John 3:1-17 – Accept

Remember the “John 3:16 guy”?  Check out the article below from a 2009 Forbes Magazine:

Rollen Stewart, a.k.a. Rainbow Man, first showed up on the American sports scene during the 1977 NBA Finals. Initially he merely put on a rainbow-colored Afro wig and danced wildly for the cameras. But after the 1980 Super Bowl, Stewart sat in his hotel room watching a televangelist named Charles R. Taylor, and became a born-again Christian.

Shortly thereafter, he came up with the idea for adding the John 3:16 sign to his repertoire.  For the next decade, he traveled the globe to display his signs and banners. Among the events he attended:  the Olympics, the World Cup, NFL playoff games, the Indy 500, the Masters, horse races and even the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

He claimed that he drove 60,000 miles a year to attend sporting events. He figured out the prime positions for holding his signs by carrying a battery-operated television to games to help figure out where the cameras were pointed.

But eventually the rush began to fade for Stewart. When the 1980s came to a close, he became more volatile, ramping up his antics. “He became convinced that God had given him a sign to use more negative tactics,” says George Winter, who is working on a biography of Stewart and acts as his unofficial spokesman.

In 1991, at the Masters, he blew an air horn as Jack Nicklaus lined up a putt, then detonated a stink bomb. Later that year he detonated four more stink bombs in Orange County, Calif.

His personal life was a wreck as well. Stewart claimed he never made any money (his tickets to sporting events were believed to have been bought by sympathetic Christians).   By the 1990s, he was homeless and living in his car.

His wife and one-time signage partner had left him–she claimed he choked her when she didn’t hold her sign in the correct place during a game. Finally he went over the edge. 

In September of 1992, Rollen locked himself in a hotel room in a Los Angeles Hyatt and made threats to shoot at airplanes landing and taking off at nearby LAX Airport. He held a Hyatt maid hostage in his room. He plastered religious verses on the windows.

After an eight-hour standoff, SWAT teams broke into his room and found a handgun, two ammunition clips and 47 live ammunition rounds. Stewart, now 65, is serving out three life terms in Mule Creek Prison in Ione, Calif. He comes up for parole nearly every year but is repeatedly denied.

Obviously, signs don’t save you – no matter how many people see them.

Outward actions, no matter how spectacular, no matter how much attention they get, don’t save you. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. You must “accept the freedom God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” even if you, yourself, become “the form in which they present themselves.”

In the early church, Lent was used to help people prepare for Baptism. 40 days to examine your spirit, repent of your sins, decide if you really are ready to commit your life to Christ.

Last week, I asked us to consider the first Baptismal vow: On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

We looked at the story of Jesus’ temptation to see we renounce the various temptations to live as though we are our own gods; how we renounce the forces that lure us to be the center of our own universe.

Today, the word is “accept”, as in the second vow: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

So, we turn to this week’s scripture for more:

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” 

Nicodemus was not free.  Night – “darkness” means something to John

Earlier, in John 1:3-5, 10-11, he writes: “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him.”

For John, “night” is a metaphor for “outside the faith,” failing to understand who Jesus is; when Judas leaves to betray Jesus, John tells us “it was night.”

Laws and rules controlled him.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus knew God through the Law, a multitude of tightly constructed and constricting rules of behavior – what they ate, what they wore, how they interacted with people. In verse 1, John calls him a “Jewish leader” (an administrator or elected official?); Jesus later calls him “a teacher of Israel” much like a preacher or a Sunday School teacher.

Jesus does things – miraculous things – that defy those rules.  

Nicodemus is desperately trying to understand how Jesus can “a teacher come from God” and not teach the same laws, in the same way, that all Godly teachers have done. If Jesus is “from God,” why doesn’t he act like all us Pharisees act? Why doesn’t he teach what all us Pharisees teach?

Pride and reputation constricted Nicodemus.

Nicodemus had power. Rank and file Jews looked to the Pharisees as paragons of holiness.  Leaders – religious and government leaders – sought their advice.

It might be that when Nicodemus says “we know,” it’s just a cover for “I know.”  He knows. He has an inkling of who Jesus might be (if we follow him through John’s gospel, we see that he does, by the end, become a believer).  He knows, but he can’t say that out loud – somebody might hear him.

We do the same thing: there’s something that we need to say, but we’re afraid to admit that we think that, so we attribute it to the “mysterious they.” “They say,” or “people are saying,” even “I heard this . . .”

For whatever reason, Nicodemus cannot admit that he is struggling with the question of who Jesus is.

Tradition tied him to the past. 

More than all that, what really “tied him up,” was the fact that he could not make sense of all that he had seen and heard about Jesus.

How does Jesus answer Nicodemus’ unspoken question? Even though he is flattering Jesus, below it all, Nicodemus is asking “Who are you?” Jesus says, “you must be born again – or ‘from above’.”

To a dedicated Pharisee, a “leader of Jews,” a “teacher of Israel”, to a “good church person,” Jesus says “you just be born again.” Nicodemus is no heathen, not an atheist, not a worshiper of foreign gods, not even a skeptic.

Nicodemus is what all of us aspire to be – a respected, obviously righteous, leader of his church.  Even he must be born again. And us?

We probably respond in the same way Nicodemus does.

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?” We might ask the same.

How? Why? I go to church. I even come to Sunday School and Wednesday night Bible Study. I know who you are. I read my bible. Me? Surely you are talking about someone else.

The birth of which Jesus speaks is not one we create or earn. It comes from “above;” is “of water (baptism) and the spirit;” and is controlled by God – just like the wind.

We are not born again by the amount of laws we uphold, the amount of hours we spend in church – nor even the amount of Bible we know. We are born again when we accept the grace of God’s love and God’s forgiveness of our sins.

He stands ready to give us that forgiveness, to blow the wind of the Holy Spirit on our lives, whenever we are ready to accept it.

With that grace comes the “freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”  That “freedom and power” is ours. All we have to do is “accept” it, for it comes from God as a freely given gift.

God gives it when and where he sees fit – whether we approve or not.

“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 

I don’t hear anything about forcing or controlling in that verse – God gave so that whoever believes in him, everyone who believes, will be saved.

I don’t hear anything about us deciding who gets to be saved. Nothing even really about God deciding who gets to be saved – everybody can be saved!

Everybody can “accept the freedom and power.”

Even us good, church people who thought we already had it.

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