Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Wedding Feast of Heaven Come to Earth

I wonder. Of all the stories about Jesus, why start the Gospel of John with this miracle?

In John’s Gospel, the first of Jesus’ signs—what the other Gospels call “miracles”—was turning water into wine.  John’s Gospel story of Jesus begins differently that the other Gospels, not with the healing of a sick person, or raising someone from the dead, or forgiving sins, or casting out a demon. Instead, Jesus’ ministry starts out a lot of really good wine, about one hundred fifty gallons of wine, that made a party last longer. And the really funny thing is, that the partygoers don’t even know the miracle happened! Only the servants, a few of Jesus’ followers, and his mother know about it. The party went on as if everything was normal.

But there’s more going on here than Jesus’ love of a good party! A quality, by the way, that drove Jesus’ opponents crazy. Because it drove them wild that he ate and hung out with all the wrong people.

The Gospel of John includes other “signs” that Jesus did including healing the sick, raising people from the dead, feeding a multitude on five loaves and two fish, and appearing, resurrected from the dead, among his amazed disciples. So “signs” are big, important, meaningful, reality-shifting events.

But how is making a ridiculous amount of wine at a small-town wedding reception on par with raising the dead, feeding the hungry, walking through locked doors to show the scars on his hands and feet and side and proclaiming that death has been defeated? As a “sign,” what does turning water into wine point to? What makes this wine so important?

Think about weddings or another big family celebrations. They were then, as for many of us now, a time for good wine, a time to enjoy the rarer things of life—a time to share food and drink that was special, not everyday stuff. Jesus is showing us that these special times and celebrations, also point us to the heavenly banquet—when all God’s people are gathered for a big feast at the end of time.

The prophet Isaiah’s described it this way:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isaiah 25:6-9).

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached his last sermon on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his martyrdom, it was his famous “mountaintop” sermon. As he closed the sermon, he said:

We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Throughout the sermon, the Rev. Dr. King combines a number of Biblical stories: first, the memory of Moses who having led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and through the Exodus, died just short of entering the Promised Land. Next, he talks about Isaiah’s image for the end of time, when all is brought to its fulfillment: when tears will end, and a great feast for all peoples, that will include really good meat, rich, fatty food, and wine better than the best you’ve ever tasted will be enjoyed in the presence of God.

There are many images of God’s promised fulfillment to all God’s people in the Bible. Like our first lesson today, where God’s joy over God’s people, and God’s deep love for people, is like the love a bride and a bridegroom share in a marriage celebration.

So, when Jesus makes gallons and gallons of fine wine at the wedding reception in Cana, it is a sign­ that points to the promises of God that will bring all people to Godself, that God will pour down God’s love and joy on all people, that the perfection that lies in God’s great future is real. God’s abundance and grace and joy has begun in Jesus Christ. The future is now, the glory and grace and love of God are available now.

That’s why turning water into wine is the first of Jesus’ signs in John’s Gospel, and like the rest of the signs that follow, it says, “look! God’s future is here, it has begun in Jesus!” I kind of imagine this being like ordering a burger, fries, water or even soda pop at the drive-thru and then getting home and discovering that what we have is gourmet meal and fine wine. That somehow, God has transformed our ordinary--even hum-drum!-- expectations into something grand! Something spectacular! Certainly unexpected and transforming.

The folks at the wedding in Cana knew they were going to a party. What they didn't realize-- except for the servants, the disciples, and Mary--was they they were taking part in the banquet of the triumphant reign of God breaking right in to where they were. The ordinary had become extraordinary. The secular had, right before their eyes, became holy! This was God's future come to earth.

What else does God’s future look like? It looks like hungry people being fed, sick people being healed, it looks like justice rolling down like the rivers as he cleanses the Temple, it looks like people being raised from death because through Christ death itself is defeated.

God’s future is here now. In the present. In this life. We don’t have to wait to experience hope. We can trust that God will keep God’s promises for the end of time, because Jesus already brought the possibility of joy and hope and new life now, where we live. Perfection is not yet fully present; perfect wholeness still lies ahead. But trust Jesus, walk with Jesus, listen for Jesus—we find over and over again that God is keeping God’s promises. God’s future has already broken into the present in Jesus.

So, how do we participate in this new life, God’s perfect, joy-filled future available now?

Mary gives the answer: do whatever he tells you. Seek life at its source. Seek joy at its source. Seek to know what Jesus Christ asks of you. This is the essence of discipleship. This is the key for joining Jesus in his new way of being in the world. This is the key: do whatever he tells you.

Remember the Servants? They were the ones who knew where the water turned into wine had come from, who grasped firsthand and saw with their own eyes the amazing thing happening in their midst. They were the ones who did what Jesus told them to do. While everyone else around them was caught up in whatever was going on at the party, the servants got to witness a miracle.

And they got to participate. They got to have a hand in Jesus’ first sign. They just did what Jesus told them to do:

“Fill the jars with water” and they do.

No arguing, “We need wine, not water.”

“Now draw some out” and they do.

No complaining, “What’s that going to achieve?”

“And take it . . . So they took it.”

No, “Hey, Jesus, I have a better idea . . .”

They just do the simple, straightforward things Jesus tells them to do and they get to participate in a miracle.

Do whatever Jesus tells you. Water becomes the finest wine. The mundane becomes miraculous.

Jesus tells us all some very simple, straightforward things to do. Jesus: he tells us to love, share, give, serve, listen, learn, worship, pray.

God even gives us particulars, contexts and jobs and families, a community, and a church family in which to be obedient. Love him. Love her. Love them. Share your money, your time, your particular gift, your ability with that child, with that elder, with that family. Worship with this parish family. Pray at your desk, at your bedside, with your child, with your teenager, for your spouse, your partner, your parent, this world. Listen for what Jesus tells you to do. Do it. You may participate in a miracle, you may get a glimpse, a sign of God’s perfect future, a sign of God’s heavenly feast, even you are a part of it, right here, right now.

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