"It was a frightening sight for many," the report began about a week and a half ago, "when a man carrying a rifle walked through the doors of a Fayetteville church during a service on New Year’s Eve, but congregants describe what happened next as a holiday miracle." I bet many of you have seen this on the news, but it’s worth mentioning. Folks had gathered at Heal the Land Outreach Ministries in Fayetteville on New Year’s Eve when an armed man walked in, and Pastor Larry Wright was the first to see him. In our present environment, with too much of this stuff on the news, and many churches – I’ve had some conversations with our African American brothers and sisters who, post-Charleston, are thinking quite seriously in their congregations about security – many churches are afraid, then their worst nightmare seemed to be coming true. A man walks in with a gun.
This pastor, somehow, amazingly, calmly looked him in the eye and asked if he could help. The man broke down, asked for prayer, walked up and laid his rifle on the altar. The pastor laid hands on him to pray, the man weeping. As the days unfolded they learned more – he was a veteran struggling with PTSD, not receiving the support he needs, finances in tough shape, his wife diagnosed with a debilitating disease. Their power had just been cut off. A few days later WRAL-tv was there when the man came into the church to apologize, to ask for forgiveness. "It was a frightening sight for many," the report began, but they described what happened "…as a holiday miracle."1
There’s something about this word, miracle. Another loaded church word we say that I imagine we’ve heard used all sorts of ways. Sometimes causally: "It’s a miracle I made it over here in time." Often it’s in trying to explain something someone can’t explain. It’s a miracle that car missed me. It’s a miracle that the doctor noticed that very faint shadow on the scan. It’s a miracle my son wasn’t at that party when things started to go wrong. It’s hard to figure out how to use this word, miracle, when we want to express that we believe God was clearly and actively at work in our lives, but we can’t fully explain how. Trying to explain a miracle is like trying to explain most things about God, it’s not something we have the capacity to do. We simply bear witness to what we have seen. This has always been complicated, but even more so post-enlightenment, post-scientific method, when the way our world validates something is a study appropriately constructed, evidence checked, and double-checked, and triple-checked.
But when it comes to the miracles of Jesus, which John calls "signs," they are signals, signposts, pointing to something about who God is and what God is about. The word miracle means something that excites awe, from the Latin word miraculum, meaning to wonder at. This story tells us that when one lives in close proximity to Jesus, one has many opportunities to stand in awe.2 In today’s text, it begins at a wedding. Right before, John 1:50, Jesus has said to the disciple Nathanael, "You will see greater things than these." And it’s not long.
On the third day, John begins his telling, there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus in 1:43 had just said he was going to go.3 We don’t know whose wedding it was. Jesus’s mother – who isn’t named anywhere in John’s gospel4 – was invited. Jesus and the disciples were, too. I do find it funny that we know nothing else about the wedding other than the wine ran out. A crisis! Jesus’ mother turns to him and says, "There is no wine." I imagine it was said in that special way parents speak to children, where the words don’t matter as much as the tone of voice and the eyes. "Your room is a mess." "The laundry hasn’t been put away." "There is no wine," but her eyes seem to have said, "What are you going to do about this, Jesus?"
Scholars have argued about his response. Spitting back a response that starts with, "Woman" in the way we might imagine it, isn’t appropriate to your mother or any other woman. It’s just not. But Lamar Williamson notes that it didn’t sound as brusque in his day as it does in our own, and that it was a regular form of address that Jesus uses with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 or Mary Magdalene in chapter 20. He uses it with tenderness to his mother from the cross in chapter 19.5 But Jesus doesn’t explain things. It’s not yet time, is what he says. This gets at a much deeper and gradual unfolding that occurs in John’s gospel. This is the first SIGN, John says. Then comes the cleansing of the temple, nighttime conversations with Nicodemus, a meeting with a Samaritan woman and another healing that John labels in 4:54 as ‘the second sign.’
The purposes of these signs are to, as John tells is in 2:11, reveal his glory. Remember back in chapter 1 verse 14, that we read on Christmas Eve? "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth." From doxo, as in the doxology, glory, praise and honor, radiance and splendor. This story is about the revealing, about those very close around him beginning to see who Jesus was, the power and love of God made flesh and walking around. God with us. It doesn’t matter at all whose wedding it was. Jesus’ mother already knows something of her son’s power, which is why, even after Jesus’ rebuttal, she says to the servants: "Just do whatever he says." And Jesus notices those six stone jars, and has the servants fill them to the brim, 120 to 180 gallons of water. This was enough volume that when Jesus instructed the servants to take a sip to the chief steward, and that he could confirm that not only that ALL of it was wine, but that it was the BEST wine, there we see Christ’s glory. The volume, and the quality, done in a way as to confound the customary expectations of who serves what when, this sign demonstrates that there’s a new game in town, that everything is changing. Even here at the beginning of John the disciples, we, are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that was unfolding before the disciples, and that is unfolding even now.
Language of miracles can be something that intelligent, reasonable people look down their nose at sometimes. Some of these miracle stories in the bible sure feel fantastic and supernatural, beyond what we think could possibly happen. I don’t think we’re called to shut down our brains when reading these texts – we can still take care with them and be thorough. Some of these miracle stories don’t make much sense. And I must say I don’t know – I don’t think I need to believe that all of these stories happened EXACTLY this way. But I surely believe that God has the power to do these things, that Jesus the Christ has the power to turn water into wine, to heal, to feed five thousand, to rise from the dead. And I believe that this power is still loose in the world – it didn’t end with the closing of the canon. That’s what people mean, I think, when they say something about a miracle they have experienced – no matter how fantastic it may seem, how big or how small. I believe it is their way, it is our way, of saying that something happened that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t seem possible. And that they believe, and I believe, that THAT was somehow God.
Wednesday before last it was getting dark and I went out and stood in line at the hot dog food truck. I was talking with one of you, a mom and one of her sons. She ordered. The guy came back, and I ordered. He brought all of hot dogs and accompanying snacks to us, and asked, "Are you all together?" No, no, we quickly said. She’s got hers for her son; I’ve got mine for my kids over there. Thanks. The hot dog guy paused and smiled. "You know one of the reasons I love coming here? It’s because of what just happened – I can’t tell who is with whom," he said. It just feels like you’re all together he said. I love it. You’re all together.
That’s a miracle to me – when, as busy as we are, God binds us into community. It’s a miracle when a youth stands up to someone bullying someone else in the hall. It’s a miracle EVERY YEAR when stewardship season happens and the budget comes together. It’s a miracle that people show up here every Sunday, every week you people come, when there’s a lot more interesting things going on in the world, or at Starbucks, or the beach. BUT if we believe God is still at work, IF we believe the Spirit of the Risen Christ is still among us, doing things, confounding expectations, then maybe miracles happen. Maybe they happen all around us, every day. Frederick Buechner wrote, "A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is when one plus one equals a thousand."6
May it be so, for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "Man who brought gun to Fayetteville church returns to apologize," WRAL.com
2. From the Rev. Becca Messman’s paper on this text at The Well, 2012, Montreat.
3. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 23.
4. Williamson, 24.
5. Williamson, 24.
6. Buechner, Frederick, The Alphabet of Grace, (Harper Collins, 1970).