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Sermon – “Two Witnesses” – January 20, 2013

Sermon for January 20, 2013 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Two Witnesses Psalm 36: 5-10; 1 Corinthians 12: 1- 11; John 2: 1-11

When it comes to medical matters you often are told to get a second opinion. Here’s an example why that can be a good idea. A person suffering from upper leg pain was diagnosed as needing a hip replacement. That was done, and followed up with physical therapy, without ever relieving the pain for which the surgery had been commended. So the person went to another doctor and was told that the leg pain came from back problems. The person had back surgery, and the leg pain stopped. Perhaps the hip replacement needed to be done anyway, but the point is that a second opinion from the beginning might have made a difference in what happened.

It’s not only in medicine that hearing more than one perspective might be good. Two heads are better than one is a principle which applies to most things, from the analyses of mechanics to the opinions of advice columnists.

You are free to get a second opinion about my reading of the gospel of John, and though I think I have an informed understanding of some things about the gospel, and what I am going to tell you this morning is true, you would benefit from hearing other perspectives. You wouldn’t necessarily find my emphases and conclusions more convincing by contrasting them with other readers, but if you did, it would be that much more persuasive. Too, getting more than one outlook on a thing helps us in our own thinking about it. It doesn’t always make decision-making easier, but it always helps us to understand what questions exist about a thing, and what terms explanations employ to unpack what’s going on.

An advantage of democracy–and we count on democracy in our church tradition, because we have business on which we vote, with an opportunity for discussion first–is that more than one way of seeing things can contribute to what eventually is done, and whether or not the majority makes the best decision in the long run, at least there is the chance for a more comprehensive assessment of possibilities.

There is a principle in Biblical law that the testimony of two witnesses is true, and it is based on the same notion that one person may have all kinds of reasons for being misled and therefore misleading, but a second person who sees things the same way supports the likelihood of the thing witnessed being so. There are a couple of illustrations of this in the New Testament. One is from the trial of Jesus, right before his crucifixion. Two witnesses are produced as accusers, and though they presumably have been coached to make the kangaroo court reach its verdict, at least one gospel reports that what they said didn’t agree, which emphasizes the trial’s faults. The other place in the New Testament that you hear about the testimony of two witnesses is in the gospel of John. In chapter 5, after saying in verse 31, “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true”, in verse 36 Jesus says, “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”

The very first of those miraculous deeds which constitute testimonials from God about Jesus being the One Sent in whom the world is supposed to believe is the subject of today’s gospel reading. Before looking at that, however, I want to look at the entire gospel of John as a second witness.

The first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, have long been regarded as sharing common material. The basic assumption about them is that Mark was written down first of the three, and that both Matthew and Luke used the narrative from Mark as a framework on which to build their own gospels, adding other material which they had in their own traditions. There are all kinds of interesting things to notice about how Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ in how they present the good news, but there’s a sense in which there is one basic story shared by all of them, and if a person were disposed to wish there were another ancient witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection independent of the one shared by Matthew,Mark, and Luke, we wouldn’t have a very useful one if it weren’t for the gospel of John.

John’s gospel is obviously different enough from the other gospels to be recognized as an independent effort, from a very different tradition. At the same time, it has enough in common with the other gospels to reassure the reader that the broad outlines of Jesus’ life and some of the main emphases and events remembered by his followers are attested by two separate sources.

When we are accustomed to believing in scripture because of the respect for it we were taught as young people, and because of the place the faith founded on the scripture has had in the lives of people we love, and in our own lives, it can be odd to be encouraged to credit scriptural accounts because of historical evidence. I would say, though, that history is scripture’s own standard of significance, and that therefore it is appropriate for us to notice how real-world events and culturally-and-politically-influenced assumptions affect the way scripture tells us what it regards as important. I think it is particularly important to recognize that John’s gospel, as an alternate account of Jesus’ life and meaning, encourages us to relate to Jesus not just by piety, but also by history. Our confidence in him owes something to investigable events as well as our apprehension of his eternal nature, because the gospel of John constitutes that second witness which gives us more reason to trust in the account of the first witness.

That said, today’s narrative is unknown in the other tradition. Only John reports the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine to add to the enjoyment of a wedding feast. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Mark, there’s no way to compare and contrast their use of the material to see what each is up to. We have to analyze what John is doing from internal evidence.

Guesswork is easier to get away with when there’s less material to compare, and this might be a good place to get a second opinion on what I’m going to say. I’ve already pointed out that the logic of John’s gospel is that the miracles associated with Jesus exist in order to persuade people to believe in him as God’s special messenger and change agent. The question is, with regard to Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding feast, is there something beside the miracle itself we are supposed to notice, which helps confirm for us that Jesus is to be identified with God?

Numbers in scripture always simply may be related because someone took the trouble to enumerate. If we are told that forty people were present, perhaps someone counted forty people and told us so. On the other hand, forty is a representative number in the Old Testament– it often shows up, so either it is in the nature of God to like the number 40, or it’s in the nature of Hebrew narrative to like the number forty.

I am reading the six jars of water for purification as a significant number, and this is what I propose it’s about. This is the first of the signs which the author of John’s gospel points out to us, and all the signs work by associating Jesus with something from the first five books of the Bible. First things first: I think the six jars of water stand for six days of creation, and that Jesus’ making sure they are brimming with water is a deliberate reference to God’s bringing a new world into being by declaration from a spirit moving across the face of waters. They become wine, which answers the problem which Jesus’ mother had mentioned. It also gives her a chance to attest to her son’s special nature by saying “Do whatever he tells you.” That “Do whatever he tells you” are meaningful words in a gospel in which the main conflict is Jesus and Mary’s countrymen’s inability to accept what Jesus says.

The wine is notably better wine, which may be a way to say that the revelation of God available from Jesus is an improvement on the old pattern. Once you detect symbolic language in what you are reading, you can go far, and potentially too far. My point is that this is a gospel which has its own approach, and it subordinates what we might perceive as the orderly chronological narrative of the other tradition to a framework of signs which is supposed to make the identity of Jesus clearer and clearer to his disciples as the gospel progresses. Despite that, it shares a great many of the remembrances of the other gospel. It has the same or similar healings, feedings, the recruitment of disciples, and most closely parallels the other tradition in the details of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

The principle stated by John, that God has not abandoned us to a single witness, and therefore we can have confidence in the testimony, is borne out by the fourth gospel. The impact of Jesus’ life and the deep meaning its events held for those who believed in him are attested by this additional book, whose variations and divergence only reassure us that this was not written to corroborate an official line, but speaks out of another community within the Christian world which had cherished and preserved information about Jesus Christ in order to impart it to those who would follow.

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