I want to tell you about the first time I visited Romaniv Orphanage in Ukraine. It’s an orphanage for boys and young men with a range of physical and mental disabilities.
Some of you have heard me talk about this before and there’s a good reason. My experiences at Romaniv were some of the most profound moments of my life.
So… It was the spring of 2009 and I was driving with a van full of Ukrainian staff and volunteers with our partner Mission to Ukraine.
Everything I had heard about Romaniv is that it was a terrible place. The orphanage administration saw the boys as little more than animals and did little more than the bare minimum to keep them alive.
When MTU first visited a year before the walls were painted black. There were bars on the windows. These abandoned boys were living in squalor. Oksana told me to bring a change of clothes because we were going to smell bad when we were done.
Needless to say I was a bit nervous. But everyone else in the van was hyped.
They were laughing and giggling and talking and I couldn’t figure out why.
When we arrived I saw a pretty run down, desolate compound of buildings and when we first entered, I was overcome with the stench. I gagged.
We walked into a room full of boys with disabilities and I completely froze. They were everywhere. I’ll never forget it. Some were shouting and moaning. One was banging his fist into his chin. They had cuts and sores on their faces. One was standing in a puddle of his own urine. It was horrific.
But just then, the staff and volunteers from MTU swept around me and into the room. They picked the boys up into big bear hugs, touched their faces, greeted them all by name…
We spent the next few hours doing classes with different groups of boys, and then we loaded up the van and left.
The whole way back to Zhytomyr I was shaken and exhausted - on the verge of despair, but the MTU folks were yet again giddy, laughing, excited.
How could they be energized and happy after visiting a place of such deep injustice? What was going on here? Who were these people?
I was in awe. I had never seen anything like it.
While I was overwhelmed by the injustice I had just encountered, they seemed filled with hope.
Why? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about with you today.
Welcome back to Hope Month. All month we’re talking about how our God is in the business of healing the broken place of injustice.
As I said the first week, the problem of injustice seems so big, so insurmountable, that it inevitably leads us to freeze up just like I did at Romaniv.
We get compassion fatigue. We get overwhelmed.
But… as I said, this is not called despair month. It’s called HOPE month. And today we’re going to talk about why we have a reason to hope.
A quick recap.
In week 1, I talked about the fact that God cares deeply about injustice and that he invites us to join him in the work of healing it.
How do we do that?
Well, we Respond to suffering people we encounter with compassion.
We Resolve to give of our time and energy and money in an ongoing way.
And finally, we Rebel. We reject the cultural powers of our world that want to keep us apathetic and complicit.
My friends from Mission to Ukraine did all three.
Respond - Resolve - Rebel
When they encountered these boys at Romaniv, they responded with Christ-like love. They didn’t walk by and get on with their lives.
They definitely resolved to do something about it in an ongoing way. They went to Romaniv every week rain or shine.
And they were rebels. People in their community thought they were weirdos.
At the time some of the women on staff at MTU complained to me that they couldn’t find husbands because the men didn’t know what to do with them! They spent their time with people the world had rejected. They rebelled.
Last week, Josiah from City Relief talked about how doing this work of justice allows us to experience God’s presence in new ways.
Today we’re going to talk about why we have a reason for hope. And why the biblical authors believed that healing the injustice of our world was not just a dream but a possibility.
NO POOR AMONG YOU
Let’s dive in. As I said at the beginning of Hope Month, injustice is a major concern of the biblical authors. And this goes all the way back to the beginning. To the law of Moses in the Old Testament.
I could give you a lot of examples, but I’m just going to give you one. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is sharing God’s vision for how the nation of Israel should function when it comes to poverty and injustice. Here’s what the law says:
There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession… But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need… Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do.
“There should be no poor among you.”
You see, from the very beginning, God designed his chosen people to show the world another way to live. To demonstrate God’s justice:
Biblical Justice: The open-handed thriving of individuals and communities living within the abundance of God.
In theory, at least, the people of Israel were supposed to experience that. It’s what I call a “positive feedback loop of blessing.”
God would bless them with abundance. They would use that blessing to help others. Widows, orphans, foreigners, the vulnerable…
As a result of their generosity and self-giving love, God would bless them some more so they’d have even more to give away.
You keep that loop going and you end up with a nation that’s completely free from poverty and injustice. A people who can show the rest of the world what’s possible.
That was the vision.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Because the people of Israel were selfish. They didn’t give their wealth away. They hoarded it.
Widows, orphans, and foreigners were neglected. People suffered from poverty. Injustice became the law of the land:
Injustice: Any needless suffering brought on by a withholding of God’s abundance.
That was happening in Israel and the nation was spiraling the drain. Which is why, when you read the prophets and the psalms, you pick up a sense of deep frustration. It’s the same despair we feel when we see, say, obscene wealth in a time of hunger.
You read the prophets and it’s like, “Come on, guys.”
Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows...
If you will only obey me,
you will have plenty to eat.
And yet that never happened. This vision of a nation of justice seemed desperately far out of reach.
THE TIME OF THE LORD’S FAVOR
Until Jesus entered the scene and did what Israel had failed to do. He showed the world what was possible.
At the beginning of his ministry, he declared (as we talked about two weeks ago) that the “time of the Lord’s favor” had begun.
And then he lived a life of incredible justice. Healing the sick, caring for widows, restoring lepers to community, giving dignity to outcast women… I could go on and on.
Jesus showed the world that there is another way to live: the way of God’s justice.
Through Jesus, the vision of Deuteronomy was rekindled, and he invited all who would follow him to join him in that work. And that’s exactly what happened.
Let me show you what I mean. Turn with me to Acts 2:42, page _____.
On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of Christ came to dwell within Jesus’ followers. They began doing things they could never do before. Like speaking in other languages, doing miracles, and then look at what happened next.
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
Is it any wonder the people were in awe? Miraculous things were happening, including the fact that all these people were selling their stuff and giving money to those in need.
These weren’t super-Christians. These were ordinary people like you and me and all those Israelites who had come before. But here’s what had changed: God’s Spirit was now transforming them into reckless philanthropists!
They were experiencing the same sense of “awe” that I felt when I first visited Romaniv Orphanage.
“What is going on here? What am I seeing?!?”
The Spirit of Jesus was doing something new in his followers. “And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”
Skip ahead a bit and look at Acts 4:32 with me.
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.
Think about what we just read. The people shared “everything they had.” Generosity. There were no needy people. God’s great blessing was upon them.
What does that sound like to you? Deuteronomy 15!
Deuteronomy 15:4, 10
There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you… Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do.
The vision of a people of God’s justice had been rekindled. The early Church was showing the world what was possible.
As they gave and sacrificed for one another, they found themselves full of even more joy and awe and abundance, which made them want to give even more. They had re-engaged the positive feedback loop of blessing.
Now that the Spirit of Christ was within his followers, God’s justice and abundance were finally here. The “time of the Lord’s favor” had come!
Despair was replaced with awe as God healed injustice through the Church.
“There were no needy people among them.”
Now, there are some scholars and theologians who will say that what we just read in Acts is nothing more than a utopian dream. Sure, it happened for a while in the early church, but today it’s not really very realistic.
Well, guess what I think? Those scholars and theologians are dead wrong.
The book of Acts isn’t showing us some fantasy. It’s showing us what’s possible.
What’s possible now that the Spirit is here. Injustice is losing. The game has changed. There is now a reason for hope.
Do you know how I know this? Because I have seen it happening with my own two eyes. I have witnessed Acts 2 and 4 in our modern world. I have experienced the awe that comes from seeing God doing the impossible.
I’ve seen it in India and Kenya and New York City and Guatemala and South Africa and Indianapolis. And I’ve seen it at Romaniv orphanage.
About a year after my first visit I had the chance to return. Yet again we made the long trek to Romaniv, and yet again the staff and volunteers from Mission to Ukraine were giddy and excited.
As we were driving, Oksana turned to me and said, “Get ready. There is a big surprise waiting for you there!”
I had no idea what she meant until we arrived and I saw the place transformed.
Colorful flowers along the walkway, picnic tables, and inside the rooms were toys and bookshelves and decorations. It barely smelled at all. The boys were happy and calm.
I was in awe. I said to Oksana, “Wow. This is incredible. Mission to Ukraine did all this?”
And she said, “No. The orphanage administration did.”
My jaw hit the floor. This was the same administration that once said the boys were essentially animals. The same people who didn’t want MTU to come because they saw it as a waste of time.
They had invested in this place because they saw how much the boys had grown with just a little bit of faithful love. They were in awe and they were drawn into that transformation.
“Each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”
Isn’t it amazing to consider how the humble faithfulness of a few compassionate Christ-followers could lead to an entire system of injustice being transformed?
It’s enough to give you hope. The “time of the Lord’s favor” has come, and we get to help it spread.
Oh, and one more thing. That was 10 years ago.
Since that time not only have conditions at Romaniv continued to improve, but Mission to Ukraine has started to influence the entire national conversation around disabilities. They’re starting to change their country.
Oh, and one more thing. When the Russian invasion happened, Mission to Ukraine - these cultural rebels once viewed as weirdos - became a lifeline of aid and support for struggling families in their city and they earned the trust of their entire community. To this day they are a beacon of hope in a very dark time.
Talk about the hope of the gospel taking root! The positive feedback loop of God’s blessing is on full display.
Oh, and one more thing!
Since that time God raised up an American couple sensing God’s call to do something about disabilities in Eastern Europe - Kim and Jed Johnson.
They heard about Mission to Ukraine’s work at Romaniv through one of the articles I wrote about them (if you can believe it) and ended up moving their whole family to Ukraine.
They now run a ministry dedicated to rescuing boys out of places like Romaniv. They have a whole team of Ukrainian and American volunteers who are on fire for the cause. Today, more than 10 boys have been adopted out of Romaniv and will spend the rest of their lives in loving families.
The game has changed. Injustice is losing ground. This is why I don’t lose hope.
Because this is what happens when God’s people join him in his work of healing injustice. His Spirit works in ways we could never see coming.
Do you think in 2009 Oksana (or any of the other MTU team) knew her actions would play a part in transforming a nation? Do you think she realized her love for these forgotten boys would lead to a movement dismantling systemic injustice?
No. She was just saying “yes” to where the Holy Spirit was moving in her life. She gave what she could and had compassion for those in her path.
O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to act justly, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.
That’s all Oksana was doing. That’s all the Johnsons are doing. That’s all Mission to Ukraine is doing. That’s all the early Church was trying to do. That’s all we – Grace Church – are trying to do.
We act justly, we love mercy, we walk humbly with God… and he takes care of the rest.
He blesses our work of justice. Our small actions grow and expand and multiply in ways we could have never possibly imagined. Bottom line:
When it comes to healing injustice, God does not play by the rules.
And that is why we can hope.
So, ok… That’s all amazing stuff but it’s all so far away. It’s out there. I doubt many of you find yourself in Ukrainian orphanages all that often.
But your world is filled with injustice too if you have eyes to see it.
So here’s what I want you to think about (and pray about) this week. What is your Romaniv Orphanage? What widows and orphans and foreigners - so to speak – has God put in front of you?
What small, faithful sacrifice is God calling you to make?
Because remember… it’s the time of the Lord’s favor. If you start walking this path of justice with Jesus, I think you’re going to be in awe of what he accomplishes.
Let’s get into that positive feedback loop of blessing and start showing our broken world that there is another way to live.