A Comeback Story

Pastor Craig Carter

Everyone loves a comeback story, don’t they?

I was recently watching the Baseball All Star Game Homerun Derby and found myself rooting for Trey Mancini, even though I know little about him and am not a fan of the team he plays for – the Baltimore Orioles. But I do know a year ago he was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, underwent surgery and chemotherapy, and is already back in the big leagues and will probably win the Comeback Player of the Year award (and deservedly so). 

Beyond just athletic comeback stories, we’re inspired when we hear about folks who endured physical, emotional, or financial setbacks but refused to quit and persevered in spite of the long odds they faced. 

Our church has a pretty impressive comeback story of its own. We had two buildings destroyed by Hurricane Michael (one a total loss), endured lengthy insurance settlement and construction delays, and then faced the effects of a global pandemic. 

But guess what? We’re still alive and kicking. 

We have designated September 12, 2021 as Comeback Sunday. On that day we’ll remember our journey over the past three years and celebrate the faithfulness of God and His people. It’s also an occasion to welcome and invite folks to “come back” to church. 

In the meantime, we’re going to look at what it takes to complete the comeback through a series of messages called “The Comeback.”

Did you know that the Bible is full of comeback stories? In fact, it starts with one when the first human beings, Adam and Eve, commit a serious transgression and fall into sin, but are restored to good standing by a gracious God. 

Then there’s Moses who lost his position of prominence in Egypt when he committed a murder, spent 40 years in exile, but ultimately became the deliverer of God’s people. Quite a comeback, huh?

How about Daniel, thrown in the lion’s den, but through God’s miraculous intervention, lives to tell about it?

And, of course, the greatest comeback story of them all is the centerpiece of our Christian faith – Jesus crucified, dead, and buried but then raised to new life. 

What is even more amazing is that Scripture suggests a similar resurrection is possible for anyone who puts their trust in Christ as Savior and Lord. The rest of the New Testament is filled with comeback stories of people coming to faith. It’s described as passing from death to life, moving from darkness to light, or being buried and raised with Christ through baptism. The experience has been labeled salvation, the new birth, or conversion. 

That word, conversion, literally means “to change or to turn.” So every believer must change the direction of his/her life and turn from doing things the world’s way to doing things God’s way. In other words, we must “come back” to the Lord. 

That means each of us, as a follower of Jesus, is a living, breathing comeback story. 

And, in many ways, the comeback story of our church is a compilation of the individual comeback stories of its members. My hope, through this series of posts and Sunday messages, is to ensure that every one of us has a comeback story to tell. 

Do you have one? 

After Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, perhaps the most dramatic comeback story told in the New Testament is the conversion of a man named Saul, who became the Apostle Paul. It is told in Acts chapter nine:

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them — both men and women — back to Jerusalem in chains. 

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.

[Then] Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. (Acts 9:1-9, 17-18 NLT)

While every comeback story may not follow that exact pattern, Paul’s experience provides some key ingredients of genuine Christian conversion. In many ways, our congregational comeback story mirrors his as does my own. 

As you read this message, please reflect on your Christian comeback story. If you don’t have one, you can start the comeback today. If you do have one, this post may give you an easy way to share it … because comeback stories are made to be told in order to inspire and motivate others. 

A Christian comeback story includes…

1) Conviction

As stated early, conversion means “to change direction” or “to turn around.” In order to move in the right direction, we first have to realize we’re headed the wrong way. The Christian term for this is “conviction” (being convinced something is wrong). 

For us as a church, this occurred right away after Hurricane Michael blew through town. It was very obvious we had suffered a devastating blow(s) as a congregation. One look at our two facilities was convincing proof that we were in trouble. 

Conviction always brings recognition of one’s true condition. 

Many people don’t have a comeback story to tell because they are unaware of their desperate circumstances. They are ignorant of the fact that sin infects their lives which puts them in a dire situation. 

Prior to his Damascus Road experience, Saul considered himself “blameless” (or “without fault”) under the Law (see Philippians 3:6). But later he wrote that he was chief among sinners and that everyone sins and falls short of God’s glory (woefully short, I might add). 

We gain a similar perspective on our own lives when we meet Jesus as Paul did – through an encounter with His Holy Spirit or God’s Holy Word. Then we discover how much we have “missed the mark” (the literal definition of sin). 

I became aware of that fact when I was just seven years old. I don’t remember the exact sins that existed in my life at that time (probably disobeying my parents or lying), but I was painfully convicted and asked Jesus to forgive me. I accepted Him as Lord and Savior and was baptized. 

For a number of years, I lived as a devoted follower of Christ. But then I fell into patterns of sin and rebellion as a teenager and young adult. Though I felt a sense of conviction because I knew my behavior was wrong, I lived with it, rationalized it away, and ignored the feelings of guilt. 

Then at the age of 24 I became convinced that my lifestyle was detrimental to my well-being – spiritual and otherwise. Like Saul on the Road to Damascus, I realized who I was really hurting. Not just myself, but Jesus Christ my Lord (see Acts 9:4-5). 

It didn’t come in an audible voice like the one Saul heard, but it was just as real. I knew I had tried to clean up my own act and failed miserably and repeatedly. I also knew that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. That’s not a fun place to be, but it’s not a bad place to be either. Why would I say that? Because before a comeback from the depths of despair can begin, we first must be convicted of our true condition and convinced of our need for a Savior. 

That unpleasant and even painful place is actually a positive thing because it shows we’re headed in the wrong direction and we need to turn around. 

The events of 10/10/18 convinced us that we needed divine intervention. My life at the age of 24 looked similar to the wreckage of our buildings and brought conviction that I desperately needed God’s help. 

Have you been there? Are you there now? That’s where the comeback starts. 

That conviction then leads to a…

2) Crisis

By crisis, I do not necessarily mean a traumatic or emotional event. Rather, it is a point of decision. Webster’s dictionary calls it a “turning point.”

Saul’s encounter with the Risen Christ certainly met that definition – it was a critical juncture in his life as it altered his course and he was never the same again. 

For most individuals, conversion does not come as an isolated event. Instead, it is a process that develops over time. But key decision points are confronted along the way that require definite choices. 

Courtship and marriage serve as an example of how this works. My wife Lee and I went out a time or two, began dating exclusively, traveled to meet each other’s families, but then came a “crisis” experience. 

I remember that night well. We went for a special dinner at Pandora’s in Fort Walton Beach. After the meal, with palms sweating, knees knocking, stomach churning, and voice cracking with emotion … Lee finally popped the question!

Hey, this is my story and I’m sticking to it!

As a congregation, I believe our crisis was not the hurricane itself (that’s what convinced us that we were in trouble). Instead, the real crisis took place four days later in the parking lot. That day, when we decided to hold worship in spite of our circumstances, was a turning point for us. I’m not even sure how the word got out — people just showed up!

That day signified that we weren’t giving up. We were ready to press on … with God’s help. 

With a noisy generator powering one microphone, we declared, “The comeback has begun!”

My own personal crisis of faith occurred in the fall of 1982 at the Blue Lake campground. During a weekend retreat (that I was dragged kicking and screaming to), I went to the altar and prayed, “Lord, if you think you can do something with this mess, I’m all yours!” As best I could and knew how to do, I gave my life to Christ. 

How about you? Is there a time you can point to when you said “Yes” to Jesus?

If you don’t remember it, it probably hasn’t happened yet. Just know this about the crisis of faith … 

It may or may not happen in church (Saul was on the Damascus Road). 

It may or may not occur during dynamic worship (John Wesley was listening to someone read from a boring biblical commentary at a Bible study). 

It may or may not come in response to great preaching (Billy Graham was saved after listening to an evangelist at a tent meeting who “had an embarrassing way of describing your sins and shortcomings.”)

There’s even hope for you as you read this post from a stammering pastor!

Today can be a key turning point in your life by deciding to follow Jesus. And that brings us to the final element of a Christian comeback story:

3) Change

If conversion involves turning around, then change, real change, is inevitable. 

In Saul’s case, the before and after snapshots are striking and it’s vividly portrayed by being blind, then having the scales fall off and regaining his sight. 

Before his conversion, he was persecuting Jesus by “uttering threats with every breath and [being] eager to kill the Lord’s followers.” (Acts 9:1 NLT)

After his conversion, he was preaching Jesus everywhere he went (see v. 20). 

He viewed the change in his life so radically that he compared it to being dead and raised to life again: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20a NLT)

And he said, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT)

Paul goes on to say why this sort of radical change is possible: “And all of this is a gift from God…” (2 Corinthians 5:18a NLT)

God doesn’t just apply a Band-Aid to our problems. He performs radical surgery and makes us into something new through the power of His Holy Spirit. 

Friends, I see that happening as the comeback story of our church unfolds. This church is radically different than it was pre-Hurricane Michael. And while some may long for the good old days, I’m loving the great new days. 

We’ve changed in some wonderful ways. We’re more dependent on Christ than ever, more focused on mission, less tied to a building (because the church is more than a building), free of debt and vastly more generous. 

The Lynn Haven UMC has experienced a true conversion and the comeback is far from complete, so who knows what we’ll ultimately look like? I can’t wait to see!  

When I knelt to the altar at Blue Lake, I got up a new person. I didn’t necessarily feel any different, but I was (just ask my wife Lee). Some changes occurred immediately and others are still in progress. 

How much did I change? Well, let me put it to you this way: If you’d have seen me in 1982, you would’ve never imagined me being a pastor, nor would you have wanted me to be yours. When I returned to my 20 year high school reunion, I was voted “most changed.” I’m not sure what that means, but I think I know (besides not looking 12 years old anymore). 

How about you? Do you have a comeback story to tell about how Christ has changed your life? If so, why don’t you tell it to someone and maybe their life will be changed?

But if things aren’t any different than they were before you were saved, then maybe you haven’t had a real conversion experience and you need to take care of point #2. 

I said at the start of this message, “Everyone loves a comeback story.” That’s not altogether true because there is someone who hates a comeback story: the person(s) on the other side of the comeback. 

In Super Bowl 51, the New England Patriots faced a 28-3 third quarter deficit and staged the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Atlanta Falcon fans don’t love that story. 

Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers were down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series before mounting a comeback and eventually winning the World Series. As an Atlanta Braves fan I don’t like that story at all. Do you see a trend with Atlanta sports teams? 😭

Our adversary, Satan, hates a Christian comeback story and he’ll do anything within his limited power to keep it from happening. 

He hates what he sees taking place in our church. He thought we were down for the count, but we got up off the mat. Sadly, it’s a fact that roughly 25,000 churches in America have closed since 2018.  

Satan will tell you whatever he can to keep you from having a comeback story to tell: 

“You’re not that bad … compared to other folks, you’re a pretty good guy.”

“You don’t need to go to the altar or do anything dramatic, just going to church is good enough in God’s eyes.” 

“Don’t worry about changing your lifestyle. Besides, you’ll never change”

Don’t believe those lies. Instead, listen to Christ who says, “Come unto me all who carry heavy burdens … Follow me … Believe in me … Trust and obey … Open your heart to me.” 

In the coming weeks we’re going to explore the various elements of our comeback as a church. But before we get to that, do you have a comeback story of your own that can then become part of the bigger comeback story of our life together?

If not, just as Saul had his eyes opened on the Damascus Road through an encounter with the Risen Christ, will you receive Jesus by faith so you can be filled with the Holy Spirit?

In case you don’t know how to do that or what to say, I want to invite you to say this prayer, right now:

Dear God, I know I have sinned, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe your Son Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow Christ as my Lord and Savior. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit and guide my life. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer for the very first time, please come and share your decision with me or our executive pastor, Terry Tatum, any Monday – Thursday or on a Sunday morning at 3203 Minnesota Avenue. We look forward to helping you take the next step in the comeback story – publicly acknowledging Jesus as Savior and Lord and following Him in baptism.