22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 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.’
26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’
27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’
28 “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. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
I have to do it; I have to start the sermon with the Olympics again. This past week as I was considering this section from Luke 13 it was volleyball that caught my attention. Now, you might know that I’m not really a fan of volleyball at all, but it’s the Olympics. On Tuesday night it was beach volleyball. Americans, Kerri Walsh Jennings, who was the 3-time defending Olympic champion, and her new partner, April Ross, were the world number one. They were up against a Brazilian duo in the semifinals. The winner would go onto the gold medal match. Anybody who knows anything about sports would say the defending champion and world number one would win. I don’t know much about anything when it comes to volleyball but Walsh Jennings and Ross had not lost at all during the entire Olympics going into that match. They were unbeatable. They were going to dominate. But by the end of the game the Brazilians, not the Americans, were celebrating their victory and the chance to go for the gold. Then…then, it was indoor volleyball this past Thursday. Surprise, surprise we were ranked number one. We were the defending world champs, undefeated and the shoo-in for gold. We were up against Serbia in the semifinals. And you can probably guess what happened. We lost. The team that couldn’t be stopped was beaten. Sometimes what everybody thinks will happen, doesn’t. Sometimes what everyone believes to be true, isn’t.
Now, sports fans from all over the world are familiar with this. This kind of thing has happened before and it will happen again. The number one team or athlete doesn’t always win. That’s why they play the game. That’s why these games can be so thrilling. Sometimes the hail Mary pass is caught. Sometimes the underdog pulls off a stunning upset. Sometimes the result that everyone is expecting just doesn’t happen.
Sports are one thing, but what if it was something bigger and more important? What about when heaven is at stake? Nobody wants to miss out on that. Go ahead and ask your family, friends, and neighbors. None of them want to go to hell. Even if people aren’t sure about religion or God or what happens after death, not many people that I have talked to are ready and willing to face hell. Everybody wants to go to heaven. And for the most part, people think that’s what is going to happen, right? Pretty much everyone goes to heaven, except for maybe the real scum of the earth. Is that true or not? For that answer we don’t have to square off against another nation in the Olympics, but we have to check with the one who has the truth. After all, this is not a game where the loser misses out on a gold medal, but this is life where the loser misses out on heaven.
So, that’s what this man is doing in Luke 13. He doesn’t want to watch the game where you think and you believe that there is only one possible result, but then it doesn’t happen and throws everything upside down. He doesn’t want the popular beliefs of the day. He doesn’t want various religious answers. He wants the truth. So, he asks Jesus, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” This guy was hearing Jesus along the way and so he asks, “So you’re telling us, Jesus, that our number one ranked team isn’t a sure thing? Jesus, you are saying that all the popular teachings about getting into heaven might not be right?”
And Jesus has a way of answering that shocks people back then and still shocks us now. He kind of goes against the grain a little bit. He says, “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 tells the man that he’s right. He says the number one ranked team isn’t invincible. He says that popular ideas that go around aren’t true just because so many believe it. If you know there is a heaven and you want to be there, it doesn’t mean you’ll make it in. Because many try to enter and will not be able to. A lot of people think they have it right. But thinking you have it right, doesn’t always mean you have it right. All you have to do is ask American volleyball fans about that one.
For the Jews around Jesus time, they thought they had it right. They thought they were shoo-ins to heaven because they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the founding patriarchs of the Jewish nation). They thought they were God’s people just because they were born into the right family. They thought that memorizing and following their Torah and man-made traditions was the right way. But Jesus tells them they have it all wrong. He says, “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.” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made it into God’s kingdom, the prophets of the Old Testament made it into heaven not because of who they were related to or what laws they learned but because they believed in God’s promised Savior and trusted his forgiveness through faith. For the most part the Jews that surrounded Jesus rejected God’s promised Savior and were trying to gain entrance with their family genealogy or their good life. Jesus says there’s a problem with that; it’s not the door into heaven. It won’t work. That’s kind of like thinking that having your name on a church directory database means that you’re in heaven’s directory – as if just showing up in a certain book or church building or throwing some loose change in an offering plate is all that it takes to enter God’s eternal home. That’s like saying you get into the Olympic 100m final because you once ran a school record 100m in high school. Sorry, that’s just not going to cut it. The doorway is a lot smaller than that.
Jesus does such a great job of telling us the truth when everybody else is focused on popular beliefs. He rejects all of ways that are not God’s way. Another one of these popular ideas that we hear all the time and maybe even we get caught thinking it sometimes, that there are many paths that lead to heaven. It’s this common misconception that says all religions have some truth to them. Let’s celebrate the similarities instead of sweating the small stuff. All these different religions are finding ways to worship the same God. We’ve heard it before, we’ve maybe hoped that it’s true for some family members and friends. It feels like it should be true. I mean, the number one ranked team should win the gold. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Popular beliefs should be true because so many believe it, right? However, Jesus doesn’t want us to get caught following the crowd the wrong way. There are so many walking the wide, easy road that leads to this great big inviting and deadly door.
Jesus once said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” For our inclusive and accepting world, that is a very exclusive and limited message. And it has to be this one way. Imagine the confusing uproar if everyone got a gold medal at the Olympics. Imagine how this subjective and selfish culture would react if everyone could have their own way. Imagine if there were all these paths to heaven. There would be no order. There would be no purpose. No one would think about God. No would care about heaven.
But people do wonder and speculate about God. How many different religions are there? Too many to count! (4200 if you ask Google!) The fact that people do still think about it and talk about it, means people are looking for the right answer. If millions of people know there is a god and a heaven and if so many think they will be there, then that next question is pretty important: “Why? Why will you be in heaven?” That’s where popular beliefs fail so many. I’ve heard so many people answer, “I’m not sure. I hope I will. I’ve been good enough. I think that should count. I’m not as bad as some, I guess.”
I want you to think about this: If your neighbor told you this week that they want to compete in the next Olympics in Tokyo, you might ask them, “Well, how are you going to get there? What event? How will you train?” If their answer is “I’m not sure. I hope it will work out,” you might want to encourage them that the “how” is really important.
It’s not just about knowing God. Many of the people in Jesus’ day were not too worried about the “how.” They thought knowing about God would be good enough. Here’s what Jesus says, “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.’ Those would be people who were following the popular beliefs that all you have to do is know about God and be good enough. That’s like thinking the number one ranked team or athlete always wins. It seems to make sense, but it just isn’t true. The “how” of getting into heaven is not about knowing God.
Sinners can’t get into heaven because of their knowledge. That’s the difference between Biblical Christianity and those other 4199 religions. All those other religions and so many church-going people think religion is about knowing God and making peace with him. But before that, sinners need their sins to be paid for, there needs to be forgiveness. First, Jesus needs to know you. Did you catch that in the story Jesus tells? All those people said, “Jesus, we know you. We saw you in the streets. We shared some laughs. We ate and drank with you.” But Jesus says, “No, that’s not it. The point is I don’t know you.”
I heard this great way to illustrate Jesus point and I’m going to change it just a little bit. I know the Brewers. I watched them as a kid. I collected their baseball cards. I went to their games. I worked as a Miller Park usher for 11 years. I know their Minor League teams. I know the stats. I know the ownership and management and coaches. I know the Brewers. Do you think that will help me get free tickets whenever I want? Do you think my knowledge will get me the President of Baseball Operations job? No, not at all. But what if the Brewers knew me? What if Mark Attanasio (the owner) and David Stearns (the general manager) and all the players knew me? What if one of them would call me up and say, “A position just opened and we think you would be perfect”? That would be different, wouldn’t it?
Salvation is not about knowing about the owner, it’s about the owner knowing you. Salvation is not about you knowing that God is out there and heaven exits, salvation is about the God of heaven and earth putting his name on you forever. Salvation is Jesus knowing you so completely that he could pay for the forgiveness of all your sins. Salvation is God coming down to you in Word and sacrament. This message of Jesus is so exclusive when it says Jesus is the narrow door. But Jesus narrows it down for us into one way through one narrow door because he knows the one solution to all of our sins. He says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He knows the way because he is the only way. He has the truth for us because he is the truth. And has life for us because he is the life.
It may be narrow, it may be exclusive, but this message is the most inclusive message in the whole world, because Jesus came for every person that has ever lived. When you watch the Olympics and think of all the people, the 7.4 billion in the world, Jesus came for every last one of them. He came to be their door to heaven by shedding his blood on the cross. There is no one excluded from God’s grace and from his saving plan. There is no one left out. God wants all people to be saved.
But it’s only through Jesus. Only Jesus could fight off the devil perfectly. Only Jesus could give his life in place of ours. Only Jesus could destroy the power of death and hell. Only Jesus can clothe you with his righteousness in Baptism. Only Jesus can feed you his forgiveness in the supper. No other prophet, no crazy-eyed cult leader, no motivational speaker, no Buddha or Vishnu, no piece of technology can do that. But the Son of God does. And that’s why he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one goes to heaven except through him. No amount of prayers or good works could take away my sin. No amount of gifts or service could get rid of my guilt. No amount of gold medals could give me spiritual peace forever. But the Son of God did… by dying for my sins, rising from death, and opening the narrow door to heaven for me. He says it’s not about me, but it’s about him.
And that’s why you can be so absolutely sure that this very exclusive message is for everybody. Jesus has made a promise about it. Did you hear about it? People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Jesus paid for that spot so that people from all over could come, not for some games that conclude after a couple weeks but for an eternal banquet at God’s table. And he did that because he knows you and loves you.
There’s a lot of glory that goes along with winning a gold medal. Most will never experience that kind of glory. But there is something better. Popular beliefs won’t get you there. But Jesus’ narrow door does. He gets you to the glory God forever.
And now this God, who has put you on the narrow path and is walking you through the narrow door, is calling you. He narrows it down for you to make it simple and yet so powerful. He calls you to take this message out to people who are lost on a wide and easy road heading in the wrong direction. He gives you the message to point them to this one open door that leads to the feast of heaven.