(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 18, 2015)
The two things Jesus teaches in today’s section of the sermon on the mount are pretty much at the core of the things I most often speak or write about.
One is to reclaim an accurate view of God, countering years of church history which have led so many to think that God is only harsh, angry, and disappointed with us. And the second is to call us to what few people choose, the hard road of discipleship to Jesus.
Turn with me to Matthew chapter 7, verses 7-14.
‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.
‘ Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.
‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
‘ 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. (Matt. 7:7-14 TNIV)
We serve a good God!
We serve a God who invites us in and welcomes us, a God who gives us good gifts!
Jesus invites us to come near, to ask, to knock…to seek after God. Christianity in many ways is a pursuit, a direction, an orientation. As we said several times in the Christmas season, God first pursued us. God came near, joined us in the flesh. God moved toward us…and the response we are asked to give is to move toward God.
The perfection and the power and the holiness of God, when we catch glimpses of it, can inhibit us from moving toward God. One of my images for this inhibition is from years ago when we lived in Boise. Natalie was like 6 and Hayley was like 3, and we spent Halloween over in the neighborhood of a family from the church. They told us, “This is the neighborhood to trick or treat in! Mrs. Albertson, from the Albertson’s grocery stores lives in this neighborhood and gives out king size candy bars. All her other neighbors try to keep up with her and give out great stuff too.”
Well of course we all got excited about that! Forget the little mini fun size, we were going king size! But when we actually got to her house, it was super intimidating. Since it was well known Mrs. Albertson was one of the wealthiest women in Idaho and that she herself handed out candy, she had two HUGE armed guards standing right next to her as she sat on a chair in her driveway.
That was intimidating! Our kids took a little bit of time before they were willing to walk up and get their candy. I think if we hadn’t told them ahead of time she was a nice lady and they were going to get good things, they might not have had the courage to walk up with those scary armed guards.
This part of Jesus’ teaching sort of reminds me of that.
We need reassurance to ask, seek, knock. Even though our God is Holy and all-powerful, Jesus reminds us of God’s character. You can ask! You can seek! You can knock! You’re gonna get the good stuff. The door will be opened when you knock.
You may have already noticed this loaf of bread and this stone. (Thanks to Barb Mitchell for the idea and for getting it here today!) It’s a beautiful image that comes straight from Jesus’ words, words that reassure us of the kind of God who created us. We can ask and seek and knock because God is like the best ideal of a parent. The best parents give children what they need, and they are trustworthy. If a child asks for bread, they aren’t going to give a stone.
If we as human beings can live that and understand that, how much more will God give good things to us when we ask! It was ok to walk right up to Mrs. Albertson, trusting the king size candy was coming, even with the powerful armed guards. And it’s safe to go to God, to ask God, to pursue God…because our God is a God of love who wants to give us what we need.
I think it is significant that Matthew has this teaching about God giving good gifts right before what comes next, about entering through the narrow gate
I think they are meant to be held together, like counter-balancing truths.
When I think back to earlier times in my life, as I read or heard people talk about the narrow gate, I didn’t always keep it in balance or in tension with the good news about God the gift-giver. Many times, the narrow gate truth crept in and overwhelmed how I saw the character of God.
The title of the message today is “Who Makes it Narrow?” If nothing else, I want to speak to my younger self. But perhaps some of you are like I was, and when you read Jesus’ words about entering the narrow gate, you picture God as the one making it narrow. You let it color your perception of who God is, let it overwhelm all the other places in the bible that talk about God’s overwhelming graciousness and care and love for us.
You let this picture of a narrow gate dominate how you see God, whether consciously or unconsciously. Maybe it gets even stronger. Maybe you start to think of God as the one behind the door, making it more and more narrow as you try to enter, and then having it close right in your face.
God isn’t the one closing the door.
God isn’t the one making the gate narrow. “Which of you, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone? … How much more will God in heaven give good gifts when we ask!!”
It isn’t like God needs me to “save” God’s image. But perhaps as a pastor in Christ’s church, I can be one who speaks out to rescue us from the image of God the church sometimes gives. God is the giver of good gifts to those who ask, not the closer of doors, not the one who makes narrow gates.
So just what is this business about the narrow gate, then?
Notice the theme, the thread, that is still weaving its way through even here. “Enter.” Enter through the narrow gate.
The invitation is still there! Ask, seek, knock, enter…God is inviting us to come to him! Here again we’re reminded that Christianity is about our direction and orientation, about movement and walking and living.
Enter through the narrow gate. It isn’t that God is closing the door on you-God is constantly inviting us to enter, to go this way, to follow. But it IS a narrow gate. It IS a path that few take. It is a narrow and small path in comparison with the many other things that call to us, that clamor for our attention.
Who makes the gate narrow? I suppose you could say we do. Or culture does. Or life does. I hear in Jesus’ words an echo of the earlier passage in chapter 6 about storing up treasure in heaven, not things here on earth that can rust and be destroyed. So many other things call to us. There are so many other things that demand our attention, so many easy-entry, wide paths that are placed before us to follow.
Humanity makes the gate narrow. Greed makes the gate narrow. Pleasure and desire for so many of the wide gates makes the path of radical discipleship narrow in comparison.
We need the constant and challenging reminder that while Christ’s yoke is easy, there are many things that pull us and distract us from following Christ. Obediently taking up our cross, dying to ourselves and our desires, walking the way of discipleship is a narrow and difficult way to follow. This is the reality of life on a broken planet, not a result of a God who closes doors.
Enter through the narrow gate.
We need to be reminded that saying yes to Jesus means saying no to other things. As Jesus said in chapter 6, “no one can serve two masters.” Power and money and sex and prestige and acceptance are pursuits that can take hold of us and become our god. Many of the things that many people give their lives to pursuing lead to destruction because they take over first place, God’s place in our lives.
We need that reminder to ask and seek for God. We need that reminder that when we ask, God isn’t going to give us a stone. When we face the difficult choice of letting go of something that we have greatly desired because we see how it is taking over our lives, we can remember that God is not sadistically narrowing a gate, but calling us to a better way of life. God is giving a good gift.
So without minimizing the reality of the “obvious” things that lead us down the wide path to destruction, I want to also draw our attention to some of the more subtle ways. I want to draw our attention to the times when more than one path looks like a good path, a God path. How do I enter the narrow gate, how do I take the hard road of discipleship in times where it isn’t so clear?
There are a lot of these gates that look great, like ones I would want to walk through and pursue.
I’ve been on vacation this week, and I’ve had 19 hours by myself in the car to think. So, watch out! 🙂 Will you journey with me a bit with some of the questions I’ve been kicking around in my head? I know they are likely different from yours, but perhaps sharing some of my wrestling will enable you to look with fresh eyes on your own questions.
When I took our daughter Natalie back to college last week, I also visited the Fuller Seminary campus where I went to grad school. I walked up to the third floor surrounding the main courtyard. I took classes all over the campus, but this hallway on the third floor felt like the heart of my seminary experience, the place where I took all my systematic theology with Miroslav Volf, where I took Marianne Meye Thompson’s class on the book of John, where I took Nancey Murphy’s Philosophical Theology.
Being California, the hallway is in the open air. We’d come out on our breaks and look out over the courtyard, often still deep in conversation about whatever mind-blowing thing we were learning. I stood here last week and took this picture, because all those memories were flooding back.
I wanted to change the world back then. I had big dreams and big plans. One gate that seemed open then was going on to do a Ph.D. and trying to change a generation of students as a professor. Other gates were toward student life at a college, or the growing concern I had for injustice in the world. Standing in the same spot more than 20 years later, I wondered: has the world-changing passion been smothered? Did I miss something?
I’ve also been reading a biography of the new Pope Francis. It is incredible. He is a wonderful and compelling man, and reading about his life is challenging and convicting. At every point of his life, in every position of leadership he has held, he has challenged those with whom he lives and ministers to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Just one example comes from when Jorge Bergoglio (now known as Pope Francis) was in charge of spiritual formation for all the Jesuits in Argentina.
“Bergoglio’s formation program… had an extra, radical element seldom found in Jesuit training at the time, which he took from the early missions that so inspired him. It was an option for the poor expressed in manual labor, hands-on pastoral care, and a deep respect for popular culture and values… It was a radical inculturation into the lives of God’s holy faithful people.”
He and all the priests he worked with went and lived with the poor, serving and educating and learning from them, by discovering God’s heart in them. Is this a gate I’ve missed?
But then wait…I also read Marilynne Robinson’s latest book Lila in December. I was reintroduced to the character I loved from her book Gilead, pastor John Ames. He spends his entire life in the town of Gilead, pastoring the church his father and grandfather pastored. He lives grace; it oozes out of him as he speaks and lives alongside people in a community that he knows and that knows him so well. There’s such a clear picture of the rich ministry that can come from a long, quiet ministry in one place, where you know and are known. And with that image I remember that I had the privilege just a few weeks ago of sitting in Chapters and talking philosophy with a man who used to be in Elaine’s preschool class. What a gift!
Sometimes there are just a whole lot of gates and doors and you don’t know which is the narrow one that represents the faithful road of discipleship.
There aren’t easy answers here. The truth is I could find ways to make any and all of the gates the wide one, the ways that lead to destruction. I could make the grass on the other side of the fence look so much greener that my pursuit of any one could take over first place, the place reserved for God.
Add to that what Elaine and I talked about just yesterday. Life is just very full and very busy with a never-ending to-do list. I realized this, too, driving the long miles home from Southern California. I realized that one of the ways I make the gate to discipleship narrow is that I simply don’t ask or strive to find the gate. I’m too trapped in just existing and going through the routine of life to make intentional choices to do what Jesus asks me to do here…to “enter the narrow gate.” Yes, pastors sometimes forget to be intentional about their pursuit of God too.
If I can be tempted by destructive things…if I can make good things my god and therefore ruin them…if I can get lulled into complacency by the busyness of life and forget to search for Christ’s way…is there any hope here?
YES THERE IS!
There is hope in the exact thing that Jesus is saying over and over in the sermon on the mount, in the things he says so strongly in this passage. Ask. Seek. Knock. Enter.
If God is the giver of good gifts that Jesus says he is (and I believe that to be true!), if the narrowness of the gate is not because God is closing the door but because I can miss the gate if I don’t look…if all that is true, then I see exactly why Jesus tells me to ask and seek and knock and enter.
Because Christianity is a pursuit. It is a way of life. It is an orientation toward God. I can let the anxiety about getting the right gate and the right answer fade, when I remember that is the seeking that is the key.
Bruce Murphy, who spoke so powerfully two weeks ago, reminded me a couple months ago that this asking and discerning is the essential piece. Each day holds the opportunity for many good things, and some bad things. The key is a regular habit and practice of asking God which is the gate to walk through today.
Enter through the narrow gate. I’ve been reminded and challenged again to go back to the time-tested practices. To read the bible regularly. To pray. To listen. To examine my life and regularly remind myself that what I want more than anything else is to seek God and his righteousness.
Pursuing God means finding out what matters to God, and being obedient to do it. Pursuing God comes from regular practices of asking and seeking and listening and obeying, finding strength from God’s Spirit to see the way put before me and say no to the other things I could pursue.
Can we do this together?
May we be a church who seeks God, the giver of good gifts. May we be a church that enters through the narrow gate, saying no to other pursuits that take over God’s place in our lives.