A sign of beginning
January 16, 2022 John 2:1-11 A sign of beginning
We teach our children what we ourselves were taught: Business before pleasure. Finish your homework, then you can play. Eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert. Do your chores, then the fun stuff follows. Take care of unpleasant tasks first, then relax with more enjoyable activities.
Then comes John, who turns that axiom on its head. In John Jesus begins his ministry not healing, not teaching, not feeding the hungry; but making more wine for a wedding celebration in the town of Cana. His second miraculous act, found in John 4, also occurs, as it happens, while he is once again in Cana, where the wedding party had been held. A little boy is ill; Jesus hears of it, speaks a word of life to the boy’s father, and heals him.
Now that’s what I call a good first miracle. He’s actually contributing to the good of society; doing something of socially redeeming value. Why put this ahead of that? A miracle to please partygoers. John believes in that axiom as much as we do. There must be something of fundamental importance John needs to convey about Jesus; something that must get said early, told first, demonstrated from the very beginning.
I believe that something is this: that it is the nature of God as revealed in the person of Jesus to meet us in the midst of whatever need, ordeal, dilemma, brokenness, or emptiness; to encounter us in our bewildered or bereft state of being . . . and provide . . . not just provide; provide abundantly. The wedding party becomes the metaphor for a community in want experiencing bounty.
There is an absence, a shortage, a missing dimension to their gathering. Then . . . suddenly . . . seemingly from nowhere . . . surprise by joy. God’s goodness broadsides the community. The abundance that follows is greater even, richer, fuller than the former things, before the loss.
John has a name for what has just happened at the wedding party. We have translated it this way: “The first of Jesus’ signs.” But the Greek word there is not “first,” proto, but “beginning,” arche, as in “arch” or “archeology.” Better to call this not the first sign, but the beginning sign. The sign of beginnings.
Is it a play on words for John? Possibly. Water turned to wine is the beginning sign both because it is the sign that precedes the several that will follow in his gospel and because it is a sign that has to do with beginnings. New beginnings. At the wedding feast a pattern is being set that will continue to repeat itself/reveal itself throughout John: God’s propensity to gift us over and over with something new and good.
This will be the story of meeting Nicodemus by night; a woman at the well at high noon; a blind man living in darkness receiving his sight. And finally, to close the gospel—something of a mirror to the miracle story of the wedding at Cana, a second bookend matching the first: the forlorn disciples, whose teacher has been crucified, are fishing along the shore bereft, empty-hearted, and, to add insult to injury, empty-netted, too. Not a single fish.
They are spotted by a stranger on the beach who directs them to cast their nets differently. They subsequently haul in a boatload of fish, 153, we’re told. They drag their bounty into shore, only to discover that the stranger who guided them to their abundant catch is the risen Christ.
Sometimes there’s God so quickly.
Over and over, this is the pattern of Jesus’ presence and power within the Jesus community: a disheartening situation, followed by an extravagant provision. It’s ee cummings: when more than was lost has been found.
If you have come to a place in your life where, after having emerged from a crucible experience of disruption or loss, you can say those eight words—when more than was lost has been found—then you have lived off the pages of John’s gospel; more than that, you have known in the marrow of your being the meaning of grace.
Through Covid we have turned more than once to Frederick Buechner’s promising words. He could have drawn his insight from this pattern of Jesus’ signs turning disruption into delight: The worst thing is not the last thing. A divine power wells up from the rock-bottom worst like a hidden spring, and gifts us with best thing.
I shared with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee the observation of Byrd Gibbens, an English professor at University of Arkansas, that “the sacred often comes through upset, reversal, and surprise.” I would say that describes well the gospel of John from beginning to end; except it’s really more like from beginning to beginning to beginning. Every situation of upset issues forth in gifts that are sacred, promising, hopeful. Judy Davis died in the fall of the past year. When she left us, she left us with a song of praise, of faith, an anthem of assurance, shared in her memorial service: You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us.
We’re enduring a pandemic. And from the rock-bottom worst good things have welled up as if from a hidden spring. Collateral blessings and dividends. God is making beautiful things out of dust. A prayer Gathering. A prayer walk, a prayer wall. Come and See. Ringing of the tower bells. Online services and sharing circles and meetings. Porch deliveries, podcasts. Blood drives, book drives, shoe drives. Grace notes abounding, and possibilities.
A special education class in the weekday school. The Hallelujah Chorus from our chancel choir—talk about grace notes; a rooftop sunrise service; an Easter baptism on the lawn; and on and on and on.
Now we face a new transition, another threshold crossing, my retirement at the end of June. Liz and I treasure our relationships with you, the wonderful rhythms of our life together in season and out, sorrow and joy; detours and delights.
We’ve been through some things together: endured some challenging things; accomplished some beautiful things. In all of it I believe God has been near. And will be: more grace notes, and more possibilities await us in this next turning of the seasons. More beautiful things . . .
The story John tells us to begin his gospel is a good one to complete our shared journey. The beginning sign, water to wine, moving through the gospel from its beginning, spilling beyond its pages into the young Christian movement, and then across the centuries to the present, to now, to here, ready to well up like a hidden spring, and fill empty vessels until the cup runneth over.
In the spring of 2010 Liz and I were living in Dallas, where we’d lived the previous 25 years, and where all three of our children had been born and nearly raised. I had just received a new appointment that would take us out of our home city and across two conference lines, to Austin, Texas, where I was assigned to serve a church in this conference, and there were clearly mixed feelings for us about leaving what had become our home.
I kept coming back to Thomas Merton’s words: The spiritual life is starting over. I would add, starting over, but also engendering within us the readiness, the openness, the willingness, even the eagerness to start over. One day I was driving through the city and saw a sign on a metal post by the road: It read, “Begin.” Clearly there had been a sign below it with a speed limit (BEGIN 35 mph—something like that); but the bottom part was missing. All that was mounted to the pole was: “Begin.” I took it as a sign. A directive. Go. God is with you. Go. Begin.
We are called upon to be things that we’ve never sought to be. Those moments tend to capture us before they set us free . . .
I shared that story four years ago with my congregation in Austin, when by then I had served as a pastor since leaving Dallas. It was in the context of my having recently received the news that I was being appointed that summer to be your pastor. Just before I left Austin that summer, a member of the church who had heard that story gave me a gift . . . It was a sign—the very same sign I had seen eight years earlier on the roadway: “Begin.”
It’s been a wedding feast. I’m not talking about John. I’m talking about you. Us. Here. Our life with you, Liz and mine, has been a wonderful and deeply rewarding wedding feast. And in the back hall of the building, and in the back hall of our hearts, six empty vessels wait to be filled. And in time, turned to wine.