Religion Addiction

Religion Addiction

Scripture Lesson: John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.


While I was serving as a pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, I received a late night phone call.  The man on the other end of the line was at a nearby Intersate rest stop, not far from the building where my congregation met.

“Is this Rev. Nieporte, from the Unity Baptist Church?” he asked.

“Yes, it is!  How can I help you?”

His voice seemed agitated:  “Well, sir, I found your number in the phone book and I was hoping you could help me?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ll try!  What is it that you need?”

“Well, sir, my wife and I had a fight.  It got kind of ugly and I left the house.”

“What do you mean ‘it got kind of ugly’?” I asked.

He ignored that question and continued:  “I could really use somebody to talk to.  I could also use a something to eat and some money for a night at a hotel.”

I was silent for a few minutes, not sure exactly how to respond.

He continued:  “And if you can help, you have to promise not to call the police!”

Folks, you need to know something.  If you speak to me and use the phrase:  “Please promise not to call the police,” the very first I am going to do when we stop talking is call the police.   This is going to especially be the caseif you call me late at night, from an Insterstate, after claiming to have had a “kind of ugly fight” with your wife.

The rules about pastoral confidentiality end when a person indicates they have or intend to break the law – or when it seems they may do harm to themselves or to others.

So, I lied.  I confess that form my own well-being as well as for the man at the other end of the phone, I lied.

“Sure, I can help you.  I will need to stop by an ATM machine to get some cash,” I said.  “Then I will be right there.  Tell me exactly who you are and how I can recognize you!”

He gave me the information, we ended the call, and I called the police and gave them all the information.

Later I got a call from a police officer.  He told me that the man and his wife were drug addicts, armed, and considered dangerous.  Thanks to my call, they had been taken into custody.

So, there you go, my story about meeting a drug addict on the side of the roa.

I’ve met several addicts throughout my ministry.  Some were addicted to alchohol.  Others to a variety of other drugs.  Some have even approached me in this building during my years as your pastor.

It never ceases to amaze me the creativity of those who need some cash in order to get their fix.  One man came to me with a story about how his daughter had just moved home, having been deserted by her husband.  She had a newborn baby and neither she nor he had the resources to care for the baby.  He didn’t ask for money.  He asked if I could go to the store and get some baby-formula so they could feed the baby.

I had recently learned that baby formula is a hot commodity on the black market.  It can be sold to needy moms for quick cash by desparate addicts who need a fix.   I discovered this from another pastor who warned me about this guy and this guy and his ongoing con.

“I would certainly like to help,” I said.  “Just have your daughter and the baby come by and present the need in person.”

The guy got very frustrated by my response.  He was agitated and angry that his winning plea was not working.  “Look,” he said,  “I am not looking for  cash like some drug addict.  I just some formula so I can feed my grand-baby.”

“I understand,” I replied calmly.  “I am not going to let any baby go hungry if I can help it!  Just have your daughter and her baby come by and we can help her out!”

I never saw the moma or her baby.

People get addicted to all sorts of things.  People can become addicted to alchohol, heroin, cocaine, inhalents, amphetimines, and oxycodone.  People can also become addicted to things like sugar, caffine, and nicotine.

All types of addictions are dangerous.  Oh, sure, that cigarette may not cause you the extream high or immediate danger of a heroin addiction, but over time that nicotine will ruin your lungs and destroy you heart.

The thing is, addicts are thinking about the adverse impact of their drug.  They are thinking about the next fix.  They are thinking about how that substance either calms their nerves, or gives them an adrenalyn rush.

Have you ever seen a person trying to quit caffine?

Or the person under great stress who is trying to quit smoking?

Or the sugar addict near the candy bars in the checkout line?

Or the alchololic at the sports bar with his buddies?

All they can think about is that next fix…that next cigarette, pill, alcholic beverage, or that fourth cup of mocha latte to get them moving  the day.  They are thinking about the next high – and they will often do just about anything – they will rationalize nearly anything – in order to aquire that next fix.

But almost each one will also tell you that they hate what their addiction is doing to them.  They hate the adverse impact on their health, the way it sucks away their finances, and what it does to their relationships.  They know there must be something better and they desparately want to quit.

I would like to submit to you that the man named Nicodemus from today’s biblical story was an addict.  His drug of choice was not alchohol, heroin, nicotine, or caffine.  His drug was religion.  He was a collector of religious experiences.  He was engaged in all the available religous enterprises of his day.  As a fairly well-to-do Pharisee, he was an intergral part of his culture’s religious establishment.

The title “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.”  Pharisees were a small and select group of no more than 6000 Jewish men.  They aimed to live better lives than the rest of the polulation.  They devoted themselves to the study and interpretation of scribal law.   They followed the rules, obeyed the regulations, and observed all the prescribed rituals.  Their religious enterprises gave them a sense of security, a feeling of safety, a fix that made them feel they were satisfying God’s expectations and earning God’s blessings.

“Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way!”  That was the watch-word of the Pharisaic lifestyle.

So, Nicodemus’ comes to visit to Jesus late one night.  We’re not sure why.  It does seem sort of odd.  Was he looking to collect another religous experience?  Was he expecting Jesus to satisfy his need for another religous experience?  Or was he in one of those moments in life when he realized that their must be something more than all the rules, regulations, and rituals.

Nicodemus came to Jesus late one night with questions about issues that most Pharisees believed they had long since satisfied.  He comes late at night, under the cover of darkness.

What was he looking for?

What did this scholarly theologian seek out the counsel of an unorthodox, passionately free-spirited, trouble-making, rabble-rousing rabbi like Jesus.

I think he came because he knew their had to be something more than what he was getting from his addiction to all the religous enterprises of his day.  He had spent his life learning and teaching others that “being right with God” was a result of believing the right stuff and living the right way.  Yet despite all the Torah studies he’d taught and Sabbath sermons he’d preached, something was still missing.  He was doing the right things, saying the right stuff, participating in proper rituals,and had joined up with the orthodox religious clique – but something was missing.

Nicodemus represents the religious establishment.  He represents the status quo.  He represents all those who try to find life in their religous addictions to experiences and religious enterprises.

He begins his conversation with Jesus by engaging in polite pleasantries.  “Rabbi, I know who you are. You are a teacher come from God.  No one can do the things you do unless God is with him.”

What a nice thing to say.  Isn’t he sweet?

Jesus ignores all that.  Jesus plows right through all that manure and cuts right to the chase.  “You must be born again!”

“Say what?”  Here is one of the most radical, off the wall, out-side-the-box, he really didn’t mean that, is he crazy or what, kinds of statements in the entire Bible.

We’ve made it into a formula.  We’ve made it into just another religous experience.  But when Jesus spoke those words he was saying something so radical that it shook the very religous foundations of Nicodemus thoology.  It ought to do the same to each of us as well.

Here’s what Jesus is saying,   “If you really want to experience the life God intends, you are going to have to start over from scratch.”

“If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you’ll have to be born of God.”

He is saying that our religous enterprises are worth crap.  All that stuff needs to be wiped away.  It’s time to start over.

For Nicodemus, faith had become a cosmetic matter.  He had painted his life with broad religious rituals and obedience to all the rules.  He had followed the formula.  He had said the right words.  He had confessed correct doctrine and had practiced right behavior.  And when he did all those things he did so with passion and zealotry.  He stood behind every action and meant every world.  Yet somehow some this was missing.  His religion wasn’t enough.

Jesus is saying, “It’s not about you.  It’s not about what you’ve done or failed to do; it’s not about what you’ve said or failed to say.  It’s simply not about you at all.  It’s about God.  If you want to be a part of this God thing, you’ve got to start over from scratch.  You’ve got to be born of god.  It’s the only way!”

This is not the “new birth” teachings of our Baptist upbringing.

When I was a youth, guest star evangelist would come to town.  They’d hold a boney finger up the air then point it in our direction and say:  “You must be born again!”

Then we’ve told folks what that means.  Being “born again” meant “confessing A-B-C and doing 1-2-3!”

“You have to affirm a particular religious formula and live with a certain lifestyle.”

What this guy was doing, without even knowing he was doing it, was taking one of the most radical statements in all the Bible and domesticating it.  He was turning it into just another religous fix.  He was making it about joining a religious enterprise.

The problem is that Nicodemus IS the religious establishment.  He does not represent the irreligious masses that are living pagan lifestyles with no knowledge about doctrines, dogmas, and creeds.  Just the opposite.  Nicodemus represents those (of us) who place our confidence in our religion traditions, our good deeds, and faith – pretending that these things somehow place God is now in our debt.

We use the phrase born again, but that’s really not an accurate reading.  It’d been more true to the text to say that we must be born from above.

Jesus is not preaching a lesson about turning over a new leaf, redoubling our efforts, or rededicating ourselves to live the right kind of life.

Jesus is not telling us to reaffirm our religous enterprises while remembering what granny taught us as a child.

Jesus is not telling us to devote ourselves to all the doctrines, dogmas, creeds, formulas, rules, rituals, regulations, and requirements of the religious establishment.

In fact, Jesus is not saying anything at all about human effort or human resolve.  None of these things have anything to do with being born of God.

Nicodemus didn’t get it.  He wanted something more, but he was still stuck in his relgious addictions.  He was still stuck in the notion that it was about what he did, rather than what God does.

So he asks, “How can a person be born when he or she is old?  They can’t enter the womb again, can they?”

Now, when I say that Nicodemus didn’t get it, I am not necessarily implying that he didn’t understand WHAT Jesus was saying.  Rather he is saying that he didn’t know how WHAT Jesus was saying was even possible.

Nicodemus was saying:

You talk about being born again—that’s all well and good, but is it possible?  Can a person really experience such a radical, fundamental change in his or her life?  I know it’s necessary, but is it possible?  There is nothing I’d like more, but what you’re asking me to do is like entering my mother’s womb and be born all over again.

Nicodemus certainly desired that  kind of change—the BORN FROM ABOVE EXPERIENCE experience.  He wanted to be free from the religous merry-go-round.  He wanted to become free from his religous addictions.  That is what drove him to seek out Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness.

Nicodemus wanted what Jesus was talking about, but he was so tied up in religous knots that he did not believe it was possible.  So he did like that evagelist did from the days of my youth.  He took the whole idea of NEW BIRTH (birth from above) and turned it into some sort of human achievement.  He turned it into something to be earn or obtain via right doctrine and right religion.

Is new birth really possible?

For Nicodemus the answer was:  “No!”   It is not possible for anyone to radically and fundamentally change who they are.  Now if that is what Nicodemus was thinking, he is absolutely correct.

But Jesus was not just talking about being born a second time.  He was not talking about a plan for personal reformation.  He was not talking about fixing ourselves us and making ourselves look respectable.

That’s why the phrase “born again” can be so misleading.  Jesus was talking about being “born again” into the same old life as before.  He is talking about being born “from above.”  He was talking about being born into God’s family.  He was talking about being birthed by God as daughters and sons of God.

This is not something we can accomplish for ourselves, no matter how moral our lifestyles or orthodox our confession.  We do not and cannot save ourselves—salvation is God’s business.  It is completely a work of grace – grace that transforms, grace that redeems, grace that remakes, grace that includes, grace that likes, loves, accepts, includes, and adopts.  Grace that changes, transforms, saves, and liberates.

We grace enters the picture, we recognize that we have been born anew in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, as a part of the Father’s household.

Jesus continues, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

By ourselves we are just flesh.  As mere flesh, we are easily limited, frustrated, and defeated.  But God’s Spirit is more powerful than our flesh. When God’s Spirit takes possession of us we are able to experience life in ways we never thought possible.

Jesus speaks once more.  He says that the Spirit can’t be controlled.  He is saying that “New Birth” is the work of the Spirit and cannot be limited to human philosophies, religious traditions, well reasoned theologies, or carefully thought out doctrinal formulas.  It is not the property of the Baptists, or the Methodist, or the fundamentalists, or charismatics, or liberals, or even the “Christians.”  It’s not something we own, possess, achieve, control, dictate, or direct.  It’s all in God’s hands and we cannot limit it by anything WE do.

Jesus says, “You can’t control the Spirit like that.  The Spirit is like the winds—it blows where it wants to.  The best you can hope to do is notice the effects and rejoice.”

If Nicodemus isn’t already confused enough—Jesus goes on to to identify himself as the means that God’s Spirit will use to bring NEW BIRTH to the world.  How will Jesus bring us this gift?

Well, it will involve something called a cross.  The power of God’s grace will be revealed as the Jesus is lifted up on a cross.

Now that’s a radical thought, too.  We have repackaged the cross as a beautiful piece of jewelry that serves as a fashion accessory.  As a result we miss how truly “out-side-the-box” Jesus words really were.

Jesus points to a story in the Hebrew Scriptures to illustrate for Nicodemus the point he was trying to make.  After the Exodus and before the Promise Land, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness and spent a fair amount of time complaining.  Despite their freedom from slavery and the opportunity that was before them, they could only see the struggle and they often longed for a return to Egyptian bondage.

One day in their wilderness wandering they happened upon a nest of serpents that began biting the people causing great sickness.  Understandably, the people interpret this plague of serpents to be a punishment from God fro their constant complaining.  So they sought the intervention of God through Moses on their behalf.  Following God’s instructions, Moses made a bronze replica of the poisonous snakes that were attacking them and placed it on a tall pole lifted up in the middle of the camp.  Those who looked toward the serpent were healed.

Why the image of the serpent?   It was the serpent that caused the people to suffer, right?  The serpent made people think of death, not life!  That’s the point—the serpent can’t heal the people, only God can.  God had chosen the serpent—the very symbol of their rebellion—to show the people that even in the midst of their sin, God is still present to save.

Think about how radical a though that is.

Even when they fail to trust, God does not forget them.

Even when they abandon God, God does not abandon them.

Even when they turn their backs on God, God does not turn His back on them.

The serpent, symbolic reminder of their sin, embodies the healing and forgiving love of God for the people.

Now Jesus takes that serpent to illustrate his life and work; to illustrate God’s unfailing love for all humanity.

Nicodemus would have seen the cross much differently than we do as bronze furnishing in our sanctuary.  He knew it as an instrument of torture used by the Empire in Rome to keep dissidents in their place.  It was a picture of cruelty and death – but Jesus held it up as a symbol of life.  For him the cross was a picture of our darkness and rejection of God, as well as God’s determination to love us and redeem us anyway!

That’s not the way we like to think about the cross!  The smoothed out, cleaned-up cross of institutional religion is much more familiar to us and far less threatening.  The cross that we dress up in generalities about love and sacrifice is much easier to accept then the cross on which we are confronted with our own personal evil and sin.

Our religous enterprises call for a smoothed out, polished cross, inoffensive to anyone.  The problem is that the brokenness of sin, into which Christ entered to redeem us, is vile and violent and ugly.  Only when we see that picture of our brokenness can we begin to realize the wonder of God’s amazing grace, and that how on the cross God worked out our very salvation.

Now we come to what may be the most well-known verse of scripture in the entire Bible – John 3:16.  Now we can read it in its context, not as a stand-alone, feel-good expression of our religion, but as a radical expression of God’s great love.  Now we can free it of its religious trappings and see it as a love so great that even in the midst of our rebellion and sing, God still loves us and redeems us.

What does the story of Nicodemus and the words of John 3:16 teach us about God’s grace and salvation?

First, the story of Nicodemus and the message of John 3:16 tells us that God saves.  We don’t approach God in order to “get saved,” but rather God approaches us with the gift of salvation.  Our salvation is the initiative and work of God.  The gospel is not about us saying yes to God, but God saying yes to us.  Our faith is simply saying YES to the the YES of God’s grace.

Here’s the GOSPEL:  “Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken our sin upon himself and dealt with it at the cross.  Therefore, repent and believe the good news, receiving his forgiveness in repentance!”

Second, this story also tells us that at the heart of God is love—not punishment or condemnation.  No doubt there is enough sin in the human race to justify God’s judgement against us because of our unrighteousness.  But as the text says, “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.

That’s why the cross is so amazing.  God does not approach us to condem us, but to love us.  Atonement is not a matter of justifying an angry God, but rather an expression of grace and reconciliation offered to us as a gift from a loving God.  Our religious addictions want to FIX us and make us right before God.  The gospel is that God makes us right through His love, His grace, His mercy, and His redemption.

He’s the gospel:  “God so LOVED the World!”

God enters our darkness and God redeems.  Salvation is not about God changing His mind about us.  God’s mind toward us have always been love.  The aim of the cross is to change our mind about what we have thought God thinks about us.

The cross says, “God so loved the world…”

And finally this story tells us about the breadth of God’s love.  God loves the world.  God’s love is not restricted to those who are “good people.”  God’s love is not restricted to those who are powerful, important, and morally upright.  God’s love is not restricted to a particular nation, race, culture, or religion.  God’s love is not restricted to those who are religiously righteous or politically correct.  God loves the word—the entire world.  God loves the world—the unlovely, unlovable, unrighteous world.

John 3:16 is clear: God so loved the world!  God approaches YOU today with the gift of salvation and grace.  That’s the message of the Gospel.

So, in the light of this love is what will we do with the gift?

I guess we could go on our merry way and just keep trying to be religious.  We could keep building our religous enterprises and trying to fix our religious addictions.  We could just keep saying our little prayers and reading our devotional books.  We can be content with having a few doctrines stuck in our heads and a few  actions being expressed in our lives.  We could just keep paying our religious dues.

I guess we could imagine that this whole “born from above” thing is just too scandeloous to be true.   We could reject the idea that God comes to us in our darkness, allowing us to start over from scratch with nothing going for us but the love of Almighty God.

Or maybe there is another option.

Maybe we could have enough faith to release our lives totally into God’s providential care.

Maybe we could let the Father free us of our religious addictions so that our lives might be built around Jesus and the wonder of his grace.

Here’s what we can do.  We can just believe the wonderful truth that we are loved by God, made alive in Christ, and filled with his Holy Spirit of live.

That’s what God invites us to do – all of us.

“For God sent not His Son into the world to condem the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

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