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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Water Into Wine (John 2.1-12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 4, 2016
Text: John 12:1-12; Isaiah 29:13-14a; Mark 7:1-7

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Hosanna/Praise is Rising (Brown, Baloche)
Song of Praise: In Christ Alone (Getty, Townend)
Offering of Music: There is a Fountain Filled with Blood (Red Mountain Music)
Hymn of Sending: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken (AUSTRIAN HYMN)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

I’d like to share a few stories with you… about people I have known – and perhaps people whose situations you can relate to.

I have a friend from high school who was active in her youth group and eager to know and serve God. When she went to college, she became less interested in spiritual things, and God took a back seat in her life. Nearing graduation, she started describing the pressure to marry and establish a career and eventually a family. She found a popular and reasonably successful guy, and eventually they married. It was the kind of marriage you read about or see on TV – a beautiful wedding, two happy and successful people, a nice home and good families. After a while, though, the marriage just seemed to run out of energy. There were no obvious problems, but there just didn’t seem to be any great reason to stay together or way to improve upon what they had. I remember talking to my friend at a point of real confusion, where she said, “This is what I imagined for my life, but it’s just not as fulfilling as I had hoped it would be. Surely there’s something more or better for me and for us.”

I have another friend that I worked with a number of years ago, who just had a tragic and painful life. One of her parents had died suddenly when she was young, she was in a series of bad relationships, and she struggled with depression. Eventually, doctors diagnosed her with bi-polar disorder. She spent time in the hospital for it; she tried one drug after another to manage it, and several times nearly came to the end of her life. Part of what was so crushing was that the best doctors and drugs continued to fail her – sometimes there were moments of reprieve, other times they seemed to make matters worse. I remember her saying to me, “I just don’t know how much longer I keep doing this.”

There was one more friend who I knew from a men’s Bible study at my previous church. He retired and promptly had a heart attack, followed by a series of strokes and other health problems. I remember him commenting that retirement seemed to be bad for his health. He also said that it was not turning out like he had imagined. He experienced a great deal of frustration over his failing body and dreams that failed to materialize.

And finally, I have one more story. There was once a wedding where people from all over the town showed up to celebrate. In fact, the party was to last several days – and the food and drink flowed freely. It was the bride and groom’s moment in the spotlight, and the family and friends wanted everything to be storybook perfect. Imagine the horror of the servers and the host when the drink ran out. It would ruin everything – one certainly couldn’t maintain a multi-day party without anything to drink. Had no one intervened, parents, family, friends, and the bride and groom would have been utterly disappointed and embarrassed. They were celebrating the best they knew how, but it was not enough – the best party in the world was about to come crashing down around them.

Jesus, Life of the Party

Jesus – if you ask people to describe him, likely they would not use the phrase “life of the party.” It’s no put down of Jesus – it’s just not a phrase we associate with him. We don’t think of him as a partygoer… sure, later he would eat with disreputable people, but still, he was not a partier. And it’s not like he had already been doing miracles left and right. In fact, he hadn’t done any that we know of. The Bible just says that his mother told him about the problem, then instructed the servants to obey him, even after he questioned getting involved.

I’m not sure what caused Jesus to act that day – he seemed to say it was not the right time to act, but then he did anyway. I do know that what he did was amazing and significant in the most meaningful ways.

Jesus did a miracle. It doesn’t read as a real flashy one, but it was one. He told the servants to fill some large stone pots with water. When he then told the headwaiter to taste it, it had become the best of wines.

With flashier miracles to come, I think we often skip right through this one, only pausing long enough to note that it was Jesus’ first miracle – kind of like he was warming up. But don’t miss the great significance of this miracle! The wedding celebration of two Jewish people in those days was a larger affair than we can imagine. The party lasted for up to seven days, and running out of wine would have been a horrible embarrassment and disappointment. In some ways, more than even the party was at stake! Such embarrassment would probably put huge stress between the bride and groom’s families, and potentially between the bride and groom.

And Jesus didn’t just order some wine or make enough to get by. He made 180 gallons of fine wine! He didn’t just rescue the party from potential disaster; he brought LIFE – even NEW LIFE to the party.

A Living Parable

I like to think of Jesus’ miracles as “living parables.” The parables were stories he told with a central spiritual point, and I don’t think Jesus performed his healings and other miracles in a vacuum. They also had a spiritual point, and often he would connect teaching with a miracle, like his teaching on the bread of life following the feeding of the 5000. Jesus didn’t stop and teach those at the wedding party, but his miracle conveys significant spiritual truth that we need to hear and apply in our own lives.

In symbolic terms, Jesus’ miracle at the wedding party is notable for several reasons. Later, he would make the connection between his crucifixion, the shedding of his blood, and the wine poured out in what came to be called the Lord’s Supper. It is significant that Jesus created wine in jars used for ceremonial religious washing. Later, his blood would be poured out as the new way for us to truly be “clean” before God.

Jesus not only made a way for us to be clean before God, but also to have new life. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, we would be trapped in sin and death, hoping only in what temporary and partial respite this world has to offer. When Jesus offered his life on the cross to defeat sin and death, he made it possible for us to be clean – to be right – with God, and also for us to know NEW LIFE.

That’s what Jesus brought to that wedding party – new life. And that’s what he offers those who trust in him. His miracle was a living demonstration, with common water and wine, of the ultimate miracle of salvation. (As a significant side note, we repeat this “demonstration” in our sacraments, at the Lord’s Table and in Baptism where wine, bread, and water once again testify to God’s salvation in Christ.) He didn’t just save the party, he demonstrated God’s intent to save fallen humanity once and for all. That was the greater gift, for a while ‘hidden’ because it was “not yet His time,” but nonetheless visibly and publicly demonstrated and remembered.

Let’s return then to my original stories and friends with the assertion that Jesus brings new life not only to wedding parties in 1st century Palestine, but also in the lives of 21st century people.

Jesus, Life of our Lives

The obvious first question is this: Does Jesus promise a “miracle” cure for the situations of life? Is all my friends need to believe in Jesus and suddenly they will have a great marriage, a cure for depression, and post-retirement health and happiness?

Of course it’s not that simplistic – to suggest that would be a fake kind of Christianity that just doesn’t match reality. And actually, all three of my friends already were Christians. That’s the reality of life – Christians suffer and sicken just like non-Christian people.

So what difference does Jesus Christ make in this life? How is he the “life of the party” in our lives, particularly when our so-called “party” is suddenly about to turn ugly?

The answer to these questions relates to HOPE. What brought all three of my friends to a point of real frustration and near-despair was finding their hopes dashed. And the good news from God’s Word is this: when we put our hope in God, he will not fail us. That is not to say we will not die, grow sick, or suffer pain. It is to say that hoping in God creates a quality of life altogether different from hoping in the things of this world. It is also to say that putting our hope in something only of this world cannot offer us ultimate hope, comfort, or happiness.

That is where I believe my three friends, myself, and many of us miss the mark. We trust in God or want to trust in God, but are such people of our culture and our world. And we buy the promises and the hope offered by this world… whether it be an idealized view of the “perfect family” and the white picket fence, or a pain-free and sorrow-free life, or that magical retirement that many of us work our entire lives to reach. And the list of worldly promises goes on and on and on.

God addressed the issue early on with his people, commanding that we neither create nor have any other Gods than him alone. God spoke to something more lasting and significant than his people’s lip-service and religiosity:

…this people draw near with their words and honor me with their lip-service, but they remove their hearts from me and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote; therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous. (Isaiah 29:13-14)

And Jesus quotes that same passage later in a run-in with the Pharisees. (Mark 7) That’s where we are falling short of God’s best for us – we are trusting in the wrong things. Certainly, God intends for us to want good relationships, to seek medical treatment, and to enjoy the fruits of our labors. But what God wants first from us is our true worship and our love.

Let me say that a different way, lest there be confusion: Jesus didn’t come to increase our wealth, deliver us from struggle, or give us a charmed life. He doesn’t intentionally NOT answer prayer or ignore our needs; but what he did at that wedding and what he has done in the world and eternity is much more significant, wondrously marvelously more. He has made it possible to have Life with God.

That’s why Jesus is so accurately depicted as the Life of the party – life with a big ‘L’. It is because he is the way, the truth, and THE LIFE. Trusting in God through Jesus Christ is the way in which we can know God, know God’s desires for our lives, and know God’s best for our lives.

As we continue to come and see Jesus Christ, we will continue to be drawn deeper into a relationship with God the Father, and know the hope and healing of God’s Spirit – his presence – in our lives.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine

I want to conclude by reading another portion of God’s Word. This comes from Ephesians 3:14-21. It is a declaration of praise and a prayer about the sheer magnitude of God’s grace to us in Christ, a kind of spiritual parallel to the amazement of that head steward when he realized he suddenly had 180 gallons of the finest wine.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

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