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Sermon: John 3:16 & The Rainbow Man

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on March 15, 2015.
4th Sunday in Lent, Year B (RCL): Numbers 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Every time I hear this text, I can’t help but think of “The Rainbow Man.”

(Cue the wig)

Maybe you remember him. If you’re a fan of professional sports (and maybe even if you aren’t) and watched any major sporting event on TV between the late 1970s-1980s: be it football’s Super Bowl, or baseball’s World Series, or NBA’s Championship Finals, you saw this guy. A LOT. He was America’s most celebrated fan. His name is Rollen Stewart.

Stewart started out as a wig-wearing self promoter who showed up at almost every major athletic event worldwide and always managed to plant himself smack-dab in front of a TV camera. Known as “the Rainbow Man” for the multicolored Afro wig he wore; he was also called “Rock 'n' Rollen” for the party vibe he exuded. Stewart drove miles and miles to attend big events. He often got more TV face time than most network announcers. He found fame, as he intended, simply by showing up.

For a first few years, he just danced in the stands. After the 1980 Super Bowl, he was up late in his hotel room and saw a televangelist preaching about the end of the world. Stewart experienced a dramatic conversion and, then, decided his Rainbow Man character would convince the world to believe in Jesus. Sports arenas were his church and TV his pulpit, with the Word a sign saying, ‘John 3:16.’

(Cue the sign!) Do you remember him now?

Selling his home to buy tickets, Stewart lived in his car and traveled from place to place for game after game. He learned where to place himself in the stands, and when the camera would be on him. The pitcher winds up and there's Rainbow Man preaching ‘John 3:16’ right behind home plate. The kicker lines up a game-winning field goal--there’s ‘Rainbow Man’ behind the goal posts--‘John 3:16.' The horses leave the stables, turning the corner toward the track at Churchill Downs, and in this one perfect spot, amidst fans with mint juleps and their fancy hats, is Rainbow Man with his massive wig, waving a sign: ‘John 3:16.” It’s fair to say this scripture is well known, due in part, to “Rainbow Man.

(Remove the wig & put down the sign)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, a devout Pharisee and leader among the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the high court of Judaism, who was smart, connected, and influential. Nicodemus probably heard about the wine changing incident in Cana, and the more recent disruption in the temple when Jesus drove out the money changers. So he sought out the Lord at night, under darkness, as he struggled to understand who Jesus is, and what the meaning of his coming down from heaven is all about. In response, Jesus refers to the peculiar incident in the life of Moses we heard today in the Book of Numbers.

Near the end of years wandering in the wilderness and shortly before they entered the Promised Land, the children of Israel again were impatient, grumbling, murmuring in their tents against God and their leader, Moses. So God sent poisonous snakes among them that brought disease and death. When the people repented and cried out, “We have sinned,” Moses interceded again on their behalf, and God offered salvation through a strange provision. God commanded Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to affix it on top of a pole. Those who had been bitten by snakes and were dying were told to lift their eyes to the serpent so they might live. They were saved by an act of faith, and they spared by God.

So now the Son of Man, Jesus, has come down from heaven to be lifted up upon a pole. The One who sits and talks with Nicodemus made the descent into flesh to walk and dwell among us and in obedience will go to Calvary to die upon the cross for our transgressions. This amazing and costly sacrifice also calls for a response of faith. Whoever can behold with eyes of faith the Son of Man will be given everlasting life. They will not languish and die in a physical or a spiritual wilderness. This is God’s remarkable provision for our salvation!

We see in these verses that the lifting up of the Son of Man, of Jesus the Christ, is a supreme act of love. This is no afterthought or last-minute emergency plan. Love is central to the very nature of God, for God is Love. Our loving God reaches out to all who are unlovely and sick: Like those dying Israelites in the wilderness, like Nicodemus in the dark of night, and like all of us, sinners that we are. This love is not selective or discriminating. It is universal with no limitations. God came then, and comes now, and will always be, available to the whole world in love and through love.

This invitation is as wide as God’s own heart – “for whoever believes.” God will not cheapen the terms, for then God would not be true to God’s own self. We believers need only accept this invitation by trust, in faith, and with obedience. It has been that way with God from the very beginning.

This gift is everlasting. This is life with God that is limitless. It is Quality, not quantity. Our final destination is life, not death. The word “perish” here speaks to those who refuse to lift their eyes up and believe. They are condemned. They are those who for some reason cannot accept God’s great gift and go on without it. Judgment then for them is to remain in their present, lesser state.

Here is the great paradox, that double-edged sword of Jesus’ coming. Our Lord came in love to teach, to save, to heal, to redeem, and to offer spiritual renewal. Jesus did not come to condemn or judge. But his coming to and among us does sharpen the point to the matter. Now we must decide!

There is both wondrous possibility and great peril in Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus. If he chooses to lay aside all his preconceived ideas and accept Jesus as the One who has come down from heaven to save, Nicodemus will be born again! Should Nicodemus choose to turn aside, to leave, to try to work out his own salvation by his own feeble and stubborn efforts, however noble, he stands under condemnation and will perish.

This is the mystery of evil in our world, that darkness which can keep each of us from accepting the greater gift; that rebellious pride which will not allow us to go through the waters of repentance and baptism to receive the empowering of the Holy Spirit. We are like Indiana Jones who, going into dark temples, finds snakes. (“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!”) We all know that in this world that we live in, we can find ourselves suddenly ‘pit-deep’ in poisonous snakes of many kinds and places: in our hearts, minds, bodies or souls. There are times when the ego in any one of us may insist we can work out our own salvation. But it is the Cross, the lifting up of the Son of Man, which finally unmasks that ego, to condemn it, and to hopefully correct it.

In our deeds, our rejection is revealed most clearly. Sometimes we choose darkness over light because our deeds may be less than admirable and we don’t want them noticed. On this, John does not mince words. The Gospel says that humankind hates the light because it does not want its deeds exposed. On the other hand, those who accept and believe, who lift their eyes up upon the Son of Man, lifted high on a pole, respond to the light of Christ. They do so in truth, because of the Truth, and through obedience are drawn to the Light. Jesus is lifted up through the transparency of our lives. This can only be done “in God,” because we have been made new through Christ.

Some of the deepest experiences of renewal I have witnessed in the life of the faithful and of the Church have come when people have opened up to share dark, hidden places in their lives. They share with me, or they may share with others, a costly, but cleansing experience where they can be rid of darkness, and through which new light may be seen. It may be speaking truth to power. It may also be speaking through hurt to love. It may be acknowledging and confessing things they have done or left undone. It is stepping out of darkness into light.

An Old Testament promise providing us a baptismal lens this Lent is the promise that God makes to Moses; those who look on the bronze serpent will live. Today’s Good News is Jesus saying he will be lifted up on the cross like that serpent, so that those who look to him in faith will live. When we receive the sign of the cross in baptism, that cross becomes the sign we can look to in faith, for healing, for restored relationship to God, for hope when we are dying.

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul states that while we were dead in our sinfulness, God acted to make us alive as a gift of grace in Christ Jesus. We are saved not by what we do but by grace through faith. Thus our good works are really a reflection of God’s grace at work in our lives.

“We were dead” before baptism. This stark biblical language that describes the life that comes only from God can help those who believe to face their own physical death in the peace of Christ: in baptism we have already died to sin, and we are ushered into an experience of eternal life.

All of us, both young and old, need help understanding that Grace is God’s forgiveness in action even before we realize we need forgiveness. Grace creates life where there is none. God’s will is to save all of us, even when we are still complaining, still “dead in sins.”

Back to Rollen Stewart, the “Rainbow Man,” who wore T-shirts saying, “Believe in Jesus,” and waved signs with ‘John 3:16’ whenever he was on TV. He’s now 70 years old and has been in prison since 1992 serving three life sentences for a hostage-taking incident in 1992. Stewart had taken drastic steps to get a new pulpit to preach the Second Coming of the Christ. I think that poisonous serpents in his life of fame, zealousness, maybe even paranoia, circled about him, wounding and hurting him, and thus corrupting the zeal and vigor of his early testimony as a disciple of Christ. Now considered a continual public threat, he’s been denied parole multiple times and believes he will never be set free. Stewart said, "Jesus will come back before I get out.”

(Cue the sign)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone, even Rollen Stewart, who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This is Good News. Not only now, a little more than halfway through Lent, but always, and in all ways. It is worth sticking on a sign or stenciling on a T-shirt, 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.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.