Bringing the Words to Life

Lectionary Passage: Luke 4: 14-21
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Both this passage and the Old Testament lection for this week (Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10) have to do with reading Scripture.  Isn’t that interesting–a Scripture about reading Scripture?  So was it important to include these passages so that we would understand what the Scriptures should mean to us?  After all, we revere the world, processing the Bible in each week, the closest thing that we can get to a tangible representation of “The Word of the Lord.”  And when we reach third grade, we experience one of those all-important church rites when we receive our Bible.  And somewhere along the way, we somehow get the impression that this heavily-bound, often golden-tipped set of pages is itself holy, an instrument of worship, but, more than that, a set of words that can lead us to God.   It is that notion that led me to an almost sick feeling when I have walked into my house three separate times to encounter the chewed and tattered pages of a Bible strewn across the floor.  Yes, Maynard, the over-zealous Black Lab with apparently an unquenchable appetite for the Scriptures, has eaten three Bibles.  I had someone ask me if he had eaten the whole thing.  No, I responded, he’s really just like all of us–picking and choosing what he wants to digest and leaving the rest in disconnected pieces behind.  (Oh, admit it, how many of you have really read the thing cover to cover?)  I mean, I tried a couple of times when I was little (with my third grade Bible) but somewhere around Genesis 10, I’d get discouraged by people I didn’t know and names I couldn’t pronounce and what seemed an overwhelming sense of needless violence.  Hmmm!  I guess the Bible is about us, isn’t it?  

So in this Scripture (the one about reading Scripture), the hometown boy returns and, as was the custome, he stood in the synogogue to read.  Renita Weems contends that this is the way Scripture should be read–in a public gathering, out loud.  The words that Jesus read–“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to bring good news…to bind up, to proclaim liberty, to bring release…”–these words were his manifesto.  And in that moment as Jesus read those words that had been read aloud for centuries before by people he didn’t know named names that he couldn’t pronounce, something happened.  The words were brought to life.  Jesus was not reading mere words; rather, the Spirit was pouring into them.  That is what Scripture should do to us.  

This day, we’re in the third of four weeks when our older elementary students participate by reading Scripture in the middle service.  I’ve had the privilege of working with some of those kids during the week before each Sunday to better prepare them.  I love doing that.  There is a freshness, an eagerness, an almost hunger.  They are excited and afraid at the same time.  They sense the gravity of it all, even if they don’t fully understand it.  When did we lose that?  Was it when we finally learned to pronounce the worlds?  Or was it when we became satisfied with what we thought we understood of it?  Or has Scripture become so perfunctory that we have missed what it holds?  You see, the Scriptures contain more than words.  Read between the lines.  There is oh, so much more there.  Don’t focus so much on the words or even what they say.  Let us instead delve into not the words but the Word.  Let us open ourselves to the possibility that it means something more and let God’s Spirit come upon us.  

Scripture has been compared to a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed.  On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books.  But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom.  It is as if those human words become transparent to some mysterious and infinite depth we can never fully grasp.  Perhaps that is why one writer can say “Sounding in and through the human words of scripture, like the sea within a conch shell, is another reality, vaster than mind or imagination can compass.  God has chosen to be bound to the words of Scripture; in and through them, the Holy One comes near…It is not that the words magically or mechanically contain God’s Presence, but that as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond those words becomes alive for us once more. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 19-20)  

The Word of the Lord!  

Thanks be to God!  

Grace and Peace,  


Water Plus a Miracle

Lectionary Passage:  John 2: 1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

We actually refer to this story that we read from the Gospel According to John as part of our marriage service order, mentioning that in it, “Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee and gave us the example for the love of one another.”  I’m not really sure why because the truth is this passage is not about marriage; it’s about wine.  So last week we read of Jesus’ baptism and now we read of his first miracle.  He definitely got the show on the road, so to speak.  And yet, the story is a little odd.  We read later of teaching, of healing, of including, even of raising from the dead.  So what’s this thing about wine?  Why was this act important enough to put in the Gospel and, particularly, to place it where it is the first miracle that we find Jesus doing?

Well, according to the Mishnah (which is essentially a redaction of the oral tradition of Judaism and a documentation of the traditional understandings of Scripture), the wedding would take place on a Wednesday if the bride was a virgin and on a Thursday if she was a widow. The bridegroom and his friends made their way in procession to the bride’s house. This was often done at night, when there could be a spectacular torchlight procession. There would be speeches and expressions of goodwill before the bride and groom went in procession to the groom’s house, where the wedding banquet was held. It is probable that there was some sort of religious ceremony, but we have no details. The processions and the feast are the principal items of which we have knowledge. The feast was prolonged, and might last as long as a week (so, OK, that would be quite a lot of wine!).

So Mary, the mother of Jesus, is at the wedding, although her role seems to be more than that of a guest. Perhaps the couple was an extended family member or something.  But she seems to be one of the first to know that the wine is running out. She instructs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, and they appear willing to take her instructions.  Now you have to understand that this was an embarrassing situation.  The wine has run out, and there appears to be no solution.  Either no more wine is available, or there is no money to buy more wine. The guests seem unaware of what is happening. If something is not done, all will be embarrassed. Some commentators even inform us that litigation was possible in such cases. (Can you imagine being sued for not providing enough food and drink at a marriage ceremony?)  But, regardless, it is clear that Jesus mother expects Jesus to do something out of the ordinary.  She expects him to fix the problem.

In the setting of this story, Jesus has not yet begun to perform all the miracles and the teaching and yet his mother thought he could do this.  It’s unclear whether or not Mary really understood what “hour” to which Jesus was referring or if she really grasped who this man that she had brought into the world was, but, timing aside, Jesus helps out and fills a need.  Maybe it’s a message to us that Jesus didn’t just come for the “big”, splashy things.  Maybe it’s a reminder that God is in even the ordinary, those seemingly small things in life that we think we can handle, that we think don’t really even matter to God.

But this?  I mean, really, wine?  Why didn’t he turn the water into food for the hungry or clothing for the poor?  Why didn’t he end the suffering of one of those wedding guests who were forced to live their lives in pain?  Why didn’t he teach those that were there that God is more impressed by who we are than what we do?  Now THAT would have been a miracle.  But instead Jesus, in his first miraculous act, creates a party, a feast.  Maybe it’s a reminder that we ought to just relax and trust God a little more.  Maybe it’s trying to tell us that God is indeed in every aspect of our life.  And maybe it’s telling us that life is indeed a feast to be celebrated.

And think about the wine itself.  It begins as ordinary grapes.  Well, not really.  If you go even farther back, you start with water.  Everything starts with water.  And then those ordinary grapes with just the right amount of water, the right amount of sunlight, and the right amount of nutrients fed to them from the rich, dark earth begin to seed.  And then we wait, we wait for them to grow and flourish and at just the right time, they are picked and processed and strained of impurities and all of those things that are not necessary.  And then they are bottled and tucked away while again, we wait.  They are placed in just the right temperature, with just the right amount of light, and just the right amount of air quality, and we wait.  We wait and until it becomes…well, a miracle.

And Biblical theologians have over and over pointed to the relationship that this story has with the Eucharist.  Think about it.  We take ordinary bread and ordinary wine (or in our case, ordinary Welch’s Grape Juice), and through what we can only describe as a Holy Mystery, a veritable miracle,  those ordinary things become holy.  They become for us the body and blood of Christ, the very essence of Christ to us, for us, and in us. 
And remember that when the wine ran out, Jesus did not conjure up fresh flagons of wine.  Rather, he took what was there, those ordinary, perhaps even abandoned vessels of ordinary, everyday water and turned it into a holy and sacred gift.  Water and a miracle…

So this story of wine makes a little more sense.  Wine is water—plus a miracle.  But in case it is lost on us, remember that our bodies are roughly two-thirds water.  No wonder the ancient sages always used water as a symbol for matter itself.  Humans, they taught, are a miraculous combination of matter and Spirit—water and a miracle—and thus unique in all of creation.  No wonder that wine is such a powerful, sacramental, and universal symbol of the natural world—illumined and uplifted by the Divine.  Wine is water, plus spirit, a unique nectar of the Divine, a symbol of life.

And we, ordinary water-filled vessels though we are, are no different.  God takes the created matter that is us and breathes Spirit into us, breathes life into us.  We, too, are water plus a miracle.  So as we lift the chalice today, let it be a reminder of Christ’s Spirit infused into us, living in us.  13thcentury German mystic Meister Eckhart said that “every creature is a word of God.”  It’s another way of reminding us that we are water plus a miracle.

So maybe this story of Jesus’ first miracle is not as odd as we thought.  Our lectionary places it immediately following the remembrance of Jesus’ baptism and the remembrance of our own.  It is the point where God’s Spirit, where the holy and sacred itself, was poured into each of us.  So, yes, we are a miracles, created matter, Spirit-breathed.  We are the good wine that God has saved for now.  We are water plus a miracle.

Go be the miracle you were created to be!

Grace and Peace,