The Abundance of Your House
First Lesson: Psalm 36:5-9
Second Lesson: John 2:1-12
Rev. Scott Dickison
The way Matthew tells it, the great epiphany of “God with us” came in the form of a small but curiously bright light in the heavens, revealed to foreign travelers against the darkness of night and evil men.
In Luke, the revelation of “God with us” comes in the waters of baptism, when God tells Jesus and us, You are my beloved, I’m so proud of you. When you pass through these waters—and all the other waters of life—I will be with you.
And now here, in John, in the last of the three stories the church has traditionally associated with this season of Epiphany in which we find ourselves, the revealing of God’s nearness comes not in bright lights or voices from heaven, but down here among friends and family at a wedding reception that appeared to be nearing its end but doesn’t.
We’re not told just whose wedding it is that Jesus and the disciples were invited to, but given that his mother and perhaps even his brothers are there, some have wondered if this was a family wedding he and his friends are attending. It’s certainly possible, and would explain why his mother takes it upon herself to address this situation of there being no wine, coming up to Jesus there with his disciples and telling him, rather bluntly it would seem, “The wine is out.” Perhaps pointing out in a mother’s subtle way that the wine has run out not long after Jesus and his crew have arrived.
Now, I’m not saying…but I’m just saying.
And here we should pause and say something important about reading scripture. Most of us, if we grew up in church or not, have the reverence of scripture so imprinted upon us that the idea that the Bible could contain anything other than solemn words coming down from on high, let alone that they might dare be funnyseems out of the question. But the writers of scripture knew as well as you or I that the closest thing to tears is laughter, that humor as much as tenderness opens us up to truth and goodness and the divine, and so it should come as no surprise that there is humor woven throughout scripture, and this chapter in John is funny.
Imagine this scene—in fact, this is what a group of us did this past Wednesday night, we listened to it read and tried our best to imagine ourselves in this scene. There at this wedding, with the music and the dancing and the wine flowing. The sound of the band, the laughter, the conversation. The smell of the rich food being roasted over at the fire. The fragrance of flowers and spices. And we’re there with Jesus, doing his best, it seems, to lay low, in his mind the hour of his revealing has not yet come, when all of the sudden his mother comes up to him, “They have no wine.”
Literally she says, “The wine failed.” And this actually gets at the crux of the issue, if you will. To you or I, running out of wine at a wedding reception would certainly not be desirable, and perhaps a bit of a faux pas, but what can you do? But in the ancient world, in a culture in which hospitality was central, to run out of wine at a wedding—which were major social events, often lasting a week or more—would have been deeply embarrassing. This is a big deal, to run out of wine. But just how much of Mary or Jesus’ deal it is, well…the two of them are of different opinions there.
Mary comes up to him and tells him they’re out of wine, again with at least a touch of motherly suggestionto it—or at least that’s how Jesus seems to interpret it—“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”
Hard not to raise your eyebrows at that one! Fortunately there’s a good bit lost in translation here. In Greek this would have been the equivalent of saying, “Madam.” Which now that I say it aloud doesn’t sound a whole lot better! Not offensive on the surface, but a touch formal and more than a little odd, which leaves the door open I think for us to imagine the layers of this conversation between this son and his mother. Or should we say this single, 30-year old, first-born son, there at a wedding with his mother, who we’ve already learned has no issue injecting herself into this very delicate situation of the wine running out. Do you think weddings may have been touchy subjects between the two of them? Had she been talking to him about grandchildren earlier in the evening?
Jesus tells his mother, with whatever degree of annoyance your theology permits, “Madam, this isn’t our place.” But then he adds, curiously, “My time has not yet come.” Jesus, in the Gospel of John, has a keen awareness of what’s happening around him and what will ultimately happen to him. He knows full and well where his life is headed and how it will end, and so he’s careful, at different times, not to get ahead of himself, not to let histime get in the way of God’s.But his earthlymother doesn’t seem to share this same concern about hisheavenlyFather’s time, and instead of even responding to her potentially smart-mouthed, somewhat aloof son, she tells the waiters to do whatever he says—assuming, or again perhaps suggesting, in a motherly way, that he will do something. And she’s right.
Going against his own sense of timing, or perhaps being persuaded by his mother’s, Jesus tells the waiters to fill some large stone jars with water, which they do, and then to draw some out and take it to the chief steward, who upon tasting it, calls for the bridegroom, telling him, Most people serve the good wine first, and the cheap stuff after the guests have ‘drunk well,’ as the King James puts it, ‘but you have kept the good wine for now.
And Jesus did this, we’re told, the first of his “signs,” and revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.
A curious story, a funny story, it’s almost a touch silly. And maybe, for some, a surprising story. You may be wondering—with Jesus—if this wedding scene really was the best setting for the son of Almighty God to be revealed. Perhaps a good healing or casting out a demon or calming a storm would have been more appropriate than producing more wine for people who have already been—shall we say—over-served?
Couldn’t he have done something more serious? Perhaps. But mother Mary knew what Jesus was perhaps still learning, which is what could be more serious than a party?
Just ask Emily Post: parties are serious business—or at least, they should be. They’re worthy of etiquette and ritual, of getting dressed up for. Most of all, they’re worthy of preparing for. For ancient people, parties were so special they didn’t even call them parties, they called them “feasts.” And in the early church these feasts were so important they were how the church kept time, around cycles of feasting and fasting—parties and times of preparation for parties. This is the foundation of our church calendar even today: parties and times of preparation for parties. The biggest cycle, of course, being the long fast of Lent preparing us for the even longer feast of Easter, which we’ll enter in just a few weeks’ time.
The early church, starting with Jesus,
took their celebrations seriously because it was during their times of feasting, held up in contrast not only to their fasting, but the struggle and tedium and monotony that so often colored their lives and ours, that they were reminded of that great biblical truth that God is a God of abundance and of joy.
We’re told this over and over in Scripture: God is known first of all as a God not simply of provision, but of abundance. From the garden of creation filled with every plant for food, to the gift of manna in the wilderness to Jesus dividing the loaves and the fishes and revealing leftovers, to the coming kingdom of God being described time and time again as a rich feast—a wedding banquet, perhaps—complete with a table brimming with food and wine and laughter and friends and family, so many that we haven’t seen in some time, and not only that but all the people of the earth, gathered around one table. All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings—sings the psalmist—They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
Abundance and joy—time and time again in scripture we’re told these are the markers of a community of faith, signs of God’s presence in a people. The people of God are judged by the parties they throw. Somewhere along the way the church started lost sight of this. Faith and belief and church became either about the things you don’t do, the fun you don’t have, or about the causes you support and issues you take up—t’s about the serious work we do. And all of this is good and part of being the church in the world. And for some churches these are knew things and so it takes some time to learn how to do them well to where it doesn’t feel like work, it’s simply what we do. It takes time to do the work of justice and truth-telling and confession to where it doesn’t feel like work, and it becomes a part of the joy of being together in this house.
I think of this especially on this weekend when we as a country we remember the work of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, not just in the ‘60s but continuing into the present day. And I think of the work our church has been doing these past several years to grow in relationship with our brothers and sisters at First Baptist on New St. And not simply our relationship, but the all conversations that it’s opened up for us here. Painful conversations, at times, or at least uncomfortable conversations about hard things like racism and racial violence and injustice. And thinking about how our church and our history intersects with all these conversations and histories in our wider culture.
But I also think about how we’ve entered into these things. I thought about last fall as we sat down for our Thanksgiving potluck with our brothers and sisters around the corner and we shared in a meal that had been prepared by so many, everyone bringing their specialty, and how every time we do these things it gets a little easier. And I thought about how it was in the context of that meal, that feast, that we shared and heard testimonies about the trip we took to Montgomery when we engaged the lynching memorial there and these hard, hard parts of this story we tell. We did that within the context of this meal together, this feast, this party. It seems like this is the truth of it: you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the fast without the feast at the end. And you really can’t have the feast—the good feast, the rich and full feast—without the fast, without acknowledging the harder parts. “However deep the pain is,” the poet Mary Karr tells us, “That’s how deep the healing can be.”
That’s how good the party can be.
Wasn’t Mary right?
Didn’t his mother know, that what better time to reveal himself as the Word of God made flesh, the bearer of God’s abundant, joyful love for the world, come so that we might “have life and have it abundantly,” than at a party at risk of ending far too soon? Isn’t this our fear, in the end? That the party will end too soon?
John tells us this was the first of Jesus’ “signs,” signs he calls these miraculous events because they show us, point us to who Jesus is, why he came and what it means. And so friends, we feast on the abundance of this curious story that the lectionary puts at our feet, where we’re told that Jesus came so that the party might continue. Amen.