Unclear Signs

sermon on John 2:1-11


This story gets me into trouble.

The first instance was when I was maybe in middle school, and with this Bible passage made my mom even more upset than she had been at me before. See, I had called her “woman.” She wasn’t too pleased about me referring to her that way. I pointed out that Jesus called his mom “woman,” saying “woman, what concern is that to me and you?” so she was discounting Jesus as my role model. That odd biblical trivia from a time in life when I wasn’t paying much attention surely is an indicator I’ve always been a smart… something. (A smart aleck.)

Now I have more reason to know Bible stories, and I find this one getting me into trouble for a different reason. See, this story of turning water into wine is the second most typical request or pseudo-expectation of what being a pastor might mean. With the odd presumption that I’m closer to Jesus (which I’m not), this turns to the playful suggestion that I also could liven up the party by conjuring some wine. If Jesus could suddenly make 180 gallons of primo wine out of stale water, well…I can’t. (If you’re wondering, in this sort of category the most typical request of pastors is to do something about the weather. I can’t do that, either.)

But how this story most gets me into trouble is because I just don’t get it. If this is the first of Jesus’ signs, signs are supposed to indicate something, to point us in the right direction. But what exactly is this miraculous sign pointing to? It’s not clear.

For me, there’s at least a hint here that Jesus loved a party and the delights of life, that following Jesus isn’t about struggle and cross-bearing all the time, but is also about celebrating loving relationships and enjoying plenty of good drink and making merry. I figure his attitude is some of why we ourselves celebrate at weddings.

Or maybe more than permission for us to cut loose, it could signify that God is not a God of stinginess but of abundance. The finest abundance, not to keep cellared but breaking it out to share flagrantly. That metaphor seems like it could fit our Creator.

Or maybe it’s more direct than God providing our general festivities. At the end of the next chapter, in his last appearance, John the Baptist will refer to Jesus as the bridegroom. So is this miracle supposed to be a celebration of us being wedded to Jesus (as it has it some places in the Bible)? As I hold onto those possibilities, I’m not sure exactly what the sign means.

And if I consider those might be what this sign is indicating, for the kind of Christian who would frequently put a lot more stock in miracles than I do and who would be eager to accept each word of the Bible as factual accuracy, they may actually point away instead of following this direction. There are some of those literalist and fundamentalist sorts of believers who don’t approve of drinking and so would have to explain away this first sign or ignore something of what it might be indicating.

It’s not only piety that could shape an aversion to this or that our sense of propriety seemed to be (rather backwardly) of a higher standard than God’s interest. There are good reasons to object, obviously foremost including too many instances of alcohol abuse, where an abundance of wine would not be so positive a sign. We distort gifts of God’s goodness in our lives by overconsumption. This sign has that ambiguity, other problems complicating the clarity of its goodness.

But, to reorient, this isn’t probably best conceived as a sign to tell us what God thinks about drinking wine.  This is a sign pointing to God in Jesus.

So maybe we are meant to see God incarnate in Jesus since Jesus can do God’s work of making wine, which we could superstitiously take as the magic of turning grape juice into a fermented beverage. Or maybe more scientifically we appreciate the aspect of God bringing rainfall and growth of grapes. Or God’s work in the mystical edge of how people fall in love. And so on.

But even before trying to figure that out, I can’t help but notice that if this sign is supposed to be showcasing something about Jesus, it seems to do kind of a lousy job. It says this revealed his glory, or made it manifest. Good words for this Epiphany season—reveal and manifest. After his arrival at Christmas, this is a season about helping us understand who Jesus is.

Yet within the story, he’s not really revealed. All of it happens behind the scenes. The closest is a parenthetical comment that the servants knew where the winey water came from when the chief steward tasted it, who then went to congratulate or praise the bridegroom. Jesus gets no credit. So much for his glory. Nobody really seems to know this miracle could be attributed to him. It could’ve just as well been claimed by Wanda the Wondermaker, seated across from Jesus at the banquet table. Maybe Jesus needed to work on his magician’s showmanship and throw some big Voilas and TaDas with a swish of his cape or something.

The thing is, this notion of signs is a pretty big deal in John’s Gospel, but it never really resolves to be clear indicators, at least in the way we’d expect. Signs get mentioned 17 times through the story, but mainly seem to add to confusion rather than clarity in revealing the work of God in Jesus.

The multiplication of bread and fish to feed 5000 is one of the signs, but mostly it increased the people’s appetite for bread rather than making them hunger for Jesus. The healing of a man blind from birth is described as something never done before, but that sign created an argument over whether Jesus was a sinner. And the final and greatest sign of Jesus’ life was calling four-day dead Lazarus out of his tomb, but this resuscitation from death didn’t resolve that Jesus was the giver of life; rather it made the authorities determine to kill him. Against the whole purpose of the signs, and of the Gospel of John itself—that these were so you may believe in Jesus—the summary word at the end of his ministry was “Although he had performed many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (12:37).

The reverse troubling side to me is that while they had signs that didn’t make a difference, we want signs we don’t get. We may say that if we could see, we’d believe. We just ask for a sign from God, a clear indicator, something that can make us know and trust. So people would like it if I could change water to wine. Following that advancing pattern in the Gospel, being able to multiply bread and feed the hungry could provide great relief. We deeply long for cures to our illnesses and infirmities. Finally, in a question of proliferating signs already asked in the Gospel story itself (11:37): if Jesus could call Lazarus out of the tomb, how come Jesus isn’t still doing that now?

I suppose there’s an edge of being able to say that we know from the story that he did it, so we are able to believe in Jesus, that it’s not about changing all the water to wine or about resuscitating every last dead person. Or maybe we say that these are isolated indicators of God’s larger work, that God is striving to feed the hungry and will indeed raise us all from death into eternal life.

I guess my final difficulty with signs is that I distrust them. That’s not where I want to hang my theological cap, since signs seem so much to be the opposite of what we’re up to here. Scripture says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope and faith don’t have clear revelation. They remain bound with doubt and uncertainty, as unsettling as that is.

It may rightly make us wonder how we can be so assured and convinced when we have no proof, no clear sign. With that surprising sense, I want to share words from Martin Luther King. He said:

In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God….In the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God….In the midst of outer dangers I have felt and inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose.*

There’s surprise in that for me, because Dr. King’s sign pointed the opposite direction we’d expect. He doesn’t say that he can believe and trust God because the efforts for justice in the Civil Rights movement were advancing so well, much less because he was inexplicably saved from the assassin’s knife. It wasn’t in abundance or what we call blessing that he was convinced of God and confident in hope, but rather in suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments.

I wouldn’t try to commend struggles to you so that you could have a sign of God. But I suppose that with Dr. King there are many of us who admit that that can be the case, who know that when the going gets tough, that’s exactly when faith is such a strong and apparent resource.

Maybe that’s also why the Gospel of John doesn’t find Jesus manifest in glory as one whom everybody understands and likes, where it’s a party whenever he’s around, and who does just what we want and gives us everything we ask, but instead says that the clearest sign of God is as Jesus is lifted up on the cross. That is glory. That is our sign.

So might it be that we usually look the wrong direction? We figure the sign points to an end result. But maybe these stories aren’t that the sign is more wine, more bread, more health, longer life. Maybe it’s that through Jesus we’re also supposed to see God showing up in the lack, when we’re in tears and confronting death, amid the exclusions and disabilities of our bodies and of culture, when we’re hungering for more, and even amid the shame and social distress and hospitality failure of a spoiled party when the wine has run out. At those moments of despair, large and small, maybe we’re realizing God’s presence comes to those low and hurting and deadly places.

And further in that way, rather than a faith that goes hunting to discover God in each little glimmer or that tries to attribute the coincidences of fermenting yeast and healing of cells and averting of death, rather than that guesswork and chasing after our own imagined signs or their lack, I trust the God who is with us in sorrow and torment, who isn’t waiting to show up in odd phenomena, but who has promised to be found fully and infinitely present in a remarkably small tidbit of bread and non-abundant sip of wine, in the water of the font joining you to death and the hope of resurrection, and this Word of God—that was from the beginning—speaking to you even with the voice of a wisenheimer who was rude to his mother. That’s our revelation, the sign of this hidden God, as unspectacular and unclear as it may be, and those very regular and inglorious places are just where we need God to be found.


* in A Testament of Hope, p40


Seeing Sin

sermon on John 9


You’re in store for quite a Gospel reading.  It’s like TV’s best medical dramas and courtroom or police shows rolled into one, with sitcom humor on the side.  It’s long, at 41 verses, but is chockfull. Rather than preaching on some part of it, I’m going to unpack pieces as we go, though that means you’ll have to listen more carefully to keep the flow of the story amid my snippets of commercial interruptions.


The holy gospel according to John.  (Glory to you, O Lord.)

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”


This is still a fairly common view, wondering when something bad happens, if it’s punishment. Though we’re Lutherans, we keep sliding toward a sense of karma.  Far from an abstract theological question, that’s dangerous. Jesus re-grounds us, though:


3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”


This chunk is a main reason I wanted to do this with disruptions. Almost every English version of the Bible gets it wrong. See, in the original, there were just strings of Greek capital letters all in a row, so as we translate the Bible, we make decisions and choices. Here a poor choice punctuates it breaking it as Karen read: “he was born blind* so that God’s works might be revealed in him. [period] We must work the works of him who sent me.” Check out the difference this makes: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. [period] But so that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me.”

In the first version, even if it weren’t a punishment for sin, still Jesus would have been saying God caused the illness for the sake of making a good example. That disturbingly still attributes suffering or exclusion or problems as God’s will and purposes. (Again, still a fairly common view.)

But Jesus was dismissing cause-and-effect thinking about sickness or disability or such troubles. Though we know there are results for our misbehavior, Jesus was saying God doesn’t cause sickness either because of sin or so that God can heal you. Some inexplicable and sad things just happen: this man was born blind.

But the question then becomes: what are we going to do about it? Jesus commissions us to join him: “we must work God’s works,” he says, to turn night back to day. Jesus is the light of the world, and as long as his work is being done he is enlightening and brightening lives that were in the valley of the shadow of death.


 6When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes…

Does anybody have an association for what an image of God shaping dirt calls to mind? The Genesis creation story, forming life from the dust of the earth! Like with light in the darkness, this is a creation story.* A key of this story may be declaring that amid imperfections or what’s not right in life, God the Creator continues striving toward perfection. God is not yet done working with you or our world.


7 [And Jesus said] to [the blind man], “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).


More fully, it means “the sent one.” The name is a play on words. In this Gospel, Jesus is described over and over as sent by God; he’s the sent one. But this also highlights the blind man is one sent by Jesus (and the Greek word here is “apostle”).

Observe that in being sent, the blind man had to trust. He didn’t know who Jesus was, nor had Jesus explained what’s happening. The man had to find his way somehow through town to the pool, trusting Jesus. At which point Jesus disappears, from verse 7 all the way to verse 35. We’ll return to what that might mean.


Then [the man] went and washed and came back able to see.


He can see! But what’s hard for us to envision is that this isn’t about miraculous healing of an illness as we think of it. Indeed, for John’s Gospel these aren’t called miracles, but are “signs” (v16), and as signs are pointers to Jesus and God’s work, God’s vision amid community.  This man, though blind, would all-too-clearly have seen he was put on the margin of society, excluded from community. Without going too much into ancient optometry, he wasn’t just stuck in the dark; darkness supposedly came from him. The view would’ve been that the blindness was because he was evil.** In some essential way, Jesus was showing he wasn’t evil, which also restored him to a rightful place in community.

To understand this non-healing in our culture, it’s exactly what we heard from Deshawn in adult ed, that systems need to change so that peoples’ stories can be realized they are human from the day of their birth. To trace this, we can try a modern analogy on this “National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice”*** and picture how those with certain gender expressions and identities have much too often been condemned and excluded. The man in the story was told something was wrong with him, that his body proved he wasn’t right. His identity theoretically displaced him from normal society. He was fearful and his very existence was allegedly against the rules. But in this sign, Jesus showed that that place wasn’t deserved and re-incorporated him into God’s work as a disciple and apostle. Peeking ahead in the story, when leaders reverse justice and fail to see good, Jesus would stand against such blindness in society. He refuses to label the persecuted with sin. He welcomes hurting and oppressed people, bringing light in dark places and continuing God’s creation that is seen as very good, even if it’s a work in progress.


8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask,”Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”


Another comedic bit. Some said, “are you the beggar?” Others said, “are you someone else?” He replied, “I AM!*” He didn’t choose one answer. He was both. (Or neither?) His identity wasn’t the blind beggar anymore, even though it’s still him.

This may be a spotlight on Jesus’ work in your life, too. You’re still the same old you, not waiting for a whole entire transformation when everything is different. And yet the confining ways you defined yourself or how constrictively others looked at you are no longer able to encapsulate you. You are also somebody new.


10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”  16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.


In a sad re-reversal, the man who was just freshly validated and reintegrated into life is once more excluded in this big section of courtroom drama and belligerent interrogation, though John subversively portrays it as proving guilt against those leaders. They said Jesus couldn’t have the power to heal if he didn’t care about the rules, but if he did have power from God he shouldn’t have been breaking the rules. This shows their sense of justice is flawed. The sabbath was understood to be rest at the completion of creation, but we’ve already seen God recognizes there’s still work to do. Their logic fails, just as it failed in saying the man must’ve been evil because he was blind, and as we’re eventually discovering the real evil is in those who could see.


17So they said again to the blind man,”What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them,”Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”  20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”  22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews;for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”


I’ve been intrigued at how family plays into these Lenten readings. One week was ancestry, with the testament to you as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but also of being born of Mother God. Last week involved marriage and partners, with a woman who’d been married to five men and was living with another, but Jesus gave her a new role separate from any condescending definitions. In this chunk, these parents didn’t seem to care about their son’s disability and needs, or to celebrate his new status, or to defend and guard him at all. They looked out for their own necks. Just as the reading is showing brokenness in social community, it seems the same in parent/child relationships. Finally, next week we’ll hear about two sisters who loved their brother but were utterly incapable of helping him in the face of death but Jesus—who also loved him—was able. I don’t know exactly what to make of all of this, but they’re intriguing reflections on family and faith.


24So for the second time [the religious leaders] called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”


“I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see!”


 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”  27[The man] answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen.Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”


Sarcasm alert!  Probably they didn’t want to be Jesus’ disciples.


28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses,but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”


In spite of being an outsider in the position of weakness, the man was winning the argument, which showed that so-called justice in society and those who control it were wrong in God’s perspective. In this last portion, the religious leaders blew it. They’d essentially put Jesus on trial to disqualify his potential, but then admitted they didn’t know where he came from. After repeatedly saying he didn’t know what to say about Jesus, this is an opening for the man to reply that they should be able to recognize he must have come from God.


30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners,but that if  people are devout and obey God’s will, God hears them. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.


That’s the end of the debate. Since they couldn’t win, they stifled his voice and kicked him out. This is too often the case in confronting authorities lacking justice or integrity: good and reasonable arguments are ignored anyway. Just as this began by refusing to explain illness or wrong—maybe frustratingly for many of you—it ends as a story not about improving health care systems or resolving political struggles or changing the minds of those in power, though such details would’ve been helpful for us these days.

Instead, this story focuses on when leaders don’t follow the apparent right path and won’t listen to reason. It’s for people who have been left out in sickness, and left out even if they recover, for people who are told their very identity is faulty, is bad. It’s one denied justice still being proven right and showing injustice in the system.

In all of that, it’s portraying Jesus on the side of life, welcoming the outcast. It’s about expecting that from him even when you can’t see him, and not blindly putting trust in the wrong place like authorities or justice or even health. That’s a hard thing when the struggle continues, when those in power drive you out, when you wonder if everybody is against you, including God. But it is in these moments that Jesus again shows up for you.


35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”


“You have seen him” here means that literally. This is the first time the formerly blind man has seen Jesus. It also has meaning for us, though we act now not by sight but by faith and in trust. As we gain confidence from our faith, we expect seeing Jesus mainly is still yet to come. We’ll encounter that theme again after Easter when the risen Jesus appears to help Thomas trust and believe, while reminding the rest of us, “blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe.”


38[The man] said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”


That’s all of chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, though the story continues in chapter 10 with Jesus as the Good Shepherd, where seeing Jesus is rephrased as recognizing his voice. It remains focused on his identity of bringing us out of sin to abundant life in the beloved community of creation. I’d say that’s why we’re here.


For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, (thanks be to God.)


* (even more, the words “he was born blind” aren’t in the original!)

* some good stuff here: http://girardianlectionary.net/learn/alison-on-john-9/

** stuff around here

*** http://www.reconcilingworks.org/weekend-of-prayer-trans-justice/

* (another play on words with the divine name like Jesus!)