Sermon for Epiphany 3 2013 | Sermon for Epiphany 3 2013

What the butler didn’t see

A sermon for Epiphany 3, given by Roberta Berke on 20th January 2013

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”[1]

You know what it’s like at a crowded wedding reception. You try to figure out who’s related to whom, while you make polite chit-chat with strangers. Yet afterwards, someone else who was there may ask you, “Did you have a chance to talk to so-and-so, that Nobel Prize winning scientist? And did you recognize that famous author who was there? But you hadn’t noticed either of them. You’d been stuck in a corner with a tiresome woman who’d regaled you with details of her dental operations.

If any of us had been at the wedding at Cana, we probably wouldn’t have noticed Jesus. He didn’t want to be noticed. At first he refused to help when the wine ran out. “My hour has not yet come.”[2] This description of a wedding is odd: we’re told when and where it took place, but not who the bride and groom were. The bride and groom are usually the most important people. This story is not primarily about a wedding, or even about Jesus turning water into wine. The real meaning of this story is how Jesus revealed his glory, the divine in his nature, and his disciples recognised his power and they believed in him.

This account of a wedding ends with, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs….”[3] Notice that John uses the word “signs”, rather than “miracles”, to describe Jesus’ actions. A sign is more than a miracle. A sign points to something greater than itself. Signs occur throughout this season of Christmas and Epiphany. The word, “epiphany” means “to reveal”, literally, “to show forth”. The angels told the shepherds how to recognise the new-born Messiah, “And this shall be a sign unto you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”[4] For the Wise Men, their sign to recognise the new king was the guiding star that stopped over the stable at Bethlehem. John the Baptist recognised Jesus by a heavenly sign. He declared, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”[5] John the Baptist saw this sign, recognised Jesus as the Messiah, and proclaimed this to all. Here is the process in all these Epiphany events. A sign leads to recognition of Jesus’ divine powers, which leads his followers to become witnesses of the good news. Sign – recognition – witness.

Yet while Jesus “revealed his glory” at the wedding at Cana, he did not reveal his true power to everyone. Jesus’ first sign, turning water into wine, was not performed as a flamboyant party trick. His transformation just happened in a quiet, unseen way. Even the chief steward, that eagle-eyed butler, didn’t realise that it was Jesus’ power that had changed the water into wine.

Jesus mistrusted belief based only on miracles, or only on signs. In his day, there were a number of wandering conjurers and wonder-workers. When people pestered Jesus to prove his power by giving them a sign, he refused. “Why does this generation ask for a sign?”[6]  “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”[7]  There is a problem with belief based merely on signs. Some people see only the sign and not the revelation it points to. They see the means, but not the end. They see the wine, but not Jesus, whose divine power transformed the water into wine. As Eliot said, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”[8] A sign is only the first step on the road to belief. The real meaning of the story of the wedding at Cana is not the miraculous wine, but the wine as a sign that revealed Jesus’ glory. His disciples recognised Jesus’ divine power and they proclaimed this to the world. The sign appears, his followers recognise Jesus’ glory, and they become witnesses to his power. Sign – recognition – witness.

In his own time Jesus was not immediately recognised by everyone as the Messiah. Even John the Baptist had second thoughts and questioned, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?”[9] After his resurrection, the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognise Jesus, even after spending several hours in his company. Then Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. This sign led them to recognise Jesus and they rushed to tell the others. Because of the disciples’ testimony, today we remember Jesus’ sign of the breaking of the bread in Holy Communion.

Other than his disciples, the only ones who knew that it was Jesus who had changed the water into wine were the servants, who had done what he had told them to do. When writing this passage, John did not use the usual word for the type of menial servant who would do this task: ‘bondslave’, doulos.[10]. Instead John chose the word, diakones, which is an unusual term in this context. Jesus told his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and the servant of all.’[11] Here again we find the word diakonos, meaning not a slave, but a free servant. This word for servant is the source of our word “deacon”. John’s use of this word, along with the wine, is another reference to the celebration of Holy Communion in the early church.

Today some people say, “Jesus’ miracles are not rationally possible, therefore I do not believe Jesus is the Son of God.” Do we have to believe in miracles that are scientifically impossible in order to believe in Jesus’ power? Jesus himself was suspicious of belief based only on miracles. When miracles are recorded in the gospels, it is not because miracles are in themselves sufficient grounds for faith. Miracles are signs pointing to Jesus’ divine power. In his gospel, John states his purpose, “These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[12] John describes these signs, not because they’re amazing, but to show us that they indicate something even more amazing: the power of Jesus. John invites us to recognise the true meaning of these signs and their consequences for our lives.  The real transformation at Cana was not the water becoming wine, but the change within the disciples. They recognised Jesus’ glory, and they believed in him. Coming to believe in Jesus is often a gradual process, not a sudden revelation. Coming to believe is a silent, unseen change, like Jesus’ transformation of the water into wine. By doing God’s will, like the servants at Cana, we will come to recognise and to believe in God’s power. AMEN.

Copyright © 2013 by Roberta Berke. All Rights Reserved.

[1] John 2.11

[2] John 2.4

[3] John 2.11

[4] Luke 2.12

[5] John 1.32

[6] Mark 8.12

[7] Lk. 11.29

[8] Eliot, T.S., Four Quartets, ‘The Dry Salvages’ II.  in Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (NY: Harcourt Brace 1952) p133.

[9] Matthew 11.3

[10] Farstad, A. L., et al., The NKJV Greek English New Testament (Nashville: Nelson 1994) p159, note on Mark 9.35.

[11] Mark 9.35

[12] John 20.30