(a sermon for August 25, 2019, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 13:22-30)
(An audio version of this message can be found here)
The story goes that one day Arthur’s friend Walter picks him up and the two of them go for a drive some 25 miles away from the city out into the country. And at some point along the road there’s this large, uninhabited and rather unkempt expanse of land where Walter pulls his car over to share with Arthur his dream. You see, Water’s just closed on the purchase of some acreage on this land, and now he’s trying to convince Arthur to buy some of the land adjoining his to handle all the hotels and restaurants Walter’s dream for his land would generate. Walter and Arthur are friends, you see, and Walter really wanted his friend to share in his dream; to get in on the ground floor, or at least the ground, so to speak.
Well, as Walter’s laying it all out Arthur thinks it over, realizing almost immediately that the logistics of such a thing were, to put it mildly, staggering. Never mind all the difficulties that would inevitably arise in creating such a thing – the infrastructure alone could prove to be insurmountable – but even if all that could be dealt with Arthur still couldn’t help but wonder who would possibly drive 25 miles (!) out of the city for the sake of such a crazy ideas as what Walter’s proposing. Understand, Arthur’s known Walter a long time and he doesn’t want to disappoint his friend, but in all honesty Arthur’s thinking that maybe Walter’s dream had gotten the better of him!
So, mostly for the sake of their friendship he tells Walter he’ll think about it. Walter, however, can’t wait that long; he really wants, needs to know Arthur’s decision right away. But in the end, it’s just too risky a venture, and he says no. And so it was that Art Linkletter turned down his friend Walt Disney and the opportunity to buy land around that which would eventually become… Disneyland.
As Paul Harvey used to say, and now you know the rest of the story!
While perhaps not as huge as what I just described to you, I think you’ll agree with me when I say life is filled with what’s often referred to as “windows of opportunity,” those moments when the world opens up before us in unexpected ways, and which could possibly result in a new adventure or, for that matter, a long-held regret, depending on our response! You know what I’m talking about here; I suspect that most of us can probably tell stories about a chance encounter, the unexpected invitation or some other random offer that came our way which not only changed our expectation and experience, but maybe even shifted the course of a lifetime: The side road, taken on a whim, that leads to the best part of a vacation and a cherished memory; the business venture that pays off big; or in my case, the blind date that leads to romance, 33 years (and counting!) of marriage and three adult kids! Hey, you can never tell what that window of opportunity might bring forth… but only when it’s open!
And in that regard, of course, I also suspect we’ve all had occasion to look back at an opportunity and wonder, if only for a fleeting moment, “what if?” What if we’d turned left rather than right; what if we’d taken one career path rather than the other; what if we’d invested in some endeavor when we’d had the chance? You know, we still tell the story in our family of how my parents, back over 40 years ago, had the chance but chose not to purchase a piece of undeveloped property on our lake for $3,500 – for various reasons it didn’t happen – but today that land is valued at well over ten times that amount!
Oh, well… be it out of necessity or preference, you make your choices in this life and you move on, right? But make no mistake, windows of opportunity are unpredictable, often inconvenient and rarely easy. They require us to weigh the pros and cons of the particular decision to be made, to consider the varying amounts of possibility and risk that’s involved. And more often than not, they’re also opportunities swift to pass by; so generally speaking, you can’t stop to think about them for very long. So, yeah, you make your choices, alright… but oftentimes, one way or the other, those choices are tough to make.
Well, our text for this morning from Luke is all about the choices we make, as well about the windows of opportunity we have to make them. This is actually not an uncommon theme in the gospels; there are a wealth of stories of men and women who seized upon an opportunity involving Jesus. For instance, the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years (Luke 8:43-48) and dared to push her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak; she was not about to let this opportunity for healing pass her by, and it turns out that by her faith and courage she was healed. On the other hand, however, remember the story of the so-called “rich young ruler” who’d come to Jesus seeking eternal life, but when Jesus told him what he needed to do – to sell all that he had and give the profits to the poor – “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:22) Despite the massive and certain opportunity that was before him, this rich young ruler could not bring himself to make such a large leap of faith, and thus the opportunity was missed.
In both cases, you see, there are difficult choices to make; decisions in that singular moment whether to act, or not. And the choice is theirs and theirs along… but of course, only the one choice leads to the glory of what awaits.
Which brings us to this morning’s reading, in which Jesus is traveling on the road to Jerusalem when someone asks him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” In one sense, at least, it’s a simple enough question, a matter of affiliation, if you will, where Israel’s concerned; but, you see, as Jesus so often does, instead of answering this directly he gives the questioner and – and us – a word of caution, and it should be said, urgency: “Strive to enter through the narrow door;” Jesus says, “for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”
That in and of itself would have led to the crowd to pay attention. The very idea of entering through a narrow door, squeezing through an opening not quite big enough for us to get through clearly speaks of the discipline and cost of discipleship that Jesus spoke of often. In fact, what you might not know here is that when Jesus says to strive to go through that narrow door, the Greek that gets translated as the word “strive” is actually agonizomai, which is where our words “agony” and “agonize” come from! And that means just about what you think it does: a strenuous exercise of muscle and willpower, not unlike what it takes for athletes to win medals at an Olympic event.
So this business about how many, if any, will be saved ends up not about the law, nor about affiliation and privilege, but about who has chosen to do so, and how. Entry by the narrow door requires passionate devotion, not half-hearted commitment; one needs to agonize over entering that narrow door of salvation.
So what we have in this passage, if not a window, is Jesus offering up a doorway of opportunity that requires from us a decision: a choice. And one thing we all know for sure: that any choice, from that of the purchase of household items to a decision whether or not to follow Christ means that you’re going to be forsaking other choices in the process. Jesus makes it clear: you strive to go through the narrow door, or you don’t; it’s up to you and you alone, but understand that a choice must be made. And it’s an urgent choice, for that doorway of opportunity will not be open forever. The door will close, and when it closes it’ll be too late, for the opportunity will have passed.
And if that isn’t foreboding enough (!), then consider what Jesus says next: it’s a parable, a rather disturbing parable, in which there’s this householder who welcomes people into his home until the moment comes when it’s time to shut the door. And once that door is shut the people who were running late, those who had preferred to linger out in the yard and the rest of the crowd who were basically waiting around for a better party to come along… they’re all out of luck because now the door is closed and it’s too late. Inside the house there’s this incredible feast going on with people in attendance from the four corners of the earth, but outside are all those who missed the opportunity to come inside when it was offered. And as though to add insult to injury when the latecomers knock on the door to ask if they might still come in, “in reply he will say… ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers.’” And as The Message goes on to translate it, “And all the time you’ll be outside looking in – and wondering what happened.” It’s the Great Reversal, in which the last will be first, and the first will be last and so it will be with you, says Jesus, if you don’t take advantage of this opportunity NOW.
It’s harsh, no doubt; this is not exactly one of the more “feel good” parables of the gospels! The bottom line is that nobody wants to be shut out; no one wants to miss out on the banquet. But in life, and especially in faith, we need to understand that there are things that are available to us “for a limited time only,” so we had better “act now because this offer may end without notice!” Once the time for the offer has passed, it’s over!
However, there’s good news within the warning, friends, and it’s not only that the door’s still open, but also that there is one who is watching for us, and who keeps bring forth opportunities for us to come inside. Our God fills up our lives with windows of opportunity, chances for us to make life more a holy thing, chances to find and to deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ: perhaps in the opportunity for worship, for prayerful reflection and an immersion, if you will, into the riches that are found in God’s Word; maybe in the chance we’re given from time to time to actually apply what we profess to know in faith in a real-life situation, say for instance in how (and who) we view as our neighbor; or could be it comes in that fleeting moment we can reach out in love to someone in need, to be there in a time of difficulty, to provide a listening ear in a time of crisis.
The point is that it doesn’t have to be some grand and momentous thing – and may I say here it transcends all of the political and cultural conundrums of this world – but might just be revealed in the simplest happenings of life. In the words of Arthur Gordon, “It’s that almost always there is a lot more to these commonplace happenings than meets the casual eye; and most people would find a lot more in them if only they would pause and look and feel and care just a bit more than they do.” You see, the nature of such windows of opportunity is that while they tend to be brief and often involve some risk and sacrifice, they also bring us in deeper fellowship with God and Christ, leading us to discover the Kingdom of God in our midst and thus the worth of our own true selves.
But the thing is… it’s always our choice whether to go with the opportunity before us… or not.
In truth, these days of confused situations do tend to, in the words of the late cartoonist Walt Kelley, “surround us with insurmountable opportunities.” There is not a day that goes by, beloved, in which our faith in Jesus Christ does not provide an opportunity for a graceful, loving, just response to both the situations of our lives but also the destructive ways of the world around us. I ask you, friends, how would it be if we truly seized the opportunities to live as true disciples of our Lord Jesus? What would happen to you and me if we got up off our collective doubts and fears, and started living like the people we know, way down deep inside, that God wants us to be? How would it be for you and me to live wholly and fully like a believer?
Let me tell you something, beloved; the older I get, the more I’m coming to realize that faith is not so much about doing great things for Christ as much as it is doing small things greatly. And to do small things greatly for Christ comes when we truly seize the opportunity for Christianity in our own hearts and lives!
You see, the window is open; the doorway is being held open for us to enter. God is waiting by the door, holding it open… for now.
And so, Carpe Diem! Seize the Day!
Seize this day, for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord!
And may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2109 Rev. Michael W. Lowry