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Sermon for August 21, 2016

Luke 13:22-30 (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 16—Series C)

“At Table in His Kingdom”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

August 21, 2016

 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text is the Gospel reading from Luke 13:

[Jesus] went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 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.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 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. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

 

          In the wonderful hymn, “For All the Saints,” stanza four contrasts the life of God’s church on earth with His church already in heaven. “Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”

Struggle is a pretty good way of describing life here on earth, isn’t it? Some of us struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Some struggle to get ready for the day. Many struggle to get to work each day, sitting in traffic, working 8-hours or more, and then struggling to get home again. We struggle to balance personal time and family time and work time. There’s a struggle to make ends meet, to pay the bills, to maintain a certain standard of living. It’s a struggle to maintain healthy relationships with our spouses, children, friends, and coworkers. When illness or disaster strikes, we struggle there too with questions of “Why me?” and “Why now?” and “How could this happen?”

The Greek word meaning “to struggle” is ἀγωνίζομαι. We get our English word “agonize” from this word. Life in this world is agony sometimes. We “agonize” over all kinds of things. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to “agonize” over something else. In verse 24 our Lord says, “Struggle/agonize to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be strong enough.”

The narrow door is the entrance to salvation. It is the access hatch to the kingdom of God and the eternal banquet feast of the new creation. But Jesus says that we should struggle to enter. He says it’s not easy to enter through the door, that many will seek to get in but they will not be strong enough. The struggle will be too great. And so it is.

The struggle, the agonizing, is against sin and our own sinful natures. God has given us His holy Ten Commandments. He fully expects us to comply with them, to do them in thought, desire, word, and action. “So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 NET). “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27 ESV). Jesus says to the lawyer who stood up to test him, “Do this, and you will live” (Lk. 10:28 ESV). That’s right, keep the whole Law, follow all the commandments, and be perfect, and you will have eternal life. It’s just that simple. Love the Lord with your complete self and love your neighbor perfectly also.

Hence the struggle! My sinful nature, your sinful nature, they war against loving God and neighbor. We are so inward facing by nature that we only want to love ourselves. We only want to serve ourselves. That being the case, will you or I ever be perfect by our own strength or ability? Will you and I ever, all by ourselves, love God and keep His commandments without sin, and love our neighbors completely, all the time? Not at all, ever! I cannot rid myself of my sinful nature, nor can you. I can’t stop sinning even if I wanted to, which in my sinful nature I don’t want to. I am a poor, miserable sinner, through and through, just like you. So we seek to enter salvation. We look for ways to get into heaven, but we’re not strong enough. We’re not able to. Our sin sees to that. We are unclean, unfit for heaven and to be in the presence of God at His banquet table. All God would have to say to us is this, “I do not know where you come from. Depart from me all workers of unrighteousness.” Truly, there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth because we would have been thrown outside the kingdom feast, condemned to eternal death and hell because of our sins and our sinfulness.

But God asks through His prophet Ezekiel, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? . . . For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (Ezek. 18:23,32 ESV). The word “turn,” שׁוּב in Hebrew, can be translated “repent.” Repentance is being turned from sin by God through the power of His Spirit working through the Word of the Gospel. The struggle though which one enters the narrow door is repentance, which is a work of God in the human heart.

That struggle, that agonizing, is produced when the Word of God calls us to repent and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior from sin and eternal death, but the sinful human nature wars against that Word of God. Jesus, the Word of God Made Flesh, tell us in John 10:9, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” The Word assures us that Christ is the door to salvation and eternal life at the banquet table of the Kingdom. Jesus alone merited for us entrance into this heavenly banquet when He died on the cross for our sins. Jesus endured the struggle against sin, Satan, and death and emerged victorious from the fight. He alone accomplished what we could not—He was perfect for us, without sin. He fulfilled God’s commandments for us, as our substitute, so that we now get the credit for having done so. He struggled under the weight of our sin and God’s condemning punishment of death when He bled and died on the cross for us, purchasing for us complete forgiveness. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. Because Jesus lives eternally, we will also live again eternally in the bodily resurrection on the Last Day as we join Him at His banqueting table in the new creation.

You and I receive the gifts of Christ Jesus—forgiveness, enteral life, and salvation—through the Means of Grace, the Gospel Word and the Sacraments. In Baptism, we have been brought to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven and we have abundant life. However, we still struggle to enter through the door which is Christ. The struggle plays out as the old sinful nature is put to death in Baptism and the new person of repentance and faith is raised to new life in Christ by the water and the Word. The Large Catechism explains: “What else is repentance but a serious attack on the old man and an entering into a new life? Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism. For Baptism not only illustrates such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it. For in Baptism are given grace, the Spirit, and power to suppress the old man, so that the new man may come forth and become strong [Romans 6:3–6]. Our Baptism abides forever. Even though someone should fall from Baptism and sin, still we always have access to it. So we may subdue the old man again. But we do not need to be sprinkled with water again [Ezekiel 36:25–26; Hebrews 10:22]. . . . Repentance, therefore, is nothing other than a return and approach to Baptism. We repeat and do what we began before, but abandoned.”[1]

Paul, in Romans 7, gives us a window into the Christian’s struggle. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:15-25 ESV).

The victory that overcomes sin and death is the victory of Jesus Christ through His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. While this ongoing, lifelong struggle against sin characterizes our lives as those baptized into Christ, we do not need to despair or exhaust ourselves attempting to struggle through the door of salvation by our own efforts. We pass through the door by grace alone for the sake of Christ alone. In fact, since you are baptized into Christ, you have already passed through the door of salvation. Forgiveness of sins is yours. Eternal life is your possession.

So whenever you fall into temptation and sin you are empowered by the Holy Spirit to return to your baptism, drowning the sinful nature through repentance and faith and arising as a new person covered in the blood of Jesus Christ, forgiven and saved. With the Gospel Word and Sacrament attending us, you and I “fight the good fight of faith,” or more literally, “we struggle the good struggle of faith,” daily dying to sin and rising again to live before God in the righteousness of Christ freely given to us by grace.

It is this grace alone that assures us that we are welcome at the heavenly banquet feast. Because of the struggle of Christ against sin and His victory over sin and death, you, by grace through faith, have a place at the table in the kingdom of God with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets. Your admission has been paid in full by His blood. You have passed through Christ the Door by faith into the pastures of eternal life. While we continue to struggle with sin here and now, we know the victory is ours in Jesus. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” But when the struggle of this life is over, you dear saints, along with all those from every time and place who are redeemed by the blood of Jesus, saved from sin through His forgiveness, and made new by water and the Spirit, will recline together at table at the wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom forever. Amen.

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 430.


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