posted Mar 4, 2013, 8:00 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Mar 4, 2013, 8:00 AM ]

01/20/13 Sermon

“The Good Stuff”

Scripture Reading: John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."
And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come"
His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.
He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.
When 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 and 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."
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Sermon: “The Good Stuff”

We find Jesus at a party, at a wedding in Cana. Cana is a little town in Galilee, it’s exact location lost in history. But we can imagine the scene: A Jewish wedding, and it is a big deal. Only the best food, the delicacies, the lamb, and the pomegranates, the dates and figs and olives, all the trimmings. It’s like thanksgiving and Christmas and a church potluck all rolled up into one big feast.

And the wine. Oh my, the wine. You know in the ancient world, wine was safer to drink than the water. The alcohol in the wine would kill most of the pathogens in the water. Wine was an essential ingredient at a wedding. It fueled the party. It made it so the in-laws could get along. It encouraged the dancing and the singing, and the laughter that are the best parts of a family get together, especially at weddings.

But there’s been a screw up. Someone didn’t plan ahead, and they’ve run out of wine. The party is grinding to a halt, and it looks like everybody’s about to pack up and go home. It’s not even 9:00 yet, and people are leaving. It is a catastrophe. The bride’s family is embarrassed, the groom’s family is insulted, the friends and family, who traveled perhaps for days to get here are disappointed. The party’s over, turn out the lights, it’s time to go home.

And that’s when we see Mary, mother of Jesus jump into action. She just can’t bear watching everything fall apart. Especially when she knows that it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to end with a whimper, with a anger, and hurt feelings, and sadness. A wedding should be joyful. It should be marked with an appropriately large gesture of love and approval, and good will from everyone.

And so she tells her so to do something about it. Evidently she knows that he’s capable of fixing things. She’s not entirely sure what he needs to do, but he needs to do something. Come on, Jesus, get cracking. This is where you step in and make everything better.

It’s only natural that this demand is met with some resistance from Jesus. Now wait a minute, he says. Why is this my problem? I didn’t want to come to this party anyway. It’s your side of the family. I hardly even know these people. I just came along to be polite. Why is this my concern?

I remember when I was about 12 years old, my mom had a bunch of friends over at our house, and she was pestering me about playing a song on the piano for them. I guess I wasn’t in the mood, and I resisted, and she persisted, and finally, I told that I wasn’t her performing monkey.

Oh, man.

I still regret that. I really hurt my mom with that one. And she let me know it. She said, “Fine, I won’t ask you to play again.” And 30 odd years later, she still hasn’t. I don’t blame her. It was a cruel thing to say, even for a 12 year old.

I guess Jesus doesn’t want to go down that road. Because even though he made it clear that this wasn’t his deal, that whatever she had in mind wasn’t a good idea, that the time for miracles has not come, he, for whatever reason, changes his mind, and fixes the situation.

You know, we don’t, as Presbyterians spend much time with this part of the story. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t make any sense, maybe it’s because it takes us places that we don’t want to go. But, you know, there’s something very real about this moment. Jesus, the miracle worker, the son of God, is determined to be his own person, to set the time and place of the revelation of his power, and yet, also, Jesus the good son, responds to his mother, and turns the water into wine.

You see, there’s something very Jewish about this story. There’s something in this, I think for us, and the way that we approach God in prayer. God is, according to our rational, Western, binary, way of thinking, by definition, omnipotent, infinite, unmoveable, unchanging. Yet, according the old Testament, God is, for whatever reason, also attentive to our pleas to him. His heart is somehow tuned to ours, and he responds to our needs. The bible talks frequently about God changing his mind. God was going to do this, but then, he does this instead.

This is a paradox, these two incompatible thoughts existing together, and it’s a paradox that is brought to life by this little story at the wedding. Jesus is simply not going to perform a miracle at his mother’s bidding. But then, he performs a miracle, at his mother’s bidding. God is not moved by human words, yet God is moved by human needs

Anyway,  his mom, knowing that he’s about to do something pretty amazing, tells the house servants to get ready for whatever happens next. Jesus tells them to fill some large stone jars with water. Now, this is a lot of water, perhaps as much as 180 gallons. If we figure that a typical bottle of wine these days is about ¾ of quart, that means Jesus has produced about 960 bottles of wine for the party.

960 bottles of wine. And this is not your everyday bottle of hooch. This is the good stuff. This is first press wine.

You see, in the old days, the way they used make wine was by stomping the grapes in a big cistern. The juice that would run off of this stomping would be fermented, and this was the sweetest wine, with the least tannins, without all the weird tastes from the skins and the stems. And, because it had the most natural sugars, it would also yield the wine with the most alcohol.

Now, after this first run of juice was removed, the leftover grape skins and seeds and stems would be pressed, using wood and screws and weights anywhere between 2 and 3 more times to extract every single bit of liquid from the grapes. But these second pressings would yield a thin, bitter wine that is was of inferior quality to the first press.

In fact, sugar or honey would often be added to the fermentation in order to bring up the alcohol content. And so this would be the Mad Dog 20-20 of the ancient world, the two-buck chuck, the Thunderbird, if you will, of mid-east keggers. Now, of course, you wouldn’t offer this swill to the honored guests, but after everyone had gotten toasted on the good stuff, you might start slipping the 2nd press wine into the punch bowl. You know, just to stretch the budget. And that’s why it’s a surprise to the steward that the bridegroom has kept this good stuff until now. It would have made more sense to have the high quality wine at the beginning of the party. Not that anybody’s complaining.

So this is what Jesus brings to the party. Some wine. Some really good wine. And he brings a lot of it. How much did he bring? Well, To put it in today’s terms, according the wine magazine Wine Spectator, the best wine last year was a cheeky little Syraz called Relentless, the 2008 vintage, sold by Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley. It costs 60 dollars a bottle.

So, if Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into wine, that’s 80 cases of wine. If each case of wine cost 720 dollars, then Jesus has given the wedding party a gift of over 57,000 dollars worth of wine.

Now, that should keep the party going for a while.

57,000 dollars worth of wine. 960 bottles of the good stuff.

And I think we need to pay attention to this.

You see, I think that John, the Gospel writer is sending us a message. There is something so outrageously extravagant with this first miracle, that we have to look beyond the fact that Jesus turned water into wine, and try to figure out what is really going on here.

And I think that there are some clues for us, if we look hard enough.

For a me, a big clue is the stone jars that held the wine. John goes out of his way to tell us that there were 6 of them. He wasn’t all that specific about how much water they each held, somewhere between 20 and thirty gallons, but he was specific about how many there were. There were six. That’s one short of seven, which is a holy number.
And so, in comparison, there is a sense of incompleteness. The stone jars, by themselves, are not quite sufficient. They are not, in and of themselves, shalom. There more to it than that.

And John is also careful to point what the stone jars were for. They weren't randomly just sitting there, handy, just in case someone needed to turn some water into wine. John tells us that they were used specifically to store water for the purification rituals that the ancient middle eastern desert life and the Jewish religion required. When you entered your host’s tent, he would make sure that your feet were bathed in water, to refresh you and your body, to remove the dust and sand that was an ubiquitous part of daily existence.

The water was also used for the ritual of washing the hands before the meal, in order to be clean when blessing the bread. The water was symbolic of the law, the religious rules, the purity of the people. This water is good, it is holy.

And now, this good and holy water, this need for purity, for being clean, for the law, and for ritual is being replaced by gallons and gallons of the best wine. Perhaps there is a sense that a life that is focused only on the law is a life that has forgotten the meaning of joy. I wonder if the 6 jars of wine might remind us that while purity and holiness is good and important, the ultimate and better goal is the life and love of Jesus Christ, a reminder that that even in the midst of unholiness, life with Jesus brings shalom and peace.

And, then there is the timing of the miracle itself. It doesn’t happen at the beginning of the party. It happens in the middle of the party. There’s a sense of waiting, being in the moment, of not acting too soon, or being distracted by lesser things. We are, all of us, an impatient people. We desire the good things of life, right now. It’s hard to wait for the promises that a life lived with Jesus will bring.

I was visiting with my friend Bill Coleman, and he said it really well, and Bill forgive me if I don’t get it quite right, he said, “Living a life of spiritual discipline is hard. Because in the short term, we are often denied the things we think we want, and only in the long term do we receive the things we really need. It’s much easier to act for our own immediate gratification, and take and do the things that make us feel good right now, without realizing that those things will harm us in the long run.”

And I think Bill’s right. Sometimes living a disciplined life seems like it is only a life of self-denial. But this story in Cana reminds us that at the most unexpected moment, we will be overwhelmed by the love of Jesus washing over us, that the blessings we have from God are extravagant and excessive. We just have to be patient, and wait for the time to be right. Again, we have a paradox between the goodness and purity of a holy life, and the wasteful extravagance of a joyful life with Jesus. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

And above all, I think, this story reminds us to continue to offer our desires and our needs, and our hopes and our dreams to God. While I think that it’s bad theology to suggest that if we pray for something hard enough, God will give us what we want, I do think that God hears us, and while we do not know what God’s plan for us is, we do know that he is a good God, and wants the best for us. We just might need to wait for it.

And the truth is, we never will be ready for God’s blessings in our lives. We can’t predict it, we can’t invoke it. The very definition of grace is that Jesus will sweep us off our feet with forgiveness and love at the very moment that we deserve or expect it the least.

But we can give ourselves to a life lived in the promise of Jesus. And when we do, we realize that life is more than just following the rules, going through the motions, and doing what’s required of us. Life is an intoxicating experience, rich, beautiful and generous. And we are given permission to drink it all in.

We just need to keep looking for the good stuff.

Thanks be to God. Amen.