The Sign of Wine (Second Sunday after Epiphany)

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Most people love a big party, and in Jesus’ day, weddings were big parties!  They often went on for a whole week, and everybody came.  The wedding at Cana seems to be typical of those big parties.  Mary was there.  Jesus and his disciples were there.  And everybody was having a great time, until the wine ran out on the third day.

This is a problem if you’re on day 3 of a 7 day party!  So Mary comes over to Jesus and simply tells him that there is no wine.  And in an outstanding example of self-differentiation, Jesus points out that this is not his problem to solve.  But he decides to help out anyway.

He asks the servants to fill six jars with water, and then to take some of it to the chief steward.  They do as Jesus asked, and when the chief steward tastes it, he finds that he’s drinking the best wine of the party.  And there are 120 gallons of it!

Problem solved!  There’s now plenty of wine.  All the guests are happy.  And Jesus no longer has his mother on his case!

Except that there is a problem, at least as far as the chief steward is concerned.  He now looks like he wasn’t doing his job properly.  He calls the groom over and begins to chew him out about this.  (We sometimes read this as though the chief steward is impressed and happy, but he’s NOT!)  “Everybody serves the good wine first, and then the cheap stuff after the guests are drunk and don’t care. But you’re making us look bad!  You’re making me look like I don’t know what I’m doing.  And your new in-laws are now reconsidering whether you were such a good catch for their daughter after all!”

Now the good thing for Jesus is that the chief steward doesn’t know that it’s Jesus who did this, and the servants don’t rat him out.  Because if they did, I’m sure the chief steward would have been livid with Jesus as well.

This is not the way things are supposed to work.  It makes the chief steward and the groom look bad.  And if Jesus wanted to simply help out, it is inconceivable that the Lord and Messiah could not have turned water in two-buck chuck!  I mean, that way, everybody would have been happy!  There would have been wine, and the chief steward could have said, “well, this isn’t as good as the good stuff, but it’s not half bad.”

But that’s not what Jesus did.  And it was clearly intentional.  And it was NOT about making the chief steward and the groom look incompetent.

Instead, John says that this was the very first “sign” that Jesus performed. And the sign wasn’t really about wine.  The sign was about how things really would work differently now that Jesus was involved.

In fact, this “sign” is really a sign of things to come.  And as Jesus gets involved in the world, things work differently in ways that:

  • may be great in one way, but also just seem wrong – it’s great that there’s wine, but it doesn’t seem right that it’s better than the first stuff; and it’s great that people are forgiven, but it just doesn’t seem right that they don’t have to earn it …
  • don’t always make people happy – or at least they resist it because they knew how the old ways worked; in one sense, the groom and the chief steward could be ecstatic because of all the great wine, but it doesn’t make them look good, and they don’t really know how to explain it; and there were lots of people later on who loved what Jesus did, but he didn’t fit the mold they were expecting of someone who comes from God, and some of those folks eventually decided he just needed to be crucified …
  • nevertheless continued the party, even when hope for the future had run out; I mean, clearly Mary couldn’t have been the only one to realize the wine was gone.  And at a regular party, when the wine is gone the hosts says, “thanks for coming — GO HOME!”; but with Jesus involved, the party continues in an unexpected way; and even when Jesus is killed, he rises again and continues God’s party of life in really unexpected way …

This first “sign” was indeed a sign of how Jesus was going to be working in the world.  It was a “sign” of the way he would call his followers to live.  It was, even when people resisted it, a sign of hope in a world that was often ready to end the party when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to go.

And I’ve thought about this story as I’ve been getting ready for our Annual Congregational meeting next week.  Whenever we get together for one of these meetings, we do the regular stuff — we hear reports, we pass a budget and we elect Council members for next year.

But a theme that’s been underlying all of our meetings for many years now is that things aren’t working the way they used to.  People don’t come to worship or volunteer for activities as often as they used to.  There isn’t as much money as there used to be.  And the programs that used to attract lots of people don’t do so as much anymore.

And it’s not just us.  And it’s not just Lutherans.  It’s been happening to all Christian communities, even the big ones.  Sometimes it’s been happening very rapidly.  And in other places like ours, it’s happened a bit more slowly and it’s been possible to tweak things so they’ve stayed kinda sorta “normal.”

Still, it feels like the wine is running out.  There is no “secret sauce” to make things like they used to be.  And often leaders (especially Pastors!), sound like the chief steward — “this isn’t the way things are supposed to go, especially when we’ve done everything that always worked before.”

And it seems to me that the key to finding hope for the future is in the fact that Jesus is still at work in the world around us.  And when Jesus gets involved, things work differently.  And it’s not that Jesus is necessarily bringing on the changes we’re facing as much as Jesus is calling us to a different way to run the “wedding party” of Christian community because the context around us has changed and is changing even more rapidly.

And in order to be open to how Jesus is messing with our “party” and calling us to a different way of living as a Christian community, we need to grow as people who get more comfortable with the:

  • idea that the “party” is going to work differently because the context in which we’re called to live as Jesus’ people is different.  The world around us has changed, and that means we can’t just do things as we used to them. And it just seems wrong.  But at Cana, the way Jesus did things seemed wrong.  So could it be that sometimes the ways that seem “wrong” are precisely the ways Jesus is calling us to go?  Are we at least open to that possibility…?
  • feeling that everybody won’t be happy with the way the party runs.  And most importantly, this means I have to be willing to do things that are necessary, but that I don’t want to do.  Everybody is always OK with “other people” being unhappy!  But I am willing to accept unhappiness so that he party can move forward?  Are you?
  • acceptance that any real hope and promise comes from God’s faithfulness and God’s guidance, and not from our own efforts.  No amount of effort from anybody could have saved the party at Cana.  Jesus did a new thing.  And there is hope and promise for Christian community, not because we’ve got a cool new program to suggest, but because we have a God who is ALWAYS working in our world to bring new life when it seems like it’s time to give up and go home …

One of the things I’m going to be doing in February and March is taking a short sabbatical.  And I’m going to use some of the time to read, study and reflect on some of the ways our world and the culture around us has been changing.  It seems to me that too often in the church, we’ve tried to adapt what we’re doing so that we can stay like we’ve been, instead of realizing and accepting how the “party” of the world around us has changed, so that we can be open to how Jesus is calling us to live in a new way as his community in the world.  And I hope this sabbatical will give me some new insights and ideas that all of us can discuss together.

And while adapting to new ways is always hard and confusing, I see a lot of hope and promise in our future, not because I think there will be easy answers, and not because it’ll always be fun.  Instead, I see hope and promise because I know Jesus is still at work among us.  I see hope and promise because Jesus has always led his people in new ways that adapt to new times and new situations.  And most of all, I see hope and promise because the party we’re really involved with is Jesus’ party, and so I know the good wine is coming.