sermon

Reaching Behind Bars

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

January 28, 2018 

Text: Mark 1:27, O.T.: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, N.T.: Mark 1:21-28

           Over 40 years ago Charles Colson was Special Counsel for Richard Nixon. He was near the pinnacle of American government – rubbing shoulders with the world’s most powerful men.

He was a Marine and a lawyer in a powerful Washington D.C. firm. He knew the law. He understood semper fidelis. Yet, he landed in prison.

When Colson was arrested for his role in Watergate, Raytheon’s chairman of the Board, Thomas Philips, gave Colson a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. It changed his life. Colson pled guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months of a one to three-year sentence.

Colson discovered the power of Jesus Christ in Mere Christianity.  Colson claimed he had repented and submitted his life to Jesus Christ. Newsweek, Time Magazine, and the Village Voice ridiculed him. They said he did so to obtain a lighter sentence.

When Colson was released from prison, only G. Gordon Liddy remained behind bars of the seven men who were indicted for Watergate.

In 1977, I entered Princeton Theological Seminary with another of the Watergate men – Jeb Stuart Magruder. Magruder graduated from Princeton Seminary with me, in 1981.

America didn’t hear much about Mr. Magruder’s call to ministry. His Presbyterian path to ministry didn’t command national news.

But America definitely questioned the more highly publicized claim of Charles Colson that he accepted Jesus Christ as His Savior. Many skeptics were secularists who don’t have use for religion. But other skeptics were Christians who were offended by Colson’s repentance.

Why were Christians offended? Is God’s power only for law-abiding citizens who go to Church? Can’t God’s salvation reach behind bars?

I’ve entered the hidden world of America’s criminal justice system several times for Christians who failed Jesus’ call to discipleship. It’s a world of torn people, some convulsing and quivering, others spewing venom. Fear and hatred share cells in the prison’s ranges. Yet there is also repentance and light behind bars. Behind bars convicted men discover the hope in Jesus Christ’s message. It transforms their hearts and their lives.

When we who believe we’ve never been behind bars dismiss Christ’s power to command dark and evil spirits to leave the hearts and minds of those afflicted by demons, then we have a limited view of God.

When we have never seen God release a prisoner from darkness and refuse to accept His power to do so, we show little faith in God.

When we who have never yielded to God in repentance question the sincerity of one who does, we refuse Christ’s hope for the hopeless.

God blessed His Son with the power to command the spirits that imprison men and women. His Son has the key to the gate of freedom where sinners are emancipated from their self-inflicted cells. They can and do find new life in Jesus Christ.

 

You don’t need to be incarcerated in Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama, like Charles Colson, or in Allenwood, Pennsylvania – where Jeb Magruder served his sentence. We who appear to be free can still be imprisoned in our hearts and minds by forces seeking our destruction.

We can be imprisoned by stereotypes, misconceptions, and mischaracterizations that bring pain and affliction to others as well as to ourselves. We can be so self-assured about our righteousness that we refuse to be gracious to those God has sent to lead us into His light.

Self-righteousness is a terrible prison whose walls prevent us from caring for people in need. Self-righteousness, self-confidence has no room to care for other people as they are, for who they are. The self-righteous person isn’t interested in the salvation of people needing hope.

The self-righteous go to Church with confidence that worshipping on Sunday and making contributions to the Church’s needs are all they need to do in God’s eyes to be saved. Actually, Jesus warns His followers in Matthew 25 that if we aren’t concern about saving others – especially those behind bars – we won’t get into the kingdom of God.

Christians can give the image of being free but are slaves of wants and desires that deny God’s blessings for them. Christians can disbelieve what they say they believe about God when they face repentance.

Christians can say God gives grace in Jesus Christ, only to condemn those who repent and are committed to living a new life in Christ.

When God possesses the power to change a person’s life, why do Christians deny God’s work? When people’s lives are being changed by God before our eyes, why are we skeptical about what He has done?

Too many Christians live behind bars of doubt and cynicism that harden their hearts. They justify their hardness of heart by pointing to the evidence of false repentance they see in life. Such rationalization denies the sincerity of a person standing right before us. Each person must be seen as a child of God in his or her own right.

Secularists dismiss God’s intervention in our world and the necessity of religious faith for people. But what is even worse is when Christians fail to accept God’s power to transform people.

Christians who fail to believe in God’s omnipotence over the affairs of this world are spiritually imprisoned. They put God in a box and refuse to belive He is capable of breaking out of that box and reaching people in their own prisons.   Christian men and women who deny God reaches behind the bars of this world to transform a sinner’s heart are Christians who have given up on Jesus Christ as its Lord and Savior.

Christians need God to reach behind the bars of our self-righteous and self-confidence to save us. Christians need Jesus to open the doors of our hearts to the people around us who are need new life only Jesus offers.

There was a time when I was an agnostic, I’m ashamed to admit. I didn’t believe Jesus is who He is and doubted His ability to save. I was a college student at the time and a young man began visiting my room to encourage me to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

I argued against every reason he gave me to believe in Jesus. After three attempts on different afternoons, he gave up and said I would never believe. He left my dorm room with me feeling pretty good about winning my debates against his arguments to believe.

That night my conscience was conflicted. I began thinking about the people God had sent to share the Gospel with me. My grandmother, and mother, my father, my Sunday school teachers and church members from my congregation in Norwalk, Ohio – my extended family who faithfully went to church on both sides of Christianity. I began thinking about what Jesus meant to them and what they told me He ought to mean for me.

I became ashamed and that night committed my life to Jesus Christ. I am here because He had not given up on me. He had reached behind the bars of my agnosticism to save me.

The next day, when I sought out my evangelist to tell him Jesus had saved me the previous night – what do you think he said? He didn’t believe me. As far as he was concerned, I was a permanently lost case.

Well, friends, this is not good enough for Christians. This is not good enough for any one of us to think or to say. None of us can say we stand for Jesus on the one hand, and dismiss His ability to save a prisoner behind the bars of disbelief on the other hand.

This is a congregation to which Jesus has given the responsibility to be a missionary people. He has shown us in our private lives that He has not abandoned us. We only need to think about how He has been with us through all the challenges we faced as children, as teens, as young adults, as newly weds, when children were born, when children became teenagers, when we lost our parents, through job changes, and losing spouses. Jesus Christ has been with us, lifting us up from the ground of disbelief.

He has reached behind the bars of our despair and freed us to find our faith again. He has guided us through darker times than these and He will do it again and again. We know how He has saved us.

And He can do that for other people to. We simply need to remind them of what we have already experienced in our lives. Anything less enables spirits of darkness to imprison a church behind bars of despair and loss. Christ calls us to reach beyond the bars of estrangement from God to build others up in Jesus Christ.

Every day God is doing the impossible through Jesus Christ. “All things are possible for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” There is no biological or social determinism that imprisons people when Christ is at work!   We are not victims in this world. We should always celebrate the length of His reach and rejoice in who He saves!

Most importantly, we must align our lives with Jesus Christ to be the message of hope in Jesus that saves the world.

There are millions who are imprisoned by spirits of darkness. But can save them through Jesus Christ. Believe it! Embrace His power to save! Our job as Christ’s disciples is to uplift the power of the Lord that’s evident before us. Our job is to join the Lord in the ministry of reaching behind bars with the hope in Jesus Christ’s name! Amen.

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