My dad has always been a very physically strong guy. He’s 80 now, but in his younger days was an offensive lineman and played in college, a big guy with legs like tree trunks and just thick everywhere from his shoulders to the tips of his fingers. His old teammates have told me many times that “No one ever made Charles take a step backwards.”
He told me about one of the few times he had ever been physically afraid. He was in prison – on a Kairos prison ministry weekend – which he did for 30 years or more. He wound up counseling a guy he said was 6 inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and as dad put it, “rippling muscles all over him.” This prisoner was in for life. I won’t go into the charges but they were really bad. He had told his story a hundred times and he couldn’t change the facts, couldn’t change his past.
And this huge prisoner was in tears. My dad had heard his whole story, looked him in the eye and told him that if he sincerely repented, asked God to forgive him and accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, all his sins would be washed away and he would be saved. He did. Dad prayed with him and watched as a new man emerged in the process. He would remain in prison, but his life as a prisoner changed. He went from being a fearsome presence to a blessing inside those walls. Grace, joy and hope changed him forever.
I shared that story to get at the depth and heart of today’s readings. We see the joy in this passage from Isaiah. The vindication that is to shine forth like a burning torch is the restoration of Israel. Great! But to understand the importance of that passage, we need some background. One of the enduring analogies for Israel in scripture likens her faithlessness to an unfaithful, adulterous bride. The consequences such a bride faced in their culture were severe. She would lose her place in her home and her family, and that would render her without any means of support, shelter and relationship. She would be shunned in the community with nowhere to go. And she would live with the anguish of her guilt and what it cost her.
That is the plight of Israel after betraying her covenant with God by following after false gods. She is cut off, displaced, suffering and living with the crushing guilt of her sin.
Then God says no, that is not her fate. Repentant, she to be forgiven, and not just forgiven. She will be restored, and not just restored. Her vindication will shine forth like the dawn, like a burning torch, with a crown and as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride. In this we see the nature of God’s love. While God commands and loves our faithfulness, his love is also redemptive, overcoming even our most severe failures.
It is with that image in mind that John brings us to the wedding at Cana. This first miracle of Jesus is chock full of the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny and foreshadowing of Jesus’s work for the entire creation.
The first is the wedding itself. Jesus’ earthly ministry will burst open the gates of reconciliation, of restoration and of grace, joy and love expressed by Isaiah. He is the bridegroom and God’s people, those who are far off and those who are near, are the bride to be restored.
John tells us this is the “third day” after Jesus’ baptism. John is foreshadowing the restoration that will be fully consummated on that most wondrous “third day” up the road; the first Easter.
Another long standing analogy for Israel is the vineyard, the field that God is cultivating to bear fruits of righteousness into the world. Jesus alludes to the vineyard in several parables, notably the unfaithful tenants who wind up killing the owner’s son. Here we find the vineyard immediately producing the best wine in extraordinary abundance. One of our Tuesday Bible study members group informed me it equates to 752 bottles – which is a lot.
Further, the water of purification echoes the waters of baptism, our rite of death to sin and new life in Christ. The wine hearkens to the Eucharist, to the very blood of Christ, the means by which God reconciled the world to himself. And this transforms us.
Note also that Jesus tells his mother, “My time has not yet come.” John’s Gospel will quote Jesus saying that several more times. He will not say, “My hour has come” until chapter 17 verse one, at the beginning of his prayer at the Last Supper. The next day he will show the world what God’s true love, true forgiveness looks like. “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”
This “first of his signs” does indeed reveal his glory – and he is just getting started. And it begs the question: What does all this mean for us today?
In a little while we will step out into the sunshine. (That is the primary reason a number of us are in Florida this third Sunday of January.) The sun animates all life on earth, and we find that life to be wildly diverse – so many different types of life, species of plant and animals, varieties within species. Life invades every nook, cranny and niche of our world. And each individual member of each variety of each species is distinct, even to the uniqueness of our fingerprints.
Likewise, the application of God’s call on our lives is unique for every one of us. We hear Paul summarize various spiritual gifts, and we know there are other gifts as well.
We call upon the name of Jesus and receive the Holy spirit to embrace God’s redemptive love. Having been washed in the waters of baptism, we know his forgiveness. We return again and again to his table, this altar in remembrance of his sacrifice to eat the bread and drink the wine, which at once bind us to his sacrifice and to the heavenly banquet he has prepared for us.
Some, but not many, are called to prison ministry like my dad. But we know that people all around us live with guilt, shame and the wounds of sin that have been inflicted on them. And wherever that may be and however that may be, we are leaving our fingerprints on everything we touch, on everything we do, on everyone we affect and everyone we influence. You don’t have to go to seminary to do this. You know Him. You know what he’s done in your own life. You remember what he said from the cross, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” May we all be blessed to see tears of joy in the reconciling love of Jesus.