Signs (Second Sunday after Epiphany)

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In 1970, the Canadian rock band “5 Man Electrical Band” first released their song, “Signs”.  Written by their lead vocalist Les Emmerson, it was apparently inspired by a trip through California on old Route 66, where billboards had become ubiquitous.  And it wasn’t just billboards – there were signs everywhere that cried out for your attention, and that you couldn’t escape.

And so the refrain to the song, which almost everybody now knows, says: “sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery breaking my mind.  Do this.  Don’t do that.  Can’t you read the sign?!”

Signs – they’re everywhere.  And over half a century later, they’ve often become bigger, brighter and louder to attract attention in a world ever more full of signs.  You can’t miss them or escape them.

But in today’s Gospel reading, John introduces the “signs” that Jesus does, with his story of Jesus changing water into wine.  But unlike the other “signs” all around us, the signs that Jesus does aren’t as big, flashy or ubiquitous. 

In fact, it’s important to note that John’s Gospel uses the word “sign” where other Gospel writers use the word “miracle.”  And usually, we expect a “miracle” to be a big, bright, and flashy thing – something like those signs in the song.  You can’t miss them or ignore them.

But John’s Gospel wants to point out that the signs Jesus does aren’t for show.  They’re not neat parlor tricks to get attention.  And often, they’re quite different from the “signs” we see all around us.

This first sign that Jesus does – the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana – is, like many of his signs:

  • Unnoticed by almost everybody – Jesus’ disciples see what happened – and the servants who draw the water know – but nobody else “sees the sign”.  In fact, for most people, the party just goes on as before, because there’s still wine and there’s really nothing unusual here to see as far as they know …
  • Causes disruption in the way things are supposed to work – the steward – basically the caterer – knows that there’s now this really good wine, although he doesn’t know where it comes from.  And so he chews out the groom for letting this happen!  This is NOT the way you serve the wine at weddings. And as far as the steward is concerned, this just makes both him and the groom look incompetent…
  • Allows the party to go on – and this is ironically why a lot of people probably didn’t notice.  The wine had run out.  Everybody would have had to go home.  But because of the sign, there was a way forward.  The party went on.  And only a few people appreciated why…

And often, when we’re looking for the “signs” of God’s presence, guidance and help in our lives, the signs we should be looking for are much more like Jesus’ signs than they are flashy billboards or pop-ups.  Often, Jesus’ signs in our lives don’t seem ubiquitous.  But they’re usually there if we’re looking in the right places and paying attention.

But that’s not always an easy task.  For us, too, seeing and appreciating the signs of God’s presence, guidance and help often means being open to “signs” which:

  • Are ordinary things that many others don’t see as coming from God – after all, the rest of the partygoers just saw wine as a natural thing around them, and the steward thought it came from the groom’s wine cellar.  Often, the “sign” of God’s guidance and presence that I’m looking for may seem like just an ordinary thing in the world around me … (and this is often the way it was for the ancient prophets as well – the “sign” was a wall being built, a bowl of fruit, or a pregnant woman walking by…)
  • Disrupt my routine and challenge my expectations – perhaps part of the reason that the steward didn’t ask where the wine came from is that, it didn’t matter where it came from! It wasn’t supposed to be like this!  And Jesus’ signs usually caused “disruption”, and not just for the “bad” people – (the steward was a good guy; and even Jesus’ life gets disrupted by his signs!)  Often for me, and maybe for you, too, I look for signs from God that comfort me and tell me that things will be calm and normal.  But sometimes, the signs I need to see are the signs that things are going to be different, but that God is guiding me through and into that different time and situation …
  • In spite of the disruption (and perhaps because of it) show me the way that the “party” can continue – this is also a key characteristic of Jesus’ signs: they upend expectations, but in so doing, show a way forward that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise – and so the party continues; people with incurable illnesses are healed; and even the dead are raised to new life.  The signs are the vehicles through which Jesus shows that there is a way forward, and that new life really is possible.  But often, I resist looking for those signs because I REALLY want God to show me that life can get back to the way it was before… yet the “signs” are more likely to show me that there is a way forward, and that there is new life, but like Resurrection, it will be different than it was before…

Seeing the signs of Jesus’ presence and guidance is sometimes hard, because they’re not always obvious, they’re often not bright and flashy, and they’re often not the things we were looking for.  But when we do recognize them, they turn out to be more significant than the flashy stuff around us.

Oh, so when I was looking at the lyrics for that “Signs” song, I discovered a fun fact that I hadn’t known before.  When 5 Man Electrical Band first released “Signs” in 1970, it was a B side song – that is, it was considered a “bonus track” that was supposed to back up the really important single they were releasing on the A side.  That A side song was relatively unsuccessful, but “Signs” was so popular that it got re-released a year later as an A side and it went gold.

Many of God’s signs are like that, too.  At first, nobody seems to think they should be noticed, just as few noticed the wine.  But later on, if you knew what to look for, you could see the beginning of something great and life changing.

In today’s Gospel reading, we read about the first of Jesus’ signs, not the last.  So be open to the continuing signs of Jesus’ presence, help and guidance in your life.  Watch for the things that may not be flashy, but yet may be ways that God is showing you something you need to see.  Be open to the possibility that the things that disrupt your routine and your ideas about the way things should work may be God’s way of showing you a new way forward.  And be confident that, even when you don’t see a sign right now, and even when you’re not sure whether something is a sign or not, God is still at work guiding you and the whole world into the party of new life.