Not the Cereal Aisle

(An abridged version of a sermon originally delivered at Grace Community Church in Marblehead, MA. )

I’ve been doing some research, and I’d like to share my findings with you.  Where Melissa and I buy our groceries, there are over two-hundred different brands of breakfast cereal!  Okay, so it’s not deep deep research, but please bear with me.

Once you factor in package size, the cereal variations jump to over three-hundred and seventy-five!  Do we really need these many choices?

Part of being human is treasuring our ability to choose, for in choosing we gain a sense of freedom and independence.

Often in life, on things that don’t matter very much, we have only two options. They’re not big things, but we enjoy expressing our preference:  Automatic or stick? Paper or plastic? Regular or decaf?  Boxers or briefs?

Choosing between two things is fun when the consequences are low.

More important decisions in life offer us more alternatives. Thankfully, not just two.

Who we choose as friends.  Which university to attend. What career to pursue.  Who you marry.  Where to live.

It’s a nice formula:  Small decisions, a couple of choices.  Big decisions, lots of choices.

But then we open our Bibles, and suddenly God changes the rules.

Turn with me please to Matthew chapter seven. The passage we’re looking at is buried within the greatest sermon ever preached.

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus says there are only two choices.

As we look at our passage, we notice a parallelism between verse 13 and verse 14. There are two gates, two ways, two groups of people and two destinations. Two of everything.

Here Jesus confronts us with only two choices on the really big stuff.  What about our nice formula?  This is definitely not the cereal aisle!

For me, scripture is like a road that continually forks. The more we read it and the more we seek God, the more He places before us critical decisions that have life-changing consequences — signposts with only two arrows:  truth or error … light or darkness … good or evil … heaven or hell … life or death.

Verse 13 begins with a command: “Enter through the narrow gate!” But wait — it’s not just a command — it contains helpful advice!  Jesus presents us with the two choices, but He points us to the right one.  That’s like taking an exam with the teacher giving the answers in advance.  That’s God’s heart.

Don’t you find it humbling that the God who created us, and who ultimately holds us responsible for our choices, is the same God who loves us enough to tell us which way is right, and which way is wrong?

And still, we don’t always get it.

Today our culture rationalizes its poor choices by claiming that there’s no such thing as right or wrong.  Absolute truth doesn’t exist.  People call this slippery philosophy “moral relativism”.  Its motto is “anything goes” and its virtue is “tolerance”.  It’s tolerant of everything … except intolerance or disagreement.

I feel for our young men and women who feel pressured to submit to moral relativism’s thin façade. You might be a well-grounded Christian, but if you’re a freshman at college and your professor is a moral relativist, then you’re in for a rough ride.

Back to the text …

Jesus says our choice varies by width.  One is narrow.  One is broad.

Here we find two “ways”.  In Hebrew thought, one’s spiritual life is described as a journey on foot, either in obedience or disobedience to God.

In Genesis, “Enoch walked with God … Noah walked with God … Abraham walked before God”.

Deuteronomy 5 says: “You shall walk in the way which the Lord your God has commanded you.”

Psalm 86 says: “Teach me your way, Oh Lord, that I may walk in your truth”.

My kids say I beat a dead horse. You get the idea.

Jesus is saying there are only two ways to walk. The “way of the righteous” or “way of the wicked”. The path of obedience, or the path of defiance.  They vary by width.  One is quite broad.  God’s way is narrow.

I speculate Jesus is saying that the broad way is a 1000-lane autobahn, lined with temptations and paved with immorality. The broad way feels smooth and easy, it’s fun, and it’s really wide. I know. I used to be a frequent traveller.

And then there’s God’s way — a narrow foot path.  The word the NIV translates “narrow” is better translated “difficult” or “full of hardship”.  Imagine lots of steep inclines, fallen trees, loose gravel, speed bumps, crevices, construction zones, and potholes.

Sounds like a lot of roads in the city!

Inherent in narrow or difficult ways is more resistance.  Jesus warned his followers to expect persecution.  To expect more resistance.  God’s way is narrow and it is never comfortable.

Moral relativists say the Bible is wrong because of its width.  It’s so narrow it can’t be right!  Narrow has a bad reputation.

Now broad — broad is good! Like broadband or broad-minded.  The wider the better.

So, people of conviction who say that same-sex marriage is a violation of God’s moral law, are “narrow-minded” . Compassionate therapists who treat unwanted homosexuality are hateful. People with courage to stand up to men wanting access to women’s restrooms are “intolerant” or bigoted.

None of us wants to be called names for doing the right thing.

Trouble is, the folks who are calling Christ-followers names abandon their own philosophy the minute it doesn’t suit their purposes.  Suddenly things become seriously wrong when their house is robbed, when their spouse commits adultery, or when somebody cuts them off in traffic.

Until recently, tolerance always meant honouring the person, but not necessarily agreeing with the beliefs or affirming the behaviour. “I love you man, but I have some concerns about how you’re treating your wife!”

Our Lord ministered this way.  “Go and sin no more!” He saw the person through the “stuff”. He loved the person through the “stuff”, but he had zero tolerance for the “stuff”.

One is our identity.  The other is our behaviour. One is immutable. The other is fully adjustable.

From Genesis to Revelation, our amazing and gracious God reveals himself as consistently intolerant of sin.  God’s way is narrow.

So, how then shall we live?

Well, treat every person as someone of infinite value to God.  Someone created in God’s image.

Affirm the person, affirm the feelings, but avoid celebrating or normalizing or affirming what God’s word says is wrong.

That wouldn’t be helpful. That wouldn’t be loving.  That wouldn’t even be ministry.

Back to our text again …

Jesus says that the two roads and two gates have different traffic volumes.

Many will enter the wide gate, yet few will even find the narrow gate.

The broad way is the way of the crowd. There isn’t a weight limitation, and there isn’t a quota.  Everyone is welcome — especially church people!  The turnstiles at the wide gate are always spinning.  Broad way inns are crowded, but there’s always a bed.

On the narrow way, I doubt that you can pack along a lot of gear, and two people probably can’t squeeze through side-by-side.

That’s okay, because we aren’t saved in pairs like animals entering Noah’s ark.  We don’t enter the Kingdom in groups.  God draws individuals to himself, one heart at a time.  God’s way is awesome, but it’s narrow.

I don’t know about you, but I find it helpful knowing that within history, God worked through tiny remnants, not majorities. Of the 600,000 people who crossed the Red Sea, only two entered the land. Centuries later, Jesus worked the crowds as well as anyone, but he never worked through majorities.

So what does God require of you?

• Seek truth. Run after it because it exists and is knowable.

• Discern truth from error using scripture as your filter.  Scripture commands us to test everything.

• Don’t confuse identity with behaviour:  Like our Lord, affirm all people, but not all beliefs or conduct.  Not every way is healthy or right or good.

• Call error, error and call wrong, wrong, but do it in love.  It’s a diplomatic art form and precarious balancing act, but one worth practicing. Lives hang in the balance.

Jesus says the two ways lead to two very different destinations.

Our culture says all roads lead to God. The god of Islam … the philosophy of Buddhism … the 40,000 gods of Hinduism … the idolatry of self. All beliefs are equally valid. If you live a good life, then heaven or nirvana or bliss or paradise or Shangri-La awaits.

Did you notice? Suddenly we’re back in the cereal aisle. Lot’s of possibilities — something for everyone’s taste, and satisfaction guaranteed. You can’t lose. You can’t lose!

Or, can you?

Matthew 7 says there is only one way to God, and John 14 says that Jesus is that only way.  All others are wrong.  God’s way is narrow.

Let’s revisit the gate imagery and jump ahead to the rest of the story. To the end of redemptive history. There are gates there too!  This is where the broad superhighway and the narrow footpath approach their destinations. I’m talking about chapter 22 of Revelation. John gives us a clear digital image.

These are the final words of our Lord in the canon of scripture, so there’s a pretty good chance they hold some significance for us.  Revelation 22, beginning at verse 12.

Behold, I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.  Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

Revelation 22:12-15

So, once again, only two destinies. Those who travel the broad road will not enter the eternal city.  Verse 15 says they are left outside the city gates.  Much to the disappointment of the huge crowd, there isn’t a Four Seasons Hotel within reasonable walking distance.  There isn’t even a KOA campground.

But, there is a winepress. Oh, that’s a nice touch!  May I order a 2015 Volnay from Burgundy?  Um, don’t get excited.

If you peek back in Isaiah 63 and Revelation 14, those who travel the broad way will be trampled in the winepress of God’s wrath. Throughout scripture, the winepress is symbolic of God’s wrath and judgement.  It’s not pretty.  Traveling on Broad Street can feel like “heaven on earth” while you cruise it, but if you miss the last exit, it leads to eternal damnation.

But, there’s a second choice.  God is merciful. Those who struggled along the narrow way … those who remained faithful “no matter what” … those who bore persecution without recanting their faith … those who had the courage to stand alone and speak God’s truth in love.  Those who simply turned to Him. All of those faithful but weary travelers who experienced “Hell on Earth” on the narrow way, will be permitted to go through the gates into the city.

If you stay on the narrow way, you’ll share in all of God’s promises in the presence of the Lamb.

—————————————————

Almighty God looked down upon His beautiful creation, and saw that his most beloved of creatures were drowning in their sins. Few even recognized their condition. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, humanity could do to save itself.

God so loved the world, and was so radically intolerant of sin, yet so loved the world, that he intervened in a way that is well outside the walls of human understanding and ability.

In one, final, victorious act, on a specific day in history, on a cross, on a hill, just outside the gates of a city, Almighty God made possible for you and me, an unmerited opportunity to come into His Holy Presence.

On the really really really big issues, there are only two ways, two groups of people, and two destinies.

God’s way is narrow and it’s difficult.  Let’s walk in it!

Blessings on your home,

robert

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