When is a Sign a Sign?

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and John 2:1-211

Let us pray:

Gracious Lord, may your Holy Spirit descend once more to us and guide our footsteps in your everlasting way. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.

When is a sign A Sign? Let me tell you about a labyrinth experience I had this week. I was mulling over my future ministry in light of my son Timothy entering kindergarten come Fall. I have been struggling back and forth about what to do for that to enable me to be available for him before and after school; as you know my wife is our full-time breadwinner and not available as primary caregiver to the children.

I decided to head on over to a house in our neighborhood that I have upon occasion frequented because they make a small labyrinth in their front yard and a peace plaza on their side yard available to anyone. I decided I would walk the labyrinth and see what kind of answer might arise for me. On the way there I decided I would try a focused walk, asking one question this time of myself and of God, instead of just a wordless lifting up of all the issues on my heart. So I came up with one question that at the time seemed related to all the rest of the issues: should I seek to validate my ministry at Menucha?

For those who do not know what that means, it means I would petition the Presbytery to recognize my position and work at Menucha as a legitimately called ministry position. Which may not mean much by itself, but could be a bargaining chip for me later on down the road, as that would all of a sudden make me an ordained clergy person serving a total of 39 hours a week within the bounds of our presbytery instead of just 15 here and 24 non-ordained lay professional hours for Menucha.

So there I was, in the dark and rain, walking this tiny stone paver labyrinth asking God, “should I seek validation of my ministry at Menucha?” When I got to the middle, where in labyrinth walking we become still and listen for illumination or some sort of answer if it comes, I looked up at the house and right there in the window was a large cardboard sign with hand written block letters, “YES.”

When is a sign a Sign? I laughed in spite of myself and said out loud, “I’ve never received an answer so fast from a labyrinth walk!” So of course I look around, second guessing the message and trying to figure out why there would be a sign in the window directly in front of the center of the labyrinth at the end of the circuitous walk.

That’s when I saw the three or four boxes stacked up on the porch. “Ah, UPS or FedEx pick up or something, right?” But as the rain came down and dripped into my face, I had to laugh again and say, “OK, I’ll accept that answer for now and see what happens.”

This week I acted to find out what I could about validated ministry and approached both my supervisor at Menucha and our Head of Staff down at the church that owns us about my seeking validation. My supervisor agreed to do a little looking into what ramifications there would be, if any, to either Menucha or First Presbyterian Church of Portland, our parent organization, if I were to petition Presbytery to accept my position at Menucha as a validated call to ministry. I have also begun thinking about what my ministry will be come 2017, when my annual contract with this church again expires. To which I invite you to pray with me: “Oh Lord, guide us all to what you want most from us for the sake of your kingdom. Amen.”

What makes a Sign a Sign? Let us turn now to the text from John’s Gospel for today. In the midst of a couple of months worth of Sundays with texts from the Gospel of Luke, we have this odd departure in the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, so I thought it would be worth looking into. John’s Gospel is multi-layered to say the least. One of the nicknames it has earned over the years is the Signs Gospel. Some commentators see the Gospel of John making use of seven signs, building into each sign a revelation of who Jesus is. What we can ask of each text when we come across theses passages is, what is the sign, and what is the sign pointing to? Hold that in mind for a minute.

With the layering effect of John, other themes also come to the forefront. For example, to a contemporary mind pricked by a social justice consciousness, today’s passage might be viewed as scandalous. A social justice minded person might read this and see some Christian traditions using Jesus as a divine “gimme” figure to simply meet their needs. A surface reading of Mary’s complaint, “They have no wine,” and the extravagant response of Jesus, even if it was “not yet his time,” might lead one to believe this. Commentator Carol Hess aptly describes the tension from this perspective when she writes,

“In a world where for so many there is no clean water—let alone fine wine—where is the extravagance of God? In a world where children play in bomb craters the size of thirty-gallon wine jugs, why the divine reluctance? In a world where desperate mothers must say to their small children, “We have no food,” why has the hour not yet come? No matter how we rationalize divine activity, we still want to tug at Jesus’ sleeve and say: “they have no wine.”

It may seem like a travesty to turn a narrative about divine abundance into a trial of God, and yet it is passages like this one about divine extravagance that make God’s absence in the face of poverty, suffering, and evil stand out. How do we reconcile a story of potent generosity with a world of tremendous need? If God is both generous and able, then apparently God continues to express Jesus’ attitude: ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’”[1]

And that is the most scandalous of all. God – why are you so cold and impartial? Must we all be like Mother Mary and nag you to take care of your people, your earth? The silence of the heavens sometimes astounds me…and yet, when is a Sign a Sign?

Commentator Robert Brearly has a completely different take away for this passage; he writes:

“Sometimes the church has forgotten that our Lord once attended a wedding feast and said yes to gladness and joy. Prompted by his earthly mother, Jesus turned water into wine to point us to his heavenly Father, a God who loves to hear the laughter of people celebrating people. Sometimes the church has forgotten to live the joy of such revelation.”[2]

Commentator Linda Bridges tries to marry the two perspectives, digging deep into the signs and symbols of John’s Gospel. Ultimately she muses on the astonished faces of the disciples as they peer into huge jars and see their faces reflected on the surface of water turned wine. In astonishment, as a result of this first of seven signs in John’s Gospel, the disciples “believed in him.”

Beginning with this first sign, in Cana in Galilee, a summary of chapters 2-4 includes the following challenging stories, all found nowhere else:

“Jesus turns water into wine, explains that his body is the new temple (2:13-25).  Jesus challenges Nicodemus to be born from above (3:1-21).  Jesus offers living water to an unnamed woman at a well (4:1-45).   Jesus returns to Cana to give life to the son of a royal official (4:46-54)….  [Returning to John’s text for  today] the symbols of the wedding reveal that the old religion lacks hospitality and vigor. The six ritual [cleansing] pots of water signify the old order. Jesus, however, provides overflowing vats of wine that never run dry.” [3]

When is a Sign a Sign? Returning to our original questions: What is the sign, and what is the sign pointing to?

Jesus turns water into really fine wine. For the Johannine community, and I submit for us later readers as well, the purpose is to reveal the person of Jesus. The results of this and the other six signs in John will be the same for us as they were for the first readers: some who see it will understand the sign for what it is, and some will reject it, either through a social-justice conscious pricking at their minds or a myriad of other reasons to second-guess the extravagant love of God.

In light of the future of this faith community, and perhaps for you personally as well, the question becomes: When does a Sign become a Sign for you?

May all glory be unto the one who lived, died, and rose again for us, even him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Hess, Carol. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.

[2] Brearly, Robert. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.

[3] Bridges, Linda M. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.


About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
This entry was posted in Conversation Starters, Encouragement, Inspiration, Reflection, Sermon. Bookmark the permalink.

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