Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 66:18-23
Psalm 50:1-15
Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29)
Luke 13:22-30

When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us; and he shall answer and say to you, I know you not whence ye are…

I worshipped at a church when I was on my trip the other week that had the most magnificent door I’ve ever seen. The church was old; the congregation was the first in Pittsburgh, but the building was only about a hundred years old. It was obvious from some of the architecture that some parts of the building were newer than that, but it was a splendid building that was much like those I’d experienced throughout Europe.

Now, in Europe many of the churches have huge front doors, made of thick wood. These doors were often made even sturdier with iron belts. Since the churches were often the last line of defense against an enemy, they made them like fortresses. I’m not sure why they make the doors so large, as they are somewhat impractical. The doors were rarely opened, only for special occasions, because they were so big that it often took many men to swing it open. It is possible that the size of the doors may have had something to do with defense, making it possible to move large equipment inside for protection. There may be something in the symbolism and the large doors may have been used in processional ritual.

There was no need to open these larger doors because the builders included a much smaller door in the larger door. These smaller doors are often very small; I am very short, but I often had to stoop to walk through them. I always thought about today’s Gospel lesson when going through one of those doors. It would certainly be easier for me to go through the big doors than to stoop to go through the little one, but Jesus reminds us that the way of Christ is not the easy way. It is a narrow door. The Kingdom is not on a mountain with a thousand paths leading to the top. There is only one way into the Kingdom: Jesus.

What I liked about the church in Pittsburgh is that the magnificent door did not lead into the church, but was inside the church. There was a large archway over the high altar, with a quire behind it, although it did not appear as though they used it for a choir. The space was set with tables and chairs, like a banquet hall. The door was nearly three stories tall and it divided the worship space from that banqueting hall. I imagine that it is often used for weddings with the door closed, separating the ceremony from the party. The door was concave, so when it was closed behind the altar it appeared almost cave-like, giving space for movement during worship. It was made of the most beautiful wood and it was so smooth that it shined.

I wish that it had been closed during our worship, but there was something wonderful about the imagery of that banquet hall. The door into the church from the street was pretty average, although beautiful. It was the size of a normal church door, although quite small compared to the one inside. As I considered the story in today’s Gospel lesson, I loved the imagery of getting into the church by the small door, but the door to the banqueting hall is large enough for everyone.

Now, Lutherans (and I’m certain lots of other types of Christians) really like to sit in the back of the church. Parents with small church often do so because they don’t want their fidgety kids to disturb the other people. I learned that sitting in the front row helps a child be connected to the worship; they can see, so they don’t get so fidgety. They also learn quickly how to behave in church. Others sit in the back because they are afraid that the pastor will see them falling asleep during the sermon. As one who has preached, I can assure you that the preacher sees you anyway. I recently learned that most people try to sit near the doorway, either out of safety concerns or because they want to get out quickly.

The worst part of our habit of sitting in the back, however, is that those who arrive at worship late then have to walk to the front to find a seat, disturbing others in the process. Now, we might say that it’s best to get there early to get a good seat, but what about visitors? Do we really want to force them into an uncomfortable position just because we want to hide from the pastor? I wonder if it wouldn’t be good for us to purposefully leave the last few rows open. A visitor who is visiting for the first time will likely not want too much attention; they are there to check us out. Will they come back if they are paraded in front of the congregation to the only open seats?

But then I saw this huge beautiful door leading to that banquet hall, and I was thinking that if there were a banquet in that room after worship, it might be best to get stuck with one of those front pews, because then you would be the first into the banqueting hall! After all, Jesus tells us that the last shall be first!

Of course, we know that the verse helps those of us to know that even though we’ve been Christians for as long as we can remember, we aren’t any better than those who come to faith at the last hour. Jesus tells other stories that are similar. Those hired last were given the same wages. The people who were not at first invited to the wedding feast were the ones who brought in off the streets to celebrate. Jesus makes it clear that just because we call ourselves Christian does not mean that we’ll enjoy a place of honor in His kingdom. We might even, in our apathy, forget how it is that we came to be Christian in the first place.

Even harder for us in today’s passage is the reality that Jesus might not recognize us when we go knocking on that door. How can it be that our Lord Jesus doesn’t know us or where we come from? After all, we’ve been sitting in the back pew of our church for years. We gave a check every Sunday. We even attended bible study and did our part to keep the church clean and welcoming. We went to committee meetings, volunteered in the preschool and food bank, and sang in the choir. We even chaperoned a youth retreat! Surely that deserves to be rewarded?

But in our quest for doing church stuff, too many of us lose touch with the real reason why we are there: Jesus. The work God calls us to do is to have faith. It is to believe in Jesus. It is to enter the kingdom through that narrow door. How many of us have given in to societal pressure, agreeing with the idea that there are many paths to the top of that mountain? How many of us have decided that we need not tell others about Jesus because their god is good enough? How much do we really believe the words of Jesus in today’s passage about the narrow door if we allow our neighbors to continue on a path that leads to nowhere? It is no wonder that Jesus says He doesn’t know us. If we are unwilling to stand for Him, why should He open the door for us?

The reading from Isaiah is a message of judgment and hope. God says, “For I know their works and their thoughts…” God knows our hearts; He knows what we do and don’t do. He says, “…the time cometh, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and shall see my glory.” He promises to set a sign for all to see that glory, and by that sign to know that He is God. That sign is Jesus. We see in Jesus the love, mercy and grace of the Father, as well as His glory. He is the door. He is the light. He is the way. He is the only path. Those who believe will survive the judgment; those who reject Jesus will not.

The message that hits the mark for me in this passage is, “…I will send such as escape of them unto the nations…” We are saved from the wrath of God for a purpose: to take God’s glory into the world. Isaiah talks of bringing others to Jerusalem, as an offering to God. This is an interesting image, and one we should seriously consider if we are to be Church in today’s world. We often think it is enough to give God our money, time and our talents, but what God really wants is for us to bring more people to Him. He wants us to be missionaries, not necessarily in foreign lands, but in our own backyards. He wants us to bring Him more people. He wants us to help them go through the narrow door, to see that any other path leads to nothing. We should be able to live with our neighbors whether they are Christian or not, but God is calling us to bring them into the Church so that they too might join in the eternal banquet. If we accept their faith as ‘good enough’ because they seem to be acting good enough, we will condemn them to a judgment that will lead to death rather than life.

Does Jesus not recognize us because we haven’t the faith to share the Gospel in a world where toleration is more acceptable than conviction?

Isaiah writes, “And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith Jehovah.” We should not assume that this is true now, or that it is true that all faiths will be part of this joyous worship. Only those who walk through the narrow door, who believe in the sign which is Jesus, will be left to dwell in His presence for eternity. God does not want anyone to perish, and He’s calling us to lead them toward true life.

Will it be easy? The life of a missionary is sacrificial. We will face persecution. We’ll be called bigoted and intolerant. We will be rejected and we may even lose jobs, homes, family and friends. After all, we were reminded last week that Jesus’ word will cause division. In a world where is has become acceptable in some places for churches to be burned and priests to be beheaded, it is easy to just worship God quietly behind closed doors. Though we are not persecuted in America as they are elsewhere, it may not be long before we are suffering great humiliations.

But our worship is meant to go beyond the church doors, and not limited to an hour a week when we are in the company of other Christians. God desires lives of praise that glorifies Him before the nations. He does not need the things that we think we can give Him; the whole world, the creation and all those who live in it are His. We can, however, boldly proclaim the Gospel message, glorifying God in our songs of praise and thanksgiving. He is the Lord God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Comforter. True spiritual worship will focus entirely on Him, not only at church in the presence of all the nations.

Think, sometimes, that we are afraid to be bold with our proclamation because we are afraid we’ll do something wrong. This is not unusual for human beings; the Hebrews were certainly that way. Exodus chapter 19 describes God as coming to the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai like a dark cloud, with lightning and thunder and a great trumpet blast. The mountain was engulfed in fire. Everyone in the camp trembled in fear. The writer of Hebrews tells us that they could not bear to even listen to the Word of God because they were afraid. It was much the same for the people in Jesus’ day. They trembled, but not at the foot of the mountain. They trembled at the foot of the Law, out of fear that they would do something against God. They listened to the council of the leaders who burdened them with long lists of rules and taught that God’s grace depended on their obedience. They did not trust in God’s grace.

The writer of Hebrews gives us two visions of life under the rule of God. In the first there is fear. The people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving the Law as given to Moses. That mountain was fearsome—not even an animal could set foot on it. Anyone who touched it would be stoned. The people were so frightened by the sound of God’s voice that they begged Moses to be an intercessor. Even Moses was terrified and trembling with fear.

But there is another way to live in God’s Kingdom: trusting in Christ. Eugene Peterson presents Hebrews 12:22-24 like this: “No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.”

The Hebrews were given a covenant from God through the prophet Moses. This covenant was a promise that God would always be with them wherever they would go. The people would see the awesome power of God as they moved into the Promised Land, defeating their enemies and settling into the life of blessing promised to their forefathers. The LORD asked only that the people obey His commands; to keep themselves separate from those who worship other gods. This command was for their own protection, since union with the pagans would lead to their own worship of those gods.

We have seen that happen throughout history, and even in our time. Though we talk about Jesus and live as a part of the Church, we get lost in the culture of our world and forget, at times, that God has warned us to be careful that we do not follow the ways of the world. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. This leads us to worshipping the wrong things, for chasing after the wrong Gospel, for doing what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives.

God does not want us to remain separate, but He warns us not to follow the ways of the world. Those of us with faith in Christ have been welcomed into the Kingdom and are invited to the eternal banquet. We are given a life that isn’t restrained by a set of rules, but is made righteous by the blood of Jesus. This is a life God wants for everyone; He has promised to share it with all the nations. Will Jesus open the door for us if we are silent and conforming to the world? Will we, who were first, end up last because we refuse to share the Gospel? He has sent us as His messengers so that they will hear and believe. But they will never believe if they never hear His Word. We shouldn’t hide in our church buildings, but are called to go out and proclaim the Gospel to all, knowing that God is with us and that He will reveal His glory through us.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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