When the Owner Shuts the Door

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Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has gotten up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then in reply he will say to you, 'I do not know where you come from.'"

And Jesus said to them: STRIVE TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW DOOR. Doors are an amazing invention, amazing because a door is not a door unless it is able to move. Seal a door, and for all practical purposes you have extended a wall--because, you see, doors are made to open and shut. Whether they be screen doors, pocket doors, doors that roll up, doors that slide across, or even doors that fold in two. Doors mark and direct entry into a particular place.

Some doors are works of art, beautiful to behold, while other doors are makeshift, dingy and hardly attractive. A door is still a door if it does what doors are supposed to do. Doors open. Doors shut. Doors let some things in. Doors keep some things out.

The first door in the Bible is suggested as a shut door. When Cain became angry with God and with his brother, Abel, the Lord warned Cain in Genesis chapter 4: SIN IS COUCHING AT YOUR DOOR. Like a beast of prey, sin was lurking outside the door to Cain's heart. It's hard not to root for Cain: "COME ON, CAIN, KEEP THE DOOR CLOSED. DON'T LET SIN GET YOU." It's even harder not to feel sorrow when we discover that somehow the door was made to open, because Cain used violence to kill his brother. The same God who warned Cain now utters the chilling words: YOUR BROTHER'S BLOOD CRIES OUT TO ME--because a shut door was made to open.

The last door mentioned in the Bible is an open door--an open door in heaven. This door is John's entrance into a world defined by the glory of God--a world where the righteous are gathered into an existence of gratifying victory, satisfying worship and edifying praise. This door in heaven gives John access to the throne of God, and the one who sits on the throne invites John to look, to see, to behold how I MAKE ALL THINGS NEW. Yes, through this door John beholds a new heaven--blessing a new earth--revealing a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. A whole new world where there is no more crying, no more dying, no more darkness and nothing wicked nor unclean. Here flows the river of the water of life, and all the thirsty are told simply, COME. A door like this, we want it to stay open forever, or at least till we all get to heaven. (What a day of rejoicing that will be!)

Between Genesis and Revelation there are many other doors described in the Word of God. Unlike our modern revolving doors, the biblical doors cannot be open and shut at the same time. The doors of scripture are DECISIVE IMAGES, and they become paradigms of our faith-filled expectations toward God and toward ourselves as people embraced by the love of God in Christ Jesus.

In Psalm 141, the writer prays to the Lord with uplifted hands: KEEP MY HEART FROM EVIL AND WATCH OVER THE DOOR OF MY LIPS. As Matthew records the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counsels his disciples to AVOID PRAYING IN ORDER TO BE SEEN BY OTHERS. YOU SHOULD, RATHER, PRAY IN YOUR ROOMS WITH THE DOOR TIGHTLY SHUT, SO THAT THE FATHER WHO SEES IN SECRET WILL GIVE YOU YOUR REWARD. In I Corinthians 16, Paul speaks of THE DOOR FOR EFFECTIVE WORK THAT HAS OPENED TO HIM IN EPHESUS. Paul calls this door A WIDE DOOR. Amazing, isn't it, that our elders and teachers in the faith have always recognized the consequences of whether or not a biblical door was open or shut. They also knew that there was a vast difference between a WIDE DOOR and a door that could only be described as NARROW.

I have lived in a world greatly affected by this decisive image of the door. As an African American, I have sometimes squeezed through narrow doors of opportunity, and I have knocked in vain at doors sealed shut to persons of my race and culture. I have joined others to protest immigration policies that seem to selectively close doors to many persons fleeing political repression. I have gone behind prison doors of iron and steel, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the incarcerated, observing all the while how these same doors can open so easily and disproportionately to admit black and brown youth who have been seduced by the culture of crime until they are captured, convicted and forced to do their prison time. I have seen the doors of churches close because ministries have lost their vitality and sense of purpose. I have stood in my own church, a Lutheran Church, and with trembling hope, called out to strangers. THE DOORS OF THE CHURCH ARE OPEN. WE OFFER CHRIST TO YOU. IF THE SPIRIT IS MOVING YOU TO TAKE YOUR PLACE WITH US IN THE BODY OF JESUS CHRIST, COME FORWARD AND JOIN THIS CHURCH. THE DOORS OF THE CHURCH ARE OPEN, AND THE ONE WE CALL JESUS IS READY TO RECEIVE YOU, RIGHT NOW!

Consider now how our text from Luke 13 says: JESUS WENT THROUGH ONE TOWN AND VILLAGE AFTER ANOTHER, TEACHING AS HE MADE HIS WAY TO JERUSALEM--not the new Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation seen through the open door in heaven, but the old Jerusalem of the gospel story. The Jerusalem that would one day soon close the door of its collective heart to Jesus and cry out, with one voice: CRUCIFY HIM. He is on his way to Jerusalem when someone asks him, LORD WILL ONLY A FEW BE SAVED? John responded with words that were easily understood, for he said to them. STRIVE TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW DOOR, BECAUSE MANY TRY TO ENTER AND ARE NOT ABLE. Surely the people of the villages and towns would recall their own experience of doors closed to them because of the Roman occupation of their land. Perhaps at a deeper level, his image of a narrow door not yet closed was also a potent reminder of the law of Moses, and the hope that their faith tradition still provided. Perhaps even our modern ears can feel in his response the tension between the law and the gospel, for the narrow door, like the law, is not wide because sin is all around. Yet the door of salvation remains open, because the God who sent Jesus into the world is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

I am convinced that Jesus sees all that the common folk see. He sees religious hypocrisy; he sees abuse of political power; he sees suffering, injustice and pain. He sees these things, and he experiences them, too. He knows all about closed doors, and what goes on behind them. He knows how it feels to be despised and rejected. He knows what happens to a dream deferred, and he knows why the caged bird sings. So he says to those who ask their honest questions about salvation: STRIVE! STRIVE TO ENTER GOD'S KINGDOM THROUGH THE NARROW DOOR.

The word of grace is here, because the door is still open. The word of truth is her also, because Jesus says STRIVE--which can be translated: CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE. DO WHATEVER IT TAKES.

My mother-in-law could easily have been the one who stopped Jesus and asked him: LORD, WILL ONLY A FEW BE SAVED? She knows intimately what it means to climb up the rough side of the mountain. She has lived through the worst of Jim Crow segregation, when racism ruled Alabama like an occupying army. She has seen hypocrisy in the church, yet she remains faithful to the call and the hope of the gospel. She has lived her three score and ten years, and when she looks back over her life she often prays: LORD, I JUST WANT TO BE WHERE YOU ARE AND I DON'T WANT TO GO ANYWHERE YOU'RE NOT GOING TO BE. In our conversations she may wonder aloud about the promise of salvation, and its impact in a world where religion is often made convenient and accommodating for just about anyone and anything.

Oh, it's an honest question: WILL ONLY A FEW BE SAVED? And it requires an honest answer, a graceful and truthful response.

Jesus' view of salvation can be described as finding one's place at the table of God in the Kingdom of God, and in a world where many take for granted their place in this kingdom of righteousness and truth. He tells those who really want to know: THERE IS AN OPEN DOOR, NARROW, BUT STILL OPEN. DON'T YOU FAIL TO STRUGGLE TO FIND YOUR WAY THERE. STRIVE TO ENTER. CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE, BECAUSE I AM LEADING THE WAY--THROUGH JERUSALEM--THROUGH THE CROSS--THROUGH THE GRAVE--ALL THE WAY TO THE HEAVENLY BANQUET IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD.

There is only one who can shut this door, and people of faith can share a strange confidence in what the owner of the house finally decides to do about the narrow door--for this door is the way to paradise. Yes, the Kingdom of God is paradise for the righteous, and Jesus is the one who can give us an effective righteousness through faith in His name. For the Kingdom of God is not about numbers, but it is about the promise that from the east, the west, the north and the south, people will pass through the narrow door and find their place at a table of blessing.

When the door finally shuts, it will be the perfect sign that OLD THINGS HAVE PASSED AWAY, AND SOMETHING NEW HAS COME. Will only a few be saved? Jesus gives the only answer that is true to the will of God. If you know enough to ask, then: STRIVE TO ENTER, KEEP ON STRUGGLING, and when you finally sit at the table, you will see for yourself.

You can ask Abraham and Sarah. You can ask Isaac and Rebekah. You can ask Jacob, Rachel and Leah. You can ask Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz. You can ask Fannie Lou Hamer and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can ask Steve Biko and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can ask four little girls from Birmingham, Alabama. You can even ask the thief on the cross. Will only a few be saved? You can ask all the saints, who from their labors rest. Amen.

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