Sunday, October 16, 2016

Strive

A couple of weeks back we had a Gospel Reading that stood out to me. You may remember it as the time when the children wanted us all to know that they have doors in their homes. It seemed good to the Spirit for me to preach on it. So, first, listen again to that Gospel Reading.

[Jesus] went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, ​“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. ​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.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ ​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. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Luke 13.22-30

Here’s Jesus traveling and teaching when someone in the crowd asks a question.

Lord, will those who are saved be few?

Here’s the first thing that I found interesting. Jesus ignores the question. Instead, He flips the question around and points it at the person who asked it along with the rest of the people there.

Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.

Do you see what Jesus is telling them? ‘Don’t worry about what will happen to other people. Look to your own soul. Be sure that you will be saved.’ I’m guessing that whoever asked the question wasn’t expecting that.

There are important things for us here. But if we’re going to grasp what Jesus is talking about we’ll need to know who He was talking to. These folk weren’t rank pagans who needed to be converted. They weren’t even your average Jewish person of the day. Jesus was talking to people who were following Him, disciples.

How do I know that? For one thing, the person who asked the question addressed Jesus as ‘Lord’. And then, did you notice that His warning is meant for those who are expecting to be welcomed by Him when it’s time to enter the kingdom? Jesus was speaking to disciples.

And that makes what He said so striking.

Strive to enter through the narrow door.

Jesus was instructing these followers of His about how to enter the kingdom. ‘You will need to work at it if you’re going to make it. You are going to have to strive.’ This stood out to me when I heard that Gospel Reading. Jesus didn’t tell them to believe. He told them to strive.

Let’s take a little time to talk about this word ‘strive’. We have an English word that is based on and actually sounds just like the Greek word here. Our word is ‘agonize’. Jesus is not telling these folk that it may take a little extra effort to enter the kingdom. He’s talking about something that is hard. So, those who will make it, who will ‘recline at table in the kingdom of God’, are those who do the hard work of getting there. They do the necessary striving. Understanding this idea of striving can be very encouraging.

Time for a question. Why is it so hard to enter? Why is striving necessary? Well, what we are striving against? It’s our sin. And sin is no pushover. Dealing with it is hard.

To really get what that means you have to have a robust understanding of what sin actually is.

The idea of sin that I grew up with was only about doing bad things. So, stealing and lying and those sorts of things were out of bounds. But if sin is merely about the things that we do, then dealing with those things isn’t really all that hard. Even evil people can make changes so that they stop stealing and lying. It doesn’t take striving for that to happen.

But what if sin goes deeper than that? What if sin is more than just our behavior?

Let me illustrate by talking about the sin that I know best - mine. Recently, the Spirit surprised me by letting me know that I sin by getting angry. I thought of it as only getting a little intense. He disagreed. So, He pointed it out to me. I saw it. And, by His grace, I told myself, ‘This getting angry has to stop.’ But how? In His kindness, the Spirit provoked a question in me. ‘Why do I get angry? Why is it that in those certain situations I erupt? What’s going on inside of me?’ And He led me to the answer. It’s my pride. I want things my way. And when they aren’t going my way, then I let someone know about it. My pride expresses itself in anger.

Now, taming an angry tongue is not actually all that difficult. A little resolve will work well enough. But transforming a proud heart - how do you do that? The striving that Jesus calls for is not just about the hot words that come out of someone’s mouth. Jesus calls for striving when it comes to changing the attitudes of the heart. A little resolve won’t cut it.

Let me pause here and go back to something I said earlier. A bit ago I said that understanding this striving, understanding the call to do some really hard work, can be encouraging. Let me explain that. I can’t help but think that there have been times when you have found yourself in a real wrestling match with some sin. You pushed it away, and it pushed back. You tried again and it’s the same story. That sin just didn’t give up. It was back and forth. And there have been times when it felt like your sin was winning. Now what? What too many tell themselves at that point goes something like this. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And doubt and guilt and discouragement take over. You’re sure that you’re a failure, and there’s just no hope.

I have something to say that is better than, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ Instead, tell yourself, ‘So, this is what Jesus meant when He talked about striving’. When you find fighting your sin to be difficult, you’re actually doing something right. You’re trying to obey Jesus, and sin is giving you a hard time. You’re striving, just like you’re supposed to. That should be encouraging. And as you keep at it, your striving will be blessed. You’re going to defeat that sin. Just keep striving.

Now, let’s get practical. We’re in a war against our sin. Jesus calls us to strive against it. What does that mean? What are we supposed to do? This is where I’m supposed to tell you that you really need to read your Bible every day so that you will be able to defeat your sins. It’s all about a quiet time or devotions or whatever you call it, right? How many times have we heard some variation on that theme? ‘Read your Bible! That will solve your problems with sin. Read it every day!’

Well, here’s an interesting thought. The Bible never teaches that as the road to victory. It never says, in effect, be sure to read your Bible every day. Daily prayer? Sure. Daily reading? Nope. It doesn’t say that. Now, I’m going to guess that some of you are thinking, ‘But what about …?’ as you think about some verse that you’ve been told proves the need for daily reading. Think carefully about that verse. It isn’t actually talking about daily Bible reading, is it?

It’s just a plain fact that the Bible never commands us to have a daily time for Bible reading. That isn’t the big weapon to defeat your sin as you strive against it. And that is actually very freeing.

So, back to our question. What are we supposed to do to strive against sin? Well, where is the stress placed when the Bible talks about maturing as a godly person, developing as someone who is doing a good job of striving against his sin?

On the day of Pentecost thousands became disciples of Jesus. How does Luke report their subsequent efforts at maturing in the faith? Listen. 

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2.42

What did they do? Scatter to their homes to read their Bibles alone? No. They got together to be taught by Peter and the others - that’s being devoted to ‘the apostles’ teaching’ - and to help each other strive - that’s being devoted to ‘the fellowship’ - along with celebrating the Lord’s Supper - that’s being devoted to ‘the breaking of bread’, all followed by being devoted to ‘the prayers’. What label should we apply to this? What were they doing? They were being a church. According to the Bible, that’s the big weapon when it comes to striving.

Let me explain why I am so concerned about this. Consider the kind of thinking that claims that daily Bible reading is the way to become mature, that this habit is the key to striving against sin and growing in godliness. This kind of thinking makes a disastrous assumption. Striving is up to me. It’s up to me to read my Bible. It’s up to me to be smart enough to know what in the world it’s talking about. It’s up to me to figure out how I’m supposed to apply it to my life. I need to get these things done and make them work. It’s all up to me. So often this kind of thinking leads to frustration, discouragement and doubt because so often it leads to failure. Or if you are able to play the game well, it leads to pride. The course of action is laid out, and it’s up to you to succeed at following it. It’s all up to you.

But the Bible’s idea of maturing so that you are able to strive against sin is based on grace. It’s not on you to get it all right. And that’s a good thing. Who gets it right all the time? Or even most of the time? Jesus knows our weakness. And so He tells us, ‘Come to Me so that I can bless you with what you need’. It’s up to Him and not us. It’s about His grace.

Consider one of the things that we have stressed here at Faith Reformed. What is happening when we get together to worship God? The goal isn’t to know the Bible better so that we each can become educated enough to know what it’s talking about and thus to figure out how to apply it and all of that. We come together to meet with God. We come to be blessed by Him. As we listen to His Word, spoken in various ways, but especially as it is preached, the Spirit is busy. He is busy doing the applying, applying His truth to our hearts. And then, He feeds our souls by the Lord’s Supper, nourishing them so that we can do better at living like Christians who strive against our sins. When we are here worshiping, the Spirit is busy changing us, little by little. And please note that the burden of creating that change is on Him not on us. It’s all about grace. We do not save ourselves from those pesky sins by what we do, including things like reading and applying our Bibles. We are saved by the grace of God that becomes ours simply by believing Him. We are saved by the grace of God that comes to us when we get together to worship Him. The striving doesn’t become easy. But the way that we go about it changes. Our hope for growth is not in what we do but in what He does. And that is very freeing.

So, do you want to obey Jesus and strive? Do you want to beat your sin? Pray about that every day and throughout each day. And then, be here on Sundays. Come to worship God. Come to enjoy the grace of the Gospel granted to us as we meet with the God of all grace.

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