It’s a little bit longer than I normally preach, so I may pare it down a bit still. We’ll see.
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
The words of Jesus in the holy Gospel today may come as a shock to some of you: “Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Sinful men do not care to hear things stated in such absolute terms. “Surely there is some middle ground,” we say. “Surely there is some gray area.” “Nothing is that black and white.”
We say the same things when we hear Jesus tell us that there is only one valid reason for divorce, or that we must love him even more than our own family members, or that in order to follow him we too must give up our lives. We think that Jesus must not really mean it when he says that we should gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin or that we cannot serve God and wealth.
The human heart, ravaged by sin and loyal to Satan from conception, wants to have the best of both worlds. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants the best of heaven: forgiveness, life, eternal salvation, union with God, and everything else that heaven offers. And it wants the best of earth: wealth, happiness, comfort, fame, prestige, and self-satisfaction.
Jesus says you can’t have it both ways. You can only have one or the other. You are either with Him or against him. There are only two sides in the battle for your souls-the side of God and the side of Satan. And they are diametrically opposed to one another. Either you are loyal to God or you are loyal to Satan. Either you want heaven or you want earth. Either you want forgiveness or condemnation. Either you want life or death, holiness or sin, good or evil. As much as you might like it, you don’t get to sit somewhere in the middle like a spiritual fence rider.
Allegiance to God means complete and total divorce from Satan and all his works. In other words, if you want to have any part in God, any share in His good things, then you must separate yourself from the devil and his bounty. And the opposite is also true. Allegiance to Satan, even in the smallest way, even in the most insignificant detail, means total and complete divorce from God, and a total rejection of heavenly goodies.
The problem with us Christians is that we are, unfortunately, stuck in the middle of the battle. We do, in this life, hold membership in both kingdoms. We are baptized, which means that we are on God’s side, in His army, citizens of heaven. It means that we have been divorced from Satan, and married to Christ. Our Old Nature has been crucified with Christ and drowned in the Red Sea waters of Holy Baptism. It means that we are “with Christ” and that our sins are not counted against us, though they are many.
We are also, however, flesh and blood. We have not completely shed the corrupt nature, inherited from Adam. It is there with us all the time, like a cancer, always urging us on to abandon our loyalty to our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. It is always pulling, always tugging, trying to get us to come back to our captivity and bondage, to come back to Satan’s side.
This is what makes the Christian life such a struggle and a battle. Our flesh wants to serve Satan. It craves the things of this world. It desires to live in unholiness. It produces in us all sorts of unholy desires and thoughts. Our Old Man doubts God, is lazy, deceptive, and is constantly self-seeking.
Rather than seeking the good of others, rather than rejoicing with those who rejoice, our sinful self weeps at the good fortune of others and rejoices at their loss. The old nature wants nothing to do with God, with His Word, or His holy Sacrament. It could care less that the Church is the place of God’s dwelling, or that heavenly food is given out here. It is not with Christ, but against Him. Our sinful self loves the darkness more than the light, because its deeds are evil.
The New Man in us, on the other hand, seeks to serve God, loves what is good, and opposes what is evil. It is like Christ: selfless, always putting the needs and interests of others before our own, and holy in thought and deed. It is obedient, eager to please God, quick to lend a helping hand to others, and slow to anger. It is hungry for the good and wholesome food of God’s Word. It craves what God has to give. It loves the Church, loves the Sacrament, rejoices in the forgiveness of sins, and wants absolutely nothing to do with the Devil. It is “with Christ.” It loves the light more than the darkness, for its deeds are love and goodness.
So you might say that we Christians are at one and the same time “with Christ” and “against him.” According to our New Man we are “with Him.” According to our old nature we are “against Him.” The challenge of every Christian, the daily challenge, is to put to death the deeds of the flesh, to extinguish the flame of sinful desire by the power of the Holy Spirit. The challenge is to not let that old Man reign in us, with the help of God’s Spirit.
Because we are children of God, we are called to say “No” to the impulses of the sinful nature, and instead to be imitators of God, walking in love as the words of the Epistle remind us today. This is, as most of you know, easier said than done. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. It’s easy to give in. It is much, much easier to give free reign to our evil impulses than to fight and struggle with them. It is much easier to fulfill and gratify our sinful desires than to resist them. And so the battle rages on. The Spirit wars against the flesh and the flesh against the Spirit.
The good news for all of us is that this will not go on forever. There is an end. Unless our Lord returns first, the end of this struggle is death. In heaven there will be no more struggle, no more fighting against the sinful nature, no more war with ourselves. It will be over. And when we are raised on the Last day, our bodies and souls will be perfectly united in obedience to God’s will. We will eagerly serve God and love our neighbor in the life to come.
But until that time we must be on our guard. We must keep a close watch on our sinful nature. Just because we are citizens of heaven and headed for glory does not mean that we are completely out of danger. As long as we remain with Christ, we are safe. As long as we remain in His Word, and continue in faithfulness we will make it to the end. So long as we continue to return to the Lord in repentance, our traitorous deeds will be forgiven and not counted against us. We have this promise from our Lord in Holy Scripture: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And the Apostle Paul says: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
There is no condemnation, no punishment for those who are with Christ, who believe in Him and are baptized. This is the sure and certain promise of God’s Word, without which we would have no hope of surviving the final judgment. His Word also promises, however, that those who fail to return in repentance and remain against Christ will suffer condemnation and the same punishment as the devil and his angels. “Whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Satan, of course, does not want you to think about this or to take it very seriously, that is, until you have given in to his coaxing voice. Then he becomes your worst accuser before God’s throne in heaven. Nor does he want you to know that you are serving him when you think you are serving God. He wants you to think that laziness, lusting, gossip, indifference or apathy towards the Church is all just part of being human, that God understands.
It’s all a grand illusion though. What Satan doesn’t want you to realize or to see is that his hands are bound, that he is actually in chains and that his power is limited. What he doesn’t want you to see is that Christ has undone his work, that he has liberated the whole world from its captivity, including you. He wants you to live on in the illusion that you are still his, that he is still your master, and that you are still under his rule and control. And he is very good at maintaining this lie, this grand illusion.
St. Paul and the other Apostles were not inexperienced in this struggle. Peter confessed Christ, and then denied him when questioned. Thomas refused to believe unless he saw the risen Christ. St. Paul admitted that the good he wanted to do he did not do, and the evil he did not want to do he kept on doing. This was true even of the Old Testament saints. David was God’s anointed King, and yet he fell for the diabolical lie that union with Uriah’s wife would be better than what God had given him. So he risked everything, his relationship with God notwithstanding, to have what he wanted so badly. And it cost him the life of his firstborn son.
Our only hope, our only anchor and refuge is in Christ and the forgiveness of our sins. Scripture says quite plainly that no evil thing or person will be permitted to enter the heavenly courts. And we know that we have evil and sin within us and we know that we have time and time again allowed that sinful nature to have its way with us. So we say with the Psalmist: “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
Rather than try to hide the fact that we are sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that every inclination of our hearts is evil, rather than try to hide this and keep it secret, we ought to expose it for what it is. We shouldn’t hesitate to admit before God that we have loved ourselves more than him and others. This only confounds the problem. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away with my grief.” So said David in the aftermath of his great impiety.
We do ourselves no favors when we try to sugar coat our sins, or make them out to be less than they are. Don’t we tell this to our children? Don’t we parents prefer our children to come clean when they have done something wrong rather than be deceptive? So our heavenly Father wants us to acknowledge our sins, to make them known to him, to confess them and receive His forgiveness for them through the Word.
This is why he sends pastors and preachers to you. This is why he established the office of the ministry, to make known his saving Word to you, to hear your confession, to pronounce forgiveness to you, and to feed you with His nourishing body and blood. Sadly many today make the same mistake as those who saw and heard the words and deeds of Jesus. They thought he was in league with Satan, that he was doing his bidding and they failed to see the Kingdom of God in Jesus.
So also we pastors preach and teach the Word, administer the Lord’s Sacrament, baptize and absolve sins, doing these things not by Satan’s authority, not even in our own name, but in the name of Christ and by his authority. “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” But that doesn’t mean that everyone sees it that way. Many are suspicious of pastors, thinking that they are doing them wrong when they are trying to help them.
Every Christian needs to ask him or herself whether or not they think that the Pastor preaches and conducts the Ministry in Christ’s name and with His authority. And if the answer is “yes,” then how it is any Christian who truly believes and loves Christ, could resist or ignore this Ministry without detriment to their souls.
Make no mistake, dear Christians. The works that are done in the Church are the works of Christ. We preach, baptize, commune, and absolve by the finger of God, that is, by His divine authority. In these things the Kingdom of God has come upon you. Blessed are those who see this and receive them in faith and rejoice in them. Blessed are those who do not refuse the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Your hunger is satisfied. Your thirst is quenched. Your sins are forgiven. Grace is poured upon your lips.
Yours is an eternal reward, and eternal inheritance. Though you are viewed as the scum of the earth by the world, though you are trampled upon and mocked for your faith, it makes no difference. This world will pass away, along with all of its mocking and hatred. Do you think that Christ or the apostles could have endured what they did if they did not know this? Do you think that they could have given their lives up in death had they not know that they would live again?
So it is with you. Your life is not without purpose or meaning. It is not without value. The value of your life was the price of Christ’s life. The price tag attached to your souls was the blood of God’s Lamb, Jesus Christ, who gave up His life for you and then took His life back again. No one, including the devil, can change that. If you are with Christ then you are on the winning team. For Christ has already dealt Satan the crushing blow when He said in his dying breath: “It is finished” and gave up his spirit.
In Christ the strong man has been disarmed, his palace plundered, and his captives freed. In Christ the spoils of war are divided among us, the victory celebration has already begun. If you listen closely, you can hear the voices of angels, archangels, and the whole host of heaven singing their victory song: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Amen.