Abundant Life

by David Baer, January 20, 2019

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Text: John 2:1-11

A seminary professor of mine told a story about a question she got when she was in Hong Kong for a theological conference. Only the question wasn’t asked at the conference. In a water taxi, far from shore, when she was alone with the pilot of the boat, an older man, he asked her, “Tell me, who is this man Jesus?” He asked this not because she was an expert, not because she was professor, though she was, and not because she had an advanced degree, though she did, but because people from all over the world were coming to talk about “this man Jesus,” and he wanted to know why. What was special about Jesus? Why did he have such power, in this day and age, to command people’s attention?

It used to be you had to go all the way around the world to get asked a question like this. Those of you that are older than I am grew up in a world where, by and large, the whole culture worked together to support a particular kind of Christian identity. One of our own members told me he got in trouble as a kid for ice skating on a Sunday, that a police officer of all people rolled up and told him and his friends they shouldn’t be out on the pond on a Sabbath. But that world, and all the good and bad things about it, is gone, isn’t it? Within just a few miles of this sanctuary there are houses of worship for Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. And the fastest growing religious identity is the set of folks that claim no religion at all. We can mourn the loss of what was, but it seems to me that this is an incredibly exciting time to be a Christian. Because if our faith is making a difference in the way we live in relationship with our neighbors, in how we spend our time and money, and in how we participate in public life in our communities, there are going to be a lot of opportunities to be asked, “Who is this man Jesus?”

This first part of the calendar year is the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany revolves around the question “Who is Jesus?” It begins with a shining star that brings foreign visitors, and it ends with Jesus himself transfigured and shining on a mountain top, and in between we get these stories that help us explore who Jesus is and why he came to live among us. So as we read the gospel stories over the next couple of months, try and keep these questions in the back of your mind… What does this story reveal, what information does it add to our picture of who Jesus is and why he’s here? And what does it show us about our identity and purpose as his disciples?

Today’s story is a strangely light-hearted episode from the gospel of John. Nobody is in danger of being stoned. Nobody’s trying to kill Jesus. Nobody here is sick to the point of death. The only danger is that a wedding party looks like it’s going to come to an embarrassing early end, because they’ve run out of wine. It’s a genuine problem, especially in an honor/shame culture like that of Jewish Galilee in the first century, where a public embarrassment like this could haunt you and your family for years. But in contrast to the other challenges Jesus faces, the stakes here seem fairly low.

We don’t know why the wine ran out. Some people fault the bridegroom for poor planning, but others point out that in first-century Jewish communities it would have been common for the guests to bring wine to the celebration, to show their support for the couple, and to share the burden of the expenses. But regardless of whose fault it was, the wine ran out. There’s a comedic scene with a little back and forth between Jesus, who doesn’t want to get involved, and his mother, who thinks he should.

What struck me this time when I read this story was how the servants do one crazy thing after another, just because Jesus tells them to. There is plenty of work in the banquet to keep them busy, but Jesus sends them on an insane errand to fill the six giant stone jars with water for no apparent reason, and they just drop everything they’re doing and follow his instructions. And then Jesus tells them to draw a ladle-full from one of the jars and bring it to the chief steward. He doesn’t tell the servant to taste it first. And that means that when the servant approaches the chief steward and says, “Here boss, try some of this!” he doesn’t know what he’s giving him. Maybe it’s still water, and the boss will bite his head off for wasting his time. Maybe Jesus has conjured up six vats of battery acid. But the servants’ trust in Jesus pays off, and the banquet is saved, in a big way—with 120 gallons of good, rich, high-quality wine. And only they, the servants, together with Jesus, Mary, and the disciples, know the real story of what happened. The conclusion of the story tells us that this was the first of Jesus’ signs, and the disciples believed in him.

Time for grape harvest / Zeit für die Weinlese
Photo courtesy of flickr user “www.holgersbilderwelt.de.” Used with permission.

What does this story reveal about Jesus? If this is a sign, as the story says, what does it signify? If we look back into the Old Testament, we see wine used to symbolize God’s blessing. Wine comes from grapes, grapes come from vineyards, which need the sun and the rain and protection from pests. God’s protection and blessing flow to Israel when the relationship is good, and therefore the wine flows too. For the wine to run out means the people are left wondering if God is still with them, if the promises God made are still good. When the wine runs out, it brings a crisis of faith.

I think I know how it feels when the wine runs out, don’t you? It’s how I felt when that first job I took right out of college gave me more headaches than fulfillment. It’s how I felt when I threw out my back for the first time last fall and realized that I was entering the middle years of life. The wine running out is what happens when your limits catch up with you. It’s what happens when you dive into the swimming pool of reality and discover no one filled it up with water. It’s what happens when your well-ordered life takes a sharp turn. It’s how it feels when you’ve fallen in love, and then you have your first fight. It’s what happens when you catch your good kid making inexplicably bad choices. If life had a sound track, you would hear a loud record scratch, followed by awkward silence. The wine runs out. It happens. To all of us. Does God have more good in store for me, or is this it?

When the wine runs out, when God’s blessings seem to be at an ebb, Mary’s words for the servers are for us, “Do whatever Jesus tells you.” And just as with them, the things Jesus asks of us don’t always make sense: do not worry about what you will eat or wear, love your enemies and do good to them, forgive seventy-times-seven. To do what Jesus tells us puts us in a vulnerable position. It puts us at risk of seeming foolish. But this weekend, as we remember the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his legacy of nonviolent resistance to white supremacy, we have an ongoing historical testimony in the public life of our nation to the ability of those who follow the way of Jesus, those who do whatever he tells us, to transform the world. The promise of our founding as a country, the proposition that all people are created equal, seemed to have run out. But a movement of people committed to love even when faced with brutal violence showed us that the best of our shared life was yet to be, that the best wine had been saved for last.

What is Jesus telling you to do? You don’t have to be a hero, like Dr. King. The everyday relationships and roles we live and move through bring us opportunities to let go of wrongs done to us, to do good to those who mean us harm, and to step out on faith when it seems like there isn’t enough time or money or energy for something we know in our bones is meant to be. And doesn’t Jesus show us that the ordinary stuff of life—water—can be transformed into a rich blessing for a whole community? Your ordinary gifts, ordinary words, ordinary presence, blessed by Jesus, can be so much more.

Those folks I talked about, the ones asking, sometimes but not always out loud, “Who is Jesus?”—they may never crack open a Bible, but they can read your life and your example. What difference might it make to see that for them too, the wine hasn’t run out, and the best is yet to come?

So when the wine runs out in your life, may the presence of Jesus give you hope that the best is yet to come. May your ordinary gifts yield extraordinary blessings in his hands. And may God bless all of us with abundant life. Amen.