When you buy neapolitan ice cream at the grocery store,
you typically only get three flavors
Do you know what would happen if I sat you down at a table
and force fed you significant amounts of vanilla and chocolate and strawberry
when the carton is mostly empty, when the flavors have been sampled,
and when you think that you never want to see another dairy product as long as you live
—if I reached under the table and said,
“SURPRISE! How about one more pint?
Who wants honey pistachio?”
There’s no question about it.
You would punch me in the face.
We’ve tasted the flavors of Matthew and Mark and Luke
and we’re still not done.
We’ve got a completely unique flavor coming to us now
in the gospel according to John.
If you’ve ever read through parts of the gospels,
you’ve probably realized pretty quickly that one of them is not like the others.
A good argument can be made that Matthew and Luke may have used Mark
to help them with their own recipes.
But John—his story is something entirely different.
Here—let’s just read his opening,
and you’ll see what I mean:
(1.1) In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
I told you it was different.
The other three gospel writers had their own ways of getting us into the story of Jesus.
Mark just says, “Here we go,”
and lets Jesus burst onto the stage.
Matthew and Luke both give us different bits of Jesus’ birth—
you know, Christmas stories and announcements from angels.
But John’s opening sounds way different.
And his entire gospel is going to feel different.
John starts this way.
He starts with a poem.
And not just any old poem,
he starts with a kind of creation poem.
Way back at the beginning of Genesis,
the ancient tradition of Judaism and Christianity begins
with a poem of how God formed creation—how God made the world:
(Gen 1.1) “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
And now John is invoking that same kind of language for his story.
Whatever kind of story this is,
it has something to with God re-forming creation—with God re-making the world.
Let’s keep going:
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John.
[…so here’s John the Baptist coming into the story…]
He came as a witness to testify concerning that light,
so that through him all might believe.
He himself was not the light;
he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him,
the world did not recognize him.
He came to that which was his own,
but his own did not receive him.
Yet to all who did receive him,
to those who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God—
children born not of natural descent,
nor of human decision or a husband’s will,
but born of God.
(v14) The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son,
who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Skip down a couple of verses:
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son,
who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father,
has made him known.
So this is still the same story of Jesus—
still the same story being told by Matthew and Mark and Luke—
but it’s been totally remixed.
I mean, you can already tell by this opening
that the story is going to be told in a completely way.
“In the beginning was the Word.”
In the beginning was the “logos.”
The divine voice that creates and sustains all life,
the truth behind the universe that gives it order and meaning,
the seed from which all of reality grows—the acorn of existence—
has come into the world.
Not everyone recognizes it,
but life—pure, unfiltered life itself—
has come into the world to bring us light.
To let us know the meaning of life—why we exist—
and to absolutely transform us, if we are willing.
We’ve seen something beautiful.
We’ve seen his glory.
This is the way this fourth gospel describes the story of Jesus.
As you read the gospel of John,
you realize that its author had first-hand interaction with Jesus.
He sits close to Jesus at the last supper (13.23)
he’s standing at the cross as Jesus is dying (19.26)
and he’s with Peter when he arrives at the empty tomb (20.2-8).
This guy was there.
So does he write a gospel that’s so…
well… wildly different from the others?
The short answer is that it seems like he’s gone to great lengths
to craft an account of Jesus’ life that makes sure we won’t miss the meaning of Jesus.
One of the world’s leading New Testament scholars describes John’s unique story-telling in way that I find really helpful:
“[John’s gospel] gives the appearance of being written by someone who was a very close friend of Jesus, and who spent the rest of his life mulling over, more and more deeply, what Jesus had done and said and achieved, praying it through from every angle, and helping others to understand it.”
There’s a way of knowing ABOUT somebody without actually KNOWING them.
I could tell you a lot of information about my wife, Joy,
when she was born,
what she looks like,
what she does for a living,
what she does for fun,
but if you were to sit me down
and find out everything you possibly could about her from me,
and then you went around saying that you KNEW Joy,
I would say you’re crazy.
Joy isn’t just information about Joy.
It’s one thing to know ABOUT her,
it’s another thing to know HER.
It’s like John has been thinking about Jesus for so long—
“mulling it over, more and more deeply”—
and he’s writing this gospel to make sure we know
not only information about Jesus,
not only stories about this “light” that has entered the world,
not only sayings that this “word” may have spoken,
but he’s wanting us to somehow believe him—
to somehow entrust our deepest selves to Jesus—
and to begin tasting and experiencing and finding life.
How do we know that’s what he’s doing?
Because he says so as he’s wrapping up his story:
(20.30-31) Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
He doesn’t just want us to hear the stories ABOUT Jesus,
but he wants us to grasp the deepest meanings about this man.
And so he crafts a gospel that makes sure we don’t miss it.
His gospel is soaked with style—
light and darkness, truth and falsehood,
vision and blindness, life and death.
There are film directors who do this all time—
directors like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson—
and their films have got a completely unique style.
They use color and lighting and dialogue and even the order they tell their story
to make sure that you’re experiencing what they want you to experience.
This is what John does in his gospel.
When you read his gospel, he’s often using the strongest kind of contrast
to make sure we’re knowing and experiencing the Jesus that he knows.
He tells us the story of Jesus in a way we haven’t heard before.
In John, Jesus’ ministry begins in chapter two.
He’s at a wedding and the wedding runs out of wine—
which is absolutely awful and people are panicking.
They have to get his mom to talk him into it,
but Jesus eventually helps avert the crisis.
He has them to fill up six stone jars that were used for Jewish cleansing rituals.
These are big, heavy stone jars—
each of them holding 20 or 30 gallons of water.
That’s about how much water people use
to fill up one of those portable baptism tanks.
Jesus has them fill up those jars to the brim with water,
(2.8-10) Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said,
“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
(2.11) What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
This is the first miracle that Jesus does in the gospel of John.
He turns water into wine—and the best kind of wine, at that!
It’s supernatural. It’s like magic. It’s a miracle.
But John is the only gospel writer to say,
“When Jesus does a miracle, it’s a sign.”
What do signs do?
If you’re going hiking, and you see a sign
with an arrow and the word “trail” on it,
what is that sign doing?
It’s pointing to something.
The sign isn’t there for the sake of having a sign.
(“Yay! Honey, I found the little yellow trail sign—take my picture with it!”)
A sign is there so that it can direct us
to something else.
Jesus isn’t just doing a great parlor trick when he turns water into wine.
It’s a sign.
What’s it pointing to?
Maybe it’s a sign that something new is happening in the middle of an old Jewish system.
Maybe it’s a sign that celebration is going to happen—even when the party looks over.
Maybe it’s a sign that God saves the best for last.
But it’s not just a magic trick.
It’s pointing to something.
Jesus does seven of these signs in John’s gospel.
After he turns water into wine in chapter two,
he heals the son of a royal official in chapter four.
(4.54) This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee.
John names the first and the second,
but he’s trusting that we’ll pick up on the rest.
In chapter five, Jesus heals a paralyzed man.
In chapter six, he feeds thousands of people and walks on the surface of a lake.
At this point the crowd says:
(7.31) “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”
In chapter nine, Jesus restores sight to a man born blind
which makes Pharisees scratch their heads and ask:
(9.16) “How can a sinner perform such signs?”
And finally, in chapter eleven, Jesus pulls out all the stops
and raises a guy named Lazarus from the dead.
That’s his seventh and final sign.
He does signs for about the first half of John’s story. (ch 2-11)
And then he’s done.
So if Jesus is giving signs, what are the signs pointing toward?
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it would have been a good guess
to say that Jesus is pointing toward the kingdom of God.
But as all-important as the announcement of the “kingdom of God” was in the other gospels, it only shows up in one conversation in the gospel of John.
A conversation with a guy named Nicodemus in chapter three:
(3.1-3) Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
So this guy—a leader, a councilman—comes to Jesus and says,
“You’ve got to be from God. Look at all the signs.”
And it seems like just changes the subject.
No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they’re “born again.”
Born again—this is where that phrase comes from.
If you want to taste the life of world to come—
if you want to participate in the the rule and reign of God,
if you want to enter into the kingdom of God,
you’ve got to be completely made new.
And then Jesus goes on to say the most famous words in the Bible:
(3.16) For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Nicodemus asks whether Jesus is sent from God,
and Jesus says:
“You’ve got to be completely remade if you want to see God’s kingdom.
And the way you experience this new birth,
the way you participate in this new life,
is you believe in me.
And Jesus isn’t just inviting us to believe things ABOUT him.
He’s wanting us to believe HIM.
He’s not just wanting us to trust that he did certain things or said certain things.
Jesus is wanting us to trust HIM.
To entrust your every bit of your life to him—and to everything thing he stands for.
That’s the way we receive life.
That’s the way the little bit of creation that we call “us” starts getting re-made.
Jesus has all kinds of ways of saying this.
(Nicodemus is literally the only person that Jesus tells to be “born again.”)
In the next chapter, when’s conversation at well with a Samaritan woman,
and he’ll say, “You know, what you need is living water.” (4.14-15)
A few chapters later, Jesus says:
(7.38) Whoever believe in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will from within them.
When he feeds those thousands of people,
he says that you’ll have “eternal life”
when you eat his flesh and drink his blood (6.53-54).
This is the point where a lot of people say, “We’re out” (6.66).
Jesus talks a lot in John’s Gospel.
But he sounds way different than he does in the other gospels.
And he’s not giving many practical things for us to obey
or telling almost any memorable parables to get under our skin.
He’s delivering Shakespearean soliloquies about himself.
Sometimes he’ll use the miracles that he’s doing
as a springboard into talking about himself.
Oh! Look at all this food I just miraculously produced.
I am the bread of life (6.35).
Several times he uses national holidays to talk about himself.
Everyone is coming to the temple for Passover?
Did you know that I’m the real temple? (2.19-23)
Feast of Tabernacles again?
Time for us to do the thing with the candles?
Let me tell you about me—I am light of the world (8.15, 9.2).
It’s time for Hanukkah, eh?
Did you know that I and the Father are one? (10.22-30)
That’s like hearing someone say,
“Seeing as how it’s Fourth of July, did I tell you that I’m the god who gives freedom?”
What’s this? A funeral?
Did you know that some of my friends call me, “The Resurrection and the Life”?
Hi, I’m Life Itself. Nice to meet you (11.24-25).
John has crafted his gospel like big neon sign.
Everything that you and Nicodemus
and the Jewish people and everyone else is looking for—
it’s all here.
It’s all found in this Jesus.
Life and light and truth and hope and God himself.
John’s biggest concern is that you might miss Jesus—
and if you miss Jesus, you’ve missed everything.
Listen to what Jesus says at one point to the religious leaders:
You study the Scriptures diligently
because you think that in them you have eternal life.
These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,
yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
You know reading your Bible?
You know studying the Scriptures?
Don’t even confuse THAT with coming to Jesus and having life.
Don’t misunderstand—the Bible is important.
But it’s important as a sign.
Again and again Jesus takes everything possible—
from the most trivial to the most important and says:
“Even that—even that, is about me.”
Does your life have a center?
What makes sense of your life?
We’re really distracted most of the time,
going from this thing to that thing,
and most of the time we’re not asking questions like that.
We don’t wake up, roll out of bed, grab a bowl of cereal,
and ask “You know, does my life have center?”
Most of us don’t do that.
Most of us start asking questions about the meaning of life—
about whether there’s something that really makes sense of our existence—
at certain moments in our lives.
At the death of those we love.
At the birth of a child.
When life falls apart.
When we get rejected.
When we’re staring at a sunset.
When we’re doing what we love.
When the worst thing happens.
When the best thing happens.
Sometimes we have these moments where we do kinda wonder,
what’s this all about?
Is there something to make sense of it all?
Is there a center?
And again and again in John, we get Jesus saying:
“It’s me. It’s me. It’s me.
I make sense of everything.
“Love and longing and loss and hope and beauty and sex
and gardening and art and poetry and athletics
and hiking and hurting and hunger and music and math
and that-moment-you-get-the-hang-of-ice-skating and every great story
“—they’re all signs—and they’re all about me.
“I’m the center.
The good. The bad. The despair. The joy.
Let me make sense out of your life.”
John has been thinking long and deeply about Jesus.
The other gospels are announcing the kingdom
John is making sure we don’t forget the king.
That’s what all the signs are pointing to—
everything is pointing to Jesus.
Because he’s the reason why there’s kingdom.
He’s making sure that we understand
that this Jewish man who walked the streets of Jerusalem
is pure, unfiltered life—the acorn of existence.
He’s meaning of life introducing himself to us face-to-face.
He letting us to know what the heart of the universe is like—
he’s making God known to us.
We’ve seen him—we’ve seen his glory.
And it makes sense of our lives.
John is giving us good news—
the good news of a clear center.
So what does this mean?
You know, other than the fact that we’re making the absurd and revolutionary claim that God has literally entered the human story to make our story the best possible kind of story.
That there’s so much we don’t understand,
but as we return to the person of Jesus again and again
we’re finding a center that makes sense of the mystery that we call life.
You know, other than that.
What does it mean for us as we leave today?
As we pack up, load up, and plunge back into our everyday lives?
I think the second half of John gives us a pretty good invitation.
Around chapter 13,
Jesus has given all the signs he’s going to give,
and he’s right on the verge of being betrayed and killed.
Jesus washes his disciples feet (something that only happens in John)
and then Jesus and his disciples begin talking.
And talking some more.
Like I said, Jesus likes to talk in John.
This last meal with Jesus goes on for like five chapters.
And we get to listen to the dinner conversation.
At one point Judas Iscariot makes a dash for the door.
He’s about to start the ball rolling on Jesus’ execution.
And then Jesus says:
(13.31) “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.”
This is what Jesus calls the cross in John’s story—
It’s the moment he’s going to be “lifted up” (cf. 3.15)
and the moment when he’s going to be “glorified.”
His death is where you see his glory.
He follows that up a couple of verses later by saying:
A new command I give you:
Love one another.
As I have loved you,
so you must love one another.
By this everyone will that you are my disciples,
if you love one another.
The disciples are concerned.
They talk some more.
And then in chapter 15, he says:
My command is this:
Love each other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command.
I no longer call you servants,
because a servant does not know his master’s business.
Instead, I have called you friends,
for everything that I learned from my Father
I have made known to you.
You did not choose me,
but I chose you and appointed you
so that you might go and bear fruit —fruit that will last—
and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
This is my command: Love each other.
Mark said that the cross was a great exchange—a ransom.
In Matthew Jesus the cross was about the forgiveness of sins.
In Luke the cross is where we see clearly that God lifts up the lowly.
And John is the writer who says most clearly
that what Jesus did at the cross was an act of love.
“You can’t find greater love than giving your life for another person.
And that’s what I’m about to do for you, my friends.
“I’ve chosen you and appointed you to be my friends,
I’m spilling the beans on everything—everything that I know.
“Now—really be my friends. Do I’m telling you.
Love one each other in the same way that I’m loving you.”
“My death is where you see my glory
because it’s where you’ll see my great love.”
And then he starts praying for them.
But not for them alone…
My prayer is not for them alone.
[…I told you…]
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
[…that would be us…]
that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
I have given them the glory that you gave me,
that they may be one as we are one —I in them and you in me—
so that they may be brought to complete unity.
Then the world will know that you sent me
and have loved them even as you have loved me.
So the story of John is one
where God so loves the world
that he becomes a part of it.
And the way he loves us is so great
that there’s nothing greater.
He’s going to lay down his life for us.
His suffering is where you’ll see his love.
And so his suffering is where you’ll see his glory.
And now as he’s praying for us,
he’s saying that he is giving us the same glory.
This is the reason we’re alive.
This is our task in the world.
This is the deepest joy we can find.
Learning to love each other
in the same self-giving way that God has already loved us.
It seems like everything in John is a sign pointing to Jesus,
and to the life and love and light that he brings.
What does it look like for our entire lives
to become signs of that too?
This world is hungry for something beautiful and true that will give us light—
desperately looking for something glorious to make sense of human life.
What would it look like for us to become
walking, talking, laughing, living, breathing, bleeding
signs that point people to the glorious.
As we leave this morning, it’s worth asking:
Will I let Jesus be the center?
Will I let Jesus makes sense of my life?
What does it look like for us to begin believing Jesus—
to begin trusting that he might just be shedding light on what all of life is about,
and to begin entrusting our entire lives to him?
To say, “I’m going to love people the way that God loves the world
even when it’s painful and costly and seems absurd.”
I believe that this is where true life is found.
This is what makes sense of our world.
This is the clear center.
And it’s good news.
So may those around us see the way we love and begin to see the light,
may God’s Spirit remind us of the glorious beauty of self-giving love,
may we entrust ourselves to Jesus—again and again—and be utterly made new,
may the love of the Father (given in his Son) be the clearest kind of center for us,
and—by believing in him—may we find deep and lasting life.