By Sam Gutierrez
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:11
For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the key “framing” stories for the liturgical season of Epiphany. The first week we examined the story of the Magi (Matthew 2) and saw how Jesus is not just a Jewish king, but the King of Kings – for all God’s children both near and far. The second week we took a look at the story of Jesus’ baptism and saw through words and water that Jesus is the beloved Son of God who brings grace and blessing to a broken world.
Now, in the third framing story, we take a look at Jesus’ first miracle in his public ministry–changing water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana. So, what is significant about this story and how does it tie into the season of Epiphany?
Like I’ve mentioned before, Epiphany is a season of light. It is the third season (along with Advent and Christmas) that has light as its main theme. Light has many meanings, but in Epiphany light symbolizes revelation. Epiphany emphasis the teachings and miracles of Jesus as a way of revealing his true identity. It’s no wonder, then, that Epiphany ends with the revelatory light at a maximum on Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top we see the human and divine nature of Jesus together in one glorious form.
So, if Epiphany is about revelation, then what does the miracle at Cana teach us?
First of all, it’s interesting to note that Jesus’ first miracle is a reluctant one. It seems like he’s not too excited to exercise his miraculous power in such a public setting. He says that the timing is not right, but does so anyway at the urging of his mother, Mary. We don’t have any examples of this, but Mary has probably witnessed his “special abilities” and now calls on him to do something about the tragic lack of wine at a local wedding. Jesus obeys his mother and changes six large stone jars of water into vats of the very best wine – and thus performs his first of seven “signs” in the book of John.
These large vessels were not for thirst, but used by the Jews for ceremonial washing. Remember that in Jesus’s day there were many, many religious rules and laws about what was “clean” and “unclean.” To stand in God’s presence and to be in relationship with God, a person had to be “clean.” If anyone violated a law that made them “unclean,” they had to go through a series of practices/rituals in order to become clean again. These included the sacrificial system happening in the temple courts, but also included the “washing of hands” to stand in for a full body cleansing. If I could make a crude analogy, this ceremonial washing was like our version of hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer does not take the place of a shower or bath, but rather acts as a quick “cleansing.”
Jesus turns the water used for ceremonial cleansing into expensive wine. The most obvious conclusion is to draw a straight line from Cana to Calvary. This miracle points to what Jesus is going to do on the cross – shedding his own blood (symbolized in wine at the last supper) in order to cleanse us from our sin once and for all.
But, the wine also symbolizes the manifestation of a new age (the kingdom of God is here). Now, the the intoxicating love of God available to all. After all, what else could be the reason for so much wine? The coming of Jesus is also the coming of a kingdom marked by a grace that is abundant, absurd, and free to anyone who wants to dip their cup in and drink. There is enough grace available to make you lightheaded and intoxicated with gratitude.
Friends, may this Epiphany be filled with light and God’s lavish love.
Then [the master of the banquet] called the Bridegroom aside and said “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” John 2:10
By Sam Gutierrez
Last week, we looked at one of the three key framing stories of the season of Epiphany – the story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-2) and discovered that this story is important in two ways.
First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham – the Lord will bless all nations through him. The visit of the Magi to worship Jesus and pay homage to him as King expands the rule of Jesus beyond Jewish boundary lines. In fact, you could say that the book of Acts is an expansion upon the Magi story – the gospel going out to the ends of the earth to bring in all God’s estranged children.
Second, we looked at how God is not bound to communicate in ways that we think are appropriate or familiar. To those who had no access to the Jewish Scriptures, God gets creative and uses a dream and a star to communicate his grace.
But the story of the Magi is just one framing story that sheds light on the ministry of Jesus during the season of Epiphany. This past Sunday we took a look at the second framing story: The Baptism of Jesus. Here we learn two critical things that can be summed up with Words and Water.
First, God’s grace comes in the form of words.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, a voice from heaven booms. The voice speaks a blessing over Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Remember – Jesus hasn’t “done” anything yet. His ministry hasn’t started. He has been living a life of obscurity in a small town. This reminds us that identity not earned or achieved, but given. This is why we practice baptismal remembrance on Sunday mornings. Just like Jesus was baptized and a blessing was spoken over him, we too receive baptism and a blessing is spoken over us. God is giving us our deepest identity as his beloved children. Just as Jesus begins his ministry with God's blessing and his indentity firmly established, we too live out our lives as beloved children of God.
Second, God’s grace comes in the form of water.
When Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river, it is a legitimizing of the “John way” – which is God’s grace working outside the boundaries of the temple courts. Remember, in Jesus' day, there was a complicated system of priests, temples, sacrifices and religious laws. Many of the conflicts we see in the gospels center on Jesus not doing “the system” correctly. But in going out to John, who was standing in the river in the middle of the wilderness, Jesus gives his stamp of approval. In essence, Jesus is saying that God’s grace is like a river. It flows freely like water. It is generous, immersive, alive and it gets all over you. We might think of Jesus’ public ministry as an expression of how he sees and experiences God’s grace and love. In every teaching, miracle and healing, Jesus exhibits God’s river of grace – powerful, generous, immersive, cleansing, uncontrollable, refreshing, and flowing.
So, now we have two key stories that are signs pointing to who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. In the story of the Magi, Jesus is the conduit through which God fulfills his promise to bless all nations – Jesus is not just a Jewish king, but the King of Kings who rules and reigns over all things. Now, in the story of the baptism of Jesus, we learn that Jesus is the beloved Son of God who has come with a message: God’s grace is abundant and flowing. In the Jordan River, Jesus gets drenched in God’s grace in order to communicate that we, too, are God's beloved children and God’s grace soaks us. Now we can see more clearly the “good news” that Jesus came to proclaim.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the third framing story of Epiphany: the wedding feast at Cana.
“In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5
By Sam Gutierrez
The season of Epiphany begins with the feast of Epiphany on January 6 and ends the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Depending on where Easter falls (it’s a moving holiday) the season of Epiphany can be as short as 4 weeks and as long as 9 weeks. The word Epiphany means “to appear” or “to bring to light”– it’s a season of increasing light and ends with the lights on maximum: Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top, Jesus’ glory is revealed and we catch a glimpse of his divine nature – a vision that’s a little too bright for human eyes.
The beginning of Epiphany is framed by three key stories from the life of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle when Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
For this 2021 Epiphany post, I’d like to take a look at the first framing story for Epiphany – the visit of the Magi.
Just recently in the news, there was talk of the “Christmas Star” – a conjoining of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky. In reality, their distance from each other was immense, but their orbits made them appear close together as you looked towards the horizon in the month of December. Some think that a similar astrological “sign” happened around the time Jesus was born.
The Wise men are sometimes referred to as kings or even astrologers. Some have called them Magicians or “Magi,” meaning “Sorcerer.” They came from the East (many think Persia) and were probably wealthy. Mostly likely, they traveled in large “family bands” and their total group far outnumbered the traditional number of “three.”
As strange as it may sound – they looked to the sky and saw something powerful and unmistakable in the alignment of the stars – something that told them that something equally important was happening on earth. This is not new – many cultures throughout history have drawn a strong connection between what happens in cosmology and what happens in human history (just study ancient Egypt). Now that we know so much more about the universe thanks to modern technology, it might be easy to debunk this kind of knowledge. But again – as strange as it might sound, there seems to be some sort of connection between what happens “up there” and “down here.”
We can sometimes get fixated on the gifts, or the star, or even the song “We Three Kings” while missing the point that Matthew is trying to make in telling us the story of these mysterious visitors.
For Matthew, the point is two-fold. First, Jesus is not just a Jewish king. He is the King of the whole earth. Remember, Matthew is primarily writing to a Jewish audience in his gospel. From the very beginning, he wanted to tell his readers that the birth of Jesus is a cosmic event that has comic implications – Jesus fulfills the promises made to Abraham – that through Abraham’s family, God will bless all nations. It’s easy to think that God is only interested in blessing certain tribes – in this case Jewish – but the birth of Jesus is for the non-believing Persians as well. This has tremendous implications for us today. God is not interested in merely blessing Christians – his overflowing grace is for everyone, everywhere. The blessing poured out on you and me is meant to communicate to others that they are blessed too.
Second, God is not bound by Scripture in order to communicate. Not only did God guide the Magi toward the manger via a “star,” but God warned them in a dream to return home using a different route. To these non-Jewish “outsiders,” God used an alternative means to speak - a star and a dream. It seems that God will use whatever means available to communicate his grace. This should give us a good dose of humility – knowing that God can and does work outside the walls of the church (and scripture) to gather folks into his family. It’s true, God does reveal himself in and through Scripture, but God also likes to get creative – recruiting planets and stars and diving into the unconscious dream state to share his promises and grace. Wow.
Epiphany is a rich but unfamiliar and overlooked season. January is considered a cold and dark month – the merriment of the Christmas season is over, the new year has begun, and we’re back at work or in school. Culturally, these weeks are marked by a return to routine.
Liturgically, Epiphany is a season of quiet hope with a watchful eye towards God’s promise to bring wholeness to the entire galaxy in the person of Jesus. It’s also a time of spreading this good news and so we look for little ways to spread hope to those around us. We pray for our friends, neighbors, relatives, children, family members and spouses who don’t know Jesus yet.
We believe that “in him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5