“No Middle Ground” – Mark 9:38-40
Introduction: For/against (no fence-sitting)
What an interesting couple of verses – a guy is casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples criticize him and try to stop him. And then Jesus spouts off this little self-evident, ten-word saying: “The one who is not against us is for us.” What’s even more interesting is that in Matthew 12 and in Luke 11, Jesus says it the other way around – “Whoever is not with me is against me.”
So, which is it? And how do we apply it to our relationships with others? First, we need to understand that it isn’t either-or, but it truly is both at the same time. Jesus is simply saying that, when it comes to your beliefs about Him, there is no middle ground, you can’t sit on the fence.
Let me give you a couple of examples. It’s almost the end of the baseball season. There are some teams that people are either passionate in cheering for or vicious in cheering against – I believe the New York Yankees are one of those teams! Their fans cheer for them because the team regularly wins the World Series. In the last 100 years, they have won the Championship 27 times – that’s more than 25% of the time even though there were 16 teams in the 1920’s and that’s grown to 30 teams right now. They have won multiple championships in every decade, except the 1980’s and the last decade – when they were shut out completely. No wonder people cheer for them – lots of success. And why do people cheer against them? For the same reason – they have already won more than their share of Championships… for the next 50 years. You love ‘em or you hate ‘em!
What about the Federal Election? Oh, don’t worry – I’m not going to talk politics from the pulpit. I just want to say that you either supported Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals and appreciated the work his minority government did through the pandemic AND voted for him, OR you didn’t trust him or were tired of his rhetoric or thought there were good ideas in the other camps and you voted against him. You couldn’t sit on the fence.
To sit on the fence is to be uncertain about two possibilities, to be indecisive. To be indecisive, is to have made a decision – the decision to exist in the grey area. The fence is there to divide, not unite.
1. The guy without credentials
In today’s Gospel reading we come face to face with the power of Jesus’ name. A man was casting out demons! in Jesus’ name. This was an unnamed and probably unknown man who was using Jesus’ name in the fight against evil. We would have to assume that this man had witnessed Jesus Himself casting out demons, and had decided to take matters into his own hands in that battle against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. The disciples concluded that this was wrong, that only the boss – Jesus – should be in the ring with those spiritual heavy-weights. They tried to stop the man. After all, he wasn’t part of the in-crowd, he didn’t have the credentials, he wasn’t one of the Twelve. Three chapters earlier, Jesus had sent out those same Twelve, WITH authority over unclean spirits. They did drive out many demons, and on another occasion, they came back rejoicing that even the demons submitted to Jesus’ powerful name. But somehow, on this occasion, they were possessive of their status with Jesus. They didn’t want anyone else using Jesus’ name, and succeeding! Jesus had to straighten them out – much like He did a few verses earlier when He had to correct their arguments about greatness and point to a child as an example of humility and servanthood. Here, Jesus spoke that self-evident sentence: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, “If someone is using my name for good, for Godly purposes, then he is on our side… let’s let him be.”
It’s very similar to the story in Numbers 11. There it was two guys who didn’t have certain credentials, they didn’t attend the “revival meeting,” and yet they were filled with the Spirit and spoke God’s message. Joshua tried to stop them, but Moses said “If the Spirit fills them, let them speak God’s message.” “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
2. The powerful name of Jesus
While we know the name of Jesus and use it often, Christians sometimes forget that Jesus’ name is endowed with God’s power to forgive, restore, and save.
Listen to what the Bible says the name of Jesus can do:
James 5 – healing comes from being anointed with oil in the name of the Lord, and forgiveness comes, too.
Acts 3 – “In the name of Jesus… walk!”
Acts 2 & Romans 10 – everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
John 14 – ask in the name of Jesus (according to God’s will) and it will be done.
Acts 4 – signs and wonders were done in the power of Jesus’ name.
Ephesians 2 – there is community (fellow citizens, same household) in the name of Jesus.
Philippians 4 – peace that passes all understanding… in Jesus’ name.
The name of Jesus is our comfort in struggle and our strength in time of need. No other name has such power and no other name can impart such hope to those who trust in it. So, it is surprising – given that the disciples were familiar with the name of Jesus and the person of Jesus and the work of Jesus – that they intended to stop someone who was using Jesus’ name.
3. Regarding Jesus… no fence-sitting!
Let’s get back to the “against us – for us” phrase of Jesus. We want to understand here that, when it comes to Jesus, there is no middle ground, there is no sitting on the fence.
There is a fictional story of a large group of people assembled in a field. On one side of the field stood Jesus, on the other side Satan. In the middle was a fence. Both Jesus and Satan began calling to the people in the group and, one by one, each went to either Jesus or Satan. As Jesus left with His people and Satan left with his people, one man remained, and sat on the fence.
As this man sat there, Satan came back, and appeared to be looking for something that he’d lost. The man said, “Have you lost something?”
Satan looked straight at him and replied, “No, there you are. Come with me.”
“But,” said the man, “I sat on the fence. I chose neither you nor Him.”
“That’s okay,” said Satan. “I own the fence.”
That’s what Jesus was saying – on one side of the fence is God, and good, and light, and love, and the genuine confession of Jesus. On the other side is Satan, and evil, and darkness, and hatred, and the denial of Jesus. Can you remain neutral? No, it isn’t possible… because the devil owns the fence.
In Revelation 3:16 the Lord issues a stinging accusation to the church in Laodicea: “Because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I will spit you out of my mouth!” The Laodiceans were sitting on the fence when it came to Jesus – they didn’t reject Him, but neither did they commit to Him with all their heart.
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul warns the believers in Corinth about Satan who, even though the Bible talks about him as the prince of darkness and the father of lies, will sometimes disguise himself as an angel of light. Let me interpret that for you… He seduces people into his camp by making wicked deeds appear good, and by cloaking naked evil in attractive garments. Movie script writers often make you feel sorry for and cheer for people who have done something obviously wrong. We recently watched a movie that had us cheering for a small crew of master thieves that was attempting to steal a lost treasure that was buried in a vault underneath the Bank of Spain. Those same writers may have you cheering for a woman to get out of a not-so-good marriage, rather than working hard to reconcile the relationship. The sexual and financial scandals of some televangelists reveal that they, too, were disguised as angels of light – trying to connect people with the riches of God while secretly becoming rich themselves thanks to generous but deceived donors. They weren’t sitting on the fence, they were in the devil’s camp.
4. Caution – don’t include those who are not for Jesus!
So, Jesus’ words are a caution about those who are not for Jesus. What does that look like for us?
I think one of the greatest dangers is to include people in Jesus’ camp who profess faith in a God-figure, but that God-figure excludes the person and the work of Jesus. You’ve probably heard it… people say that it’s all the same God, other world religions just call him by another name… NO! It’s not all the same God! If their God does not include coming to earth in the person of Jesus to forgive and save us, then it’s definitely not the same God… they’re trying to deceive and put us all in the same religious basket. In the Old Testament, when Moses was up on Mount Sinai getting the Ten Commandments from God, the people created and worshiped a statue of a golden calf. They even said that the calf was the god who brought them out of Egypt. No! No! No! That was NOT the true GOD!!! Worshiping that golden calf meant standing squarely on Satan’s side of the fence. Later, after the Israelites settled in the Promised land, the worship of the Baal god/statue was always getting God’s people in trouble. No! No! No! That was NOT the true GOD!!! You can’t worship God and Baal at the same time. They are mutually exclusive!!
In fact, that was precisely the reason that God wanted all the foreign nations, the pagan peoples expelled from the Promised Land as the Israelites were moving in. If we think of the other phrase of Jesus – whoever is not for us is against us – it makes sense. Those pagan people who were inhabiting the land were not “for” God, so that means they were against God, and against His people. That’s why God asked for them to be driven out from the land, so that they would not lead God’s people toward those other, false gods. That was the very first Commandment – first in order, first in importance: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make a graven image or statue.” There is to be no idol of silver and gold made by human hands. There is to be no statue of a gold guy with a fat stomach in some little nook in our house. If Jesus’ death and resurrection isn’t central, then it’s not the true God. Whoever is not for Jesus is masquerading against us, to deceive us, to get us on the devil’s side of the fence!
Some people in our world like to sit on the fence with respect to Jesus. They’ll try to cover all the bases by sampling different religions. They want the supposed privileges, the blessings, the peace, the forgiveness that they hear comes from Jesus, without the responsibilities… the real following, the genuine learning, the prayer moments, the involvement, the activity, the financial support, the standing up for Jesus when others are putting Him down. These people are like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3. They are the ones whom Jesus will spit out. Remember, the fence belongs to Satan!
5. Caution – don’t exclude those who are for Jesus
Our readings today give us the opposite caution – don’t exclude those who are for Jesus. In Numbers 11, Joshua somehow wanted to exclude those who were speaking God’s message without having been at the training session. But those prophets were speaking in God’s name – they were “for” God. In Mark 9, the disciples wanted to exclude that man who didn’t have “disciple” in the credentials after his name. But he was using Jesus’ name properly – he was “for” Jesus. In James 5, the elders, the pray-ers, were doing something godly and wholesome in Jesus’ name as they prayed for the sick and the suffering – they were “for” Jesus.
So, yes, God is calling us to be cautious not to exclude people who are in His camp, those who are on His side of the fence, those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord, and risen from the dead. That’s what we read in Romans 10:9 – “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” So, if that confession and faith is the criteria for being in heaven one day, then we had better acknowledge even now that there are true Christians in other church bodies. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In the olden days (not my olden days, but my parents’ olden days), you were taught – by your pastor, or by your parents, or maybe you just kind of learned – that, as a good Lutheran, you don’t hang around with and you don’t date and you certainly don’t marry someone who is Catholic, or someone who is Baptist, or someone who is Pentecostal. Oh, and if your pastor and your family were really strict, you wouldn’t even marry someone who is from – what my grandma would call – the “other Synod,” that is the other branch of Lutherans. OOOPS… I guess I really shouldn’t be a Lutheran Church – Canada pastor because that’s what I did. Don’t be surprised by those narrow views about courting and marriage because it went the other way, too. Catholics were definitely not to marry Lutherans!! But according to what we heard from the lips of Jesus today, that is a sinful and exclusive attitude. If someone stands for Jesus, then we stand united – in faith and in practice and in worship, and one day we will stand united in heaven.
6. The Good News – Jesus is for us!!
The conversation about being for us or against us reminds me of one other very significant passage that uses the same terminology. It’s found in Romans 8 – a beautiful grace passage. There Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The word “if” can also be translated as “since” – to render “Since God is for us, who can be against us?”
That states clearly, without question, that God IS FOR US!! And since God is for us, it doesn’t matter who is against us! Someone has written that “One / you plus God equals a majority.” That means that as long as God is on your side, as long as you are on God’s side, the number of enemies that are arrayed against you is irrelevant. God is still, and always, going to win, and that means that you are going to win. Paul explains why – “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” God gave His Son Jesus for us – that’s what we heard from Mark 9 last week… Jesus’ sacrificial, substitutionary death for us, and His victorious resurrection from the dead to defeat all those who are against us. Jesus is for us – that’s good news! Jesus has power over demons, and even the head-demon, the devil – that’s good news, GREAT news! And that means, as Paul explained right at the end of Romans 8, that nothing in the whole world – neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor things to come, no powers – nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Jesus!
So, if you see someone sincerely calling on Jesus’ name, if you see someone powerfully praying in Jesus’ name, if you see someone humbly healing in Jesus’ name… well, praise God! because you’re on the same team, God’s team, and one day God will bless you with the championship, the eternal championship. Amen.