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Get through the door

Sermon based on Luke 13:22-30 | Pastor Ryan Cortright

16 years ago, a younger version of my self sat down in a classroom at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Like all the first-year students, I was excited and I was nervous. The highlight of your first year at seminary is that you get to write and preach your very first sermon. The professor assigned the Bible passage for that sermon: Luke 12:22-30; the words we just heard in our gospel.

Just so you know, I didn’t just pull out that old sermon today, update a couple of things and press print. Why not? It’s not as if Jesus’ words have changed in the 16 years since I prepared my very first sermon. What has changed? I have had 16 years, 12 of them as a pastor, to learn from real life experience how true Jesus’ words really are.

“How many are going to be saved, Lord?” That’s the question Jesus was asked. Notice how he answered, or really, didn’t answer the question. He didn’t give a number. He didn’t even ballpark a figure. He said, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door.” I’ve learned that there are a lot of people who live imagining that they are good with God and think that when the day comes when they are standing there knocking at the door of heaven, Jesus will open it right up and say, “Come on in! I’ve been expecting you.” But what does Jesus say? Many will try to enter and will not be able to.

Today we hear Jesus urge us to make every effort to get through that door. It’s interesting to me that the first sermon I wrote as a young man studying to be a Lutheran pastor seems to be at odds with our most fundamental belief as Lutherans: we are saved by grace and not by works. It’s not our effort that gets us into heaven. Yet Jesus says, “Make every effort.” Instead of asking, “How do we square Jesus’ words with our Lutheran beliefs?” we need to ask, “How do we square our Lutheran beliefs with Jesus’ words?”

Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve learned since I first wrote that sermon is that even Lutherans can have a misconception about what Lutherans teach. Let me give you a few examples of what we do not believe: we don’t believe that faith is just a matter of believing there is a God. “I believe in God” is a good start, but it is not the sum total of what it means to be a Christian. Just like a foundation is a good start to building a house; but it is not the house itself.

Along those same lines, Lutherans do not teach that faith is just a matter of knowing the right information. Having faith is not like knowing a password. Jesus is not waiting at the door of heaven and every time someone knocks, he waits to see if they can say, “Jesus died on the cross.” Knowing a lot about the Bible does you no good if you don’t believe that it is true and want to live according to it.

The people in Jesus’ story know a lot about Jesus. In fact, they’d eaten lunch with him. They were there when he was teaching in their towns. Imagine their surprise then, when they knocked on that door saying, “Lord, Lord,” and heard the answer, “I never knew you or where you come from.”

I don’t know about you, but I think this is one of the most frightening verses in the whole Bible. If you think Christianity is easy, then ask yourself why Jesus told his followers, “Make every effort.” Being a Christian is not like putting a meal in the Crock Pot. You put the ingredients. Turn it on. Walk away and forget about it. Jesus says that it requires our constant attention. It requires ongoing effort to get through that door.

But what does that mean? How do I make every effort to enter through the narrow door? What does that look like? You might be saying, “Give me some instructions. Show me what I need to do. Because what’s the point of going through life imagining I’m in, only to find out when I stand before the door that the guy on the other side doesn’t know me?”

The key to answering that question is the word Jesus uses to describe the door: narrow. Narrow doors require less of you, not more. If you’ve ever been bringing in the groceries and said to yourself, “I’ll save a trip and grab this last bag of potatoes too” only to find yourself caught up in the door, one bag stuck on the handle, another slipping out of your grip and the potatoes getting stuck between you and the door frame? How do you get through that door? You put everything down. You need to carry less.

We need less of our ourselves and more Jesus. The effort Jesus is talking about is not like a checklist that we need to carry around. Go to church more. Check. Pray more. Check. Give more. Check. Be a better husband. Check. Stop worrying so much. Check. Stop abusing alcohol. Check. Of course, these are all good things to do and we could go on and on. But the sinking reality is that we haven’t come close to checking the boxes of all the things God wants us to do. Even if we could keep all of God’s commandments for one day, we’d find our heads getting so big with pride that, once again, we couldn’t fit through a narrow door. We need less of ourselves and more Jesus.

We need less of ourselves in the sense that we come to the door empty of all pride and any notion that God owes us entry into his kingdom because we’ve gone to church our whole lives or because we’re really pretty good people…at least compared to some of the rotten people we know.

I was talking with a gentleman recently who found out I was a pastor and went on to tell me what he really thought about the Bible and Jesus and all that. He said that he didn’t really buy into the idea that he needed to go to church. Christmas and Easter were good enough…and if the pastor had a problem with that, then he’d be happy to stay home on Christmas and Easter too. In the end, he said, it comes down to being a decent person. That’s what counts. That’s what gets you into heaven. At least, that was his opinion, he told me.

I told him that his opinion didn’t really matter. The people in Jesus’ story were of the opinion that Jesus should let them in. They stood outside knocking and saying, “Lord, Lord.” The only judgement that matters in the end is the one that will come from the mouth of our Lord. The question is not, “Do you know who Jesus is?” But, “Does he know you?”

The only way you could answer that question is if Jesus told you. I want to assure you that Jesus’ words of warning here and our Lutheran teachings are not at odds in any way. Can a person know if on that last day Jesus will open the door and say to him, “Come on in. I’ve been expecting you”? Jesus’ answer is “yes,” we can know, because he has told us. He told you at your baptism, “I know you by name. You are mine.” He tells you in his Word. And since you believe him, you make every effort to let go of anything that might hinder you from Jesus.

When Jesus says that we ought to make every effort to get through the door, he isn’t just talking about something in the future. He’s saying that this ought to be a present reality. The door is open right now. Now is the time to enter and have life with Jesus. Now is the come and sit at his feet and listen to his Word so that you know him and that he knows you; he knows you as one of his own.

To make every effort to get through that door is to let go of the things in this world that we are clutching so tightly that we cannot get through that door as long as our hearts are attached to them. It to live in daily repentance. We need to drop anything in our lives that is distracting us from our Lord Jesus. How many people these days simply don’t ever bother to think about standing before the door of heaven because they’re so busy with things in this world or have numbed their minds with endless entertainment, alcohol or anything that will distract them from having to think about things that have eternal consequences?

The door is narrow because Jesus is the only way to be with the Father. You must enter through him or you will not enter. But the door is open because Jesus is the way for all people. No one is excluded. No one has sinned too much. Jesus tells you to come and enter through him; to give him your sins. He’ll take them from you and lay them on his cross. He tells you to come and sit down and eat and drink with him now in the meal he gave to the church. It’s true that on the last day people will come from every direction of the compass and sit down at the banquet of our Lord in his kingdom. But it’s also true that right now, people from every direction of the compass gather to sit down for this meal with their Lord; to receive his body and his blood and know that he not only knows them, but he is in them.

16 years of experience since that first sermon has taught me that people are complicated. We say one thing, but we do another. We often believe our own lies to our own peril. 16 years have taught me that people really need Jesus. The good thing is that in these 16 years I’ve also had the experience of seeing how Jesus persistently pursues his people. He wants you to have peace in him. He invites you to find the joy of life with him. The door is open, friends. Jesus is calling us to come in. Amen.

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