"Of Miracles and Smiles"
January 15, 1995 message
Did you know that the words "miracle" and "smile" share the same root in Latin? Both involve a bit of wonder, perhaps even some incredulity. There are times when a smile is a tiny miracle, by itself. Have you experienced such moments? When we witness a true miracle, a smile is a natural response. It's contagious. Honest smiles, and real miracles, point beyond themselves to something greater - a larger truth, whether it be good humor or good news.
The gospel of John opens with some good humor that sets the stage for a larger truth. The second chapter introduces this whole idea of the miraculous in a rather ordinary way. Imagine the scene, if you will, of an ordinary affair: a wedding. Anyone who has been a participant in the joining of a man and a woman in holy matrimony knows that it often can be a comedy of errors.
My wife and I can laugh about our wedding now, though at the time it wasn't very funny. A sudden illness changed some of our plans, but the affair went on. All was well until communion at the end of the service, when bread and grape juice hit a sensitive stomach. Wretching into a toilet on your knees is not the scene most of us picture of a perfect wedding. To be honest, there is no such thing as a "perfect wedding."
Fortunately, it's often the things that go wrong which are fondly remembered down the road. Our wedding went on, though we sat for the receiving line. This allowed the photographer to take excellent pictures of everyone there, a blessing in retrospect. The wedding night is best left to your imagination. Suffice it to say that Ben Gay and a sweat suit are not the makings of romance.
I tell my story at wedding rehearsals to calm couples down and get us all to put things into perspective. Yes, a wedding is a serious act, but without a sense of wonder at the grace of two headstrong individuals promising to live together in peace, marriage can be headed for real trouble. The comedy of a wedding provides a clue for the necessary smiles that allow us in life to admit mistakes and move beyond them. A wedding can be a miracle, a miracle of an ordinary kind.
Back to that village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus and his disciples were there. So was his mother. It was not a time, however, for preaching or teaching. On the surface, Jesus was only secondary to what was happening, a guest. There's a playful interaction between mother and son in this story that those of us who have lived through such relationships can recognize.
Here's the story again. The wedding was over, and the banquet was in full swing. This was not a "good Brethren" affair, for the alcohol was flowing freely. So much so that it was running out. Jesus' mother turned to her son and appraised him of the fact. I can almost see my own mother handing me the car keys, as she still does, and asking me to run to the grocery. A son is forever a son in his mother's eyes. But what does the mother of Jesus expect her son to do about the wine? This was not his wedding. Furthermore, in John's gospel thus far, Jesus had not done anything miraculous. Did she expect him to do what he eventually did? Who knows?
He responded to her somewhat playfully, somewhat seriously. We might be shocked at him calling her "woman" instead of "Mother," which is what the Greek says. We might even be appalled at a son, in effect, telling his Mother to "mind her own business," not to stick her nose in the concerns of the wedding party, or in the details of his ministry. "This isn't my time," he tried to tell her. "Don't push me." However, does Mom listen to her son? No. She turned to the waiter and ordered, "Do what he says."
The first miracle, the first sign or way Jesus revealed his glory, as John tells it, was prodded into existence by an insistent mother. How interesting! Boy, does that sound familiar. Kind of ordinary, really - which is just the point. Miracles are not disconnected from the ordinary. They are signs within our everyday experience that point beyond themselves to a larger truth.
From here on in that story of a wedding banquet, the relationship between mother and son fades into the background. Jesus turned to some stoneware pots, already used to ritually wash and purify people's hands before the meal. There's more happening here theologically in the choice of these jars, but for our purposes it's important to note that Jesus was using what was at hand, in an ordinary setting, to bring about something extra-ordinary.
He instructed the servants to fill the pots with water, and they did - after all, his Mom told them to. It's dangerous to disobey a mother. Wonder of wonders, the water was changed to wine when they poured it out into pitchers to serve the guests. Now, please note: Jesus did not perform some elaborate ritual here. He didn't say a blessing, wave his hands, or otherwise draw attention to himself. The "mumbo-jumbo" we often associate with the miraculous is missing. There was a need, and Jesus met it ... at the prodding of his mother. It all happened in a rather ordinary way.
In fact, the only ones who knew it were the servants. That's an interesting little parenthesis in the story as John tells it. Anyway, the chief steward recognized that the wine in his glass now was better stuff than what previously was served, and he congratulated the bridegroom for an extraordinary act of hospitality. A shrewd person would serve the best stuff first and then, when everyone was slightly tipsy and not as able to recognize the good from the mediocre, serve cheap stuff. But here, the steward noted, the best was saved for last.
"The best was saved for last." That sentence carries a lot of theological freight, for it says something about God and Jesus - whom God sent to the world as a final word. The best was saved for last. But that message comes through, in John's gospel, in a most ordinary way, on the lips of someone halfway drunk. In reading the rest of the gospel story, as John tells it, people in general seem to approach this One who is God's "best saved for last" just like that steward - halfway drunk, not fully grasping the truth, misunderstanding what he's all about, focusing upon his miracles without seeing the truth that lies behind them. (But the servants knew).
Recently, our congregation recognized openly something that we have been, perhaps, afraid to say out loud. We witnessed a miracle in the recovery to health of one of our members. Three years ago, Mary did not seem long for this world, having let her breast cancer progress too far. We prayed for her, and put our prayers into action by caring for her and her family. It was wonderful to watch the church in action, though I must confess that it wore us out. The whole story cannot be told here, but suffice it to say that there were many little miracles as people saw Mary through the eyes of love.
Miracles. Maybe we're not used to using that term, for we have seen it abused. In testifying to God's faithfulness in Mary's life, we don't imply that God is unfaithful in other cases, or that others we have known and loved were not persons of faith. During these past three years, we also witnessed the death of Alice, Mary's friend who, like her, had breast cancer. I will not say Alice didn't have enough faith, or that our prayers for her were to no avail. I can say that Alice made me smile whenever I visited here. God felt very near.
It all comes down to "wonder." Miracles, like smiles, open us up to a larger picture, a wider panorama. In this greater universe, God is. And no circumstance is immune to God's presence. Even when we have our doubts, God is faithfully at work. When we recognize what He does, we're filled with wonder. Question: is something a miracle if no one wonders at it? I would suggest not. The poverty of our present age is that we have lost part of our capacity to wonder. As a result, miracles are few and far between. They almost have to be spectacular to attract our attention.
It seems to me that part of the role of the church is to be witnesses of God's miracles, to wonder at God's handiwork around us. And you know what? As John's gospel in particular, and the Bible in general, affirm: the miraculous happens amid the ordinary. The first miracle of Jesus, the sign or way in which he revealed his glory, took place in a very ordinary way. (Only the servants knew). Are we called to be people serving others with his new wine, knowing that it flows out from ordinary jars?
Tell me, in Mary's story - what was the greatest miracle? Was it her recovery from cancer? Or was it the changes that took place in her community, as we responded to her need? Prayer changes lives, and often the one who is changed the most is the one who prays for another. When we pray, and when our prayers are put into our hands, we become people of wonder. And God smiles with us.
©1995Peter L. Haynes
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