March 22, 2015

Keeping our Covenants: Covenants of Protection


Text: John 3:16: “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.”

I wonder whether you remember Rollen Stewart. You may never have heard his name, although I would bet that many of you, if not most of you, have seen him at least once before. Rollen Stewart was a man who became well known in the 1980s and 1990s for attending major sporting events wearing a large, curly, rainbow-colored wig and holding up a giant sign that said “John 3:16.” He would always put himself right in the end zone, so that the camera couldn’t avoid him whenever someone was kicking a field goal or a point-after-touchdown. Or he’d get one of the seats right behind home plate, or right behind the pit area for the most popular driver.

A lot of people saw Rollen Stewart during his career as an evangelist. A lot of cameramen and broadcast directors tried with great effort to avoid getting him in the shot, but he seemed always to find a way in.

His tactic was a pretty simple one. He didn’t want anything more than to make millions and millions of people curious. You might even say that Rollen Stewart was the one of the early indicators that Christianity was no longer the unquestioned cultural background of  America, because the whole thing only worked if it made you curious—if you didn’t know what a giant sign reading “John 3:16” meant. The idea was to get you to ask someone, because finally someone you talked to would know the answer, and they would tell you.

And what they would say is: It’s talking about this one verse in the Bible. And just maybe they would find it for you, or you would find it for yourself. And this is what you would find: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

It is a phrase that has been called “the gospel in a sentence.” If you’ve ever taken a look at the inside of the Gideon’s Bible in the hotel room when you travel, you’ll find that one line translated into dozens of different languages on the first few pages.

I’m the sort of person who was always slightly embarrassed by “Rainbow Man,” as he came to be called. Certainly nothing about what he was doing looked like the beautifully ordered Episcopal liturgy. He was carrying on in a ridiculous way, and I sure didn’t want to be associated with him.

What’s more, if that’s what people thought of when they thought of Christians, then I really didn’t want anyone watching the game with me to turn to me and ask me, “What does that mean?” Because then if I told them, they’d know I knew, and then they would think that that’s what I did when I went to the game.

But you know, I was sort of glad that there was someone out there doing that. I was glad that there was someone out there getting people to wonder in a direction that would lead them to this one verse. I gather that more recently Mr. Tebow managed to inscribe the citation on the black patches football players wear under their eyes. Also very clever, and a lot easier on me, because there’s no chance anyone would mistake me for someone going into the huddle if I ever got to a football game.

But bringing people through any means to this verse is perhaps the beginning of any kind of Christian evangelism. There is a message in the very heart of this sentence that is at the core of the Christian understanding of God. It is the idea that God acts, not in judgment, not in punishment, not in anger, but in love. God acts through Christ to stop something bad from happening to us.

Not a lot of that will make any sense to you if you don’t think that you’re in any danger. That is the challenge of evangelism in our time. It doesn’t mean anything that God acts to save you from perishing, from losing you eternal soul, if you don’t have a sense of your soul as something very precious and very vulnerable.

I am always struck by how few of the folks who file themselves under “spiritual but not religious” have any serious notion that their soul can actually be damaged, or hurt, or in need of protection.

We are meant to understand that there’s a link in the imagery of the story of Moses in the wilderness, lifting up a bronze serpent to protect the children of Israel, and the work that Jesus will do on the cross, which he is foreshadowing in today’s Gospel reading.

You might forget, because of the way the Gospel reading today is edited, that the reading we have is part of the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus, one of the leaders of Israel. Nicodemus is trying to understand just who Jesus is, and what he might mean. The people around Nicodemus, the priests and elders, they insist that Jesus is a fraud; Nicodemus suspects he may be the real deal, and he comes along in the dead of night for a conversation.

It’s not an accident that Jesus links this statement about God working through Jesus to save us to the image of Moses in the wilderness. Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of their shared history. The children of Israel were surrounded by evil and danger; the serpents surrounded them, and they were lethal. Moses did as God instructed, and lifted up a sign of protection; and they were made safe.

Jesus is saying the same thing is true now; the children of Israel, all God’s children, are surrounded by evil. We are surrounded by evil. It comes not only from the world around us; it comes from within our own unruly hearts. And Jesus will be lifted up, lifted on the Cross, so that everyone is protected from that danger. Jesus is our protection, from dangers we hardly see and don’t quite understand—but that threaten our very souls.

This is what is promised to us in the new covenant God extends to us. Our part of that covenant is that we have to believe that this is, in fact, what Christ came to do, and that it needs doing. The protection offered to us only holds if we first understand that there is something we need protecting from.

The covenants we make involve a sense of protection. We may have contracts with our employees, or with our contractors, or with our bank; but we don’t feel a deep instinct to protect them from harm, perhaps least of all the bank.

But the people who are dearest to us, who have our unconditional love, with them we have a relationship of covenant, and we have a strong instinct to protect them, to shield them from danger, to keep them from the things that might hurt them. Parents of young children know this. Older children looking after aging parents know this.

And it is not merely people tied by family bonds. We are capable of extraordinary acts on behalf of other human beings, simply because we feel a bond to others. At the highest level, the level of highest compassion, that instinct expresses itself in ways that can be, and often are, sacrificial. When we witness those sorts of acts, we rightly regard them as expressions of the potential of human beings to act in truly noble ways.

God acts out of just such a love for us—a loving instinct to protect us, to shield us, to keep us from harm. That is the giving that God does in John 3:16—the giving of the God’s very self to the end that we will be safe from evil and death. And it is a model for the bonds we are meant to have with each other here—to hold each other in care and concern, to treat each other with compassion and charity.

There dangers around us. God has acted to keep us safe, trusting that we will do the same for each other.

Let us pray:

O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; Grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.