Sunday, August 25, 2019

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

Strive to enter in by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will seek to enter in and will not be able.

Josh Gates is an archeologist-explorer who has had several different incarnations of his television show. He’s chased after myths and legends, followed history, and visited legendary locations. His adventures often get him into some very tight spaces, literally. He goes into the depths of caves where some of the passages are barely big enough for an adult man. He has followed experts into tunnels that were so small that the air quality was dangerous. In one episode, he was lowered through a hole that was smaller than a manhole so that he could explore beneath the Temple in Jerusalem. He always ends up going through the narrow door, often into the unknown.

We visited a park during our vacation a few weeks ago and hiked the trails. One led to a lovely waterfall and another led to a cave. The cave was tiny, not like another cave we toured in southern Indiana. It was barely a hole in the wall, with a ceiling height of barely five feet. I’m short and I would have had to stoop through most of the cave. The entrance was four feet and some places were less than two, so I didn’t even try. I was happy to visit the larger cave, to walk on their developed pathways and enjoy their creative lighting. Even there, the pathway led through one area with a rather low ceiling with a very tight entrance. It is nothing like what Josh experiences, but it was a little cramped for those of us used to having plenty of room to pass.

We definitely prefer the wider door. I am one of those people who like to make as few trips from the car to the house after a visit to the grocery store. I hang as many bags on my arm as I can carry, hopefully all of them! This usually means a little juggling at the door as I fiddle with the lock, but our door is wide enough to fit me and all my bags. I can’t imagine trying to get even one bag through some of those narrow places I saw on our trip or on the television shows.

I loved the doors in the cathedrals in England. I loved all the architecture and decor, but the doors were fascinating. In Europe many of the churches have huge front doors, made of thick wood. These doors were often made even sturdier with iron belts. The churches were often the last line of defense against an enemy, so they were built like fortresses. The huge doors were often two or three stories high, so large that they seemed really impractical. They were rarely opened because it took several men to do so. They were generally used only for ceremonial purposes, the large doors allowed processions, including men on horseback to enter.

There was no need to open these larger doors because the builders included a much smaller door for regular use. These smaller doors are often very small; 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. These smaller doors are not only more practical, they remind us to follow the narrow path.

The door leading into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is called the “Door of Humility,” a reminder that we are entering into a holy place where God Himself entered into our world as flesh and blood. And now we are invited to enter God’s kingdom through the door that is Jesus Christ.

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 comes that I will gather all nations and languages, and they will come, and will see my glory.” He promises to set a sign for all to see His 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 this will survive the judgment; those who reject Jesus will not.

It has never been easy to follow Jesus, but it seems to us that it is especially difficult. Our struggles are different than past believers, although in many ways they are the same. How do we live faithfully in a world that won’t let us say the name “Jesus”? How do we act as a witnesses when others violently reject the Gospel message? How do we bring the nations to see His glory in and through Jesus Christ when they think that any path will do?

Isaiah writes, “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,’ says Yahweh, ‘so your offspring and your name shall remain. It shall happen that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh will come to worship before me,’ says Yahweh.” 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 dwell in His presence for eternity. God does not want anyone to perish, and He’s calling us to lead them toward true life. We do so in work and in action; our faith is made obvious in our passion to share the Gospel with the world. But too many of us do not have that passion, in church or in our daily lives.

There is a comic circulating that shows a vested pastor and others standing in the front row of a church with cell phones plugged in. The caption says, “To encourage our congregation to sit in the front pews, I’ve installed cell phone charging stations in the first three rows.” It is bad enough that we pay more attention to our phones when we are at dinner with our family, but how often have we checked those phones while we should have been focusing on the God who is our Creator and Redeemer?

A story is told of a dream a man once had of worship from the perspective of heaven. An angel took him into church one Sunday. Everything was normal; the people were singing with the musicians and listening to the minister speaking God’s word, yet there was no sound. When the man asked what this meant, the angel answered that it was how worship was heard in heaven, for though the lips of the people were making the motions; their hearts and minds were elsewhere.

This is not just a modern problem. Even the ancient Jews did not know how to worship God as He desired. They were obedient to the rules about sacrifice, presenting their offerings in the hope that the LORD would accept them and bless the people. Yet, it is never enough to just go through the motions, God expects true spiritual sacrifice. He wants our hearts. He wants our attention. He wants our whole lives, not just a few minutes of singing or our presence on a Sunday morning. He wants us to love Him from the deepest reaches of our hearts with a love that flows from His grace.

The psalmist dwelt at a time when the people were giving many offerings and sacrifices to God, but they were not giving Him their heart. Though we do not kill bulls or lambs in our modern worship, what sort of offerings are we giving Him? Do we grumble when we write our weekly check? Do we moan as we roll out of bed on a Sunday morning? Is our worship silent in heaven because we are thinking about the cares of this world or checking our cell phones, turning our attention away from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ? Just like the Jews in days of old, it is almost as if we think that God needs our bodies there at worship, but what He truly wants is our hearts.

God expects more from us than Sunday, morning, too. Worship should not be limited to an hour a week and it is meant to go beyond the church doors. The psalmist writes that God is not looking for our sacrifices. He doesn’t need our bulls because they are already His; we cannot give Him anything for nothing is ours. We can only sing songs of praise and thanksgiving and look to Him above all else in this world. He is the Lord God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Comforter. True spiritual worship will focus entirely on Him, not only during a worship service but always. That worship will bring blessings.

The greatest act of spiritual sacrifice is to share the Gospel with our neighbors, even when doing so puts us at risk. God wants us to be missionaries, to share His Word with the world whether across the sea or in our own backyards. He wants us to invite more people into His presence. He wants us to lead them through the narrow door, to help them see that any other path leads to nothing. 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’, we will condemn them to a judgment that will lead to death rather than life.

In the year 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the US Office of Patents said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Yet the 20th century was a time of great technological and industrial growth. As a matter of fact, more has been invented since Mr. Duell made his statement than in the entire history of humanity.

Other interesting predictions come from men whose own careers proved their statements wrong. In 1980, Bill Gates said, “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” In 1977, Ken Olson, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” In 1968, an engineer at IBM responding to the microchip said, “But what… is it good for?” In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

There is a wide variety of low cost electronic gadgets this day. I remember paying more decades ago for a scientific calculator than some phones cost today, and they do more than that original calculator could have done. You don’t need to buy a DVD player anymore because you can watch movies digitally on watches. New computers are far more advanced than the original ones and are so inexpensive that nearly everyone can have one in their homes. The sale aisles are filled with new gadgets for the kitchen that dice, chop, bake, grill or freeze anything you want to cook. The toy stores have hundreds of new and improved items that will satisfy the desires of any child.

All this technology has impacted our lives in many ways, and it has not always been positive. Yet, I would not want to live in any other time of history. I like my microwave, my radio, and my computer. I am able to drive my car into town to run errands in the morning and return home in minutes The telephone and Internet has made it much simpler to contact family and friends who are far away. Laundry can be completed in the course of a day while I’m doing other tasks, and dinner doesn’t take a whole afternoon to prepare. I have more time to do other things. The new is better than the old.

The book of Exodus 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. When Moses took too long to come off the mountain, they turned to the religion that made more sense to them. It was easier to worship a golden calf they could see than to worship the God that they could not see. They went through the wide door.

The writer of the book 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. They took the wide path.

Everything old was made new again when our Lord Jesus Christ came to dwell among us according to God’s promise. He was born to bring forgiveness for our failure and to give us the power to live in His grace. We do not have to be frightened to stand in the presence of God our Father, because Jesus stands before us as mediator. The Old Testament is filled with predictions about how God will deal with His people which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There was great blessing in living in a covenant with God, being obedient to His commands. But I would not want to live in any other time than now, in the New Covenant found in my Lord Jesus Christ. The new is better than the old. The narrow path is the way to true life.

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: by faith. This means trusting God and believing in Jesus Christ. God disciplined His people when they turned from Him at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It was punishing, but full of grace because He did not reject or abandon them. Instead He called them to repentance and drew them into Himself. He remained faithful to His promises. They learned to trust in Him, but it didn’t happen overnight. As a matter of fact, He had to teach them that lesson over and over again. The story of God’s people has always followed the same pattern since the beginning: faith, wandering, discipline, repentance and faith. We hear this throughout the history of Israel and throughout the history of the Christian church. We wander because we want to go through the big door, to follow the wide path. We want to do things our own way.

Unfortunately, we get lost in the culture of our world and forget that God has warned us to stay on the right path. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. This leads us to worshipping with half-heartedness, focusing on the wrong things, and even chasing after a false Gospel. We all too often do what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives. We follow the wide road because it is easier, but the true path leads to eternal life.

God 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 are half-hearted and refuse to share the Gospel?

Only those who walk through the narrow door, who believe in the sign which is Jesus, will dwell in His presence for eternity. This is particularly hard to proclaim in a world where everything is good and acceptable. The narrow door is too limiting, the narrow path is too restraining. Yet, it is there we’ll find the grace that saves. He has sent us to be His messengers; they will not have faith if we are unwilling to risk everything to share His Word. We are called to be so passionate about the God who loves us that we can’t help but share the Gospel. We can do so with peace in our hearts because He has promised to be with us. God will indeed draw all nations into His heart, to reveal His glory and He has invited us to be partners with Him, to bring people into His presence to see that the narrow door is the only way to salvation so that they will follow Jesus into the eternal banquet where we will worship Him forever.

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