Power to Change

Fourth in a series called Resolution Revolution,
Delivered January 25, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: One of most important elements to deep life change is learning to walk (live) by the power of the Holy Spirit. What does that mean?

Sermon Text:
Galatians 5:16-26

Let’s pray. Holy Spirit of God, we thank you for your Word inside of us. We thank you, God, for this Word and we pray now that the meditations of our hearts, and the words that I speak be pleasing in your sight for you are our Rock and our Redeemer.

This morning I would like to begin my sermon with a testimony, but it won’t be my testimony. It’s a testimony of change that comes out of the ministry of Mark and Susan Smith in Cambodia. So I would like invite Susan to come on up and share with us.

Web Note: this story has been edited by Susan for story clarity, so won’t exactly match the MP3.

In late 1997, we moved into a new neighborhood. Within a few weeks our neighbors were asking us to teach the Bible to them. The attenders were primarily from our household (there are 4 families and many singles living/renting in our house) but there were a few others from the neighborhood who joined in. One of these was Bong Thom (Big Sister) who worked as a beer girl. This means she would put on a uniform from Tiger Beer each evening and go to a restaurant, and try to get patrons to buy Tiger Beer and not some other beverage. She worked on commission, and those of her profession had a reputation for using sexual favors to increase their income.

One day a woman from our household, Mai Reich, got in a fight with Bong Thom, and insulted her, saying she was a prostitute. We were still friendly with Bong Thom, but she stopped coming to our Bible study for the next 5 years.

Fast forward to December 2002, when I had surgery for appendicitis. Eight days I was in Calmette hospital, languishing on Metroniazide, a really good antibiotic with really yucky side effects. Finally the doctors took me off it, and promised I could go home the next day. Within hours of stopping the IV, I began feeling better. Then the evenings visitors began arriving. Ming Srey, our female landlord, with her three kids. Mai Reich with her husband and two kids. Mome, Ming Srey’s cousin. And–Bong Thom.

Now Mai Reich and Bong Thom hadn’t really talked in a long long time, but that evening in my hospital room, they did. And they reconciled!

It was getting late, so everyone sent their kids home, while Ming Srey, Mome, and Bong Thom prepared to spend the night with me (a custom to provide nursing care for the sick). Finally feeling hungry, I asked Mark to bring ice cream, then he went home too. What a joy that evening to watch Mome and Bong Thom pepper Ming Srey with questions about the Bible, and hear her answer them. I don’t often get to hear my disciples express their faith to others. I don’t know if it was medicine or the Holy Spirit, but I wound up lying awake most of the night thinking of all the good things God had done through my surgery.

As time went on, Bong Thom became very faithful coming to our Bible study once again. She was out of work, so she was praying for employment. One day, she prayed in her room for God to reveal himself to her by providing for her. That same day, I found out that my daughter’s regular babysitter had TB, and within minutes of Bong Thom’s prayer I went to find her to see if she could be a temporary babysitter for about a month. It was weeks later that she told me of this answered prayer.

It has been amazing to watch Bong Thom change. Injured herself in a car accident several years ago, she has become very sensitive to the sick. She attended her first Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia woman’s meeting and recieved encouragement to “try great things for God” and the very next day she visited a desperately poor woman with AIDS and convinced her to go to a Christian organization to get help, medication, household supplies. The amazing thing was that unemployed Bong Thom spent her own money for the moto taxi to get the woman with AIDS to the help. Since then Bong Thom has helped about a dozen people get various kinds of help, and she shares the gospel with all of them. All this from a brand new believer.

Just before we left for furlough, Bong Thom had another faith building experience. She was on a ferry to her hometown, which is across the Mekong river. In Cambodia not a lot of people learned to swim because the water is really disgusting, and so Bong Thom is on a ferry where most people can’t swim. A storm came up and the boat operator got frightened and dove off and swam to shore, leaving all those people behind. So Bong Thom said, “I prayed aloud to Jesus and I took the helm and I steered the boat to shore.” Passengers began asking her about her God.

Now I have been a beleiver long enough to know that I can’t talk anyone into changing their heart. Some people are gifted in counselling or evangelism and might be able to do such a thing, a little bit, but me–not at all. My giftedness is in other areas. And so watching Bong Thom–well, clearly, it is all the Holy Spirit. But the easily overlooked thing in this story is that Mai Reich changed too! Who enabled her to talk again with Bong Thom, and apologize for what she had said, and make Bong Thom feel welcome once again at the Bible study? The Holy Spirit. Dissention replaced by kindness and peace. Without the Holy Spirit, I wouldn’t want to be working in Cambodia.

Pray for Bong Thom as she is still unemployed. Currently a volunteer, she is looking for a paid position with a Christian group visiting those with AIDS.

We just had a testimony of life change, Bong Thom changed. Not because of the influence of Susan, but because of the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not just Bong Thom that changed, but Mai Reich changed too. It’s an incredible thing that God does in people’s lives and it illustrates so perfectly what Jesus does, freeing lives, changing lives and yet as I go around and minister, one of the main impressions that I get is how many people feel defeated in some corner of their lives. There is a sense that nothing will really change. It might be something like forgiveness. I can’t forgive that person for what they did. They are not even sorry for it. They hurt me too deeply for that. I will not forget. It might be anger. I am so angry at that so and so. You wouldn’t have believed what they did. They better stay out of my way. It might be our sexuality. Where we are saying, I want to be better. I want to have the right kind of thoughts, but the pornography is so easy to get to. It could be some other place in our lives, but what unites us all is that there are times that we feel like in some corner or another, what stands out to us is not the power to change, but our weaknesses, our struggles.

Is deep radical change really possible? We have been talking about this resolution revolution. Is it just a lot of hot air? Has Andy, Laura and me today, are we wasting our time? Because you know, the only real change we are going to see is in the lives of people on the mission field. Those lives change, but my life doesn’t. The New Testament talks a lot about life change. It talks a lot about what it means to have Jesus Christ make us into new people. Now, we’ve got to remember that there is first an Old Testament picture, and we’ve got to think a little bit about all the rules and regulations that we see in the Old Testament. They tell us what to do, but they were powerless to work any change within us, but the New Testament says that in contrast to those rules in the Old Testament, God has done something decisive in Jesus Christ that will really change our lives and give us power to be different. To want to do what God wants and then to have the power to do it, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now, the law of God that we read about in the Old Testament, the old agreement that God had with us, all of those rules and regulations can’t make us right with God. It does show us what is right to do. It does show us what a healthy relationship with each other and what a right relationship with God would be like, and what our lifestyles should look like, but because deep within us there is a rebellion, a selfishness, a self-centeredness. Because of that so often those rules don’t make any connection in our lives, because knowing what is right doesn’t always change us. In the Bible it says all of us knew from the time we were this big, honor your father and your mother. But does that mean that we did it? Knowing what is right doesn’t necessarily give us the power to do what is right. The law can show us what is right and it can also condemn failure. The law says that if you don’t do these things, you will die. Your relationship with God will be cut off. It tells us that, but it has no power for us to succeed and so we all fail in one place or another in our lives. It might be something very socially unacceptable, like drug abuse. It might be something very acceptable in our society, like greed. But whatever sin it is, it overwhelms us and we die. We all fail, and we stand under the condemnation of the law.

The law shows us what is right, it shows it, and us condemns us if we do wrong, because the law tells us that those who do it, will live. The problem is, nobody does. Because inside of us there is something like a deep cancer and if I have a problem with cancer, I don’t want somebody to come up and say, “John I know just the thing for you. Here’s a medical textbook, read it and you will understand why you are so sick.” If I had cancer, I would want somebody with the skills and resources to help, and not just give me understanding of what the problem is. The law clearly shows what a healthy behavior is. But the standards are just laid out in front of us and then we have this monumental struggle of trying to work up the desire to obey it and then if we get the desire then to have the power to pull it out, to pull it through. But, you know the good news that we have is that we don’t live under this old arrangement, this old covenant.

We live in the new covenant and there are a number of things that are different, our tools and resources are different in the new covenant. In the Book of Colossians that Andy used in the first two weeks of this series, it talks a lot about the difference of this new covenant. And today’s passage in Galatians talks about the power we have to live differently. Now the Galatians were deeply divided as a congregation over the issue of these Old Testament rules and regulations and their role in the life of the believer. One of the groups said, okay Jesus had died for our sins. That’s why God can forgive sin and now because of what Jesus has done, we now need to commit ourselves to obey all of the Old Testament rules and regulations. Because through those we are going to be purified as a people and made into the kind of people that God wants us to be and it will keep our relationship with God alive.

Now, it is interesting to notice what Paul’s reaction to this teaching was. You can check it out yourself later in Chapter 1 of the Book of Galatians, but he condemns it entirely. He condemns that kind of thinking and the reason is because the New Covenant, the New Agreement, the New Testament works differently than the old. God has done something entirely new here. The Old Covenant for all of its moral beauty and purity never had power to change it because it was always funneled through something that Paul calls the flesh. Now, when he says that, he is not talking about the body. He is talking about that nucleus of that sinful person, the selfishness, the godlessness, the self-centeredness that is inside of us, that always wants to keep things about God at arms distance. The Old Testament had to funnel through that and because of that, it always failed. But the New Covenant is entirely different. God is doing something new. And today’s passage there are two fundamental things that I want us to see about what God has done in the new covenant.

Let’s take a look at verse 24 for a moment. In verse 24 it says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” What it says is that when we invite Jesus into our lives, when we trust him to be our salvation, that something inside of us dies at that point. That thing in us, that sinful rebellious part of us, the part of us that looks just like the world around us, the part of us that advertising always appeals to. You deserve it, you are better than that, the part of us that I did it my way. That part of the human spirit is dealt with as we believe in Jesus Christ. It no longer has final say in our lives. Knee jerk reactions no longer have to be knee jerk. Now, that power still surrounds us, that power still has a root within us, a hook, but we no longer have to listen to it. Something vital has changed. And so that brings us to the second part of Paul’s message here. The second thing I want us to see and that comes out in verse 16. “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of a sinful nature.” Live by the Spirit. The original Greek says, walk by the Spirit. And this parallels a bunch of times in the Old Testament where it says walk in God’s laws and so Paul is taking something that his Jewish readers would have understood, this picture of walking within the ways of God, but no longer is an external thing, walk in the ways of God, but an internal thing. Walk by the power of the Holy Spirit. Live by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s no longer an external standard. God the Holy Spirit is inside of us working within us to help us, to help us want to be the kind of people God wants us to be. Now, the fact that this is a command lets us know that this is not an automatic process. If it was automatic there would be no reason for him to say, “So I say live by the Spirit.” It comes up again in verse 25. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Again, a command to us.

We can take steps. We can follow the lead of the Spirit. And so it does require a response from us, but it still is so different than what our Old Testament brothers and sisters experienced. One of the nice things about living here on the Chesapeake is all the lighthouses. Lighthouses that I have only seen in pictures, now I have actually seen in reality. It’s beautiful. And the thing about a lighthouse is that it points out a particularly dangerous place for the boaters and it marks out what a safe passage would be. And the Old Testament rules and regulations was like a lighthouse. It marks out what’s dangerous behavior. It marks out what safe passage is, but the problem is, we are in a boat and the motor doesn’t work and we’ve go no sail. We don’t even have any paddles. None of the equipment works, and we are being tossed about by the powers around us, by the powers inside of us. And so, even though we can see that that’s the safe place, we can’t get there. That’s what the experience of being confronted with the law is like. You know what’s right, but you don’t have the power to get there. But the New Testament is different. Now the words still act as our lighthouse. We still know that this is safe and this is dangerous. We still know that. But the difference is; now we are on a different boat. The sail works. The tiller works. The equipment works on the boat and the wind direction is favorable. Now, the waves are still high, there is still danger in the water and we still need every bit of our alertness and energy to steer a careful way through the passage, but the vital difference is that now its finally possible. Victory over our habits and weaknesses is finally possible in the gospel. It’s not automatic. It’s not easy. Its not always fast, but it really is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.

I just want to point out a few things in verses 16 to 18. “So I say, live by the Spirit, and here’s the promise, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Verse 17 talks about the war going on, a sinful nature is in and around us, but then it says in verse 18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” So there is a promise there, that we can live a different life. Now many of us right now are sitting in a boat and the boat has a good sail. Its got working equipment, but we are still floundering. We are still not getting there. And maybe it’s because we don’t know how to sail. Back in our time in Japan, we used to take vacations at a place called Lake Nogiri. It’s a wonderful place in the mountains. And all kinds of missionaries would take vacations there and a lot of people owned sailboats, and so did I. I owned a special sort of wooden sailboat called “The Seahorse”. It was built, I think, in the early 1950s, about the same age as me. There were only two left on the lake. And once every summer there would be a sailboat race, and I entered the race the first year that I owned the sailboat. Well, the race went on over several miles and the very first boat to cross the finish line was “The Seahorse”. And then second place and third place and fourth place and all the way through boat number 30, about boat number 33, which was the last boat, that was also “Seahorse”. About an hour after the last boat, this was only about a three-mile race, okay? I did cross the finish line. What was the difference? It was the same boat. It’s the same wind. The difference was the skill of the captain. Well, right now we look around us and we see some other people and we see some of the progress in their lives and it’s not necessarily because they have less evil in their lives and it’s not necessarily because God has given them an extra dose of the Holy Spirit, it might be that they just learned a little better what it means to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because it is a process to walk in the Spirit. There is that practice that has to happen. It’s a relationship that grows and deepens. Something that we need to cultivate in our lives. And so going back to the boat for a moment, to own a boat for years and to store it for years doesn’t mean that we will be a good sailor. Owning the boat doesn’t make you a good sailor. I know that. You’ve got to learn how to sail. And this is important stuff. This is not extra stuff in the Christian life. I want to read to you verses 19 to 21.

“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Right there in that list, right next to orgies and witchcraft are things like selfish ambition and dissensions, sexual immorality. This is important stuff and what it means is that we cannot give up on this issue of living pure and loving lives. We’ve got to press on.

This is the final sermon in the series, Resolution Revolution, and if walking by the Spirit is such an important part of this, we’ve got to be reminded what does it take to walk in the Spirit to start or at least to make progress. Let me give you just a few basics. The first is, remember what Andy said in week two of this about the Word of God. This is a walk of faith and so that means that we first have to fill our minds with what God has promised to do. How God works in lives. We’ve got to know this and understand this, to know what to expect God to do in our lives because since it is a walk of faith there are many things that will never happen in our lives if we don’t first expect God to do it. There are things you will never do unless you hunger for it and believe God can do it. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is remember what Laura said last week about prayer. Prayer is the under-utilized weapon or tool in this process of growing in God. In Luke 22, Jesus said, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray so that you won’t fall into temptation.” Prayer is an essential tool of Christian growth. And so as we read the Word and understand what God’s promise is, we believe that as we pray specifically about that. Then God will move more and more in our lives. Now, this is not the sort of thing that we can learn when we are in the middle of difficulty, in the middle of the storm. This is something that is built day by day in our lives.

Let me just read one more part of this scripture. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” Fruit takes time to grow. It doesn’t appear miraculously mature on the vine. It buds, it grows out slowly and comes to maturity. It’s not immediate, but it will happen. Change can happen. Change will happen as we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s pray. Holy Spirit of God, we thank you that you have come into our lives as we have trusted in Jesus Christ and we pray now that you continue to work deeply in us for we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.