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 The Good Wine

Sermon - 1/20/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it.9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

 

   During the three years Judy I lived in Germany, we had the privilege of visiting many of the grand cathedrals of Europe, from Amsterdam to Vienna.

One cannot adequately describe with words the majestic masonry, complex carpentry,

 

stunning stained glass, powerful pipe organs
artfully-crafted altars and imperial pulpits.
Each and every edifice, displaying a rich heritage of faith, surrounding visitor and worshiper alike with the symbols, sights and sounds that give testimony to the great sacrifices made by generations long gone for their faith.
We worship here in a building not unlike many of those, though on a much smaller scale, still designed to lift our eyes to the heavens and our spirits to God.
The Gospel of John in many ways is like a cathedral, masterfully crafted by a sculptor of words and filled with symbols of various shades and shapes. Like an elaborate stained glass window
or intricate Michelangelo fresco, one rarely sees all the meanings contained therein at first glance.
The story of the wedding at Cana is a prime example of John's artwork. If we look close enough, we can see the fine touches of a true artisan. The opening reference to the third day,

the uncommon presence of Jesus' mother, the failing wine,

 

the jars of purification, the servants who do Christ's bidding--these are more than mere details designed to embellish a good story like gold trim on a china plate.

 

They are the painter's choice of brush strokes, the writer's poetic devises, the photographer's creative lenses, the tools of the artist skillfully used to do more than to tell a story, they reveal the unseen realities of the invisible God now powerfully present in the world in a new way.
We can read this story as narrative history if we choose and discuss questions like: whose wedding was it, how many days did wedding feasts last, why was Jesus there, why was his mother there, how did they make the wine, did it or did it not contain alcohol, what did they serve for dinner, did the fork go on the left or the right, how do you fold the napkins, and other theologically critical questions.

And when we are done with all our questions and explorations, we will understand more about Jewish weddings in first-century Palestine, the process for making wine in antiquity, the social obligations of hosts in eastern societies and other such matters which I know thousands and thousands of people out there are just beating down the doors of the church to find out!

 

 

 

We will know all the details but fail to comprehend the story. It is like doing cranial biopsies, no matter how many brains you dissect, you will never, ever be able to comprehend the mind of a teenager. 

There is another option. We can read this story as one would worship in a great cathedral--with a sense of awe and wonder, or as a lover of art walks through the Louvre, or a naturalist hikes through an old-growth forest.

In other words, we can and should read John as a divinely inspired work of art itself, as a window to the divine which enlightens us with its rays of shimmering beauty. Through it we may just catch a glimpse of God.

I learned two things about art from Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician turned theologian and philosopher late in life.
First, I learned to see art as a "purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality". That is, art interprets reality which sometimes is contrary to appearance. The sun appears to rise and set, but we know that the reality is that the sun is stationary and it is we that revolve giving it the appearance of movement. Art seeks to make appearance match reality, to reveal the truths about the nature of things, especially that which is unseen, which lies beyond our observation, measurement and analysis. 
John reveals to us in the unseen in his first chapter what has been missed by his contemporaries: that the creative essence of God became flesh in Jesus. In other words, in Jesus, God and humanity were joined together and the two became one flesh.

What better way to express the unseen reality of this union than through a wedding! Thus where Matthew and Luke have birth narratives, John has a wedding feast. But did you notice that the bride, the star of any wedding, is not mentioned in this story? Why not?

 

 

Because this wedding is not about a man and a woman, it is about Jesus and God. This is his equivalent of angels singing to shepherds and stars appearing to magi. The unseen reality of Jesus Christ is revealed in the story.
Second, Whitehead says that art unlooses a depth of feelings where consciousness fails us and unites our experience with all others'.
Thus we can feel the pain caused by the merciless bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War when we see the grossly disfigured faces and bodies of Picasso's famous painting of that event.
Michelangelo's depiction of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel fills us with awe and wonder over the power of God and the life that the touch of God gives to humanity, to us.
And Shakespeare evokes within us the passion of young love in Romeo and Juliet. Whether a painting, sculpture, song, dance, drama or story, art is at its best when it puts us in touch with the experience that defines who we are as human beings.
I doubt that very many here can say that they have experienced the union of God and humanity. Those who made it to the Fiesta Bowl this year or the Rose Bowl last year know that it was a heavenly experience. For many Duck fans, that may be about as religious as they will ever get! The big question of course, is will there be life after Chip?
Most of us, I am sure, have been to a wedding. We know what weddings are like. John does not have to describe the scene, he only needs to say, “there was a wedding”, and immediately images fill our mind of brides and grooms before the altar, of confetti and cake, of song and dance.

While weddings in first century Palestine certainly would be largely foreign to our experience in terms of customs, in terms of feelings and emotions, the difference would be little if any. Mothers still cried, the old remembered young loves, the young dreamed of finding their own Prince Charming or Sleeping Beauty. Not that much has changed over the centuries.

 

You see, we can read this story as history, as someone else's story, as someone else’s wedding. Or we can read it as our story, as the portrayal of the universal experience when humanity encounters the divine. This wedding is not just an event from the pages of history, it is a wedding to which we have received an invitation, to which we are called to witness.

 

 

So I invite you to put yourself among those witnesses, imagine yourself in one of those spectacular cathedrals at a wedding where the covenantal vows that unite God and humanity are exchanged in a ceremony of commitment. Imagine that you have been touched by Jesus, that you have heard him speak to you, that you have drunk the wine he prepared, that you have experienced this wonderful, mystical union. What would your response be?

 

In the story of the wedding at Cana I see at least three marks of this union between God and humanity.

 

First of all, there is the celebration. This marriage calls for a festive occasion! The word of God has become flesh, celebrate! The light of the world has been revealed, rejoice! Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation! Feast people of God at the banquet table of the Lord. Drink from the cup of life!

At first glance, the idea of Jesus turning water into the wine as his first miracle seems rather odd, almost offensive. Miracles are supposed to have some dramatic effect on peoples' lives, healing the sick, feeding the hungry or calming threatening storms.

 

But providing up to 180 gallons of wine to a group, which, according to the story, has already had too much to drink?! Doesn't that strike you as odd? But if we can set aside our sober, puritan sensibilities, however, and see wine in the context of the wedding celebration as a symbol of all good things in life, the fruit of the earth, the essence of life, then it makes perfect sense.

When I moved to Germany I was rather shocked to learn that they drank beer in the church. I just don't mean that church members drank beer, I mean in the church they drank beer. Not on Sunday morning grant you, but on festive occasions and evening gatherings, the pride of Germany breweries was served openly and freely. And that let to all kinds of things I had never seen in church, like dancing.  I know, shocking.  On more than one occasion I saw a deacon or two partake a little too much, but I cannot honestly say that church members there had any more problem with alcohol than church members here. That is not to say that I advocate the serving of beer in church!

 

But I did gain from that experience a new appreciation for viewing Jesus from the perspective of a different culture and the value of recognizing the limits of the cultural norms we bring to our reading of the bible.

To turn water into wine is to affirm that there is indeed a time to "eat, drink and be merry." We North Americans would do well to learn from other cultures the importance of taking time to enjoy life now rather than spending all our energies to get ahead so we can enjoy it sometime in the future. John tells us in the story, “enjoy it now.”

 

There are of course other meanings one can give to wine in this text, for how can we talk about wine and a feast without calling to mind the Last Supper? Whether John made the same connection we cannot know, but regardless, the image of the wine as the blood of Christ adds a further dimension to this story.

Thus the pronouncement of the chief steward, “you have kept the good wine until now”, is a sort of blessing upon the start of Jesus' public ministry, much as one would offer a toast at a wedding reception for the newlyweds.

 

The second mark of the union between God and humanity is grace. The announcement of Mary, “They have no wine”, is most embarrassing. All these guests from all over and nothing to serve. “The party is over, might at well go home, they have no wine.” But Mary, who pondered all those things in her heart a few weeks ago, knows there is more to this story. 

 

Despite his apparent rejection of his mother's suggestion to do something about it, Jesus does not disappoint Mary. He tells the servants to fill six jars with water, jars used for purification rites. Note the irony of using these religious symbols for something so profane, so worldly. It would be like using the baptistery for a hot tub--sounds fun but I do not know anyone who would do it. It would be sacrilegious. Many have read into this use of these jars a judgment on religious institutions which preserve rituals but offer little to satisfy deeper longings.

 

 

Martin Luther King's dream of equality for all people in this society is no more fulfilled by celebrating his birthday tomorrow than the kingdom of God is established by attending church today. We have to live the dream, act on our beliefs, put our faith in action.

 

Jesus did not hesitate to act though no one asked for help. How often do we decline to act because it is not our job or because we were not asked? Yet Jesus responds, freely and abundantly. He does not ask why the host was not better prepared or whether he or she deserves any assistance. Though the vessels of the religious institution are empty, God can still use them. This is grace, what cannot be bought or earned or created with rituals is given freely by God to all who need it. 
The third mark of this union between God and humanity is the revelation of Jesus Christ. While we call the turning of water into wine a miracle, John doesn’t call it that. He calls it a “sign”, a sign that reveals the glory of Christ. In John miracles are not supernatural wonders, but events which point to something else, which point to the presence of God in Jesus.
 

This is not a story about magic tricks, being a good host or how to impress your guests. It is a story about the grace of God so abundant that:

 

•  on the third day, when the old wine failed, God provided new wine;
•  on the third day, when everyone thought the party was over, God says the celebration has just begun;

•  on the third day, when everyone had given up hope and gone home, God opened the tomb.

 

This is a story of what God brings to us on the third day of our lives when old rituals fail, when nothing works anymore, when we have lost hope and there is little left to celebrate.
When we witness the union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ, and we drink the cup of God’s grace, we cannot help but be filled with celebration, with joy with hope, and wonder. The good wine of God is not that which comes from the best grapes, aged to perfection which wins all the awards for best clarity and bouquet,
rather God's good wine is that which gives life, which quenches the deepest thirst, and which intoxicates with life's abundant riches and beauty. It is a powerful and beautiful thing.
Drink of it, all of you. Do not sip it with social politeness, but drink deep, discover the abundance of God's grace that fills our empty vessels with life. Celebrate God's gift to us!
   
   

 

 


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