(Message delivered July 12, 2015 at Open Hands Christian Fellowship, Suffolk, VA)
You’ve seen these images of Haiti. Maybe you’re wondering now, like I did, how we can possibly fix all that’s broken in that poor nation. Where does one start on a project so large? The United Nations hasn’t figured the answer to that question. The American government hasn’t figured the answer. The Haitian government has botched it at every turn and in every different configuration.
Money hasn’t solved the problems. Well-meaning people who have set up orphanages, started economic development programs, sent aid and comfort to the people of Haiti — none of them have done much more than make a dent in the abject poverty, the rate of infant mortality, the epidemic of fatherless households.
In that regard, I think, Haiti is not that much different than the United States, not that much different than the state of Virginia, not that much different than the city of Suffolk.
Sure, we have cars and fast food and welfare programs and all manner of comforts the people of Haiti can only imagine. But in some ways, that just makes us more lost than the people of Haiti. There, the people are broken, and they cannot ignore their brokenness. Here, we go on about our lives as if we believe we were meant to live this way.
But God has told us something different. God said, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It’s interesting to note that God told his people, Israel, that He had these wonderful plans for them when things looked pretty grim for those people. They had been hauled from their homes in Jerusalem and carried into exile in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar because they had sought after evil, instead of seeking God. There, they would be enslaved by an evil king, finally reaping the fruits of the evil they had sown back in the Promised Land.
But our God is a God of grace and mercy (AMEN?), and He had a great plan for them, a plan set in motion before the beginning of time, before he breathed the stars into creation with the words “Let there be light.” He had a plan to return the Israelites home, where they would rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. He had a plan for them to be fruitful and multiply in the land He had promised Abraham man generations before, a plan that included His Son, Jesus Christ, being born of a virgin, living a sinless life and yet bearing the sins of all on a cross on Calvary. But His plan didn’t end on Calvary (AMEN?). His plan didn’t even end at the empty tomb where Jesus had risen from the dead three days after His death, nor on the mountain where Jesus ascended to heaven.
God continues to work His plan even today. He still works to prosper us, to give us hope and a future. His plan is for the people of Suffolk, the people of Virginia, the people of the United States, the people of Haiti and, indeed, all the people to the ends of the Earth.
His plan is to transform us by His grace. To make beauty from ashes.
Let me tell you a little about the mission team Annette and I are leading to Haiti in October (SLIDE). Our church hosts a ministry called Victory Home. It’s a residential recovery program for people with life-dominating issues like addiction, homelessness, suicidal tendencies, prostitution, depression and incarceration. People come to Victory Home when everybody else — their families, their friends, their drug connections, the legal system — has turned their backs on them. At Victory Home, these folks learn that their addictions, their homelessness, their incarceration are only the symptoms of the real problem. The real problem is that they lack a right relationship with God. We believe and teach that the result of that right relationship with God is transformation, not reformation. As my pastor says, we’re not just trying to make better sinners.
Here’s a photo of our team. Everybody on this team, except for Annette and me, is a graduate of the Victory Home program. Let that sink in for a moment. Is this the picture you had in your mind of a missionary group? Here’s what the world sees: a drug addict, a liar, an idolator, an adulterer, a shiftless and lazy incompetent. And all that describes just one person in the photo: Me. That’s who I was before Jesus lifted me from the mirey clay and set my feet upon a Rock. I didn’t save myself. I couldn’t do anything except chase after sin harder and harder. Every high was lower than the last, and the only thing I knew how to do was to keep running harder and faster toward sin, to look for another, better high, to immerse myself deeper into the pit.
But God had a plan for me, just as He has a plan for each of you. He had a plan to save me. He had a plan to transform me, to make beauty from the ashes of my life, to take this broken and worthless vessel and begin molding it into the form of His perfect Son.
That’s what He’s done for each of the people in this photo. Each of their stories is different, and some might even seem shocking to you if I shared them. But what’s really shocking, what ought to send shivers up your spine, what ought to raise the hairs on your arms and make you shout Hallelujah! is the grace and love He has lavished on those of us who are called by His son’s name.
In his letter to the people of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote (SLIDE): “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
Do you see the incredible thing in that passage? These verses have been on my mind for months, and every time I read them or think of them, I keep coming back to this: God does all the work here. He supplies the grace. He supplies the faith. He even ordains the good works that faith should produce. My transformation is a work of God and God alone. (AMEN?)
But maybe you don’t think you need to be transformed. Maybe you’re doing just fine on your own. That’s what we do in America, right? We make our own way, we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we are the nation of the self-made man. But God has something to say about that, too (SLIDE) “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.”
You know that verse, of course, just like you knew the passage from Ephesians a moment ago and you know the story of Jesus. Most of you, like me, grew up here in the South, where everybody goes to Vacation Bible School or Sunday School and hears these things from the time they’re children. And many of you, like me, were probably baptized as children after hearing some fiery sermon or another and figuring you’d better make that profession of faith. And you’re here today, because going to church on Sunday is what Christians do, right?
But have you truly been transformed by the renewing of your mind or have you just reformed your old, sinful self? After having been baptized into Christ, did you put on Christ or did you just put on a new suit? Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that (SLIDE) “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” And to the church in Colosse, he added a twist (SLIDE): “And have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
There came a time in my adult life, in 2004, right when I was in the pit of my sinfulness, when the old teachings of my youth came back to me. I remember it well. I was on the riding lawn mower, listening to talk radio on my headphones, and someone was talking about America being a Christian nation. I thought, “Hmmph, that’s just words. America sure doesn’t ACT like a Christian nation.”
And then a still, small voice interrupted the person talking on the radio and reminded me of Galatians 5:22-23 (SLIDE): “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” That small voice told me to examine myself for the fruits of the Spirit, for some evidence that I’d been transformed by the renewing of my mind. I knew from Scripture that good trees bear good fruit (SLIDE): “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” If I didn’t bear good fruit, I realized, it was unlikely that I was a good tree.
I had been reformed when I walked that aisle as a child, but I had not been transformed. I had accepted the story of Jesus, and I had chosen to call myself a Christian, but I had not made Him Lord of my life. I identified culturally as a Christian, but I was not a follower of Jesus, and the evidence was that I had not been transformed. I was simply a better sinner.
I was in just the same state that our blind nation is in today. Frankly, it was a more dangerous place than it would have been if I’d never heard of Jesus like so many of the people we met in Haiti. I had convinced myself that I’d been saved because of a prayer I’d recited when I was 7, just like so many of people in America have convinced themselves they’re Christians because they know the stories from the Bible. They identify culturally as Christians, but there’s no evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. There’s no good fruit. There has been no change. At Bethany Baptist Church, where Annette and I worship, we have a saying: “If nothing has changed, then perhaps nothing changed.”
What I needed — what Haiti needs, what America needs and what each of you needs — was the Amazing Transformative Power of Grace working to change me, to make me a new creature. What I needed was a new heart. God spoke about this through the prophet Ezekiel (SLIDE): “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s why we’re going to Haiti in October. The only answer for Haiti’s problems is also the only answer for ours. The only way Haiti can be saved is through Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Sin hurts. It tears our lives apart, harms the people who are close to us, ruins societies and — most of all — it impedes our communion with a perfect and holy God. Unconfessed, unrepentant sin in the life of a believer is crippling to his or her relationship with God. For those who have not made the commitment to follow Jesus — to make Him Lord of their lives, to be transformed by his Amazing Grace — sin is a death sentence with eternal implications.
“For the wages of sin is death,” Scripture tells us. Considering the impossibly high standard set by an Almighty, omniscient, omnipotent and holy God, those words should strike fear into the hearts of the unrepentant. Revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards described our plight as being sinners in the hands of an angry God. It was an apt description of unrepentant man.
But the amazing thing, the thing that should make us shout Hallelujah! is what comes next in that verse. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Do you want to accept that gift? Do you want to be transformed? Do you want to experience the eternal plans God has to prosper you and to give you hope and a future? Then it’s time right now to stop trying to make your own way. It’s time right now to recognize that you can’t save yourself. It’s time right now to recognize, if you haven’t already, that your brokenness isn’t the problem; it’s only a symptom of the problem. If you haven’t truly given your old, stone heart to Jesus so he can give you a new heart made of flesh, now is the time to reach out to Him, to ask Him forgiveness for your sins and to turn from them and to Him.
As they say in Haiti (SLIDE), “Jezi renmen ou!”
Let us pray.