The Wedding at Cana is unique to the Fourth Gospel and is the first of Jesus’ seven signs in the narrative.
It presents an interesting contrast to next week’s text from Luke. Both stories narrate the first acts of Jesus’ public ministry, which provide important clues to who Jesus is for the respective author. For Matthew, why the Sermon on the Mount? For Mark, why an exorcism? We bring the same question to Luke and John. For Luke next week, why a return to his hometown? And for John, why water into wine?
These two events back to back are more than appropriate for the second and third Sundays after Epiphany. What do they reveal about who Jesus is and what Jesus will do? We should remember that the miracles Jesus performs in the Fourth Gospel are never called miracles but signs. In other words, the miracle itself is not really what we are supposed to see, as miraculous as it is.
True, water into wine would be quite something, especially on a Sunday afternoon in Minnesota. Rather, the miracles point to a truer revelation about Jesus. This could be an important way to move through the season of Epiphany. Revelation for revelation’s sake is really not the point. What deeper reality is Jesus revealing? What are we supposed to see about Jesus?
An Epiphany of Abundance The word “grace” occurs only four times in the Fourth Gospel and only in the Prologue (1:1-18). Why? One could make the argument, as many scholars do, that John’s source for the Prologue was an extant hymn that John borrowed and inserted into his narrative. But, what if we take the incarnation seriously and suggest that once the Word becomes flesh, the rest of the Gospel shows you what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like?
That is, Jesus’ signs show you, don’t tell you, what abundant grace is, “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16). Turning water into wine is revealing of abundant grace in this season of Epiphany. And what does abundant grace taste like? Like the best wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff. It’s one thing to say, “Jesus is the source of grace.” It’s quite another to have an experience of it. So much of our preaching tends toward telling people about Jesus. What if in the season of Epiphany, we commit to creating experiences of Jesus so that there can be no doubt that Christmas was real?
The details of abundance cannot be overlooked in this text — six water jars, each 20-30 gallons, filled to the brim, of the best wine. The amount in and of itself is extraordinary. But the best wine? At this point in a wedding celebration? Unheard of. Back in the day, weddings typically lasted a week, where the host would serve the better wine when the guests could actually taste what they were drinking, a nice Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay, perhaps. Only after a few days of drinking and determined levels of inebriation would the guests be served the Franzia box Merlot or Gallo jug Chablis. Where have you experienced this kind of grace? Perhaps we can even think out of the box and imagine these more tangible presences rather than theologizing grace down to a mere doctrine.
Do What Your Mother Tells You Another important detail in this first sign, this first act of Jesus’ public ministry, is that his mother is present. In the Gospel of John, the mother of Jesus is never named, never called Mary. She is always denoted by her relationship to Jesus. Here, it is her urging that initiates Jesus’ action.
The exchange between Jesus and his mother is really quite funny and we do our congregation members no favors by insisting that the Bible is void of humor. She notes that the wedding hosts have run out of wine. Jesus’ response is that they should have hired a better wedding planner. But then, she tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. I have this image of the mother of Jesus much like encouraging your child to get on the school bus for the first time: “Come on, you can do it! I know you can!” But, I also wonder what she saw in that moment. What had Jesus revealed to her up to that point that would cause her to believe that such a miracle was possible from him? How did she know that this was the time for revelation, the event of Epiphany?
The mother of Jesus appears only twice in the Gospel of John, at the wedding at Cana and at the foot of the cross. While we are not told about here about her reoccurrence later in the Gospel, we get a hint of her return in Jesus’ reason for what seems to be a refusal of her request, “My hour has not yet come.” Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus will refer to his “hour” which signals the time of his death.
It is more than poignant that the mother of Jesus brackets his life, surrounds Jesus’ earthly ministry. She is at the beginning of his career and watches him die. She is the nurturing force when he is the Word made flesh, a shared parenthood with God, the father. What difference does this make for preaching this text in the season of Epiphany? Perhaps it might help us to remember Jesus in a manger in the midst of miracles. Perhaps it is a reminder that whenever Jesus reveals his divinity, he is simultaneously revealing something about his humanity. Perhaps, in the sign that it is water into wine, we might even experience something that we need to know about ourselves.
Isaiah 62:1-5 is part of that section of the book of Isaiah which is often termed “Third Isaiah” and placed historically in the postexilic period of Judah, although a more precise date within this period is difficult to determine.
Some scholars read Isaiah 66:1 to mean that construction of the second temple has begun, but this verse is no more than suggestive and might simply indicate that people are making plans to rebuild, not that the process is truly underway.
What is clear from reading Third Isaiah is that the effects of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem are still felt very keenly. The key symbols of Zion theology, the presence of temple and the continued reign of the Davidide king — along with the sense of safety provided by the walls of the city — provided physical as well as symbolic sources of security. Now, although their reconstruction may have started, the symbols are still in ruins. This is the reality with which the prophet is grappling in Isaiah 62: the loss of self-rule and the continued absence of physical and symbolic stability, which suggests that God is absent as well.
Significantly, the prophet’s response to this reality is not to provide a word from God to the people. The prophet’s words are on behalf of Zion and are directed, albeit implicitly, to God (verses 1-4, 5b) and the people (see verse 5a, in which the word translated “builder” actually reads “builders” or “sons” in the Hebrew, suggesting that the human inhabitants of Zion are in view here). The prophet in these five verses stands in stubborn solidarity with Zion, refusing to budge until she is vindicated. In wonderfully onomatopoetic and alliterative Hebrew, the prophet uses two verbs with the “sh” sound which are translated as “rest” and “be silent” by the NRSV. The prophet will not hush or be shushed until Zion is transformed into a beloved and beautiful reality once again.
Through the rich imagery of the poem, ruined Zion begins to live again as the prophet speaks of this sacred place/idea using feminine pronouns and then speaks directly to the sacred place using the second person, “you.” Zion takes on human form and personality through the prophet’s use of personification, a poetic device whereby an abstraction or a non-human object is given human qualities. By referring to Zion as “you” — “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name…” (62:2) — the prophet appeals to the imagination of the reader to see beyond the rubble to the powerful reality that a human figure represents.
The expression, “Where there’s breath, there’s hope,” certainly applies here. By giving Zion breath and personality, speaking as if she were a human being, the prophet suggests to the people that it is not yet time to give up on Zion. There is still reason to hope. She is not dead yet.
She is alone, however, and it is this state that the prophet intends to rectify, calling her “Forsaken” and “Desolate” in the first part of verse 4 but promising that these names will no longer be appropriate in the future. Her current isolation and abandonment will have an end. The prophet’s vision of the future is profoundly intimate, an appropriate antidote to her current existence. Forsaken no more, she will be called Hepzibah, “My Delight is in her,” the prophet writes, and the name underscores the delight and the deep connection between Zion and her God.
“Desolate” is changed to Beulah (“Married”), a name change that also signifies connection and love. I am reminded of the novel Silas Marner, by George Eliot, in which the reclusive Silas Marner takes in an abandoned girl-child and names her Hepzibah. The name proves to be prophetic in the novel, for both individuals are alone in the world at this point and both find joy and strength in their new family of two. Intimacy trumps despair. Alienation and abandonment are replaced by unity and joy.
I think that it is essential in preaching this text to communicate just how necessary it is for Christians to play the role the prophet plays here. The experience of divine abandonment is devastating both for communities and individuals. Just as Zion seemed a sacred place forsaken by the sacred presence, many human beings feel cut off from the love of God, cast off by the divine. In Isaiah 62:1, the prophet promises not to stop talking until Zion is filled with the presence of God once again. In the same way, Christians are called to be just as stubborn in their refusal to allow isolation and hopelessness to have the last word in people’s lives. The solution to darkness and despondency is connection and companionship, a willingness to love and to serve each other.
The creative power of human connection cannot be overstated just as the destructive power of isolation cannot be underestimated. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and dissident, who speaks out against the human rights abuses in his homeland. He was jailed in 2011 by the Chinese authorities and charged with tax evasion, a charge of which he was most certainly innocent. In response to the charge, a number of people sent money to help him pay the taxes the government said he owed.
Ai Weiwei wrote of these people, “There were thousand of moving messages. People sent money from their first month’s salary. Others said: This is my retirement payment — take it. This is the money for my next pair of shoes — take it. It was very important for me to see and hear those things. Normally you do not see the warmth, humor, care and generosity of the people while writing a blog. You just feel like you are walking in a dark tunnel and you feel alone.”1
Humor, warmth, care, and generosity are the antidotes to isolation and despair. They are the enemy of oppressive regimes and abusive relationships. They are the presence of God shining through Christians in the darkest places.
1Ai Weiwei, Weiwei-isms, edited by Larry Warsh (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 101.
Psalm 36 draws a sharp and startling contrast between existences that either incorporate or lack a conscious knowledge of the God of Israel.
In order to reap the revelatory rewards this contrast offers for the season of Epiphany, the preacher will need to go outside the bounds of the lectionary, which only includes the six central verses of the psalm. Indeed, commentators have struggled at times with the marked differences between verses five thru ten, and the verses that begin and end the psalm. Solutions have gone so far, albeit unnecessarily so, as to suggest that we have here a later conflation of two separate psalms. In any case, there is no compelling evidence to prevent us from reading the psalm as a unity.1
After the initial superscription, which is common to the psalter, the psalm proper begins to draw out the contrast to be revealed with the very first word. The Hebrew term (ne’um), translated by the NRSV as “speaks,” is a term that is almost always attached to the sacred name of God. For example, many of the prophets are fond of the phrase to indicate an “utterance” or “oracle” of the Lord.
Here, however, ne’um is not attached to the Holy Name, but instead to the term “transgression.” And this utterance of transgression speaks to the heart, to the very inner being, of the wicked. As a result, “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (verse 1, English). Without the ne’um of the Lord and the fear it inspires, there can be no knowledge of the Lord.2
The following verses of the psalm highlight the resulting marks of an existence void of the ne’um, fear, and knowledge of the Lord: self-flattery (verse 2), words of mischief and deceit (verse 3), and the plotting of mischief on paths that lack good (verse 4). The psalm will end with both a petition to God and a confession of trust that such a mode of existence will not be the kind which holds sway in the world.
The lectionary portion of this psalm, verses five through ten, supply the crucial pieces which are missing from and needed by the lives described in the surrounding verses. Knowing God means knowing of the Lord’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (verse 5), as well as “righteousness” and “judgments” (verse 6). These are the key attributes that direct God’s interactions with creation.
Furthermore, these are attributes of limitless abundance: extending “to the heavens” and “to the clouds” (verse 5) and comparable to “mighty mountains” and “the great deep” (verse 6). This abundance shows through in that the scope of salvation offered by God extends not only to humans, but even to animals (verse 6). God’s steadfast love is plentiful enough for “all people” to be able to find refuge (verse 7). The gifts of God are no mere appetizers or cocktails; instead, God offers a “feast” and drink as though from a “river” (verse 8). The abundance of God contrasts distinctly with the mere ne’um of transgression that began the psalm.
In contrast to those evildoers who “are thrust down, unable to rise” (verse 12), those who know the Lord know also that therein lies “the fountain of life” (verse 10). God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice do no less than give life to creation. We mean here not simply life in the biological, scientifically measurable sense, but life filled with meaning and light. It is no coincidence that verse 9 connects the ideas of life and light.
Having established the abundance out of which God acts, verse 10 comes across as a firm confession of trust. It is in God’s very nature to continue offering steadfast love and salvation to those who know of the one who gives these things. God’s faithfulness enables those who know him to have faith, even when confronted with the transgression which began the psalm.
And so at a time when our church calendar highlights Jesus being made known to the world, what does Psalm 36 have to offer? The world has plenty of empirical knowledge, more in fact than it can deal with and too much for its own good in some respects. Psalm 36 stands as a witness that knowledge is more than facts and figures. Those things that can best, or perhaps only, be known by the heart are those that give life, and such things come only from God.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a day when there would no longer be a need to say, “Know the Lord.”3 Until that day comes, Psalm 36 beckons we who know the Lord to show forth the steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice that God has first made known to us.
1Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 397.
2We should recall Proverbs 1:7a here: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
“Now concerning spiritual gifts.” With this formulaic transition, by now familiar to the hearers of this letter (see 7:1; 8:1), Paul now turns to address one more item in the list of issues that have been brought to his attention by the Corinthian congregation.
His remarks are both particular and in many ways pertinent to his response to other issues addressed in this letter. Since today’s lesson begins a series of sequential readings from 1 Corinthians in the next several Sundays, it will be helpful to review some of the central themes upon which the letter and this particular reading depend.
You are Not Lacking…
In his familiar opening of “thanksgiving” (1:4-9) Paul already states some general convictions of faith, which undergird his theological counsel. These convictions provide a crucial foundation for all that Paul has to say to those Christians at Corinth and to us Christians today who continue to wrestle with similar questions of how to orchestrate our lives in the midst of often difficult and conflicting choices of practice and personal relations.
At the center stands a confidence in the grace of God that has been given to all in Christ Jesus. This confidence is extended in the promise that God has called believers into this fellowship in the name of Jesus their Lord, and that God is faithful to his promise to hold and strengthen them until the day of Jesus Christ. The sign and seal of this faithfulness is the assurance of the Spirit’s active presence in their person and community and, no matter what their fears and particular evidences to the contrary, as ones called into this community they are not lacking in any gift that the Spirit has to offer.
In a this season of Epiphany, when we reflect on themes of revelation or manifestation, it will be important to hear again this reassuring confident conviction, that even in the midst of hidden signs or evidence to the contrary, because of the promise of God’s call and faithfulness we can rest assured that we already possess every gift that the Spirit has in store for us.
All Things are Lawful…
Other important themes accompany this central conviction. Believers have been given a new wisdom belonging to the proclamation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:18-2.5). Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, this community lives empowered by the Spirit even in its common confession that Jesus is Lord (12:3). The mark of this life in the Spirit is a mind-boggling reconciling freedom binding all of creation together: “All things are yours; you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God” (3:22-23).
The key to faithful exercise of such freedom, which places the whole world along with all of its uncertainties and associated risks at our fingertips, is to understand that the Christian life is thus always ambiguous. It calls us to live between difficult and often competing alternatives, while trusting the Spirit for guidance within community. The guiding principle, in the form of a Pauline mantra, is confidence that with the Spirit’s gifts comes the wisdom to understand and the ability to work for that which “builds up the community. “All things are lawful; but not all things are helpful” (6:12; 10:23). Consideration of these two verses together underscores that for Paul “what is beneficial,” “what builds up,” and living in the “freedom” of “all things being lawful” are mutually interdependent realities.
Some Key Implications
Paul’s counsel holds out key implications for the Christian life. We live confidently in the call and faithfulness of God’s promises in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit to bind communities together in love (see chapter 13). Yet we are never ripped out of the world or separate from it. Our actions always take shape in particular situations and experiences.
Fruitful choices need to be worked out through the use of reason in the midst of particular needs. They assume the capacity given by the Spirit to use freedom to make responsible choices. It is the same Spirit who works in everyone for the common good, but often with differing gifts and differing choices (12:7, 11). These background convictions are woven into the fabric of today’s reading and those that follow in the next several Sundays.
Concerning Spiritual Gifts
The translation “spiritual gifts” (12.1; Greek pneumatikoi) is potentially misleading. It might better be translated as “those gifts which the Spirit offers.” Used fifteen times in this letter, it testifies to the central importance of this theme in the letter as a whole. It is regularly used interchangeably with another word translated as “gifts” in verse 4 (charism; 1:7; 7:7 and 12:9, 28, 30, 31). In the opening “thanksgiving” Paul has assured the Corinthians they are not lacking in any “gift” that the Spirit has to offer (1:7). Now he turns to address those particular gifts that have apparently occasioned no little dissension in the community.
Jesus is Lord
When considering God’s gifts, Paul says, we always need to begin by getting one thing straight. The central “gift” of the Spirit is our common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. This confession, empowered by the event of the cross and resurrection, binds this community and all Christian communities together in a unity that overarches all our differences. It is a gift in which we all share by the word and promise of God.
Wisdom as Gift
Now Paul says, “I do not want you to be uninformed” (12:1) and “I want you to understand” (12:3). Wisdom, too, is a key gift of the Spirit. Paul earlier speaks of the mysterious wisdom of God that belongs to the event of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:18-2,5). Although Paul in this whole section is thus implying that wisdom is needed to resolve differences, several terms in particular call attention to important insights that belong to wisdom.
Unity in Trinity
In a particularly effective and carefully chosen three-part rhetorical refrain, Paul calls attention to the bond of diversity and unity that belongs to the gifts of the Spirit (12:4,5,6). Three times he speaks of the diversity of the “allotments.” Three times in the word “same” he calls attention to the unity of the giver in a telling Trinitarian formula: “same Spirit…same Lord (Jesus)…same God.”
Further, in a three-fold intentional progression, he calls attention first to the “gift,” then to the “service,” the purpose for which the gift is given, and finally to the “energy” or “active capacity” which enables the performance of that service. It is the power of the Trinity that enables “all things in every and all circumstances and in all persons” (the Greek is deliberately ambiguous, inclusive, and particular all at the same time). The importance of this conviction is underscored by the fact that its repetition in verse 11 frames this whole section. The Spirit’s gifts are diverse and particular (12:1, 11), but in each situation they are energized by the “one and the same” (note the emphasis) Spirit. All of this takes place “according to the Spirit’s will.” We are reminded that in the end the gifts, the ministry, and the empowering of the community for service all belong to God.