This is the first of two parts of a sermon I preached on November 16, 2008 in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” –Romans 5:1-5
This fall has been a huge time of change in America. The financial markets have fallen precipitously, industry giants such Ford and General Motors are on the brink of bankruptcy, and many people are losing their jobs and feeling the strains of a worsening recession. Now, in the midst of all the stress and strain, everyone is hoping for some positive change in the days, months and years ahead.
Yet, seeking change is nothing new to most of us. Whenever you or I want a better life, a better marriage, better work, better relationship with others, a better community or church, or even a better world, we are talking about change. We may not be able to describe exactly what we would like, but we know it’s different from what we are experiencing at the moment. We want some kind of change in the hope that our future will be better than our past or present.
At its core, the Gospel is itself all about change.
• When Jesus came into the world he preached repentance from sins and a return to heartfelt, faithful, and loving devotion to God. That was a message of change.
• When Jesus died and was resurrected, he brought hope of eternal life to the world, showing that death need not have the final say in our lives. That was a big change.
• When we move from guilt to forgiveness, from judgment to salvation, from death to life, from despair to hope, and from powerlessness to power through the Holy Spirit, that’s real change.
• In Romans 5:1-5, everything Paul talks about has to do with change. By faith, we move from alienation from God to justification. We move from anxiety over our sins and fear of punishment to forgiveness and peace with God. We move from despair over life’s hardships to hope, because we see God at work in our suffering to produce perseverance, character and confidence for the future. Above all, we move from trying to worship a scary God out there somewhere, to having our hearts filled with love by the Holy Spirit, who is present within every believer in Jesus Christ.
• And, if God has his full way with us, we will also move from serving ourselves to serving Christ with our lives. With this transformation, our whole way of looking at life changes dramatically. We move from a self-centered way of being in the world to becoming instruments of God’s love to one another. Life ceases to be “about us” and increasingly becomes about Christ and serving God’s purposes in the world.
Now all of these changes help give us what we most need. They start as promises, but increasingly become reality for us as grow in faith and in our relationship with God. Truly, they are “the change we can believe in”!
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that we live in a world that is filled with all sorts of impediments to the change God wants to produce in us and among us.
• We have our human weaknesses, bad habits, addictions, and psychological hangups.
• We are subject to our sinful nature, and are surrounded by lies and deceptions from unseen spiritual forces that fool us or tie us up in knots.
• We can easily become afraid or distracted from the Spirit’s leading, and revert back to our pre-changed ways.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
Nothing can undo the work of Christ on the cross, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, but many things can sap the life out of our spirit and undermine our joy and ability to fully live out our God-given purpose.
What I experienced in Africa
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 is an extreme example of what I’m talking about. The church leadership utterly failed the nation of Rwanda, where 85% of the country was “Christian” before the genocide. Before the killing was over, one million people were murdered and 500,000 women raped in 100 days. As I sat with one of the bishops of the Anglican Church in October, he told me that the country is still suffering from effects of the genocide, and that the root of the problem was deep-seated hatred for others, and a failure of church leaders to develop the people spiritually. They had no concept of letting the Holy Spirit pour out God’s love in their hearts.
On the other hand, perhaps one of the most inspiring people I’ve met so far in Africa is Pastor Jacob Lipandasi. I first met Jacob at the Pastors Leadership Conference in Goma that I was leading a year ago. I learned of his compassion for the widows and orphans in his village, and my wife, Jill, and I helped him to raise $500 to buy seeds and tools in order to help the most vulnerable people in his area to plant their own crops.
This year, we invited Jacob to participate in a new program of spiritual life coaching. We had chosen just 3 of the 30 pastors from the conference to participate in the six month program, and he was one of them. We did not have enough money in our new ministry to pay for his travel expenses at the time, so he borrowed the $15 needed so that he could get the cheapest place on the cheapest boat to cross Lake Kivu to come for coaching. I found out that he stood on the outside of the boat for 13 hours, over night, just to come. He arrived with no money for his return ticket. He was trusting God to provide.
During the coaching, he refined his vision for his ministry to help these poor women move from just providing food for themselves to actually creating businesses for themselves so that some day that might get out of poverty. Jacob will need to attend more schooling to learn how to do this, and he has no idea where the money will come from to pay for his further education or for the training center that he wants to establish, yet he has faith and he has compassion that compels him to keep looking for solutions. He is determined.
Jacob’s life has been changed by God in many ways over his lifetime, and he wants to be a change-agent in the life of others. No, he does not have all of his plans figured out. But he is putting his faith into action. The Holy Spirit has done and is doing a powerful and beautiful thing in his life, and only God knows what will unfold in the future as he continues to seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Looking closer to home
Now we don’t have to look to Africa to find examples of Christians who do not know how to be filled and led with the Holy Spirit or for those who do. We can look in our own lives. There are times when we experience the Holy Spirit’s working mysteriously or powerfully, and times when we are being led by dark forces and sinful impulses within. That mixed reality is true of every Christian everywhere.
The question is not, are we sometimes driven by our sinful nature? The question is, how committed are we to learning how to be a Spirit-led follower of Jesus Christ?
What have you learned about how to be more Spirit-filled and Spirit-led in your life?