“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of Galatians. Dear friends in Christ: even if you know almost nothing about poetry, you have probably heard these words, penned by poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” ‘The path less traveled’ has become a proverbial saying, part of how we speak and think. I’m no expert on Robert Frost, so I cannot tell you what influenced these famous lines, but I can tell you that Biblical theology, drawing from the Exodus and wilderness wanderings, has always described of the life of the godly as a ‘walk,’ a ‘journey,’ and like Robert Frost, the Scriptures contrast the ‘path less traveled by’ with another path, a well-heeled path, a path that is broad and easy. In our Gospel lesson, one leper took the path ‘less traveled by,’ returning to Jesus to give Him praise, while the other nine traveled together to the temple. Our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs calls the ‘path less traveled by’ the “way of wisdom,” and the other road, the broad and easy road, the “path of the wicked.” For Paul, one path is “walking by the Spirit.” The other? Gratifying “the desires of the flesh.”
The path of the flesh is wide enough for everyone to fit, and there’s always room for one more. The path of the flesh is easy, even pleasurable; what can be easier and more fun than letting your natural desires run wild? The path of the flesh is selfish and indulgent, seeking only what I want at that moment, without thought of others around me or of the future. “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”
The first three sins Paul lists are against the Sixth Commandment—sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality; the path of the flesh is letting your sexual attractions govern thoughts, words, and behavior, letting them tell you when and how to act, indulging your attraction to others no matter their gender, age, or whether you are married to them or not. The next two sins are against the First and Second Commandments—idolatry and sorcery; the path of the flesh is letting your inclination to make gods run wild, setting anyone and anything above the true God. The eight sins that follow deal with our relationships with others—enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy; the path of the flesh is living a life of competition, the survival of the fittest, looking down on those beneath you and being jealous of those above. Finally, with the last two sins your flesh is out of control—drunkenness and orgies; the path of the flesh is letting sin run your life. Ultimately, the path of the flesh, no matter what form it takes, is the path of addiction, addiction to the flesh and its desires.
Solomon says about this path: “They cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence… The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” The path of the flesh is broad and easy, but its end is shrouded in darkness, its destination is hidden. When Paul says, “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” the word ‘gratify’ is probably better translated ‘complete, finish, end.’ The desires of the flesh have a goal, an end, and it is this end that is covered by darkness. The broad and easy road leads to apostasy, a fancy word that simply means the rejection of the faith and turning away from God. The path of the flesh smothers faith, it drives away the Holy Spirit, and it is completed only in death; this path has only one destination: eternal judgment. “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”
Two roads diverged in a wood; the easy, broad road has only one destination, though it keeps this goal hidden behind the pleasures of the present: death, eternal death. The path less traveled by has only one destination as well, but that destination is as different from the end of the broad road as darkness is from light. The end, the completion, the goal of the path less traveled by is life, life to the fullest, life for eternity. Solomon says about this road, “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” The full day is coming, when the road less traveled by will be bathed in light, the light as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. For this road is walked in Christ and its destination is the inheritance that Christ won by His death and resurrection, the destination we sang of in the Introit: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the Lord.”
The road to this place is not the road of moral perfection; that is the path that those who were deceiving the Galatians preached. No, the flesh secretly loves legalism as much as it loves sinning, because depending on the Law for salvation puts the focus back on us; the broad and easy road has plenty of room for those who are trying to work their way to heaven. Instead of moral perfection, Paul offers another way, the way of Christ Himself: walking “by the Spirit.” This is not a path of perfection, of legalism, but of repentance, going to war against the flesh, setting Christ against your sin. “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
Walking by the Spirit is the path of conflict, for the flesh cannot be trained, it cannot be reformed—it must be put to death. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” The flesh is put to death by Christ and with Christ, it is taken by Him to the cross and nailed with Him there. It is conquered, overcome, defeated at the tree, and then each and every day, through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ Jesus puts your sinful flesh to death by taking you back to your Baptism, where He first drowned it by water and the Word. Why do we need the gifts of Christ? Why does He continue to pour them upon us? Because only they can overcome the flesh. The war against the flesh is fought only by repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Those are the only tools, the only weapons Christ uses. He calls us to repentance by proclaiming the Law, putting the sinful flesh to death, and He makes us alive in the Spirit by forgiving all of your sins. You have heard of the desires of the flesh this night, desires that you have indulged, that you are indulging? You have heard the stern words of the Law, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God”? Repent. Repent and hear these words, from Jesus through His instrument: Your sins are forgiven, each and every one of them. You are forgiven.
What flows from this forgiveness is what Paul calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit.’ “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” In the place of lust there is love and joy; in the place of competition and rivalry there is peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. In the place of indulging sinful desires there is self-control. Living by the Spirit means controlling one’s natural desires and passions. This isn’t easy; it may bring suffering, as you run counter to the world and Christ does battle with the desires that dwell therein. You will bear the cross. But there is One who bore a cross for you, leading the way that you now walk, and it is only by His work that you can walk, because it is only by His work that you have a destination that awaits you.
“Two roads diverged in a wood,” Robert Frost wrote. “And I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Jesus chose not to take the easy path that would’ve meant safety and worldly glory, the path of victory that so many wanted Him to take. No, instead He took the road of the cross, the road that passed through darkness, darkness deep as death, but on the other side was light, the light of eternal glory. The broad and easy path is bathed in light, but its destination is darkness; the road less traveled by, the road of the cross, is covered with darkness, but its end is light. Jesus walked the way of the cross to redeem those dwelling in darkness, to set us on a path that seems dark to our frail human eyes, but has the promise of the light of eternal glory that He won for us. He took the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference—for you, and for me, for the world. Thanks be to God! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.