The Denver Post, John Leyba, Associated Press
Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow warms up before their NFL football game against the New England Patriots Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Could we parishioners in the Church of Tim Tebow be taking this all just a bit too seriously?

Our national Tebrowmance is reaching absurdly mythic proportions, and I say this as someone who once hung out with Tebow in a Gainesville bar -- well, stood next to him briefly while waiting for a table. Tebow and his friends were given one before us, even though we had arrived before them.

A miracle? God and restaurant hostesses do work in mysterious ways.

It's no more preposterous than what's being written about this charismatic, thoroughly nice young man from Jacksonville, Fla., who is inarguably a better role model than some of the thugs peppering professional sports.

Consider what's happened as Tebowmania has swept across the country in the past week, after Tebow's Denver Broncos won a lightning-quick overtime victory to propel them into the second round of the pro football playoffs against the New England Patriots Saturday night.

This week, Time magazine's Jon Meacham calls the Broncos quarterback "perhaps the most significant Evangelical Christian in the country."

Sportswriters went nuts over the numerology "symbolism" of Tebow's 316 passing yards, averaging 31.6 yards, because his favorite Bible verse is supposedly John 3:16, which was also Google's top search after Sunday's victory over the Steelers.

In the Washington Post last month, Sally Quinn said Tebow might be the Second Coming. "Tebow, as was Jesus Christ, has been teased, criticized and mocked unmercifully for his public displays of faith," she wrote.

Fans ordered so many customized Broncos jerseys with No. 15 on the front and "Jesus" on the back (for about $100 each), that NFL.com has run out.

During the Steelers game on Sunday night, Tebow set a Twitter record for sports tweets.

And no matter what happens near Boston Saturday, Tebow is now a verb. Tebowing has become an international cultural phenomenon as people across the globe photograph themselves assuming the quarterback's signature bent-knee prayer position.

Even CBS' sports anchors assumed the position in tribute after Sunday's game.

It all proves he's got a pipeline to God, right?

Religious leaders are clearing their throats delicately.

While they admire that Tebow's commitment to his faith is as rock-hard as his abs, they're cautious about any "God is on Tebow's side" argument.

''You have to be careful about gauging God's favor by victories or defeats," said Paul Copan, a philosophy and ethics professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, who supports Tebow's frequent professions of faith. "The question is, 'Are we on God's side?'"

Gerald Kisner, pastor of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, doesn't believe God cares about who wins a football game.

''You get into some tricky theology. How does God pick which Christian to favor in an athletic contest? I don't think the God I serve operates like that," said Kisner, who warned that some of the Tebow myth-making "borders on idolatry."

As for Tebow's overt piety bringing hearts and minds to Jesus, David Wilt, rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Palm Beach, hasn't seen any evidence.

''I certainly don't know that it has much evangelistic impact," he said. "When he prays after completing a touchdown pass, I don't think he's consciously thinking he's going to win a few people for Jesus Christ."

Yet Tebow's lack of hypocrisy and his gosh-darn decency are hard to deny, even as he's become a Rorschach test for Americans' polarized attitudes about religion.

Applaud his public expressions of devotion and you're a right-wing religious zealot. If it makes you squirm, you must hate the people of God.

In The New York Times, Frank Bruni called it a bait-and-switch. "You come for scrimmages and he subjects you to Scriptures ... "

Tebow's pious religiosity isn't "scriptural, necessarily," Wilt said. "The Ash Wednesday lessons say to pray in your closet and not be out there acting pious."

Nevertheless, there's long been an intersection between American sports and religion.

''We often had prayer before and after games," said Tom Mullins, a former high school football coach and pastor of Christ Fellowship, the Palm Beach Gardens mega-church.

He's seeing the Tebow effect in an increase in conversations about the meaning of faith.

''Tim's life is serving to... get the conversation going. To me, this is a healthy thing," he said.

As for Tebow's oft-bended knee, Mullins said, "I promise you Tim's not praying to win the game, he's praying to do his best."

Tebow's public expressions of faith may ultimately have an ancillary effect, PBAU's Copan said.

''You ought to persuade people by the way you live, by what you do. Maybe then people will say, 'Hey, this guy has a good message. Maybe I should pay attention.'"

But a miracle worker?

Not in biblical terms, religious leaders say. He is, however, a supremely confident, highly competitive player who takes enormous physical risks.

''But faith can make us stronger and make us attempt to do things we wouldn't ordinarily do," Wilt said.

Like beating New England, who are favored by nearly two touchdowns?

''If they beat the Patriots, it might be a certifiable miracle," Mullins said.

Barbara Marshall writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: barbara(underscore)marshall(at)pbpost.com.

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