What Does the Sign Say?

Epiphany 2C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Author Madeleine L’Engle wrote that winter “reveals structure” behind the riot of leaf and flower of spring. Stripped down to the icy branches, Epiphany manifests a January spirituality helping us see what we cannot otherwise see. The prophet Isaiah proclaims the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3). In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus declares, “cleave the wood and I am there” (Saying 77). The apostle Paul, invoking Greek philosophers, asserts that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Epiphany is about revealing the extraordinary that is always, already in the everyday.

We live in a miraculous world of galaxies, black holes, and MRNA vaccines and yet our modern mentality often handicaps our ability to apprehend the signs of God’s handiwork. Signs, after all, can be confusing. Signs are easy to miss. When I head out of downtown on the Ohio feeder ramp I always get confused. The signs direct you left to turn right. Move south to go north. It works fine if you read the signs. But the turn is so counter-intuitive for me I have to re-think it every time.

This season after Epiphany (now until February 27th) is about learning to read the signs. You may feel like you’re all by your lonesome self out there navigating through life, but Jesus, the revealer, has shown us the living God is always walking with us. Epiphanies like Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, or like that which occurred in the mind of the prodigal son while he sat feeding pigs, or like that which knocked Paul from his horse on the road to Damascus, or like what Peter saw in a dream while sleeping on a rooftop in Joppa—are signs that change lives and the course of history.

We must learn to read the signs. The wedding at Cana in Galilee was the first of Jesus’ signs and revealed his glory (John 2:11). Six stone jars for the Jewish rites of purification stood empty, waiting to be filled. Six stone jars which could each hold 20-30 gallons. Six jars, just as there were six days of creation. On the seventh day, creation did not need to be purified because God’s creation was already deliciously good. The miracle at Cana of Galilee underscores God’s extravagance. Wine is a symbol of joy. God stands ready to fill our empty hearts to overflowing. Come drink and be satisfied. Let your hearts and minds be transformed in unity with God in Christ.

The wedding at Cana is a familiar story and as such it presents a unique problem. We must take time to read this sign and not assume we already know what it says. As pastor, something I notice about today’s gospel is what Jesus didn’t do. Jesus didn’t preside at the wedding. He gave no sermon about marriage. He offered no advice about family. He didn’t say a prayer or offer a blessing for the bride and groom. What message is Jesus trying to send?

The whole wild and joyous, somewhat raucous, slightly drunken scene is just what the Pharisees, and other upright uptight religious people of his day, complained about. It fits the portrayal of Jesus, in all four gospels’, as a man who disdained the pious preference for purity, such as the Sabbath laws, as a man who included the traditionally unclean in what he called a greater purity, as belonging to a fellowship of faith characterized by a longing of the heart to love God and all people—especially those whom others didn’t love—like prostitutes, lepers, a certain very short tax collector, and the poor.

Do we do Jesus an injustice by ignoring his love of dinner parties? Do we misread the signs by overlooking his love of life? Is there something about the radical incarnation and inclusiveness of Jesus that makes us look away?

Unfortunately, what we call orthodox Christianity seems determined to flip this gospel on its head. The temperance traditions that led to Prohibition, for example, reflect a profound uneasiness with the message this sign of Jesus sends. How many Christians to this day would prefer a Jesus who changed wine into water, who consorted with only the best people (that is, people like us), and who focused on purity rather than the radical incarnation blessing of our bodies as the messy earthen vessels in which God is pleased to dwell?

Reading the sign, the wedding at Cana becomes an invitation to fall into a Trinitarian way of life. It is to “stand under” the flow of God’s grace, to participate in it, and to be transformed by it. The Franciscan philosopher, theologian, and mystic St. Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274), described the Trinity as a “fountain fullness” of overflowing love. Picture a water wheel. Each bucket on a water wheel fills up and empties out and is filled again. If the buckets don’t empty themselves the wheel gets stuck and won’t turn. The three Persons of the Trinity empty themselves and pour themselves out into each other. By contrast, most of us want the gift of grace without the risk letting go. Yes. We want the three-day wedding party. We want 180 gallons of wine to keep in our wine cellar. Yet the message of this sign reads God’s love cannot be received unless it is freely and completely given away. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Images of the Trinity, 1/12/22) We must learn to empty ourselves as Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself and did what? –took the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-7) How counter-intuitive is that?

To read the signs Jesus repeatedly reminds us “you must become like little children.” In our conventional forms of grown-up life, we elevate certainty and performance, while children value the messy interpersonal exchange of improvisation and play. The sign says God is determined to trade the perfection of his solo performance for the possibility of playing a little improvisational jazz with us, who are nothing more than screechy amateur saxophone players in the Kingdom of God’s ragtag band.
Respected jazz musician Stefon Harris describes the interplay among players in a jazz quartet as “sacred,” because improvisation requires trust and risk and intimacy. Harris says: “The bandstand is really a sacred space, because you have no opportunity to think about the future or the past—you’re really alive in the moment. Everyone is listening [to each other], we’re responding. So, the idea of a mistake, from the perspective of a jazz musician, is [strange]. Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz.”

“We recoil from mistakes because we’ve falsely believed Jesus is judging us for how many “wrong notes” we play in our lives. But Jesus wants relationship, and like a jazz quartet, he craves “sacred space” with us—when we are “alive in the moment” because we are taking risks with him and because of him. This requires relational courage. We listen to God and each other with fierce attention, then embrace risk after risk to create something unique and beautiful.” (Leadership Skills Drawn from Jazz, Rick Lawrence, Executive Director, Friday Thoughts, 1/14/22)

Andrew Young, the former ambassador to the United Nations, Georgia congressman and mayor of Atlanta, told ABC News that in the hour before he stepped out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN and became the most famous martyr of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. started a pillow fight. “…He picked up a pillow and threw it at me,” Young said. “And he was in a more playful mood than I had seen him in years, I mean, acting like a child. I threw the pillow back and then everybody else picked up pillows and started beating me up. It was like a bunch of 12-year-olds.”

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, born in 130 CE famously said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Who is more alive than a child at play? Learn to read the signs. The glory of God is the communion of all things fully alive. “Wherever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, an ecological habitat is protected, wherever liberation, hope and healing break through, wherever an act of simple kindness is done, a cup of cool water given, a book offered to a child thirsty for learning, there the human and earth community already reflect, in fragments, the visage of the trinitarian God. Borne by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” we become committed to a fruitful future inclusive of all peoples, tribes, and nations, all creatures of the earth. The reign of God gains another foothold in history.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 2007), 223–224)