2nd Sunday after Epiphany

January 18, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 62:1-5
Reading 2: 
Psalm 36:5-10
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Reading 4: 
John 2:1-11
By Ronald Farmer

Isaiah 62: 1-5
Typically ascribed to Third Isaiah, this passage dates to the period after the return from exile. The people are back in the homeland, but life is difficult—a far cry from the glorious expectation. The prophet vows incessant prayer (compare vv. 6-7) until the anticipated vindication of Jerusalem (Zion) shines forth like the dawn, like a burning torch. “The nations” and “all the kings” shall see Jerusalem’s glorious vindication. Such public manifestation of God’s salvific activity makes this an especially appropriate passage for the season of Epiphany.

Isaiah portrayed the anticipated vindication in terms of several vivid metaphors. First, “a new name.”  Receiving a new name signified a new character and situation. For example, God renamed Sarai and Abram, Sarah and Abraham; Jacob became Israel, and Simon, Peter. By means of this metaphor, the prophet proclaimed that the character and situation of the former exiles was about to change dramatically. No longer will Jerusalem be called “Forsaken,” and the land, “Desolate.” Soon Jerusalem will be known as “My Delight Is in Her,” and the land, as “Married."

The name change led naturally to a second metaphor:  marriage. Some translations of v. 5 read “your sons” rather than “your Builder.” The Hebrew consonants can support either reading (vowels must be supplied by the reader), but because of the verse’s parallelism, Builder is perhaps the better reading. Comparing the relationship between God and Israel to the intimacy between husband and wife is fairly common. (Note: The marriage metaphor forms a happy link to the gospel lesson.

The third metaphorical device is the use of the trappings of royalty. The vindication of Jerusalem will be as “a crown of beauty” and “a royal diadem” in the hand of God.  Thus, the restoration of Israel will bring glory to the LORD.

Psalm 36:5-10
Psalm 36 consists of three parts: vv. 1-4, a description of the character of “the wicked” in the typical form of a wisdom psalm; vv. 5-10, a hymn extolling God’s steadfast love; and vv. 11-12, a prayer for protection from the wicked.  andwiched between dark verses describing those for whom “there is no fear of God” (v. 1), the hymn shines forth as an epiphany of God’s character.

The psalmist enlisted a number of the more majestic aspects of the natural world in a beautiful description of the immensity and constancy of God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and judgments: the heavens, the clouds, the mighty mountains, and the great deep (vv. 5-6). Of particular significance for our anthropocentric culture—revealed most grotesquely in factory farming—is the assertion “you save humans and animals alike, O God.” The animal imagery continues with the psalmist declaring that like hatchlings, “all people” may take refuge under the protective shadow of Mother God’s “wings” (v. 7).

Abruptly, the psalmist changed metaphors, from the natural world to the Temple (“your house”). For the ancient Israelites, for whom hunger was always a possibility, Temple meals provided the perfect symbol of abundance, for the prescribed sacrificial system resulted in sumptuous religious banquets (v. 8). And in an arid land, images of rivers and fountains (vv. 8-9) evoked deep feelings of the essence of life.

The expression “in your light we see light” (v. 9) facilitates the use of this psalm during the season of Epiphany.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
As the opening words, “Now concerning spiritual gifts . . .” indicate, with today’s epistolary lection Paul began his response to a question asked by the Corinthians.  (See 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 15:1; 16:1; and 16:12 where with similar language Paul took up other questions). From the length of his answer (chapters 12-14) and scattered statements elsewhere in the letter (e.g., 1:7), clearly the topic of spiritual gifts was of special concern to the Corinthians—and from Paul’s perspective, an aspect of grace they had sorely abused. As even a cursory reading of Paul’s answer reveals, a faction within the community had elevated certain showy gifts, such as speaking in tongues, to such an extent that these gifts became the marks of spirituality. Not only were other gifts relegated to a lower status, so too were those Christians whose “manifestation of the Spirit” (v. 7, note the connection with Epiphany) did not involve these showy gifts. Indeed, some of these self-styled spiritual giants apparently even questioned the salvation of those lacking these gifts.

The reader should not miss the significance of Paul’s word preference. In the course of the discussion, he used charismata more frequently than pneumatikoi.  Although English versions translate both words as “spiritual gifts,” charismata literally means “grace gifts.” Paul’s preference is instructive. The gifts are graciously bestowed by God—each and every one.

Paul began his teaching on spiritual gifts by reminding the Corinthians that before they were Christians, they were “carried away by some impulse or other” (Revised English Bible) to “idols that could not speak,” a common way of denouncing an idol in the Hebrew Bible. Ecstatic speech is by no means limited to Christianity; on the contrary, glossalia (the Greek word) is a fairly widespread religious phenomenon. Clearly, then, the ability to speak in tongues is no indicator of Christian spirituality; the criterion is the content of the utterance. The statement, “Let Jesus be cursed,” has evoked a host of interpretations. Assuming there were “gnostic” Christians in Corinth, some commentators think the statement refers to their disparaging of the flesh and blood Jesus in favor of the spiritual Christ. Other interpreters think Paul was merely expressing a hypothetical extreme utterance of someone caught up in an ecstatic state. Whatever the precise meaning in Paul’s mind, the point is clear: any utterance that curses rather than confesses Jesus is clearly not of the Holy Spirit. Content is the criterion, and content should not be limited to the mere words themselves but should include the results of their utterance as well. The consequences of seemingly spiritual words can, in effect, curse Jesus as well.

The Corinthians had selfishly and immaturely fixated on a few showy gifts and consequently shattered the community into a variety of factions. By way of correction, Paul stressed the rich diversity of spiritual gifts, all of which originate from a single source (described in triune form) and have a single goal (“the common good”). The gifts are to edify the entire community, not divide it.  The essence of the spiritual life is healthy relationships, not self-indulgent spiritual highs.  Thus, vv. 4-7 form the core of his teaching on this topic—unity in the midst of rich diversity. “We should not think of diversity as an obstacle to be overcome but as a resource to be used” (Carl R. Holladay, in Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, and Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: C [Valley Forge, Penn: Trinity Press, 1994] 81).

Noteworthy are the terms Paul placed in parallel structure: the various “gifts” bestowed by the Spirit enable Christians to perform a variety of “services” (or ministries) to the Lord because the gifts are the “activities” (or energetic workings) of God through believers. Although God works through believers to accomplish these services, this is not by way of “divine possession,” as in the Cult of Dionysus. Paul made this clear in his discussion of the gift of prophecy: “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (14:32). God may “activate” these gifts (v. 6), but human cooperation is required. Spiritual gifts can be abused or neglected. Spiritual advancement in the world is a matter of co-creation, not unilateral (human or divine) creation.

Verses 8-11 present a sample (not exhaustive) list of gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Space will not permit a detailed discussion of these gifts, but a careful word study and consultation of standard commentaries will pay rich dividends. Of supreme importance, however, are the following observations.  First, the single origin of the gifts is stressed repeatedly. Second, each believer receives spiritual endowments. Third, the decision as to which gifts to bestow upon which believer is solely a divine prerogative. And fourth, speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues, the gifts so highly valued in Corinth, are placed last. This demotion is not merely for rhetorical emphasis, as chapter 14 reveals.

 John 2:1-11
The conclusion of the gospel lesson—“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (v.11)—clearly indicates that this is an Epiphany text. Moreover, this passage is for the Gospel of John the functional equivalent of the Lucan account of the inaugural sermon in Nazareth: an announcement of the Gospel’s primary themes.

The fourth evangelist’s consistent use of the word “sign” to refer to Jesus’ “mighty deeds” (the terminology of the Synoptic Gospels) suggests that he viewed the seven events so designated as pointing beyond themselves to spiritual truths (e.g., who Jesus is, or what God is doing, or what God is like). Signs are “windows into the reality of God” (Barclay).

This sign is said to have occurred “on the third day.”  Following the chronological indicators of chapter one, this would mean that two days intervened between Philip’s call (1:43) and the wedding. Of course, given the evangelist’s frequent use of symbolism and double meaning, the expression’s connection with the resurrection may invest them with the ability to mark an event as especially revelatory. The expression also occurs in the story of the cleansing of the Temple (2:19-22).

Cana was a small village about nine miles northwest of Nazareth. Contrary to the speculation of some commentators that it was the unexpected presence of the disciples that caused the wine supply to fail, the text indicates that they, like Jesus, were invited to the celebration. Because Mary (who is never referred to by name in this Gospel!) called attention to what could be not only a social embarrassment but also a legal liability for the newlyweds, some interpreters suggest that the couple may have been her relatives. The reader is left to ponder the question, What did she expect Jesus to do? Purchase more wine? Perform a miracle? If the latter, was she motivated in part by a desire to nudge her son into the spotlight?

Jesus’ response to Mary may seem harsh to present-day readers. In actuality, “Woman” was a respectful form address in that culture (e.g., 4:21). Nevertheless, his use of the term with his mother is unusual and creates a bit of distance between them, downplaying the family tie. (The reader may recall Mark 3:33-35.) Moreover, he immediately states that action on his part is contingent upon something other than her request. The “hour” of his disclosure—a significant concept in this gospel referring to his final manifestation in the cross and resurrection (7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1)—would not be determined by humans.  On the contrary, Jesus’ actions were to be in response to God’s will, not in response to human desires (see 7:1-9; 11:1-7).

Jesus speaks and acts not in response to any claims of kinship, friendship, or even need, but at his own initiative as God’s will is revealed to him.  This pattern may seem to be without compassion, but something more than compassion is involved.  In the Cana story . . . Jesus meets the need, but he does more. Compassion alone might provide wine, but sovereign grace does more: it reveals God in what is done and confirms the disciples’ faith in Jesus. (Fred B. Craddock, in Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, and Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: C [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994] 82.)

In spite of his statement, his mother told the servants to do whatever he said. “She has not been dissuaded from her initial position that Jesus can do something about the wine (v. 3), but in light of Jesus’ words in v. 4 she cedes the initiative for acting to Jesus” (Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John, in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995] 537).

The large (20 or 30 gallon) stone jars held water for the many prescribed cleansing rituals.  tone was used because earthenware “contracts” impurity (Lev 11:33). The size and the number of jars are unusual, even for a large gathering like a wedding, making this a most extravagant wedding gift. Although the mighty deed itself—the transformation of water into wine—is not recorded, its results are.  The chief steward, who was the ancient equivalent to today’s wedding host charged with overseeing the whole affair, was amazed when he tasted the wine. The best wine was normally served first, then wine of lesser quality when the palate was no longer as sensitive. The bridegroom had saved the best for last, or so the chief steward thought. (The careful reader will note the obvious double meaning; Jesus is the eschatological bridegroom.)

Although there exist several Greco-Roman stories in which gods manifest their presence through the miraculous supply of an abundance of wine, there is no reason to suggest literary dependence here. On the contrary, the Johannine story draws on the Jewish notion of an abundance of wine as an eschatological symbol of the arrival of the New Age (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18).

Although the primary function of the sign is stated plainly in v. 11, two other levels of meaning are most likely implied. First, in a manner reminiscent of Mark 2:21-22, the “old vessels” of ritual purification are given new content. This does not imply a rejection or replacement of Judaism in favor of Christianity, as some have read the passage; rather, the idea is “the creation of something new in the midst of Judaism” (O’Day 538), a creative transformation, an offering of new possibilities. Second, one can hardly miss the Eucharistic symbolism of the passage, especially when it is read in light of another of the Johannine sign, the equally astonishing feeding of the five thousand, which is followed by the discourse on the bread of life (6:1-15, 22-71).

A final note is in order concerning a process approach to interpreting biblical “miracles.” The following excepts are from my article, “Jesus in Process Christology,” in Marvin Meyer and Charles Hughes, eds., Jesus Then and Now: Images of Jesus in History and Christology (Harrisburg, Penn: Trinity Press, 2001) 201-15.

A process-informed interpreter would not reject a priori the miraculous dimension of the gospels. Actually, a process theologian would not use the word miracle for that is a term presupposing the modern worldview. For that matter, miracle is not a biblical concept either—or as I like to tell students, “the Bible doesn’t believe in miracles.” That arrests their attention. The New Testament writers did use words such as mighty deeds, wonders, and signs to describe certain deeds attributed to Jesus, but they did not use the word miracle.  Such a concept was foreign to their worldview.

The word miracle presupposes the natural-supernatural split of the modern worldview.  In the early modern period, people thought that the natural world follows “natural laws” established by God. God seldom intervenes in the natural word, but on those rare occasions when God does, a supernatural event called a miracle occurs. Over the years, problems inherent in this natural-supernatural model of reality became so great that scholars increasingly abandoned belief in a supernatural realm.  In the late modern period reality has come to be conceived purely in terms of a natural world following natural laws, a curious expression because it implies a lawgiver.

Developing against this background, biblical scholarship increasingly came to reject a priori those aspects of the gospels that were perceived as miraculous. . . .

If one subscribes to the modern worldview, this is not only logical but also inescapable if one strives to be consistent with modernity’s presuppositions. But what if one subscribes to the constructive postmodern worldview known as process thought?  How would an interpreter understand these unusual Jesus stories?

The process worldview rejects the dualistic natural-supernatural understanding of reality associated with the modern worldview.  For process thinkers, no aspect of reality is devoid of the activity of God.  Indeed, each event arises from the gift of the initial aim. . . . . Religious experience does not imply a supernatural incursion into the otherwise natural affairs of the world and human experience, nor is it reducible to psychological or sociological analysis.  On the contrary, metaphysically speaking, human religious experience is no different from any other creaturely experience, for God’s initial aim is present to every actual occasion.  All that distinguishes religious experience from other creaturely experience is a heightened awareness—i.e., a raising to the level of human consciousness—of the activity of God in the experience. And sometimes these experiences are “wondrous” indeed . . . Process theologians are not perplexed when the unexpected occurs, because for them natural law does not denote a set of fixed physical laws governing the world.  Rather, natural law is conceived of as the latest description of the way things normally happen.  But because process thinkers understand God and the world in terms of change rather than permanence, of creativity rather than status quo, of becoming rather than being, they expect the unexpected to emerge in the creative advance of the world.  Because of the evocative lure of God, that which today is a mighty deed, a wonder, might tomorrow be commonplace. .

In light of the preceding discussion, it is obvious that a process-informed interpreter would not reject a priori the so-called “miraculous” dimension of the gospels. This does not mean, however, that a process-informed interpreter is predisposed to accept such stories as historically accurate. On the contrary, precisely because they are unusual rather than common, the burden of proof lies with those who interpret these aspects of the Jesus tradition as historical. Such stories may well be mythical rather than historical, intended to convey some spiritual teaching rather than to portray an historical event (e.g., stories of the miraculous conception). And should a story have an historical kernel, discerning it beneath layers of embellishment (so common in ancient stories) is a difficult task, indeed (e.g., the post-resurrection appearance stories). Nevertheless, by refusing to excise such stories a priori a process-informed interpreter may experience “creative transformation” through the very act of grappling with what is foreign to his or her immediate experience and sensibilities. (Farmer 211-13)

Ronald L. Farmer served as  the Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University. In addition to numerous essays and articles in various books and journals, he is the author of Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic and Revelation in the series Chalice Commentaries for Today. He now resides in Ecuador with his wife.