This is “Milk Truck on a Snowplowed Road,” a short story and illustration from the children’s book A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek:
Following the big blow, the road to the town five miles away was plugged solid with drifts that reached as high as the telephone wires. Milk had to be got to the city, and everyone – the farmer, the creamery, the trucker – wanted to get it there.
Eventually, a snowplow would batter its way through the east-west line, pushing enormous banks of snow to left and right. It had extra wing-type snow scrapes to push the tops of the furrows farther away, so they would not slide down and fill up the road again.
The newly cleared road looked like an open tunnel with room for just one vehicle to pass through it. Saturday morning, as William went to town with his father in their sleigh wagon, they met the milk truck coming toward them. The driver gunned his motor, sending clouds of powdered snow billowing up behind him, as he rushed to beat them to the crossroads and turn into a dairy farm so they could get by.
A week later another, smaller, snowstorm filled the road to the top once more, and the snowplow gave up. The farmers then had to haul their milk by horse and sleigh over the tops of the drifts to meet the milk truck at the main highway.
Back in the day, getting raw milk to market in wintertime demanded a harrowing trip through a suffocatingly narrow path. Its close confines required no small measure of courage from those who dared to push through. But, however hard the way, it nevertheless was a path that nourished and sustained life.
That’s the point Jesus is trying to make in today’s Scripture lesson, which comes at the conclusion of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.
Though it at times sounds intimidating and frightening, listen for the Word of the Lord in Matthew chapter 7:
“Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (Matthew 7:13-24)
Gates are practical and oftentimes necessary, but let’s face it – they’re not all that exciting.
They just sort of hang there without attracting much notice.
Yet, Jesus most surely is referring to himself as a gate, and he’s sharing something really exciting when he talks about the need to enter through him as a gate.
But when you think about it, no one ever actually passes through a gate any more than someone really walks through a door.
No, you pass through the empty spaces that open up once the gate or door is opened or moved aside. Unless you are a ghost, you cannot literally pass through a door or a gate.
That inability is precisely what makes a door or a gate so useful. Because the wood is solid, your ability to lock the door or gate is what prevents the good from escaping and the bad from trespassing.
That might well be a distinction without a difference, but consider this story told by a traveler to the Middle East who crossed paths with a local shepherd.
The sheepherder was proud to show off his flock and the fenced-in area where his sheep bedded down for the night. “When they go in there, they are perfectly safe,” the shepherd said with profound confidence.
But then the traveler noticed something odd. “Your sheep sleep in that pen, but your pen has no gate.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd replied, “I am the gate.”
“What do you mean?” the man asked in confusion.
“After my sheep are in the pen,” the shepherd said, “I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me, and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate.”
That simple encounter explains how Jesus serves as a gate.
He is the One who lays himself down to keep what is good on the inside and what is bad on the outside. And whether the good is kept safe from the bad, it will be the gate – the very body of our Lord – that makes it possible for life to flourish to abundant fullness.
And that part about “passing through”?
Ordinarily the gate or door must be swung aside to allow a person or sheep to pass into whatever the gate encloses. And, in a sense, that’s exactly what Jesus did when he came to this earth. Jesus emptied himself, gave way, and opened himself up by shucking the perks of heaven, divinity and glory to come here as a humble servant. Jesus allowed himself to be moved aside and shoved around until he did, in fact, finally die.
Yet, by God’s power and grace, he was raised again. And after his resurrection, Jesus could do things he didn’t do before and which ordinary human beings don’t do – like being able to pass right through locked doors to appear in the midst of his disciples just as they were sitting down to eat some bread and fish.
It doesn’t feel like too far a theological reach to believe that the same Jesus who says he is a gate through which we must pass is pointing in some sense to what we need to become in him through baptism.
In baptism, we die; we drown; we are crucified with Christ. But, in baptism, we also are raised with Christ, and like that risen Lord Jesus, we are not the same after our baptismal dying and rising. Having died with Jesus, we now have the ability to pass right through him into the newness and fullness of the life he has promised.
Jesus thus serves as a two-way gate: He not only locks up behind us to keep us safe but also unlocks and swings open so that we can enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we can ever imagine.
Whether we are going into the pen or out into the pastures, it is Jesus himself and his crucified-but-now-resurrected body that we pass through. We are purified by this baptismal journey through death and back to life again. We are changed, altered, re-oriented, and re-energized.
And this rhythm of baptism’s passing in and out of Jesus the gate is re-enforced at the Lord’s Table. There again we see the body and blood of Jesus laid down for us – the body and blood through whom we pass into newness of life but that, in the ritual act of eating and drinking, passes also through us!
In that newness of life made possible by that narrow gate, we are being pointed in a new and different direction. That change of life course for you and for me lies at the heart of God’s will for all of God’s people.
Change is never easy, because change moves you into a world of the unknown. But consider these words from an anonymous poet:
The will of God will never take you where the grace of God cannot keep you, where the arms of God cannot support you, where the riches of God cannot supply your needs, where the power of God cannot endow you.
The will of God will never take you where the Spirit of God cannot work through you, where the wisdom of God cannot teach you, where the army of God cannot protect you, where the hands of God cannot mold you.
The will of God will never take you where the love of God cannot enfold you, where the mercies of God cannot sustain you, where the peace of God cannot calm your fears, where the authority of God cannot overrule for you.
The will of God will never take you where the comfort of God cannot dry your tears, where the word of God cannot feed you, where the miracles of God cannot be done for you, where the omnipresence of God cannot find you.
Jesus speaks of a narrow gate that leads to life, and at first blush, that sounds quite restrictive and rather exclusive.
But rather than see this gate of life as restrictive and exclusive, perhaps the real Good News lies in thinking about this gate as a funnel that guides us to a central place of grace and blessing. Jesus calls us not to focus on the narrow but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction but rather about an entry into the expansive.
“Enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving,” the psalmist writes. “Enter his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100:4-5)
Indeed, no matter how high the drifts, we have the power and courage of the Holy Spirit to plow our way through. Let that hope and confidence carry us forward into Lent, the season of repentance and change that lies at our doorstep.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message for Sunday, February 14, 2021. It is the last in a series of sermons based on the children’s book A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Gregory J. Boyle, Daniel J. Harrington, and Scott Hoezee inform the message.