Every time I hear this text I think of rainbow man. Rainbow man – his real name was Rollen Stewart – was for more than a decade a fixture on nationally televised sports broadcasts. For a couple of years he was a dancing guy in the stands with a big rainbow wig, trying to get on camera. After the Super Bowl in 1980 he was sitting up late in his hotel room and saw a televangelist preaching about the end of the world. Stewart had a dramatic conversion experience and, in that moment, decided that through his rainbow man character he would convince the world to believe in Jesus, and that the way he would do it was by holding a sign with that said, "John 3:16." He sold his house and used the money to buy tickets, living in his car as he traveled from game to game. Stewart carried a little television with him, learned where to situate himself in the stands, knew the exact moment the camera would be on him. The pitcher winds up and there’s rainbow man, holding a sign that says ‘John 3:16′ right behind home plate. The kicker goes to attempt the game-winning field goal – there he is, behind the goal posts, ‘John 3:16.’ The horses are leaving the stables, turning the corner in Churchill Downs, and in this one perfect spot, in the midst of fans with mint juleps and their fancy hats, is Rainbow Man with his massive wig, waving a sign: John 3:16.1
But all of this came together in a private moment. I have always found it interesting that this famous text, on billboards and bumper stickers, began in the middle of the night. Nicodemus, John tells us, was a Pharisee, a leader among the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the high court of Judaism – a smart, connected, influential guy. I imagine he had heard what happened in Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. Then Jesus came right into Jerusalem, first turning over tables in the Temple, then performing signs and miracles, John says, the city. But God was stirring something up in Nicodemus, who wanted to know more, but also knew there would be some risk. He was part of the Jewish establishment, for whom Jesus seemed to be at first only a nuisance but later a political problem and threat. Nicodemus had to exercise discretion.2
So he snuck in, under cover of darkness, tracked him down. He motions Jesus into the shadows. Rabbi, we – WE, he is speaking for others here – know that you are a teacher come from God. There is something inspired about You, about your work, your teaching. I think Nicodemus leading with this insight is important. God MUST be with you, he says. This is his way of opening space and Nicodemus, the one who usually does the teaching, stands there, waiting…
Jesus guesses his question. The big question for pious Jews, Will Willimon writes, was: what must I do to enter the kingdom of God?3 ‘Tell me what I can do, Rabbi,’ he says. I also think this question is why this text resonates so deeply with Christians of all stripes. We want to know. It is more than the overly simplistic, ‘Am I IN or am I OUT?’ question, but gets deeper. Some version of this question claimed the early church, the anxiety of the Reformation, echoing throughout the ages. In this way Nicodemus stands in for all of us, looking at Jesus, wondering. What is this life FOR? What is this all ABOUT? Our days seem so busy and full, pulled in countless direction, not doing anything as well as we want. And we can’t do it all and money always seems tight and the regular stresses are enough. Then someone gets sick. It’s cancer. Someone decides the marriage is over. Someone takes an extra drink. And refugees flood across the border from Syria bringing tales of horror and a flight disappears over Southeast Asia and we wonder if we stand on the brink of international war in Crimea. And Nicodemus stands in for us, looking at Jesus in the middle of the night, waiting…WHAT IS ALL THIS FOR?
Truly I tell you, Jesus says, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The word Jesus says in greek can both mean from above, which is more likely what Jesus means, but the other definition is born again. Nicodemus gets confused. How would that work, exactly, says the MAN who has never birthed a child, entering the womb again and being born again? Jesus smiles. You must be born of water and the spirit, through baptism, through God’s grace. He lifts Nicodemus’ eyes up from the day to day drudgery and challenges him to look more broadly. The wind blows where it chooses, Jesus says. The spirit is free. He challenges Nicodemus to step into this freedom – in his case, I think, from the constraints of the law, the institution – to step back from the things that bind him, and invites him to experience a faith that is deep and authentic. Nicodemus isn’t quite sure he wants to be free. Jesus points the Pharisee back to a passage he surely remembers from the book of Numbers. The people in the wilderness were complaining about the lack of food and water. God gets sick of it and sends poisonous snakes that bite a lot of them. God tells Moses to get one of those serpents and stick it up on a pole. The people are charged to look up high and see a reminder of their suffering and of God’s redemption. In this same way, Jesus says – in a scene thick with irony since we know the rest of the story – I, too, he says, must be lifted up. When that happens, he says, you will see.
Then comes the punch line that ends up on all the bumper stickers, which rainbow man stuck on a sign for all to see. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For – and verse 17 is crucial and too often left out – For God sent the Son into the world, NOT to condemn the world. Not to condemn it, but that the world might be saved through him.
And that, I’ll tell you, is some pretty darn good news, worth putting on a big ‘ole sign and sticking up somewhere. This verse deserves all the attention it gets because we need it. In our strategic planning committee as we have been thinking about God’s call for this church, so much of any conversation about local churches comes in the context of the decades-long membership loss throughout the mainline church. While WPC has remained strong – thanks to the faithfulness of many of you – so many churches are struggling. An article we read, that we sent to the session for discussion tonight, argues that a key element is a broader cultural malaise. Folks have other things to do, and church just seems like another thing to add to the list. The church doesn’t seem like it matters, or is important enough to warrant their time. One article ends with a challenge:
Perhaps some now unforeseen cultural shift will one day bring millions of baby boom dropouts back to the mainline churches. But nothing we discovered in our study suggests the likelihood of such a shift. If the mainline churches want to regain their vitality, their first step must be to address theological issues head-on. They must listen…and provide compelling answers to the question, "What’s so special about Christianity?"4
Well, this is it. These words, this verse – or 2 – I’d include verse 17 – right from Jesus’ mouth in John’s gospel. That God loves us so much that God didn’t leave us here to our own devices – we know how that would have worked out. But God chose to take human form and join us here. Jesus came bringing good news, marvelous news for us as we are exhausted at work, worried about our kids, alone in a hospital rooms. But it is much bigger than simply making us feel better or offering comfort and companionship, though he brings that, too. It is much bigger than filling the need we think we need filled. Jesus has good news of redemption, of salvation, for communities in fear, for those who are hungry, and lonely, and don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight. Christ didn’t come to draw lines, to tell us who is in and who is out, but to meet us with a gift of freedom from fear and violence and suffering and pain, a gift of liberation from the systems that enslave us and the evil that exists and the evil that we perform in the world. Christ came not to condemn the world, but that through him, leaning into Him, trusting in His grace, letting His will shape your lives, that world might be transformed, and healed. Each of us. Each of you. For eternity.
That’s some good news, early on here in Lent. Worth sticking on a sign, if you want. God’s grace comes as a gift, so that you, that we, might be born anew, that the Spirit might breathe new possibilities, even among us, as we live into that grace and love.
"For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The story becomes rather sad after this. Learn more on the SportsCenter piece.
2. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2010), Theological Perspective, p 70.
3. William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 30, No. 1, Year A – January, February, March 2002, p 35.
4. "Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for the Decline," First Things. This is long, but worth reading.