Read John 1:1-18
The singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight at our Christmas Eve services is a holy moment for many of us. But for me, the most powerful moment on Christmas Eve comes just prior to that — when we hear the opening words of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” And then, we take the light from the candle and it spreads across the sanctuary and we sing Silent Night.
This is the Christmas story according to John’s gospel. No manger, no shepherds, no angels, no wise men – just the Word of God, now, at the birth of Jesus, taking on human flesh and living among us – God’s Word, God’s instruction, God’s wisdom, and God’s presence, now residing in a human body, in the person of Jesus. And in that Word made flesh, in Jesus, there is, for us, light, and life, and grace, and truth.
There are many things that we could explore in these first 18 verses of John’s gospel. But I want to focus on one word – the word “Grace.”
We heard it in verse 14 of our reading, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And in verse 17, it is repeated. We read that “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” But sandwiched in between these two verses, we hear this amazing promise in verse 16: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” To each of us, gathered here to worship Jesus, we have all received grace upon grace.
I wondered what else John’s gospel might say about his grace. So, I went on a search through the entire gospel of John to find additional places where the word “grace” is used. And what I found was, that after these first 18 verses in John, as the author tells the story of Jesus’ life, the word grace is never mentioned again. It’s as if the author is saying to us that God’s grace is so evident in the life of Jesus he doesn’t have to name it.
We’re going to be reading through many stories of Jesus life in the Gospel of John in the weeks ahead. And the way John tells these stories of Jesus, every story is about “grace upon grace.”
When John the Baptist points others to Jesus, inviting them into a life of faith in God’s son who has come to save us, this is grace upon grace … When Jesus says to Philip, “follow me,” and then Philip finds his friend Nathanael and says to him, “come and see,” and, in Jesus, Nathanael becomes aware of God’s loving purpose for his life, this is grace upon grace … When Jesus changes the water into wine, indicating that the best is yet to come, not just at that wedding, but in our lives, this is grace upon grace … When Jesus tells Nicodemus about the work of the Holy Spirit, who can transform us and give us new birth and new life, this is grace upon grace … When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, and enters into a deep discussion with her, Jesus shows us that his love bridges the gap between cultures, races, and gender, and this is grace upon grace … When Jesus pays attention to a lame man who has waited for 38 years for someone to help him, and Jesus offers him love and healing, this is grace upon grace.
And finally, following Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus appears to Mary grieving in the garden, when he appears to the disciples in the midst of their fearful hiding behind locked doors, and when he appears to Thomas in the midst of his doubting, this is all grace upon grace.
And now John is claiming that this grace is available to us: “From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” This grace is not just something that happened in the past that we treasure in our hearts like some cherished memory, but it is an on-going presence that continues to enliven us, even now.
So how might we define this grace given to us?
The Webster’s dictionary defines such grace as the “Unmerited love and favor of God for humankind”.
The apostle Paul defines this grace in Second Corinthians, chapter 8, where he says: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Certainly, Jesus was poor in the sense of having few earthly possessions. But there are other ways that Jesus became “poor” for our sake. Jesus refused to exploit his divine power to get his way. Jesus refused to call on his “angel army” to wipe out the bad guys. Instead, Jesus humbled himself, and became a servant to others. That’s what it means that he became poor for our sake.
And he did this so that we might become “rich” – rich in the presence of God in our lives, rich in the gift of his Holy Spirit to give us life and a new birth, rich in the gifts of God – time, talents, and treasures – that he gives to us to serve others, rich in his blessings of forgiveness and eternal life.
Perhaps you remember a Batman movie titled, “The Dark Knight.” If you never saw it, it’s okay, I’m going to explain a scene from that movie. The villain in that movie, the Joker, comes up with a plot whereby there are two ferries – ferries as in boats on the water – that he arranges to have filled with people: one ferry filled with the good citizens of the city of Gotham, the other ferry filled with the convicts of Gotham.
Both ferries are rigged with explosives. Both ferries have a detonator for the other ferry. And the Joker tells them that one of them has to be exploded before midnight, thereby killing everyone onboard, or he is going to explode them both.
So you can just imagine now the scene on each ferry.
The good citizens of Gotham start clamoring for someone to push the button, because after all, says someone, ‘those convicts don’t deserve to be the ones to survive – they had their chance in life.’ And then one of the good citizens finally takes the detonator a few minutes before midnight, but can’t press the button. He just can’t bring himself to do that.
Meanwhile on the other ferry, the meanest, ugliest looking, ‘baddest’ convict of them all sees this, and takes the detonator on his boat, and…throws it into the sea. And thereby, the lives of the good citizens are also spared, by the convicts. Grace upon grace.
On the cross, Jesus threw away the detonator and refused to make life about getting even. And wherever that kind of love is proclaimed and shared with others, there you will find the grace of God.
Isn’t this what Jesus’ taught? Isn’t this how Jesus lived? He showed us the way to end hatred – not with the sword but with self-giving, self-sacrificing love.
In Jesus, the fullness of God’s grace has been revealed and offered to us. It’s what we hear in our Bible readings every Sunday. It’s what we sing about in our songs. And Jesus calls us, his church, to take the message of our Bible readings and the message of our songs and to tell it to others. Isn’t that why this church is here? Isn’t that why we gather each Sunday, to get equipped to go out, into our daily lives and to be witnesses to God’s grace in our words and actions?
This is the gift of God give to us in Jesus, that we would be so filled with his grace, that our lives would overflow in witness to others.
Grace upon grace; Grace in all its fullness; Grace for all.
May it be so for us; may it be so for St. John Lutheran Church; may it be so for our community and our world.