Whoever is Not with Me is Against Me
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
(Powerpoint slide) Treebeard is a leader among the race of Ents known as the shepherds of the forest. You would have heard of Ents if you had read J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Lord of the Rings or seen the movies based on this novel. The Ents appear in The Lord of the Rings as allies of the free peoples of Middle-earth during the War of the Ring.
The Ents are described as a "deliberate" people, extremely slow to decide on a course of action. In reality, they are eager to avoid committing themselves in the great contest against the Dark Lord. "I am not altogether on anybody's side," Treebeard explains, "because nobody is altogether on my side." Up until the eleventh hour, the Ents hope to maintain a policy of strict neutrality. But their desire to be left alone—their refusal to choose Goodness—becomes untenable as the dark forces of Mordor gather against the inhabitants of Middle-earth: "Of course, it is likely enough, my friends," Treebeard said slowly, "likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents. But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later. That thought has long been growing in our hearts; and that is why we are marching now."
"I am not altogether on anybody's side," Treebeard explained, "because nobody is altogether on my side." Tolkien’s character Treebeard describes precisely where many people want to be; neutral. We don’t want to pick sides. We prefer neutral ground; to champion neither side. No one wants to be seen to be on the extreme side of anything. If we are a Christian, we are so quietly; we don’t wave a banner of allegiance.
I have been reflecting recently on the way in which the word “extremist” has come to be used more and more, in our common culture, with a pejorative sense. I had thought for some time that it was merely a label you hung on someone you disagreed with so you didn’t have to consider the substance of an idea. It functioned in much the same way many use the label “homophobe;” a person who does not agree with prevailing societal attitudes about human sexuality is often labelled a “homophobe” effectively ruling dissenting ideas out-of-bounds and shutting down debate. Some use “extremist” in this same way.
But I have come to think there is more going on in the current discomfort with the extreme—extreme sport being excepted, of course. In the post-modern rejection of anything universal, we have lost the categories of right and wrong; of good and evil. How, then, do we describe things out-of-bounds? I think that “extreme” has come to function as a kind of category for describing the unacceptable. In so doing, though, there is a larger narrative in the background being assumed. The world is not the theater of forces for good and evil. The world, instead, is conceived as a theatre of people living their lives as they choose with a very porous boundary somewhere on the very outside that marks off the extreme.
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” said our Lord. He was talking about his battle with the forces of evil. There is no neutral ground. You can’t stand back and watch hoping at the last minute to side with the winner. You are already on a side. Jesus’ talk makes people today very nervous; it sounds so very extreme. If the world is a theatre what is the nature of the unfolding drama? Is Jesus to be trusted here?
1. In this story recounted in Luke’s gospel Jesus is answering a charge that questions the source and nature of his authority. I invite you to take a few moments a think about his answer; get behind his statements and consider what Jesus assumes to be the unfolding drama taking place in the cities and villages of the world. In the answer her gives what picture does he paint about the actuality of our existence?
He had cast out a demon from a person; the demon had rendered the person mute and after Jesus’ intervention the person spoke, “and the crowds were amazed.” The crowds may indeed have been amazed but not everyone in the crowd was happy to be amazed. “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons,” some mumbled under their breath. Others demanded a sign; do something else amazing to prove that you are from God.
Beelzebul was a popular name to refer to the prince of demons. (As an aside, in older testament book 2 Kings (2:1) the god of a neighbouring nation name Ekron is called Baalzebub. It is likely a derisive pun because it literally means “lord of the flies”, connoting “lord of not much.” This is where the title for William Golding’s novel came from. The word in the New Testament, however, is not considered to have been derived from this older testament word.) The point I invite you to take note of is that Jesus uses “Beelzebul” and “Satan” (the adversary) interchangeably. He also speaks of the actuality of Satan’s existence. There is an evil one at loose in the world who has martialled destructive forces. The world is the theatre of a battle. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray, “Deliver us from the evil one.” The Biblical people knew why the world was a mess; the evil one was loose working destruction. The question of biblical people was, how long God would let this situation continue.
Jesus presumes the existence of this evil enemy. In his reply Jesus observed, first, that Satan is unlikely to be responsible for exorcising his own agents since that would imply a serious weakness in his kingdom. Secondly, for Jews to ascribe Jesus’ exorcisms to Satan is implicitly to say the same of Jewish exorcists. Third, that casting out demons by the power of God is a sign of the kingdom’s presence. Fourth, the release of Satan’s victims implies that their master has been overcome by one stronger. Fifth, there is no middle ground—not to side with Jesus is to have sided with this evil one.
Why does Jesus spend so much energy refuting this charge against him? Clearly he perceives this threat of Satan’s activity to be very real. He has come to do battle against him, to defeat him. There is no neutral ground with respect to this battle; Jesus said we either side with him or are acting against him.
Do we Christians today buy Jesus assumption that there is a battle unfolding? Let me come at this from another angle of vision than the one in our text; that is to consider the possibility of the actuality of the battle Jesus describes with a story other than demon possession.
The title of the March 2013 article in The Atlantic magazine read, “The Internet 'Narcissism Epidemic'.” Narcissism could be described as self-centeredness on steroids. One study showed that among a group of 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as quickly as obesity from the 1980s to the present. And, according to some, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have helped to accelerate our plunge into narcissism. Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford notes that in "virtual space many of the physical interactions that restrain behavior vanish. Delusions of grandeur, narcissism, viciousness, impulsivity, and infantile behavior for some individuals rise to the surface." Aboujaoude, in his book Virtually You, observes, "the traits we take on online can become incorporated in our offline personalities." Just as members of a mob get swept along by others' emotions, the same thing can happen to us when we get swept up in a virtual Internet mob.
Do Facebook and Twitter contribute to the plunge into narcissism or are they simply the venue for humanity’s latest foray in this direction? What, or who, accelerates the plunge into this narcissism? Human sinfulness for sure, but is its acceleration simply a matter than more and more people are adding their weight to the gas pedal, so to speak? Further, why doesn’t human sinfulness—hatred, narcissism, viciousness, impulsivity—just keep on accelerating until the epidemic engulfs all of humanity and destroys everyone? What, or who, is restraining this acceleration? The Bible says there is a battle underway. We need to pick a side. “Whoever is not with me is against me”, said our Lord. In this strife between Jesus and Satan neutrality is impossible. Indifference is also impossible; denying that there is a battle is to have chosen a side.
2. I invite you to reflect with me on another aspect of this story. Take a look at the result for the person from whom the demon has been exorcised. When Jesus makes his incursion into the life of this possessed person we are told “the one who had been mute spoke.” This is not unlike another demon possessed person Jesus healed. It that story the man worn no clothes and lived in the grave yard; after meeting Jesus he was sitting at Jesus feet (posture of a student), clothed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35). When Jesus rescues these people they end up in control of their human faculties. Speaking, thinking, taking care of their bodies; when Jesus makes incursion into your life this is what he does. Jesus restores our true humanity.
Many say of human vices, “I was only being human.” “Girls will be girls and boys will be boys”, is the way we gloss over much unbecoming behaviour. Behind these utterances is an assumption that there is something fundamentally flawed about being human. We humans are still evolving; such belief hopes that the next iteration of the evolutionary cycle will purge the human of some of these ills and so on.
The Bible tells us that to be human is a good thing. God created the human and God does not make junk. Jesus restores humanity to this person, defeating an enemy who is at work to destroy human faculty. The person rescued from the enemy is given his or her humanity back by Jesus. The Bible is clear that the problem in the world isn’t because humans are human but because humans are sinful.
Very often faith is Jesus Christ is portrayed as something for people unsure of themselves; an opiate to make the best of difficulty; an invitation to stop thinking; a help for people with nothing to say or who lack natural capacity for overcoming life’s problems. In the gospels faith in Jesus Christ is the very opposite. Followers of Jesus find their human faculty restored to be used in service of someone much greater; whom to serve is life eternal. Everything human gets lifted to be more than we can imagine by faith in Jesus Christ. The very fact that God became human for our sakes tells you that to be human is a good thing.
A few weeks ago someone from our congregation told me of an art project that was on display at one of our local senior-care facilities. The art was the work of a number of cognitively impaired residents of the facility; the results were amazing given the challenges these people face. This man told me that he knew personally many of the people who produced this art; because of his personal knowledge of then he could see the personality of the person expressed in their art. The point I want to make with you is in the form of a question. The people who made it possible for these challenged people to create a piece of art, whose side are they on in this battle Jesus speaks about? Do we not do the Lord’s work when we put our hand to help restore impaired human faculty?
I think of people who take foster children into their home trying their best to offer stability so the humanity of a child will flourish. I think of teachers who work hard to help children develop reading and speaking ability. I think of the carpenter who takes on an apprentice to help them learn. And you can think of many more whose efforts promote human faculty. To do so, it seems to me, is to side with Jesus.
3. I invite you now to consider a reflection on the second half of Jesus’ sentence. We have been considering the first half, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” The second half is parallel in its thought, but with a different image, “and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus gathers, the enemy scatters.
It is clear how the evil one promoting hatred, narcissism, viciousness, impulsivity, and the like has the effect of scattering people from one another. Take any of what the Apostle Paul calls the works of the flesh—fornication, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions—and you know their scattering effect. You know how they isolate and fracture human life.
Jesus portrays his ministry and work as one of gathering. Lost and scattered people he gathers. Think of his parable of the lost sheep, ninety-nine safely gathered in the fold and he goes to look for the lost one. The point I make with you is this; Jesus gathers people to himself. Jesus is not saying that the essence of the gospel is to gather people together as an end in and of itself; as if community building were the gospel’s goal. Yes, a community emerges because Jesus gathers people to himself, the community is never without Jesus ,we should note; never community for its own sake.
At the end of our text we read this rather difficult-to-understand saying of Jesus that when the “unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place,” … but not finding any, it …goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself …; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
We can’t see everything Jesus can see but we do know of the experience that in overcoming a problem, stopping some behaviour is only the first step; if we don’t replace it with something good we are vulnerable to a more binding problem. We were created for fellowship with God; to try to sweep clean our own houses, so to speak, without filling it with his light leaves a person vulnerable, according to Jesus.
I want to bring you back to our Ent named Treebeard. "I am not altogether on anybody's side," Treebeard explained, "because nobody is altogether on my side." Many know this place—the way life batters us such that we feel that “nobody is altogether on my side.” So we hesitate to commit to anything. But in this battle Jesus speaks about there is One who is fully on your side, as his cross will show, the man Christ Jesus. So let us take our stand.