If you’re writing a really good story, you want to have a great opening line so that your readers remember it and take it with them as they continue into the book, movie, or TV show, so that they know what the story is going to be about. So, for example, here are some famous opening lines, and I want to have a little quiz this morning and see if you know where they’ve come from. This will also help me to see who’s awake and who’s not! So, here we go:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . Star Wars
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.
Call me Ishmael. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . Genesis 1:1
This last line was so memorable that John the Evangelist chose to base the opening of his book on it: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is John’s statement of who Jesus is: the Word of God come down in flesh. The rest of his Gospel tells us what that means. And today’s story from his second chapter begins to flesh out, if you’ll forgive the pun, what it means for Jesus to be the Word of God made flesh.
So, let’s step back a moment and do some review. In between John’s beautiful poetic opening to his gospel and today’s story, we heard John the Baptist testifying that Jesus was both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, and his proof was how he saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism. We saw Jesus inviting his first disciples to “Come and see” him. And now, we have Jesus’ first public act declaring who he is. Each of the Gospels has a different “first public act” of Jesus to show what Jesus is all about. Matthew has Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, setting forth the theme of Jesus as a teacher. Mark shows Jesus driving out a demon as his first public act, thus setting the theme of Jesus as a worker of miracles, bringing order to a creation that has gone off kilter. Luke shows Jesus giving a sermon in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth and being rejected by the people there, putting forth the idea of Jesus as a prophet, in line with the Old Testament prophets, whose message, like theirs, was rejected by his people. And now we return to John. In John, Jesus’ first public act is attending a wedding and turning water into wine. What kind of Jesus is John trying to show?
Well, let’s look first at the setting of this story. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are at a wedding. A wedding, even though it’s a special occasion, is a part of ordinary life. At some point in all of our lives, most of us will have the opportunity to go to someone’s wedding. And, if we’re really lucky, we will have the opportunity to be a part of the bridal party. Jesus has been invited to this wedding, not because the people know that he is the Son of God—they don’t—but because he is their friend and they want him to take part in this joyous occasion. But then, at this wedding, the unthinkable happens: the hosts run out of wine. Can you imagine what that must be like? In today’s society, if we’re hosting a party and we run out of alcohol, it’s embarrassing, yes. But usually we can send a friend or a family member out to the store to buy more of it. It wasn’t quite the same in this time and this place. For the host to run out of wine showed poor planning on his part, and in the little village of Cana, everyone would find out about it. The host would have lost status in the eyes of the rest of the village, and that stigma would have followed him around for a very long time.
But in this story, it seems as though when Jesus’ mother points this problem out to Jesus, only a few people knew about the potential impending doom for the host. There was no great outcry—just a few people starting to whisper that the wine was gone. And after Jesus’ mother prods him a bit, Jesus changes water into wine. And it’s not just Mogen David or Manischewitz. This is the good wine, the richest wine, the best-tasting wine possible. I’ve always wondered about this, because I am not a wine drinker—I really don’t like the taste of most of it. And there are some people who prefer a sweet wine, while others prefer a dry wine. I like to think that the wine that Jesus provided that day in Cana tasted different according to the taste of each person who drank it. For some it was the sweetest wine, and for others it was the driest. But whatever it tasted like, for each person there it was what they needed the most, and was the best-quality wine there ever was.
So, what does all of this say about Jesus in John’s Gospel? It says that Jesus is present in the ordinary times of life, the everyday rituals, and it says that Jesus provides what we all need—but not just a little bit. If you notice, in this story, there were six stone water jars, each holding around twenty to thirty gallons. That comes out to 120 to 180 gallons—gallons!—of the best-tasting wine there ever was. Jesus provides what is needed, and even more than that—Jesus gives to us abundantly. And he does it freely. Most of the people at that wedding had no idea where this wonderful-tasting wine had come from. But they drank of it and it gladdened their hearts, regardless. This is an example of what John means when he says, in the first chapter of his gospel, that “From his fullness, we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the gift of Jesus, who abundantly gives of himself all that we need, and even more than that.
Where have you seen Jesus give grace upon grace in your lives? In our congregational life, I have seen this grace upon grace as St. John hosted Family Promise this week and Salem, Trinity, and St. Peter’s supported St. John in this ministry. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we have gotten to know the people who are in the Family Promise program. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we had an abundance of food with which to feed the people. I have seen grace poured out upon us as our members cuddled a newborn baby and played with the older children. I have seen grace poured out upon us as what we originally thought was a fire in the basement turned out to be a burst pipe that caused water damage, but did not interfere with Family Promise coming to stay with us. I have seen grace poured out on us in the form of the people who came to clean up the water in the basement, and I have seen grace poured out on us that this accident did not interfere too much with the operation of the day care. I have seen grace poured out on us in the fact that, despite our ugly winter weather, no one was hurt in driving the van back and forth from Lemoyne. And I have seen grace poured out on us as the people in the program have seen God’s love and grace through us this week. God has indeed been gracious to us, and has given to us abundantly, much more than we have deserved.
And that’s the thing: we don’t deserve any of God’s grace. We are sinful human beings, and the Son of God becoming flesh in Jesus is pure gift to us. And when the Son of God came, he did not come to the people who were well-off and on top of the world. He came instead by being born in a little town on the outskirts of Jerusalem; he was not even born in that great city where a mighty king ruled. And then he was brought up in a little town in northern Galilee, a backwater, a place where we heard Nathanael say last week, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A place which today, the president of this country would call a vulgar name. And yet, Jesus gives us, too, those who are well-off in this world, grace upon grace, and that love and grace comes in such abundance that we cannot even understand how much it truly is. That love and that grace of Jesus comes abundantly to all people, and all means all: not only to Americans, but also to Haitians; not only to those of European descent, but also to those people who come from Nigeria, Ghana, El Salvador, and Mexico. God’s grace, poured out in Jesus, the Word become flesh who would die on the cross for us, is for everyone. No exceptions.
So this week, I would like to ask us to keep our eyes open for instances of God’s grace in our lives. Let’s look for that love and that undeserved grace in every ordinary detail of our lives, and when we see it, let us give thanks to God for it. And let’s also do a spiritual house cleaning this week. Any time we are tempted to think that we are superior to someone else, whether that is because of race or class or circumstance, let’s put a check on ourselves. Let’s remind ourselves that God gives grace and love to another person just as much as to us. And then let’s also make an effort to show that grace and love to another person, especially those who we don’t know. If we see someone struggling, let’s find a way to help them—even if it’s just offering to help them get their groceries in from the car. We don’t have a corner on God’s grace, and there is more than enough of it to go around. So let’s show that grace to other people. Amen.