The busier life gets, the more I find myself stumbling upon important moments that I was too distracted to see coming. Birthdays and holidays sneak up out of nowhere, and I barely notice before they've come and gone. I don't like that. So during the month of November, I'll be offering some thoughts to help us get ready for Thanksgiving. Feast, in four parts. I need this. Maybe you do, too.
Last week I mentioned the story in John's Gospel where Jesus turns water into wine. Let's revisit that scene.
Jesus and his disciples go to a wedding with his mother. The whole village of Cana would have been there. In an embarrassing turn of events, the wine runs out while the party is still raging. Jesus's mom tells him to do something about it. He says it's not the right time, but she ignores him and directs the servants to follow his instructions. He sends them to fill up jugs that are used for ritual washing with water and take it to the chief steward. Upon tasting the water, the steward discovers an exquisite wine on his lips. John offers a commentary in his retelling: this was the first sign of Jesus's glory.
Glory. That's a word you don't just throw around. So what's it doing here?
There are a few viable ways for us to approach this. (There's a lot going on in this story.) But let's just go with one angle for now.*
Wine starts with grapes, and a grape is one of those things that comes to us just as it is. The earth produces things like grapes and lettuce and wheat. And there's a word that comes up in Scripture when we're talking about the stuff of the earth. It is good.
Stop for a second, because we don't want to miss that. It is good. Christians have always struggled with this. We like our religion disembodied. We miss the fact that ours is an earthy sacred text. The very first word the Bible gives on Creation is that it is good.
Now of course the grapes (and lettuce and wheat) we like to use for juice and wine (and salad and bread) have been cultivated and adapted to fit our tastes and become more useful and easier to mass produce. But that's my point.
You start with this good thing that the earth produces — a grape — and then you cultivate it and customize it and get it just right for what you have in mind. Then you harvest it, juice it, and add some yeast to the juice. (Although yeast and grape juice can get together without our help, since wild yeast are everywhere. In fact wine was uniquely associated with the divine in ancient cultures because it was possible for wine to occur without anyone trying to make it happen. But I digress.) After it's fermented, the newly made wine often ends up in wooden barrels, where it takes its time extracting flavors and tannins from the wood and becoming richer and more complex. Eventually, if all this is done with great skill, you end up with something that some people would call exquisite. Or maybe there's another word for it.
What do you call it when something is expressed and experienced in its fullness, when the latent potential of something is brought to life?
I've sat at a piano thousands of times, but some of those encounters with wood and steel and strings have caught me differently than the rest. There was a weight to it in those moments, like a gravity that kept me from skipping past the music because it pulled me in.
Maybe you were camping this summer, and detoxing from your smartphone and your inbox had opened up your senses again, and one morning on the water as the day's first light hit, you felt it. The weight of the beautiful world you were surrounded by.
You've known your parents your entire life, but something about a recent encounter… it was like you saw your mom or dad again, not just as a static fixture in your life, but for who they really are. You told stories for hours and laughed harder than usual and somehow you felt the weight of their presence and personality again. The gravity of their lives affected you and you knew it.
Sometimes we bounce through the world and the world bounces off of us. But there are moments when something catches us, sinks deeply into us, or maybe we sink deeply into it.
The ancient Hebrews had a word for this weight. They would call it the 'kabod'. (If you want to say it right, make the 'b' sound almost like a 'v'.) And when kabod gets translated into English, we call it glory.
The glory of a thing is when it is expressed and experienced in its fullness. When its weight is felt. When all the latent potential of a vineyard is expertly realized or when a field of wheat yields baskets of bread, and when we turn our attention to the feast to experience it, things have gone from good to glory.
In the Bible, things begin with good and end in glory. Sure, there's a lot of mess in the middle. But that's the line you get if you draw it from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, where there's a whole lot of glory going on. At the end there, a whole city of glory shows up. And it's not just God's glory that gets featured there. In John's apocryphal vision he sees the glory of the kings of the earth coming into that city, too. That's the glory of humanity contributing to the weighty presence of the new Jerusalem.
But how do things go from good to glory?
In Genesis 1, God declares again and again that the creation is good until something new enters the picture that causes Him to upgrade His assessment. His final judgment of the creation in that passage is that it is very good. At that moment it's like a trajectory has been set in motion that will eventually take things from good to glory. So what gets introduced to set things in motion toward glory?
Men and women enter the equation and take this whole project from good to very good on the way to glory. But why? How?
There's a clue in the text. It doesn't just say God created us. It says He created us in His image. Men and women, in His image. And God gives them instructions: they're to cultivate the earth. They're to put their hands to the task of coaxing all the latent potential out of every good thing they see.
When something has gone from good to glory, it means an image bearer has done her work. A table cannot be full of sweet and savory delectations, cannot be decked out in fine silver and mom's china and pristine stemware, unless a whole lot of image bearing has happened to fashion glass into stemware and silver into silverware and ingredients into food, even trees into a table. Every artifact at the table has required image bearers to coax the potential out of the raw world that we live in.
A feast is a celebration of a whole lot of image bearing. It's not just that someone has binge-watched Food Network shows to get ready or pulled off some impressive culinary fireworks in the name of 'entertaining'. It's that farmers and accountants and artists and lawyers and craftsmen and manufacturers and truck drivers and builders have all done some cultivating without which our feasts couldn't happen. Of course there's plenty in our modern world — its food system and commercial methods, etc — that falls short of this ideal, but at its best, a feast is a celebration of image bearing.
Let's not end there, though, because we occupy a unique place in the midst of all this goodness and glory. We get to do the cultivating, but we need to be cultivated, too. We need something to take us from good to glory. We were called image bearers from the beginning, but something broke down in that bearing as we gave ourselves over to other, inferior images. But Colossians picks up the line of image bearing and draws it toward Jesus. "He is the image of the invisible God," Paul writes. If creation goes from good to glory when an image bearer interacts with it, what happens when we interact with Jesus?
Remember what glory had to do with that feast at Cana? It wasn't just the wine that was glorious. John says Jesus revealed His glory. By turning water into wine, by keeping the feast going, by intercepting the shame of the bridegroom's family and making them look like exceptional hosts, Jesus showed us something about Himself. It's as if Jesus wants us to understand that His glory is expressed in His ability to take good things and lead them toward glory.
If Jesus, the image bearer, can take water and turn it to wine, I wonder what He can do with us.
So the story goes from good to glory.
From a garden to a city.
It's a story about grapes (or water, that one time) made into wine and
wheat made into bread and
wood fashioned into tables and
famine turned to feasts.
It's about shame turned to hope and
scarcity turned to abundance and
broken people conformed to the image of God again.
A table is a celebration of image bearing. And maybe it's turned into a temple when we encounter some kind of glory there.