Sunday, May 30, 2004

John 3:16-21 - "Why Bannerman Should Hold Up a Lighted Sign"

Pentecost (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings; appointed text for Pentecost Monday)
Thursday, May 27, and Sunday, May 30, 2004

Steve Taylor is a quirky Christian rock musician who takes on great topics in his songs. One of his songs is called “Bannerman” and is about a guy who holds up the “John 3:16” banner in end zone at a football game. (hold up sign) Bannerman’s doing his part to spread the Word of God.

Apparently, the whole “John 3:16” banner thing got started by someone who came to be known as Rainbow Head. Rainbow Head somehow got front row tickets to televised sporting events, brought along his “John 3:16” banner (hold up sign), and also wore a rainbow wig. (put on wig) His goal was to get attention so that people would see the sign, get curious, and look up John 3:16 in the Bible, discovering one of the best summaries of the Gospel: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This sparked many people doing the same thing, and now it is pretty common to see “John 3:16” banners at sporting events. (take off wig, put down sign)

Yet, there’s more to this section of the Gospel of John than just one verse. Jesus said more than John 3:16. He also said John 3:17, 18, 19, all the way to John 3:21. Reading those verses makes me think that Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign. It’s great and all to hold up a poster that says “John 3:16,” but really, if you want to get to heart of this passage from the Gospel of John, really Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign. (hold up lighted sign – set on table)

“The light has come into the world,” Jesus says. Through talking about light and darkness, Jesus actually repeats what He’s already said in this section, repeats it to make it very clear that salvation only comes through faith in Him.

You see, here in John chapter 3, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. Nicodemus came to ask Jesus some questions. But Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night; he didn’t want the other Pharisees or other people knowing that he was talking to Jesus. The Pharisees were suspicious of what Jesus was teaching, and it wouldn’t look good for Nicodemus to be seen seeking out spiritual teaching from Jesus. Nicodemus wanted to know about salvation, but he kind of wanted Jesus to hand him the answer on a little piece of paper that he could easily hide in his cloak or swallow to destroy it if necessary. “For God so loved the world. . .”

But after Jesus explains that salvation comes through believing in Him, and that rejecting Him brings God’s condemnation, Jesus picks up the metaphor of light and dark to kind of say to Nicodemus, “I’m not giving you the message of salvation as some of kind of secret made in the dark; I want everyone to know about this salvation.” Jesus holds up a lighted sign. (hold up the lighted sign)

The light has come into the world, and those who love darkness, who hide from the light, hide from God’s sight, they will be condemned. But whoever comes to the light, whoever believes in the Son of God will be saved and have eternal life.

So that’s why I think Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign. Oh, I mean, it’s not like it really matters. I hope that sometimes people do see those signs during a football game or whatever and they look up John 3:16. But I want us to remember that the sign should be lit up, lit up with a ton of spotlights, because the light has come into the world. I think the sign should be lighted so that we remember that Jesus had more to say than that one verse, had more than one way of explaining what it means to come and believe in Him.

Yet, with that lighted sign, with that reminder that the light has come into the world, it hurts to hear the message. It’s tough to be reminded that the light reveals the darkness, that Jesus reveals our sinfulness.

Jesus says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed.” We know this, we know we like to hide our sins, we like to do things at night when people aren’t looking. We like to do things when we’re alone and think that no one is watching. That’s what is so shocking about the U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners: the soldiers actually took pictures of themselves doing this, something you’d think they would want to keep in the dark, in secret.

We all like to keep our sins secret. We like darkness when it covers up our sins. Pull the shades, close the door, go out in the middle of the night, park around back, hide our sins.

So if Bannerman holds up a lighted sign, if we remember more than John 3:16, if we also remember that Jesus is the light of the world, then the message hurts more, because we’re remembering that the light reveals our darkness, our sins, Jesus reveals why it is that we need His salvation, why it is that God sent His only Son.

To come to the light means to show your darkness. To come to the light means to lay it all before God. To come to the light means to be rebuked for those actions, those sins that you’ve been hiding behind closed doors. And that hurts, because no one likes to be found out, no one likes to admit where they have been doing wrong.

The Tuesday morning Bible studies helped me to prepare this sermon, and when we started talking about the sins in the world, that was easy. We easily found people to point fingers at. But when I asked what sins are troubling this congregation, what sins are we hiding in our dark corners, then the room got silent and uncomfortable. That’s not an attack on the people in my Bible studies; that’s simply how we all react. It hurts to turn our eyes inward and admit our sins.

Yet, that’s exactly what it means to believe in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to believe that you are sinful, that you are a child of darkness, that you are dead in your sins, that you cannot escape God’s judgment. To believe in Jesus is to believe that you need His grace and mercy, that you need His forgiveness, that you need Him to die for your sins.

When you believe in Jesus, it’s not that Jesus turns on the lights and always finds you doing something holy. Jesus turns the light on His believers and still finds plenty of sins going on. The difference is that Jesus turns on the light and sees faith in your heart, faith and trust in Him, faith that comes from His Holy Spirit. Jesus turns the light on His believers and sees that they admit their darkness, show their darkness, confess their sins and their need to be saved.

And that’s why salvation can’t come down to our actions. If receiving eternal life required a life without sins, then all Jesus would have to do is turn on the lights once, see all of us doing the sins that we were trying to hide, and then the game would be over, no more lives left, no more chances, no code to break, no override, no reset button.

But John 3:16 goes against that idea. “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God gives us salvation through faith, because based on our works, we would fail.

Yet, sometimes like the Pharisees we might get caught up in our own actions, get caught up in thinking that we’re pretty good, we follow God’s laws, we are good Christians. Jesus turns on the light and find us doing the right thing. You know, like the bumper sticker, “Look busy. Jesus is coming,” it’s kind of like waiting for Jesus to come and then we’re there doing the right thing, doing our good works, “Look at how good we are Jesus.”

Meanwhile, when the light goes out, we keep doing the good works, but we’re grumbling, we’re complaining, we’re second-guessing God, we’re taking pride in ourselves, we’re judging everyone else, we’re wondering why we even need that Jesus guy anyway. “Oops, here He comes again, look happy, look like you
really believe this guy.”

Salvation doesn’t just come down to actions, because even if you had the right actions, your heart may have nothing to do with Jesus, nothing to do with the truth. That’s where verse 21 comes in.

Verse 21, “so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God,” sounds like a reversal of verse 16, sounds like a return to thinking salvation comes through works. Yet, my Tuesday morning Bible studies and I looked at one scholar who said that the phrase, “Whoever does what is true,” means something like, “One puts the truth which he has received in his heart into his life and actions,” (Lenski, 277). Someone who does what is true is putting her faith into action. In other words, the actions begin with faith. Verse 21 isn’t talking about how you get salvation; actions don’t bring about salvation. Verse 21 is talking about the sign of faith, that faith produces actions in one’s life, and only those actions done in faith are actions done in God. Without faith, we have nothing. Without faith, we don’t have good works, we don’t have the truth, we don’t have salvation.

Why do we spend time and money on Sunday School, teaching the children about the Bible, instead of just having them go do nice projects for people in the nursing homes? Why do we have youth in Confirmation and EDGE Groups and on spiritual retreats rather than always doing service projects? Why do we want our families to spend time coming to worship instead of just sending them into the community to help others? Because we have nothing without faith. We could help all of the poor people in the world, but if it isn’t done in faith, then it isn’t done in God. We could stop spending money on educational materials, stop spending time studying the Bible, but if we lose our faith, if we forget what we believe, then money spent on anything else is a waste. Without faith in Jesus, we have nothing.

So we focus our time and energy on building faith through hearing God’s Word. Then by constantly being built up in our faith, constantly getting reminders of God’s salvation, then we are ready to put faith into action, to go and do the truth.

Bannerman should hold up a lighted sign to remind us that the light has come into the world, that Jesus comes and turns on the lights and finds us as we are—sinners. Jesus turns on the lights, sending us scurrying like mice into the corners of the room, looking for a place to hide. Yet, there’s no corner where we mice can hide from the penetrating, bright light of Jesus. Jesus finds us cowering in the corner, covering our faces from the light, hiding our eyes from His eyes. He reaches out with His strong hands to take hold of us. . .and His touch is gentle and comforting.

He picks us up and tells us that He will not let His light, His truth, His righteousness harm us. He tells us that we can look at His light without fear. We no longer have to hide from His light. He has removed our dark deeds; He has forgiven us for our sins. He did not come to set a trap for us, the trap will not spring, He didn’t come to condemn the world. He knows that even now, we’ll still find ourselves getting into dark corners, doing things that go against His will, but He offers forgiveness for all of our sins. More than that, he sets us back down, equipped with little mice headlamps, ready to bring His light into the world. He will continue to teach us, so that we’ll know more about His light and love, so that we’ll know how to use our headlamps, so that we’ll know how to share His light with everyone that we meet.

If you don’t like thinking of yourself as a mouse with a headlamp, think of yourself as Bannerman with a lighted up sign. Jesus has found you in the darkness, and now sends you out with His message, His light. Through the Holy Spirit, you can do good works, and through those good works, the light of Jesus shines out from you. Like Bannerman holding up a lighted sign, you’re inviting others to come and find hope, peace, and salvation from the light of the world.