Scripture: John 2:1–11
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A few weeks ago, we explored together the language of the prophet Isaiah, who used a metaphor of walking in darkness to talk about the chaos and confusion of his time and place. If you remember, I used the comparison of running in the darkness, and how it also lends itself to chaos and confusion. We’ll get back to that here in a minute.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Now, we find ourselves several hundred years later, exploring the time period of Jesus’ life on earth. Instead of the prophet, it is the Gospel writer, John, who speaks of a metaphor of darkness. John 1 echoes Isaiah with this language of the light overcoming the darkness. The chaos and confusion seem to still be gripping the people of God. As we begin the new year with the book of John, a bit of a spoiler alert regarding the chaos and confusion of John…
First, we will see over and over again in the book that individuals find themselves in this position of misunderstanding or misestimating what Jesus is about. Last week, Angie reminded us about Nathanael proclaimed about Jesus: “can anything good come from Nazareth?,” clearly missing what Jesus had to offer. In the coming chapters, confused individuals will continue to appear on center stage: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the disciples. All will take their turns stumbling and bumbling around.
But that is only the beginning. In John, it is not only individuals who misunderstand Jesus, but the whole world! John talks in global terms about the world failing to understand the light and life that Jesus brings. And, indeed, the Roman oppressors that surrounded God’s people regularly confused the values of Empire with true power and true greatness. Emperors and political leaders wielded their confused power in ever-increasingly violent ways, and God’s people would have seen that power on a daily basis. Our story today takes place in Cana, in Galilee, a few short miles from Jesus hometown of Nazareth. But on the way there from Nazareth, one would have to pass through Sepphoris, another small city in Galilee. According to some historical accounts, the inhabitants of Sepphoris revolted against Roman rule, and the Romans cracked down by crucifying the leaders, burning down the town, and selling its inhabitants into slavery. One could imagine Jesus and his family walking through what was left of that community, maybe even looking at the crosses still standing, perhaps even as they walked on the road on the way to the wedding in Cana. The violence and values of Empire would have been on display as Jesus began his ministry, surrounded by those confused about what it meant to be great. According to John, the whole world was stumbling around, lost and confused.
But into that lostness comes the light and life of Jesus. Into that confusion steps the true greatness of Christ. Throughout the book, Jesus brings an enlightened awareness to those who are previously stumbling around. Beginning with today’s narrative, John slowly unveils a series of what he calls “signs.” Today is the first sign, and we will discover more as we read through the Gospel in the coming months: Healing an official’s son, and a paralytic at the healing pool. Feeding the 5,000. Walking on water. Healing a man born blind. Bringing Lazarus back to life.
Over the chapters of John, more and more people will see these signs of the greatness and enlightened truth of Jesus. Which is what makes today’s sign a little…weird. I mean, you know what signs are meant to do: show people the way. But when we read today’s passage, it goes largely unnoticed. Jesus’ big announcement of his ministry is not filled with fanfare. It happens in a quiet conversation, back in the corner with his mother, where he actually tells her the timing isn’t right yet. And then he gets almost zero credit for it. The steward compliments the host, who is just as surprised as everyone else. Where is Jesus’ neon sign? “Look, everyone, Jesus is here!” In the end, the only ones who know what happened are some servants, his brand-new disciples that he met yesterday, and probably his mother (who at least trusts him enough for her to tell the servants to do what he says). Just some folks at a wedding, drinking a surprisingly good glass of wine, and more or less shrugging it off. But, of course, there is more to this sign than a good glass of Merlot. John’s Gospel is consistently filled with multiple layers and deeper meanings. Just like the confusion of chapter one was complex and multilayered, now Jesus’ response is just as layered.
First, John seems to make the point that the hiddenness is part of the sign. The passage speaks of revealing his glory, but there is no fanfare. It is a rather incognito experience. But isn’t that often the way of God? Haven’t we seen that throughout the Old Testament, in the passages that we have read these last months? Scholar Robert Williamson connects this to another passage we read this Fall: the story of the manna. In that story, God’s glory was seen in the gifting of the manna to God’s people. Not in the amazing pillar of cloud and fire, but in this quiet gathering of an unknown substance at dawn in the morning. Likewise, in the story of Elijah, God’s glory is not evident in the wind or fire or earthquake, but in the still small voice. In Isaiah 55, God’s glory is not evident in kings and armies, but in vineyards and fields and trees, in bread and wine. Through Scripture, the glory of God shows up in rather common, somewhat pedantic, often incognito ways?
And yet, when God’s glory does show up, it shows up with abundance! The people of God in Jesus’ day would have known that one of the symbols of Messianic expectation was abundantly flowing wine. We see it in the Psalm we read earlier. Back in Isaiah 55. So, there is no mistaking the significance when Jesus turns water into what? Abundantly flowing wine. This is not a single glass, meant to impress the steward. This is not a few bottles, meant to keep the hosts from becoming embarrassed or ashamed. This is literally gallons and gallons of wine, six massive stone jars filled with the best wine that the steward has ever tasted. In quality and quantity, this sign from Jesus proclaims that the God in Jesus is a God of abundance, of lavishness, of copious gift-giving.
So, here in this simple act, we learn something about what the ministry of Jesus will be about. It is a vision of incognito abundance! Not to be confused with showy, attention-grabbing voices, or with paltry, stingy leaders. The God in Christ lavishes grace upon the world, and doesn’t even need to get credit for doing it!
Yesterday, a portion of the Earthworks Blue Team ran a trail run in Oklahoma. It was a beautiful trail, perfect weather, and it gave us a chance to both explore a part of God’s creation and keep us in shape by training during the holidays! When we run on these long runs, we generally have not been on the trail before, so we are rather dependent on the signs to tell us which way to go. Sometimes these trails are pretty obvious and well-marked. Sometimes, there are other intersecting trails, or ATV roads, or deer trails, that make it hard to discern where we are supposed to go. Sometimes, there are actual printed signs, but it gets expensive to put those up everywhere. So, often times, trail creators will simply paint streaks on trees or rocks, called blazes, that mark which way to go.
Yesterday’s trail was beautifully marked. That is not always the case. Last year, we ran a trail that was notoriously poorly-marked. We got turned around more than once and went the wrong direction for a couple of miles. It was hard enough in the daylight, but then it got dark. We had flashlights, of course, but they only helped so much. I kept my light pointed down at the ground, while my running partner Bryan Miller kept his headlamp pointed to the trees. Thankfully, he had an eagle eye. As we would run, watching for rocks and roots or animals in the woods, he would call out “Blaze!” announcing he had seen a mark on a tree and we were on the right track. It was a little disconcerting to be in the dark, on a trail that neither of us had ever seen, in a part of the country that tended to have a lot of folks who would have thought we were a little crazy for running in the dark, or for running recreationally at all, for that matter. The last thing we wanted to do was to get turned around, end up on someone’s property, and surprise someone who may not want us there! I would always relax just a little whenever I heard him call it out again: “Blaze!”
You see where I am going with this, right? The more things change, the more things stay the same! We still live in a world surrounded by chaos and confusion. Just like us running in the dark, just like Isaiah walking in darkness, just like John’s world lost and confused. We live in a world that says that the message of Jesus needs we need to take up arms and attack our nation’s Capitol, a grim anniversary we remembered this week. We live in a world that still struggles with the effects of a pandemic, now reeling from yet another spike. I know friends who have been so careful for two years, now struggling with the disease; one is in ICU. We live in a world where true greatness and power are just as often misunderstood or misestimated. We still stumble in the darkness.
Yet, there are signs that surround us. I loved Angie’s definition from John 1 last week, so I am going to repeat it for us today: “Signs are visual markers for us. They are objects, or actions, or patterns, or events that convey some meaning, that speak to us in some way.” John 2 adds another layer to this, helping us to see that these signs are so often shown to be incognito abundance. Maybe they are as simple as a strip of paint on a tree, but to those stumbling around in the dark, that blaze is a sign of God’s glory.
Now, are the signs that we see surrounding us the same as the miracles of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ? Of course, not. But is God still a God of incognito abundance? Is God still a God of everyday grace? Is God still a God of lavish and verdant and ever-flowing gifts? You bet your life!
So I compiled a short list of some of the incognito abundance I have seen in just the last few weeks. Some of the signs….some of the blazes that tell me that we worship a God who shows us the way….
· The utter quiet of a snow-silenced landscape, juxtaposed by the loud crunch of crisp snow underfoot. Blaze!
· The smell of a cup of coffee enjoyed on the back deck on Christmas morning, in the dark before anyone else was awake, watching the world be born again, on the day we celebrated Christ’s birth. Blaze!
· The laughter of my niece, poking her head around the camera onto the Zoom, playing hide and go seek with her goofy uncle and cousins. Blaze!
· The taste of Christmas feast, of smoked turkey and sweet cranberry relish and a glass of dry red wine, though not as good as Jesus’, I’m sure. Blaze!
· The wind whistling by my ears as we ran down the hills yesterday, scattering leaves and clattering rocks and laughing as we ran. Ablaze of God’s glory!
Incognito abundance. Where are your signs? Where are your blazes? They don’t have to be monumental or flashy. In fact, the glory of God is often not. Today, I invite you to look again for the abundance right there under your noses. Reminders that even as we stumble in the dark, the God of simple and abundant grace still shines brightly!