Staying on the Narrow Path

challenger explosion



MATTHEW 7:13-23


January 28th, 1986. Perhaps you remember the day if you are older than I am. That was the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded upon lift off. This year is the 30th anniversary of that horrible national tragedy.  The night before the launch, Bob Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA had tried to stop the launch but their managers overruled them. That night Bob told his wife Darlene,

“It’s going to blow up.”  And indeed 73 seconds after the launch the shuttle exploded. Three weeks later Ebeling would later recount to NPR anonymously ( he revealed his identity to NPR this year)  the contentious meeting he had with his managers. You see the problem was the rubber O rings around the shuttle’s boosters. The data showed that the seals wouldn’t seal properly in cold temperatures and it was in the 20’s that morning.  For some reason though NASA insisted on the launch. The space shuttle was new back then and the agency wanted to show they could launch it reliably. There were also reports that President Reagan wanted to tout the success of the launch that night at his State of the Union address. So the rules were ignored and people perished. Ebleing, retired soon after the Challenger disaster and suffered from a deep depression for the rest of his life.  Ebeling has tried to get past this traumatic event that has haunted for the last 30 years. He is a religious man and has often prayed to God about it. To quote Ebleing, “”I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling says softly. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’ ” The reporter interviewing Ebeling noted that Roger Boisjoly, another Engineer on the project and a good friend of Ebleing, thought they had done all they could.  Ebeling replied, “Maybe Roger’s right.” But it is clear from the context of the article that Ebeling will always have his doubts.

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

I think space flight is a good analogy for something that we understand about life in general but perhaps fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. The road to life is narrow and the path to destruction is wide. Some quick research I did suggests that the chances of a cargo rocket exploding are about 1 in 20 . For the Space Shuttle, which is no longer in service, the chances were about 1 in 100 that you will explode during launch . I was too young to remember the Challenger explosion but I do remember when the Space Shuttle Columbia burned up upon reentry on February 1st,  2003.  I remember the day vividly because the semester before David Brown an alumni of my Alma Mater, The College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, VA, came to speak at our campus. I remember hearing the news about the explosion and looking up at the sky realizing that a man I had seen just a couple of months before had died trying to get home.

Space flight is dangerous. Space is unforgiven. The path to success, the path to life is narrow. We know this because space flight is rather extraordinary to us. But as we grow older we also learn that the path to life is narrow and the road to destruction is wide elsewhere in life. Maybe some of us were good sons and daughters growing up and some of us were prodigals but we can all remember that fork in the road. When we were faced with choice between the right way and the easy way. Where we were faced with the choice of carrying our cross or following the path of least resistance. Maybe our conscience spoke to us and we ignored that inner voice. Maybe we were so caught up in our own darkness that the Lord handed us over to our sins and let us reap what we had sown.  I believe sin is sin in the eyes of God. We talk about some specific sexual sins being an abomination to God but the fact of the matter is all sin is an abomination to God, God makes no distinction.  But it is also true there are different consequences to our actions here on this Earth. We all make mistakes. Some mistakes are personal offenses, some sins, and some crimes. If we are lucky we get to leave our bad choices behind us. But sometimes that is not the case.  As we grow older we come to see the truth in Proverbs 16:16-17, “How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.” There is a reason that time travel is one of the most popular themes in science fiction. Because there is a basic human desire to right our wrongs. To travel back in time and punch our younger selves in the face and tell that stranger, “don’t do that stupid!”

Yes we know that there is a wide path to destruction in life but somehow the modern world has convinced us this is not so for the afterlife. We know there are natural laws and natural consequences but we think at the end of the day maybe God’s not serious about spiritual laws and spiritual consequences.  We talked a couple of weeks ago about Jesus’ warnings against sinful judgments. And often we in our sinfulness will say ,”who are you to judge? Only God can judge me.” It is true that God is the ultimate Judge and we do not have the right to condemn. But I have also found it true, at least in my own life, that when I think, “who are you to judge? Only God can judge me”, I often do so because I have a guilty conscience. That I know I am sinning I am just in denial and being defensive about it. We like to quote Jesus all day long saying, “judge not else you be judged,” and yet when we come to today’s text we are awfully silent. All this talk about narrow gates, false prophets, and lawlessness, sounds like a recipe for a witch hunt to our modern ears.  Maybe you have been the subject of unfair and unjust shame and scorn in your own life. So perhaps you can understand why we need to tread lightly in this text.  Today I want to try to answer just one question. What are the characteristics of false prophets? This will help us discern if we are being led astray.

In the Old Testament the Bible defines a false prophet as one who says something is from the Lord and what they say does not come to pass. In other words a false prophet claims to have more power than they actually do. A false prophet is also defined as someone who leads people away from the worship of the God of Israel, the one True God.  But those are not Jesus main concern in this passage.  Jesus main criteria for a false prophet or teacher in Matthew are the dual sins of legalism and lawlessness.

We talked a lot about the sin of legalism, about the nature of right judgment and sinful judgment three weeks ago when I preached on Jesus’ command to judge not else you be judge. As we learned three weeks ago to make a proper judgment we must first look at our own motivations, second recognizes that we often have limited information, third not make assumptions about people’s motivations, and finally not try to make scripture say more than they do and not take scripture out of context. Central to this idea is that the Law of God was meant to bring life to people and not death. Thus Jesus teaches us that it makes no sense to say that you can’t heal or help people on the Sabbath, on the day of rest. God wants us to make time to rest from our labor so we may worship him but that doesn’t mean neglecting the needs of others.  We can use the Challenger disaster to make an analogy for legalism. In legalism our hearts grow cold and we do not release love properly just like the O rings did not release the rocket fuel for the Challenger properly. What tends to happen is we may be able to take off but we eventually explode because we have lost our flexibility. We have lost wisdom which is the ability to apply the scriptures to particular situations in both a loving and truthful way.  Jesus often lambasted the Pharisees for being legalistic. And today many of us who don’t like the idea of anyone telling us what to do tend to gravitate towards these stories.

But Jesus says there is also another sign of a false prophet, false teacher, or a false believer. Often in the evangelicalism we have put a big emphasis on the confession that Jesus is Lord.  Indeed, in Romans 10:9 Paul tells us, “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.”  And we take this verse to mean that all we need is a little prayer and a little belief and we are good. But then Jesus brings up this lawlessness thing and that sort of rains on our cheap grace parade.  We don’t really have to quibble about what lawlessness is. The Bible tells us. In 1 John 3:4, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”  If legalism causes us to lack grace and blow up on the launch pad, lawlessness causes us to lack protection from the unholy Trinity, that being our sinful nature, the World, and the Devil, and thus we burn upon reentry. In fact, this analogy isn’t exactly correct. Because we can’t even enter his Holy Presence if we are sons and daughters of lawlessness. The point of 1 John is not that we never sin, the point is that we not make a continual practice or habit of sinning. That the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts bear fruit in our lives. Perhaps some of us are quickly maturing fruit. Perhaps others are more like the fruit of a vineyard, we take a little while to make a good wine.  But the point is that we bear fruit. As Jesus tells us in John 14 if we love him we will obey his commandments. But how can we obey Jesus if we don’t even know what the scriptures say about sexuality, wealth, power, justice, and heaven and hell? And how can we apply the scriptures if our hearts are cold and inflexible? Between legalism and lawlessness lies the narrow path, the narrow way, who is the Way, the truth and the life. So today let us follow him in the darkness and the light. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter it are many and the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and few find it.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.






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