As I have mentioned, I have been preaching on the passages that each gospel writer has used to introduce us to Jesus and his ministry, because these opening passages set the tone for everything the gospel writers are about to say. Authors recognize the power of the first impression and you can often anticipate the nature of the story to come just from the first few sentences of a book. Listen, for example, to the opening paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the first in the series — where we meet Harry’s relatives, the Dursley’s, who will play a large role in his life throughout the series:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
In those two brief sentences, we learn that the Dursleys are priggish and concerned about respectability, which in turn warns us that something very unrespectable, strange, and mysterious is about to happen. Throughout the books, Harry Potter will upset convention and challenge people’s assumptions about the way the world is supposed to work (on both the Muggle side and the Wizard side) and we are told that from the very start of things.
In the same way, the gospel writers foreshadow the nature of Jesus’ ministry in their opening stories. Although Jesus is so familiar to us that it’s hard to imagine anyone reading about him for the first time, in those early days of the gospel writers, many people had never heard of Jesus, or may have heard some of his teachings or about parts of his life, but had never had everything laid out for them in a coherent narrative. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had to choose how best to tell his story, and how to emphasize for their audience what they believed was most important about Jesus and his ministry for us.
And so to review, Mark set the stage for his readers by showing Jesus ending his first day of ministry withdrawing to pray: “This is a man intimately connected to and directed by God,” Mark told his readers.
Matthew begins Jesus’ first day with the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus describes God’s vision of a world grounded in justice, mercy, and peace. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will be the great Rabbi, the great teacher, who shows people the way to a life of compassion and peace with one another.
Luke begins with Jesus demonstrating his undeniable authority to speak on behalf of God so that the reader will know that this man, Jesus, is someone we can trust with our lives and follow every day even to the cross.
And so finally, we come now to the gospel of John. How does John choose to introduce the Son of God to his readers? What is Jesus’ first act of ministry in this last gospel?
John introduces our Savior as the man who will make sure that your wine cellar does not run dry!
Why on earth does John choose to introduce Jesus with this story? Of all of the things that Jesus says and does, is his ability to conjure wine from water the one you want people to hear first? Imagine that you are interviewing a candidate for the church’s next pastor and when you ask, “What do you think you can bring to this ministry?” the candidate says, “How about this?” They snap their fingers and suddenly 20 beer kegs magically appear on the church lawn. Would you hire them as your pastor? Some of you are probably thinking, “Well, yeah. That would be pretty handy to have around; they might be able to increase student attendance at worship,” but really, the ability to provide unrestricted amounts of alcohol at parties is usually not a skill churches are looking for in their ministers, nor is it what we are looking for in a Savior.
John’s choice to begin his gospel account with such a blatant act of miracle working forces us to ask, “What is it we are looking for from Jesus? What is it that we hope Jesus will do for us? Are we looking for a miracle worker, someone who will fix all of our problems; even the most trivial of things like wine running out at our parties? Are we looking for someone who will make our troubles disappear and smooth our paths before us? Or are we looking for something deeper from this man: wholeness, purpose, and a meaningful way of living with ourselves, with God, and with one another?” What are we looking for in a Savior?
Too often, if we are honest, we are looking for the first: we are looking for someone who can fix what has gone wrong in our lives and do it without requiring any effort from us. From time immemorial, people have looked for easy cures, quick solutions, and magical answers to their problems because miracles don’t require anything from us. We can just passively sit back and receive the goodness of God’s benevolent protection without having to work at our problems and without having to change our hearts or our behavior. Isn’t this what a lot of Christians did when Covid first hit the US? They refused to wear masks, they refused to shut their churches, they refused to social distance, they refused to change worship in order to accommodate the new reality; instead they just trusted in an easy miracle believing that God would sweep away the virus from their sanctuaries and magically protect them. And of course, people died as a result.
Expecting easy miracles can be dangerous to our health and dangerous to our spiritual growth, and so Jesus constantly directed people’s eyes toward the deeper change that he was expecting from the people as a result of his miraculous act.
“I do this,” he told the crowd as he healed the paralyzed man, “to show you that I have the authority to forgive sins,’ or ‘I do this to restore the outcast to your community,’ or ‘I do this so that you may believe that new life is possible for all people.’” The gospel of John punches home this understanding of the purpose of miracles more than any of the other gospels. When Jesus performs the magical seeming act of changing water into wine, John points to the symbolic meaning of the miracle with the words, “This was the first sign of Jesus.” Just as Jesus would later do with the symbol of bread and the symbol of living water, Jesus begins his ministry by changing an ordinary element of life into something extraordinary because this, the gospel of John tells us, is what Jesus is all about. Jesus takes our ordinary mundane lives and infuses them with grace, joy, purpose, and a peace that passes all understanding. We may look like dull insignificant bags of aging flesh and fragile bones, clay jars containing nothing more than ordinary water, but in Jesus’ hands, we become wine, sacred beings filled with holy possibility.
In the gospel of John, this is the miracle of Jesus’ salvation. The miracle is not that God suspended the laws of physics; the miracle is that in changing water to wine, Jesus opened a doorway of understanding between our hearts and the deep saving love of God that we experience through Christ.
“Jesus did this,” John says, “the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Every time Jesus does something that we would call a miracle, John calls it a sign because the gospel writer knew that Jesus wasn’t interested in doing magic tricks; Jesus was here to embody God’s love for us and direct our eyes to a new and deeper way of living. In John, a miracle is any moment in which a doorway opens between your heart and the deep saving love of God. A miracle is any time when you suddenly experience the fullness of God’s grace and your ordinary life of clay and water is suddenly transformed into wine.
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells of spending an evening out with his two young sons. After enjoying a number of activities together, they ended the day with a movie. Four-year-old Sean fell asleep in the theater and when the movie was over Covey picked up Sean in his arms, carried him to the car, and laid him in the back seat. Six year old Stephen climbed in beside his brother but before Covey closed the door, he took off his coat and arranged it around Sean to keep him warm while he slept.
Later that evening, when it was time to tuck Stephen into bed, Covey tried to talk to him about their evening to find out what Stephen had liked most of all of the things they had done that day, but Stephen was very quiet and seemed unable to talk. Suddenly the boy turned over on his side facing the wall, and started to cry.
“What’s wrong, Stephen? What is it?” asked Covey. The boy turned back, chin quivering, eyes wet with tears.
“Daddy,” he asked, “if I were cold, would you put your coat around me too?”
Covey wrote, “Of all the events of that special night out together, the most important was a little act of kindness – a momentary, unconscious showing of love to his little brother.”
An act of kindness, an awareness of grace, a word of forgiveness, a gesture of generosity; a moment when a doorway opens between your heart and the deep saving love of God and the ordinary water of your life turns into wine; these are the miracles that we experience through Christ. These are the signs of his saving presence.
May all of our lives be filled with such miracles.