Sermon series: It's a Miracle
Scriptures: John 2:1-11
Illustration: In March, 2004, dozens of rescuers were looking for 39 Boy Scouts and their leaders trapped by tons of snow. An avalanche in the high country of Utah's Logan Canyon had covered the scouts, and 64-mph winds made rescue efforts extremely difficult.
Ironically, the trapped Scouts slept comfortably through the entire ordeal! The group had carved caves deep into the snow, bunkering in for the night. When the avalanche occurred around 4 a.m., the sleepers inside had no idea they were buried under six to eight feet of snow. The snow caves insulated the group from sound, wind, and knowledge that they were in trouble.
"You're pretty cozy inside of them," said Randy Maurer, the father of one of the Scouts. "You're completely oblivious to what's going on outside."
Thankfully, two of the Scout leaders were sleeping in a nearby trailer. They heard the storm, the avalanche, and called for emergency help.
"That probably made quite a bit of noise, I'm imagining," a county sheriff's spokesman said of the avalanche. "But if they would have all been in the caves, I shudder to think how long it would be before we would have heard about this."
Instead, rescuers quickly found the Scouts' location by jabbing probes into the snow, waking them to the news that they'd been rescued from a danger they knew nothing about. (Source: "Scouts rescued after avalanche hits caves." Associated Press, March 7, 2004)
One of the most famous stories in the Bible involves a young couple that needed a rescue. Likewise, they had no idea that a rescue was called for! While they enjoyed the afterglow of their wedding ceremony, Jesus was organizing a rescue party for their reception.
Scripture: John 2:1-11
There's more than a wedding taking place here. In his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, John carefully chose only seven miracles to the story. He also called each of the miracles "signs," for he was trying to point us in the direction of life-changing decisions of faith. Starting with this water-into-wine miracle, the Bible is well on its way to inviting us to be baptized as believers in Jesus.
1. Sin is everyone's problem
Everything in this story revolves around liquid. An enormous amount of water is turned into wine of an excellent quality. Look closer at the stone water jars, for they hold the key to understanding the story.
"Now six stone water jars had been set there," John records for us with an explanation, "for Jewish purification. Each contained 20 or 30 gallons."
There are six water jars, and not seven. Six is one short of the perfect number, and that's part of John's message to us. Six stone jars illustrate a way of relating to God that's nearly complete. Jesus will be the perfect finish to the Jewish way of knowing God.
Through the process of baptism today, we are already familiar with the water used for "Jewish purification" in the wedding at Cana. People are not baptized today to be cleaned physically, and people at the wedding in Cana were not washing up for supper, either. In fact, they barely put their hands in the water.
The practice had come from the teaching of Psalm 24. "Who may ascend to the hill of the Lord?" asks the psalmist. "Who may stand in His holy place?" Only the person who has "clean hands and a pure heart." (Psalm 24:4)
For centuries, therefore, faithful Jewish worshippers had been dipping their hands into ceremonial water, and holding their hands to heaven. It was a way of saying to God, "My heart is pure. This practice is proof." At the Temple in Jerusalem, the ruins of several "micvahs," or what we would call baptisteries, are evidence that people coming to the Temple practiced baptism to prepare themselves for worship. John the Baptist capitalized on this symbolism, demanding that people repent of their sin and be completely washed in the Jordan River. Because they understood the concept, John didn't have to explain it to his listeners. They already knew that water was a symbolic way to be washed clean of the sin that hounded them.
Baptism then and now reminds us that sin is a problem for all of us. As the people of New Testament times knew, sin surrounds us so completely, there is always a need to be cleansed from it. Every day, there is another reason to repent. At every wedding, every funeral, and every worship service, people living in the day of Jesus knew that sin was everyone's problem. The six stone water pots in Cana silently demanded repentance every single day. Sin was a problem every day, for every person, just as it is now.
Illustration: Years ago, a group of boys slipped into a farmer's watermelon patch and stole some of the delicious fruit. The boys had almost escaped when the farmer appeared, his shotgun blazing with buckshot. The boys decided to get even with the old man, slipping in one night and sowing Johnson grass all over the farm. Johnson grass was hated in that area, for it spread wildly, and would not die. Ironically, the ring leader of that group of boys grew up, fell in love with the farmer's daughter, inherited the same farm – and spent the rest of his life battling Johnson grass! The consequences of sin last a lot longer than any of us could imagine.
2. God's grace is the solution to the sin problem
John does not give us the names of this couple who had just been married. The ruins of Israel have not yet shown us the exact location of tiny Cana. Therefore, that leaves us with a nameless couple from nowhere who benefited from the very first miracle of Jesus. In addition, before they knew they had a problem, Jesus had provided the solution, simply because they invited him to their wedding. The very fact that the first miracle of Christ would be given to such a couple in such a place is a wonderful point of comfort. God's grace is available to anyone!
But it wasn't just the couple who had a problem at the wedding. All of the people at the wedding had a problem. They had a sin problem. Little did they know that God's grace was already among them, ready to pay for their sin on the cross. The miracle that Jesus performed was quite symbolic of what would happen in his life.
Jesus focused his attention on the six stone water jars, and he ordered them filled to the very brim. The Jewish Talmud gives express instructions about water used for ceremonial cleansing. A very small amount – about two cups – was enough for 100 people. With six stone containers of water, there was already far too much water for the wedding party in Cana. When Jesus filled each container to the brim, providing 120 to 180 gallons, there was symbolically enough water for the entire world to be cleansed! With the water miraculously turned into wine, there was also a blood-red sign of how the world's cleansing would actually take place.
Illustration: One of the great church leaders of centuries past once had a dream. Jerome, the translator of the Bible from Greek into Latin, purposefully lived in Bethlehem. One night, Jerome had a dream that Jesus visited him. In the dream, he quickly collected all of his money and offered it to Jesus as a gift. The Lord said, "I don't want your money." So Jerome rounded up all of his possessions and tried to give them to Jesus. Again the Lord said, "I don't want your possessions." Jerome then recalled the moment in his dream when he turned to Christ and asked, "What can I give you? What do you want?" Jesus simply replied, "Give Me your sin, that's what I came for. I came to take away your sin. Give Me your sin." What an exchange of gifts! Our sin, for his grace. It's the answer to everyone's problems.
3. Baptism is your opportunity to courageously claim God's grace
Why do we baptize new believers in water? Why don't we use fire, or a branding iron? Why not tattoo a cross on the arm of every Christian? Couldn't we use something other than water?
Though you've probably never seen huge jars of water at a wedding, water still holds a very important place in our faith. In addition to the symbolism of spiritual cleansing, baptism is also a symbolism of a lifetime commitment. To drive that point home to his disciples, Jesus took his men on a 40-mile-long, incredibly strenuous walk to the place where the Jordan River begins.
Caesarea Philippi was not where you'd expect Jesus to take a religious journey. Caesarea was one of the most evil and immoral places in all of Israel. The cults of Dan, Baal and Asherah had made the beginning of the Jordan River a sensual, wicked, and even murderous place. The waters of the Jordan flowed out of huge, dark cave on the side of a rocky cliff. Legends and teachings of the Baal and Asherah cults taught that the two gods went underground to Hades through the cave, giving it the name, "The Gates of Hades." In the thoughts of the religious cult that worshipped him, Baal had control over water, and the mysterious cave was a natural place for him to descend into Hades.
Click here for a larger photo of Gates of Hell at Caesarea Philippi (which you may project during your sermon).
Greek and Roman invaders liked the spirituality of the place so much, they added monuments to numerous other gods to the area. By the time Jesus arrived at Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, the beginning of the river was a veritable cafeteria of religion. In the midst of all the choices, Jesus walked 40 miles up a mountain to ask his followers a simple question. "Who am I?"
Scripture: Matthew 16:13-18
And with that, the disciples walked back down the mountain, where they would soon hear Jesus ask his followers to be baptized as a sign of their commitment to him. His followers would build the church in the place where Satan least expected it – right at the very Gates of Hell!
Because of the centuries-old stories coming from the mysterious cave in Caesarea Philippi, those men knew that being lowered under the water was far more than a simple sign of cleansing. Baptism would be a frightening descent into "Baal territory," and a commitment to carry the fight to the enemy.
Though times had changed, the fears of Baal's hellish existence in the underground cave of the Jordan's beginnings still caused fear in the minds of the people.
If a person had the misfortune of drowning, for instance, the grief of a family was compounded by a frightening thought. Had their loved one been captured by demonic forces, and taken to Hades for eternity?
Through baptism, Jesus asked his followers to be willingly lowered into enemy territory, only to be immediately raised to new life. With one act of trust, the reality of hell would be no more of a danger to Christians than being briefly lowered in water. For believers in Jesus, death would one day be a momentary transfer from this life to the next. Baptism was a very visible statement of faith, of choosing Jesus as the way to safely make the transfer from this life to eternity.
Almost immediately, baptism became a tremendous statement of commitment, too. During times of persecution, to be identified with Christ was a life-threatening confession. In the worst of times, a person willing to be baptized was taking the risk of his lifetime.
Illustration: You might be surprised to know how great a price has been paid for believers baptism in recent years. After the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, a small group of Christians adopted believers' baptism as a symbolic mark of their faith. Suddenly able to read the Bible in English, they held fast to believers' baptism despite persecution that included court fines, public whippings, beatings, and even stonings. (Source: The Baptist Heritage, H. Leon McBeth, pages 140, 270.) Less than 400 years ago, people were willing to suffer the threat of death in order for us to have pristine, heated baptisms in our churches today!
Illustration: Margaret Burks, a retired missionary from Tanzania, told of an baptism she'd watched in East Africa. Some new believers followed the missionary into a river that had nearly dried up in the summer drought. The water was so shallow, the missionary had to scoop out a place with his hands in the deepest portion of the river. There, if the converts sat in the sand, there was just enough water to lower them below the water. The ceremony continued, and Margaret watched from a distance.
When the missionary baptized a boy in the shallow water, the child came up out of the ceremony shouting, "I'm alive! I'm alive! I'm alive!" When the missionary asked the boy what he was doing, he explained that when the missionary said people were "buried with Christ in the waters of baptism," he thought people were actually killed through the process. Those of us listening to the story chuckled at the child's misunderstanding – until she asked us a haunting question. "That child thought that baptism would kill him, and yet he was willing to go through the process. Would you have done the same?"