The First Sign – January 30, 2011

Numbers 20:1-13, John 2:1-12

January 30, 2011

So far in his Gospel, John has given us a day by day account of the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. On the first two days, (which we looked at the last couple of weeks) Jesus was meeting people who would eventually become his disciples. He had been to see John the Baptist out “in the wilderness,” which was near Bethany. There he met Andrew and Peter. Then he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip and Nathaniel.

That was all in Chapter one. Now, in Chapter two, Jesus has been invited to this wedding in Cana. And this is an interesting story! And for some, it’s an uncomfortable story! Some feel the need to “explain away” the whole “wine business.” But I don’t think so.

This story gives us a picture of the family life of Jesus, and also his life in community. And I think we would expect to see him honoring such important events. I think he was one who understood the joy of this life, and the importance of family and friends. And I have no problem believing he went to weddings and funerals and birthdays and Bar-Mitzvahs! And when it comes to turning water into wine, I have no doubt he did that, too. Some people think that wouldn’t be appropriate somehow, but I think it was part of the culture, and part of the whole idea of celebration. And this is the first “sign” that Jesus did – the first miracle he performed! That’s how John describes it.

So get this picture here. Jesus is at this wedding celebration, and his mother comes to him and tells him they’ve run out of wine. And I’ve always wondered what she was thinking. Did she know Jesus would be able to help? Or was this simply an exasperated plea for him to “Do something!” “Anything!” I think it’s clear that she knew something. Because even though Jesus protests, she tells the servants to follow his instructions!

Now, I know he was a good Jewish boy who could hardly refuse his mother. But, did Mary know that Jesus was capable of creating wine miraculously? Or did she think he would simply tell the servants where to find an “after hours wine merchant.” If that were the case, hearing him tell them to fill the water pots must have been just as bewildering to her as it was to them, and as it was to John’s readers. Is that the case, then? Or was Mary standing by watching – with a knowing smile on her face?! And what would we have thought? Would we have been amazed when we saw what happened? Remember, we always have the best perspective on all of this. We know the story!

So that’s the first part of the chapter. But then look what happens next! The scene moves to Jerusalem. It’s the Passover, a time when Jerusalem would have been very crowded. And the first thing that happens is that Jesus makes a whip, and in sight of what was surely a big crowd, he clears out the merchants and the money changers. Just imagine that scene! And look at what the religious leaders ask him. We can only imagine how they were feeling! And I’ll bet this was not asked in a calm manner! “What sign do you have to show us for doing this?” What sign?! We know that he had just performed an amazing sign! Maybe he should have answered them by handing them a jug of wine!!

Well, I do think John was “painting a picture” of Jesus here. In this second chapter, he puts together two things that have great contrast. First there is this celebration in Cana. Then there is this confrontation in Jerusalem. And by the way, only John tells the Jerusalem story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The others have it at the end – at the end of the Palm Sunday procession. (And none of them tell the story of this wedding.)

I can’t tell you why that’s different in John. Clearly this event in the Temple happened. But I think maybe he put it there because he wanted to show us this picture. He want us to see clearly the difference between the ease of rapport he had with the common people and the popularity he enjoyed in that community, and the seeds of animosity with the leaders of that community. I think that’s the picture.

More than that, though, in these two stories, John is showing an important aspect of the personality and ministry of Jesus. And what he’s showing us is this great contrast, in which Jesus gave of himself freely to those who needed him, and showed great reluctance to those who demanded of him! More specifically, Jesus’ had great compassion for the common people, and great passion against those who were oppressing them. And that became an important theme for John.

It’s been said that Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” And I think that’s true. But the hard question for us is to ask ourselves which of those two we are. Certainly in terms of the world of 2011, we are the comfortable. Despite recent economic difficulties, we enjoy a much higher standard of living in comparison to much of the world, and our lives are peaceful and secure. In those ways alone, we certainly rank among the comfortable! And that should make us think. (And that should make us a little “uncomfortable.”)

There was a Christian author in the 1970’s called James Cone. And Cone wrote a book called “God of the Oppressed.” And it was a very disturbing book. His basic premise was that God does have an affinity for the oppressed in this world, and not for the comfortable. And we westerners, he said – particularly we Americans – were “the comfortable.” He said that God doesn’t have the same kind of connection with us as he does the poor and the downtrodden.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with Cone. But I have to say that his message was disturbing because there’s some truth in there somewhere. And hard as it is, I think we “westerners” have to come to grips with the fact that we are the “have’s” of this world. And we need to put that into perspective with the “have not’s.” Tony Campolo once said, “If Jesus came today in the same way he came back then, he wouldn’t be hanging around with us.” he said. “He would be hanging around with the poor and the destitute.” “His compassion for them would be overwhelming.”

Now, I have to tell you that I’m not sure that’s completely true. We have to remember that Jesus did hang around with the comfortable of his world. He did dine with the Pharisees on a number of occasions. But, when he did, they weren’t the same kind of encounters. The Pharisees didn’t “feel the joy” of “having the bridegroom with them.” as Jesus said. They didn’t get into the celebration – like those at this wedding feast! They wanted to talk to him about doctrine. They wanted to be sure that he conformed to the “norms.” And it wasn’t long before they saw that his “norms” were different. They were all about love, caring, compassion. And they chose to walk away from him. We need to be sure that we, in our lives of comfort, are not ignoring Jesus because we don’t have the time for him, and we’re not crazy about his message.

Look at the way Isaiah describes the messiah – and remember that this is the scroll Jesus turned to when they once asked him to be “lay leader” in his home synagogue. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort those who mourn…” (Isaiah 61) and it goes on.

Those things are part of this picture of Jesus that John was painting. And I ask you, shouldn’t they be part of our picture as well? If Rick Warren is right, and it is the goal of every Christian to be like Jesus, then shouldn’t we have that same compassion and caring that he had? Shouldn’t that be our “first sign?”

I want you to think about these two stories. I want you to know that God wants us to celebrate this life that he has given us. I say that often, I know! But at the same time, we should remember the way Jesus related both to the afflicted and the comfortable. We should strive to be like him in those ways. And so, may we ask God to change our hearts. May we ask him to give us the love and caring that he has for us, and for all people. Those things are not easy. They call us to that higher level of faith, hope, and love. And they call us to be God’s holy people. And that is truly amazing!!


Lord, help us to see with your eyes. Help us to seek the things you want us to seek. Help us to love as you have loved us. Your ways are not always easy for us. Your call draws us out of the comfort of our world. We need your spirit to strengthen us, that we may be the kind of people you want us to be. Help us to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you, our God. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.