January 20, 2013

The first of his signs

Passage: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

Alexander Tsiaras is an artist and technologist; his work on the development of scientific visualization software has enabled fascinating insights into the human body.  I invite you to look at a portion of a talk he gave through the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) network.

I note that Tsiaras wonders at how to account for the marvels he sees; mystery, magic, divinity, are monikers he uses to speak of marvels for which he cannot account.  He said:  “The magic of the mechanisms inside each genetic structure saying exactly where that nerve cell should go — the complexity of these mathematical models is beyond human comprehension.”

Last June (2012) The Globe and Mail published an article by writer Judy McFarlane; the title caught my eye, “It’s a big life after all.”  The article began by recounting a phone call from her daughter Kathleen.  McFarlane writes: “You remember – ,” she names the man who runs her university theatre studio, a man who’s been absent with AIDS most of the year. “He came in tonight. To say goodbye.”  For the past year, Kathleen’s been afraid he would die. “He talked for almost two hours. We all sat there, just listening.”  She pauses.

“What’d he say?”  “He told us, ‘It’s a big life. It might not be long, but it’s big.”

McFarlane went on to write of how on the night of her own graduation from high school many years before seven of her graduating class were killed in a car accident.  The incident left its mark on her; the world seemed a small and mean place.  The word “graduation” would fill her with fear and anxiety.  She concluded by saying that she did concur with the man from her daughter’s university studio.  “Yes, it is a big life. Even if you’re catapulted into a grown-up terror the very night you graduate. It’s as big as you want to make it. Don’t let anything make it small.”

Both Tsiaras and McFarlane witness that there is something marvelous about life, albeit from different perspectives.  Whether from the perspective of opening up new vistas on the marvels of the human body or from the perspective of having to face the crush of human tragedy; there is something about the greatness of life that both shouts to us in the marvels and whispers to us over the tragic.  It is life’s preciousness that makes the marvelous a marvel and, at the same time, makes the tragic, tragic.

1. “In your light we see light”, prayed the Psalmist in praise of God (Psalm 36:9).  “I am the light of the world”, said Jesus.  The Apostle John said of our Lord: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  In your light—Jesus—we see light; this is the witness of the entire New Testament.  We come today to a wedding with Jesus where he turns water into wine.  What do we see?  John notes, “11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Do you find it surprising that the glory of God and the making of wine are linked in this story?  (We must carefully note that such connection is not licence for over-indulgence).  John calls this turning of water into wine a sign, a sign that reveals his glory.  It was customary for first century Israel that your invitation to a wedding would mean that you made some contribution to the festivities.  Jesus’ disciples who came with him would be viewed as Jesus’ “family” for whose contribution to the feast Jesus would be responsible.  It is the natural assumption that this motivated Mary to draw Jesus’ attention to the lack of wine.

The story indicates that Jesus contributed wine whose excellence was matched by its abundance.  “In your light we see light”, what do we see?

I wonder if we perceive the marvel the disciples and the servants witnessed that day.  In one sense this miracle of water into wine occurs again and again as water sustains the life of all manner of things for which God is rarely given credit—like grapes vines.  Who gives the grape its life and water its life giving force?  What are the mechanisms inside the genetic structure of each grape vine that receives the water telling it exactly what to do with it so that the grape cell grows— “the complexity of these mathematical models is beyond human comprehension.” Oh, the wine maker or the chef gets the notice, the accolades, and the money—but how are we to account for the life-giving force for which the complex structures of the grape vine are precisely designed/tuned to promote its growth.

Nothing that has life in it (plants) has its life apart from the hand of our Lord sustaining it, says the gospel of John.  No human finds their bodily life sustained and strengthened in and through the ingestion of food and drink save for the Lord who designed and sustained such for these very purposes.  Think of the wonders we would observe in plant life if the imaging software that showed us the marvels of the human body was used to show us the wonders occurring there.

Martin Luther said it aptly. “God's wonderful works which happen daily are lightly esteemed, not because they are of no import but because they happen so constantly and without interruption. Man is used to the miracle that God rules the world and upholds all creation, and because things daily run their appointed course, it seems insignificant, and no man thinks it worth his while to meditate upon it and to regard it as God's wonderful work, and yet it is a greater wonder than that Christ fed five thousand men with five loaves and made wine from water.”

Who designed the genetic switches that work their wonders of nutrition in your body as you eat and drink or in the plant as it grows, from which your food and drink come?  “11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory”.  What the disciples observed that day, according to the Apostle John, was that Jesus had power over and could effect the occurrence of these very wonders.

2. The late Frank Sheed was lay Catholic theologian known for his sharp wit as a public speaker.  He sometimes did open-air preaching at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.  Once, after Sheed had described the extraordinary order and design to be seen in the universe, a persistent challenger retorted by pointing to all the world's ills, and ended shouting, "I could make a better universe than your God!"  "I won't ask you to make a universe," Sheed replied. "But would you make a rabbit—just to establish confidence?"

“11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory;” John also points out, “and his disciples believed in him.”  Now there were others there that day who witnessed these—to say the least—surprising and remarkable events.  The servants saw what the disciples saw and John makes no remark that they believed.  The steward who marvelled at excellence of the wine and the bridegroom who is credited with keeping the best wine until the end pay scant attention to its source.  But isn’t that the way with humanity; we receive the gift of this day but pay scant attention to the One whose omnipotent hand upholds and provides it for us.

The logic of the gospel is that we come to know God as Saviour then we learn that this one who saves us is also our Creator.  The story of Genesis becomes part of Israel’s scripture after they are rescued from slavery in Egypt.  These disciples are following Jesus because they believe him to be the Messiah.  After this initial decision to follow they see Jesus turn water into wine and their faith is deepened; their perception of Jesus as Messiah broadened.  We must be careful to note that the turning of water into wine—or any of Jesus’ miracles—does not prove anything about Jesus.  They point; they are signs.  They signify that there is something about Jesus that is worthy of our attention.

Is someone who could wield this kind of power over nature to be trusted just because he can wield the power?  We trust this Jesus in his wielding of power because on the cross we see his great love for us that will go to any length for our sakes.  I related the story of a woman who wants to believe that life is a marvel but tragedy had rendered such a hope difficult.  Who will we believe about life’s significance assuring us of its grandeur?  I point you to Jesus who gave his life that we might have life—abundantly and eternally.

I know that many say they have “difficulty” with the miracle stories of Jesus.  I am never sure precisely what is meant by “difficulty” but I gather that it has to do with our understanding; I can’t get my mind around it so I have trouble conceiving such a thing possible.  At the beginning of this message we saw a video clip that shows us many things about ourselves beyond our understanding, yet we proceed to live life with no trouble believing lots of things possible (like you are going to eat lunch today).

He did this, the first of his signs, signs that point us to believe in him.  In him we see light.  How do you know that your life is on the right course?  What measure do you use to know you are doing the right thing?  Some rely, by an internal sense of feeling right.  What I know about myself is that I can rationalize all kinds of things that are not particularly good things.  Believing in Jesus is to look to him—the one who can turn water into wine—to guide us.  There is much here in this story to guide our living.

Take, for example, that when Jesus turns water into wine he makes excellent wine in abundance.  Here he reveals the heart of God to who does what is of the best and with great generosity.  Look what we do with God’s generosity—it is assumed to be for over-indulgence.  The assumption of everyone at the wedding was that people would consume wine in sufficient amounts so that judgement is impaired by drunkenness.  Is it any different today?  And yet God remains ever who God is—doing what is of the best and that generously.  Jesus actions here surely show us how to live—offer our best and that generously. Does it not also indicate that God’s generosity with us is so that we might be so with others?

11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.