Category Archives: Gospel Meditation

Looking Back at Yesterday’s Gospel

Old fig tree
Old fig tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Readings:
Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
 

Today’s gospel appears to be two unrelated stories. The first appears to ask why the innocent suffer. The second asks what can be done with unfruitful believers. Despite appearances, the two stories are related. It’s all about appearances. Does God care about the way things look, or does God care about the way things are?  

In the first story, Jesus is accosted with news of people who were executed (perhaps a better word is murdered) by Pontius Pilate, a man whose claim to fame is complicity in the murder of Jesus. Like people today, people of Jesus’ day wanted life to make sense. According to their logic, and according to many pious folk, “Everything happens for a reason.” The problem is that the people of Jesus’ day were no better at discerning the reason than we are. They jumped to conclusions, a universal human failing, and assumed that the dead had done something bad to deserve destruction. After each story, Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.” If those people did not earn destruction by evil deeds, then why did Jesus tell people to repent of evil or perish? Harper’s Bible Commentary tells us that “The final blow to the idea that any person suffering must have sinned is dealt at Golgotha.” 

After this conversation, Jesus told a parable, the second story. In the parable, an innocent fig tree is simply growing in a garden and bothering nobody. Sadly, in the eyes of the garden’s owner, the fig tree is no better than a thief. It is sucking up nutrients from the ground and making itself lush and beautiful, comfortable in its little corner of the world, but it is not doing the one thing that makes a fig tree uniquely valuable: it is not producing any figs. The owner allowed it three years to grow up and become an adult. The owner recognized the religious  (Pharisaical) rule that the fourth year, the first fruitful year, all the produce belonged to God. Well, there was no produce, but that was God’s problem. Then three more years passed. Three years. The fruit during these years belonged to the owner – well, after the tithe they belonged to the owner. The owner is indignant that the tree should receive the resources of the garden while remaining fruitless. As far as the owner is concerned, this tree is a fraud, living off larceny, perpetrating the long con. The gardener speaks up in apparent defense of the tree, offering to give it even more resources, suggesting that a little more investment will pay off in a year’s time. You might say that as a response to Jesus’ admonition to “repent, or you will all perish” the gardener says, “I think I know how to persuade this tree to stop stealing and start producing fruit.” If the gardener could make it happen, it would be a dramatic turnaround for that fig tree. And that is the point. 

The gardener offers to invest more in the tree, and it sounds at first as if he is offering to give the tree more freedom (cultivate the soil so it is looser for the roots to develop) and more food (fertilizer that will make it even more lush). If you read the words again, the gardener is offering to invest himself in that tree. He will dig around it. He will spread more fertilizer. By implication he says that he will do more for this tree without reducing his efforts for all the other plants in the garden. He will give more of himself in order to lead the tree to a place where the tree will give something – fruit. 

It takes us back to the stories of execution and accidental death. What was wrong with those people who died? In what way might they resemble the figless fig tree? In what way might anyone resemble the figless fig tree? If a fig can be reasonably expected to produce figs, and condemned if it doesn’t, in what way does that image compare to a human being? How does the failure of a fig tree to produce figs parallel a human being’s need for repentance?  

Answers to these questions can be found by digging a little deeper, to borrow the gardening metaphor, into the word repent 

The Greek word that underlies the English word repent is metanoeo. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged says of this word, “In general, what is meant is an about-face.” (page 640) Dr. Rick Carlson interprets the word much more dramatically, saying that repentance is radical reorientation. When we think of repentance that way, it sounds like the kind of response called for by radical injustice (autocratic execution of innocent people) or radical probability (the statistical likelihood that eighteen people would be near enough to die when gravity took its toll on that tower).  If you hear Jesus say, “unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did,” it might sound like something you could put on tomorrow’s to-do list. It sounds more compelling when you hear Jesus say, “Unless you radically reorient your life, you are doomed!”

Which brings us to the fig tree. The whole problem with the fig tree is that the owner had a right to expect figs from that tree. It was his tree in his garden. He bought it, he planted it, he paid the gardener to give it the same care as everything else, but no figs. The problem is what Dr. Carlson calls “axiomatic.”

Everyone who studied geometry, willingly or unwillingly, in high school, remembers the word axiom. Some will even remember that an axiom was a statement of truth which was self-evident and required no proof. An example of an axiom is the statement “things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” That statement does not require to be proved the way the statement “all right angles are congruent” needs to be proved. Following this train of thought, it is axiomatic that figs come from fig trees, but somebody must prove that extra cultivation and fertilizer will compel a fruitless tree to produce fruit.

John the Baptist talked about this problem. Crowds of people came to hear him preach down by the Jordan River, and among the people in the crowds were Pharisees. The Pharisees were the masters of religious appearance. They looked exactly like the definition of religion just as that fruitless fig tree Jesus talked about looked exactly like the definition of fig tree. Sadly, in both cases, no fruit was being produced

John the Baptist looked at the Pharisees, who had the appearance of being God’s own people, but they showed none of the fruit of a relationship with God. He said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Actually, the text suggests that he probably shouted those words vehemently. He almost certainly shouted Aramaic words, which were written down in Greek gospels and have now been translated into English. Still, to get the meaning the way John shouted at them, we need to borrow Dr. Carlson’s language. In John’s eyes, those fruitless Pharisees needed something as radical as that figless fig tree needed. He shouted, “It is axiomatic that fruit trees bear fruit, and it is axiomatic that people who live in relationship with God show the evidence in their lives! You need to radically reorient your lives and start bearing fruit axiomatic with repentance!”

In Matthew’s gospel, the parallel between this message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus is quite clear.

 Matthew 3:1 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Matthew 4:17 Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Both John the Baptist and Jesus opened their messages with the same call Jesus gave to the people in Luke 13: “You need to make an about-face. You need to radically reorient your lives. And you need to start bearing fruit axiomatic of that radical reorientation.”

The people who came to Jesus with the stories of the murder of innocents, looking for some simple explanation for the evil in the world did not get off the hook. Jesus took them down the road to a place where mere appearances and easy answers no longer worked. It was fairly easy to say that Pilate perverted justice by murdering people who had not been convicted of anything. It appeared to be a perversion of justice. Jesus said that the murder by Pilate was no better or worse than the accidental death of people who simply happened to be standing by when a tower collapsed. In the cosmic sense, that appears to be a perversion of justice, too. People died without being convicted of any wrong-doing. So when a gardener jumps to the defense of a silly tree that refuses to produce the fruit that is axiomatic of fig trees, it almost sounds comical, until you think of what John the Baptist and Jesus both preached. Then you realize that Jesus simply wanted everyone to recognize that you can’t fool God. Nobody can produce the fruit of a radically reoriented life by simply looking religious. Only a person who makes the about face, turns away from the mere appearance of religiosity, and radically reorients his life to complete commitment to Christ will produce the fruit axiomatic of a relationship with God. If we don’t do that, we are as doomed as those innocent bystanders. Christ, our wonderful gardener, invested himself on the cross, invested everything in us on the cross. That fruitless fig tree that focused only on being leafy and comfortable was just like us when we are self-absorbed and self-worshiping and focused on “what’s in it for me.” If we want to produce the fruit axiomatic of a relationship with God, we need to turn around and radically reorient ourselves, do a complete about-face, and follow Christ to the cross.

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Looking Back at Yesterday’s Gospel

The Temptation of Christ 

The Readings:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16,

Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Today’s psalm is a great place to go for an understanding of the way Jesus survived Satan’s temptations. In this psalm is the statement Satan extracted and twisted into a temptation that Jesus rejected. The psalm is not designed as a temptation, but Satan, like many of his slaves, abused the text, eviscerating it and holding up a bloody shred to dare Jesus to show off his power in a dramatic performance rather than live up to his purpose. Jesus the Beloved Son, was sent on a rescue and recovery mission to save human beings, God’s beloved creation. He was not sent to show off and be a sacred celebrity.

The Bible says that Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days. Only three temptations are recorded, of which one was the last of all, but they are enough to give us a good idea of the vicious, malevolent finesse with which Satan approached the One sent to defeat him forever .

We can imagine, for example, that the temptation to turn stones into bread could have come early in the forty days. A healthy person becomes hungry after only a few hours without food. Did Satan arrive about sundown that first day to taunt his archenemy? Jesus had been baptized earlier that day, and as Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell into him, and people heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved.”  Satan heard those words, too.

It is easy to imagine Satan watching and waiting all day as Jesus trekked into the wilderness with neither food nor water. The path, or perhaps it would be better to say, the route Jesus followed, was dusty and rocky, lined with brambles. One gospel mentions wild animals, although they likely appeared only after dark. Did Jesus find a cave where he could rest for the night, or was he out in the open, unprotected in any way? Mark says the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, so perhaps he was weary of dealing with that pressure as day began to fade into evening.

Satan appeared. Writers and dramatists portray Satan in all sorts of guises. One novelist presented Satan as a scruffy, smelly old beggar, all in tatters, just the sort of person Jesus would approach lovingly during his ministry. Satan simply sat down beside Jesus and said, “You got anything to eat?” Jesus had nothing, but the reader knows he would later feed five thousand people with almost nothing. Jesus shook his head. In the spirit of the old maxim “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” the beggar says, “Well, we could pretend that stone over there is a loaf of bread.” The biblical conversation develops from that point. Satan has set the stage for not only tempting Jesus to use his power to serve self, but he has cast the scene as a pretense of exactly the sort of thing Jesus actually does later. In the novel, Jesus rejects that temptation with the words of Scripture, at which the filthy beggar takes extreme umbrage and wanders off into the night.

The novelist understands that Satan did not appear with horns, a tail and a pitchfork for his battle with Jesus. Satan never appears like that. In fact, it seems highly likely that Satan himself inspired that image for the purpose of fooling people. When temptation comes our way, it is always dressed up like things a person would actually want, not like a frightful demon. Women tempted to abort their unborn babies do not succumb to a temptation to skewer an innocent baby on a pitchfork. They succumb to a temptation to believe that God himself would not want that baby to be born. They believe that the fact that conception was sired by an irresponsible man means they should never have become pregnant in the first place; it’s his fault for refusing to use a condom. They believe that they don’t have the means to support the baby, and God himself would not want them to take on that responsibility without proper means. Maybe they even think that being pregnant at this time will interfere with their opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment in a career or with a different man or etcetera. Maybe they simply buy the notion of “a woman’s right to choose” and think of the unborn baby as an unwanted interloper in their bodies. They aren’t responding to a demon in red tights. They are responding to subtle and not-so-subtle temptations to serve self and to deny the humanity of the baby.

How was Jesus able to fend off all these temptations? He relied on Scripture. A lot of brain power has been expended in arguments about the nature and authenticity of the Bible. There are a lot of secular thinkers who respect it as literature but reject it as revelation or authority. They look at the Bible and the Baghavad Gita the same way – interesting ancient myths. Jesus helps us learn that the Bible is God’s book, and the fact that Satan tried to use it to destroy God himself is additional evidence that the Bible is powerful. Today’s psalm is a testimony to that power as experienced by one ancient poet. Satan pulled out a shred for nefarious purposes, but borrowing the novelist’s viewpoint, we might wonder if he chose that text because Jesus was actually praying this psalm as Satan showed up. It would make the use of this text even more fiendish.

Psalm 91 begins by announcing that its subject is “those who live in the shelter of the Most High.” What a beautiful image. We can imagine Jesus, parched and sunburned, laboriously battling through the underbrush of the wilderness across Jordan, focusing on the words, “in the shadow of the Almighty.”

As Jesus tried to find a comfortable place to sit in the rocky, inhospitable landscape, he had to know that Satan would come. Jesus knew that the Tempter would not, could not, let him embark on his work without a savage battle to prevent people from learning that their Savior had arrived. Young men in Jesus’ day attended synagogue schools where they learned to read and write, and where they memorized the ancient texts. Perhaps as the Evil One approached, Jesus was quietly praying the psalmist’s words as his own, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, The Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”

That would have been a perfect time for Satan to appear, whisking Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple while picking up the text of the psalm, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Did Satan dress in rabbinical robes, perhaps with the face of Jesus’ childhood teacher as he said, “Go ahead. You believe it. Prove it.” Jesus replies from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Don’t tempt me!”

Satan comes to us, not as the Enemy, but as our friend. He whispers in our ears, “You are as good as God. Don’t let him lord it over you. How dare he say ‘Thou shalt not.’ God is just an old bugaboo of people who don’t know any better. You’re too smart for that.” Satan always makes us feel really important, like he did when he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. He offers us shortcuts to popularity and success and gratification. He constantly tells us we deserve better and we shouldn’t be treated like this. When Jesus was in the wilderness, alone and starving, driven out there by the Holy Spirit, Satan played on his knowledge that, in heaven, Jesus was honored and worshipped by angels. Why did he need to wander the earth in poverty and die a cruel death? Satan offered Jesus what he came to claim – the people of the world – and Satan made it look a lot easier than God did.

That’s the way he poses it to us. Maybe it is just a little favor for a friend in high places. Maybe it is one transaction in a million with a few extra dollars to a secret account. Maybe it is the right word in the right ear that opens the right door but now you owe somebody something. Jesus had the same ego we have. He wanted to save all the people, because that was what he came for. The night before he was crucified, he prayed to be spared that agony, if there were any other way to save the world. Here was a chance to escape the pain. It could all be avoided if he simply bowed before Satan instead of God.

Jesus saw through the sales pitch. He knew that to do this would be worshiping self, serving self, saving self, instead of saving the world. He responded, “Worship only God.”

Satan comes to each of us in a thousand different ways every day, whispering, hinting, insinuating, turning even our best impulses into opportunities to reject Christ and serve Satan. The Bible says that Christ was tempted in every way we are tempted. To fight back we need the same ammunition that worked for Jesus. In the Bible’s words, God makes the same promise to us that he made to the psalmist: “When [you] call to me, I will answer [you]; I will be with [you] in trouble.”

For timely articles about the persecuted church and about cultural and political pressure in the Christian life, read Living on Tilt the newspaper.

 

 

Looking Back at Sunday’s Gospel

Gospel Reading: Luke 4:21-30

People gathering at the synagogue that Sabbath Day must have been full of anticipation. The home town boy who had gone out into the world, about whom the most outrageous stories were circulating, had finally come home. The president of Nazareth’s synagogue probably wished he could drum up this much excitement every week. It was probably noisy, too, as people whispered and pointed to the family and to Jesus. But eventually, they quieted down and the worship began.

During the preliminaries to the reading of Scripture, people were undoubtedly well-behaved and respectful. As Jesus took his place in front and the scroll was unrolled with great reverence, there may have been a little more whispering. He read. He spoke. He said,

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Many people in the crowd may have been so taken aback by this statement that they heard nothing else. In the gospel record, no other words were saved. Only these.

When it was all over, the crowd departed. Even though the NRSV translates the crowd’s reaction by saying first that “all spoke well of him,” it also records that they asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” As Pastor Huber was able to explain with more substance from the Greek, there was a rising murmur.

We know this guy. He lived here for thirty years, and we didn’t see anything exceptional. Now we hear all these rumors about sick people getting well, lame people walking, blind people seeing, but he isn’t doing anything like that for us. What about our sick and lame and blind? He comes back from his medicine show, but we don’t see any of it. When is he going to do a few miracles for us? Who does he think he is, anyway. The fulfillment of Scripture? He just looks like the same carpenter’s apprentice he always was. Where does he get off playing the holy man?

Luke records that Jesus responded by saying that a prophet is without honor in his home town. That was not a nice thing to say. It almost sounds like a zing we might think was unworthy of Jesus. He didn’t help his case when he further pointed out that God practices inequality. Miracle disparity. Miracles do not roll off a production line to be distributed equally to all. In fact, to illustrate the point, Jesus reminded them of two times when God skipped the chosen nation of Israel altogether and did his miracles for Gentiles.

This bit of wisdom enraged the already sullen crowd. The local upstart not only refused to give them a good show. He also demonstrated that he was bigoted against his own home town. Why, next thing you knew he might suggest they hang around with Samaritans.

The people had had enough. Luke says they were filled with rage. The very idea. There were ways to deal with arrogant, manic, vagabond preachers. The crowd pushed and shoved till they reached the edge of a precipice overlooking the town. They intended to throw Jesus over, but he escaped. How did he do that?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his small book on Psalms points out that the book of psalms was Jesus’ prayer book. With that in mind, it isn’t a big stretch to imagine Jesus praying Psalm 71, the psalm we read today, as he slipped through the crowd and out of their clutches.

Peter and John, and the other disciples who had been called already, were with Jesus that day. Over and over through the gospels we hear that even though Jesus told them important things, they really did not understand or remember those lessons till after he had ascended to heaven. Peter apparently forgot this lesson even longer than that. If he had remembered how Jesus said that God loved Gentiles and gave some of his miracles to them even long ago in the Old Testament, Peter would not have been so startled when God gave the Holy Spirit to new Gentile believers in Cornelius’ house.

The day Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth, the people of his home town probably thought he was going to do something special for them as the select of the select for his campaign team. They thought he would give his most special miracles and his most special appointments to the local guys. They thought they were the ones who had made him, and they thought he should ‘give back’ to the ones responsible for his success. Instead, Jesus demonstrated forcibly that his work was bigger than anything they could even imagine, and his calling did not develop out of his connections in Nazareth.

We can learn something important from this story: don’t try to box the Christ up in our limited expectations. When he asks something of me or you or anyone, we don’t need to worry that we can’t imagine it will work; Christ is not limited by our vision. When we face challenges because of our faithfulness to Christ, we don’t need to worry that we won’t be able to weather the storm; Christ is not limited by our perceptions of our abilities. When it appears to us that the church is being destroyed and disintegrated by satanic powers that seem to triumph before we even know they are there, we don’t need to worry that God’s plan for the triumph of his church is being derailed; Christ is not limited by our lack of understanding.

Jesus in Nazareth is a great metaphor for our daily lives. One minute Jesus was on top of the world. Next minute he was dirt. But the way Jesus slipped away and ultimately accomplished all that he came to earth to accomplish teaches us that we can trust him and we must trust him. We must not try to hang on and survive; we must hang on to Christ, and he will take care of everything else.

I read a blog post this week written by a woman who travels around the world for Voice of the Martyrs. She takes Bibles and books and personal items to people in danger for their faith, and most of all she delivers encouragement and prayers. In the places she visits, it is often dangerous simply to be a Christian, and the danger is increased by helping another Christian or by simply being in the company of a local Christian. She says that her friends all tell her they will pray for her safe return, but she asks them not to do that. She asks that they pray she will do what Christ has sent her to do, that she will accomplish Christ’s purpose for her. That long-ago day in Nazareth, Christ’s purpose in coming to earth could have been derailed if Christ had relied on his human strength or persuasiveness to save the day. We know he didn’t do that. There is no evidence that he even tried to defend himself. Just as he stood silent during his final trial, he did not defend himself in Nazareth, either. He trusted himself to God and God’s sovereignty. For God’s purposes he was rescued from the crowd. The woman who travels for VOM says that she knows God has a purpose for every minute of her life. She says that if she lives, she serves Christ on earth, and if she dies, she serves Christ in heaven. Wherever she goes she serves Christ.

Jesus showed us in Nazareth that we can and we must trust ourselves to God’s purposes at all times. The prayer of Psalm 71 is a good way for us to pray: “You have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.”

Looking Back to Sunday’s Gospel

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. 8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so,
9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

John 2:1-11

In John’s gospel, the stories that other writers call ‘miracles’ John calls ‘signs.’ It is proper to think of them as signs that point in specific directions. Sunday’s gospel reading tells us about one of those signs.

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee. (John 2:11)

The story is fairly simple. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were invited to a wedding feast. The guests drank up all the wine before the feast was over. When Jesus’ mother learned of the problem, she asked Jesus to help. After demurring, Jesus told the servants to fill up some big jars with water, which he then transformed into the best wine the host had ever tasted. Problem solved.

If this event is a signpost, to what does it point?

There are several hints. It is the third day since he met and called Nathanael to be a disciple. The element “the third day” is part of the sign. We all know that Jesus was resurrected on “the third day” after his crucifixion. This sign points toward that day. This element reminds us of the whole story of the trial, the crucifixion, the death and the resurrection, and those events were all quite bloody. That is part of the sign.

When Mary asks Jesus to help, he says, “My hour has not yet come.” In John’s gospel, Jesus’ hour is the crucifixion. Over and over through John’s telling, we are told that Jesus’ hour has not yet arrived, and then things change. In John 12:23, Jesus says, “The hour has come.” In today’s story, we learn that an hour will come, although it has not yet appeared, and that is part of the sign.

Jesus turns water into wine. It is one of the stories of his provision of nourishment for people. When Jesus later fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, he explained that it was a sign to make them hunger for eternal food. In this first sign, the wine points to the Last Supper where Jesus told the disciples that the wine was his own blood of the new covenant. The lavish amount created points forward to the fact that Jesus lavishly shed his blood on the cross because of his love for all people. Like his act of giving thousands of people enough bread that there were leftovers, this sign provides enough wine and more. This miracle is not simply a sign that teaches us about the Lord’s Supper. It is a sign that teaches us how richly God provides for our lives.

Think about it. Jesus never gives people barely enough; he always gives what they want and need and then some. His provision always exceeds necessity and supports a generous sharing spirit. When he provided wine to the host of the wedding feast, he didn’t provide just a single bottle or wineskin; he provided gallons and gallons. When he provided bread to the five thousand, the disciples picked up 12 baskets of leftovers. When he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, she didn’t simply open her eyes and say “I feel better now.” She was so thoroughly healed that she got up and made dinner. When he healed a paralytic, the man didn’t merely wander off through the crowd; he leaped!

And when Jesus shed his blood of the covenant, he shed it lavishly, completely, to the last drop. He was arrested and beaten by the temple guards. Pilate scourged him. Soldiers nailed him to the cross. One soldier even shoved a spear into his side, and he bled still more. The sign shows us not just the fact of Christ’s sacrifice but it also shows us the degree to which Christ planned to go for us. He would give all that there was to give.

Some people try to make the Old Testament out to be about some different God than the New Testament, but in Christ, the Old Testament and its prophecies and signs come to life. There certainly were signs in the Old Testament.

Moses, for example, as a sign to the Egyptians that their river god had been defeated, dipped up water out of the Nile and then as he poured it out, the water became blood. The bloody sign of Moses was the sign of death, the death of the gods of Egypt. The first sign of Christ is the miracle of wine, the best wine the host had ever tasted, and though this sign pointed to the shedding of blood, that bloodshed brought life, not death. The contrast with the sign of Moses is clear.  The death of Egypt’s gods was accompanied by the death of many Egyptians. In contrast, the bloody death of Jesus would bring life to all people.

This story calls to mind the Jacob’s final blessing as he was about to die. As he blessed each son he made a prophecy about the future generations in that line of his family. When he blessed Judah, he said, “The scepter … shall not depart from Judah … until Shiloh comes ….” Speaking of Shiloh Jacob says, “He washes his garments in wine and his clothes in the blood of grapes.” It is a graphic image of the realities of the crucifixion, and the phrase “the blood of grapes” reinforces Jesus’ statement to his disciples that the wine had become “the new covenant in my blood.”

When John came to the end of his book, he said, “These [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John said that there was a lot more to tell than he could cram into his book, but he was confident that he had told us enough to be able to recognize Christ. John’s method of telling the story packs a lot of information into a text of manageable size.

There is one more element to the story that seems worth mentioning. This first sign of Jesus’ ministry took place at a wedding feast. John writes of another wedding feast in the book of Revelation. In this first wedding feast, Jesus gives the sign of his coming crucifixion and resurrection. In the wedding feast in Revelation, Christ is joined to his bride, the church, which consists of the people ransomed by the lavish shedding of his blood on the cross. This sign points richly to the immensity of Christ’s love for all people. He loves each of us with the passion of a groom about to be joined to his bride in marriage.

There are people who believe that the Bible and the Christian religion are about rules and judgment. They believe that because of the word sin. They believe that God does not love people, because God calls sinful behavior sin. In today’s gospel story Jesus gives us the first sign that helps us to understand that God’s love of people makes him hate sin so much that he will lavishly give his life away in order to save us from it. Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper may we be even more aware of its meaning for us, because John has told us the story of this first signpost on the road to the cross.

Looking Back at Sunday’s Gospel — Luke 2:41-52

The childhood of Jesus is hidden from us except for this brief glimpse of an inquisitive twelve-year-old. I remember being twelve. I turned twelve only a couple of weeks after I started seventh grade. It was an important milestone because seventh grade was my first experience of a campus setting with multiple teachers in multiple locations throughout each day. I felt very grown up, and I was inquisitive, too.

The child Jesus had clearly passed a milestone, too. Every previous year he had traveled to Jerusalem, and he had done what was expected. After he turned twelve, something changed. He felt more like an adult. He realized more fully what being an adult was all about. He realized that he wanted to know more, and he figured out how to get that knowledge.

Jesus In the Temple Age 12Painting by James Tissot 1895
Jesus In the Temple Age 12
Painting by James Tissot 1895

Most clearly, he became more conscious of his true nature, and he sought his true Father. It would be wonderful to know the details of his days with the religious leaders in the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. It was obviously a very different sort of conversation than Jesus had with such leaders twenty years later.Or was it?

The story says that Jesus sat there listening and asking questions. Hmmm. That is exactly what he would do twenty years hence. It is characteristic of Jesus’ teaching style: first he listened, and then he asked questions.

The story says that everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. That is exactly why the religious leaders who put Jesus on trial twenty years later had to act in secrecy. They knew that the people had high regard for Jesus.

What is the lesson for us?

For us, it is a reminder that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying, “Our Father,” the wording didn’t spring up suddenly as an emergency response to their question. It was his customary way of praying. He drew the disciples, and you, and me, into his circle and taught us to pray the same way he prayed. It was the way he had been praying all along, even before his twelfth birthday.

Among the numerous heresies that have been promulgated about Jesus is the idea that he wasn’t really God’s choice until the Holy Spirit fell into him at his baptism. Before that, he was just anybody. Some even said that the Spirit was like water in a cup, present within but not part of, Jesus. He might even have been truly illegitimate but adopted by Joseph and by God for God’s purposes. Certainly the story of Jesus’ birth ought to dispel such notions, but if there were doubts remaining, today’s gospel ought to seal the deal. Jesus knew by age twelve who he was. Almost certainly if we could read a transcript of his conversations with the religious leaders, we would see the foundations of the disputes that, twenty years later, would enrage the religious leaders. From the lips of a child, those ideas could be gently repressed as if they were immature errors. From the lips of a man whom the city had greeted with words like “Hosanna!” and “Hail, Son of David!” those same ideas sounded dangerous.

For us, the important thing is to see that Jesus was God in the Flesh, the second person of the Mysterious Three in One, at his birth, at the age of twelve and on the cross. Luke shows us who the Christ is, and he shows us that Jesus knew who he was, even as a child. We can safely trust the Christ who died for us, because he really is who he says he is. It is important to know because: 

  • This truth confirms our salvation 
  • This truth prepares us to welcome the Holy Spirit in our lives 
  • This truth gives us confidence when we pray to our heavenly Father as Christ did.

We can be very thankful for the confirming and reassuring revelation of Christ in the Jerusalem adventure of the twelve-year-old Jesus. In this story we are reassured of the truth that God was in Christ, just as Paul wrote, “reconciling the world to himself.” For you and me, and for the whole world, God was in Christ, fulfilling his promise to Eve, to Abraham and to Mary. We can trust our God, because he keeps his promises. He always is exactly who he says he is.