January 15, 2016 by jmar198013
The manuscript of my sermon for this Sunday, January 17, 2016. Second Epiphany. Year C.
The soundtrack to my sermon composition this week honored two musicians we’ve recently lost, David Bowie and Lemmy Kilmister. Songs included David Bowie’s Heroes; Changes; Rock and Roll Suicide; and Sound and Vision; and tracks from Lemmy’s old band Hawkwind, including Assault and Battery / The Golden Void; Psychedelic Warlords; and Brainstorm.
A shout out is in order here. I don’t think I could have composed this sermon this week without Thomas Jay Oord’s new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2015). Especially the final two chapters, “The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence” and “Miracles and God’s Providence.” I heartily recommend this refreshing tome. But if the sermon is deficient, blame me and not him.
As always, for those who’d rather listen, an audio link is embedded below.
ACT 1: JESUS SAVES A WEDDING
John’s story about the day Jesus turned water into wine is one of my favorite in all of the Bible.
Actually, he turned a couple of bathtubs full of water into wine. Gallons and gallons of wine. Fifty or sixty gallons! And not Welch’s grape juice, either. Wine that would give the vineyards in Lodi or Napa two black eyes.
I love this story, for one, because it proves that Jesus knew how to party. But I also love this story because it’s got some very human drama going on between Jesus and his mother.
John tells us that the wine ran out, and Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.”
Now, back then a wedding was a block party that could go on for days. Running out of wine in the middle of it was a total buzzkill. Literally. I’ve read somewhere that running out of wine during a wedding back then was grounds for a lawsuit. Getting sued for running out of wine during a wedding reception sounds like something that would happen here in California. Point is, it was kind of a big deal. And you couldn’t just run over to BevMo and stock up on more.
I love Jesus’ response here: Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.
Two little sentences. But there’s so much going on in those two little sentences.
First, I just have to say it. If I ever got big enough to call my mama woman, I’d be in need of a healing miracle before I could even get to a second sentence.
Woman, Jesus says—and I’m going to pretend that was just his way of saying, Ma’am—what does that have to do with me?
The Greek phrase back of what does that have to do with me?, is difficult to translate. Especially because there’s no verb in it. The gist of it is sort of like that old story about the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They’re surrounded by hostile Indians, and the Lone Ranger asks, What are we going to do, Kemosabe? And Tonto replies, What do you mean ‘we,’ White Man?
Jesus seems annoyed that his mom expects him to solve the wine crisis. Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet. He sounds like one of those kids whose parents always make them sing or dance or do magic tricks at dinner parties. And he doesn’t want to. He just wants to enjoy the party.
My time hasn’t come yet. I’m not ready.
Of course, this is all happening in John’s Gospel. And a couple of weeks back, we heard John reveal that Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. This story reveals how fleshy the Word had become. Fleshy enough to have a tense moment with his mother when he feels like she’s overstepping. Pushing too hard, too fast.
But Mary won’t let up. She goes over—or under—Jesus’ head and tells the servants—the people from the catering service—Do whatever he tells you. Did you hear that? Jesus’ mother just put him in one of those awkward spots where he’s going to look like a jerk if he doesn’t do something! Well-played, Mary.
I know this is what’s going on because my mother’s done it to me. I bet your mother’s done it to you. And if you’re a mother, you’ve probably done it to your kids.
And so Jesus does the thing. He orders the giant water jars to be filled to the brim with water. Fifty or sixty gallons of it. And when the servants draw water from the jar and bring it to the headwaiter, voila! It’s wine! The good stuff, too. So good that the headwaiter—who doesn’t know it’s a pinot noir, vintage two minutes ago—pulls the groom aside to tell him he threw his party backwards. Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.
And that’s the story. Jesus saves the day. Laissez les bon temps rouler! And we are told that the story is about how gracious and generous and abundant God is. About how he’s just waiting to pour sixty gallons of fine wine into our jars. At our party. In our lives. Yay Jesus! Go God!
That really is a lovely story.
But you know that awful, warped scratchy noise that happens when someone yanks the needle off a vinyl record?
Well, that’s what I’m about to do to this story.
ACT 2: BUT SOMETIMES WEDDINGS BLOW UP AND PEOPLE DIE
Lookit, like I said at first—I love the story of Jesus turning the water to wine.
I’m captivated by the idea that the Word of God who became flesh took the time to save somebody’s wedding. That he was so extravagant about it, too—sixty gallons of fine wine. Better than they had to begin with.
It’s one of those times we say that God showed up and showed out.
John began his Gospel by saying that the Word became flesh and made his home among us (John 1.14). And that, From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace (John 1.16). And this story of Jesus showing up and saving a wedding by providing sixty gallons of fine wine is what that looks like. That’s what we can expect from Jesus. Fullness. Grace upon grace. Extravagance. Generosity.
And that’s where the needle gets yanked off the record for me.
Because then I think about another wedding that I heard about. On November 10, 2005, a newly-married couple—Ashraf and Nadia Al-Akhras—were celebrating their wedding in Amman, Jordan. Their wedding was ruined. And not because they ran out of wine or anything.
Because a terrorist—a suicide bomber—managed to blend in with the wedding guests and set off a blast that killed 27 of their family and friends. Ashraf lost his father in the blast. Both of Nadia’s parents were killed.
Where was the grace upon grace for them? Why didn’t God show up and show out for them? To save not only their wedding, but 27 innocent lives?
I think back to when I lived in Memphis. I remember the place they call “Babyland.” It’s a corner of the public cemetery in Shelby County where the babies of the poor are buried. There are developing nations with less infant mortality than Memphis. When I lived there, a baby was dying every 43 hours. Something like 20,000 babies have been laid to rest in “Babyland.” Shoved into pine shoeboxes. Their graves marked by little metal discs. No names. Just numbers.
Where’s their grace upon grace? Where is God’s abundance and generosity? Why doesn’t God show up and show out for them?
And I could go on and on and on. Genocides. The Holocaust. Famines. Persecutions. Abuse. Diseases. Children in Mozambique with prosthetic limbs because they stepped on a land mine.
What am I to believe? What is any of us to believe? That God cares enough about a random wedding 2,000 years ago to turn water into wine; but either can’t or won’t do anything about starvation or rape or child abuse or genocide?
The Bible is full of people asking the same kinds of questions.
Job complains: If I cry “Violence!” I’m not answered; I shout—but there is no justice (Job 19.7). Psalm 22—the words Jesus spoke from the cross—begs: My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? . . . My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer. The prophet Habakkuk accused God: Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? (Hab. 1.1).
Someone will say: Yes, but if you read on, Job and the psalmist and the prophet all got an answer from God eventually.
But then I say, Okay, then—read Psalm 88. That suffering psalmist says: I’ve been calling out to you every day, Lord—I’ve had my hands outstretched to you! And there’s no answer. There’s no deliverance. There’s no grace upon grace. The Psalm ends: You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant. My only friend is darkness.
I know all the right answers, and none of them comes close to satisfying me. God’s ways are not our ways. Everything happens for a reason. Some people say that everything—even rape and murder and genocide—are part of God’s plan. Others insist that God could show up and fix everything, but he doesn’t because that would interfere with human free will. He loves us so much that he lets us plant land mines in Mozambique for children to walk on.
All I know is, down here babies are dying in Memphis. Wedding parties are getting bombed in the Middle East. Warlords are turning children into killing machines in Africa. Women and children are stolen to be trafficked in the sex trade. But one time God showed up and poured sixty gallons of wine into a Jewish wedding thousands of years ago. And somehow, that’s supposed to show us that God is gracious and abundant and generous, even though the world we live in seems to tell a very different story.
But then again . . . maybe the problem really isn’t with God. Maybe the problem is us.
Maybe the story of water to wine really is good news. God really is abundant and generous and showering grace upon grace upon us. But we haven’t been very good about receiving it or sharing it. Because we haven’t listened to the story well.
ACT 3: WATER TO WINE WAS A SIGN
See, here’s the snag. I suspect that we hear a story like the water-into wine miracle—or really any of the miracles—and we’re so dazzled by the miracle that we miss the point.
We look around at our world, and it seems pretty bland at best—at worst just brutal—compared to a world where holy men show up at weddings and change water into wine.
And that blinds us to the miracles that God wants to do through us here and now. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus would say: I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father (John 14.12). Even greater than changing water to wine? Hey, like I always say: I didn’t write it.
John said that the water to wine was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. John was fond of calling Jesus’ miracles signs. What does a sign do? A sign reveals what may be hidden. A sign points away from itself to something bigger, something truer. The real thing. A sign is a gesture. A guide showing us the way to go.
Furthermore, John said that by this sign, Jesus revealed his glory. That takes us back to the beginning of John’s Gospel, where he says: We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1.14). Jesus’ glory is how he uniquely shows us Father God. Who God is. What God does.
The story of the water into wine is a sign that reveals how God works in the world.
So what we’re supposed to do with the story of the water into wine is to let it show us how God works.
Truth be told, John doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the miracle itself. He just wants us to know that it happened. That somehow, between the servants drawing the water from the jars and it reaching the lips of the headwaiter, it became wine. Tasty wine. Superior wine. Wine, which cheers people’s hearts, as the psalmist put it (Ps. 104.15).
If the question is, How do we see God working in a world of suicide bombers, starving babies, and child soldiers?; then the answer this story gives is, Through mothers. Through servants. Through vessels. Through us—when we are willing.
The emphasis in the story is on the willingness of Jesus’ mother to speak up and advocate when she sees a problem. On servants who do whatever Jesus tells them. On vessels being filled to the brim and sharing what they’ve been filled with.
Somewhere in there—John doesn’t tell us when or how—a miracle occurs. The water becomes wine.
So the question isn’t: Why isn’t God showing up and showing out in our world of sex trafficking and genocide and land mines? But, How does God empower his people to respond to the needs of such a world?
So church, let’s be like Jesus’ mother. Let’s keep our eyes open. Be observant. Pay attention. Be aware. When we see a need, a lack, a want, something broken—let’s speak up. Let’s advocate. Let’s prod and goad. And let’s pray, too.
And church, when the Marys among us name a problem, let’s listen. Let’s discern. And let’s commit ourselves to doing whatever Jesus tells us. The Sermon on the Mount is always the best place to start listening, I think. Our response should probably involve welcoming and honoring the poor and grieving and beaten down and hungry. Practicing reconciliation—starting among ourselves. Being loyal. Telling the truth. Not repaying evil for evil, but overcoming evil with good. Showing hospitality to people who are not like us. I know there will always be voices who tell us why those things are irrelevant or naive or won’t work in this particular situation for whatever reason. All I can say to that is, filling big stone jars with water may have seemed to the servants like a stupid way to deal with a wine shortage. But they did it, anyway. And God made their obedience into something perfect.
And church, we are even called to be like those big stone jars. Filled to the brim with grace and truth. But not hoarding it! Not supposing that the grace and truth in us is just for us. This story calls us to be self-giving. And God will make the grace and truth in us a refreshing, life-giving draught that will bring cheer and delight to our neighbors.
Others will taste the water God has made wine—from the grace and truth we have been filled with; from our obedience; from our prayerful advocacy—and like the headwaiter, they will say: This stuff is better than the stuff we had before!
And that’s our story, sisters and brothers. The miracle of the water-into-wine is about how God lovingly empowers his church to be vessels of grace and truth in the world. When we are filled to the brim. When we do whatever Jesus says. When we keep our eyes open and advocate. Somehow in that process God works miracles.
Even greater miracles than water into wine.