Grace Presbyterian Church
January 20, 2019, Epiphany 2C
The Really Good Wine
Wine is something of a mixed bag in scripture. There are many passages, particularly in Hebrew scripture, in which wine (or “strong drink”) is denounced as a “mocker” or some other description of how its excess is destructive to a person. Proverbs tends to go there, and there are also passages in Leviticus that lean that way. On the other hand, many passages also take a more celebratory view of that particular drink. Proverbs’s mirror-image companion, Ecclesiastes, provides a couple of examples – 9:7 suggests that one “go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart,” while 10:19 suggests that “wine gladdens life.” While we live in a very different time and a very different perspective, it seems both can be true: in excess, or in the wrong hands, wine (or other alcoholic drink) can be incredibly destructive (as I witnessed as a child), while it can still be a part of celebration when consumed “in moderation” as the modern vernacular puts it.
Perhaps most striking is a passage like our reading in Isaiah, in which the absence or insufficiency of wine is a marker of a fallen and desolate place. In a land under the judgment of the Lord (as described in 24:1-3), along with more obvious signs of desolation it is noted in verse 7 that “the wine dries up; the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh.” In short, to understand the drama in today’s gospel reading, whatever one’s own views of wine or alcohol more generally (and I don’t drink the stuff myself), one needs to understand that wine is regarded at absolute minimum as a good thing for such an event, a common drink, and one that is especially suited to celebration and feasting. A wedding celebration such as that at which Jesus is are present would have wine, and lots of it.
Except in this case, the wedding hosts didn’t have enough of it.
I promise you that there are multiple sermons that could be developed from this passage, and there’s no way I could possibly cover and expound upon all the good and worthwhile truths to be gleaned from this story even if I were prone to preach thirty-minute sermons (and I hope you’ve noticed I don’t do that). I can only try to give one possible point here, really, and somehow the way this dilemma of not enough wine ends up being resolved seems to be pointing to something we perhaps need to realize.
The wine for this multi-day wedding feast is indeed running out. It’s not totally clear why; it might be that the hosts didn’t plan for enough, or that the guests (who were also expected to contribute to the supply for the occasion) failed to do their part. Whatever the situation, it’s running out, and at minimum such an event promised to be a social embarrassment for the couple and the hosts for the rest of their lives. If you know small towns, like Cana, you can guess how such an embarrassment could linger.
Somehow Jesus’s mother gets involved (for some reason in John’s gospel she never gets a name). Some speculate that she might have been related to one of the families involved in the wedding. For whatever reason, she takes it upon herself to tell her son, who to this point has apparently been doing a good impersonation of a wallflower along with his disciples. His response to her cannot help but look rather stark to modern readers: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” First of all, that looks rather snarky – “why is this our problem?” and second…I don’t know about you, but if I had ever called my mother “woman” to her face I’m not sure I’d be here today. Biblical commentators will fall all over themselves trying to explain away or even justify that mode of address, but in all honesty it’s going to look rude or disrespectful no matter what.
Nonetheless, his mother one-ups him by leaving the servants with him with the instruction to “do whatever he tells you.” One might almost hear Jesus exclaiming after her as she walks away – “mooooommmm…”
Despite his expressed unwillingness to do so, Jesus does act. He tells those servants to take six huge stone jars, typically used to hold water for purification rituals, and fill them with water. Then he tells them to take some of that to the chief steward for his approval. Not exactly a lot of dramatic action here, but by the time that “water” gets to the steward’s lips it isn’t plain old water anymore. It’s wine, and apparently it is really good wine.
There’s the thing. It is really good wine. It’s impressive enough that the steward can’t help but comment on how unusual this is. He has to call aside the bridegroom and observe how this wine is so much better than usual at this stage of a wedding celebration.
As such events stretched out over days in first-century Palestine, it was not uncommon to be careful about what kind of wine, or what quality of wine, was served at what stage of the feast. Break out the really good stuff first, and then, when even the most cautious of celebrants is a bit numb to the taste of wine, unload the lesser (and less expensive) vintage. In modern terms you would break out the best French wines you could find at the beginning of the feast, and by this stage of the proceedings you’d be serving the stuff that comes in a box.
It isn’t just that Jesus performed a miracle, or a “sign” as John is careful to call them in his gospel. To John, these events were “signs” in that they show us who Jesus is. As verse 11 puts it, Jesus “revealed his glory” in this act, enough so that “his disciples believed in him” (they had only just joined him at the end of the previous chapter). For those who witnessed the event, this was a kind of epiphany of who Jesus was.
But who, exactly, witnessed this “sign”? His disciples, apparently. The servants who were charged with filling up the water jars and taking some to the steward presumably could be called “witnesses,” though their reaction is not recorded. Jesus’s mother presumably understood what happened. But who else? For a sign of God’s glory in Jesus, this isn’t exactly a very big sign.
Except that in a way it is a big sign, admittedly. At a time when the wedding feast threatened to run dry, Jesus brought somewhere between 120 and 150 gallons of wine – again, really good wine – to the proceedings. That could keep the party going for a while. It isn’t just a patchwork fix. It’s a serious shot of energy added to the proceedings. It’s extravagant. It’s almost over-the-top. In that sense, it is a big showy sign.
But how many of the wedding guests knew about it? How many of them had any kind of reaction beyond “hey, this is pretty good stuff here”? We don’t know how many, but John doesn’t seem to act as if there was much reaction at all outside of Jesus’s disciples. And as noted before, it sure seems that only a few people even knew what had happened. We get no indication that even the steward who first tasted the new wine ever learned how that new wine had come to pass. So what kind of sign is this, exactly?
For one thing, clearly it is a sign of grace and abundance. For the wedding host on the verge of embarrassment – unpleasant, certainly, but not life-threatening – Jesus provides gallons upon gallons of really good wine. Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, frames the point as the answer to the question, “what does grace upon grace taste like? The best wine and gallons of it when you least expect it.”
This abundance isn’t a private thing, though. It spills out to the benefit of all of the wedding guests, whether they even knew what was going on or not. Lewis continues:
We have so modified and codified abundance it’s hard to recognize it anymore. And some have so monopolized abundance, hoarded it, thinking that it is theirs to control, theirs to possess — and even, theirs to take away. Theirs to keep for themselves, because those without it? Well, clearly they have not merited God’s attention, earned God’s graces. Because in these cases, abundance is equated with God’s favor. Abundance is connected with God’s blessing. Or, these guarders of abundance are so enmeshed in their own self-warranted abundance that they cannot see beyond it. They have qualified and quantified abundance in such a way that suggests God’s blessings are actually measurable and predictable.
That’s not how abundance works. It really does spill out beyond any boundaries we try to put up around it, no matter how much we try to keep it for ourselves. Being blessed with abundance isn’t about how much you get for yourself; it’s about how much flows out to all. Individual abundance isn’t abundance at all; it’s just hoarding. Like the wine perked up the wedding feast even for those who had no idea what was going on in the back, true divine abundance spills out even to those completely unawares; it is not and can never be reserved only for those who brag about how much they have with the social media hashtag #blessed.
Second, it’s not just about abundance; it’s good abundance, so to speak. It wasn’t just wine that saved the day at the wedding; it was, again, really good wine– the best that had been brought out yet. It isn’t merely about getting by; it’s about receiving fully, without limitation and without reservation.
Come to think of it, there is one set of people who actually didn’t gain any benefit from this sign that Jesus performed at Cana. Have you ever known a wedding where every invited guest actually showed up? There were no doubt people who had been invited to that wedding feast and, for whatever reason, didn’t attend. Maybe that’s another thing to remember; when it comes to living in the grace of God, showing up really is half the battle sometimes.
That of course doesn’t mean only showing up right now, for worship, although clearly I’ll never deny that worship matters and showing up for it is important. But there is so much more to being the body of Christ, and showing up for that matters as well. Just look, for example, at the various kinds of outreach supported by our mission committee. Even more, look outside the walls of this church, where so much need for grace, for compassion, for the most basic extending of God’s abundance is needed. Showing up does matter, and maybe we need to do more of that.
It is a strange sign, indeed. Known by very few, but experienced by many; extravagant in scope and quality; given without qualification or being ‘earned’; such is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
For the really good wine, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here In This Place (Gather Us In); #477, Thy Mercy and Thy Truth, O Lord (Psalm 36); #292, As the Wind Song; #156, Sing of God Made Manifest