Everyone said we had to see it. The Gold Fork Hot Springs simply could not be missed. No trip to the Cascade Mountains would be complete without it. Trusting the advice of friends, we loaded up our two kids in the truck and headed out to see if they were right. A small sign on the side of the highway indicated that the hot springs were a mere six-miles off the highway. Sweet. With two kids under four, the shorter the drive the better. What the sign did not indicate was the road ahead barely merited the name “road” as it was so ridden with gaping potholes and deep ruts.
We crawled along, becoming more and more convinced as we drove that we must have been mistaken. This could not be the path. But, right as we were about to abandon hope and turn around, another sign would appear, usually nailed haphazardly to tree: Hot Springs, three more miles. This happened multiple times: us edging toward despair only to be reassured by yet another sign. On more than one occasion, we considered stopping at the sign itself, hopping out and gazing at the lovely creek running alongside the road and taking in the full-view of the forest before turning back to the safety of the highway. The full journey seemed too long, too strenuous, and frankly too uncertain. And the view from the sign was nice enough…
In the end, we persisted in following the signs and were rewarded. The hot springs were set directly in the center of the forest. Steamy water cascaded from one pool down to next, seven levels in all, each pool a little cooler than the last. We swam and soaked, floated and splashed, engulfed by towering pines and open Idaho blue sky. The view from the signs had been lovely, but paled in comparison to the destination.
This week’s gospel text comes from the first half of John’s Gospel, often referred to as the Book of Signs. The gospel writer highlights specific miraculous actions of Jesus but, unlike the other gospel writers, does not describe them as miracles but as signs. The nuanced language is not merely linguistic flourish but carries theological weight. John is intent on pointing to something beyond multiplied loaves and healed bodies, namely the identity of Jesus as the Son of God who manifests the glory of the Father. The signs are wonderful, but are not an end in themselves. They serve to unveil that which is hidden and to invite trusting belief. The signs ultimately require a response from those who witness it.
The sign of the wine in Cana is the first of the seven portrayed in John, although it could be argued that Jesus’ mysterious vision of Nathanial under the fig tree might be the first sign of Jesus’ unique relationship to the Father. The sign of the wine is unusual on many fronts. First, Jesus does not initiate the sign; his mother Mary does, and seemingly against Jesus’ wishes. Second, the sign itself seems to rather inconsequential when compared to feeding the 5,000 or raising Lazarus from the dead, though many have emphasized the crippling social shame Jesus prevented for the wedding families. Lastly, few people knowingly bear witness to the sign. While many people drank the wine, only a select few, namely, Mary, the disciples, and a few servants, knew what actually had happened behind the scenes.
Sermons on this text range wildly in topic, from the faith of Mary to the role of alcoholic beverages at weddings. Some choose to focus on the symbolism in the sign itself, the extravagance of the wine as the representation of the abundance at the coming eschatological banquet or the transformation of water in the jars set aside for purification rights as a judgment on the rituals of Judaism. There are wonderful things to discover down each of these paths, but during the season of Epiphany in particular it seems appropriate to focus most deeply on the unveiling wrought by the sign and the subsequent call to respond.
In vs. 11, the text describes the sign as revealing or manifesting Jesus’ glory. As already mentioned, this sign seems rather mundane in comparison to the signs to come. It bears virtually no resemblance to the manifestations of the glory of God to ancient Israel, the trembling of Mt. Sinai, the flashes of lightening and rumbles of thunder. And yet, the purpose of unveiling God’s glory remains constant: to reveal God’s self to God’s people in order to inspire trusting obedience.
In John’s Gospel, the manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus has a distinct directionality: a direct path to the Jesus’ ultimate “hour,” when he is lifted up (an oblique play on the theme of glorification) on the cross and then raised to new life. All the signs, all the manifestations of God’s glory in Jesus, lead to that long-anticipated “hour” on the cross in which the standard interpretation of glory as power and strength is turned on its head. Jesus’ most fully manifests God’s glory in the ultimate act of self-giving love for the beloved, us. For this reason, theologian Margaret Pamment suggests that the “doxa (glory) in the Fourth Gospel is used as the theophany of God’s love.”
While the sign in Cana is fascinating, and surely demonstrates the mercy and kindness of God toward a family in an awkward situation, don’t mistake the sign for the destination. The sign is unveiling, little by little the ultimate meaning of God’s glory: God’s self-giving, always-persevering, extravagantly generous, salvific love for the world. This sign calls us forward into trusting belief, belief that we are loved and invited to join God’s redemptive work in the world. The destination far outshines the sign.
During the season of Epiphany, let us give thanks for God’s gracious self-revelation in the person of Jesus. What is true of Jesus, is true of the Father. As we lead our people to knowledge and depth of insight into God’s revelation, may we all respond in belief, belief that produces obedience modeled on the self-giving, love-embodying obedience of Jesus.
Pamment, Margaret. “The Meaning of Doxa in the Fourth Gospel.” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche, vol. 74, no. 1-2, 1983, pp. 12–16.
Cook, W.Robert. “The ‘Glory’ Motif in the Johannine Corpus.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 27, no. 3, Sept. 1984, pp. 291–297.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: a Commentary. Baker Academic, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2012.