The Choice is Yours

Matthew 7:13-29

Large yellow arrow on the ground, with two feet in tennis shoes, the word "Follow" superimposed on the image.

This is our final week in our Lenten study of Jesus Sermon on the Mount. Throughout his ministry, Jesus invites ordinary people to follow him. Then in the Sermon on the Mount he clearly lays out how to follow him: embracing countercultural values, responding nonviolently in all situations, and radically trusting that God’s love will prevail. This morning he will bring all his teaching together into some categories that I personally find very challenging. As always, I invite you to listen his words, notice any patters, and pay attention to what stands out to you. Our reading this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, verses 13 through 29. Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God. 

“Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’

“Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Now when Jesus had finished saying these words, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

When I was growing up, I was always very careful to never even think that I didn’t want to be a foreign missionary. Because somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that God’s will for me would be whatever I least wanted to do. So if I didn’t actively say or even think, “I really don’t want to do THAT” then maybe God wouldn’t ask me to do it. I thought what God really wanted from me would be hard for me, something that felt like deep sacrifice, and so I tried not to actively resist anything from God. Messed up, I know. But maybe familiar to some of you based on your own religious upbringing. 

I also grew up as a very black and white, either/or, thinker. In my weakest moments, when I’m most uncertain or scared, that’s still how I think. But in general, I’m a third way kind of person, someone who acknowledges a lot of gray areas and tries to make a lot of room. And so, honestly, my friends, I really struggled with these words of Jesus. Because he only gives two options. Narrow and hard or wide and easy. Good fruit or bad fruit. Followers or evildoers. Wise or foolish. So I was preparing to bring this text to you this morning, I spent a good amount of time wrestling with my challenging interpretation. Here’s the conclusion I reached, and some of you will reach a different conclusion based on your own reason and experience, but here’s what I think: Jesus is right. There are two ways to live in the world: God’s way, or not God’s way. And every one of us has to choose.

Now obviously, such a statement is going to require some unpacking. And it requires unpacking because everything is interpretation. We have the Bible, the words on the page, but there is no such thing as a plain meaning that everyone has to agree on. There’s a lot of room in the Bible, but it doesn’t say whatever we want. We can study the words and try to understand them better, but we can’t say “hot” means “cold.” There are guardrails, we have to wrestle with the words as they are, but between those guardrails there’s a lot of room for interpretations.

And yet, ultimately, there are only two ways to live in the world and each of us has to choose. I personally can’t get anything other than that from what Jesus says here. And that’s really hard for me. It’s something that I’ve been wrestling with all through Lent this year. What I gave up for Lent was buying anything that could wait. If it wasn’t essential, I didn’t get it. But really, because of how this season has been for me, that hasn’t been much of a discipline. Our Lent Lunch conversation on fasting a couple weeks ago really got me thinking about how much, or I should say, how little time I actually spend disciplining, or shaping, my spirit by controlling my body and my habits. It’s just so easy NOT to do it.

And that’s what I think Jesus is talking about here. The wide gate and the easy road are … easy. That’s why lots of folks go that way. But it doesn’t go anywhere good. It’s the narrow gate and the hard road that lead to life. Life. Goodness. Wholeness. Shalom. Fulfillment. Peace. Not easy, but good, and right. And this is usually where a preacher will give you a list of culturally-rooted behaviors that you are not supposed to do if you want to get through the narrow gate (don’t drink, don’t smoke, and so on). The list of don’ts is different depending on where you live and what kind of church you go to. 

The problem with that is it doesn’t seem to track with what Jesus said. Jesus list of don’ts (he does have some) and dos is focused on some universal human behaviors. To follow Jesus, to enter through the narrow gate and take the harder road, we have to resist our impulse to get angry and insult people, we have to initiate reconciliation, we have to not look at others with lust, we have to keep our commitments, we have to respond nonviolently, we have to love our enemies, we have to be charitable and prayerful and fast, not so other people see us, but because it draws us closer to God, we have to be generous and resist the temptation to hoard, we have to trust God more than we trust our own earning potential, we have to not worry about tomorrow, we have to not judge, we have to be discerning, and we have to do to others what we would have them do to us. Whew. Is that a narrow gate? Yes. Is that a hard road? Yes. It requires discipline. Deprivation? No. Discipline? Yes. A life of discipline.

And Jesus says that we cannot brute force our way through that life. It must grow from within us, as we follow him. We follow Jesus because he sees us. He calls us, personally, individually, he sees exactly where you are and speaks your name. Jesus chooses you because he loves you and sees your potential. He calls you to follow him, and as we do, his life begins to grow in us. We bear good fruit. Following Jesus, walking along the narrow path that he lays out in the Sermon on the Mount, is what it means to do the will of God. 

Not everyone who claims the name of Jesus is actually a follower of Jesus. In these verses he says people can do great deeds of power, actually do them, and do them in the name of Jesus, and not be doing God’s will. Prophesying, casting out demons, doing deeds of power (or miracles) those are good things, things that Jesus actually tells and empowers the apostles to do. But a life of following Jesus is not about those things primarily. It’s about our attitudes and actions, loving our enemies and not worrying. Remember, it’s not about looking good in front of other people, or doing stuff that gets noticed. Doing the will of God on earth as it’s done in heaven is about our day-in-day-out choices. It’s a narrow way, and we have to deliberately choose it because Jesus has called us.

Finally, Jesus shares what the results of these choices will be. Following the narrow path, doing the will of God, is like building a house on a firm foundation, on rock. The easy path is like building a house on sand. In Palestine, there’s a distinctly dry season and a distinctly wet season. And during the dry season, all of the ground gets very hard. So hard that you could mistake sand for rock. When we take the wide gate and the easy way, sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s not such a big deal. That as long as we are generally “good people,” there’s not too big a difference between God’s way and the world’s way. We can say, “This ground looks pretty firm, I’m sure it will be fine.” The problem is, beloved ones, the storms are coming. Storms will come. They will come to everyone. None of us escape the storms of this life. And when the storms come, ground that looked firm when the sun was out suddenly gets very shaky. 

Throughout this section, Jesus is saying that just looking good isn’t enough to experience abundant life. The road may look easy, but it doesn’t lead anywhere good. The tree may look healthy, but it doesn’t bear good fruit. The Christian may look flashy, but it doesn’t mean they’re doing God’s will. The ground may look firm, but it doesn’t support you when the storms come. Jesus isn’t interested in our looking good. He’s interested in our being good. And not like sugary-sweet “good” but deeply good, rooted, whole, mature, confident, humble. Not so we can go to heaven, but so that, when the storms come, we can weather them with grace and trust. That’s what it means to do God’s will. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. In this last week of Lent, may we all take Jesus’ invitation deeply into our hearts. Amen.  

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