The church where I worship is going through Matthew’s Gospel at the moment (though not quite in line with the lectionary), and I preached yesterday. As is my custom, I thought I’d reproduce it here for your amusement. Interestingly (perhaps), while preparing the sermon, I came across two things that could be filed under ‘weird Christian beliefs’: grave sucking and the Kansas City Chiefs revival prophecy. So even though I’m far from convinced my sermon constitutes a landmark moment in homiletical insight, at least part of the message I tried to convey surely remains valid.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 7:13-27
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut 30:19)
These words come towards the end of Moses’s long speech to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land. Moses has just reminded them of everything that had happened since the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt. Moses has also outlined the various decrees and laws the Lord has given them to live by. By living according to these decrees and laws, the Israelites would mark themselves out as the Lord’s people. All the nearby nations would see how the Israelites lived and know that the Lord lived with them. It wouldn’t be easy to live according to the Lord’s decrees and laws, of course, but neither would it be impossible. What the people of Israel needed to know and believe and accept was that loving the Lord and obeying the Lord’s commandments meant life. ‘Choose life,’ said Moses. ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’
Fifteen hundred years or so later, we see in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is doing pretty much the same thing as Moses. Jesus has been speaking to his disciples and the crowds, teaching them the meaning of the law and the prophets, and raising the bar for life as God’s people. In our reading from Matthew today, we join Jesus as he wraps up his talk. ‘Enter through the narrow gate,’ he says. Hear the echo: ‘Choose life,’ says Moses; ‘Enter,’ says Jesus; ‘enter through the narrow gate, the gate that leads to life.’
This isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind . . .
Nonetheless, the journey is worth it. We have entered through the narrow gate, and we are on the road, because by God’s Holy Spirit we know and believe and accept that this is the way, the only way, to find the life God has promised—the life of the age to come, the kingdom of heaven.
But why is the road to life so hard? The obvious thing to say here is that this road is simply not as accessible or as well travelled as the other road, the wider road that leads to destruction. However, Jesus also warns us of roadblocks or dead ends along the way that may prevent us from ever reaching the destination: false prophets. Verse fifteen: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’
What is a false prophet? Jesus doesn’t tell us; and if he has anyone in mind, he certainly isn’t naming names. But when Jesus refers to false prophets again later in Matthew’s Gospel, he suggests that these are people who somehow mislead and deceive God’s people, causing us to lose our way. False prophets mislead God’s people, telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. False prophets tell us that there are shortcuts on the road to life, that the road is actually not all that difficult to drive on, that we can improve our performance and streak ahead. False prophets tell us that the road should be smooth and the journey plain sailing, and that any potholes we hit is due to our own dangerous or careless driving. False prophets tell us that getting to the destination isn’t that important—what really matters is the journey itself.
But Jesus says the destination is important and the road hard.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell us to go hunting for false prophets but just to look out for them. They can be recognised by their fruits. Notice, too, that Jesus doesn’t tell us to judge them or condemn them. Verses twenty-one to twenty-three say that the judgement of false prophets is Jesus’s responsibility. We are to look out for false prophets by discerning their bad fruits, but only the Lord can make that final judgement where he says to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
So what are we to make of all this?
First of all, we need to look out for anyone who wants to push us off the road to life through deception and half-truths. But the way to discern when someone is nudging or shoving us off the road is to know how the road is marked out and where the road finishes—and as clichéd as it sounds, we know this through reading the Bible, through meeting together, and through understanding what is central to the Christian faith. When we don’t know what the Bible says or how to read it well, or when we don’t know what the Christian faith teaches or why some of its more technical ideas matter, we will be open to all kinds of deception and half-truths that could block us on the road to life, or even knock us off it for good.
Second, if it’s fair to say that false prophets are those who mislead God’s people into thinking that the road to life is smooth and scenic, then it is also fair to say that we have a tendency to mislead ourselves into thinking that the road to life is smooth and scenic. We can trick ourselves into thinking that Christianity is little more than a moral framework or a system of ethics, no better and no worse than any other way of living a good life. But if we treat Christianity in this sort of way, rather than as a faith commitment to the risen Jesus, who is Lord over all, then it is possible that we have become the false prophets Jesus warned us about.
Let me be clear: Jesus isn’t warning us about false prophets to show us how gullible or how prone to self-deception we can be. Nor is Jesus intending for us to worry that he will deny knowing us on the day of judgement and toss us away. Remember Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans: ‘There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1). No, Jesus’s point, as verses twenty-four to twenty-seven show us, is to encourage us—to encourage us to hear his words and to act on them; and in doing so, we will withstand the coming storm of judgement.
And so this is what it all comes down to: hearing what Jesus says and obeying his commands. The way not to be deceived by false prophets is to hear what Jesus says and obey his commands. The way not to deceive ourselves is to hear what Jesus says and obey his commands.
Is it all really this simple? Yes . . . and no! The message is simple, but its outworking difficult. Jesus says the road to life is hard; life as a Christian is hard; Christian discipleship is hard. Anyone who tries to tell us otherwise is, frankly, misguided or even deluded. But as hard as the Christian life can be, remember: this is the road that leads to the life of the age to come—and one day, driven by God’s Spirit, we will arrive at the destination that God in Christ has secured for us, if we are brave enough and faithful enough to act on Jesus’s words.
So if you have entered through the narrow gate, if you are travelling on this hardest of roads, then you have chosen well, for you have chosen life!