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Pentecost 18, “Fight the Good Fight”

Pastor Gary Wong October 4, 2020

Philippians 1:18b-27

The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. 27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel

It wasn’t a fair fight. Three hundred Spartan soldiers stood against the Persian army that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Yet, there wasn’t a hint of fear amongst the Spartan’s ranks. Why were these soldiers so calm, courageous, and, yes—even confident—at the prospect of almost certain defeat? It wasn’t that they were the best trained and equipped fighting force in the world, or that their commander was a master of military tactics. What made them such a formidable force was their unwavering commitment to their cause. They were fighting against an enemy who wanted to make them slaves. Their freedom was so precious that they were willing to die for it, rather than give up without a fight. Throughout the battle, the three hundred stood shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield, fighting together as one. Refusing to retreat or surrender in disgrace, the handful of soldiers who remained chose to make one last, heroic stand. In the end, all three hundred lay dead on the battlefield. The Spartans had lost the battle. But because of their courage and willingness to sacrifice their own lives, their fellow citizens were inspired to take up this common cause and fight for their freedom. The Greek nation eventually won the war. What began as a defeat turned into a glorious victory!

Today’s lesson also speaks about life, death, and commitment. While few of us have risked our lives serving in our country’s armed forces, each of us is engaged in an all-out war. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul reminds us that we are fighting against the spiritual forces of evil. By ourselves we have no hope of winning a single battle, much less the war. Paul reminds us, however, that we aren’t alone. We can take our stand with fellow Christians at our side. More than that, God has given us the spirit of Jesus Christ. May Paul’s inspired words encourage us to make our stand on the gospel, knowing that Jesus has already won the victory. Motivated and empowered by the good news of forgiveness, life and salvation through faith in Christ, let’s fight the good fight of faith.

This war for our souls began the moment we were conceived. Unfortunately, we started off fighting on the wrong side. The Bible teaches that all of us were born God’s enemies. Now, we could blame the devil for starting the war in the first place when he rebelled against God (and lost). We could blame Adam and Eve who joined the devil’s ranks when they disobeyed God. We could say that because we inherited a sinful nature from our parents that we really didn’t have any choice in the matter—that we had been automatically drafted into Satan’s army. While all of that is true, the fact is, our sinful thoughts, words, and actions show that we aren’t even trying to switch sides. When we listen to the devil’s lies and fall for his temptations, we demonstrate that we are on the wrong side. How smart is that? By nature, we foolishly follow the devil and fight against God Almighty, whose holiness demands that he destroy anyone who opposes him.

As foolish as those choices are, our old Adam is perfectly comfortable marching lockstep with the forces of evil. Not only was each of us a foot soldier in the devil’s army, we worked to rise in the ranks. That’s exactly how the Apostle Paul had lived before God confronted him on the road to Damascus. Few people could match Paul’s zeal and commitment to his cause. He was the ultimate warrior, fighting with every ounce of his strength and every weapon in his arsenal. He wasn’t satisfied with just defeating his enemies—he wanted to destroy them. Unfortunately, Paul (before his conversion) was fighting on the wrong side. He mistakenly thought that he was defending God. Instead, he was fighting Christians and Christ himself. Paul had made it his life’s work to seek out and destroy anyone who confessed that Jesus is the Savior. As far as Paul had been concerned, anyone who followed Jesus was his mortal enemy.

Yet even as Paul was hell bent on destroying the Christian church, his campaign came to a screeching halt on the road to Damascus. Jesus confronted one of his most vociferous attackers and asked him point blank, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 26:14). Immediately, Paul realized that that he had been fighting against his Lord and Savior. To his horror and utter shame, Paul realized that he had been acting as God’s number one enemy. But by God’s grace, Paul now saw the light. Because of his love, Jesus had made Paul his own. Once, Paul had been a slave to the devil. Now, Paul considered himself a slave to Christ. Where he had once fiercely fought God at every turn, he now willingly, completely and joyfully submitted to God’s will. Paul was ready and eager to carry out his leader’s marching orders. What was Paul’s mission? Jesus told him that he would be God’s apostle to the Gentiles. Jesus said, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God …[You] will carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 26:17-18; 9:15).

If you or I had been in Paul’s place and Jesus had told us that that was our mission, we might have balked. We might have reacted like a raw recruit whose commanding officer had just ordered him to take a column of tanks all by himself. “Uh, Sir … I don’t mean to be disrespectful—but you’re nuts! I mean, how can one guy with a rifle go against a tank? I know that there’s always the chance that a soldier can get killed in battle; but why should I risk my life when there’s no chance to succeed? There’s a saying that goes something like, ‘The one who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.’ Maybe this is one of those battles where we don’t want to make a stand.” Folks, you or I might have reacted that way—but not Paul. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation; there wasn’t a single word of protest. Paul simply and immediately followed his Savior’s orders. Now, it’s not as though Paul thought that his mission would be a piece of cake. He wasn’t underestimating the strength of his enemies. He knew that his was an extremely dangerous mission, one where he could very well lose his life. Indeed, Jesus had told him as much. Jesus warned Paul, “I will show [you] how much [you] must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16).

And suffer he did. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul listed just a few of the hardships he had endured over the course of his missionary journeys: “Five times I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked …I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst … I have been in prison more frequently, and [have] been exposed to death again and again” (2 Cor. 11:24, 25, 27, 23). In fact, today’s lesson—a portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians—was written even as Paul was a prisoner in Rome simply because he had been sharing the gospel.

So, how did Paul react to this latest hardship in a seemingly endless string of setbacks? Was Paul discouraged because of his suffering? Had he had enough? Did he feel like a failure? Was he ready to wave the white flag and surrender? You or I might have reacted that way; but not Paul. Rather, Paul expressed two unlikely emotions: confidence and joy! The question is, why? Was Paul some starry-eyed idealist who simply refused to see reality? Not at all—Paul readily acknowledged that his imprisonment might end in his death. Paul’s confidence came from knowing that he was not alone. Ever since his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul knew that he belonged to the Lord. His confidence came from knowing that he had been given the spirit of Jesus to sustain and guard him. Knowing that his life was in the Lord’s hands, Paul could and did face every hardship with confidence, peace and joy.

You and I can have the same confidence and peace that Paul expresses as we face our own individual battles. As long as we are living on this side of heaven, we will have to fight against Satan, the sinful world, our own sinful flesh. Those battles take many different forms. Many people battle diseases like cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, which ravages the body and the mind. Others fight financial battles of trying to make ends meet. Sometimes these attacks are brief skirmishes; others are full-fledged frontal assaults. It’s easy to get discouraged, and we might be tempted to give up. We might be tempted to say, “I wish that God would hurry and take me to heaven.” Paul expresses that sentiment when he said, “I desire to depart and be with Christ” (Php. 1:23).

It’s not wrong for a Christian to want to be free of suffering, pain, and wanting to leave behind the troubles of this life and enter the perfect joy of heaven. Yet, we need to understand that you and I do not have the choice of whether we are going to live or die. That choice strictly belongs to the Lord. Hoping to die as a way of avoiding our problems or shirking our responsibilities is not a God-pleasing prayer or attitude. We live to serve and glorify our Savior. If the Lord has determined that we should continue to go on living, we can be sure that he will supply us with all that we need. When God has determined that our service to him and our fellow human beings has been completed, we can be sure that he will then take us to our glorious home in heaven. Because we belong to the Lord, we can confidently confess, along with Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v.21).

Friends, you and I are engaged in an all-out war for our souls. Every day we battle against the spiritual forces of evil. The fighting is fierce and the warfare long. But take heart, fellow Christian soldiers. We aren’t fighting alone. We have the prayers and support of our comrades in Christ. More than that, we have our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who is fighting right along side of us. Therefore, let’s take our stand on the gospel. Let’s commit ourselves to sharing the good news of our Savior and living lives that are worthy of his name. The gospel motivates and empowers us to fight the good fight of faith. Praise, honor, thanks and glory be to God, for he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.

“Fight the Good Fight” (CW 457)

Text: John S. B. Monsell, 1811-75, alt.

Fight the good fight

With all your might;

Christ is your strength

And Christ your light.

Lay hold on life,

And it shall be

Your joy and crown

Eternally.

Run straight the race

Through God’s good grace;

Lift up your eyes and seek his face.

Life with its way

Before us lies;

Christ is the path

And Christ the prize.

Faint not nor fear,

His arms are near;

He changes not,

And you are dear.

Only believe

And you shall see

That Christ is Lord

Eternally.

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