windows, ornaments, jars, & joy
Ever wonder about all those miracles in the Bible?
I dont know about you, but when I read them, more often than not my reaction falls somewhere on the spectrum between “wtf” to “omg."
On the one end there’s the awe and wonder of it all, but on the other there’s the cynicism. I want to take them seriously, but am I supposed to take them literally?
And ether way, what are these things supposed to even mean? Are they just stories of Jesus going all Oprah and being all “What? You dont believe who I am?! Well, boom! You get to walk. Boom! You get to see! Boom! You’re now alive! Boom! You get a new car! Look at that! How do you see me now?!”
Is that all they are or is there something more to them? Is there something else in them that we’re supposed to see?
Anyone know what I mean?
So this fall we’re gonna rumble with some miracles and throughout it all ask those questions. Do we see them as these primitive stories that simply need a scientific explanation? Do we see them as literally and historically true and just accept them without question? Or do we see them another way all together? Is there another way to hold these and see why these are some of the most important stories we can hear, especially as people looking to discover a new kind of life and a new kind of world?
So today, we start with one of the best miracles, definitely my favourite one, and toady we talk about:
windows & ornaments, jars, and then we’ll end with some questions to take home.
When I was in seminary, there was this one time when my friend Chris and I had to go get some books at the big library at the University of Toronto - the Robarts Library.
This wasn’t something we usually did because as theology students we had our own libraries to go to but for whatever reason, the books we were after were in the big library. So we went over, got the books, and started reading but for some reason I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t get in the zone. I tried all the tricks but nothing helped.
So I finally looked over at Chris and said “Dude, I dont know what it is about this place, but I can’t focus.” And he replied: “It’s the architecture.”
I think he’s right because this is what the Robarts library looks like:
No wonder I couldn’t concentrate. It looks like a Thanksgiving themed Death Star.
You can tell a lot about something by it’s structure. Structure will always convey meaning. While that’s certainly true for words and language, it’s also true for architecture.
Just by how something is structured - by its form, size, properties, and texture - we can begin to discover not only it’s purpose, but also it’s meaning, function, and purpose. Just by taking experiencing in, we can get a sense of it's why and what.
This is especially true when it comes to churches.
We like our churches to be shiny, beautiful, and ornate. We want them to convey the reverence and importance of it all. Thats one reason why we have churches that look like this:
We like religion to be like an ornament - this thing we can look at and experiencing what religion is about: beholding a big, reverent, beautiful, and powerful God.
And that’s great and good and all, but over the past twenty years, as people have begun to think about religion in a different way, as our understanding of God and spirituality has evolved, slowly but surely, church architecture has changed with it. We’re now ending up with churches that look less like those, and more like these:
The new form conveys a new idea, a new meaning, a new what and why.
And as these churches convey, religion is like a window.
At its best (and there’s a key phrase if I ever heard one) religion is meant to help us see. It helps us see what’s here and what’s beyond here, showing us how things really and truly are and can potentially be.
The same idea can be applied to miracles.
As the great Fred Craddock would say:
the miracles of Jesus shouldn’t be seen as ornaments we make Jesus shiny with, these things we hang on him to show how special he is. Miracles should be seen as windows, these things Jesus gives us to help us see, things that we look through to discover truths and wisdom about God, ourselves, and our world.
These miracle stories are important for us to sit with not because they can show us there’s something special about Jesus, but because they show us what's possible.
They show us what our lives and worlds could actually be like and therefore … and here’s the rub … these stories call us to believe and live like that kind of life and world could exist, right here and right now.
That’s why these miracles are some of the most important stories of our tradition. They call us to see things differently and reimagine what’s possible.
So if we’re looking for a way to hold these miracles, let’s hold them as windows. With each one we read, we ask the questions “What does this help me see? What does it call me to reimagine? What does this show me about the myself and the world?
Still with me?
So the first miracle we’re looking at comes to us from the Gospel of John and it’s the very first story John tells us.
That tells us something. There’s something in here that John thinks sets the stage for everything that follows. There’s something in this story he wants us to see so much that he puts it right up front.
And that story he really wants us to see? It’s a story about Jesus keeping a bunch of drunk people drunk.
So before we get into it, a disclaimer? This is a story about Jesus literally keeping people wasted. For us today, with our understanding and concern around things like addiction and substance abuse, this can be, and understandably so, a triggering and offensive story. But back in Jesus day, that wasn’t a concern. It wouldn’t have been a thing. So as we head into the story, we need to acknowledge that tension but still try to hear what the story is offering us.
So the story begins with Jesus, his mom, and the disciples getting invited to a wedding in this village called Cana.
Now this was a big deal. Weddings in the first century middle east were massive affairs. After an extensive courtship and engagement process, all the friends and family, plus the entire town, would gather for a 7 day party where the couple would be waited on hand and foot, and people would eat, drink, and dance for the entire week.
While a part of this was definitely to the celebrate two people getting married, the party also served another, perhaps even more important, function: it was a break from all the work, struggle, and stress.
This was a tough world. It was a world of empire and occupation, of oppression and violence, and of despair and darkness. You worked 24/7, weekends didn’t exist, and neither did vacations. Life was straight up hard. So hard that moments of pure joy, peace, and relaxation were so foreign and so fleeting, that they were saved for that day when God would make things right - that day way in the future’s future, in some time beyond this one.
So to have a wedding? To have a chance to party? For 7 whole days?! You can imagine how big a deal it would be. This meant something way beyond a marriage. It was a time to indulge, to feast, and to experience excess. It was a brief taste of what they believed would one day happen.
Still with me?
So everyone’s there having a night of it, and for some reason Jesus’ mom notices there isn’t anymore wine. She looks to Jesus and is all, “they are out of wine,” Jesus is all “What do you want me to do about it?,” and his mom gives him that look only parents can give and Jesus, a bit reluctantly, sets off to do something about it. He goes and tells some servants to go put water into these 6 huge jars that are standing by the door and start serving of of them. So the servants, no doubt a bit confused about how this is going to solve the wine problem, do what their told, and they discover that the water in those jars has been miraculously transformed into wine, and not just any wine, the best wine. We’re not talking Apothic here; we’re talking the finest, best, most delicious wine ever. We’re talking over 1000 bottles, that’s over 6000 glasses, of the finest wine you’ve ever had. And the wine gets brought out, people can’t believe how good it is, and the party continues - everyone keeps eating, drinking, and dancing.
And that’s how John opens up his Gospel. That’s the first story people get about who Jesus is:
Jesus is the guy who keeps the party going.
It’s a great story. And not just because it challenges some normative, more conservative, conventions within Christianity, but because of where it takes us. And to see where it takes us, we need to really understand what the miracle actually is.
Cause the thing is, the miracle isn’t the wine. It’s not the act of transforming the water itself.
The miracle has everything to do with those six jars of water.
In the first century, one of the threads that ran through Judaism was an emphasis on purity. The general idea was that in order to be seen and accepted by God, in order to be seen as good and worthy, and therefore in order to be find a meaningful and fulfilling life, you had to be pure. (Think attitudes towards sexuality that a lot of conservative Christians have and you’ll get the idea.) So knowing that enough stuff happens throughout the day to make people impure, the religious leaders developed all these rituals people could do that would ‘cleanse’ them, ensuring that they would become acceptable and good in God’s eyes (not to mention everyone else’s) and therefore be able to find that life they’re looking for.
And one of these systems was washing with water that was kept in these huge special jars - jars exactly like the ones in this story. You'd not only begin and end your day with them, but you’d begin and end pretty much everything with them. You’d use them before and after you eat, before and after you had sex, and before and after work. You’d use them before and after pretty much everything because these huge jars of water were essential for people remaining connected to God, each other, and to themselves. That's why these jars were at the wedding. People would need to be ritually cleansed throughout the week of eating and partying.
And it’s these jars that Jesus takes and transforms the water in them into wine.
So knowing that, does that change how we understand the miracle?
The miracle of the story isn’t that Jesus changed water into wine. It’s what the people at that party saw through it.
The miracle of this story is that Jesus took a system that told people that in order to be in God’s presence, in order to be seen good, worthy, and belonging, in order to find Life as it was meant to be, you needed these jars, and, through his actions, said:
“You dont need these anymore. You never needed these things. You dont need to begin and end with them. That’s not where you find life."
So as people looking to find meaning in this story and who want to know what this miracle can mean for us today, the thing we need to ask is: “what are our jars?”
What are the things we begin and end with? What are the things we go back to again and again to make ourselves acceptable, good, and worthy?
What are the things we do to earn our place? What do we do thinking that if we do this, then we can find our life, then I’ll have approval, then things will be good.
Who knows what Im talking about?
Sometimes they look like obligations that we inherit from our families or religions telling us what to believe or how to vote or what to do …
Sometimes they look like these wounds that have become so powerful and central to our identity, they begin to shape everything we do …
Sometimes they look like these costumes we put on that gain the respect and admiration of others …
Other times they look like check lists we keep, things we have to do in order to keep up with everyone else …
Whatever they look like, these are the things we keep going back to, beginning and ending our days with them, thinking that it’s there, in and through these things, that we can find our worth, our value, and our belonging, thinking it’s there, in and through our jars, we’ll find life.
Anyone know what their jars are?
In undergrad, my jars were my grades. Pretty much all of my good friends were top of the class students. They all have doctorates now. They’re ridiculously smart. I remember feeling that in order be a part of that community, in order to gain their respect, in order to be seen as valuable, I had to have good grades. So I busted my ass, going back and forth to these jars, spending night after night in the library, looking to these grades to determine who I was, what my worth was, and to ensure I could belong.
Our jars are pretty powerful, aren’t they? For a lot of us these things are foundational to how we understand ourselves and how the world works. So much is determined by them and through them. So we can understand what it would mean for those jars to be taken away, can’t we? It’d be disruptive, wouldn’t it? It’d change everything.
Which makes this miracle kind of scary. It’s scary to be invited into something different. To be asked to see things in a new way is a really challenging thing.
I mean, if we dont gain our lives from our jars, where do we find it? What do we replace them with? What are we supposed to begin and end with?!
Well, that brings us back to that wine, that best wine the people would ever have.
In Jesus’ day and certainly within our tradition, what does wine symbolize?
Wine has always been associated with joy.
It would be associated with joy not because it gets people drunk, but because of the spirituality underneath it.
Remember why were weddings so important? They acted as a taste of what they thought would one day come, that day when all the work would be over, when oppression would end, when peace would flow, when people could finally, once and for all, experience pure, unadulterated joy.
When we talk about joy, we’re not talking about happiness. We’re talking about something deeper and wider than that. As Paul Tillich said, “joy is the emotional expression of the courageous ‘yes’ to one's own true being.” When we talk about joy, we’re talking about that feeling of being fully and truly alive just as we are.
So if that’s what wine symbolizes, and if Jesus changed the water in those jars to wine, and those jars are the miracle, what do we see through this? What is he pointing out to us through this miracle?
He’s pointing out that life isn’t found in and through our jars. Life doesnt begin and end there. He’s pointing out that life begins and ends with joy.
For those of us going back and forth to our jars trying to find and earn our life, this miracle shows us something liberating, beautiful, and powerful:
You dont need to live like that. You dont need to keep doing that. You wont find your life there. Life, rather, the life that is full and deep, and that expands and grows, it’s found in joy.
It’s found in the things that make you feel truly and fully alive. It’s found in the things that fill us up and spur us on. It’s found in the things that remind us that this life and world, however dark and broken, is still beautiful and good.
The miracle is that Jesus is showing us a new place where we go to find our lives, where we can find the party that sustains us through the work and struggle, where everything should begin and end: pure unadulterated joy. A joy we don’t need to wait for, but a joy we can experience right here and right now.
So some questions to take home with you:
What’s your joy? What’s the thing that fills you up and makes you come alive?
May you begin and end there and discover the life you’re looking for.
Who didn’t drink? Who in this story saw what Jesus is doing and refused the joy being offered? Who insisted on keeping their jars and left the party early?
May you not become that person. May you know you don’t need those things and may you have the courage to say ‘yes’ to joy.