Getting the signals down

Published 7:12 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2020

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By Charles Qualls

Someone is talking in subtleties, and maybe you’re one of those people who just doesn’t pick up on subtleties too well. Or, they’re using code or jargon and you’re simply not picking up the signs. The signals. We’ve even got a saying about this that we sometimes use. Someone will say to another person, “Are you picking up on what I’m putting down?”

Signs and signals trace their origin in baseball back nearly to the sport’s beginning. Early on, it became apparent that there needed to be some way to communicate among players — and from manager to player — without the other team knowing what exactly was going on.

If you never played the sport, you might not be privy to the little world of signs and signals that are happening right before you all through the game. So, you can bet that good teams spend some time periodically just getting the signals down.

This becomes important to us because our lenten series of sermons is called “Spring Training.” And, because Jesus said in John 3:1-17 that it would be important for us as believers to pay attention. Because we might miss the signs and signals if we weren’t careful. One of the main purposes of Lent is that we get a chance, once again, to get in touch with the movement of God’s kingdom.

I believe we think that Jesus was crucified by people who just didn’t realize who He was. When all along, the gospels tell the story quite differently. Here is a Pharisee early on who realizes full well what Jesus is capable of, and what the source of that power must be.

George Stroup is intrigued with an aspect of this story that many of us have mused on. That is, Nicodemus sneaks around like a crooked baseball team trying to steal some signals, just to talk with Jesus in the cover of night. Moving around in the shadows, probably so that the odds of anyone seeing him are lessened, this Pharisee comes to Jesus not to trap him, but to ask the inquisitive questions of one who is genuinely awakening to faith.

Or as Stroup points out, Nicodemus is still stuck in the dark. So his movement in the dark shadows matches the safe distance from which he will follow Jesus for now.

Nicodemus is also emblematic of Jesus’ own disciples, who as the Easter approaches will be slipping around in the dark themselves, lest anyone identify them with him. Or like any of us, when we conveniently set our faith aside for a moment because what we want to do, say or believe makes it inconvenient.

Nicodemus was awakening — and realized who Jesus was, and correctly attributed his divinity as he began to speak here in our text. He had a question for Jesus, and went right for it, after properly credentialing our Lord. A question that makes it look like either he quickly forgot what he already understood. Or, understood a part of it all, but simply didn’t get the whole deal. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

So, Jesus received and answered his first question. It’s about the answer you’d expect from our Jesus. Jesus took the second question, the follow-up. Then things went sideways for Nicodemus. In John 3: 9-10, Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

They were missing the signs, these religious leaders of which Nicodemus was a part. It’s so easy for us to miss them, also, if we’re not careful. He tripped over taking the “born again” part too literally, such that he couldn’t hear the essential grace behind it. He couldn’t hear the invitation to a new and up-close relationship with God-through-Christ that we all are extended. He missed the signal.

So, we the readers get the full deal from Jesus here. Is it a command that we “must” be born again? Some like to hear it that way. Is it an invitation? An invitation that by God’s grace, we who also miss the signs and are just as fragile toward the faith could see newness of life, if we just will. God is moving among us in our day, but like Nicodemus we can be so stuck in what we know that we miss out. We can become new creatures, but we have to pick up on what God is putting down.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.