“A Sign of Extravagance” Colchester Federated Church, January 27, 2019, Text from Second Sunday after Epiphany (John 2:1-11)
The Lectionary sometimes makes interesting choices. We recently contemplated the Baptism of Christ from the Gospel according to Luke. This Sunday we’re randomly in the Gospel according to John (just for this Sunday mind you) as we engage with the first of Jesus’ signs in that Gospel—turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
The story goes that Jesus and his mother are at a wedding close to their home in Nazareth. It’s probably for family friends, and soon there’s trouble at the celebration—the wine runs out. Mary turns to Jesus and states the obvious: “They have no wine.” We can imagine Jesus’ response as a bit annoyed or amused: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not come.” He probably just wanted to be a wedding guest and enjoy the party. Though Mary (being the strong woman we know that she was) looks right past her son to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary just dropped the gauntlet—you better do something about this wine situation, Jesus, because I know that you can. And before we know it, Jesus has turned a whole lot of water into a whole lot of wine in his first of seven signs in the Gospel according to John.
Let’s do the math for a second—there’s 6 stone water jars which hold 20-30 gallons. We’ll go with 25 gallons in each and multiply that by 6—there’s 150 gallons of water to begin with. Now a standard drink of wine is about 5 ounces. There’s 128 ounces in a gallon so this means that Jesus created 3,840 “standard” drinks of wine for the wedding guests. A UCC clergy colleague did these calculations and shared if you happen to not trust my mathematical abilities, which is understandable because there’s no way I could figure that out on my own! Math is hard. Or another calculation that helps us envision this miracle is that Jesus turned 6 stone water jars into around 1,000 bottles of wine.
It’s helpful to put this miracle into perspective. Because the story of Jesus turning around 150 gallons of water into 1,000 bottles of wine for wedding guests to keep the party going is an awesome miracle. Though what’s the deeper point John’s trying to convey to his audience? One is that Jesus’ life and teachings are about abundance in the form of grace and love. Later on in the Gospel, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Though in the beginning of his ministry, his own mother had to remind Jesus of this! For those parents among us this morning there may have been or may well be a moment where you see potential in your child that they may not yet see in themselves. Sometimes you encourage them by putting them out there a bit, volunteering them for something you know that they can do and do well. We must keep in mind that this is the first sign that Jesus performs and he hesitates to do so by telling his mother that his hour hadn’t arrived yet. Mary doesn’t seem to accept her son’s answer and voluntells him to take care of this lack of wine situation. Why? Because in her heart of hearts she knew that Jesus could perform this sign and she wanted him to help save face for this family.
Here’s the thing—hospitality and honor were incredibly important in Jesus’ day. Professor Karoline Lewis reminds us that weddings lasted for around a week in ancient Palestine and an abundance of wine was expected until the end of the celebration. So when this family ran out of wine at the wedding, it reflected poorly on them. Their resources were on display for all to see and clearly their resources didn’t go far enough to be the gracious hosts that they wanted to be. Wine was a staple of the Middle Eastern diet so running out of wine at a wedding was embarrassing in a way that may be hard for modern readers to fully understand. Perhaps we can compare it to having a BBQ and running out of hot dogs or hamburgers. This family would have felt like terrible hosts which led to shame in their cultural context. And we had better believe that word would get around town, not that we know anything about word ever getting around in small towns.
Now it was a common trick that folks would put the good wine out in the beginning of a wedding. And when people were a few days into the festivities, would switch to the cheaper stuff. Yet this family ran out of wine completely. So it helps to know this historical background because in this miracle (found only in the Gospel of John actually), Jesus creates the best of the best wine, overflowing amounts of the best of the best wine, and the overflowing amounts of the best of the best wine is given once the celebration has been underway for a while. Maybe on day 4 or 5 of the wedding celebration.
Folks would have been so surprised and exhilarated in the midst of Jesus performing this miracle. No one more so than the family who was hosting the wedding. They weren’t embarrassed anymore and had no reason to be ashamed. In fact, this wedding may have gone down as one of the best around since this family would have been viewed as amazing hosts who took care of their guests in a way that made everyone feel honored. There was an extravagance of generosity and the best stuff was served to honor those present as everyone celebrated together.
It’s even a good story to consider as we’re heading into our Annual Financial Meeting today. Churches these days don’t always have an abundance of resources. Our offering plates don’t overflow with so much money on Sunday mornings that our ushers have a hard time bringing them up to the altar for blessing. That’s just the reality. Yet churches getting so anxious about resources that we begin operating with a scarcity mindset of feeling that we never have enough isn’t helpful either. And when I find myself feeling anxious about numbers at church—budget numbers, worship numbers, membership numbers, and on and on, I remember that Jesus is the head of the Church and not me. The Church is of God and will long outlast us, even if it takes a different form in the future. And in the present in this time and place, we’re in this together and together we are stronger and can figure out how to make it work.
It’s interesting that in this story of abundance we hear at the end that Jesus’ disciples believed in him after seeing this first sign of turning a whole lot of water into a whole lot of wine. (Or perhaps a better translation is that they trusted in him.) Why? Because with Mary’s prodding, Jesus showed empathy for this family’s situation of dishonor by providing a superabundance of good wine. That’s what makes this a miracle on multiple levels—Jesus was profoundly there for a family who desired to be good hosts. It’s a story about radical hospitality in some ways.
We can even think about times in our own lives when someone was an excellent host. What did that person or family do that made us feel welcome? For hospitality is at the heart of the Christian faith. Table fellowship was important for Jesus as we will see later in his ministry. There’s a reason we seem to eat all the time at church and offer one another meals in times of illness or make prayer shawls to deliver to those who are ill or homebound or just go visit and spend quality time with someone who’s hurting. All of these acts (and many more) focus on hospitality. In our church we do our best to be a church of radical hospitality—welcoming people into the heart of our family of faith who have sometimes been turned away elsewhere. That welcome of all people is at the heart of who we are as a congregation.
Finally, we can even contemplate how this played out in our own country in thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. Day recently. Because it’s important to remember that Dr. King was noted for reaching across boundaries for the good of the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King was a strong Christian rooted in his Christian identity, a minister who was an accomplished preacher and popular theologian. And he extended himself outward—even visiting Gandhi in India who was obviously rooted in his own Hinduism. There’s iconic images of Dr. King linked arm in arm with a Greek Orthodox Archbishop and marching with rabbis, priests, and ministers across various denominations. His nonviolent protest struck a chord in the hearts of many Americans because folks could begin to see a common shared humanity no matter how segregated people had been. Dr. King’s legacy is a model for how a Christian can be strong in our own religious identity and kind toward people of other faiths or no faith at all. His example of coming together across some differences can help us as we move forward in these sometimes difficult times when we as people and local churches are asking ourselves deep purpose questions about who we are and who we want to be, where God is calling us to go.
Because we remember that when Jesus performed his very first sign in the Gospel according to John he did so because of the encouragement of another person—his mother. Who saw in him the potential to show his divinity and reach out and help a family that was on the brink of going down in shame in their community. Jesus’ sign of extravagance wasn’t just about serving the best of the best wine in overflowing abundance in the middle of that wedding. It was about the power of reaching out and extending hospitality to those who need to feel the love of God the most. May it be so with us in our own time. Thanks be to God. Amen.