August 25, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you came from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.”
There’s going to be a grand gathering of people. That’s at the heart of the Scripture Readings for this day. Isaiah brings that message to the people of Israel. It wasn’t the only message that he brings. No, they had heard some disturbing things from the prophet’s mouth. He had spoken of the Lord’s wrath and anger directed against the people’s impiety and faithlessness. The prophet even disclosed the forthcoming exile that the Israelites would suffer at the hands of the Assyrians, as well as the Babylonian army that would overrun the Judahites.
But a message of redemption and restoration is strewn throughout Isaiah’s prophecy. His divinely given statements conclude with promises about what the Lord would send to His people. The Lord’s Servant would arise. He would bring salvation to the Lord’s people. This promised Messiah would usher in a new era, even the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth. And the promise of the Lord’s work for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is disclosed: “And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to My holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.”
Those words echoed in the people’s ears as they went off to exile. They echoed in their ears as they returned again. But the Lord’s promise of a grand gathering still had yet to be fulfilled. The restoration of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple were incomplete fulfillments. More was to occur. The promised Messiah had yet to arrive. Until He did, the Lord’s promise would remain partially unmet. But the arrival of that Messiah would bring what Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the prophets all had looked for. It would lead to the grand gathering that the Lord had said would take place.
That’s the background of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus speaks about the Lord’s promised grand gathering. But Jesus’ statement includes some sharp points: He doesn’t only talk about the people gathered together; He mentions those who will be left out. His words are spoken in response to a question He receives: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” His answer is somewhat non-responsive: Jesus does not disclose the total number of the saved. But He does plainly state that not all people will be in the kingdom of God: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
Why does Jesus speak this way? What drives that statement? It has to do with the response that He has received—or not received. The Gospel Writer notes what Jesus is doing: “He went on His way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem.” Jesus is headed to fulfill the prophetic statements made about the Messiah. He has been disclosing His identity by what He says and does. But how many have heard and believed? Remember how Jesus sent the Seventy-Two out with a message that the kingdom of God was present. Many of them were not believed. Remember the incidents where Jesus teaches in the synagogue or sits at table with Pharisees or makes public statements in the streets: not all of these incidents were met with great approval.
But Jesus still appears in those towns. He reveals His identity as the Messiah. He heads to Jerusalem to die and rise again. All along the way, Jesus speaks for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to hear: “I am the Christ. I am the Promised One. I am the One sent from the Father in heaven. I am the One that your forefathers longed to see. I am ushering in the kingdom of God, so that you can be part of it. Hear and receive Me, so that you may have the benefits that I bring.” But those words strike some ears that will not hear and some hearts that will not believe.
So when that question is posed to Jesus—“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”—His answer indicates that it not all will be saved. He gives out the warning: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Jesus points out the truly sad result that will take place after He completes His work and begins the grand gathering promised by the Lord: “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.”
Jesus’ words are statements meant for more than the ancient, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so that they would not miss what Jesus was bringing to the world. But they also stand as a warning to you, just as they warned the people of First Century Palestine. What He says also applies to this day and age. You have the testimony of Jesus’ words and works, the description of His activity as the Messiah. He says that you are meant to have a part in the grand gathering: “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Jesus invites you to benefit from the work that He has completed. The fulfilled promises are for you, the people from the nations who have been given to know the glory of God revealed in Jesus’ actions. The words of the Epistle Reading are a description of what has happened for you, about what awaits you because of the acts of redemption that Jesus has completed: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” This is your birthright, the destiny that you are meant to have a share in.
But the warning is given: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Access to the kingdom of God is given through Jesus. Entry into it comes in the ways that He has established: receiving the Gospel in its various ways—hearing it, being bathed in it, eating it. That is how you become part of the kingdom of God and preserve your spot in it: believing with the heart, confessing with the mouth, and living out your identity as Jesus’ disciples. His words drive you away from thinking that you will have entry into the kingdom through any other way. That is why the author of the Epistle Reading includes the warning that echoes Jesus’ words: “See that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject Him who warns from heaven.”
Jesus’ statement is not spoken to you to drive you away from Him. The description about individuals not being able to enter through the narrow door is not to make you hopeless. It directs your hearts and minds to Him, the One who does give you entry into the kingdom of heaven. But having your hearts and minds set on Jesus is more than just thinking about Him or knowing some things about what He did or memorizing a few words of wisdom that He spoke or placing your name on the parish register. It is to have Him as the object of your faith, the One whom you trust, the One from whom you expect all good things.
That is what it means to have your faith in Jesus, to be His disciples, to enter through the narrow door into the kingdom of God. This faith includes following the way of life that Jesus establishes for you. Again, the exhortation is given in the Epistle Reading: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Or you can listen to the Lord’s address to His people in the Psalm: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” That is what belief in the Lord and His Covenant leads to. Your reliance on Him is made evident in your thanksgiving and in your calling upon Him in trouble. Your allegiance to Him is shown by performing your vows, doing what is expected of His disciples. It is what you do because the Lord has made you His priests and Levites, incorporating you into His holy nation.
Right now, you are doing what the Epistle Reading and the Psalm exhorts. You are listening again to the Covenant that the Lord has made with you. You will confess your belief in Him. Your turning to Him for forgiveness of sins displays your reliance on God for the eternal benefit of your body and soul. Praying to be led by the Word and Spirit to the feast for the Eternal Son reveals your desire to have what Jesus offers. As you eat and drink according to Jesus’ command, you are again given His pledge of salvation and a preview of the grand gathering that you are called to. And as you leave here and go into the world, you are guided to love God and love your neighbor.
This is all part of your striving to enter through the narrow door, since all these acts have faith in the Lord as their foundation. Each of them reveals what you believe concerning Jesus identity as the Messiah, what His words and works showed. Led by that belief in Jesus, you are part of that grand gathering that will occur at the Last Day. You will have your place in the kingdom, recognized by the Master of the House, along with all the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and disciples. It is meant for you. May you desire and receive it as the Lord wills.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.