On December 29th in my last gathering with inmates in 2013 I witnessed light shining in darkness and the kindness of God that leads to repentance simultaneously. I share this Epiphany story in celebration of God’s appearing among us in Jesus.
The good news of God’s Word became visible in a jail bible study on Titus 3, read together with 15 men. Since the men had just missed Christmas with their families and were mostly all en route to prison I knew they had no need to be reminded to be subject to rulers, authorities and to be obedient. I didn’t want them even glancing at Titus 3:1-2 that day, and asked someone to begin reading at Titus 3:3:
“For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.”
Amazed by how this verse describes many people’s lives I suddenly see that I need to emphasize Paul and Titus’ identification with the men as a way to establish trust between the Biblical writer and them.
“It looks like the writer and his community here come from hard backgrounds that might have included addictions, criminal behavior and vida loca-gangster ways,” I start out.
Much of the list describing Paul and Titus’ past messed up lives seems clear enough, but I ask them if they know what “malice” means.
“Isn’t it badness or evil?” someone says.”
“Exactly. The writer here is coming from a troubled past life, but now things have changed,” I continue. “Have any of you guys experienced these kinds of things, hating and being hated, enslaved to different lusts and pleasures? I bet we all know people who have, don’t we?” I ask.
The men are all nodding, and a few comment that this verse describes their current lives. Suddenly I’m struck by a truth not directly related to this verse. I turn to a wiry tatted-up Latin-looking gang guy to my right and say:
“You know God has a special love for violent men and wants to help them. He goes after them and never gives up on them so they can say what’s being said here—that this was their former life” I say, a bit surprised by my growing passion.
The guy is startled. “How did you know?” he asked. “Nearly all my past offences and the jail and prison time I’ve served have been for assaults due to my violence. I have been hated and people hate me now.”
He went on to complain that he is currently being charged for something he didn’t do. “This fills me with hate and I don’t know what to do to get out of this. They’re wanting to send me way for a long time again,” he said.
I shake my head, sympathizing as best I can, remembering that our thirty minutes are now more than half over and others are there in the circle with their own struggles and needs to hear good news.
“That sounds really difficult and unfair and we must pray for you if you’d like before the guards come,” I say. But let’s look at the next verses first. I ask someone to read from Titus 3:4 onward, stopping him after the first few words of verse 5:
“But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, He saved us.”
“Check this out you guys,” I say. “What happens here and who benefits?”
“It says here that God’s kindness appears and that he loves mankind and saves us.”
“These guys who once were all messed up in addictions, full of hatred and being hated by everyone are telling about what happened—that God was kind to them in a special way. I wonder if it tells us what they had to do in order to benefit. Could someone keep reading so we can see what kind of hoops they had to jump through to get God’s help?” I ask.
A Latino gang guy to my left reads the next verses with a strong Spanish accent and I ask him to stop after the first line:
“Not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.”
We talk briefly about how God’s kindness, love and saving are not a reward for good behavior, compliance with laws or success at getting your act together. Romans 2:4 comes to mind, where Paul prohibits judging and states so strongly to the unkind: “do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”
But there’s no time to read this verse and I ask the guy to continue reading from where we left off in Titus 3:5 “but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Each word spoken seems like a perfectly shot arrow, hitting the targets of men’s hearts. What better news can there be than this?! Good News is penetrating and I can feel it in the room. It’s what I long to witness over and over. I ask if anyone feels a need to be washed clean.
The guy to my right says “I do for sure. I take four showers a day in here, and it doesn’t make any difference at all. I still feel the same.”
He tells me what the others already know, that his street name is Guilty. I am deeply moved, overcome by affection, sensing Jesus right there with us. Knowing that only a few minutes remain before the guards arrive to take everyone back to their cells I summarize the next verse.
“Before we pray let’s check out this next verse you guys. It says ‘that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’ Being justified means being made alright, acquitted, totally clean and righteous before God. Do any of you guys want this? Do you feel a need to be washed by Jesus’ love and by the Holy Spirit being poured out?”
Each man around the circle says that they do, including Guilty who’s leaning forward in his chair beside me.
I remind them that when Jesus washes us clean it is totally by grace, and that it’s an absolutely free gift. “Jesus makes us right with God, brings us into God’s family with all the benefits—including living forever. Paul wants to be so sure that people understand this that he states it super clearly in the next verse. Could someone read verse 8?”
“This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently.”
I invite the guys to choose to believe, to be confident that God’s kindness and love for them are real and true. I invite anyone who wants to say yes to God’s love, to receive his cleansing forgiveness by opening their hands and hearts. The men have their palms out and are receiving as I pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon them. I pray for mercy and legal breakthroughs for Guilty, and the door pops open just as we’re through.
The kindness of God has just appeared and saved and I head home delighted—experiencing Epiphany a week ahead of the official date. May you experience light of God’s love shining on you and washing you clean now as you begin 2014.