Is there a word?
About 2600 years ago – during the 6th century BC, King Zedekiah of Judah climbed the ramparts of Jerusalem, which was under siege. He looked down on the Babylonian army amassed and ready to attack the city,, and called for the prophet Jeremiah to be brought up from his cell in the dungeon. He demanded of the prophet, “Is there any word from the Lord?”[i] Many years later, in the midst of a veritable cacophony of voices, we wonder if there is anything in the scriptures that can still speak to us today. “Is there any word from the Lord?”
We pose the same question because we are looking for wisdom, for a perspective beyond our own. We look for some interpretive schema that will make sense of the world in which we live. We want something that can make sense of ultimate things – of death and suffering, of sin and human brokenness. We want to know – is life just the luck of the draw or is there some kind of divine plan -- “Is there any word from the Lord?” As complicated and confusing as life is, there had better be a word from the Lord.[ii]
What kind of word? It’s a test?
While Jesus was travelling on the road, going from town to town, he taught everywhere he went. As he taught about the Kingdom of God, it seemed a bit different than what they had heard before. And so questions arise – this one almost sounds like a trivia question – except that the answer matters so much. “How many people will be saved?” Just give us a number so we know what to expect. Will it just be a few of us? Inquiring minds want to know – please tell us Jesus.
Yesterday, I went to a Block Party near us – and when the conversation came around to the “what do you do?” question, I shared that I am a minister. “So what’s the sermon for tomorrow?” “It’s on the narrow way – that God expects a lot from us.” And the reply, “I figure I’m good – I have three kids and I teach elementary education. God will be happy with me – I don’t need to do anything else.” Hmmmm… the greatest saints that we meet wouldn’t presume in that way. “I pray every day that God will forgive me and I try to keep my thoughts on God and loving others,” is a more normal response.
Narrow Door. Jesus’ answer is a bit unexpected. It pushes us. Strive to enter through the narrow door, he said. It won’t be easy, he said. You need to meet certain expectations. I’m sure someone in the crowd said, “Wait! There is a test?” Jesus goes on – knowing me, having eaten with me, having listened to me, even being one of the disciples won’t be enough. If you can’t pass the entrance requirements, my answer will be, “I don’t know you!”
While this language of a narrow way and broad way would have been common at the time, it wouldn’t have been good news then any more than it is now. We understand entrance requirements to clubs and organizations, to parties or select academic programs. But with Jesus? With God? This doesn’t match what we believe about grace, does it?.
The Lemon Squeezer.
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire there is an attraction called “Lost River.” It is comprised of a series of caves that were created by the movement of glaciers long ago. Walkways link the caves together, and visitors can crawl insider, through and over these rock formations. One is called “The Lemon Squeezer.” It is very narrow in two spots, so in order to enter you must be able to squeeze through two poles before the entrance that are the width of the smallest opening. If you can make it through the poles, you can make it through The Lemon Squeezer. To get through it you begin by crawling on all fours, then you slide on your stomach until you pull yourself along a narrow ledge, lighted only by a few candles on another ledge cut in the wall. There are people in front and behind you, which is a great comfort unless you are claustrophobic. There is another narrow opening in the middle of a rock wall that you must go through hands and head first and catch yourself from falling on the rock floor on the other side. It is another tight squeeze. But once you have made it through these tight openings, you find yourself in a huge room with a rock cathedral ceiling and rock walls on each side – a huge cave with room for everyone. But if you can’t squeeze through the poles, you can’t travel to the big room where there is space for everyone.
Strive to enter through the narrow door, Jesus said. It won’t be easy, Jesus said.
How can scripture help us? There’s a lot more to the message of scripture for us than just the “heads up” that it isn’t as easy as we thought. There is more than just hearing that Jesus said there is a test.
GUIDANCE. Reminders, Rules and instructions.
You may have heard the Meme: “If at first you don’t succeed…” What we call “THE LAW” in scripture is more than just a set of rules. Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of Torah, the Law. Sprinkled throughout the sections of law and ordinances are brief sermonettes. They remind us of God’s faithfulness and care in the past and suggest that this history is a reason to follow God in the present. It’s a “Remember who loves you,” message. “You may think your friends are pretty special – but remember who feeds you while you are out, and please act in ways that respect our family.” YEP – the reminders are like that. The faith story of previous generations becomes the rationale for faithful action in the present. The objective of the writers is to encourage people to honor God and pursue God’s path. The LAW provides guidance for those who want to follow God’s way. Remember who you are – these are the instructions.
FUN FACT: We have these warnings about the dangers of not following the law because people actually did choose not to follow God. If the people of Israel had been completely faithful to God, this stuff wouldn’t have been included time and time again. It’s a human problem. We easily forget God’s past actions, and that’s why we have these instructions to FIX these words in our hearts, TEACH them to our children, WRITE them on doorposts and wrists, etc. Because – YES – we will be tempted to depart from the narrow way.
The truth is that we NEED God’s guidance to do the right thing.
BUT that’s not all. We also need God to provide a greater meaning in life. All those moments when we wonder why we are doing what we are doing – or if there is really any point to our lives – what we are doing is crying out for a closer relationship with the one who created us. The question about the meaning of life really approaches the question of eternal life. “To what end do I really live?” is not only a good question, it is a God question. We can’t google it or ask Siri or Alexa.
We can become bored. In our hyper-technical world with incipient technologies forcing us to unlearn and relearn things all of the time – with our entertainment centers that get 300 channels and rarely have much worth watching – with more possible things to do to distract us than any previous generation in history – we are bored. And sometimes our boredom causes us to wonder where the source of meaning is in life. Read Ecclesiastes for more on this perspective – vanity, all of life is vanity.
Here the scriptures can help us. Meaning comes in relationship with God and aligning our lives with God’s purposes. That answer is consistent through scripture. The LAW points to ways to keep us on the path to closer relationship with God. Jesus tells us in parable, metaphor, narrative and teaching that what matters is life with God. He also tells us that it isn’t the easy or popular way of living. It hasn’t ever been. If it had – he wouldn’t have been put to death by the government and his followers wouldn’t have been persecuted and executed in a wide variety of ways.
Jesus tells us that we must struggle, we must strive to enter through the narrow door because he loves us. He wants us to take how we live our lives seriously, living according to God’s wisdom and laws which are for our benefit. The narrow way of God challenges our ordinary ways of living. It challenges our ordinary ways of understanding who we are and how we fit in the world. In the words of Walter Brueggeman, “It invites us to join in and to participate in the ongoing pilgrimage of those who live in the shattering of history, caring in ways that matter, secured by the covenanting God who is likewise on a pilgrimage in history.” [iii] The Bible offers us a different way of seeing ourselves and understanding the world in which we live. And it isn’t easy – it is a struggle.
So here it is: we rather desperately need the message of the Scriptures today. Without their correction, we will drown in the words and actions that align with our culture. Without the word of God actually shaping us we may find ourselves stuck in a religious routine but getting no joy from it. We could show up here every Sunday and still feel that we are not being fed – maybe we are admiring Jesus more than we are following him. Maybe we are not opening ourselves up enough for God to go to work in us. We resist change, after all, and God is always working to change us – to bring us more in alignment with God’s character and purposes. And it is ALL of us. Our self-defense mechanisms are incredibly strong when it comes to faith that would demand more than we really want to give.[iv]
“Who will be saved?” That was the question. And the answer was, “Not as many as you think. And maybe not the people who you think…. They will come from other places, from other cultures, speaking other languages – and they will sit down at the table of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
[i] 2 Kings 24-25, 2 Chronicles 36 and in the book of Jeremiah.
[ii] Seriously influenced by and William Sloane Coffin’s sermon, “The Word,” Sermons to Intellectuals from Three Continents, 1-8. The volume is edited by Franklin H Littell.
[iii] Walter Brueggeman, The Bible Makes Sense, 10.
[iv] This sermon has been influenced in many ways by sermons by Theilicke and Coffin. by Helmut Theilicke, “The Question of the Meaning of Life,” Sermons to Intellectuals from Three Continents, 87-103 and William Sloane Coffin, “The Word,” Sermons to Intellectuals from Three Continents, 1-8. The volume is edited by Franklin H Littell.