First Things First: Jesus’ Miracle at Cana

Miracle at Cana
Miracle at Cana

Turning Water into Wine at the Wedding at Cana / Fernando Gallego, 1480s

Are you ever offended at Jesus? He upset people from the very beginning. Some of us in the church haven’t liked everything he did for 2,000 years–least of all his sense of timing.

Jesus’ first miracle took place at a party, much to the consternation of those who think religion ought to be dignified and serious.

He brought the wine, much to the consternation of Christians who believe that anything alcoholic is evil. What was Jesus doing there in the first place, and what does it all mean?

According to John 2:1-11, Mary was at a wedding in Cana. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited, apparently some time later than Mary. Either the bride or groom may have been Jesus’ and Mary’s relatives.

In any case, Mary must have been an important enough person to them that when a problem arose, she knew about it and took responsibility for doing something about it. Continue reading

Mary: After the Angel Departed

Mary, Simeon, Jesus

Simeon Receives Jesus in the Temple / Simon Vouet, 1640-41

Have you ever had a vivid encounter with God? What happened a day or two later? A week? Years?

Quite often Christians have reported an overwhelming spiritual high followed by a deep spiritual low.

God’s presence can be so vivid that it seems like what he says is bound to happen in the next 15 minutes, but it never does.

A cherished promise never seems as far off and distant as it does after vividness of the divine presence fades.

Does that mean perhaps that we had no genuine spiritual experience? Did we get carried away by feelings? Was it all a lie?

Hardly.

It follows a biblical pattern. This post will explore it in Mary’s life, but first, consider: Continue reading

Who Were the Magi, and Why Should We Care?

Magi

Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels”, mosaic of an Italian-Byzantine workshop in Ravenna, completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”.

Did the three wise men really visit the manger in Bethlehem on that first Christmas day bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

The town and the gifts are right. At best, the rest of the familiar scene is dubious. Who were the wise men (magi), and what does it matter?

The Bible (Matthew 2:1-12) simply says wise men (it’s plural, so there were at least two) followed a star from the East (a vague enough reference that only rules out other directions). Eventually they got to Bethlehem, entered “the house,” presented their gifts, and rode out of history. Continue reading

Preparing for Christ’s return

Last Judgment / Lochner Jesus' return second coming of Christ
john the baptist

John the Baptist, Preaching / Luca Giordano, ca. 1695

The church sets aside the season of Advent to prepare for Christ’s coming. It is a season of penitence to prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas, the first coming of Christ. He entered the world by stealth, being born in an obscure village.

But the New Testament proclaims in many ways that Christ will return in triumph. Advent prepares us for that event, too.

Regarding John the Baptist, Luke 3:4-6 quotes a passage from Isaiah that has not yet seen its entire fulfillment: Continue reading

Benedictus: Zecharaiah’s song

Zechariah--annunciation

Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah / Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490) Fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence

Zechariah’s song (known as the Benedictus) doesn’t get nearly the attention as Mary’s (the Magnificat) earlier in the chapter, but it is the first recorded prophetic word since the Book of Malachi some 400 years earlier.

Its outpouring of praise culminates a long life of both piety and disappointment. After years of waiting and hoping, Zechariah, an aging priest, drew the lot for the once-in-a-lifetime assignment of burning incense in the temple.

The angel Gabriel appeared to him and said his prayer was answered. What prayer? The one he had been praying longer than he had waited for the honor of burning incense. He and his wife Elizabeth wanted a son. Gabriel instructed that he name the son John.

Unfortunately, the pious and righteous Zechariah chose that moment to show unbelief by asking Gabriel how he could know the promise was true. He never spoke another word until after John was born. Continue reading

Is God a light switch?

light switch

light switchHow does a person find God? Someone suggested it’s like leading them into a dark room and encouraging them to find a light switch on the wall.

I have some experience going into total darkness and finding the switch, but I’ll only enter if I know where the switch is. Can a believer tell or show someone else where the switch is?

I think that’s the wrong question. God is the light of the world. There is no darkness in him, and he is not in darkness.

Where, then, does darkness come from? The simple answer is that darkness comes from Satan, and if people are looking for a switch, then the switch must be the light of God in a believer.

But I don’t particularly like the metaphor. Let me rephrase the question: how does an unbeliever find the light, and what role do believers have in the process? Continue reading

Greatest of men, least in the kingdom of God

john the baptist
john the baptist

John the Baptist, Preaching / Luca Giordano, ca. 1695

In Luke 7:28, Jesus summarized his description of John the Baptist and his ministry saying, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

What was so special about John? And how can the least in the kingdom of God be greater than John? Continue reading

Strength, courage, and adequacy

Moses blesses Joshua
Moses blesses Joshua

Moses Blesses Joshua Before the High Priest / James Tissot, late 19th century

God’s first words to Joshua are, “Moses my servant is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan.” Joshua had known that this moment would come.

Everyone knew that Moses would not lead the people into the Promised Land.

We have all experienced starting a new venture or getting a big promotion, something that we have prepared to do for a long time.

But when it comes time to actually start working, it’s only natural to have some jitters about our adequacy. Continue reading

Beans, ping-pong balls, and Jesus

esus at prayer in the desert

Christ in the desert / Ivan Kramskoi (1871)

Perhaps you have seen this object lesson: Before starting his sermon, a preacher asked for a volunteer from the congregation. He had a jar of beans and three ping-pong balls, and asked the volunteer to put the ping-pong balls into the jar. He couldn’t do it.

The preacher emptied the beans into a pitcher. The balls easily fit into the jar. Then the preacher asked the volunteer to see how many of the beans he could get into the jar. They all fit with some room to spare.

The ping-pong balls represented time with God. The beans represented all of the day’s activities. We cannot find time for God in the midst of all of the things we plan and all of the unplanned stuff that comes in a day. But if we make time by making it our first priority, everything else fits.

Jesus shows us the same lesson. In Mark 1, he taught in the synagogue, cast a demon out of a man, healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and then spent the entire evening healing all the sick people who flocked to him and casting out more demons.  Continue reading

Justification: by grace or works?

Saint Paul

Saint Paul / Bartolomeo Montagna (1481)

Does the Bible contain contradictions? It can appear so.

Paul wrote, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and a few lines later, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2).

James, on the other hand, wrote, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21, 24).

Upon close examination of these verses in context, however, the apparent contradiction disappears. Continue reading