The Beginning of Lent: A Wedding, Some Water, and Some Wine

Passage: John 2:1-12
Date: March 5, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.         

    “I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”
    Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”
    Patiently the patriarch offered his answer. “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1191)

Sometimes when we read a story about Jesus in which he does something miraculous, we forget that the point of the story is not the miracle itself, but rather what is being revealed through the miracle. The finger is not the moon, nor is the miracle the point of the story. In the coming weeks in Lent we’ll be looking at a few of Jesus’ miracles, and some stories of his encounters with unlikely people, as we hopscotch our way through the first half of John’s gospel.

We have the first of his miracles in today’s story, what many friends of mine say is their favorite of the miracles: turning ordinary water into very fine wine. And while that miracle is impressive, and delicious, it’s not the point of the story. Producing wine at a wedding points us to something else that the writer John wants us to know about Jesus.

So if you struggle with Jesus’ miracles, and whether or not they happened, and how you can be part of a faith tradition that accepts these miracles, I’m going to ask you to set that aside. Remember that John, and the other gospel writers, is not writing history. He is not publishing the diary of Jesus. He is telling a story, and like any good storyteller, he uses certain literary devices. He will build scaffolding on which to hang his story and give it structure. He’ll repeat phrases and themes to help us remember what his point is.

The point of John’s gospel, if I may reduce this magnificent book to “a” point – the point is to invite us into knowing something about Jesus the Christ, the Logos, the Word, the Son of God.

So then, what does this miraculous producing of wine tell us about Jesus? A few things, I think. To have a full understanding of John’s gospel, and really all of the gospels, it helps to have some knowledge about the primary themes and images of the Hebrew scripture and Jewish traditions. The metaphors of weddings and wine are sprinkled throughout the prophetic literature, particularly as those books speak of the end time when God ushers in a new age that is free from fear and pain and want and death.

A wedding feast was the most joyous occasion known in the world of the Bible, not just for the bride and groom and their families, but for the entire community. So if God’s new age is to be a joyful experience, what better metaphor for that than a wedding feast?

In those ancient times, it wasn’t a wedding without wine, and wine had significance as well. In many of the prophetic books, an abundance of good wine is the primary sign of the beginning of God’s new age. John wants us to know that in this miracle of an abundance of good wine, Jesus has begun to usher in God’s new age.

It appears, at first glance, that Jesus was being a bit deliberate in the setting of his first miracle: a wedding, with wine that he would provide. Except for this one detail: when his mother lets him know that they have run out of wine, he tells her that his hour has not yet come, which would seem to indicate that he hadn’t planned on doing anything miraculous at this wedding.

But, as Martin Luther King Jr. would say thousands of years later, the time is always right to do what’s right. Literally speaking, in the world of the everyday, in chronos time, the right thing to do was to help restore honor to the bridegroom’s family and provide some wine for the celebration. Spiritually speaking, in the world of God’s realm, in kairos time, the right thing was to remind people that God was a God of abundance and joy.

So even though Jesus hadn’t planned on it, even though the time for him to fully reveal himself had not yet come, Jesus turns water into wine, saves the day, and tips his hand a little about who he is and what he is about.

As far as miracles go, though, it’s a pretty subtle one. Very few know what happened – only the servants and chief steward, Jesus’ mother, and the disciples. No one actually saw the miracle take place – they only tasted the aftermath of it. But the finger is not the moon; the wine is not the point.

In John’s gospel, Jesus will give seven signs, perform seven miracles, which let the reader know something about who he is and what he is about. This is the first sign, and if we take one step back from those immense stone jars and their hundreds of gallons of wine, if we take one step back from the wedding feast and the revelry, we can imagine why this might be the first sign.

The wine points us to several things. It points us back to the tradition in Judaism that weddings and wine are metaphors about joy in God’s new age when all wrongs are righted. It points us to God’s ability to create something out of nothing, to create wine out of water. It points us to the abundance that God showers upon creation – not just wine but the best wine; not just enough wine to finish out the wedding feast but enough wine to last for several more such occasions. And it points us to Jesus, who does things that God does.

    Do we believe that Jesus was God?
    Do we believe that God showers the world today with abundance?
    Do we believe that God’s ultimate goal for us is joy?
    And if we can’t actually say we believe those things, do we at least hope for them?

It can be hard to believe in joy sometimes. We live in this world, in this particular time and place, and even the most uninformed person cannot help but see that the world we live in is far from perfect, rosy, or golden. We have not resolved the issue of poverty. We have not stopped having wars. We do not live with justice for all. We haven’t discovered a cure for cancer or MS or any number of terrible diseases. In parts of the world we are still debating whether or not girls deserve to be educated.

We have different ways of dealing with the dysfunction around us. Some ignore it and pretend that everything is mostly okay. Some go to therapy, or meditate, or see a mentor or coach or spiritual director to get them through. Some numb the cognitive dissonance with booze or pills or sugar or any number of things that are not good for us in abundance. Some steep themselves in information. Some seek community. Some even come to church.

But here’s the thing: Jesus lived in a dysfunctional time too. During his lifetime, those mere thirty-odd years, there was poverty. There was war. There was injustice. There were terrible diseases with no cure or even relief. Most of the world was illiterate. And there were no therapists, and no one in Cana or Capernaum or Nazareth had a well stocked wine cellar, and the most information anyone could get was from fellow villagers.

But that didn’t stop Jesus from turning water into wine, from making a feast all the more joyful. That didn’t stop him from reminding even those few people who knew what had happened that God was about joy and abundance even though current events would seem to indicate the opposite.

So I’ve started looking for signs of God’s joy and abundance, or at least for what is good and hopeful. I keep a list on my desk, and this is what I have so far:

    - Scientists in Bangladesh have created a vaccine for cholera that should all but eliminate that disease in developing nations. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/06/health/cholera-vaccine-bangladesh.html?_r=0)
    - A new, mostly underwater, continent, dubbed “Zealandia,” has been discovered. (http://www.foxnews.com/science/2017/02/17/scientists-discover-gigantic-lost-continent-that-sunk-into-ocean-millions-years-ago.html)
    - A NASA telescope has discovered a solar system with seven planets that are like Earth. (https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around)
    - Scientists are learning more about the effects of spending long amounts of time in space by comparing the identical twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. (http://time.com/4651309/scott-kelly-mark-kelly-twin-study/)  Take that, Jacob and Esau!
    - World poverty and hunger have decreased. Developing nations and regions saw a 42 percent reduction in the prevalence of undernourished people between 1990–92 and 2012–14. (http://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/)
    - The FBI reports that crime in the U.S. is at a twenty-year low. (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-26/us-crime-rate-rises-slightly-remains-near-20-year-low)

For me, all those things are fingers that point to the truth
    that God is not done with us,
    that God still has surprises in store for us,
    that God is still empowering us to know and learn and develop and create all manner of things to make this life better. God still wants joy and abundance for us. Sometimes we have to crane our necks a bit to see the joy, to find the abundance. But they are there.

    Soon we will come to this table, laden as it is with a few chalices of grape juice and a few hundred bites of bread. As feasts go, it’s not much, at least not to the visible eye. But every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as you all come forward to receive the bread and the cup, I am overwhelmed. There is an abundance of grace at this feast, and I am reminded of that as I offer the elements to people I’ve never met before and people I know in so many ways –
    from meetings and from conversations,
    from disagreements;
    people who live each day with pain and with sorrow, with hopes yet unmet;
    people who struggle and people who thrive;
    people who are kind and generous so easily;
    people who are persnickety in the best ways and in the worst ways.
So if you’re ready for abundance and joy, I hope you find some here.

I give the last words today to Mary Oliver, in her poem, “Don’t Hesitate.”
 
    If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
    don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
    of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
    to be. We are not wise, and not very often
    kind. And much can never be redeemed.
    Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
    is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
    something happens better than all the riches
    or power in the world. It could be anything,
    but very likely you notice it in the instant
    when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
    case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
    of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.