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Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

If you have a Bible, please turn with me to Luke 13:18–30. There should be some in the pews as well. In those Bible’s the passage is on page 992. We did some flip-flopping of passages, but now we’ll be moving straight through Luke’s gospel.

You’ll seen a sentence in the passage about Jesus traveling toward Jerusalem. When I go on a road trip, besides making sure that we have what we need for where we’re going, I also try to help make sure we have good road-trip snacks and good road-trip music, or podcasts or audio books. Gotta have both snacks and music. Maybe you’re going a trip this summer, and you think about things in a similar way.

Jesus is on a road trip to Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish religious life. I’m not sure what snacks he’s having along the way, but if we were to describe his playlist, it would be full of songs played in minor keys. Sure, while moving toward Jerusalem there are notes of joy and celebration, but they are the exceptions. The gravity of his future and the future of the people he interacts with, weighs on Jesus. You can hear his concern in his words in this passage, and you can see his concern in next week’s sermon as he even begins to weep.

Scripture Reading

Let’s read the passage, then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher. Luke 13:18–30,

18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

22 He 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.”

Prayer

This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”

Introduction

A friend from high school reached out to me awhile back. We’ve kept up every six months or so, but when he sent me the text message that he wanted to talk, honestly, I was hesitant to call. As I remember it, it was a busy few days, and I suspected he’d want to talk for an hour. I didn’t see it happening. At first I didn’t respond, and when I did respond it was a halfhearted “yeah, let’s catch up soon” sort of response.

Eventually, we did talk, and to my shame, it went was so much better than I had expected. I had been misunderstanding how our conversation would go. When we talked, my friend said he’d actually been going to church, and he’d just heard a sermon about having good, spiritual friendships. He wanted to tell me that he thought I was that for him.

I was so excited, and I also felt like a loser. I didn’t even know he was going to church. We’d talked about Christianity many times, but I didn’t think he was a Christian. Here he was, regularly going to church and wanted to tell me, his friend, how much I meant to him. I had imagined reality one way, but I misunderstood.

In this passage Jesus confronts us with the reality of the kingdom of God, and what I want to point out is that the reality of what the kingdom of God actually is, is better than our misunderstandings of it.

There are two presumptions that takes place among the religious in this passage. They presume too little of what God seems to be doing, and they also presume that whatever God is doing in this world, certainly they are on the inside of it—if not the center of what God is doing. And both presumptions are wrong. To presume too little of the kingdom and to presume they are on the inside. Let’s look closer at this passage.

1. The Kingdom Grows Slowly but Surely, vv. 18–21

The first parables that Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God tell us that the kingdom of God is something that grows slowly, but it’s growth is sure. Let’s re-read vv. 18–21.

18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

Some have pointed out that a mustard seed doesn’t really grow into a tree-tree. It’s more like a giant bush, some 10–12 feet tall. All this makes me think of the forsythia plants along my house. When we look out our kitchen window we see a row of forsythia plants. They are the ones that have a bunch of small yellow flowers in early May; they are just green now.

Anyway, between my house and my neighbor’s house a tree was cut down. We decided to extend that row of bushes further into the backyard. We talked to Janice, a member of our church and our resident gardening expert, and she told my wife that when it comes to gardening, “You can be rich, or you can be patient.” She means you can buy mature plants for a lot of money or you can buy them small and watch them grow. We chose the patient route, which means that right now there are four tiny sticks that look a little odd next to the mature bushes. We’ll sometimes joke that in 10 years, birds will have four more bushes with branches to come to rest in. When they land there now, the branches sag to the ground.

The parable about the yeast and bread dough is interesting too. The amount of flour Jesus mentions was a very large amount; three measures would feed all of us bread (a measure was the equivalent of a huge sack). But the way yeast works through dough, and the way plants grow, is slow business. You can’t really watch it happen except in time-lapse photography.

With God, taking the patient route doesn’t have anything to do with wanting to save money. But both parables about the kingdom show us that God has chosen to advance his kingdom in a slow but sure way. The point of the parables is to encourage us that the kingdom—even when it doesn’t feel like it, even when it doesn’t look like it—is growing. And when it’s mature, the kingdom will be a place where many come and find rest. It will be a kingdom that feeds many people.

To be sure, this was not the understanding of the majority of Jewish people at the time. They were hoping for a military leader who would crush their enemies—not slowly, but quickly. Without going into a history lesson, allow me to just say that Israel had frequently been under the thumb of foreign rulers, and they were tired of the subjugation. They wanted, we might say, a messiah who drove a tank. They wanted a messiah to come crush Rome and other Gentiles they didn’t like.

As we talked about this passage around the office, Jason mentioned to me something related from the ’88 presidential election. The Democratic party wanted to show that they were strong on military issues and a force of strength throughout the world, and so their presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, created campaign propaganda footage of him riding in a battle tank. As I understand it, the move backfired significantly. It didn’t’ work; it didn’t fit.

I think the religious leaders would have heard these parables Jesus told about the kingdom of God and scoffed at them. The images are too weak. The kingdom of God is like seeds? Like dough? In the next passage Jesus likens himself to a mother hen. These are decidedly not images of a messiah in a tank, which is why I’m saying these images would have been disappointing to religious.

But the reality of the kingdom of God is so much better than our misunderstandings. Some of you are frustrated by the growth of Christianity, or rather, what feels like significant decline. I would encourage you to worry less about what news programs are telling you and more about what God is telling us in his Word. God is not promising that American Christianity will always move up and to the right, but he is telling us his kingdom grows. The branches of God’s kingdom, even now, are stretching out. And the dough is rising.

To encourage you why a slow growth kingdom is better, consider what the apostle Peter wrote in one of his letters. If anyone has seen difficult times, surely we would say Peter did under the reign of Emperor Nero. Look what he says,

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [of returning] as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9).

The kingdom of God may look small to you, but don’t underestimate where it ends. The reality of the slow-but-steady growth of God’s kingdom will mean many outsiders get a chance to come inside. We get a greater picture of this in the next few verses.

2. The Kingdom is Open but Urgent, vv. 22–30

Let me re-read vv. 22–30. Here we see the kingdom of God is open right now but there is an urgency to get in.

22 He 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.”

It doesn’t seem like Jesus answered this man’s question, at least not directly. This is fairly typical of Jesus. And also typical is the way Jesus reframes the question. The man asks if those who are saved will be few, and Jesus takes this rather remote, abstract question, and makes it personal and concrete. He says, “You must strive to enter, and you must to it now.” One commentator put it this way: “In effect, Jesus turns the question from ‘Will the saved be few?’ to ‘Will you be among the saved?’” 1

And do you see the urgency in the passage? When Jesus says “strive,” it’s in the present tense, meaning it’s for right now. And he contrasts the urgency we should feel with those who “will seek,” that is, someday in future they “will seek.” They hope to get serious about their faith but not today. Church, the kingdom of God is wide open to those who strive right now, not tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. Being overjoyed to live under the rule and reign of the king of Kings is not something to save doing until you get married or when you have kids or when you retire. Passion for God’s Kingdom is for today. That’s the point Jesus is making.

And to be clear, the religious climate of Jesus’s day didn’t really lead good Jewish people to believe that they needed to be urgent and serious about entering God’s kingdom because they it was commonly held that they were already cool with God. And God was already cool with them. They are Jewish. They are children of Abraham (cf. Luke 3:8). They are children of promise. What more could God want of them than having the right ethnicity? I mean come on, Jesus, they say. We ate with you and drank with you, and you taught in our streets. I mean I shared Christian things on Facebook, I helped the in the children’s nursery, and I took communion last week. What more do you want?

Their presumption on God’s grace leads to apathy. And their apathy leads to a double-whammy. Feel the sting of this. Jesus tells good Jewish people that they will be shut outside God’s kingdom because God doesn’t know them. They are on the outside, and on the inside are people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets. That’s the first whammy. The second whammy is that not only are they outside, but also that many Gentiles are on the inside. A Gentile is a non-Jewish person. Many non-Jewish people are on the inside of Heaven, while they, good Jewish people, are outside in Hell. Jesus is telling them this with a heavy heart. He’s speaking in minor keys.

Now, culturally today we don’t have the same presumptions. Generally speaking, our religious landscape is not slanted to the common assumption that Jewish people are automatically cool with God. That’s not a general, cultural assumption we have. But here’s one we do have: the general, cultural assumption that people are inherently good, not sinful, does lead to the same conclusion: apathy. Why strive and why make God a priority when everyone is good, and everyone goes to heaven, and all spiritual paths are the same?

Jesus speaks of a “narrow door” (v. 24). At our house we have a baby gate to keep our youngest from climbing upstairs. Next month he’ll have his first birthday. Part of the locking mechanism of our baby gate, it seems to me, hangs out extra far. So if you come to our house and you want to go upstairs or walk back downstairs, the narrow gate requires something of you as you walk through it. If you don’t turn to the side slightly, paying attention to the demands imposed by the gate, bad things happen.

Jesus is saying to an audience that doesn’t think they need to do anything to become right with God, that to be in God’s kingdom—to be where the rule and reign of the king are loved—requires a moral transformation, moral conformity to the king’s ways. It requires repenting of presumption.

It’s not that this striving and effort save us, but to receive the salvation that God offers does require change. Church, if your Christian life is not marked by some aspects of narrowness that are brought about precisely because you’ve become a Christian, then you might not be a Christian. The Christian life produces conformity to Christ. Conformity of finances, conformity of sexuality, a conformity of our desires and will to God’s desires and will.

There’s a church I drive by frequently that is nothing more than a religious club. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve met some of the staff members who work at the church I’m thinking of, and I know enough of their doctrine to be afraid that someday they will experience a double-whammy. But I don’t have the same pastoral responsibility for those in that church as I do this one. And so I say to you, Strive. Strive to enter the narrow door. If you are alive, the door is wide open—today.

When you look at the passage closely, you realize, in another sense, the door is not only narrow but also wide open. It’s not simply a door for a certain ethnicity but for anyone who wills. God has been working throughout time to gather a people to himself in his kingdom. And when his people are with him in his kingdom, it’s for a party. The kingdom is about joy. The kingdom is about food. The kingdom is about song and celebration. This parable that Jesus tells is about people coming from the east and west, from the north and south, and they come to a feast. And Jesus is telling us that preparations for the party celebrations have already begun.

When I think about our church, I’m sure a few of would say they have some Jewish roots in their family tree, but as I understand it, most of us are Gentiles. Earlier I mentioned the slowness of God’s kingdom means more and more opportunities for more and more people to repent, and more people for God to love. Who in Jesus’s day would have thought that today in nearly every part of the world there would be groups of people who call Jesus Lord? All the way from Jerusalem to central Pennsylvania to Greenland to Cape Horn, Chile to even small, underground, secret pockets of Christians in countries that are ostensibly closed to the religious freedom. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? The branches are spreading, and the dough is rising.

Conclusion

I’ll close with this. I mentioned in the beginning that Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem. That’s actually a pretty big deal. At our church when we preach through a book we tend to look at each tree in the forest, but while we do that, we don’t want to miss the big sweep of the whole forest of Luke’s gospel.

Luke has added a few “travel notes” to his gospel to remind us of where his gospel is heading and what Jesus is doing. His gospel begins with the infancy narratives of Jesus we are so familiar with at Christmas time. Then the gospel follows John the Baptist and Jesus in the wilderness. Then comes a block of ministry in northern Israel in the Galilee region. Then comes Luke 9:51.

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Seven times Luke points out that Jesus is going to Jerusalem, with one of them coming in our passage (13:22, and the others being 13:31–34; 17:11; 18:31; 19:28, 41). Just ponder the good-news ironies of this. Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish religious life. Jerusalem is the center of the inside. And there, in the center of the inside, he will die at the hand of outsiders who think they are insiders. And he’ll do this so that anyone who wants inside the feast can come inside.

It’s been some time since we pointed this out, but Luke himself was a Gentile (Col. 4:10–14), and this reality of good-news-for-outsiders would not have been lost on him. And the should not be lost on us. We opened the service today reading the first three verses of Psalm 107. Let me read them to you again.

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

It might have been the case that someone at the time of Jesus would not have been able to make sense of this hope. Sure, let the redeemed of the Lord say how great their king is. But what’s with all this language about people being brought in from the four corners of the Earth?

Our expectations and presumptions about the kingdom are too small. Church, God is gathering a people for a feast. And he invites you and me to it, and he invites us to then invite others to it as well. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Prayer

Pray with me as Ben and the music team come back up. Let’s pray . . .


1 Bock, Luke, 1241.

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