Sunday, January 9, 2022

Phil Kniss: Nonsense and Glory

Glory Revealed: Wedding at Cana
John: The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 2:1-11; 2 Corinthians 3:7-8, 18 and Isaiah 60:1-2, 19

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Usually . . . my sermons try to make sense of a text.
But what do I do when I start with a text that makes no sense?
No logic. No rationality.
Let me just say it. Today’s story is non-sense.
In a good way, I think.
At least, I hope I can convince you of that.

This miracle at Cana defies logic.
And I don’t mean the actual miracle of turning water into wine.
That’s the least of my worries.

How does this strange miracle tale begin to fit with Jesus’ mission?
We know from every Gospel
that his mission is to proclaim God’s Kingdom,
a kingdom of raising ethical standards,
turning the other cheek,
loving enemies,
going the second mile
healing people,
overcoming evil and oppression,
welcoming the outcast,
touching lepers,
and yes, raising the dead.

So one would think . . . that for Jesus’ first miracle,
the first public exercise of his power to usher in God’s kingdom,
that he might do something more . . . well . . . useful,
than turning water into wine.

Not to be anti-wine, but
no one at this wedding, as far as we know, was healed by Jesus.
No one had their sins forgiven.
No one was cured of blindness.
No one was given words of wisdom about the kingdom.
. . . But they did get plenty of wine.

And adding to the non-sense,
why was Jesus’ mother so worried about the wine shortage,
that she felt responsible, as a guest, to fix it,
and pressure Jesus into playing his God card?
Maybe she thought Jesus’ Messiah clock was ticking, at age 30,
and he should move out of the house and start getting to work?
Like some other 30-year-old sons,
Jesus did not receive his mother’s advice very well.
He got a little . . . attitude . . . in verse 4, and I paraphrase,
“Mom! It’s not your business!
It’s not mine, either.  Let’s just stay out of it.”

So Mary stepped right into the Jewish mother stereotype,
ignored Jesus, went to the servants and said,
“Okay! I got it all worked out. Jesus will take care of everything!
Just do whatever he tells you.”
And Jesus caved.
Is this Gospel story? Or is it comedy? a nonsense narrative?

And then, the miracle itself is almost cartoonish.
Six 30-gallon jars?
I mean . . . sure this was a big party and all.
But Jesus made, out of water, nearly 180 gallons of wine!
This was after everyone already drank
all the wine the wedding planners
anticipated they would drink.
180 more gallons of not ordinary wine, but fine wine.
I’m with the steward here.
The wine steward objected to the groom when he tasted the wine.
“Why now? Everyone’s already tipsy.
They can’t appreciate this!”

So what’s the point here, Jesus? Why this miracle?

I’m not the first person to wonder this.
I’m in good company.
In 400 A.D. St. Augustine wondered about it.
Of course, he came up with an answer that made sense to him.
The six water jars signified the six ages.
from Adam to Noah,
Noah to Abraham,
Abraham to David,
David to the Exile,
the Exile to John the Baptist,
and finally, from John the Baptist to the present age.
A perfect six!
Augustine further explained that
each age was an empty vessel until it was fulfilled in Christ.
Augustine even took several pages to explain
that the capacity of the jars—30 gallons—
signified the Holy Trinity . . . okay!

Others have also tried to make sense of it,
like, leaving the best wine till last
means the real rewards of life come
only after Christ has transformed us.
I don’t know . . .
That’s cute and all . . . but I’m not buying it.

This is a story about Jesus and what he did in real life.
Nothing wrong with finding symbolism there.
If you like it, go for it.

But I want to know why John put this story in his narrative.
Well, John tells us why.
The Gospel writer says in v.11, and I quote,
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,
and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Ah, okay . . .

A little aside here.
See, John explains near the end of the Gospel,
that the reason for writing the whole book
is “that you might believe
that Jesus is the Son of God,
and believing, have life in his name.”

Belief, for John, does not mean agreeing with
a rational proposition about Jesus.
No, John means “belief” in one’s gut.
John wants us to be “wowed” by Jesus,
to be taken by, be seized by the truth
of Jesus’ union with God,
so that, being seized by this beautiful truth,
it takes over our own lives,
and we end up living the life we were meant to live.
The goal is not completing a checklist of doctrines.
The goal is full life!

John says, in a hundred different ways in this book,
that the God who created you with a word,
the Logos who spoke the world into being,
who filled your lungs with breath,
and your heart with rhythm,
that is the very same God you meet in Jesus.

So we can expect every well-told story in this book
to point in that direction,
to seize you with wonder and awe and trust in Jesus,
who is God in the flesh.

So . . . going back to this story, does it work?
The story is not supposed to “make sense.”
When we are told a story that “makes sense,”
we might nod our head, or quietly say, “ah...yeah.”

Stories that “make sense” help us understand things.
This is not that kind of story.
It’s not meant to “make sense.”
It’s meant to seize us, to get us in our gut,
to motivate us to put our trust in Jesus.

These stories early in the book?
John calls them “signs”—signs!
A sign is not main thing. It points to the main thing.

The glory of God, that shows up in Jesus,
through a miracle at a poorly managed wedding in Cana,
does to us what it did to the wedding guests.
Like nearly all of Jesus’ miracles,
it catches us off guard,
throws us off balance.
shows us there is something bigger going on,
than what we can see in front of our faces.

Miracles were signs pointing to a bigger thing.
It wasn’t Jesus’ intent to heal every sick person in the Middle East,
or wipe out leprosy or poverty or blindness,
or argue his case so well, that everyone became a disciple.
No, Jesus was sent to be a sign of God’s reign.
A foretaste of the kingdom.
A witness to what God was doing in the cosmos.

And the best way to do that,
was catch people’s attention
somewhere other than in their gray matter,
on the left side of their brain.
The Gospel is not entirely rational.
We need to be willing to be seized by the Gospel.
To open up our defenses,
to let ourselves be knocked off our feet by God’s glory.

Glory is what moves us.
Glory and good sense both have a place.
But if we want movement, and motivation,
all-out commitment, and risk-taking sacrifice,
I’ll put my money on “glorious,” more than “sensible.”

Why do we all get a little giddy at the sight of new-fallen snow?
or run to the porch every time a rainbow appears?
or hike up a mountain to the same overlook,
sometimes week after week, year after year?

No, not because we’ve finally figured out
how snowflakes form in the atmosphere and stick to branches,
how sun rays gets bent by water droplets and separate into colors,
or how the layout of the valley can be plotted on a map.

We do those things because they put us in touch with Glory!
Glory grabs us by the heart, and moves us!
We can’t help but smile at the snowscape,
run to see the rainbow,
and pound our body into submission to make it to the peak,
because the reward is, simply . . . glorious.

This story in John 2 ends by saying what the miracle did.
It “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
A few had already begun to follow Jesus around,
with curiosity, with an open mind,
hoping Jesus might fulfill their expectations of a Messiah.

But this miracle at the wedding threw them off balance.
This irrational, unexplainable, superfluous, and extravagant
demonstration of the power of God,
hit them like . . . well, like 180 gallons of wine.
God was doing something beyond their ability to imagine.
It called their assumptions into question.
And at the same time, it made them say to Jesus, “We’re in!”

That’s what God’s glory will do to us when it shows up.
It knocks us off balance.
It makes us take notice.
It makes us believe something
we previously wouldn’t have dared to believe.

Maybe some nonsense, like we find in this story,
is how we get to see glory,
how we sit up and take notice,
how we realize that the world as it is,
is not necessarily the world as it can be
when we throw our lot in with Jesus.

With Jesus, we need not settle for “the way things are.”
We need not look around and say “This must be as good as it gets.”

This gospel story is good news for everyone in this world
for whom the wine has run out, so to speak.
It’s good news for anyone suffering from “the way things are.”
Those grieving loss of loved ones.
Those hanging on to the edge of exhaustion.
Those who feel alone in the world.
Those who believe their fate is sealed and nothing will change.
Those afraid to walk away from an abusive relationship.
You name the way your wine has run out.

Here in John 2, we meet, in Jesus, the God of Glory,
the God who does the unexpectedly beautiful thing.

Mother Mary was not expecting what Jesus actually did.
I suspect Mary wanted Jesus to do a “little something”
to help the host save face,
to make things stretch till the party winded down.
A little extra cheap wine in the vats would have been perfect.

What happened instead was a bit of non-sense,
over-the-top, extravagant, excessive, beautiful, and glorious.
It caused the first disciples
to move from the curious to the committed.
May God’s glory today, wherever it shows up,
do the same for us.

—Phil Kniss, January 9, 2022

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