by David Baer, January 14, 2018
Text: John 2:1-12
One Christmas tradition in my family has been to hear Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” This is a poem-in-prose, a vivid recounting of what Christmas was like for an upper-middle-class child living in the Victorian era in a small seaside town in Wales. The language is beautiful and playful, and I’ve enjoyed sharing it with my own kids.
In one part of the story, the older man who is speaking begins to talk about the two kinds of presents he received as a child. First of all, there were the “Useful Presents”: “engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o'-warred down to the galoshes; … And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”1
But then there were also the “Useless Presents”: “Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor's cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.”2
The useful presents are about sufficiency—warm clothes and books imparting scientific and moral teaching. They satisfy this boy’s needs. On the other hand, the so-called “useless” presents have to do with enjoyment, playfulness—even mischief—and creativity. When what we are given goes beyond our needs—when it gives pleasure and laughter and reason to celebrate—then what we’ve experienced is abundance.
God is a God of abundance. The words of our psalm show God providing not just the essentials of bread and water, not simply what human beings and the other creatures need to survive but things that delight the senses—wine to gladden the human heart, and oil to make the face shine. Abundance means that there is more than enough to satisfy our needs—there is enough for enjoyment and celebration. The psalmist looks at the natural world and the abundance God has provided, and sees something worth celebrating.
Who is Jesus? That's the question we’ll be wrestling with during this season of Epiphany. What became of the baby born in Bethlehem at Christmas? What was it like to know the man he became? What does it mean to follow him today? Last week we heard about Jesus beginning his ministry with a few new disciples. They met him with questions, with skepticism, with hope, and he offered them this invitation: “Come and see.” Because the question, “Who is Jesus?”, is one that words alone can’t answer. The answer to that question has to be experienced.
So who is Jesus? How do the people who meet him experience him? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus shows himself to a few people as a refreshing surprise, as God’s abundance. Jesus has been invited with his mother and some friends to a wedding reception. Now, either someone planned poorly, or else the guests were feeling extra…—let’s say “festive”—because the wedding guests drain the wine supply before the party is over. Disaster looms for the groom, who is the host, and for his serving staff. Jesus' mother, who probably noticed the agitation of the servers, helpfully points out, "They have no wine."
Now, this is a pretty routine story so far. Unless your reputation as a host is at stake, you might respond the same way Jesus answered: "What concern is that to you and to me? How is that our problem?" It's what Jesus says next that makes the story take an unusual turn.
"My hour has not yet come," he says. Jesus' hour, of course, is the hour on Good Friday when they lifted him up on the cross. It's the hour that gave healing and abundant life to God's people, abundant life symbolized in the Hebrew scriptures by image of good wine. "They have no wine," says Mary, and Jesus takes this to mean, "They need God's healing and life."
An exasperated Mary pulls her Son back into the present moment. "Do whatever he tells you," she says to the servers. And they do.
Now, I want to emphasize here that Jesus makes a lot of wine. I’m glad we have a large water jar as a prop here, so that you can see the volume involved. Imagine six of these huge jars, holding at least 20 gallons each, and you’ve got at least 120 gallons, or over 600 bottles of wine! That's enough for a bacchanal of unrivaled proportions. Jesus' miracle is an overwhelming gift. This isn't just a miracle—it's an abundant miracle, an astounding surprise.
But for John this is more than a parlor trick. Jesus has supernatural powers, yes. Jesus is overwhelmingly generous, yes. But when John goes to sum up this story, here is what he says: "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him."
For John, this miracle is a sign. The abundant, refreshing gift of wine points beyond itself and reveals the generosity of the one who is going to lay down his life for his friends, when his hour finally does come. The gift of wine points beyond itself to the overflowing goodness of God promised in the scriptures. The disciples see this sign, and they believe in him, because God's abundance has come near to them. Jesus is God's refreshing surprise.
How do you follow this Jesus? What does it mean to live as his disciple?
The fact that Jesus’ first sign was a showing of abundance is incredibly important. That’s because when you've been gifted with God's abundance, your priorities change. You don't need to worry about getting and keeping, getting and keeping stuff, because the fullness of God's blessings are already yours. This weekend our country celebrates the life and ministry of our brother in Christ, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is known most especially for his leadership in the struggle for racial equality, but he also brought the Christian faith to bear on questions of wealth and poverty in America. Listen to his words in a sermon where he imagines the apostle Paul writing a letter to America. Listen to what he says about the abundance that we enjoy as a nation:
Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, … I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity. …
You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe "enough and to spare" for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.3
The sign of Jesus turning water into wine is meant to show us that God has given us “enough and to spare,” as King says. We live in an age where the air is thick with the fear of scarcity. There won’t be enough for us, some voices tell us, unless we keep what we have and guard it from others. Against this backdrop comes Jesus. When our wine has been freely and generously shared with neighbors, he won’t let it run out, but fills our glasses with wine even richer and fuller than we had before. In a time when some tell us that greatness and abundance lies in the past, he shows us that the best is yet to come.
As we come to recognize the abundance of God's gifts to us, and as we grow in our trust of God's continuing care for us, we can let go of our tight grip on our resources of money and time. If, by God's grace, there is enough for everyone, then hunger is a solvable problem--here in Bergen County. If God has given us enough, then children in our community don't have to live in poverty. We can choose to live out of God's abundant, refreshing love here and now.
We believe in a God whose generosity never fails to astound us. "My cup overflows," says the psalmist (23:5). Jesus of Nazareth lived that generosity. He lived it, in the miracles of bread and wine, giving refreshment and nourishment to those around him. He lived it when he was lifted up on a cross, laying down his life for his friends. And he lives it now, through us, his body in the world, when we practice abundant, refreshing, astounding generosity in his name. Amen.
Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. New York: New Directions, 1954.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 4 November 1956. MLKP. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_pauls_letter_to_american_christians/. Accessed Jan. 12, 2018.