using “The Order of Holy Communion” from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) for today’s service.  This was the main communion service used in our church denomination, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), until 1993 when Christian Worship was published.  In fact, this was basically the order of worship that most of our congregations used until 1993.

When you only use one order of worship in a church for over half a century, it’s easy to know it well.  Speaking Elizabethan English in worship seems strange now that our synod has used modern English for nearly 20 years.  But there is something very familiar about this service if you grew up with it, as I did.  I still have major sections of this service memorized even though I never tried to memorize it.  That’s what happens when you really only know one order of worship for the first 18 years of your life!

There’s something good and bad about knowing something so well.  The good part is that the service’s familiarity made it easy to follow for lifelong Lutherans.  Many worshippers didn’t even need to open the hymnal to follow along each week.  It was comfortable and familiar, like an old friend.  But the bad part—or maybe I should say the potentially bad part—is that it became so familiar that it was easy to not think about what you were saying and singing and doing.  It was easy to fall into “autopilot mode,” go through the motions, and not consider the gospel message in the words and songs of the service.

A familiar order of service can be a very good thing.  But too much familiarity might lead us to take it for granted and coast through the service, and that’s not good.  The same could be said about Christian faith in general.  It is a very, very good thing to be familiar with all of the teachings of the Christian faith.  It is a good thing to know Luther’s Catechism like the back of your hand.  It is a good thing to be able to open up to any verse in any book of the Bible in three seconds or less because you know your Bible so well.  But when we take our faith for granted and when we assume that our past knowledge and learning is good enough for us to coast our way into eternity, that is not so good.  And that summarizes Jesus’ warning in today’s Gospel.  In Luke chapter thirteen, Jesus warns against coasting our way into eternity because the door to heaven is narrow!  The door to heaven is too narrow to assume your automatic entrance.  Yet the door to heaven is still wide enough to welcome people from all nations. 

I.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus on a teaching tour.  He is in an unnamed town.  An unnamed person asks him a question about salvation.  “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”  Perhaps the blunt and direct teaching of Jesus made this man and others worried that the door to heaven wasn’t as wide as they had assumed.

Have you ever asked a question, only to have the person answer a question you never asked?  Sometimes people do that to avoid answering the question; other times people do that because there is a more important question to consider.  Jesus does the latter here.  He doesn’t talk about heaven’s population.  Rather, he warns that people should not assume their entrance into heaven.  “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’ answer to the question that wasn’t asked was to “make every effort.”  The word Jesus used here was often used in the context of an athletic competition and often assumed an opponent.  In other words, there is no coasting into heaven!  There is fighting and battling on the way to heaven!  The sin inside us and the sin all around us and Satan who first brought sin into our world are all working against our safe arrival into heaven.  That’s why Jesus said, “Many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”  College athletes know that just because they aspire to play in a professional sports league doesn’t mean that they will make the cut.  High school seniors know that just because they want to go to a certain college doesn’t mean that their college of choice will accept their application.  In the same way, a mere desire to be with God forever in heaven doesn’t mean acceptance into heaven if we let our sinful nature successfully snuff out faith from our hearts.

As he did so often, Jesus illustrates his point with a story.  “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.’  Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’  But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.  Away from me, all you evildoers!’  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.”

Notice how he says to his listeners, You will stand outside knocking and pleading.”  He concludes that all the ancient patriarchs would be in heaven, “but you yourselves thrown out.”  His listeners likely assumed that they were a shoe-in for eternal life!  They were the descendants of Abraham and recipients of God’s Old Testament promises.  But the door to heaven is too narrow to assume an automatic entrance.

I began this sermon talking about the good and bad aspects of a familiar order of worship.  I love the familiarity that our orders of service provide, but our sinful nature is amazingly able to take a good thing and turn it into an excuse for coasting through worship.  That’s the case with worship, and it’s even more so the case for our Christian faith.  Our sinful nature can take the good blessing of our baptism into Christ’s name and turn it into a holy water magic charm.  Our sinful nature can take the good blessing of our church membership in a confessional Lutheran congregation and turn it into a “get out of hell free” card.  Like Jesus’ first listeners, we can assume that our baptism and our church membership and our basic Christian knowledge give us an automatic entrance into heaven, and that no sin or temptation can ever threaten us.

Why is it, brothers and sisters, that encouragements for Bible study seem to go in one ear and out the other?  Why is it that the news in the service folder turns into sermon reading material?  Why is it that we can spend so much time and energy identifying the sins of others while our own sins go unnoticed, unacknowledged, and (if I may make up a word) unconfessed?  Isn’t there a part of us that assumes our automatic entrance into heaven?  Isn’t there a part of us that treats the devil like a mythical creature instead of our real enemy?  Isn’t there a part of us that falls into the same sin as Jesus’ first listeners who assumed their automatic entrance into heaven—even though the door to heaven is too narrow to assume our automatic entrance?

II.

Let’s set the context of Jesus’ words again.  He had been asked a question: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”  His answer really wasn’t an answer to the question, because the question wouldn’t get at the real concern.  The real concern wasn’t the number of souls in heaven, but that each person should be concerned that his or her soul is among the souls in heaven.  Jesus debunks the thinking that heaven would be some sort of club from the same demographic group.  The door to heaven was narrower than his listeners assumed.

The door to heaven is narrow, but it is not restrictive.  The door to heaven is narrow, but it is still wide enough to welcome people from all nations.  Perhaps some of Jesus’ listeners were surprised to hear his conclusion.  “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.”  Those who assumed their automatic entrance into heaven might find themselves outside at the end of the line when the door is shut.  But the door is still wide enough to welcome people from all corners of the world.  Saint John’s vision of heaven in the last book of the Bible confirms Jesus’ words: “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10).

Today is the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  These “Sundays after Pentecost” mark the half of the church year when we focus on the life of the Church and the life of a Christian.  It is appropriate to call these days the “Sundays after Pentecost” because Pentecost Day was essentially the birthday of the Christian church.  On that day the church went from 120 believers in Jesus to over 3,000 believers.  Among the thousands of converts that day were pilgrims to Jerusalem visiting from a wide array of nations.  People from all nations were added to the church on its birthday, demonstrating that the narrow door to heaven is still wide enough to welcome people from all nations.

If the door to heaven is wide enough to welcome people from all nations, then it is wide enough to welcome you.  Christ’s love for you is high and wide and deep enough to want all people to be saved and to welcome you through heaven’s narrow door for all eternity.  Christ’s love for you was wide enough that he made the long journey from heaven to earth to be your Savior.  Christ’s love for you was wide enough that he stretched out his holy arms on the cross where they were nailed to the wood of the cross to pay for the sins of the world.  Christ’s love for you was wide enough to clear away the stone from his tomb in resurrection victory and to open up the door to heaven when his resurrection victory becomes yours on the Last Day.

And if you ever doubt that the door to heaven is wide enough to welcome you, then look to the direct answer Jesus has already given you in your baptism.  Listen to him repeat his affirmative answer in his Word.  Come and feast at the meal where he previews your entrance through the narrow door for all eternity.  And leave this house of God knowing that his love and his sacrifice for you are powerful enough to wipe away all your guilt and open wide the gates to paradise for you.

Conclusion

Familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but familiarity might lead us to take something or someone for granted.  Familiarity with an order of worship might lead us to take what we’re doing for granted.  Familiarity with our family—our spouse and our children and our parents—could lead us to take the ones we love for granted.

Familiarity with the gospel is not a bad thing.  If you have grown in your Christian faith and knowledge, you will be very familiar with the gospel.  But don’t let your familiarity with Christ’s forgiveness turn into an excuse for your sinful flesh to take his grace for granted.  Let the Holy Spirit carry out his work in your heart.  Let the Holy Spirit work through the gospel to keep you on the narrow path to heaven, to lead you through the narrow door into heaven, and to bring you into the wide open arms of your loving Savior for eternity.  The door is open!  Amen.

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