I use a bible commentary called Feasting on the Word and I make notes in the margins, and mark it up with highlighters, and I enjoy going back to a scripture and seeing what my perspective has been and if I’ve discovered something different. The pages of this story in John’s gospel are pristine in this commentary because I haven’t preached it in the lectionary series. It seems somehow jarring to go from the birth of Jesus and the visit of the magi to hop over to Jesus performing His first miraculous sign. I’d like to know about those lost years, and how Jesus grew from the young child teaching the elders in the synagogue to the god-man showing both His humanity and divinity in wondrous acts. I’m grateful that John doesn’t use the word “miracle” but instead he calls these acts of Jesus the Christ “signs” of who He was; signs of God’s presence in Him. I heard the late theologian Phyllis Tickle at the Festival of Homiletics, which is an annual gathering of hundreds of preachers and musicians that highlights noted preachers, theologians, and choirs in a week of worship and workshops. Phyllis Tickle was a progressive theologian, but also an Orthodox Christian, and believed it was possible for these to coexist. She is quoted for saying, “Some things are too wonderful not to be true whether they happened or not.”
Last week I said that it was our six-month anniversary – yours and mine – and that in the first year of marriage every anniversary is noticed and celebrated. Statistically a couple has sex more often in the first year of marriage than throughout the rest of their life to together. In that first year no opportunities to show love and affection are passed over, and love is lavishly given. Marriage is a biblical metaphor for the relationship between God and humanity. In the New Testament Christ is portrayed as the bridegroom and the church as His bride, and in the Hebrew Scriptures God is pictured as a faithful husband. (Lest we get mired in male images of God as bridegroom, however, God is also described as rock, as soaring eagle, as nursing mother, and as protective hen.) A disclaimer is called for with this biblical metaphor because the ancient world understood social hierarchy as a ladder, with men at the top and women and children down on lower rungs, and the church has accepted these images as if they are gospel. And Paul used the language of culture too, in his writings describing the husband as the “head” of his wife, as Christ is head of the church. Still today, in some conservative churches marriage is held as the idea Christian relationship, with all other relationships down on lower rungs. That is not a biblical understanding of love, however; as my farm-raised father used to say that’s “a load of used oats.” Marriage is only a useful metaphor for Christians if it doesn’t hurt or demean anyone. Jesus called people into community, and into loving and healthy relationships.
Still, it’s significant that John places this first sign (again, thank You God that John uses the word sign, because the word “miracle” might be absolute proof of Jesus’ divinity to one person, and gullibility enough to see the Virgin Mary’s face on a piece of French toast to another.) It’s significant that John places Jesus’ first sign at a wedding. Abundant wine and feasting are biblical symbols of God’s Kingdom. The prophet Isaiah envisioned the coming Kingdom where wine was poured out with no cost. The wedding at Cana would have been a seven-day celebration with wine flowing and tables filled with good things to eat; an occasion of joy and delight. This particular wedding is a backdrop for God’s Kingdom, and we are meant to see God in the celebrating and the feasting and the generosity. We are meant to see, in this first sign of the best wine extravagantly poured out at a wedding party, God’s love and grace, extravagantly poured out for you, for me, and for all the world. We are meant to see ourselves as guests, as God’s “plus-one,” at this wedding feast, and to notice that Jesus is showing us a sign of God’s abundant and generous love.
Juxtaposed to this story of eschatological wine (this wasn’t “Two-Buck-Chuck” that was poured) is the despair and human misery reported on the first three pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (which is where world and national news is printed.) At the wedding at Cana Jesus filled water pots with Chateau Lafite Rothschild to symbolize the riches of God’s love and grace… of God’s coming Kingdom. Earlier in her life, when Jesus’ mother Mary realized that she was chosen by God to be Theotokos – a Greek word which means “God-bearer” – and that God had put her in the position of being pregnant and unmarried, which threatened her life…this young woman who would birth God, sang a prophetic and eschatological song about God’s Kingdom. “God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors God. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”
Mary is an interesting and overlooked character this story of the wedding at Cana. She calls out Jesus’ gifts. He might not be ready to enact a sign of the reign of God begun (He says to his mother, “My time has not yet come”) but Mary is ready. She sees what needs to be done and asks Jesus to do it, and then she waits, but not passively… she instructs the servants to be ready to do whatever Jesus needs. This story is full of jewels, full of signs, and only in our sifting through them can we see all that’s there. We are meant to see as Mary did, what is empty and needs to be filled, what is broken and needs to be healed, and what has been thrown away that needs to be redeemed. Mary points us to action: to notice where God is needed (as she did, pointing out the embarrassing problem that there was no wine on the third day of a seven-day celebration) and to pray (as she called on Jesus to do something.)
Eschatology is the study of the last things… “death, and judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.” Jesus’ act of changing pots of water set aside for ritual purification, into an abundance of fine wine was an eschatological symbol, a sign of the arrival of God’s new age. It’s hard to trust this new age, as Jesus’ first listeners must have mistrusted His words that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and “the Kingdom is within you.” We need to have eyes to see and minds to comprehend and hearts softened to be able to see all the signs.
The first Sunday in January was Epiphany, when the Wise Ones followed the star that led them to Jesus. The epiphany was that Christ had come, and that His first visitors were outsiders, heathen, astrologers: signs that God’s Kingdom would include and embrace all the peoples of the world. Last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and remembered that we too had been washed in sacred waters of freedom and redemption. We heard the story from Luke’s gospel that Jesus saw the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove, and He heard the voice of God say, “This is My Beloved.” We acknowledged that at our baptism we were given our middle name: Beloved. And we consecrated our church leaders and ministry teams. Today we hear the story of Jesus’ first sign of God’s power and presence in Him, as He changed pots of water into eschatological wine. And we are a part of this story, of God’s story. As Jesus was washed in the waters of baptism and named as God’s beloved, so are we. As Mary called Jesus’ ministry to begin in response to human need, we too are given gifts to use and called to the ministry of responding to human need. We are meant to be signs of God’s glory, and God’s presence, in us and in the church, and in the world. And we are meant to see that joy and celebrating and feasting and abundance and pouring the best stuff are signs that God’s Kingdom, God’s new age, has begun.
Yesterday I went to my first yoga class at Napa Valley Yoga Center. Our instructor asked us to choose a word as our intention for the class, and for the day. I chose the word “trust” because I find it hard. Trust, not yoga. Well, yoga was hard too. It was actually really hard, and at one point our instructor said, “It’s the practice that’s important, not the outcome.” I found myself in tears as I realized how often I judge the outcome instead of celebrating the practices of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and temperance. These are all signs recognized since the beginning of Christianity as evidence of God’s presence in us.
It’s easy to be discouraged by pots of water when we want new wine, eschatological wine, when we long to see signs of God’s Kingdom at hand. It’s easy to look at the lack of money and resources and miss the signs of God’s Kingdom within us. And it’d be trite of me to say, “We have what we need” because we don’t always have the voice and the power and the means, and yet we are marvelously gifted with a faith community bursting with signs of God’s passion and creativity. Let’s take the jars of water and fill them with the wine of hope, prayer, action, and trust. Let’s make the practices of our faith the sign that God is working in us, and through us, made visible in the world. I invite you to choose a word of intention in this season of Epiphany (remember an epiphany is an “Aha!” an insight, a recognition of a spiritual truth) to guide you as we follow the Wise Ones to the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ… as we claim the name given to us at our baptism: Beloved… as we begin the ministries we are called to and uniquely gifted for… and as we drink and pour and share the eschatological wine of joy at God’s Kingdom already begun. Amen.
I invite you to stand as you’re able as we sing again, verses 2 & 3 of Joy in the Morning.