Signs and Wonder(ing)s

John 2
January 17, 2016
Steve Hammond

At the end of the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel we read this. 30-31 Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.”

Theologians and Biblical scholars have noted seven signs in particular that they claim John is referring to. As Professor Merrill Tenney wrote…The author [of John’s Gospel] states explicitly that the purpose of his writing is expressed through these signs and that he has selected seven from a much larger number known to him as the core of the discussion of Jesus’ words and works. They may be understood as the divine endorsement of His authority (2:18, 23), or as illustrations of the varied nature of His word (4:54; 20:30). Or

The first of the seven signs to make the list, Jesus turning the water into wine is, to me, by far the oddest. (The walking on water thing comes in second for me, but that’s another sermon). And Jesus walking on water, unlike the story of the wedding at Cana, makes it into the other gospels. Turning the water into wine is not only the first sign of John’s seven, but the first thing Jesus in John’s Gospel does in his public ministry.

We talk about signs and wonders, but for me this is more signs and wonderings. I just don’t get it. Turning water into wine seems to me more like what they used to call a parlor trick. Parlor tricks, though, are meant to delight and amuse the other folk in the parlor. But most of the people at the wedding didn’t notice what was going on. Rather than attributing this as something miraculous Jesus had done, they complemented the groom for holding the best wine to last. The only people other than Jesus and his mother who knew what actually happened were the newly called disciples and the slaves who were working the banquet. Though I guess the groom must have known that wherever this wine came from, he didn’t have anything to do with it.

What did the disciples and slaves see? This is where it gets really fascinating. Remember where Jesus got the water? The water came from the big stone pots the people used for the ritual washings of their hands. These cleansing rituals were central to the way folk practiced their religion. You didn’t want to be touched by someone whose hands had not been thoroughly washed according to the religious rituals. If that happened, you would be rendered unclean. You would have to leave the party and could not reenter polite company until you went through all the regulations to make yourself clean again.

Jesus asked for the water that was used to wash off all the dirt and debris and, ultimately, the grime of any unrighteousness those hands had been involved in, and turned that water into wine. It would be like filling the bathtub with water and deciding to turn it into wine after you took a bath. I can’t imagine what the reactions of the slaves must have been. How could they have kept straight faces as they watched folk drink this bathwater wine? If those folk had realized they were drinking wine that had come from the water in those pots, they would have gone running from that place. The whole ideas of those jars of water was to ensure their ritual cleanness. But all that dirt and grime and disgusting stuff, instead of being washed off of them, they drank it. And they thought it was great, the finest wine there was. The talk in the kitchen must have been really interesting. And I imagine it gave Jesus a bit of a chuckle.

Such an odd story, this first sign that John says reveals Jesus to us. And speaking of wonderings, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. Stay with me, though, because there is something else rather odd going on in this story, or more precisely right after this story that might help us make that connection.

In the other three gospels, that story of Jesus cleansing the Temple and driving out the money changers takes place right after what we now call Palm Sunday, at the end of his life and ministry. But in John’s story it comes right at the beginning of his ministry. After he does that there is, of course, a big conflict with the religious establishment where Jesus argues that God is doing something greater than what the Temple is all about, and it is focused on Jesus. Then we get this very near the end of the second chapter of John, not the last verse, but more on that later. “During the time he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him.”

So this thing of Jesus cleansing the Temple is called a sign in John’s Gospel, but it isn’t counted as one of The Signs that the theologians and Biblical scholars talk about. That was curious, so I thought I had better look a bit closer at things. Maybe it’s a different Greek word. No, it’s the same word. What do the commentators say? What I found in the New Interpreter’s Commentary was pretty much the consensus. “In 2:11, the miracle at Cana is called a sign, but the Evangelist also notes that Jesus manifested his glory in this sign. It is the manifestation of glory, not simply the sign itself, that leads to the disciples’ faith. In 2:23 there is no indication that the people see the glory to which Jesus’ signs point.”

Really? I think Martin Luther King, Jr. found plenty of glory in Jesus as Jesus confronted the religious and political powers that oppressed so many who were poor and outsiders. I have no trouble arguing that Martin Luther King, Jr. would even say that that kind of sign is much more important than turning water into wine and delivers a more important testimony to who Jesus is.

Martin Luther King, Jr. encountered lots of opposition from the church during his own life and ministry. And it just wasn’t white churches. There were plenty of Black churches, too, especially in the beginning, who thought he should be preaching more about Jesus turning water into wine than overturning the tables in the Temple. Just deal with the spiritual stuff the real signs of who Jesus is, not all the political stuff that’s just going to get everybody upset.

He couldn’t do that, though. Perhaps he was like the writer of John’s Gospel who saw lots of signs, so many they couldn’t all be written down. And when they allowed Rev. King to say that challenging racism and discrimination might be something we could learn from all those signs, they wanted him to stop there. That stuff about war and poverty was taking it too far. What did following Jesus have to do with any of that?

That’s the choice that’s always there for us. Let’s just notice the signs we are looking for or the ones that make us more comfortable. Some want all the miracles, water into wine stuff. Those are the real signs. Some just want the cleaning out the Temple and keep away from all that miracle stuff. But maybe that’s why John had both of these signs at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Every year I lament the way people have tended to erase the religious roots of Rev. King’s activism. They can’t see what his belief and trust in Jesus had to do with any of that. But it was core to him.

I mentioned that there was still another verse to look at in the second chapter of John’s gospel. Remember how we read about the people seeing the signs and entrusting themselves to Jesus. Here is what comes next. “But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.” Again, this is all so odd. You would think that Jesus was glad to have all these followers. It seems like this story should have a more upbeat ending. There are all these signs that are pointing out that Jesus has come to us from God. People are seeing those signs and trusting their lives to him. Jesus, though, is real skeptical.

If you look at the history of the church maybe that skepticism is well placed. But maybe it is as simple as Jesus is also looking for signs. We can say all we want about how much we love Jesus, but is it all water into wine stuff? But I think there were some pretty good signs from Martin Luther King, Jr. that there are folk who do get what Jesus is about.

Today’s story was from the Lectionary. It isn’t, obviously, a story that you quickly relate to Rev. King. But, hopefully, I’ve at least gotten us thinking about the story and Dr. King. Another Lectionary passage for this week is from 1 Corinthians 12. We aren’t going to read that today, but it’s all about the different gifts we bring to what the Apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ. What he means by that is how the church makes Jesus known in this world, how we become the feet, the hands, the heart, the presence of Jesus in our world. That letter from a Birmingham jail to the church leaders in Birmingham was Rev. King’s plea for the church to be the body of Christ. He was looking for signs that were pretty hard to find. And it seems to me that since we are the Body of Christ, that there need to be signs from us. Signs that point to the power of God at work in us. Signs that are more than parlor tricks, but signs that reveal the glory of Jesus Christ. More signs than anybody could ever write about.

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