God or Not God

[The following is the text of a sermon preached in our church on Sunday 19th May 2019]

God, or not God: Matthew 7:13-14

Banners and Standards

Have you seen movies where troops are led into battle by someone holding a flag?

Perhaps these movies are set during the times of the Roman Empire or during the American Civil War. The flags they bore were known as the standard. This person carrying the flag or the standard was the standard bearer.

The standard was a symbol of allegiance and presence. It was defended with pride and honour. During a battle you may become disoriented and separated from your regiment so you would look for your standard and make your way towards that point. It was the rallying point for troops. The commanding officer of the regiment would generally be located near the standard. And if your standard was still visible, it meant you were still in the battle!

During the Roman Empire the standard was also used to signal tactics to the troops of the regiment by being waved or pointed in particular directions.

This idea of the standard and the standard-bearer in land-based battle is akin to the idea of colours in naval warfare. Have you heard the expression to “nail your colours to the mast”? Sailing ships, battle ships would always display a flag showing their colours or standard. During battles the enemy would fire their cannons at the masts to immobilise the ship. Once all of the masts were destroyed the captain usually had no choice but to surrender and that would be done by lowering the colours or what was left of them.

But in the battle of Camperdown between the English and Dutch in 1797 the English fleet was led by Admiral Duncan on the Venerable. Their mainmast was struck and the standard fell. That could have been interpreted by the rest of the fleet as surrender so a man by the name of Jack Crawford grabbed the standard, climbed what was left of the mast and nailed the colours to the mast.

Admiral Duncan’s forces were eventually victorious, and Jack Crawford was declared a national hero.1

From shortly after that time, the phrase “to nail your colours to the mast” became an indication of absolute loyalty and dedication to remain in the battle until the end. There is no option of surrender because the colours, the standard is nailed in place.

I want to talk a little today about our banner, our colours, our standard and the choices we have.

Heaven and Hell – A Recap

We’ve been spending some time in recent weeks considering heaven and hell. We’ve been focusing much more on the heaven side of that equation and will be speaking more on hell in the coming couple of weeks. Today is something of a transition.

Three weeks ago Mark announced that we would not be spending our eternity in heaven. Indeed this is born out in Scripture for Revelation 21 speaks of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven and the Lord making his dwelling place with us. So our final destiny is not with God in heaven, but here on a new earth with God making his dwelling with us.

He comes to us, as Jesus did, to redeem and restore.

And two weeks ago Mark spoke of our dwelling places in this new earth basically being made with the resources we’ve sent on ahead. He spoke of a Korean pastor who had visions of heaven and hell who was shocked at the measly house that was being constructed for him. The reason was because he was seeking his reward on earth and little of his efforts on earth were contributing to the Kingdom of God.

So we are continuing this look at heaven and hell. I’ll be focusing more on the journey and the choices we make that lead to those destinations. We’ll do that predominantly by spending time considering some of Jesus’ words.

Wide and narrow gates and paths

The first place I’d like us to go is to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 7. These verses come from the Sermon on the Mount. This collection of sayings, teaching and parables is long held as being the definitive teaching of Jesus on Kingdom living. It has been variously described as “The Manifesto of the King” and “The Magna Carta of the Kingdom of Heaven”.

It sets out Kingdom principles beginning with the Beatitudes. It includes the Lord’s Prayer and includes many verses that have been memorised and recited by believers and non-believers alike for two thousand years. These include the so-called Golden Rule and the now-almost-weaponised phrase “judge not, lest you be judged”.

So what we’re reading and will shortly consider is part of Jesus’ manifesto, if you like, for bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Let me read from Matthew 7:13-14. I’ll be reading from the New King James Version:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide [is] the gate and broad [is] the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. “Because narrow [is] the gate and difficult [is] the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

We start with a command or exhortation: “enter by the narrow gate”. Jesus then goes on to describe the wide gate and its pathway and destination then contrasts that with the narrow gate and its characteristics and destination.

The Wide Gate and Broad Way

Of the wide gate Jesus says, “wide [is] the gate and broad [is] the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it”.

When preparing for this sermon I saw something in this text that I had never specifically noticed before. The width of the road beyond the gate matches the width of the gate itself. Jesus speaks of a wide gate and a broad way. This wide gate continues in its width as a broad way. It’s not as if the wide gate leads to a narrow way that forces people into adopting particular views. It’s not as if all are initially welcomed but then expected to conform to a set of doctrines or dogma.

The gate is wide. It is flat and spread out. The gate is easily found and readily accessible. This path is welcoming. It is inviting, broad, expansive, non-judgemental and not discerning. (I make it sound so attractive - no wonder so many people go in by it.) It is so inclusive and embracing that all are welcomed and all can be accommodated on its broad swathes.

We’ve seen something of the breadth and inclusiveness of this gate and path in recent years in Australia. The debate about same sex marriage saw many people discard other philosophical differences to join forces against Christianity and heterosexual norms. Many Christians were vilified and accused of bigotry and hate speech. We were told that “love is love” but we know that’s not true.

The other day I heard a quote from George Orwell who once wrote, “The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.” We are well on that way!

I find it fascinating that the flag or the standard that has been adopted by the LGBT movement is the rainbow flag. They have adapted as their flag a sign from God given after the world was destroyed by flood.

What was given as the remembrance of a promise from God has attempted to be assumed by others as a symbol of freedom and rebellion against God’s commands. This was exactly why the flood was necessary in the days of Noah. Genesis 6:5 says, “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth”.

A few weeks ago Mark made reference to Israel Folau. And Israel has been much in the news recently.

We’ve seen a similar response to his Instagram post as was the case for Margaret Court during the same-sex marriage debate. He and those who have stood with him have been accused of bigotry and hate speech and vilification. But the reality is that warning people of God’s impending judgement is anything but hateful. Warning people of a judgement they are bringing on themselves is indeed one of the most loving acts we can bestow.

One thing among many that has been missed during this debate is that the Bible verse captures all of humanity. The emphasis has been on homosexuality, but every one in this room has lied, stolen and been an idolater at some stage in our lives. The warning in Israel’s post is a warning to all. Each of us deserves hell, but it is only by the love and grace of God and our belief and repentance that we are redeemed and delivered from that.

Many people say that expressing this biblical views is not Christian, that it’s not something Jesus would have said. But it is exactly what he said to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” He didn’t condemn, but he did warn - “go and sin no more”.

The woman’s behaviour wasn’t acceptable. It wasn’t God’s design or best purpose for her, or for the man presumably caught with her of whom nothing more is said. And indeed accusation and condemnation weren’t the best actions for the stone-cradling crowds.

Jesus didn’t condemn, he offered an alternative. He offered God’s best which is grace and mercy when we recognise our sin, repent of it, confess it and believe.

And so there is a wide gate and broad way that is welcoming and accommodating of every type of belief and lifestyle. The travelling is easy. But what of the destination? What is the end point of that journey through the wide gate and broad way? As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13 it is, “the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.”

This “destruction” in verse 13 can be understood as total destruction, but the intent is more likely that it is the destruction of all we hold dear. It is best interpreted as to suffer complete loss and ruin. Perdition is a somewhat old-fashioned alternative word that conveys the same meaning.

So why would I talk in terms of loss and ruin rather than hell? Because I think the word “hell” has lost some of its impact and significance these days. People treat it like a joke saying things like all their friends will be there and they’ll be partying 24-7. But absolute, total and permanent loss is no party and no joke.

The Narrow Gate and Difficult Way

But there is another way. We’ve already touched on it in talking about John 8. Let me reread Matthew 7:14:

“Because narrow [is] the gate and difficult [is] the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Elsewhere in Scripture we read that Jesus is both the gate (John 10:7) and the Way (John 14:6).

This way, the Jesus way, the Jesus path is both a narrow gate and a difficult way. Again, the width of the gate indicates the difficulty of the path ahead. The path is as narrow as the gate. It’s not as if one needs to hold to a certain form of beliefs to be accepted into the kingdom and then be able to discard those beliefs and embrace a wider philosophy or theology. The narrow path matches the narrow gate.

Elsewhere we read that the path is straight. So what sorts of difficulties do we encounter on this straight but difficult path? We all have our stories, our encounters, our experiences of difficulty in following Jesus. Distractions, trials, temptations, failures, poor choices, significant consequences, an adversary who reminds us of failure.

But this should come as no surprise for Jesus said his followers would have troubles and persecution and trials along the way. The second half of John 16:33 reads:

“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

And the reward is life – both eternal and abundant – abundantly eternal, and eternally abundant.

There is an interesting parallel passage to Matthew 7 found in Luke 13:24 where we read:

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.

That is an interesting view compared to Jesus’ words in Matthew. It is the same teaching seen from a different angle. “Many will seek to enter and will not be able”. What I believe this means is that people will believe there are many routes to heaven, many ways, through good works, or other religions. Many will strive, make some effort, try some alternatives, seek other gods, but those ways do not lead to God and will not lead to heaven.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Analogies - contrasts between heaven and hell

We’ve spent some time considering the wide and narrow gates and their paths and their destinations.

I want to spend time looking at some more contrasts in Scripture. I don’t want to spend too long on each but simply read what the Kingdom of God offers contrasted to the kingdom of darkness:

  • Deuteronomy 30:19 Moses speaks of blessing or cursing.
  • In that same verse we read of Moses presenting the choice of life or death.
  • We’ve spoken a little of heaven or hell.
  • Isaiah 5:20 makes reference to good and evil; to light and dark; to sweet and bitter.
  • In Galatians much of Paul’s argument revolves around freedom contrasted to slavery.
  • A deal of Paul’s writings also draw significant contrast between spirit or flesh.
  • Submission or rebellion
  • Worthy or unworthy
  • Truth or deceit

But each of these contrasts only point to a greater choice. The only choice is God, or not God. Our Father God, the Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit need to be our first choice. The other characteristics or attributes are manifested and flow as we grow in grace and faith and understanding of Scripture.

The world, the flesh and the devil would have us believe the choices are similar – that there is little difference between the flags or standards or banners or colours of the Kingdom of God compared to the kingdom of darkness. The deceiver would say that choosing rebellion is true freedom rather than stuffy rules.

The world challenges us to prefer to party with our friends in hell rather than sit on a cloud playing a harp for ever. But that is deception. Each choice of the evil one, or each choice of not God is choosing darkness and deceit and lies and eventually death and hell and total, absolute, permanent loss.

The choices are not even close. satan’s banner is a lie. It paints a false picture with a false promise and billions fall for it. The pictures on that postcard are nothing like the reality.

The real choice is, in fact, the most opposite that any choice could be. The devil would have us think the choices are similar and the destinations close. But he is a liar and the father of lies.

In the end it is the same question and the same issue we are considering. Who will bend their knee and their will to believe in the Lord Jesus, and to confess their sin and repent or turn from it. God or not God.

I get the sense that many churches and many believers think we’re doing God a favour by believing in him. Many think God can’t live without us and so we deign to grace him with our belief, with our faith, with our presence – when we feel like it.

Friends, that’s not how things are. The trinitarian God is self-reliant and self-sufficient. It is not from need that he sent his Son to live and die for us. He did that for love. He is pure and perfect and he wants to share that with his creation. He wants us to participate in the joy and pleasure of his creation, creativity and love.

Choosing a banner

So how does one choose heaven over hell? You need to make make the right choices. But to do that you need to know what the choices are and how choices are made.

Some think the choice is made simply by doing more good things than bad – that God will weigh up the good against the bad and go with the majority.

Others seem to think God will allow them into heaven because they’re a nice person – and certainly better than Hitler, or your least-favourite politician of choice, or that person down the road.

Many, I suspect, don’t give it much sensible thought – instead hoping for the opportunity for a deathbed confession.

Most simply don’t make a choice, and by not making a choice, you’re making a choice. And that is the great deception of the evil one. He has painted the Lord as the killjoy, as one who takes away our freedom, takes away our choices, takes away the fun stuff from life.

Heaven or hell are reflections of choice. They are standards or banners under which people choose to live and die. But satan’s banner is not true. It presents freedom, but choosing that banner is choosing slavery to sin.

We see something of this choice in Exodus 17:15 when Israel was battling the Amalekites. If Moses kept his arms raised Israel prevailed, but as he grew tired and lowered his arms Amalek prevailed. Joshua and Hur sat Moses on a stone and stood beside him holding his arms up. Israel won that battle and Moses built an altar called Jehovah-Nissi – The Lord is my Banner.

I’ve said it a couple of times: The real choice is not so much heaven or hell, as God or not God. And that, I believe is the real and only choice we need make.

My Banner Is Clear

I’d like to finish by reading a statement I came across a number of years ago by an African pastor where he declares his standard and nails his colours to the mast:

I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power, my die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I’m a disciple of Jesus. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, my future is secure. I’m finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals. I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, or rewarded. I now live by faith, lean on His presence, walk by patience, am uplifted by prayer, and labor by power. My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions are few, my Guide is reliable, and my mission is clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, preached up for the cause of Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me. And when He comes for His own, He will have no problem recognizing me-my banner will be clear.2

May our banners be as clear. Amen.