"He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives."
“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” —Oscar Wilde
Recently I had the privilege of preaching at one of the L.A. county jails. The men were in what is called the MERIT program. It is designed for men who have good conduct records and who want to get out of jail. Surprisingly, getting out is not something every prisoner wants—many prefer the daily routine and three healthy meals.
Upon arriving, I entered a waiting area where I turned in my cell phone and all of my valuables. In exchange for my driver’s license, I was handed a visitor’s badge and then escorted by an armed guard through a series of gates that locked behind us. Before I knew it I was in the Yard. Despite the armed guard at my side and the good conduct of these men, I was nervous. Even though I knew I was safe, there was something about being on the “inside” with 190 men who have a reason for being there that quickened my heart rate. Yet more than for my physical safety, I feared that I had nothing to say to these men. Why should they listen to me—a preppy looking preacher from West L.A. who had life given to him on a silver platter? I had no tales for them from some dark past that would help me relate.
I have preached and taught enough to learn that when you are unsure of yourself, talk about something you love. And so I did. I told the story of the adulterous woman in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The inmates loved the story. In the Q&A afterwards, one inmate had the courage to admit that he “identified with the woman in the story.” Indeed this is no small admission in a cell block of hardened men.
Yet it was when I discussed Jesus redeeming the past, present, and future of this woman that these men started tracking with me intently. I spoke of how Jesus redeemed her by accepting as an act of worship her offering of perfume, which she had purchased with her earnings as a prostitute. Then I quoted Oscar Wilde—“Every saint has a past and ever sinner has a future”—without telling them it was Oscar Wilde. I talked about how God loves stories of redemption—to strike straight blows with crooked sticks. They loved it, because stories of redemption are, at their core, good, true, and beautiful. In fact, redemption is our only hope.
As I reflected on their reaction later in the week, I read in 2 Peter 3:13 of the new heavens and new earth (not exactly new, but renewed). God has no plans to scrap the universe, this world, or even an individual life. God doesn’t want to destroy our lives and start over. He wants to take what we have, however meager it is, and renew it. That is the business of our God—renewing the brokenness and death all around us. He wants to do this work of renewal in and through us because He is a God who raises the dead. As God raised Jesus from the dead, so will He resurrect all things and make them new.
Deep down in their bones, those inmates wanted the same thing, as attested by their amens and their clapping. For some of us, it takes being in a jail cell to see life clearly. I hope it doesn’t come to that for me, but one thing I do know—I want to desire redemption like those men did.
Of course, the beautiful and redemptive irony in all of this was that I feared the inability to break through and minister to them, and in the end, it was they who ministered to me.
Jesus began His ministry by “preaching liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18) and I’m beginning to realize He was onto something. So when the deputy invited me back to speak you better believe I was overjoyed.