Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 17, 2016
John 2:1-11 Commentary
Apparently we are going to have to revise our definition of “glory.” Sometimes things happen in life that make us update long-held notions and definitions. It reminds me of the scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind in which the socially inept genius mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) haltingly proposes to his girlfriend by saying “Does our relationship warrant long-term commitment?” In response his wife-to-be says “Just give me a moment to revise my girlhood notions of romance.”
Something like that happens in John 2 about glory. We need some revision to what we thought that concept was all about.
We typically think that “glory” is the bright shining presence of God, the white-hot holiness of the divine that is so stunning, even Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of a rock to keep it from frying him to a crisp. We think that “glory” is the power of God that is so raw and so real, the priests who once entered the Holy of Holies did so at great peril (and if anyone else tried casually to enter that place where the glory of God dwelled, they would surely die).
Even on a human level, when we talk about “glory,” we generally mean things that are dramatic, that raise someone up to such a pinnacle of splendor as to elicit the adoration of everyone else. In Hebrew kabod is “glory” and it means something with gravity, something heavy, something weighty in the sense of being momentous. In Greek doxa is “glory” and there’s a reason that this Greek word has passed on to form the first part of our word “doxology” because when we are in a doxological mood—singing our praises at the top of our lungs perhaps—it is likely because we have been exposed to something stunning, something spectacular, something loaded with heavenly portent and power.
Glory is big. Glory is bright. Glory is loud. Glory is a multisensory extravaganza that you will not miss if you are anywhere in glory’s neighborhood when it happens.
But John 2:11 tells us that when Jesus quietly transformed water into wine in an effort to do no more than solve a social mishap that helped a family save face in front of their friends, this was somehow Jesus’ first revelation of no less than his glory. Indeed, this glorious manifestation was sufficient as to cause the disciples to put their faith into Jesus.
Glory in wine? Glory in providing wine to folks who’d already had a few too many?
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to see what is so glorious here. Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the situation. Suppose you were looking down on this wedding banquet from some great height. Would you see anything “glorious”? You could watch the goings-on below you at this wedding feast from start to finish and never once would you see any bright shining lights, any flashes of visible power, any hint of divine presence, or anything else that caused people to fall back in wonder.
So where was the “glory” of it all? Well, it was right there, as it turns out, in the quiet man who hesitated intervening initially and who, once he did intervene, did so very subtly. There is no evidence that the wider crowd at this wedding reception ever knew what had happened. Only Mary and the disciples—and the servants who had done Jesus’ bidding—realized what had happened. (Isn’t it curious to ponder how many of Jesus’ miracles happened within earshot of people who never knew anything unusual had happened?!)
Yet it was a glory revelation. It was enough to generate faith in the hearts of the disciples. Somehow they discerned Jesus to be the Messiah, the one who would bring abundance where there had once been only scarcity. Somehow they saw in this quiet miracle in Cana an echo of all those soaring prophecies from Isaiah about how when the kingdom fully comes, all the good things we enjoy would flow freely and in never-ending abundance. When needs are met—even needs as commonplace as the one in Cana that day—somehow joy follows and that joy is related to the glory of God.
Iranaeus once said that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” God desires us to flourish, to enjoy and take delight in his creation even as God did at the dawn of time (and you can spy that divine exuberance in Genesis 1). God’s heart breaks over the spectacle of poverty. God’s heart breaks when people in his abundant creation experience want. Granted, running out of wine for wedding guests who may well have had their fair share to drink already may not seem like the kind of dire want or need that would break God’s heart—and perhaps it wasn’t—but John may be using this as an emblem, a shadow, of the real thing. But the point remains the same: where God’s Messiah is, abundance follows.
Jesus, after all, did not make a case of wine but hundreds of gallons. He did not make a cheap or watery wine but a vintage better than most had ever tasted. This entire story smacks of being “over the top” in so very many senses. There is an extravagance here, almost an element of luxury, that seems to burst the narrow confines of the event at hand. It’s as though someone asked for a bottle of water and Jesus gave him Lake Michigan. It’s as though someone asked for $50 to buy her child a toy and Jesus gave her the entire Toys-R-Us warehouse. At such a small event, Jesus’ actions seem outsized.
Yet the disciples saw the glory. It was the glory of God providing more than is requested, more than can be imagined. It was the glory of God giving access—if even for just a little while—to the abundant fullness with which God endowed this creation in the beginning.
Yes, we may have to revise our definition of “glory” if John 2 is a revelation of it.
But maybe, just maybe, that will mean we’ll see divine glory a lot more often in our lives than we might otherwise think. When the hungry in our cities are fed, when the homeless are housed, when children without decent shoes get nice new sneakers from a local clothing ministry, when the despairing are comforted by a word of hope, when the sad can dry their tears with the gospel comfort of the resurrection to come: when we see these things happening in our churches and in our communities and in our families, then we are seeing the glory of God as God continues to guide us back to that for which he created us and this whole cosmos to begin with.
This text is appointed in the Lectionary Year C for the time of Epiphany. We’re in between the big spectacle of Christmas and the big spectacle of Easter. We’re in that time of the church year when we look at Jesus’ ministry, at all the stuff Jesus said and did that somehow never warranted so much as a shout-out in the great creeds (that pivot from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” as though not much of consequence happened in between). But the “glory” we read of in John 2 reminds us that for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is a lot of glory to behold between Bethlehem’s birth and Easter’s resurrection.
And as just noted, just maybe that reminds us that there is plenty of glory to see in our everyday worlds, too.
“On the third day . . .” That is how John 2 opens but as people have been asking for centuries, so I ask, “On the third day of what?” Up until now John has not narrated any stories for us as being on “Day 1” or on “Day 2” and so we’re not thinking along those lines. In fact, the only temporal markers John has had up to this point is a series of lines that talk about “The next day” (cf. John 1:29, John 1:35, John 1:43). But then there must be a pause between the “next day” of 1:43 when Jesus calls Philip (who then fetches Nathanael) and the wedding in Cana because Jesus and the disciples had to journey from the area around Jerusalem, where John had been baptizing, all the way up to Galilee in the north. So we’re not sure if “the third day” of John 2:1 indicates a time span that included that 80-mile walk or if this was the third day since they had arrived in Galilee.
Given all of that confusion, it’s no wonder that quite a few scholars across the years have concluded that “the third day” is code in John for a kind of resurrection scene. The three-day span in the Bible has always been significant with the third day in the sequence comprising a kind of climax. Certainly all of us who now regularly intone the phrase “On the third day he rose again from the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed cannot fail to hear resurrection echoes whenever we hear “the third day,” and so in John 2:1 we are perhaps being tipped off that the significance of what is about to happen goes beyond the mundane details of the story at hand. Something Messianic is up.
A friend of mine is one of the best chefs in the United States (and has been so acclaimed by people who know what they are talking about). The celebrity chefs on Food Network notwithstanding, most chefs tend to be introverts. My friend, too, is certainly a rather shy and retiring person. He’d rather stay in the background than be centerstage with a spotlight shining on him. But like most chefs, the one thing that brings my friend joy is seeing others enjoy his food. More than once when eating in his restaurant, I have seen him standing in the shadows near the kitchen, watching people delight in his culinary creations, and beaming in happiness at seeing the diners’ enjoyment. Most will never shake hands with my friend. Most will never bother to seek him out to say “Thank You” or send a letter of appreciation to the restaurant at some later point. Nor does my friend stroll through the dining room tacitly and subtly soliciting praise. He’s mostly content to look upon people’s delight from afar.
I wonder if God is not accustomed to this as well. At Cana, Jesus watched people enjoy an outstanding wine whose origin most people never learned (and maybe would not have believed even had they been told). And if people did not thank him, it was nothing new. As Augustine first observed—and as C.S. Lewis later enjoyed pondering—what Jesus did at Cana (as in many of his miracles) was really no more than a speeded-up version of what he does every year on a thousand hillsides as vines silently turn water from rainfall into wine. Millions of people enjoy that wine every year without for a moment recognizing the divine origin of it all. It’s a reminder that we serve a God whose effusive overflow of providential gifts knows no bounds. It’s a reminder that God is also often content to watch people—sometimes even Christian people who should know better—from afar as they soak up the goodness of his creative work.
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