In this morning’s reading from Luke, the writer takes us to a quieter place. We have had the most famous of the birth narratives, complete with the magnificat and angels. Then there was the trip to Jerusalem for Passover in which Jesus “got lost” and was finally found after a frantic search. Chapter three takes up with the baptism of Jesus and the sky being ripped open so a dove could descend. And, finally, there was the temptation in the wilderness where Jesus took on the devil, one on one. It’s all very exciting.
Then there is the reading for this week. A quiet scene. A homecoming. The thing is, the lectionary doesn’t go quite far enough. The reading for this week and for next week really should go together. If read as a single pericope, the reading would include both Jesus coming into town as a local boy done good, and leaving town by passing through a mob which wanted to kill him. Next week we will have to grapple with the question of what happened between Jesus being a source of local pride and the mob scene that developed after his reading in the synagogue. I suspect that it was different for each person in the crowd. In what Frederick Buechner called “…that place inside us where our secrets are kept,” something happened and people changed their minds about Jesus.
And that brings me to… LAST week’s reading. For my part, I wrote about the reading from Isaiah and Hephzibah, the new name given to Israel. It replaced the names of Forsaken and Desolate. There is a lot of hope in that for those of us who may have felt that we have been forsaken or desolate. But, there is something about last week’s reading from John that I can’t get out of my head, so I’d like to revisit last week and write the essay I should have written then.
As a reminder, the story goes like this. This is my own down-and-dirty paraphrase:
Jesus and his friends had been invited to a wedding in Cana, a region known for thieves, trouble-makers, gentiles, and other undesirables. The wedding party ran out of wine which was really embarrassing for the hosts. Jesus came for the whole world, though, even trouble-makers, so he began his miracle-working ministry by turning plain water into fine wine. Maybe it was a ruby port, or a malbec. Certainly, it was not a boring chardonnay. If you’d bottled it up into bottles like they sell down at Trader Joe’s, it would have been about 65 cases. And, assuming it was a really nice wine it could have been worth about 30,000 US dollars, maybe more. The rest of the wedding feast went off without a hitch. I am pretty sure the couple lived happily ever after.
This seems like a great way for Jesus to have kicked off his ministry. We are nothing if not a community of people who like a good party and nice wine. But, there’s something that makes this miracle different from other miracle stories. Jesus only performed seven miracles, or signs, in the book of John. In five of the miracles, there were witnesses, people actually saw the miracle take place:
In the healing of the noble man’s son, the noble man’s servants were able to tell him the exact time that his son had been healed. They must have been there to see it.
When Jesus healed the man at the pool at Bethesda there were a lot of people around. The Johannine account says there were “a multitude of invalids” around the pool.
At the feeding of the 5000, well at least 5000 people saw that one.
When Jesus walked on water the disciples saw him.
Mary, Martha, and the gang saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead at Bethany.
In the sixth miracle, healing the man born blind, Jesus and the disciples had a conversation about it. The disciples must have seen what Jesus did, even if they did not see the miracle itself.
Even at the end of this very chapter the writer tells us that “They saw the miracles that he did.” John 2:23.
Only in this first miracle is everything done in secret. The fact that there was no wine was not announced. Mary said to Jesus, one to one, “They have no wine.” Then Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” but Jesus did not know she’d said this. She only told the servants. Then Jesus told the servants to fill the jars with water, but there is no reason to think that Mary was in on this. It was between the servants and Jesus. The steward, when he tasted the wine, did not know where it had come from. Apparently, the servants didn’t tell him. It is possible that the servants didn’t even realize the water had been changed.
So, when did the water change? Who saw it? Was it changed at all, or were people so drunk that they were just easily persuaded? Does it even matter? No. It’s a story, and none of it matters. But, there is this one interesting thing: The miracle happened in secret, out of sight. The stone jars, or jugs, were opaque, and deep. Nobody could see what was going on in there, much like a place where secrets are kept.
So, do you have any secrets? I do. Probably everybody does. There are the garden-variety secrets that we are not very good at keeping. But, Frederick Buechner seems to assume that all of have a place somewhere, out of sight, where deeper secrets are kept. Maybe we don’t even know our own secrets… that’s how secret they are. Aside from being hidden, I suspect that these secrets are the things that most need a miracle. They may be wounds that we were born with, or losses we’ve just refused to let out into the open. In any case, they are deep and out of sight. It’s a mystery, but I suspect that we all have some.
There are lots of mysteries, of course. There are mysteries in the cosmos and under the sea too, but what if the deepest mysteries are so close that we aren’t even aware of them? Jesus chose to perform his first miracle in the darkness of a jug, but what if he is doing even more miracles in the dark corners of our hearts? The hiddenness and secretiveness of this miracle gives me a lot of hope because I can’t always see what God might be doing in my own life. Sometimes I get a clue, but I often don’t even recognize that. Even then, it is just a clue. I do not know what is going on in the depths. I may never find out.
As Isaiah reminds us, some thoughts are too high for us. And this is what the prophet is talking about. He opens chapter 55 by saying that people are pretty clueless. He says that they spend money on things they don’t need and work for things they don’t even want. Then he says that God’s thoughts are much higher than our own and that we really don’t know what God is up to. Then he talks about seeds falling into the dark earth where they remain out of sight until some rain comes. The rain must seem like a mystery unless you can somehow see into the dark ground and understand that there are seeds down there. But, we can’t see. We don’t know. There are just clues. There might be some rain, maybe some sunshine, maybe just dark earth.
In the end, there are flowers, or there’s grain, or new wine, or new life… there has been a miracle right under our noses! Like dumb water or dead seeds, we never saw it coming.
The thing, though, is that it can be a long time between the water going into the jug and the new wine coming out. It takes a while for a crop to grow. Oh, and the clues are not helpful.
If the time is growing long and the clues are confusing, that’s OK. You are not alone. The psalmist plead, “Abandon not the work of your hands,” in other words, “don’t give up on me, God!” Sticking with Isaiah 55, though, God vows that he will accomplish what he set out to do. In the end, a fir tree will grow where there were only thorns, and instead of a scrubby shrub you’ll get a myrtle tree. Plain water will become fine wine, and from the darkness of the ground new life will spring up.
The good news is that God is still working and, even in darkness, we have every reason to be hopeful.
Linda McMillan lives in Saudi Arabia and looks for new life in the sand.