The Wrong Sign

You've seen them. I know that you have. The signs---they're everywhere.

Signs telling you to "Repent!"

I wonder how many people have actually read one of those and hit the ground out of conviction, and just straight up repented.

Signs proclaiming that "Jesus Lives, Jesus Saves, Jesus Is Coming..."

I have to admit that these are kind of cool. I like riding around and seeing Jesus signs in
random places, as long as they're not hateful, that is. I especially like the hand-drawn
ones--they have a certain panache. I especially like the ones that say, "Jesus is Coming.
Look Busy!"

Signs that command God to bless America (like God hasn't).

Wouldn't it be awesome if someone went around to all of the "God Bless America" signs
and bumper stickers and scribbled them up so they read, "God Has Blessed America?"

Signs commanding America to bless God (not a bad idea).

I've seen these around, and I wonder if the people who put them up really mean what they
say, or is it some sort of protest against "R" rated movies, Britney Spears and gay
marriage. If America actually blessed God it might do something about the poor and needy
within our borders and the very poor and needy outside of them. Just saying.

Signs that contain the reference to John 3:16...

I've never understood why people always insist on displaying Scripture references on handmade signs without any explanation attached for those folks who might not know what the heck it means. It seems to me that if you are going to hold up a sign at a football game that reads, "John 3:16" you should have your buddy stand next to you with a sign that reads, "It's a verse in the Bible." And if you wanted to be even more helpful, you might have another buddy hold up yet another sign that reads, "The Bible = Christian Holy Scriptures."

John 3:16 is a pretty darned good verse, though. Everyone who has been to Sunday school for five minutes knows John 3:16. It's sort of required.

"For God so loved the world that God sent God's only Son. so that whoever believes in the Son can be saved and have eternal life." That's my own paraphrase gleaned from about twelve different Biblical translations.

Funny, though. No one ever really advocates on their little signs that we keep reading.

I'd like to propose that the "John 3:16" sign wavers pull out their Sharpies and add "& 17" to their little signs. Or if they are feeling bold, they may want to dispense with the "John 3:16" sign altogether and just hold up a "John 3:17" sign. Imagine the confusion and consternation such a rejection of the status quo would cause.

Even people who don't know what the heck John 3:16 is all about would see that something is amiss. "Say, that shirtless dude in the rainbow wig in the end zone is not holding his John 3:16 sign up. It says John 3:17 instead. I've got to immediately run to a Bible and find out why."

It could happen.

Curious about what John 3:17 says?

"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

This is one of the verses that far too many Christians gloss over when they are doing their "evangelism" thing in our culture. When you read John 3:17, you sort of see why. If your entire understanding of the way that God saves is predicated on the idea that everyone is damned until they take it upon themselves to muster up the faith to believe in Jesus and then make the effort on their own to confess that self-mustered faith so that other self-musterers can hear it, and then stamp their self-musterer card so that everyone walks off high-fiving one another, then John 3:17 is kind of a buzz kill.

Because God didn't send Jesus to condemn. God sent Jesus to redeem.

Redemption is different than Condemnation. Christians need to understand this.

And being part of the redeemed is not an exclusive club that is meant only for people who have made the effort, taken it upon themselves, pulled themselves up by their own holy boot straps.

Even faith is a gift.

The Apostle Paul, who completely understood the difference that Jesus' death, burial and resurrection made in the world, wrote that "God through Christ is reconciling [straightening everything out, redeeming, reclaiming, renewing, you name it] all of Creation to Godself."

Speaking of Paul (nice segue, right?), in his letter to the Ephesians Paul unpacks a whole bunch of theology having to do with this very idea. For Paul, Christ pretty much changed everything, and made it all new. A believer in Christ, according to Paul, was transformed into a completely new person--a new creation--through the power of Christ's Spirit working in and through them. The world itself was being transformed and made new through that same power. All of Creation, Paul asserted, was included in God's great and crazy plan for saving the world and everything in it. Because of Christ, nothing was going to be the same again.

Paul even believed that because of Christ the very air that we breathe was being made new, cleansed and purified.

I'm serious.

Paul told the Christians at Ephesus in his letter to them that before they experienced Christ, they were "dead," and their lives were being molded by two forces, "this world" and "the ruler of the air."

Another way of interpreting "this world," would be by using the word, "system" instead. In other words, Paul is telling the Ephesians that before Christ's redemtive work they were simply participating in the systems and structures that sought to smother and deny the power of God to redeem.

The other force that was molding the lives of the Ephesians when they were "dead" was "the ruler of the air," commonly thought to refer to Satan. The ancient understanding of reality was constructed as a sort of hierarchical layering system. Heaven was beyond the sight and understanding of humankind, but was located somewhere beyond the visible sky, stars, etc. Between Heaven and Earth was the atmosphere or "the air." Satan, it was widely believed was given the realm b/w Heaven and Earth as his own to rule, and as a result "the ruler of the air" was able to exert influence over the whole Earth. The aim of Satan, in the ancient understanding was to make sin seem as natural as breathing.

The ancient Hebrew people believed that as a result of the influence of Satan, even the very air that a person breathed was laced with evil.

Paul used the word hamartia for "sin," in Ephesians 2. The word hamartia means "a falling short." He tells the Ephesians that they were "dead" in their "trespasses" and hamartia. In other words, they were dead inside because they were failing to be what they could be. They were not living up to their potential, not living in to the hope that God had for them.

I need to say this.

Sin isn't something that theologians dreamed up to have something to write about. It's something that permeates all of life. This is what Paul captures in his letter. Sin is loss. Sin is separation from God. Sin is all the ways that we have walked away from who we really are meant to be. Sin is the lifeblood of the System (this world), that Paul was writing about--a force that seeks to smother the reeming grace of God. The System is defined by racism, economic oppression, slavery, war, poverty, hunger, gender inequality, hatred, violence, injustice.

Also, Sin is not a person, or a group of people. It's the System. It's the "falling short"--the hamartia of humanity that we are all complicit in supporting and excusing. To put it another way, it's the Tower of Babel all over again--where civilization, technology, society and culture attempt to replace or supplant God. I know that Christians are fond of saying "Love the sinner and hate the sin!" But most of the time we don't even know what that means, and even if we do we ignore it. Sin gets hated in Christian circles, but the Sinner ends up being hated even more.

When we take John 3:16 AND 17 together, we see that God loved Creation so much that God was willing to do whatever it took to save us from the effects of this noxious atmosphere--even if it meant becoming one of us. And in the midst of this sin-filled atmosphere God showed how God might hate sin, but doesn't condemn God's Creation because of it. God's ultimate desire is redemption of all things.

Paul addresses this, and tells the Ephesians that there was a time when they were "dead" because the very air they were breathing in was thick with the pollution of Sin.

And when all you do is breathe in the failure associated with unrealized potential, it becomes the status quo. After all, a fish doesn't really know that it's in the water, right?

As we mentioned earlier, the ancient Hebrew people--like a lot of ancient cultures--believed that the "ruler of the air" had influence over all Earth and Earth's inhabitants.

Unless you were Jewish.

Most Jewish people in the time of Jesus believed that Satan (another word for "adversary") had influence over the whole world, except for Israel. In fact, Paul spent a great deal of his ministry and his writing combating this kind of racial elitism. Paul taught that the power of God to save was not extended to the few, but to all of Creation. He taught that God's children were claimed not because of their ancestry, but through the gift of faith.

There were a lot of other early Christians who disagreed with Paul, however. They contended that the only way for people to truly begin to breathe pure air again, to be untainted by the influence of the Evil One, was to become Jewish. Many of the early Christian communities that Paul helped to found heard these teachings and began to wonder if these teachers might be right.

Paul, of course, pushes back against that understanding of the redemptive work of Christ. He asserts that even though we all "filled our lungs with polluted unbelief and then exhaled disobedience," God in God's infinite patience and grace "took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ." The way Paul describes this transformation is almost as all of Creation has been given new air to breathe (Ephesians 2:1-6, The Message).

Paul also rebukes all of the hoop-jumping that people seem compelled to do when it comes to understanding and owning the gift of God's grace. "[God] did all this on his own," Paul writes, "with no help from us!" He goes on, "We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing!" (Ephesians 2:1-10, The Message).

Here's the sad thing about all of this... The Church has never learned from Paul's teaching.

Far too many people who call themselves Christians are afraid to take the step, to make the commitment to become genuine followers of Christ. They are afraid to become the kinds of people who are so sold out in their desire to follow Jesus that they will do, go and say whatever it takes to do just that.

They are not afraid because it's difficult.

And it is difficult to be a follower of Jesus. Not because of the man-made, institutional rules and regulations that the Church has made up and then uses to delineate who is "in" or "out." What makes following Jesus difficult is that it is so counter-cultural. If we actually read the commands of Christ, we find some pretty challenging and life-changing words that have nothing whatsoever to do with prohibitions about sex, alcohol, gambling or mandates concerning the "right" political views Christians ought to have--despite the efforts by many Christians to twist them that way.

Like I said, they are not afraid because of the level of difficulty. I firmly believe that people genuinely want to be part of something hard, something greater than themselves, something that is worth believing in--even if it costs us something to believe. Unfortunately, the Church hasn't seemed to be able to offer our culture a Christianity worth believing.

I think that what makes it so difficult for people to commit to following Christ is their deep-seeded beliefs that they won't measure up.

They've been breathing the polluted air for so long that they become resigned to the notion that it will never change for them. They begin to believe that they are never going to be good enough to be used by God. They assume that they will never be able to really and truly be the kind of Christian they have been told they need to be in order to get their ticket punched.

That's why I love John 3:17 so much. I want to cry out to the people who pepper the world with their cryptic Christian signs, "SEE! John 3:17 is what we need to be telling the world. Lift THAT sign up!" People need to know that they aren't condemned. They can become the person that they have always been meant to become. They can live into the hope of their salvation, which has come through the crazy-beautiful grace of God.

They can breathe again.


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