Grapes, Grace, and Major Disgrace
2ND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY JANUARY 20th, 2019 JOHN 2:1-11
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something … well, something going wrong. Because many of the truly great marriages start with something unplanned and unfortunate. Someone forgets something, or falls over, or flubs their vows; or there is freak weather event, a traffic jam, a collapsing cake, a collapsing bridesmaid, a collapsing anything, really. In 25 years of conducting weddings my personal highlight reel includes that time in the heavy, wet heat of summer when we all had to run from the marquee where the wedding was in full swing into a solid building to escape the tornado that was bearing down on us. Then there was the time in Pennsylvania when the bride’s mother asked me to change my accent. Seriously. I thought people would pay top dollar to have this accent do their wedding. I mean they wear kilts. Why not have a real English vicar and pretend you’re royalty getting hitched in Windsor Castle? You see, Four Weddings a Funeral is actually a documentary and not a comedy. Actually, not all great marriages start with a disaster. The very first couple I married celebrated their 25th anniversary in September and flew out to New York to mark this great milestone. And while there they took a train to Westfield and we celebrated together.
Now, as nostalgia would have it, often the very thing that went wrong on the wedding day turns out, years later, to become the couple’s favorite wedding story. And they sit chuckling on the front porch sixty years later and say, “Do you remember when your mother’s hat caught fire?” I bet the couple in Cana did that. Do you remember when the wine ran out?
How could they forget? We weren’t even there but 2,000 years later millions of us have read about it this morning in churches around the world. Oh, but this was not the equivalent of a fashion faux pas or an inappropriate speech by the best man. No, this was a disaster of the most terrible kind. The wine running out to us is embarrassing, but in First Century Israel it was catastrophic. To run out of wine was a grave insult to your guests. An old rabbinical saying went, “Without wine there is no joy.” In fact, there is some evidence from writings at the time that if the party ran out of food and drink the groom could be sued by the bride’s family for shaming them.
Weddings in biblical times were every bit as lavish as ours, but in a different way. According to costofwedding.com the amount of money spent on the average wedding in our zip code is $51,500. Now, in First Century Israel they obviously didn’t spend that kind of money, but they made up for it in one amazing way. The wedding lasted a week. But, oh the humiliation in Cana, the wine has run out on Day One. As it happens, Jesus is at the party, with his mother and disciples. Now don’t miss an important detail of this story, and that is where it appears in John’s Gospel. Take a look at your bulletin and you’ll see it is the start of chapter 2. Jesus is still unknown. The carpenter has not yet left his bench. He has not yet publicly uttered life-changing wisdom, never healed anyone, not even left home. And yet there’s Mary. Oh, the stories she could tell of her little boy now grown up. The hopes she has for him, the expectations she nurses in her soul. For thirty years she has been carrying in her heart, hidden, unspoken, the secret. For all his life she’s been waiting. Is it now? Is today the day when he’s ready, is this the hour he leaves me, that he hears God’s call to go, to heal, to teach, to love, to lavish God’s compassion, to perform God’s mission, to pursue the plan of God’s redemption? I wonder how many times she thought that moment had come. Maybe she felt that today was different. Perhaps something in her heart perceived the epiphany moment had arrived. So, she tentatively approaches Jesus. They have no wine. Is it now, son? Is today the day it starts? At first Jesus seems to resist his mother. But then, as if hearing God’s quiet inner voice of prompting, he tells the servers to fill six stone jars with water (each jar holding twenty to thirty gallons). They do, and when they draw some out it is water no more, but wine. And not just any old wine, but the best vintage anyone there has tasted. So much so that the steward says to the groom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior stuff when the guests are drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
Now some Christians have a problem with Jesus’ first miracle. And I get it. If you have ever loved an alcoholic, as I have, this story challenges you. If drink has caused damage in your family, you may have some tough questions for the Jesus of Cana. We are incredulous at Jesus turning 150 gallons of water into wine and we wonder whatever happened to ‘please drink responsibly’. So, it comes as some relief to know that wine in that time and place was not as strong as our wine. It’s likely that the alcohol content was about the same as our beer. So that’s OK, then. It’s 1,400 pints of 4% alcohol, not 12%.
We have a scandal in Cana. How can Jesus create the means and the opportunity for people to abuse alcohol? Well, maybe there’s something bigger going on here than a discussion about the ethics of booze. Perhaps Jesus is pointing to something more important than a debate about the morality of drink. This drama may not be about the grape, but the grace. The scandal of God’s generosity. This is a story of God’s extravagant abundance. The God incarnate who doesn’t just supply enough wine, but drenches his friends with it. The same Christ who did not give five thousand people just enough fish and bread to see them through to their next meal, but gave so much that everyone had their fill – and still had twelve baskets of leftovers. Yes, Mary, it’s time, today is the day when your son steps out from the shadows and rips open the curtain on God’s excessive, lavish, extravagant, wasteful, exuberant, profligate, sumptuous, unrestrained heart of giving. And to those of us who were born out of time, and couldn’t be in Cana that day, we are forced to imagine what this unsparing, intemperate, flamboyant God can do with what we have.
Do you ever feel like all you have to offer God is water – and not 150 gallons of it either, but a pint, a cup, a champagne flute? When we feel smart, creative, talented, alive then, on those days, life is so good. We want to bottle those moments, force a cork into the top and carry it around with us. Then take it out when the need arises and splash it around, blessing people and God. Cheers. But that feeling is not the only one we know. There have been entire seasons in my life, even whole years, when all I had was water. I longed to have wine I could offer God and people. I yearned to be one of the magi and have gold to place at Christ’s feet, expensive incense to burn in his honor, rare spices to lay before him. But I peered into the recesses of my heart and all I could find was cobwebs. I strained my ears hoping for sounds of something useful, something worthy, just anything I could say that would bring him joy, and all I heard was crickets.
Because tomorrow you will go to the wedding, and you will be expected to pour wine. The guests are there, the party’s in full swing, the band is playing, the wedding couple are dancing, but all you have is water. That wedding is actually your work place, your family gathering, your role in the community, your marriage, your parenthood, your ministry at church, and you will be expected to uncork a rich vintage. You will fear the consequences if you pop the cork and all that’s there is water. They may label you a poor worker, a bad parent, a lousy spouse, a fickle friend, an unreliable church member. But there’s an expectation even more insidious, yet more crushing. It does not come from those around you, but from within you. Those harsh words you say to yourself, these labels of judgment you pin to your own lapel, those impossible standards and unbearable expectations that come from deep within your own heart.
Then, if we’re wise, if we are true to our nature as God’s beloved children, then we’ll do like Mary. Is it now, Lord? Can it be today, please? Will you choose to step out of the shadows here, now, for me? And we set the table for a miracle.
Miracles only happen when there’s a shortage. They only occur when people reach the end of their tethers, the limits of their resources, the dregs of their wine. It is then, and often only then, that we rely on God. It’s when we open our mouths not knowing what to say that the Holy Spirit gives us words. It’s when we show up, not thinking we have anything to offer that God does his finest work, when we offer up our water that God turns it into wine. Before then, when we still have wine of our own, we resist that impulse. When our own reservoir has not yet run dry, we can kid ourselves that we have what it takes, our wine will be enough, our strength, our faith, our courage, are up to the task. It’s when we reach down deep within and find only a ladle of water, face the true poverty our spirits, admit we are powerless over the circumstances we find ourselves in, that the miracle occurs. Because who needs a miracle when you can solve the world’s problems in your own strength?
So, how is it with you today? It’s Epiphany. It’s a time of celebration. Don’t get carried away, in less than two months days of ash will be here, but today we will rejoice, like guests at a wedding. Do you feel like you have reached the end of your wine and all you have to offer God, your family, your world is water? Jesus is here. Offer him your weakness and see your water mysteriously, strangely, wonderfully transform into wine.