When I was in high school, one year I tried out for the cross-country team. Running in West Virginia is not easy, as there is very little flat land. The practice course went down the road a little from the school, across a small bridge and then onto a hilly, winding back road. Most of that road was very secluded and was a difficult run. A couple of the guys on the team decided to take a shortcut, so they parked a car along that road. They would run to the car, sit for a while, and then drive the car until they were near the end of the course, get out, and run the rest of the way looking barely winded.
I’m sure they thought it was a great idea and a great shortcut. But do you think they ever won a race? No. They won in practice but never came close to winning a race. The shortcut didn’t help them at all; in fact, it worked against them.
As we draw near the end of the Sermon On the Mount Jesus warns us to Beware the Shortcut. Let’s read what he says in this passage –
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Jesus is beginning his conclusion to the Sermon On the Mount and starts this final section by making an obvious point – the path he is offering is not an easy path. By this point in the Sermon this should come as no surprise considering some of the things Jesus says, but it is a final reminder that the path of faith is often difficult and demanding. It is not easy to step away from our own self-interest. It is not easy to walk the path of love, of grace, and generosity. But it is the best path, and the path for which we were created.
When I was growing up my family would sometimes pile in the car on Sunday afternoon to take a drive. Was it just my family, or did your family think that riding around in a car for no good reason was a good idea? Can you imagine getting your family in the car now just to drive around for no other purpose other than to cram in the car and burn up gas that costs $3.50 a gallon. Who has time to do that now? Who wants to do that now?
My dad loved to load us all in the car to drive up the river to the Dairy Owl for ice cream. The Dairy Owl sat right across the road from a smelly steel mill that was spewing ash 24 hours a day, so it wasn’t the most picturesque spot. To get there from our house was about a ten or fifteen-minute trip up Route 2, but my dad could not go the short, easy way. We had to drive all around the countryside and through the hills rather than the straight, easy journey. While my dad was extolling the virtues of the winding path we were in the backseat turning green because of that winding path. But looking back on it, every one of my siblings and I would now take a very different view, recognizing there was value in those times for our family and that our dad was trying to teach us that value.Man makes the straight canal; God makes the winding rivers (A Word In Season, John Bishop, Nashville: Abingdon, 1979, p. 45).
There are no straight paths in Scripture.
When God called Abraham to leave his homeland and to follow him he did not provide a roadmap. The journey was full of twists and turns, surprises and challenges, but each one added to what Abraham learned while on the winding path. When the Moses led the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt and into their journey to the Promised Land there wasn’t a great physical distance to travel. From where they were in Egypt to the Promised Land was a distance of about 200 miles. If they had taken the shortcut they would have traveled along the Mediterranean Sea and could have spent some time at the beach enjoying the weather, but they didn’t. The book of Exodus tells us they didn’t take that path – though that way was shorter (Exodus 13:17). They wandered, and wandered, and wandered. They took long, winding, difficult, desolate, and dangerous path. And while they traveled that path they faced great difficulty and they complained. Moses, they would cry out, why did you ever lead us out of Egypt? We were better off in Egypt, though we were slaves (Exodus 14:10-12, among other passages). Why not take the shortcut? Why take the most difficult path?
But generations later, their ancestors were able to look back and see how God fashioned them into a people on that winding path, and how he made provision for them, and those lessons would continue to teach them for generations.
When Jesus called his disciples there was no easy path laid before them. Follow me is a very simple request but it set before them a path fraught with many challenges.
In our modern lives we are always so anxious to just get somewhere, but God wants to make something of us on the way. My youngest sister got a speeding ticket not long after receiving her driver’s license. She was driving my dad’s old Ford Pinto. I believe she was clocked at over 80 miles an hour. I was amazed she could get that Pinto to go over 80 miles an hour! My dad did not like us driving fast. In fact, he had an old Chevy pickup truck that I often drove. The front end was in terrible need of an alignment. Around 45 miles an hour the front end would start shaking. We would often ask why he wouldn’t get it aligned. His response was if I do you all will drive it too fast! I remember the conversation between my dad and sister about her speeding ticket. He asked where were you going in such a hurry? My sister said nowhere, really, but I was in a hurry to get there! In our rush to get somewhere, we often miss what God is trying to teach us on the winding path.
It took a windy road through the wilderness to bring the Hebrew people to the realization they were a free people and it took the winding path through the wilderness to forge them into a nation. Only in the long and winding journey, I believe, could they learn those lessons. They could not learn them by taking the shortcut.
Paul had a pretty good life going for himself, and then came his conversion on the road to Damascus. Listen to where that path then led him - I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (II Corinthians 11:23-28).
It is tempting to take the shortcut in life. Jesus calls us to avoid the shortcut. There are easier ways than the way we are called to by Jesus. There are easier ways than the way of loving one’s enemies. There are easier ways than the way of praying for those who would persecute us. There are easier ways than the way of being a peacemaker. There are easier ways than the way of investing in the kingdom of God rather than investing in ourselves. There are easier ways than the way of withholding judgments of others. There are easier ways, but they are not better ways.
In many ways, my life has not at all followed the kind of path I would have predicted or expected. My life has taken some unexpected and strange turns. My life has not always gone neatly from point A to point B, and there have been times when I was greatly troubled by the strange, winding path of my life. But I have learned that each turn, however unexpected, led to something I needed to learn or experience. There are times when I wish I could go back and do some things over, but I think if I could, I would miss out on a great deal. To go back, I would be tempted to straighten out all the winding and twisting turns of my life, and in doing so, would undo much of what God has taught me through that winding way.
Beware the shortcut. May we pray.