Jesus, particularly in the Fourth Gospel, would seem to have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to what we would call miracles but what John describes as “signs.”
That’s an important distinction, actually, between signs and miracles. And while it doesn’t totally resolve how to preach this passage, it at least gives us a place to start.
In John’s Gospel, a “sign” is something that is not simply miraculous but that reveals Jesus’ divine nature and mission to those who are open to seeing it. They are, in this sense, pointers to Jesus’ identity. Moreover, and as John indicates from the first verses of his gospel, Jesus himself functions as something of a sign. He is the Revealer, the Word who was with God from the beginning and is God (1:1-2), the Word made flesh (1:14) who makes the invisible God known (John 1:18).
Throughout his Gospel, John shares seven signs that Jesus performs, each revealing something significant about Jesus’ identity and mission. Early in the story, Jesus turns water into wine — and not just wine, but the best wine in vast quantities — revealing the profound abundance of God in Jesus, what is earlier described as “grace upon grace” (1:16). In this scene, Jesus heals the son of a “royal official,” revealing his opposition to those things that keep abundant life from the children of God and his ability to restore health and life.
But he often does so with a measure of ambivalence. The first time he is in Cana, where he produces the abundant wine for a wedding, Jesus is reluctant to offer a sign, and all but rebukes his mother, saying that this is not yet his “hour.” And now in Cana for the second time, Jesus at first ignores the official’s plea for the health of his son and instead seems to chastise the man for his need of signs.
So what’s going on? Why this peculiar, even confusing stance on signs?
It may be that Jesus is nervous about how we will interpret such signs. His chief mission is to reveal the heart of God, the God who “so loved the world” that God sent him in the first place (3:16). Will people get caught up in the “sign” and miss the “signifier” — that is, the thing to which the sign points? Or perhaps Jesus is frustrated that people look to his “miracles” instead of to him for signs of God’s favor. Or maybe he knows that the true sign will come only in his death and resurrection (what some call the eighth sign that caps and concludes the gospel).
This discussion might at first blush seem a bit distant from our everyday life, as there seems to be a paucity of miracles that might confuse us about God’s intentions. Yet keep in mind that the issue isn’t the miraculous but signs, signs that point to God’s presence in our lives. And, truth be told, I think we still often look for signs. Signs of whether or not to take a job, to enter into a relationship, to decide upon one college over another, to continue treatment or give in to the inevitability of a diagnosis, to keep faith with another or betray that relationship. At one point or another, we all look for signs, something that will help us to find the way, or at least the next step, forward.
The film The Silver Linings Playbook also revolves around signs. Pat Solitano, a young man with bi-polar disorder, is trying to rebuild his life after a disastrous outburst. He seeks out signs — what he calls silver linings — that his quest to live a positive life will succeed. His father is a rabid Philadelphia Eagles fan and is always trying not just to find a sign but actually to induce one in order to win the bets he has made on the games. While Pat seems pretty clear not just about the kind of signs he seeks but also the outcome he hopes they produce — a reunion with his estranged wife — he is not prepared for Tiffany Maxwell, a vulnerable young woman who also struggles with mental illness. Tiffany and her bold candor and open brokenness is definitely not the sign Pat is looking for. But in a climatic scene — in which Tiffany at one point repeats several times, “If it’s me reading the signs…” — Pat realizes that in Tiffany’s candor, brokenness, and love, he finds the sign and the person he needs. Not the one he’s looking for, but the one he needs.
I wonder if that’s what is at the heart of Jesus’ ambivalence with signs. In the end, his signs are most salutary when they point us to God’s love, God’s love revealed in the broken but triumphant figure of Jesus on the cross. A crucified Messiah was not the sign either his disciples or contemporaries were looking for, but it was the one they needed, as it demonstrated that God seeks us out not in our triumphs but our defeats, comes to us not in our places of achievement but regret, and abides with us not simply or even most palpably in times of light but also in those moments of deepest darkness.
This, in turn, may help us discover God’s presence in our life, as we recognize that God sent the chief sign of God’s love for God’s wayward world in the figure of a broken but triumphant man on the cross. So when we encounter events and persons in our life and wonder what they mean or hope to find from them guidance, we might ask the following:
Do they point us to God’s love, to the people that God loves, to the broken places in life that call out for love, and to the broken places in life in which God’s love for us and ours for each other is most clearly expressed?
Because in the scene today and throughout the Fourth Gospel, it would seem that at those moments when are drawn to love others as Jesus loved us, then — and perhaps only then — are we really “reading the signs” aright.
God of miracles,Sometimes we are slow to believe in your power, even when your miracles occur all around us each and every day. Open our eyes to see and our hearts to believe. Amen.
I’ve just come from the fountain (trad.) On my heart imprint your image ELW 811 Go, my children, with my blessing ELW 543
There is a balm, trad.