John Ortberg, former teaching pastor of Willow Creek and author of many bestselling Christian books, once told the story of a man named Marvin. Marvin grew up in his church, Marvin had served on many committees, Marvin was someone everyone knew and everyone honored. But Marvin was a jerk. Marvin was 80 years old and everyone was afraid of him. No one knew if he was going to be nice or mean. But no one ever talked with Marvin about this, because Marvin was a great church member right? Marvin tithed, he showed up on time, he was knowledgeable about the bible, and Marvin had been a Christian and walking with Christ for a long, long time. So he should have had this figured out by now. Right? What is interesting in how Ortberg tells this story is that he doesn’t blame Marvin, he blames the church Marvin grew up in. Ortberg says, unless your church is asking the question: how did we help people grow in their ability to love this year? Then the church is probably failing the people sitting in the pews. It certainly failed Marvin. Marvin probably did all the things his pastors told him to do, all the things a respectable member of a church was supposed to do, but Marvin never learned how to love God and love his neighbors. As far as people could tell Marvin was not filled with the fruits of the Spirit, because he seemed to not know love, or experience joy, and was rarely at peace, and was never gentle. And this happened to Marvin because way too often we mistake church participation and biblical knowledge for actual spirituality and faith. We think that because someone is willing to serve on a board, well they must be close to Jesus, or because someone can recite bible verse after bible verse that they are close to the heart of God. Or because someone puts on great programs or builds a non-profit in the name of Jesus that they must be filled with the Holy Spirit. And when we do this sometimes we are right, but sometimes we are wrong. Because doing great things in the name of Jesus is not necessarily a sign of a deep faith. And having a lot of knowledge about scripture and theology does not always equal a vibrant spiritual life.
Let me tell you about David. David lived across the hall from Amy and I while we were at Yale Divinity School. David was brilliant. The guy always finished every test we ever took together at least 30 minutes before everyone else. He had the kind of brain that could just look a page in a book and glean all the content from it! He read everything, and he wrote prolifically. Not only did David finish his Master’s Degree at Yale with perfect grades, but he wrote three 1000 page novels in those two years as well. David was amazing in his knowledge of scripture and theology. When we met him, his goal was to do a PhD in New Testament and then go on to be a professor of Bible at some big university and we had no doubt that he would succeed. David impressed me on many levels, but the thing that really floored me was that David was an atheist. He absolutely did not believe in God, Jesus or Christianity. He had no desire to go to church. And yet here he was the smartest guy in the whole seminary.
Today we finish up our summer sermon series on Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Next week you will want to come back and hear me recite the whole thing from memory! Today we end with some words that if you didn’t know about them before they should shock you. Today we hear from Jesus who gets in to heaven and who doesn’t, and you will be surprised at his answer. Especially those of us who have grown up in the church. Let’s pray.
Lord dear Lord above, God Almighty, Lord of love, please look down and see your people through. Amen.
Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that we are to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” And I have to admit that I wrote this sermon and present it to you today with a bit of “fear and trembling” myself. This text today shakes up a lot of what I had been taught growing up in the Covenant about what it takes to get into heaven and what it takes to avoid hell. I remember studying Jesus’ Sermon out the Mount for the first time in college and coming home over the summer and telling my dad that I wasn’t sure everyone who said they were a Christian and went to church is going to get into heaven. And he, who was also a pastor, agreed with me. And if you don’t like this idea, I understand because it causes fear and trembling within me as well, but how do you try to explain away Jesus’ words here, “Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” I don’t think we want to try to explain these words away. There is too much at stake here. This is way too important to simply dismiss! Wouldn’t you agree?
What seems to be true is that there will be some surprise at who gets into the Kingdom of Heaven, for on that day, which seems to be a day of judgment, Jesus says some will try to argue with him, they will not understand why they are not getting past those pearly gates, they will defend their action before their savior, and Jesus will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me. That is shocking.
There are other places in scripture where people seemed to be surprised at who gets in and who doesn’t. You might remember this story from Matthew 19: One day a rich man comes to Jesus and asks Jesus, “What must I do to get eternal life?” And Jesus tells him to keep the commandments of God, all of which the man has done, then Jesus tells him, well you lack one thing, sell all your possessions and give them to the poor, by this you will gain treasure in heaven and then come and follow me. The rich man, we are told walked away from this sadly, for he was quite wealthy. And as this man is walking away Jesus also sadly comments on what just happened, he says, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” At this Jesus’ disciples seemed to be filled with fear and trembling. Matthew tells us that they were greatly astonished and asked Jesus, well who then can be saved? And Jesus goes on to say that the one who inherits eternal life is the one who has given up these earthly things because the last shall be first and the first shall be last. This was surprising to his disciples. Is it surprising to you?
What about in Matthew 25 where again we are told about a judgment day to come where Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats? And he will tell the sheep on his right side, to come on in and the goats on his left are asked to depart from him. And both sets of people, the sheep and the goats are surprised! Because Jesus says to the sheep you are welcome because you cared for me when I was at my worst: when I was hungry, naked, thirsty, and in prison. And these sheep are shocked to hear this! They say, “When did we see you hungry, naked, thirsty and in prison?” And Jesus says, “When you did it to the least among you, you did it to me.” The goats are equally as shocked, they too didn’t know that it was Jesus when they spurned the hungry, naked, thirsty and those in prison. They were all surprised at who gets into heaven and who doesn’t.
One more. Maybe you remember when Jesus is dying and he is crucified between two thieves? One thief mocks him, the other defends him. And Jesus turns to the one that defends him and says, “Today you will be with me in paradise!” We are not told that the thief was surprised by this. But you can bet everyone who reads this is surprised, and I think it a safe bet to think that thief was surprised as well.
You might be surprised at who is in heaven and who isn’t because a lot of people in the Bible seem to be pretty surprised.
But we have it all figured out right? We know so much more than the disciples and these other characters. We know that all you have to do is pray a prayer accepting Jesus into your heart, making him your Lord and savior, asking his forgiveness for all your sins and asking for his grace and mercy, and you are saved. You get into heaven! All you have to do to get into heaven, is close your eyes right now and pray this prayer with me. “Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, and now I want to turn away from my past sinful life toward you. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.” Some churches and pastors will tell you that if you just prayed that prayer with me and meant it then you are saved and you will get into heaven. All it takes is one small, heart-felt prayer?
Is this what Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount? Does he have everyone bow their heads, close their eyes, fold their hands, and repeat after him the sinner’s prayer? No. He doesn’t. What does Jesus say? He says three things—One: You have to enter through the narrow gate, the narrow gate and the difficult road are the ones that lead to life and there are few who find it. Two: You can tell false prophets not by their looks on the outside, but by the fruit that they bear, and anyone who does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. And Three: The ones who enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who do the will of the Father in heaven and the ones who are “known” by Jesus.
Are you surprised by what Jesus says here? Does it make you a little uncomfortable? Perhaps you are wondering if you will be entering into the kingdom of heaven? I’m surprised, I’m uncomfortable, I’m wondering about myself! And maybe we should be a little uncomfortable? Because I think Jesus is trying to shake us up. I think that Jesus is resisting a temptation that we have. He is fighting our tendency to cheapen faith and make entry into the kingdom of God a free for all, instead of making faith the most valuable thing we could have and entry into the kingdom a great treasure that we would give our lives for. Jesus is calling into question three--what you might call--loopholes that we try to take, and then he lets us know that he doesn’t play that way. Here’s what we are easily tempted to do: Number one we try to soften and downplay how difficult faith is, we cheapen it by trying to make it as easy as possible. Number two we think that faith is all about intellectual belief and not about action. And number three we think that as long as you are hitting some benchmarks it is okay to never have to really get to “know” Jesus.
So number one we soften and downplay the difficulty of faith and we make it too easy. Jesus is saying to us, “So what part of enter through the narrow gate and take the difficult road don’t you understand?” or “What part of pick up your cross, die to yourself in order to gain new life do you not want to do?” or “Do you think it is easy to follow all the commandments and then sell-all-your-possessions-and-give-them-to-the-poor and come follow me? or “Are you ready to leave everything behind, your job, your family, and your friends and come and follow me?” Because Jesus’ first disciples did that, could any of us?
Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he directly challenged the notion that faith in Jesus, belief in the gospel, and the call of God is something that you can just play around with like it is a hobby. Something you can take or leave whenever it suits you. Bonhoeffer said, There is a cost to discipleship. And why shouldn’t there be? We make the most valuable things in this life, cost something. I officiated at a wedding yesterday, and the bride and the groom made vows to each other, I told them their lives were going to change, that they have to stick by each other even when life is hard. There is a cost to marriage. Can you imagine a wedding ceremony where the pastor stands up and says, “Great that you are here today, but love and marriage are so easy and cheap, this whole wedding thing doesn’t mean all that much. If you make it in your marriage, fine, if you don’t, no big deal.” No! The most important things in life have a value, cost, and weightiness.
But don’t we often treat faith, Jesus, prayer, and the church like it is something we can take or leave? You wouldn’t treat your job, your spouse, your kids, or even your television that way…why do you treat faith that way? Faith that is cheap is not valuable. Faith that is easy, is easy to leave behind. Faith that is reduced to a hobby that you sometimes play around maybe on Sunday mornings, won’t change your life that much. Jesus is not interested in offering you something that is of little value to you, he wants to offer you the most precious thing in life, the love of God with your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the ability to love your neighbor as yourself. He wants to offer you a way of life that you would actually drop everything else you are holding onto so you could receive it. But notice the cost is that you had to drop and leave everything else. Which makes this gate narrow and the road difficult that leads to life because few will actually do it.
But there are some who will pretend like they are doing it, Jesus says. There are some who look like they are followers on the outside, but on the inside they are ravenous wolves. Jesus calls these people false prophets. Not because they are saying wrong things, but because the fruits of their ministry and their words and not good fruits. He tells us, that you won’t be able to look inside their hearts, the only way you will know a false teacher is by the fruit that they bear.
You might remember my next door neighbor, David. The smartest student in seminary, who knew scripture and theology inside out, was studying to be a New Testament professor, but was an atheist. What fruit is he going to bear? The only thing he has is information about the Bible, he hasn’t let it change his lie. The only thing he can profess is an understanding of what the great theologians say about God, Jesus, the Spirit and the Church, but he cannot testify that these things mean anything to him. What fruits, beside intellectual knowledge and understanding of Christian doctrine is he going to bear?
But before we get all huffy about David the atheist NT professor, we too should be aware of our atheism. Many Christians are what we might call “functional atheists.” Meaning that while they would not say they are atheists, and they would claim a belief in God, how they function in the world and at home and maybe even in church says otherwise. We might say with our words that we believe in Jesus. We might know about the resurrection because we were taught it in Sunday School. We might have many scripture passages memorized, we might believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, and then we might do nothing with it. The book of James tells that even demons believe in Jesus. They know who he is and what he has done. They know it so well it causes them to shudder. It is not enough to know the beliefs of faith and to know scripture, you have to do something with it. You have to seek the kingdom of God, you have to pursue the fruits of the Spirit, you have to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Otherwise are you not a false prophet? A false professor of New Testament? A false Christian?
Which leads us back to Marvin, doesn’t it? Marvin, the 80-year-old gentleman who has been in church and around Christians his whole life. Marvin the leader in the community and respected citizen. Marvin, the guy who knows his bible, and gives faithfully to the church of his money and time. And Marvin the jerk, Marvin the mean-y, Marvin, the one everyone is afraid of. Marvin, has called Jesus his Lord, Lord, and his Savior, Savior, Marvin has done great things in Jesus’ name, Marvin has been in church, and in the community and in the word, but has Marvin ever let Jesus in? Did the church ever ask Marvin to really get to know Jesus?
Well, today I am asking you to really get to know Jesus. And I am asking you to really get to know Jesus, because I, along with you, I want to be in the Kingdom of Heaven, and I want to see you there. Jesus wants us all to share in the love, joy, and peace that will come by simply being in the presence of God forever. So how do we get there? What do I have to do to know this Jesus? What will it take so that on that day Jesus will look at us, and say welcome friends, glad you are here, come into your inheritance?
Well, this is the end of Jesus’ sermon and it is not like he is beginning a new idea here. If what we are after here in the end is really getting to know Jesus, then his whole sermon must have been about this! It is not like I preach a sermon to you about my favorite novel and then at the very end I say, “And so it is important that you all listen to Mozart and classical music on a regular basis.” So if the goal is to know Christ and he to know us (that sounds familiar) then certainly he must have been talking about this all along! So, knowing Christ and having him know you begins by realizing that you are blessed in so many different ways and even in places you least expected. And not just you, but everyone is blessed by God. Then out of that blessing you remember that you are salt and light, that it is you who bring out the God flavors of this world and light into the dark places. And when you do this you can also shine that light into yourself as you ponder what it really means to live out the law and commandments of God, out of which you will gain a new appreciation for the inner motivation for doing the simple things of faith, like prayer, tithing, and fasting. And as your inner motivation shifts away from doing faith thing so that you get good things, to doing faith so you might serve and be changed by God, you begin, Jesus says, to store up for yourself treasure in heaven, rather than here on earth, and you shift your allegiance away from all the masters of this world to God, your one true master. And once God is your one and only master, you can place all of your life into His hands, by which you won’t have to worry about life any more. And because your worry is gone you realize you can also place other people into God’s hands and you will cease to judge them, and now that you are this blessed, salt and light person whose inside and outside life is aligned with God, you find that you can ask God something and you receive, you seek the kingdom and you find it, and you knock and doors are opened. Which will make your life become poetry and you will seek to make your neighbor’s life poetry as well. By this time you have already entered through the narrow gate, you know the road is hard, but you wouldn’t have it any other way because you know you are a blessed, salt and light kind of follower of God, and the fruits that you bear are filled with love, joy, and peace, which means that on that day when you meet Jesus face to face, you stand before him humbled, in awe at the kind of life he gave you here on earth, and you hear him say, “well done good and faithful servant, come on into your inheritance.”
Jesus doesn’t ask or desire for you to become a Marvin or a David. He wants to know you, he wants you to know him, and for you to make him known to everyone around you.
And he wants this because he loves you, and I tell you about this because I love you, go share this good news with your family, friends, and neighbors because you love them. Amen.