Sermon for Pentecost 14(c)
Luke 13:22-30 + Isaiah 66:18-24 + Hebrews 12:18-24
It’s the age-old question that we have before us today in the Gospel of Luke. “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” It’s a question people ask out of arrogance, sometimes, hoping that only a few good people – like me – are allowed into heaven. It’s a question people ask sometimes out of fear, for themselves or for others. Will only a few make it? What about them? What about me? Who’s gonna be there in heaven? What are a person’s chances? How many? How few? Wouldn’t you like to know?
The truth is, it’s none of your business. That’s God’s business! The Lord knows those who are his. It’s man’s fallen, human nature to try to play God and crunch the numbers. And it’s man’s fallen, human nature to second-guess God’s reasons for saving some or for condemning others. But you don’t get to play God and peer into heaven to how many are there. And you don’t get to judge his judgment. It’s God’s business how many or how few are finally rescued from Satan’s kingdom and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves. It’s God’s business to know it. It’s God’s business to accomplish it. Your business – is to head for the door.
“Make every effort,” Jesus said to the crowd, “to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” You see, Jesus doesn’t answer the question whether few or many will be saved. What he does say is that many won’t be. And you don’t want to be among those many who are left outside. Jesus doesn’t want you to be among them, either. So, Jesus tells the people listening to him (both then and now), “You – make every effort.” Literally, “struggle, strive, compete to enter through the narrow door.”
So, what? Is he saying, “Work very hard at keeping God’s commandments in order to enter”? Well, no. If you started out life neutral or even good, then you could make every effort to stick with it, to keep honoring God’s name and God’s Word and serving your neighbor and steering clear of sin and selfish behavior and hateful thoughts. But you didn’t start out life neutral or good. You started out life in Satan’s kingdom, trapped, enslaved to sin and destined for eternal condemnation outside of God’s kingdom, God’s house. That’s why you needed “to be saved” in the first place.
There is only one door that leads out of Satan’s kingdom and into God’s kingdom. It’s a very narrow door, and that door is Christ Jesus himself. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” Jesus says. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Whoever believes. Christ died for all, not a few, and wants all to be saved, not just a few. But he wants all to be saved through faith in him. Anyone who tries to be saved by any other way than believing in the Son of God, or by any other name, will be shut out of God’s kingdom forever.
Of course, we’re so lost by nature that no one would even be able to believe in Christ and walk through that door to salvation. And so God sends his Holy Spirit through this gospel – whenever you hear it – to create and strengthen faith.
So, if salvation is by faith alone in Christ, and faith doesn’t come from our effort or struggle, but as God’s gift through his Word, then why does Jesus tell the crowd before him to make every effort, to struggle, strive and compete to enter through him? And when do we enter through this door into God’s kingdom? Now, through faith in Jesus? Or when we die or when he comes again? Great questions! Let’s dig a little deeper.
Entering through the narrow door that is Christ does involve a struggle, because it requires dying – dying to sin, dying to self, dying through repentance and rising to new life as the promise of the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus sparks faith in your heart. That death to sin and rising to new life first occurred at your baptism, when the door to heaven swung open to you and you were received into God’s family as his forgiven child, clothed as you were in Christ, the true and only Son of God. You entered through the narrow door. If you had died at that moment, you would have awoken in the paradise of God.
But instead, you took another breath here on this earth. And then another. And then another. And one day passed, and then another, then months and then years and now here you are. And, you see, we are not Calvinists here or Baptists who believe that once you’re saved, you’re always saved, that once you’ve entered through the narrow door, you’re good to go for the rest of your earthly life. Conversion, you might say, is an event, but faith is not. Faith is a constant looking to Christ and relying on his promises. Faith keeps its focus on the narrow door and heads straight for it.
But you have enemies here, as long as you’re drawing breath on earth, who will do everything in their power to sidetrack you from that narrow door, to pull you off the road, to drag you out of the house. Your enemies want you to be on the outside with them when the door closes shut on the day of your death. The devil, the world and your sinful nature are those enemies. And they will hit you with temptations and distractions and troubles and worries and worldly attractions – anything to get your focus off the narrow door that is Christ and his cross.
And so the Bible uses this picture of God’s house in two different ways. In a sense, you who trust in Christ Jesus have already entered the Kingdom of Christ through the door that is Christ and his cross. But in the sense that you haven’t arrived at your final judgment yet, because you haven’t died yet and Christ hasn’t returned yet, and you could still foolishly allow these enemies of your faith to gain the upper hand, the Bible also pictures the Christian life as a constant heading for the narrow door that is Christ, a daily and continuous living in repentance, a constant need for faith to be fed through Word and Sacrament, a lifelong struggle against sin and against Satan, a lifelong seeking to be found in Christ, so that, when the door is closed, you are, once and for all, safe – saved – on the inside, and not still searching for the door on the outside.
So serious is this business of salvation that Jesus begins to speak to the crowd before him as if it were already too late for them, and the door had already been shut. 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.’
Most of the Jews in Jesus’ day were unwilling to die through repentance and were unwilling to look to Christ as the door to salvation. And yet, they were fully expecting to be let into heaven. There you’ll stand knocking, Jesus tells them. “Oops, Lord, you made a mistake. Yeah, you closed the door on us, but we’re Jews, Abraham’s children? We are the few, the proud, the saved, remember? Your chosen people? Not like those sinful Gentiles over there! Just go ahead and, um, open the door.” And Christ, the doorkeeper will tell them, “I don’t know you, I don’t recognize you at all.” “What do you mean you don’t know us? You lived among us. You taught among us. We ate and drank with you. Sure, you know us!” “No, no I don’t. Now get outta here, you evildoers!”
When God says, I don’t know you or where you came from, he doesn’t say it out of ignorance. He says it out of choice. He says it to those who refused to know him through the Person of Christ, who tried to know him in some other way, as some other God than the one who revealed himself in Holy Scripture and who gave his One and Only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. He says it to those who sat back and relaxed, figuring they were home free since they were lifelong Jews or lifelong Christians. But faith in Christ and church membership aren’t the same thing. Being familiar with Christianity is not the same thing as a heart that relies on Christ for everything.
For those who fail to head for the narrow door in time, “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.” Imagine the sadness and the rage of those who thought they were God’s best friends simply because of their heritage or their church membership, but who find out on the day of their death that, yes, it was all true – all the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the words of the prophets – but I didn’t pay attention to what they said. I knew who they were, but I didn’t repent and trust in the Christ they all pointed to, and now it’s too late.
People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. This one must have really hurt Jesus’ Jewish audience that day. Here, they thought they were the few – the saved – because they were Abraham’s children. Instead, they’ll have to stand on the outside looking in as Gentiles – people from every nation, tribe, language and people – take their seats at the never-ending heavenly feast. Because salvation has never been about nationality. It has always and only been about faith in Christ, whose gospel would be largely rejected by the Jews, but would go out to the four corners of the earth and convince people from all over the world to head for the narrow door that is Christ, as you heard Isaiah prophesy today as well.
So see! While Jesus doesn’t reveal percentages of people who will be saved, or talk about how many or how few they will be, he does assure us that there will be plenty of people in heaven, people from everywhere. People whom we looked at and said, “Naw, they couldn’t possibly be saved” – some of them will be first, Jesus says. And some people whom we looked at and said, “Yes, there is an obvious saint who will be in heaven” – some of them will be last, Jesus says – in other words, they won’t be there at all.
So identifying who is saved or who is not saved, or figuring out how many or how few will be in heaven – that’s not your business. Your business is to head for the door, now, before it’s too late. Your business is to arrange your life around the door, to continue in the Word of Christ and stay close to the Sacraments of Christ, to be constant in prayer that God keep you on the straight and narrow way and defend you from every enemy that would steer you off course. No one coasts into the Kingdom of heaven on autopilot. No one stumbles upon that narrow door by accident. No one gets taken along for the ride into faith. Only those who take their sins seriously will take their salvation seriously. Rest in Christ’s salvation, but don’t sit back and relax. Make your life about heading for the door that is Christ, and know for certain that, not a few, but all will be saved who look to Christ alone for salvation. Amen.