This past Wednesday, a barn swallow flew into our sanctuary. It happened during high school chapel. It caused quite a commotion as it swooped through the rafters. It even let out a little poop, which was popular among the high schoolers.
When I came in on Thursday morning, I noticed that the bird was still in the sanctuary. Feeling sorry for the little guy, I opened the side door, and put a bowl of water in front of it. Then I took some water from the bowl and splashed it in the air. “This way little guy,” I said. “This is the way out.
The barn swallowed looked at me and cocked his head, and then he proceeded to fly back and forth among the rafters of our sanctuary.
Not knowing what else to do, I went to prepare for my day.
About five minutes later, I returned to the sanctuary. I stood in the doorway for a minute and looked for the bird. He was up on one of those bars. Sitting quietly.
And then, all of a sudden the swallow swooped. Down he swooped, underneath this beam, and right out the door.
I let out a little cheer of excitement. “Great job, little guy!” I said. “That took courage.” The bird, of course, was not listening. But I was still pretty pleased with his flight path.
As I was going shut the door and put away the water, I took a second to look at the door. “Here it is,” I said to myself. “This is the narrow gate that leads to life.”
“Enter through the narrow gate. For 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.”
There’s a black and whiteness to the picture that Jesus gives us here. Two gates. Two roads. One way is broad, and that way leads to destruction. And the other is narrow and that way leads to life.
Destruction over here. Life, over there. Which way are you going to go?
Generally speaking, us Canadian folk get a little squeamish around people who see things this simplistically. Its not a compliment to be called narrow minded. Or a black and white thinker.
But some things in life are black and white, I suppose. Either you’re on the plane or you’re off the plane. Either your heading east on Agnes Street or your heading west on Agnes Street. Either you’re in Christ and seeking to have him master your life, or you’re not.
This picture that Jesus gives us comes at the end of the sermon on the mount. And it’s the first of four rather challenging teachings.
When I was learning how to preach, my professor taught me to always end my sermons with grace. End with the gospel, he’d say. End with words that help people experience the comfort of God. This is generally good advice for the young preacher. But Jesus, evidently, didn’t get the memo.
Which way are going to go, he says, confronting his disciples. That way leads to death. And that way leads to life. Over there is sand, and over there is rock. On which foundation will you build.
Jesus begins his sermon with grace. He begins by blessing those who are poor in Spirit. And promising those who mourn over sin that they will be comforted. But he ends with exhorting us to make the right choice.
Maybe one of the reasons Jesus finishes this way, is because he wants his sermon to go somewhere. To not just be an uplifting Sunday morning experience, but something that is practiced and lived into.
Another reason, perhaps, that Jesus ends this way, is because he knows that life isn’t a game. Choices have consequences. You go with the flow long enough, and you may just end up in a dark, lonely place. This is life. Jesus is loving enough to challenge us to choose wisely.
Enter through the narrow gate.
What does Jesus mean by this gate?
Jesus doesn’t explain this picture, but it’s clear, from the rest of the scriptures that he’s talking about himself.
I am the gate; says Jesus in John, whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (John 10:9) Not long after saying this, Jesus says to his disciples. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father expect through me.” (John 14:6)
Jesus is the Gate. Which means that the way to life runs through his narrow frame.
This is the scandal of the Christian gospel. In Bible times, this teaching was a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. In our modern times, this teaching is shrugged off as being too exclusive. Too narrow minded.
But Jesus is pretty sure of himself.
And this is why, as C.S. Lewis noted, that you can’t simply be an admirer of Jesus. Many people, of course, admire Jesus. They respect his ethical teaching and his leadership skills. But Lord and Saviour. No way. The problem with this view is that it ignores Jesus’ actual message. He didn’t see himself simply as a wise sage. He believed himself the best thing to happen to planet earth. “I am the way the truth and the life. I am the bread of life.” Fullness of life. Its found in me.
This confronts us. And it forces us to ask: Is he who he says he is? Or his he simply an egotistical lunatic?
Enter through the narrow gate.
Jesus is talking about himself, but he’s always talking about conversion to himself. That evangelical decision to accept him as Lord and Saviour.
You know, in our reformed tradition, we have tended to minimize this moment of decision making. We’re covenant people. We baptize our babies. We believe that it was not I who chose Jesus but Christ who chose me.
So when I ask you when you became a Christian, many of you are a little unsure as to when it all started.
Now, there’s a lot of good in this, of course. Its certainly a blessing to be raised in a household that is following Jesus.
And yet, its important to remember that no one enters the narrow gate riding on the shoulders of their parents. Billy Graham once famously said: “God doesn’t have any grandchildren.” Only children.
And I know that this gets tricky theologically, and that there are things here that we need to nuance. But its true, that at some point, in order to be a disciple, you need to make a break from the flow of history and culture, and get on your knees outside the narrow gate. And you need to say: Jesus, you are mine, and I am yours. And I want to live my life under his authority and direction.
On that first Pentecost Sunday, when Peter addressed the crowds, the crowds were broken by God’s Word and the Spirit. And so they asked Peter, “What must we do.” And Peter said. “Repent, place yourself in front of the narrow gate, and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s the gate. Enter through the narrow gate.
And I’m thinking that another reason this gate is a narrow, is because you can’t take anything but you naked self through it.
“Repent” Peter said. Meaning, leave your old life at the door. Your sins are no longer your master.
A death takes place as we pass through Christ and into a life that is mastered by him. This is conversion, says the Heidelberg Catechism. It involves the dying away of the old self, and the rising to life of the new.
Its not that you have to be perfect prior to entering into a life ruled by Jesus. Far from so. But you do need to renounce the work of evil in your life and in the world.
Our baptism and profession of faith liturgy gets this just right.
The first Question I ask someone who is being baptized or will profess their faith is this: Do you renounce sin and the power of evil in your life and in the world? Answer: I renounce them. And the second question follows closely behind: Who is your Lord and Saviour? Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour.
This turning away from the world and towards Jesus is the gate that leads to life.
And it couldn’t be more different from the gate that leads to destruction.
That gate is broad. So broad that you don’t even know you’ve gone through a gate. You’re simply following the crowds. Doing what they do. Thinking the way they think. You don’t have to renounce anything prior to entering this gate. You can take all your baggage with you.
The narrow gate is Christ. The broad gate is the gospel promoted by our culture. Its motto is: You do you. Pursue the things that delight you. You’re good the way you are. Its the world that’s messed up. You only live once. Serve yourself first.
This is the gate you’ll drift through. And you’ll drift through it even if you choose not to walk in any particular direction.
And this is because life is a little like a moving sidewalk. The culture is always forming us. Shaping our imaginations. Molding our wants and loves. It does this through symbol, story, and the soft power of peer pressure. It disciplines you when you break from the script.
And if you don’t go against the flow or hop the rails, this moving sidewalk will slowly take you down the road that Jesus says will ultimately lead to destruction.
Wide is the gate that leads to the party on Saturday night. But agonizing is the journey through rehab.
The road to good times is paved with little shiny gold credit cards. But dull and cramped is the debt consolidating office at the end of the line.
If you give all your heart, soul, mind and strength, to the pursuit of wealth. It will take it. And the final return on that investment will be a bunch of digital zeros in your lonely bank account.
Be careful what gate you enter. For the gate you enter will become your master. And there’s only one master whose desire it is for you to have life, and have it in abundance.
If Jesus is the narrow gate, then the road, the narrow road that leads to life, is a life lived under his tutelage. As his disciple.
Dallas Willard makes the important observation that this narrow road is not referring to theology, or right thinking. Good theology is important, but it is not the path that leads to life.
The road that leads to life is a life that is mastered by Jesus and lived in submission to him.
The word translated narrow in verse 14, could also be translated as difficult. And that perhaps is the better translation, because being mastered by Jesus isn’t easy street.
He’s going to invite you to take on practices that rub against the grain of your being. Like forgiving someone who’s wronged you. Or loving your enemies and blessing those who curse you.
But that is the way that Jesus leads. And that, he says, is the way that leads to true life.
This isn’t really all that hard to understand, I think. I mean, in order to enjoy many of the best things in you, you need to constrain your living. And make difficult sacrifices. If you want to master an instrument, for instance, you’re going to need to walk down a narrow road. While all your friends are hanging out after school, you’re practicing scales and memorizing theory. But slowly, the way begins to open. The scales become second nature, and useful. And soon, you’re experiencing the bliss of playing Bach, or Elton John.
And then one night you play a number for your friends. And afterwards they’ll say: I wish my parents would have forced me to practice more.
Right, that’s what they’ll say. And its like that for everything. Great freedom is found on the far side of discipline.
And Jesus says: Give me the reigns of your life. Place my yoke upon your shoulders. Let me constrain and guide your living, and I will lead you into whole-hearted living. To a life that bears witness to my Kingdom and ways. That’s the best life. For that is the life that, in the end, opens up into the most spacious of places.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many on it. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
You know, unless you got stuck in Triathalon traffic on your way to Church today, I doubt you experienced much congestion coming here. And that is because few are on the road that leads to Church. This narrow way can feel kind of lonely at times.
But I don’t think that Jesus’ main point is numbers in this teaching. The book of Revelation tells that the Kingdom of Heaven is a robustly populated place. In his vision, John sees a multitude that no one can count.
Jesus isn’t talking about numbers here. He’s simply exhorting us to take life seriously.
At a certain point during his ministry, someone asked Jesus about numbers. “Lord are only a few people going to be saved?”
Jesus declined to answer the question directly. Instead he simply said: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow gate, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” Luke 13:23-24
Brothers and sisters. Life is serious. Today, Jesus wants you to hear that, consider that, and make a choice to enter life’s narrow way with him.
You don’t want to flap around in the rafters after flying into the wrong door. Nor do you want to drift slowly down the road that leads to trouble in this life and destruction in the next.
Come to the water. Find the narrow door. Let Jesus be Lord and Master of your life. And he will lead you on the path that leads to life. Amen.