01/16/22 – Signs of the Kingdom

SIGNS OF THE KINGDOM

January 16, 2022
Epiphany 2C
Isa. 62:1-5; Ps. 36:5-10; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Today, we hear the third great revelation of Christ coming into the world, which marks the season of Epiphany. We started with the story of the Magi traveling to worship the baby in Bethlehem found only in Matthew’s gospel, then Jesus’ baptism after which God claimed him as the Beloved Son, found in all four of the gospels. In the final story before Jesus begins his ministry, we have The Wedding at Cana, only found in John’s gospel.  In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus begins his ministry, after his baptism, with a healing miracle, which serves as a sign that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Though running out of wine at a wedding feast may not seem like a great affliction, it has the potential effect of creating chaos and dishonor in the community.

Whereas Jesus scoffs at the crowds begging for signs as proof of his identity in the synoptic gospels, in John’s gospel, he boldly announces his actions assigns. While Jesus gradually becomes aware of the magnitude of his identity and purpose in the synoptic gospels, in John, he is not shy in his declarations of divinity: “I am the Light of the World, I am the bread of life, I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” In the synoptic gospels, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God, in John he is God. Jesus is present at the beginning of Creation. John begins: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was at the beginning with God. (John 1:1-2) John was the last canonical gospel written and, thus, the furthest from the life of the historical Jesus. This gospel is more poetic and theological than the synoptic gospels; also, more metaphorical. Biblical scholars have called John’s Jesus the Cosmic Jesus. In John, Jesus is more miraculous and mystical than in the synoptic gospels. In the Wedding at Cana, John presents a multi-layered story of Jesus operating in everyday life, while placing the event in a wider eschatological perspective.

The story of the Wedding at Cana follows the Old Testament’s portrayal of God’s relationship with Israel as a marriage. Heaven is visualized as a wedding banquet. The abundance of wine was a symbol of the joy that would come when the Messiah arrived and all was finally being made well. The prophets Amos, Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah all used the image of abundant wine to symbolize the time of messianic joy when the people of Israel would know God’s healing of the world had begun.

Weddings were important events in first-century Judea, particularly, among the peasantry. In those days, long celebrations brought brief relief to their hardscrabble lives, consumed with day-to-day survival. For just a few days, they lived in abundance and joy. For the family hosting the event, the quality and quantity of the food and wine were a measure of honor bestowed upon them and their generosity in sharing with their guests was a sign of good character.  Due to a shortage of safe drinking water, wine was important to the health and well-being of the populace.

It was Jesus’ mother, Mary, that noticed the host’s supply of wine was running out. This is the critical first step in helping others and restoring justice and equity in society. The “have’s” must become aware of what the “have-nots” do not have. The next critical step is having empathy. This year, the Luke year in our three-year lectionary cycle, we will be hearing a lot about empathy and justice, most notably in the many parables in Luke’s gospel. Referencing the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we will honor with a national holiday tomorrow, observed:

“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked
 was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’
But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do
not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’
(Excerpt from Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
Sermon at Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ, Apr. 3,
1968 in Memphis, TN)

This insight requires empathy.

Readers have long rushed to the interpretation that Jesus is showing a lack of empathy by responding to his mother’s observation of the diminishing wine supply with the seemingly careless words: “What does this have to do with you and me.” It is important to take the sentence that follows into consideration in interpreting the preceding one. Jesus adds: “Now is not my time.” Jesus was not criticizing Mary, he was informing her that he was hesitant to perform a miracle unless he was sure he was operating on God’s timeline. To perform such a miracle, he would be announcing his true identity to the world. For this reason, he tried to perform the miracle without the entire wedding party knowing what he had done. Jesus was operating on a “need to know” basis.

It is significant that, other than his mother, only the menial servants were “in the know.” Not the hosts. Not the honored guests. Not even the chief steward. Only the lowly servants, who he asked to bring him the enormous stone jars and fill them with water, we’re privy to Jesus’ first miracle. God’s preferential concern for the least of these in society was demonstrated in Jesus’ first public display of divine power. This is how John chose to introduce Jesus in his gospel.

John has provided us with a picture of the fullness of life with a storied metaphor of a feast of fine food and drink. The preponderance of Biblical scholarship has concluded that the story of the Wedding in Cana is more metaphorical rather than literal.  It is not by coincidence that John begins this story with the words: “On the third day.” Christ’s resurrection has brought us the gift of the fullness and abundance of a life lived with and for God. It is not a coincidence that the massive jars of water were the vessels used for the temple purification rites and that there are six jars as there were six days of creation before God’s Sabbath rest. The wine was not just incredibly abundant – 120-180 gallons of it – it was also of the best quality.

The critical message John sends is that Jesus is the living water and the wine of salvation that never runs dry. This is as much good news for us who do not live in the crushing poverty and oppression of first-century Jews in the Roman Empire as for those who did. It is good news for those in the contemporary American Empire who live paycheck to paycheck, who cannot live on their paycheck, or do not have a paycheck. We may not be able to perform miracles of creating abundance, but we can, like Mary, see who is in need and seek a solution that is within our power. The miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes to feed 5000, started with people sharing what they had.

It is fitting that the day before we recognize the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we hear from an ancient biblical prophet, Isaiah, the words God put into his mouth:

“I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not
rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her
salvation like a burning torch.” (Isa. 62:1)

God made a promise to the exiles returning to the land from which they were taken that the city they found devastated by destruction and plunder will be restored to its former glory. God also promised the people who were left behind, deemed to have so little value they were not a threat to the conquerors, that they would also see the salvation of God’s favor by being lifted up from their impoverished and powerless state. God promised restorative justice and the fullness of life for all.

What is restorative justice? This is justice that has nothing to do with punishing the perpetrators of wrongdoing. It is about lifting up people who have suffered and bringing them to the fullness of life. Restorative justice brings healing and fullness of life to both the offender and the victim because God loves them both. The offenders are led to repentance and transformed. Martin Luther King wanted nothing to do with punishing those who treated people of color unfairly, nor did he want to tear down the government and society that oppressed people of color. Following the warnings of the ancient Hebrew prophets and the ways of Christ, he sought restorative justice and fullness of life for all people. The good news of this passage from Isaiah is that God is powerful enough to reverse the peoples’ fortunes and loves them so much that God promises them it will be done. Martin Luther King proclaimed in a repeated sermon:

“The God whom we worship is not weak and incompetent
God. He is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition
and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. The ringing
testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.”

Today’s passage in Isaiah is preceded by lament and is followed by lament. This is the reality of life. Restoring justice in a society is a long, hard battle with skirmishes that are won and lost before the final victory. More than 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it is very apparent there is still much work to be done for this country to become a land of justice and opportunity for all. The privileged continue to fight against the underprivileged with active greed and malice and with inactive silence and intentional ignorance. The privileged exploit the human fear of scarcity denying God’s promise of abundance for all.

The psalmist paints a glorious poetic picture of the fullness of life God intends for his beloved children:

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people
may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.8They feast on
the abundance of your house, and you give them drink
from the river of your delights.9For with you is the fountain
of life; in your light we see light.” (Ps.36:7-9)

 

Our trust in God is demonstrated in our hope. Once we give up hope that the world will never be a better place, we cease to walk with God in the world and to dream the dreams God has placed in our hearts. Martin Luther King urged this nation to continue that dream:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically
bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that
the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never
become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and
unconditional love will have the final word.” – from Martin
Luther King’s Acceptance Speech, for the Nobel Peace Prize,
Dec. 10, 1964

 

His trust in God led to his conviction that: “The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.” (from “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” his speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.)

May we be like the earthen vessels filled with good wine from the fruits of Jesus who is the vine. May we, in turn, fill others with the quality and abundance of life God intends for all.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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