Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Signs (1): Saved the Best Till Now

John 2:1-12

There is so much in this passage. There is a wedding feast, a crisis for the caterer, and a miracle – or “sign”. There is happiness and celebration and party – and Jesus, contrary to popular perception, really seems to like a good party. And, in theological themes, there is epiphany, crucifixion, Holy Communion, glorification, new creation, prayer, invitation, and more.

Some notes:
Epiphany, verse 11, “He thus revealed his glory”. “Revealed” = Epiphany.

Hour: Three times in the gospel we are told that Jesus hour “has not yet come” (2:4, 7:30, 8:20). When it does come, Jesus defines it for us as the hour in which a seed falls into the ground and dies (12:23f) and as his glorification (17:1), the time when he will be “lifted up” (3:14).

Wedding: What hour is Jesus waiting for? He is waiting for his own wedding! He is preparing to take his own Bride. John the Baptizer speaks of him in the very next chapter, in 3:29-30, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”

Wine: In John’s gospel, Jesus drinks wine only twice: Here at this wedding and – when he is thirsty – upon the cross (John 19:29-30). In our wedding vows, we promise ourselves to each other “until we are parted by death”. In Jesus’ wedding, it was his death that unites him to his Bride, to us, his Bride, his Beloved.

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday on which we talk about Jesus’ transfiguration, when his physical appearance manifested his glory. And, there are transfigurations in this story. Jesus is transformed – from wedding guest to host, a transformation that involves issues of authority. Water is transformed into wine, a transformation that involves our humanity – from empty to full, from scarcity to plenty, from panic to joy.

But, our focus in our exploration of John’s gospel now through Easter is the series of SIGNS. The word for “sign” here, semeia, is a word which means, plainly, what distinguishes someone or something, as a mark, token, or signature. The old expression: “This has her name written all over it” captures this sense of “sign”. We could talk about Kareem’s “signature”, the “sky hook”. You see a player today score on a sky hook, which is not a common thing, and you think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is in the house. In John’s gospel, the signs Jesus performed were not simply signs to announce his presence. There are seven signs, like the seven days of the week, like the seven days of the first creation. Only, these signs are signs of God’s new creation bursting into a broken world. (See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.) (John’s gospel opens with allusions to the Genesis creation account. It starts with the same phrase, “In the beginning”. And, it moves quickly to light: “Let there be light” in Genesis and “In him was life, and that life was the light of humanity” in John.) So, these seven signs actually work up to Holy Week and the final sign, the first day of a new creation week: Resurrection.

In John’s gospel, these signs, like a great wine, get better with time. The last one, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is way more amazing than turning water into wine. And, Jesus’ resurrection is better still. But that doesn’t end the story. Resurrection Day was the first day of the week, and the first day of the new creation. The subsequent works will be greater, Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:12-14).

I believe that is one dimension, when reading in the context of the entire gospel, of what is meant by this wonderful expression in our story: “You have saved the best till NOW” (2:10). When Jesus makes wine, he does his best. When Jesus re-makes us in new creation, when Jesus renews in us the image of God, Jesus does it to bring out the best in us.

Genesis: “And the LORD said, ‘It is good.’” Over us, in new creation, God says, “It is best.”

Sometimes, those we love bring out the worst in us. At times, that’s because we let down our hair, blow off the steam of the day, around our families. Other times, we may not love well or choose our loves well, and we find ourselves at our worst around those we love. But not with Jesus. Jesus brings out the best.

One of the peculiar aspects of this story is the interaction between Jesus and his mother. It feels so familiar. “They have no more wine.” “Your room is a mess.” That’s parent speak for “clean your room”. It is not meant as a hint; it is a way to be more polite than simply to issue a command. But because it is not a command and because children don’t always receive that more subtle message, we may hear, “I’m gaming” “I’m tired” “I’m busy” . . . “My hour has not yet come.” Now, we know there is more than the typical mother-son conversation going on here . . . but this does feel very familiar.

Aside from the familiarity of family dynamics, this has a lot of similarity to our prayer lives. Sometimes, our prayers simply list what’s wrong with a polite hint to God to do something about it. And, we assume that Jesus should show up magically to solve the problem. It’s like the wonderful new State Farm ads. Something has gone wrong – a parking lot accident for example – and a person sings out, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”. Just like that, their agent shows up. And, in addition to solving the problem, they get a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a hot tub, the girl from next door, Bob Barker . . . .
But Jesus resists that insurance agent role. He does nothing in the story until mom puts everything at his disposal: “Do whatever he tells you.” To paraphrase the words of JFK, ask not what Jesus can do for you but what you can do for Jesus.

This year, as we approach Lent, we are going to be asking just this question. In addition to the traditional question: “What will I give up for Jesus?” we will ask “How can I serve Jesus?” If we are to do greater signs than he, if we are to manifest his new creation in our own community, if we are to stamp his signature on our world, then we need to make that a big part of our prayer. But, no worries: He’s saved the best till now.

Once prayer changes from My Need to serving Jesus, incredible transformations occur. What is empty is filled. What is lacking is supplied. Those who panic find joy. Water is turned into wine.

Story: Willie, in Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle, pp 22-24

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