Jesus fields a question about what happens to people when they die. It’s a theology question. About other people. Jesus’ answer burns away the arm’s-length safety of the question and reframes it in a way we can’t ignore. Instead of answering “How many will go to heaven when they die?” Jesus requires each of us to ask, “Will I go to heaven when I die?”
Everybody dies. The door to heaven is narrow. We all live on in eternity, but not everyone will be in heaven with God, enjoying His favor forever. If you hope to make it into the Kingdom of God – through the narrow door – you must enter alone before God. We come one at a time.
What about you? Here is the GOOD NEWS. There is a Door. And it’s still open. Right now.
>> This message is found in Luke 13:22-30. You can read it online here.
That being said, AWANA shouldn’t have tried so hard to break me. I was only 10. I wasn’t cut out for this.
We did some cool stuff, for sure. There was the day we broke the world’s record for the longest banana split, laid out in the church fellowship hall like a long snake made out of PVC pipe halves and aluminum foil. Hundreds of gallons of ice cream. A truck full of bananas. Hershey’s syrup in gallon jugs. Whipped cream and cherries. Good times.
I also remember the relay race where we were given straws, and told to run the full length of the gym to a 2 liter bottle of A&W Root Beer sitting at the other end. We were supposed to drink it as fast as we could through the straw we had been given, and then sprint back to our sweaty, belching elementary school aged teammates at the other end. Do you know what happens when you sprint 94 feet, slam a bottle of A&W in 14 seconds of frenzied frothy sucking, and then run BACK across those 94 feet? Three things are a certainty… (1) You will have root beer in your sinuses. It has to go somewhere. This will make you sneeze, which will hose anyone in the vicinity with a sharp spray of carbonated snot. (2) You will belch. Long, sonorous, resonant belches that will echo off the walls of said gymnasium with an echoey fortitude that should garner the respect of any 7th grade boy. Unfortunately, you will be surrounded by 74 other elementary students of both genders whose own fortuituos uncontrolled belching will drown out the magnificence of your own. Add to that the sound of all the 3rd and 4th grade girls who are crying because they have root beer in their sinuses, and you have a cacophony through which the most violent of belches has trouble being singled out. (3) Bloating. Enough said.
So that was awesome. High fives all around to the dudes who thought up that relay race. Good times.
But the bulk of my memories from my days in AWANA are more sinister in nature. I still break a cold sweat when I hear a coach’s whistle blow. Sure, they sold it to us as a “game.” Sure, it was supposed to be “fun.” But it was genius in its calculated simplicity. Profound in its energy-quelling capability. Rendering us limp and compliant, it became the favorite “warm-up activity” for all of our bible coaches. Perhaps you, too, have been subjected to its soul-crushing efficiency? Many of you former Puggles and Cubbies and Sparks know EXACTLY what I’m talking about…
The Circle. *ominous tones here*
Basically, four students are fitted with flags hanging from a belt around their waist. They are squared off at a co-equal distance from one another at four points around a large circle on the floor. There they wait. Breathing heavily. Dreading the sharp blast of the coach’s whistle that will signal the start of their Ordeal. The running of the proverbial gauntlet.
A clock ticks. Somewhere overhead, the distant screech of a bird of prey. Muscles quiver. A whistle pieces the silence. It has begun.
What follows is basically 12 minutes of sprinting. The goal is simple… be the last guy with a flag still attached to your belt. We set off at a dead run, counterclockwise, scrambling and striving to grab the flag of the poor victim in front of us. Meanwhile, we are being chased from behind from the captain of the track team. I mean, if there were 3rd and 4th grade track teams… that’s who is behind you. This is not a game of wolves chasing geese. Oh no. This is a game of wolves chasing more wolves. Carnivorous, snarling, hungry wolves. Wolves scraping and clawing at that little red flag hanging from your belt, like the last vestige of your dignity. The physical manifestation of your athletic prowess.
I hated the circle.
We played this game for 45 minutes. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. All roads leading to fail.
So this is coming to mind now as I start my Seminary year because I’ve been reminded again of a core, absolute, life-changing truth about the Gospel that I will give my life for.
Jesus comes to us.
Let’s make the AWANA Circle of Pain a picture of spiritual well-being. It’s a giant circle, with all of your friends and family and preachers and teachers and youth group leaders and your brother who is agnostic. They are all lined up around that circle ready to run – to prove their worth in the spiritual arena. Except for your agnostic brother, of course. He’s just siting there in the path – he’ll probably trip up a number of those who try to run by. But everyone is there. Breathing hard. Clock ticking. Waiting for Jesus to blow His whistle. Ready to run to protect their flags – the true measure of our spiritual wellness in America. The flag that shows everyone that we’re just as spiritual as the next guy. We try just as hard as the guy in front of us. At least we’re not like that guy behind us, struggling to catch up. Everyone is getting tired, sure. We’re exhausted. But we can’t lose our flag. We can’t show everyone our weakness. Got to run a little harder. Catch the guy ahead. Try harder. Strive. More.
Hear this. If you don’t know Jesus yet – really know Him – then don’t think this is what the Christian life is all about. As if we all are measured against the morality norm of the church culture. As if we have to run the race like we’re trying to beat the saints alongside of us. As if its all about us doing this thing we have to do.
And if you DO know Jesus, you may need to remember this… it’s time to give up. Get out of the circle. The standard is not whether or not you maintain your flag anymore. You have no flag. Jesus took your flag with him to the cross. In this race, you don’t compete against men. Your standard is perfection. The goal is unattainable perfect holiness. You can’t win. It’s too hard. It’s actually impossible.
Jesus comes to us.
The measure of our worthiness has nothing – nothing – NOTHING to do with how fast we run the race. We don’t need to try to catch up to the spiritual superstars running ahead. We don’t need to fear the jaws snapping from behind.
Jesus brings rest. Jesus brings life. Jesus gives you an identity, a hope, a future. Jesus ran the gauntlet in your place. By His stripes – not your striving – you are healed.
AWANA leaders, hear me now. You have my sincere thanks for the Bible lessons. Thanks for the ice cream. Thanks, too, for the uncontrollable belching and sinus headache. But you did not break me. You and your circle of shame. A substitute has stepped forward to take my place. I see him over there walking the circle – talking to everyone by name – collecting their flags. The scramble is over. I’m not running anymore, always struggling to maintain position, and never reaching the goal. It’s over.
One of the responses I got was so well communicated, I thought it deserved to be dragged out from “comment #27” status and given it’s own place of prominence as a new post. What you see below is that response from my good friend and pastor Wade Mobley. He is a great student of the Word, a powerful communicator, and a close friend. If after reading the post below you want to hear more from Wade, you can find his blog here. As you can see, we’re both reposting this for our readers. I think it’s deeply important. Thanks Wade for your thoughts here and your steady encouragement to me!
From Pastor Wade…
This is absolutely essential. It is “hermeneutics,” or the right understanding of God’s Word.
Short answer: The Bible is basically about Jesus and what He has done.
Longer answer: You have tension because there is more to the story- the Bible is basically about the Living God (including Who He is and what He has done in the Messiah) and how He interacts with the pinnacle of His creation, man (He didn’t reveal Himself to rocks/trees/animals, but precious, eternal human souls).
Sufficient (I think) answer: Theology (by definition) is a word about God, not a word about man. But theology for the sake of theology is theology misused. God revealed this word about Himself to mankind. In it we see His character, and by contrast our character. We read what God demands (His perfect law obeyed and fulfilled, His character affirmed by our thoughts words and deeds) and what God has done in the Messiah (the substitutionary atonement of Christ).
There are two sides to the truth of the Gospel: Objective and subjective. Objective asks “What happened and did it happen?” Subjective asks “Do I trust in what happened?” Jesus, to Martha, asked similarly in John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life…” (Objective). “Do you believe this?” (Subjective).
The job of a sermon (or your job in your own Bible reading) is to look at the God’s Word objectively and apply it (which is subjective). Note how I am using these terms: Subjective does not mean that truth is defined by the one to whom it is being applied.
Handling God’s Word Objectively: The pastor/expositor/theologian must first of all be faithful in “handling accurately the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). To do so you must observe the content and interpret it rightly:
Content: What does God say in His Word? Read it. If you know languages you can dig into terms by definition. But primarily your job is to read it. Use a version of the Bible that is farther to the translation end of the translation/paraphrase spectrum. Read it. Savor it. Enjoy it. Accept it as your authority- the voice of what you will preach. You know you have crossed the line when you are looking for a text to say what you already know you want to teach your congregation. Or praying, “God, please give me a good text to go with that illustration.”
Interpretation: What does God mean when He says this? Note: If this doesn’t match what you learned as you looked at the content, you are erring. But now is the time to look at historical settings, and term definitions, etc. Are there promises made? To whom? Why? Have I believed novel interpretations that turn place names into prophetic statements, when all the author really meant was to give a place name? Am I interpreting allegorically when all the author wrote was history? Remember to allow the text to speak- to you and your congregation- louder than the commentators.
Souls are stumbled when we do interpretation in the place of content, much like the serpent in the Garden: “Has God really said?” In our desire to apply the text to the precious eternal human souls in our care, we often rush to application. We want to “be relevant” after all. But you will do well to establish what the text says and means before you apply it. Otherwise you are the clothier who only sells one size of suit; or the carpenter who only has a hammer- so all he sees is nails.
Then you can get subjective:
Application- How does this word of God apply to my life? It is true: God’s Holy Spirit will do the applying. I am constantly surprised by what people say they got out of my messages. Sure, the text wasn’t about adultery, but the adulterer will be convicted of adultery when confronted with the character of God.
And while I affirm that the Holy Spirit of God is the primary applier of God’s Word, as my history prof Charles Aling said, “God spoke to man, not poached eggs.” It is entirely appropriate, in speaking or in private devotion to ask a respectful “So what?” of the Living God. So much of Scripture is God applying His Word to mankind, the pinnacle of His creation. You aren’t really preaching the Gospel if it is only unapplied fact- or, as my seminary prof Phil Haugen used to say, “Men, in a sense, if you preach the Gospel as potential, you aren’t really preaching the Gospel, are you?”
The Gospel: The Gospel, the “good news” of God, is a broad term. I think some of your tension comes from an imprecise use.
In the sense that God’s character and work (you cannot separate these) is good news, every message is a Gospel message.
In the sense that the Gospel- what God has done for us in Christ- is where the Law of God drives us, giving us a way to be saved from God’s righteous wrath, every message must be a Gospel message.
But I am guessing you mean a Gospel message, as in, does every message include a call to personal repentance and faith? I say “no.” I especially think this is the case if you think some particular external call/response is necessary to truly facilitate such a response. I choose to present the way of salvation in short form (hopefully not perfunctory) in most every message- what if they get hit by a train on the way home? But if Scripture truly is Christocentric every message really does point to the cross in some way, shape or form. It is our job to show people God’s character in His Word, help them see their need in contrast, then to grab them by the hand and run to the cross. We preach the law with no way out and the Gospel with no strings attached. We show them Jesus. He is not an emotion or a caricature of “niceness,” but a person of the Godhead by whom God accomplished our redemption at the cross.
In Conclusion: Souls are stumbled when we do not allow God’s Word to speak. We must start with content, even if our message is topical or textual instead of expository. Regardless of your creed, people will know if you trust the Word of God by whether or not you allow it to be your authority. Pulpits are filled with men who say they believe the Bible is the inspired/infallible/inerrant authority, but use it only like a national anthem to introduce their message or a canvas on which they paint their own insights. Every lie is a form of “Has God really said?” Never listen to talking snakes- especially when they disagree with God.
Souls are stumbled when we allow application to poison interpretation, much like the relativist who says, “This is what God’s word means to me” instead of allowing it to stand, then apply to his/her life. We do this for our listeners when we fail to let God work on us before presenting what He says in His Word. My pastor from youth- Brian Pearson- used to say, “A message prepared in the head reaches the head; a message prepared in the heart reaches the heart.”
Souls are stumbled when we get content and interpretation right… and fail to apply the text to our listeners. If God is who He says He is, and we are who He says we are, and Christ did what God said He did, we have no boring mantra to recite, but an urgent message to save the souls of men. Paraphrasing Haddon Robinson, it is a sin to bore your listeners with so grand a subject as the Living God.