Screening for Salvation
Several years ago a saleswoman from Life Line Screening wanted to set up health screening services here on Sunday morning. I said I would do that if she could find me one doctor who would allow me to set up in his office and screen people for going to hell. This young woman was shocked. Are you? People are far more in danger of damnation than they are of disease, so let's screen for that.
Do you explore the abyss of the hidden God? God knows why He does every single thing He does; why He steps in to rescue and steps away from tragedy. Why this person gets cancer and dies and this person is cured. Why this baby lives and that one dies. He knows from all eternity who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. God knows "are only a few people going to be saved?" But all these things are the deus absconditus, the hidden God. And we warn about exploring this abyss in our Lutheran Confessions using Jesus' Words in our text. "We should not explore the abyss of the hidden foreknowledge of God, even as Christ answered the questionby saying, Strive to enter the narrow door'" (FC, SD, XI, 33). Even the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned against the danger of starring into the abyss. "And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you" (Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146).
That's the first screening for salvation, the first risk factor for damnation. Do you engage in speculative, abstract, or academic questions about the faith, God's ways, the hidden God? Then you're not serious about your salvation. Then you're pointed to the narrowness of the door that you must agonize to squeeze in. That's what Jesus says to you as you sit there wondering about this or that person's salvation, this thing or that which is not revealed in God's Word. He says, literally you must agonizesthe, contend like you're in a fight not for your life but for your very soul.
Next screening question: On what basis do you claim salvation? Well, it better not be on the basis of your agonizomai. Jesus says, "Many will seek to enter on that basis and "will not be able to". Literally Jesus says, "NOT (hear all caps) have strength." And failing that way, what do they do? They claim entrance by right: "Lord, you must open to us." Ever try to get into airline lounge without being a member of their club? Try insisting you as an enlisted man have the right to enter the officer's club. Try plopping down in a first class seat with a coach ticket. Everyone knows that none of these open to you by your insisting you have a right, yet everyone thinks in the end the door of salvation will be open to all demanding it.
Okay, it's more nuanced than that. Everyone thinks salvation is by dying. You die, you go to heaven, a better place, or at worst what Churchill called the big sleep. Surely no one goes where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever. Consider this: the people know enough to call Jesus Lord'. What your insert translates as sir', Kyrios, can be sir' in some contexts but here is rightly translated Lord'. Folks calling Jesus Lord' know salvation has something to do with Him. So, they claim entrance by proximity to Jesus. But do note, they don't say they ate and drink with Him, let alone Him, but literally before Him, in the presence of Him. It's kind of like: "Hey, we prayed, Come Lord Jesus be our guest' didn't we?" And while they claim that the Lord taught in their streets, they don't say He taught them. That's like someone saying on Judgement Day when the door of salvation is closed forever, "Lord you must let me in. You taught from Trinity's pulpit 52 Sundays a year. You taught in our auditorium 520 hours a year."
Jesus' answer to these demands for entrance not as the insert translates it. They make it sound like the "Who's" song "Who Are You". Twice the insert translates: "I don't know you or where you come from." That makes sense doesn't it? That's why the airline club, the officer's club, and first class turn you away because they don't know you have a right to be there. They don't know you. But that's not what the Lord says. He says, "NOT (again all caps) I know you from whence you are." Or as NASB has it, "I do not know where you are from." See how much the NIV adds: "I don't know you or where you are from"? Nope, it's only about where you're from. That's what closes heaven's door. Proximity to Jesus doesn't get you in and Him not know knowing where you come from keeps you out.
"I've called you by name you are Mine," that's what Jesus says in your Baptism. He gives His Spirit of forgiveness in absolution. And He gives His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine for people to eat and drink Him. He knows all people who come from these Means of Grace. He knows all those He gave birth to by Water and the Spirit; He knows all those He has cleansed by the His Blood in Absolution; He knows all those who are one Body and Blood with Him in the Holy Communion. "I know where you're from," the Lord says. "You're from Me."
So far the screening questions are: Do you explore the abyss of the hidden God? And, On what basis do you claim salvation? The third is: Are you ignoring that salvation is now not then. Even the guy who starts this all off knew that much. He doesn't ask, "Lord are only a few people going to be saved?" He asks as the NASB has it, "Lord are there a few who are being saved?" He knows salvation is a here and now not a then and later. Do you? We've been going over this in Luke Bible class, haven't we? We've seen how the Venite we sing each First Sunday service is only part of Psalm 95. We end with verse 7 but just the first part. We chant, "For He is our God; and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand." What a great, comforting thought. We are God's people, His sheep in the nailed pierced hands of Christ. But verse 7 goes on to say, "Today if ye will hear His voice," and verse 8 completes the thought, "Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness." And the comforting Psalm 95 ends with the not so comforting thought of the Lord saying: "So I swore in My wrath, They shall never enter My rest.'"
Salvation is not an abstract thing in your future. It's here and now. Today's the day, and it is this way for all people at all times and places. In the Old Testament, that's the setting of Psalm 95, the Lord was busy gathering His flock, and how was He doing that? The same way He is now. By preaching and teaching and pointing to the Messiah. They were pointed to the Christ who was on His way. We are pointed to the Christ who has been here and completed His work. They believed that God would send His Son to take their obligation to keep the Law of God perfectly. We believe that God the Son has done that. They believed that God would send the Seed of the Women to suffer all the curses the Law pronounces against the man who sins but once. We believe that the Son of Mary was a Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, constantly shamed, guilted, punished, and cursed for us and our salvation. We believe that the Son of God and the Son of Man became sin itself and was hung on the cursed tree of the cross, so that we might go free.
"Look, look." Jesus says, "See the patriarchs and prophets in the kingdom of God. See that God did not fail to keep His promise to give them an eternal kingdom." And look it's not just them. It's like we sing in "For All the Saints": "From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host." The narrow Door who is none other than Jesus Christ is wide enough for people from all points of the compass to stream through and "take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God." The insert is being free with the translation here, but they got the point. Young's Literal Translation is spot-on: "and they shall come from east and west, and from north and south, and shall recline in the reign of God." We could go to the Book of Revelation here and to those scenes where the Church is depicted as reigning and ruling with God now, in the present, not in some distant future. But the point is, and here is a 4th screening question: Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth at the sight of this?
No, you're not. You're singing that Christmas hymn, "O that we were there; O that we were there." You are in fact relieved that though the Door is narrow in that there is no other name under heaven, not Allah, not Buddha, not Vishnu, other than Jesus Christ whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12), an uncountable number are passing through Him and they are reclining. That's where the insert rightly gets the idea of "at the feast." That's where the Proper Preface gets the idea that our Communion here is a festive Meal lauding, magnifying, and praising God's glorious name with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. Our feast is their feast, and we are overjoyed at this sight not angry, not bitter, but thankful.
You know the feeling of being the last person to make a flight? Literally the door closes behind you. Well, that's what the Gospel would leave you with today. You made the flight; the Door didn't close leaving you on the outside knocking and pleading. You're on the inside. You may have been first in line; you may have been the very last, but you're on this side of the Door of salvation. And what do they tell you regularly in the airport or sometimes on the plane about that door? Once it's shut, it won't be opened again. Of course, if you're on the outside and that was the last flight out, that's a bummer. But if you're on the plane going home, it's a comfort that there's no way for anyone to open that door and pitch you back outside. If a sinful, fallen airline, cannot do that, will not do that, let us not think our Lord, our Savior, our Redeemer, our Brother will. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20190915); Luke 13: 22-30