Beginning at the end of June, I started a sermon series on the Gospel of John. While our lectionary provides a chance to experience the narrative of the Synoptic Gospels, John is inserted here and there and we never have that opportunity. So I will take the next several months to work through John. My inspiration and principal guide for this series is Karoline Lewis' new commentary on the Gospel of John which has just been released by Augsburg/Fortress. I attended a workshop that Dr. Lewis conducted and was so taken with John and inspired and excited that it has led to this series. I will add that Dr. Lewis has very graciously given me some guidance and advice, which has been of great value to me. I am very grateful to her for that. Additionally, I decided that the over-riding theme I would lift up was the theme of "Seeing." "Seeing in the Dark," "I Have Seen the Lord," "Come and See," "Look Up..." and other references appear throughout the Gospel. I have therefore added the dimension of using a powerpoint slide show to enhance the sermon. I will not be posting the slides however. Finally, I am also carefully choosing the hymn/song that comes immediately before and following the sermon in hopes that it will also enhance the experience. I will post here the text for the spoken part of the sermon. The visual and musical elements are not easily posted, but if anyone wants additional information simply email me and I am happy to share. I hope you find this edifying and I commend Dr. Lewis' work to you if you wish to explore more deeply the riches of the Gospel of John.
Sermon #3 - Grace Upon Grace - The First Sign
Can you imagine what life would be like if there were no signs?
No exit signs on the highway.
Or road signs.
Or street signs. It would be impossible to get anywhere.
We rely on signs to lead and guide us.
Without signs or with the wrong signs we would be lost.
With the story of the Wedding at Cana we have now moved into the first part of the Gospel of John that is called “The Book of Signs.”
This “Book of Signs” encompasses chapters 2 through 11, takes 3 years of Jesus’ ministry and relates 7 signs – including several healings, the feeding miracle, walking on water, giving sight to the man born blind and climaxing in the raising of Lazarus.
This is followed by the “Book of Glory” that relates the Passion and resurrection of Jesus over a time period of 3 days. This is chapters 13 through 21.
Chapter 1 is the Prologue and chapter 12 is the transition from the ministry to the Passion.
Now, it is important to note that in John, Jesus doesn’t perform miracles – he performs “Signs.” As noted at the beginning of this sermon a sign is that which teaches us something, gives us important information, leads and guides us. The sign is needed or we would be lost. So then what is this 1st sign of Water into Wine and these subsequent 6 signs in John all about? To what are they pointing? Where are they leading us?
Let’s go back to the Prologue for a moment – (the key to the message and proclamation of John is all in the Prologue of chapter 1) – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt, tented, lived among us and we have beheld His glory…
This Gospel begins by pointing us back to Genesis and reminding us that not only In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – but that the creation was fashioned by God, who John calls the Word; and the Word is the one who creates in order to establish relationship.
And that in Jesus this creative Word has become human, entered into our lives, our world and now lives among us. Why? Because the Word – God incarnate – God in the flesh – Jesus, passionately desires to be in relationship with the creation – with God’s people. God becomes flesh in order to establish and deepen relationship!
This relationship is characterized by this verse: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known.”
Grace upon Grace. This word – “Grace” appears 5 times in the Gospel of John and all 5 times occur here in the Prologue. If the relationship with God is characterized by grace – what exactly is grace? How do we define and understand grace? That is what the signs are for. They define grace – they represent grace – they show us what grace is - they lead us into grace upon grace as they lead us into a relationship with God, the Word – and with others through whom we also experience the Word.
The 1st sign begins with a reluctant Jesus being dragged to a wedding in the village of Cana by his mother. In John the mother of Jesus observes the two events that overflow the most with grace – this 1st sign and she stands at the foot of the cross.
"Why is the first sign a wedding? Weddings are normal events of every day human life. Jesus introduces the presence of God into the day-to-dayness of being human."1 Weddings are also a celebration of relationship which at the same time serves as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, which he heard spoken in our 1st lesson.
Now, unlike weddings we experience today, the primary event in 1st century weddings was the reception, the party tended to go on, and on, and on. These wedding parties could last a week or more. As long as the wine was flowing the party continued. No need to send invitations, everyone was invited so these parties served to solidify the relationships within the community. And the longer the party extended the better and stronger the bonds that were forged.
But at this wedding reception the unthinkable happens – the wine is running out early. The party will be ruined and the relationships will be compromised. This is a catastrophe! “The wine is running out?” Jesus’ mother says to him. He again reacts with a bit of distain – “So, what do you want me to do about it?”
It is almost as if she is pulling him into his ministry. But then he calls the servants and instructs them to go to the jars in the back room that are filled with water to be used for purification rituals. He instructs them to draw out some of this water and take it to the chief steward, or the wedding coordinator, if you will. They do so and guess what? It is no longer water – this water has now become wine!
But not just any old wine - Not some cheap, putrid wine. But this water has become the finest wine available - exquisite and expensive wine. “Most folks serve the best wine first and then the cheap wine last,” exclaims the steward – “But you have saved the best for last!”
And not only that – In this back room there are 6 jars each holding between 20 and 30 gallons of water. That is 20 to 30 gallons of the best wine TIMES 6 – around 180 gallons of wine – that is over 1000 bottles of wine. That is a lot of wine. That is the best wine in amazing abundance!
That is Grace upon Grace – That is abundant grace – That is grace beyond comprehension. What does Grace upon Grace look like, smell like, taste like?
It looks like 1000+ bottles of the absolute best wine that are served in the midst of broken relationship – in the midst of loss and failure!
It tastes like the most exquisite and expensive wine ever created and is served just at the moment when you expect to receive the cheap and putrid!
It smells like the most intoxicating sweetness you have ever experienced and comes when the stench of struggle and loss and brokenness are looming large before you.
And not only that, but it also comes unearned, undeserved, with no string attached, completely unconditional. No one at that wedding did anything to earn or deserve this gift and there was no charge. Free and Unconditional! Just like God’s grace.
And not only that but this sign also contains a promise – the best is saved for when you are most in need; the best is saved for last. Life – relationship – resurrection – Grace upon Grace – over the top abundant grace is offered and given to all of those whom God loves and with whom God, the Word made flesh, is dwelling.
Grace upon Grace – Super-Abundant Grace! This sign is for you – this gift is for you – “Come and See” the abundance of God’s love and grace which is for you!
1. From The Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary on John by Dr. Karoline Lewis, page 36.