Small numbers and insurmountable odds… On one hand that equation sits at the heart of many of the stories, real and mythical, that fascinate us… King Leonidas and the 300 Spartan warriors hold back the Persian army in the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. In the 2006 film about it that imbalance is picked up in the first battle scene when the ground shakes and rocks roll down the steep side of the ravine, to the feet of the soldiers, and one soldier says to Leonidas “earthquake?” to which he replies “No battle formations”. How about remember the Alamo! Winston Churchill’s summation of the battle of Britain… ‘Never have so many owed so much to so few’… I’m a Marvel and sci-fi tragic and film after film, story after story has the same base thought, a small group overcoming insurmountable odds and yup saving the world again, just in time. Crime stories are the same, criminal minds a TV series that is into its twelfth season has captured this by focusing on the relationships between a small team, who battle pure evil week after week. Did you notice that we New Zealanders were very quick to point out that we were number up there on the medal table this Olympics, that is on the table for medals per capitia, a small nation doing so well against incredible odds. In real life we see it in social movements started by a small group committed to the cause. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said ‘Don’t think that small groups of people can’t change the world; they are the only ones who ever have.”
Small numbers and insurmountable odds… on the other hand are things that can intimidate and discourage us, that can crush and destroy us. Let’s face it while the Greeks held out the Persians in the end the 300 died, the Alamo is remembered because it too was a massacre. I don’t know anyone who has the sort of powers that characters in TV shows and movies do… and none of us have that great team of writers working on how we will be victorious this week. Evil and social injustices still flourish despite the best efforts of small and not so small groups.
And yes I couldn’t help but think of St Peter’s as I read this passage… On another scale small numbers and insurmountable odds come together for me at 9:29am on a Sunday morning. Numbers at worship is a real issue for us as a church, there are challenges about sustainability, I question my call to ministry. It seems as if the dwindling numbers in Christianity in the west becomes very real… and the challenge of how to share the gospel in that context really comes to the fore.
In the passage that we had read to us today from Luke’s gospel Jesus is confronted with questions of small numbers ‘will only a few be saved?’ and insurmountable odds, Herod is out to get you… and in his response to that I believe is hope and encouragement for us.
At the beginning of this passage in verse 22 we are reminded that Jesus is on that Journey to Jerusalem. In the latter half of this passage we see that Jesus is aware that to go to Jerusalem for him is to die, that is here they kill the prophets, so this is Jesus on the Crossroad. It’s a journey that started in Chapter 9:51 and that we’ve been following through the gospel narrative. It’s a journey and narrative that takes up the central third of Luke’s gospel. It is a journey that focuses on Jesus teaching, as he moves through the towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem.
The passage starts with the question that someone asks Jesus, ‘Lord are only a few people going to be saved?’ Jesus answer to the question is to tell a parable which shifts the emphasis from ‘is it only a few?’ to ‘what about you?’ Instead of idle speculation it becomes a personal charge to make every effort to enter in through the narrow door. Where are you at with Jesus Christ, do you recognise him as the way to be reconciled with God, are you listening to him and putting his words into action.
It is hard for us to comprehend Jesus words about strive; make every effort to enter the Narrow gate, because quite rightly we see that door way to relationship with God being about grace. It is because of Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection that we can be restored to a relationship with God as our heavenly father. This passage seems to imply we have to work for it. In Philippians 2:12 Paul sheds some light on this when he encourages the people he is writing to keep the teachings he has given them,’ he says they are to continue to work out their salvation with fear and trembling’. Yes we are saved by grace, the striving and the working is how we live that out. The key in Luke’s gospel again is hearing the word of God and responding by putting it into action in our lives.
This becomes clearer as Jesus continues the parable by talking of a banquet being thrown. At some stage the house will be full and the door will be closed. People will be left outside. People who expected to be let in because they had had contact with Jesus, he had eaten with them and they had heard him teach in their towns, but the owner of the house; Jesus, says I do not know you, and goes as far to call them evil doers. It is not having heard the word of God that means we have gone through the narrow door, but rather that we have allowed it to transform our lives.
For the Jews there would have been a sense that they were welcome because of family affiliation they were sons and daughters of Abraham and Isaac, maybe for many who confess a Christian faith they may expect to be welcomed because of the same thing family affiliation or having simply met Jesus rather than having committed ourselves to following him. In our reformed faith, the only way to see the genuine nature of our faith in Christ is through perseverance, not what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace, a relationship with Christ that we think gives us eternal benefits but does not cost us anything in terms of how we live.
Then Jesus finishes the parable by focusing on the fact that people will be invited in from the four corners of the earth. In fact people that Jesus Jewish listeners would consider being the last people to be welcomed into the banquet with Jesus are before those they would think would be first. It is the reference here to people coming to faith in Jesus Christ outside of those we would have expected; in this case it is the gentiles. It’s you and I from the ends of the earth who God has chosen to call to him in Jesus Christ. You get the feeling when Jesus says the feast of the kingdom of God, this is not some small family gathering but in actual fact a large gathering. The answer to the question about is it just a few is… well what about you and also a view that goes beyond our limited human ability to see to a more global view a more God’s eye view.
Then Jesus is interrupted, and have you noticed how much of Jesus teaching in this section seems to come from peoples interruptions. I wonder how much ministry in Jesus life and in ours we might consider interruption, but is in actual fact the Holy Spirit moving. This time it is the Pharisees and this time they seem to be on Jesus side, while they still don’t understand who Jesus is and what is doing they are concerned for him. They have heard that Herod is out to kill him. Herod is the king with limited authority under the Romans. This Herod is the son of the one who was King when Jesus was born. He had John the Baptist killed and is determined to stop any religious opposition to his rule.
Jesus responds. Firstly by putting Herod into perspective; He calls him a fox. Now in our European way of thinking Fox is a metaphor either for a very alluring women, or a very cunning adversary, it is used almost as a form of admiration, for example the way the British troops nicknamed Rommel the desert fox. However in Jewish thinking foxes were no more than vermin, bend on damage and destruction. While in earthly terms Herod may have had power and authority, Jesus is quick to point out that God will still achieve his purposes. Jesus would not die outside of Jerusalem. Jesus sees Herod’s opposition as he does all opposition in terms of God’s purposes and plans.
Secondly, Jesus says that his focus is still going to be on going about the mission that God has sent him to do. He will go on driving out demons and healing people, as we looked at a few weeks ago these are the inroads of the kingdom of God in to the realm of Satan, bringing liberty and release and restoration from the powers of sin and death. Jesus will continue to proclaim in word and deed the kingdom of God. He will continue to walk the road to the cross. In Jesus using the term today, tomorrow and then the third day we can look back at Jesus continuing to fulfil his mission by facing death on the cross and the resurrection. Then lastly in a passage that we are more used to in Matthew’s gospel coming as Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, we see Jesus continues in his compassion for his people. He longs to gather Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but he knows that Jerusalem does not want that. Despite that resistance and rejection this opposition will not stop Jesus mission of compassion. Opening and leaving open the narrow door.
O let’s bring that back to us as we face small numbers and insurmountable odds.
The first is we to need to look not at how few, but be willing to search our own hearts and lives we need to ask the question what about you? What about me. Edward Burke said “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for Good people to do nothing.’ In Dr Suess’s masterpiece on environmental concerns the Lorax… when the magical Lorax is lifted and taken away he leaves a stone platform behind with the word “unless’ on it and it is only when the onceler who had devastated the natural world to get bigger and bigger sees a young Boy with a seed to plant standing on that platform does he have hope, unless someone comes and cares and dares and makes a stand. Here Jesus invites us to not look at the few, or the empty pew but to explore our own heart. In a Church spiritual growth actually comes from the Spiritual health of those in it. Their passion for Jesus, there compassion for those around them. Just as Jesus called people from the west and the east the north and the south, it is the fact that God takes care of bringing people to his cause.
Dealing with insurmountable odds, well Jesus does it by firstly naming those powers opposed to him: Seeing them in the light of who God is. Herod may have been a powerful tyrant but in the end it is God who is the one who was in control and working his purpose out, and it is the same today. I don’t know if you are aware of the debate of the name of the new ministry for vulnerable children, where the childrens’ commissioner Andrew Beecroft has said he won’t use that ame as it excentuates the problem he will only use the Maori name Oranga Tamariki because it is asperationsal and means “the weelbeing of children’. Very often in naming and describing those things that oppose us we can come to understand them more and begin to work our way through them. It allows us to work strategically to overcome them.
Jesus other response was to keep on doing the things that God had called him to do. Jesus knew what God had called him to do and what his real opposition was so he kept on doing the mission God had sent him to do. Proclaiming the gospel, seeing people Freed from the demonic and healed, Despite rejection keep on with the compassionate love of God. To give his life for the world. When we are confronted with insurmountable odds it is easy for us to let them call the tune. To be about putting out the fires or fighting the agenda they set rather than to focus on what we should be about. We can get caught up in keeping an institution or form or tradition going as well but we need to focus on the mission Jesus has given us to witness to him and see people set free and restored.
It’s interesting as I look at church history those words Small numbers and insurmountable odds have often arisen, you look at the pattern of that in the book of acts, as the good news spreads, you see it time and time again as the church has found itself in decline or in threat of just becoming a gerontological curiosity and God has raised up people with passion and compassion to revive and renew. AS I was sitting down to write this message I came across a great quote from my daily devotions which I think sums up what I’m saying here…
“it seems that where God opens a huge (be it a narrow) door of opportunity for good work we should expect that there will be mushrooming opposition Do not let such opposition deter you from making the most of the great opportunities when they arise.”