Yesterday, I had the pleasure of delivering a sermon to a group of enthusiastic teenagers at the “Summer Games Georgia 2015” youth camp in Covington, Georgia. Mostly this is a testimony about my coming to faith in Christ. It includes a straightforward presentation of the plan of salvation. During the actual address, I also spoke extemporaneously about the “zombies” from The Walking Dead that invaded our church last week.
Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 5:17
So last week, two of my three kids and myself traveled to the Dominican Republic for a very hard week of work. We helped to build a large, earthquake-proof building that will house a plastics-recycling center. This center will be used to help support a missionary’s efforts to provide clean water to local residents. Because more people in impoverished countries die every day from drinking dirty water than from anything else, including malaria.
Anyway, the four days that we worked on this building were the four hardest days I’ve ever worked in my life, physically speaking. This was not vacation! The work kicked our tails!
But it wasn’t all work. We did have one day in which we went to a local beach. And while we were there, there were a couple of guys who were selling rides in a “banana boat.” Do you know what a banana boat is? It’s literally an inflatable banana-shaped raft that is tethered to a speed boat. Six people straddle the raft and try desperately to maintain their balance while going very fast and making very sharp turns and bouncing around on waves. If anyone on the boat leans too far in one direction or another, the thing tips over. And you have to pull yourself back up on this thing. And you have to have three people on each side pulling up on the raft at the same time, otherwise the stupid thing flips over again!
Does that sound like fun? It was not fun; it was frightening. And, you know, this was not the U.S.A., which has very high safety standards. We received a safety lecture from the guy piloting the boat, which consisted of these words: “You’re going to want to hold on tight and don’t fall off.” Then I promise he said this: “You’re not going to die or get injured, right?” And I’m like, “I don’t know! You’re asking me?”
I asked a friend why he didn’t ride the banana boat with us, and he said, “Because there are two words that don’t go together: ‘banana’ and ‘boat.’”
My 13-year-old son, Townshend, rode the banana boat with me. Needless to say, we fell out of the boat a few times. And Townshend, who is normally quite brave, was very afraid when we did so. I didn’t understand this, until I realized something: Literally, the week before we left for this trip I took him to a movie theater, where they had a special screening of that classic horror movie Jaws. So every time we fell into the ocean, he imagined that we were going to become lunch for a killer, great white shark!
Like I said, frightening!
And as I think about it, I think I am someone who, by nature, is a very fearful person, a deeply insecure person. I’ve always been that way. In part, I think, it’s because I was adopted, like some of you. And I think, growing up, I had this subconscious fear of being abandoned by my parents—the parents who adopted me. It was irrational, but I guess I figured I already had a couple of parents who, I believed, didn’t want me. What if my adoptive parents felt the same way? What if they decided they didn’t want me?
Again, this was completely irrational. My Mom and Dad showed me nothing but love. And in the past ten years I’ve found my birth mother, the woman who gave me birth, and she only gave me up for adoption because she was single, and poor, and unable to provide a good home for me. My birth father, if he’s still alive, doesn’t even know about me! So I’m not saying I had good reasons to feel this way, but I was just a little kid. I was pretty dumb.
But let me tell you how this fear of being abandoned and rejected played out. For one thing, if my parents left me with babysitters, I would spend a lot of time looking out the window in the door to the garage, watching for their car to come up the driveway. Also, I played sports when I was young, and when my parents would drop me off for baseball practice, or football practice, I could hardly enjoy what I was doing because I would be too busy scanning the bleachers or the sidelines, making sure that my parents were there. If they left to run an errand, as I often do when I take my own kids to sports practice, I would get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: Because a small part of me wondered… Will they come back for me?
I never told anyone about these fears until years later. I told my Mom after I was a grownup. She said, “Your Dad and I knew all about that fear of yours. We figured it was because you were adopted.” And I’m like, “You think? Why didn’t you talk to me about it?”
Anyway, by the time I was eleven or twelve I had gotten over that particular fear. But that fear was replaced with a new one: specifically, I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war between the United States and what used to be called the Soviet Union—Russia. I was pretty sure that I was going to die in a nuclear war.
Maybe this is hard to imagine now, but the early ’80s were a scary time for fearful kids like me. For example, when I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined what it would be like if the Russians dropped the bomb on us. For weeks, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, TV news. At school, our teachers even took time out of class have us share our feelings about nuclear war. And I’m like, “I feel like I do not want there to be a nuclear war!”
There was a popular singer at the time named Sting, and he had a hit song about nuclear war, in which he wondered “if the Russians love their children, too.” We played video games like “Missile Command.” Do you know this game? You’re in command of a missile silo, and your job is to protect six cities from being hit by fast-approaching nuclear missiles. And these missiles just keep coming, wave after wave of them. You have to shoot these missiles out of the sky. And no one wins in the long run: eventually all your cities get reduced to rubble!
Around the same time, President Reagan was talking about building a real-life “missile command” system that could destroy Russian nuclear missiles before they landed on U.S. soil!
We also watched movies like “WarGames,” in which a young Matthew Broderick is a computer genius who hacks into the Pentagon computers and nearly launches World War III—by accident.
So a part of me was afraid of dying in a nuclear war… A part of me felt insecure about being adopted and being unwanted and unloved and rejected… And since I was making a transition from a small elementary school to a large and intimidating high school—back then, we didn’t have middle school— another part of me had the normal fears and insecurities about fitting into this new school—being accepted, not being a social outcast. And while I really liked girls, it wasn’t clear to me that any of them liked me—so it was an awkward age of braces, of acne, of trying desperately to be cool, yet living in fear of not being cool.
And some of you may be wondering, “Brent, you’re a pastor now! Instead of being afraid, why didn’t you just place your faith in God, and trust that he would take care of you? After all, Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus also said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’” In other words, there is a healthy kind of fear that we’re supposed to have, and it’s the fear of the Lord, which comes from believing and trusting in him as our Savior and Lord. And if we do that, we don’t need to worry about all these other things! He’s got our backs! He’ll take care of us!
And I believe that’s true from the bottom of my heart now. But back then… at the time I didn’t know Jesus as my Savior and Lord! I wasn’t saved. So I was even afraid that when I died, I wouldn’t be prepared meet the Lord, because I hadn’t yet received the gift of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life that he freely offers us.
And I didn’t know how to do it, either. I didn’t know what it meant to be saved!
I didn’t grow up Methodist. Are you all Methodists? I grew up Southern Baptist. And in the Baptist tradition, you don’t have confirmation classes, where you learn about the Christian faith and what it means to be saved and trust in Jesus—and then you make a public profession of faith. Instead, when you feel ready receive Christ, you walk down the aisle of church at the end of the sermon, shake the pastor’s hand, and… well, I didn’t know what you were supposed to do next! No one told me what it meant to become a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Christ!
All I knew, from years of growing up in church, is that when people walked down the aisle at the end of the service and joined the church and made a profession of faith, they would often be crying. And oh my goodness… The thought of crying in front of hundreds of people in church… See, I wasn’t just afraid of dying in a nuclear war, I was also afraid of dying of embarrassment! Which is what I’m sure would happen to me if I cried… Especially if I cried in front of Betty Jean, a girl in my Sunday school class on whom I had a mad crush!
So I didn’t know how to be saved. I had a friend down the street named Wes who would try to witness to me, but he wasn’t very good at it. Mostly, he just told me I was going to hell unless I received Christ. I didn’t disagree; I just wish he would tell me what I needed to do!
I finally told my parents that I had these questions—at the time they weren’t the most faithful Christians themselves. They became very faithful later in life. But one good thing they did was to force me to go on a winter youth retreat with my church, in a place called Black Mountain, North Carolina.
And I heard the gospel preached to me in a way that I finally understood it: I understood that I was a sinner whose sin had separated me from a holy God. As scripture says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I understood that because of my sins, I deserved death and hell.
But just as importantly, I also understood that God loved me—that God loves all of us—way too much to let us die in our sins. He wants to save us. He wants to have a relationship with us—both now, in this life, and in eternity. I understood that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever beleiveth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
So God came into the world, in the flesh, in the person of his Son Jesus, in order to save us. First of all he lived a life of perfect and sinless obedience to his heavenly Father, on our behalf—a life that we were unable to live ourselves. And when he suffered and died on the cross, he took upon himself all of our sins—past, present, and future. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So now we don’t have to stand condemned before God for our sins—an exchange has taken place: it’s as if we’ve given Christ our unrighteousness, and, in return, on the cross, he’s given us his righteousness.
In Colossians, Paul asks us to imagine getting a bill for something that we can’t begin to pay back. Because of our sins, we owe a debt to God, Paul says. But on the cross, it’s as if that debt, that bill—all of our sins—was nailed to the cross with Christ.
Back when I went to youth camp, a hundred years ago, we used to sing a song about it: “He paid a debt he did not owe/ I owed a debt I could not pay/ I needed someone to wash my sins away/ And now I sing a brand new song/ ‘Amazing Grace,’ all day long/ Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.”
That’s absolutely true! One way to think of it is like this: Christ lived the life that we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. And he was raised again—resurrected—so that we could have forgiveness and eternal life.
We call this salvation, and it’s a free gift that God makes available to everyone. Think about Christmastime. You’ve got a gift wrapped up under the tree. It’s addressed to you. It’s got your name on it. But it does you no good if you just leave it sitting there, right? You have to receive it.
How do you receive it? It’s really simple. As Paul says in Romans, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
But that’s just the beginning. Because once you do that, God gives us his Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ himself, who lives within us, and changes us from the inside out—slowly, over time. It’s a lifelong process. But we become, Paul says, a “new creation.”
I became a new creation. All this fearfulness I talked about? It still crops up every once in a while, but Jesus has given me the power I need to handle it. The Lord has this way of constantly moving me outside of my comfort zone—yet those are places where I find the deepest happiness in life.
And this fear of being abandoned or rejected or unloved? That’s completely gone. Probably my favorite verses in scripture are Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
 Matthew 10:28
 Colossians 2:14: “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
 Romans 10:9
 2 Corinthians 5:17