I came across a devotion which talked a little bit about John Bunyan, not to be confused with the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox Babe. John Bunyan is a seventeenth century Puritan. Of those who know of him, he is most famous for his work entitled “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” In that book he offers an allegorical tale of a Christian’s journey by faith from his home in the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, located on the top of Mount Zion.
While famous for “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, there is another book work which he is perhaps less known for called: “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.” “Grace Abounding” is Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, written while he was serving a twelve-year prison sentence for preaching.
What is unique about this book isn’t the stories he tells about his life, but instead the uniqueness comes from its publishing history. The book was first published in 1666 when Bunyan was only 38 years old. The book went through six revisions. What’s interesting is that Bunyan never finished his story. The devotional author shares that each time Bunyan revised his spiritual autobiography, he always left himself in prison. Never once did he tell his readers that he had been released from prison. He never once mentioned that he was a pastor who traveled all over Bedfordshire and even to London on preaching tours. Nor did he ever mention about the success of his work “The Pilgrim Progress.” The story always ended with Bunyan sitting in prison suffering.
Now you may be asking the question I had. Why would he do this. It seems rather odd to end each revision that way. For one, it’s rather misleading and it’s pretty dishonest of him. But as I read the devotion, the author said that if you read the cover pages of the revised editions, you’ll get a hint as to what Bunyan was up to. You see, on the cover page, the printer tells the reader that this edition is “corrected and much enlarged now by the Author, for the benefit of the tempted and dejected Christian.” Notice that last part. “For the benefit of the tempted and dejected Christian”, for the Christian who is miserable, disappointed or depressed. Bunyan leaves himself in prison as an encouragement to help these kinds of Christians who read his story. But what does this all mean, why tell you about this part of the devotion?
Well, Bunyan knows a little something about Christianity which people today I believe tend to forget. You see, Bunyan knows that Christianity is not a sure path to financial wealth and popular success. Christians are not to be promised that faith will get them their best life now. Instead, being a Christian involves this constant struggle with sin and with Satan. Being a Christian involves daily repentance of one’s sins. And despite those struggles, being a Christian offers a profound experience of grace which is new each and every morning (Lamentations 3:23).
God’s never-ending love … His selfless, sacrificial love …it is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our faith. Such a love is only truly known in a lifetime of struggle. It’s a real struggle, and a struggle which should drive us daily to the overflowing well of God’s grace.
Bunyan’s experience, it fits in with the text from Luke this morning. You see, here in Luke 13, we find Jesus is in the middle of his ministry. He has healed the sick, He has stilled the storm, He has cast out demons, He has raised the dead, and He has fed over five thousand people, to name just a few things. But as great as those events are, as much as Jesus blessed those who encountered Him, we can see from Jesus doing those things that life will not always be easy. By the time of reading, Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. He has plugged the Holy City into his GPS and is headed there next. In His going to Jerusalem, Jesus is about to face the rejection of the people, the abandonment of His disciples as well as be forsaken by His own Father. All so that Jesus might bring forgiveness and faith to His people, to you and me.
Jesus wants His disciples to know that following Him isn’t going to be easy. Those who are wanting everything to be rainbows and sunshine, who are wanting an everlasting abundance of material things will be disappointed. Those who want to live with the eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they may die attitude, those who seek their best life now, they will turn away from Christ for supposedly greener pastures and greater possibilities. Those who remain, those who hold on to faith and Jesus, those will be the few who will endure.
In our reading, Luke says that someone in the crowd asks Jesus, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” (13:23). In Jesus-like fashion, Jesus redirects the question. Jesus is like, “You know, instead of talking about others, let’s talk you.” Instead of discussing whether a few people will be saved, Jesus wants to talk about whether you will be saved. He’s pretty straightforward with this too. He lays out there the struggles that are out there, the struggles which the disciples will have. The Kingdom of God Jesus says is open to all, but not everyone will embrace it. The way there will be rough. Discipleship, following Jesus will be difficult. But Jesus encourages His disciples, He encourages you and me by saying … “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24).
There are many out there who think that being a Christian is all about saying the name of Jesus in a polite way every once in a while. That being a Christian is being associated with Him, eating and drinking in His presence. Merely being in the presence of Jesus though doesn’t mean you are saved. Knowing who Jesus is in your head doesn’t mean you are saved for, as Jesus says, even the demons know of Jesus. When Jesus comes back again as Judge, there are going to be a lot of people who will say, “‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But Jesus will reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers” (Luke 13:26-27).
You see, faith is different than familiarity. Being aware of Jesus, knowing a little something about Christian teachings … those are totally different than holding on to Jesus, holding on to His teachings for dear life. In this section of Luke 13, Jesus is revealing how discipleship, how following him is a lifelong struggle. It is a lifelong struggle to hold on to Jesus all the while you’re battling sin, death, and Satan. It is a lifelong struggle to hold on to Jesus all the while you’re battling the effects of living in a world saturated with sin, disease, turmoil, struggle, and death. And when you get to the point where you can longer keep on moving, when the struggle is too much and the pain is too great, when you get the point where there is nothing left for you to hold on to … that is when you will discover something absolutely amazing. … You’ll discover that Jesus is holding on to you.
Jesus has taken your sin, He has taken your suffering and He held them close to His chest when He died on that cross. In His dying and in His rising, Jesus has overcome the power of the sins which curse you and condemn you. Jesus has overcome the power of these sufferings which kill you. Jesus has risen to bring you life, to raise you to a new life. A new life which no one can ever take away from you.
Life with Jesus … it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. But living with Jesus, there is nothing which can pull you out of His grace, there is nothing which can separate the love He has for you, and there is nothing which can overcome His grip on you. Held in the grip of grace, Jesus greets you. In the midst of all of the pain and sorrow, in the midst of all the crying out to God … each and every morning, morning by morning, Jesus’ mercies are new.
When offering encouragement to His disciples to follow Him, Jesus did not promise a pain-free life in this world. No, instead He highlighted the struggle and the difficulty. And why? Because He wants you to know the power of faith in suffering. God’s grace cannot be defeated. It is here now, and on the last day, it will be there to welcome you home. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.