January 20, 2013 – Epiphany 2, Treasure in Jars of Stone
To listen to the sermon, click here: Treasure in Jars of Stone
One thing that happens as we grow older is that we gain a new perspective on things. If you had written the story of your life in your 20’s or 30’s, when you were still in the thick of raising a family and making a home and establishing yourself in a career, it would be a very, very different story than you might write thirty or forty years later, when your children were grown and you look back on all the events of our life with the perspective of time and experience. When I was going through my time of discernment before I began the process leading up to ordination, one of my assignments was to write a spiritual autobiography. It was a really good learning experience for me, because as I recalled the events of my life I began to recognize God’s fingerprints all over everything. Those times that I remembered struggling or feeling bewildered, times when circumstances seemed senseless or overwhelming – looking back, I could see God at work, leading us as a family and me as an individual, building strengths through all those things that just seemed like misfortunes, and bringing blessings in the form of wonderful people and unexpected situations. Things that seemed important at the time were maybe less important in the perspective of time, and things and decisions that seemed trivial were signposts of God’s leading, if only we could have seen that at the time.
And I think that one of the things that makes the gospel of John different from the other gospels is that John wrote his gospel in his old age, years after he had lived through his travels with Jesus as one of his close friends and disciples, years after his first experiences in the new and growing churches, and after the first persecutions. From this long view of his maturity, John wrote down the things that shone out in his memory as the signs of who Jesus was and what he came to do. After all those years, he had a huge storehouse of memories. At the end of his gospel John wrote, “If all the works of Jesus were to be written down I don’t suppose the world itself could hold the books that would be written.” So much to choose from! So he had to choose carefully which memories to write down, and how to arrange them. And one of the stories John chose to record is the story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee. John’s is the only gospel in which this story is found. No other gospel-writer recorded it as they followed the course of Jesus’s life and teachings and his works of healing. But to John it stood out as a first sign, the first clue, to who Jesus was and what kind of stuff he was about to do.
This isn’t just a story about Jesus being obedient to his mother. In fact, he argues with her about it; it would seem that he didn’t feel quite ready yet to “come out” with who he really was. He had just chosen his disciples, his ministry was only on the bare edge of beginning, but when he chose to act the results were astounding, and they suddenly spelled out the first proof of what Jesus was all about. He spoke to the servants at the wedding, and pointed out six empty stone jars. The purpose of those jars was to hold the water for the rituals of purification that were an important part of being a good Jew who lived according to the Laws and regulations of their religion. There were rules about washing before eating and after being out in the marketplace and so forth, and these jars were there for that purpose. And I think Jesus used these particular jars for a reason, as a sign that he was coming to do something new with the old ways of religion. So he told the servants to fill those jars up with water, and they did, filling them up to the brim. And then he told them to take some of that water that they had just poured into the jars and carry it to the master of the feast. I would imagine at this point, the master of the feast was not in the best of moods, because it was no small thing to run out of wine at a wedding and the blame would all be on him. But they did just as Jesus said, and we know what happened. The water was no longer water; it was wine. And not only was it wine, but it was wine of such good quality that the master of the feast was surprised – wine that good was supposed to be served at the beginning of the feast, when people’s taste was still discerning, not later on when they had drunk enough that any wine was good enough. And John says that this was the first of Jesus’ signs, and that this manifested his glory. And he says that his new disciples believed in him.
Changing the water into wine wasn’t just a magic trick that impressed people. It was a sign of the kind of thing that the people of Galilee, and the disciples, and we who read John’s gospel should expect from then on. John invites us to look through his eyes as a young disciple and to begin to see who our Lord is. Because we need to understand that this is the way Jesus works. All Jesus had to work with was the normal earthy stuff of water and the stone jars, and that was all he needed. The sign wasn’t just about what he did; it was also about how he did it. It is certainly the case that he could have filled those jars with wine all on his own, without the water, without the help of the servants, but he didn’t work that way. He spoke to the servants and told them what to do. OK, fill up those jars with water, Then draw some out, he told them, and take it to the master of the feast (and they must have seen that the water was now a rich red; they probably could smell the scent of the wine as they drew it out and carried it to be tasted). This was Jesus’s very first public work, remember. There weren’t yet stories circulating around about his works of power. The servants had no real reason to expect anything to happen, except for the calm faith of Jesus’s mother. But they did as they were told, and Jesus used their obedience to create something new and wonderful, wonderful good wine to gladden the hearts of the people at that wedding.
John remembers this story because it was the first little flash of the glory that would shine through all of the works that Jesus did, during his life on earth and afterwards through his church. Reading the story of the wedding at Cana is little bit like watching the trailer to a film, where we get to see who the actors are and what kind of film it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be sad or funny or full of explosions. Reading the story of the wedding at Cana, we see the first clue that Jesus was going to be the kind of God who works with the commonest of elements, who accepts simple obedience and uses it to create something excellent and wonderful – and even more, that he uses the excellent and wonderful thing that he creates to bless everyone around him. One commentary said that this story shows us “the different dimension of reality that comes into being when Jesus is present and when, as Mary tells the servants, people do whatever Jesus tells them.”
Which is what Paul is talking about in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he teaches about how the Holy Spirit works in the church. Ever since the 1970’s, when the charismatic movement got rolling, there has been a lot of talk in a lot of churches about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I have to confess, I spent years feeling insecure and intimidated about the whole subject. In various churches at various times we had teachings on the gifts of the Spirit, we went to seminars and filled out surveys to discover “our gifts”, and while I’m sure that was very helpful to a lot of people, I always ended up feeling like a dud. I could never quite locate myself on that list of approved gifts, and I generally just excused myself by saying I was too busy exercising the gift of motherhood to take on any more spiritual gifts. I want to be very clear that if anyone here has gone through a program of seeking your spiritual gifts, and if it has been useful and encouraging to you, I am absolutely not knocking that. I know a lot of people who have been helped to find the right places for them to serve in the church, and that is wonderful. My point is that the gifts of the Spirit aren’t about finding your place in the list and plugging yourself in. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for common, ordinary everyday people who give themselves in obedience to Jesus. They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit because Jesus takes us, plain old people doing plain old things, and within our simple tap-water life and work, our giving and helping and building and serving and teaching, he creates the most wonderful wine, not for our own private use, but to gladden the hearts of our brothers and sisters.
There’s never an exhaustive list of the gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament, because there’s no limit to the things Jesus might call us to do in our life in the church. God might call his children to pray for healing or scrub floors, to teach Sunday school or plant daffodil bulbs in the church yard, to preach or cook or visit someone in the hospital. And it’s not a class system: the lesser Christian mows lawns and the really spiritual Christian speaks in tongues, because the truth is that in all that we do, whatever we do, we are all just servants. The measure of our gifts is not how spiritual we are, or how spiritual the activity is; the measure of our gifts is what Jesus can make in us when we offer ourselves to him in obedience. And the purpose of every gift is the same – to gladden the hearts of our brothers and sisters, to build up the church. My gift – the wine that Jesus creates in me – is for you, and your gift – the wine that Jesus creates in you – is for me. And it works like that because our wonderful Jesus is the kind of God that he is: the kind of God who turns water into wine so that his friends can rejoice at the wedding.
Just like the stone jars were filled with really good wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus fills us up to the brim with himself. We are called to do those things that he tells us to do – and I think we know what he wants us to do if we listen for it. We might be called to speak a kind word, or to write a sermon, or to make a pot of soup, or to repair a flat tire; we do what he tells us to do, day by day, offering our hands and our mouths and our feet and our time in simple obedience, and Jesus pours his Spirit into it, and that is what makes it – and us – a blessing for the people around us. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about what a wonderful thing it is that God works in and through us, who are merely his servants: “The God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” And that is an immensely helpful thing to remember, because you don’t have to waste your time and energy trying to become something you are not. But what you can do is this: you can offer to Jesus what you are, all that you are and all that you do, and let him pour the treasure of his glory into this jar of clay that is just you. And he will, because that is the kind of God he is. And then watch and see what blessing he will create in you to gladden the hearts of your brothers and sisters and to build up our church.