“Our John 3:16 Sign” John 3:14-21 John Henson
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2012
Podcast is here
Do you remember this guy? He tends to pop in our heads when we see the John 3:16 reference. Ever wonder what happened to him? I was amazed to read his story this past week. He hasn’t been forgotten, as you can hear now from these words on a wikipedia page about him,
So, how was it that those “John 3:16” signs started popping up in the stands at televised sporting events? One story traces the origin to one Rollen “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart, who gained notoriety in the 1970s for his antics as “the Rainbow Man” at golf tournaments.
Stewart was obsessed with getting his face on television. He started attending golf tournaments wearing a multicolored Afro wig. He had a knack for predicting where the camera would be pointed at certain crucial holes on the course. When it panned over his way, he would pop up, wave his arms, give the “OK” or thumbs-up gestures, and generally do whatever he could to attract attention to himself.
In 1980, Mr. Rollen got religion. Afire with enthusiasm for his newfound Christian faith, he began applying his talent for getting himself in the camera viewfinder to the task of spreading the good news. He traded his rainbow wig for a John 3:16 sign. Others began emulating his unorthodox witnessing methods, and an American sports tradition was born.
Would that the story ended there, but it has a sad and perplexing closing chapter. After several years driving around the country from sporting event to sporting event, subsisting on donations, Stewart fell on hard times, ending up homeless. His obsession with the limelight led him to set off a series of stink-bomb attacks on Southern California targets, including the Crystal Cathedral, offices of theOrange County Register and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a Christian bookstore.
In 1992, convinced that Jesus would be returning in a matter of days, he was arrested after a bizarre standoff in a California hotel room, where he had taken two day-laborers he had kidnapped at gunpoint, and where a hotel maid who saw his gun subsequently locked herself in a bathroom. After threatening to shoot at planes taking off from the nearby Los Angeles International Airport, and covering the walls of the hotel room with John 3:16 signs, he was arrested and sentenced to three consecutive life terms for kidnapping.[i]
This is a very unhappy ending to a life shining such a powerful light in the world of sports and TV. What happened? How can someone so familiar with John 3:16 turn out to live a life in such contradiction to it? How can someone holding up such a sign of life end up dropping into such a condition of waste?
I don’t know anymore about Stewart than this article I just read. But I do know about me and I do know that you must be a lot like me when it comes to John 3:16. And we must be a lot like Stewart, sans the wig and big sign. We may not have any real idea about what we are holding up to the world. And it may be because we don’t understand what God was holding up to the world as Jesus walked this earth. A closer look at the well-known words here from John provide us with a deeper understanding.
I admit: It is hard to get past the familiarity of the John 3:16 reference. To do so, we need to look again at the whole context of these words. Jesus was in a conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader and insider who had an undeniable but secret interest in who Jesus was and what he had been teaching. So he makes a visit in the dark of night to talk with Jesus about his awareness of being from God. Jesus tells him that he would need to be “born again” before he could enter the kingdom of God. This leads to Nicodemus asking how he could ever be born again, missing the spiritual sense of what Jesus was saying. Jesus provided an answer, with a little chiding about him being a teacher but not knowing, that included a reference to the Numbers text (21:4-9) we heard earlier, about the serpent held up on the pole as visual antidote for the Israelites to the poison of the snakes biting and killing them in the wilderness. Jesus wanted him to know that the Son of Man must also be lifted up, that whoever sees him could believe and have eternal life.
The word “believe” here is in the present tense, emphasizing present and continual action, anchored in past action. John wanted his readers to know that belief in Jesus was not a one-time spiritual decision, but an ongoing embrace of their faith. It wasn’t signing onto a set of beliefs or joining a religion. It was a way of life. “Eternal life” here is another one of those words we don’t fully understand. Our thinking usually goes right to life after death. But the people of Jesus’ and John’s time would have understood these words to mean life with God in the future but also one they began right then and there in their present. It was a present reality, in the presence of God. It was the kind of life God always intended for humankind; one they could be reborn into through the Spirit of God. It was one that would be radically different from their former existence.
It appears that we, especially in Western Christianity, become like Nicodemus or Rollin Stewart, in missing what these words are all about. A look at our society, our churches, our world seem to indicate we know very little of real belief or the characteristics of eternal life. How have you viewed “belief,” and “eternal life”?
We are invited by this Gospel to believe. Such belief is not giving assent to propositional truths, nor a one-time expression of faith, but a continual embracing of Jesus as our Savior. It is living, organic, and dynamic, not something so static as can be written with ink on sign we hold up to the world. It is not just believing in a God of the past, or of one will greet us when we die. No, it is placing faith in a God who is alive and active in our present. It is looking up from the life-threatening bites of the serpents in our lives to the life-saving action of the Jesus who came into our world.
This kind of belief leads right into what “eternal life” is all about. This kind of belief in Jesus begins eternal life. The characteristics of this life become accessible and apparent right here in the now. Having eternal life is not something you dream about or wait for, although it is something in the future as well. What Jesus wanted his world and ours to know is that eternal life is to be the way we live in the present reality of the love of the resurrection life Jesus has provided in Jesus. It is a whole new mode of being, a brand new life, a completely different kind of human existence. It was right in front of them as he stood there. And it is right in front of us as well. Do you know about this kind of living or are you more in the perishing mode? Are we living without an awareness of what we are lifting up to the world? Are you living your life without really living your life? Are you and I providing a witness to our family, our neighbors, our friends, our enemies, and to the world God so loved of what real, eternal life really looks like?
Imagine the difference that can be made in our lifetime if we truly believe. Nietzsche wanted Christians to know: If you want me to believe in your Redeemer, you had better look a little more redeemed.[ii] I believe that is our call from this text today, as we lift up the Redeemer, to look a little more redeemed.
[ii] quote found on http://www.preachingpeace.org/lectionaries/yearb-lent4/