A Celebration Miracle
John 2:1-11 | 20 January 2019 | Dan McCoig
Imagine yourself as a gospel writer. You’ve collected many stories about Jesus. What he said, what he did, how he treated people, what he thought about God in those unguarded moments of heartfelt prayer to God. You’ve interviewed some of his closest disciples. You’ve interviewed eye-witnesses to some of his sermons and miracles.
Now, you have to decide what you are going to put into your gospel and what you are going to have to leave on the floor of your study. As much as you would like to use it, you might lose your readers. And you want your readers to know and love Jesus, too.
Some of the stuff you have to use. It’s the really big stuff. All of those “I am” sayings. They’re in. Jesus’ baptism. No doubt about it. That’s in. Miraculous feedings and miraculous healings. Absolutely. In.
There’s one story you’ve collected that you wonder about. You’ve talked to Jesus’ mother, Mary, about it. You’ve talked to some of the wedding guests who were there that day. You’ve talked to the servers as well as the wine steward. It’s an amazing story.
The story is unique. It’s a miracle. But it’s not a feeding miracle or a healing miracle or a nature miracle like calming the seas and walking on water. You try to figure out what to call it. You finally decide to call it a celebration miracle. That seems to capture most of what it is. Yeah, a celebration miracle.
Jesus, his mother, and some of his disciples are at this wedding in nearby Cana, just northeast of Nazareth in the hills near Mt. Tabor. Weddings then and now are festive occasions that require no small amount of planning and oversight. The host wants to make sure the guests are well-dined and well-wined. No one goes home hungry or dry.
The good wine has been served but is now all gone. The host is about to be humiliated by failing to afford his guests the proper hospitality. The festivities are in full swing and there’s not even the customary cheap wine in reserve.
Mary is not about to let the host be humiliated. She asks Jesus to provide the wine. Jesus is not overly keen to do so but does as his mother requests nonetheless. It turns out that the wine he produces is not only better than the best wine that has already been served but it is also incredibly ample. There are jars and jars of it — enough for everyone without exception.
You as the gospel writer love this story, this celebration miracle story. You love it so much you include it as the very first miracle story in your gospel.
Once your gospel is completed and is making its way from one Christian community to the next, folks begin to ask you why in the world you put this story of Jesus turning water into wine so front and center in your gospel. Right there. In the opening chapters.
That’s a great question isn’t it? Of all the miracles John could have opened his gospel with why a celebration miracle. No one is healed. No one is fed. No raging, threatening storm is calmed. If anything, a lot of people ended up drinking a lot of wine.
The beginning of the answer to the question goes like this. In John, Jesus’ miracles are signs of God breaking anew into the world in Christ to recreate the world, to transform it.
There are four sections to John’s gospel. The prologue. The book of signs [the first half of the gospel]. The book of glory [the second half of the gospel]. And the epilogue. Today’s lesson is the first of seven signs in the book of signs.
Jesus’ celebration miracle, turning water into wine, is a word picture of how things are under the reign of God. Human life is meaningful and pleasant. Relationships, sexuality, community, hospitality, good food, good drink are celebrated much the way they are celebrated at a festive wedding. In God’s reign, life flourishes, relationships thrive.
By contrast, apart from God’s reign, life marred by human sin and selfishness, life is otherwise. It’s meaningless, unpleasant. And all the good things God has given humanity — relationships, our sexuality, community, hospitality, good food and drink — become distorted and misused. Instead of flourishing, life languishes. Instead of thriving, relationships wither.
That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Have you ever heard the term “functional atheism”. I’ve run across it several times over the years. I most recently ran across it in Gil Rendle’s book Quietly Courageous. Rendle is a respected church consultant and prolific author. Here’s his working definition. “A functional atheist is someone who speaks about God as the active agent of salvation in the life of individuals and in producing wholeness in the world but who then assumes that nothing is going to change unless and until he or she puts his or her hand and resources to it.”
In his book, Rendle points out that the American church in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was relatively flush with resources — people, dollars, influence. It was a time of general abundance. Ministry became a matter of generating the necessary resources and then deploying them. God, in many cases but certainly not all, became somewhat of an afterthought. Rendle writes, “Instead of believing in the manna that came from God’s hand, the church learned to set its own table and provide its own feast.”
Beginning in the 1970s, resources in the church became less abundant than they once were. Less people, less dollars, less influence. Still, many a congregation continued to behave as if resources were virtually unlimited. But then, as it became clear that they weren’t, abundance thinking swung drastically in the other direction toward scarcity thinking which now tends to predominate. If abundance thinking is all about ‘look what we have and what we can do — just about anything’, scarcity thinking is all about ‘look what we don’t have and what we can’t do — not as much as we used to’. Scarcity thinking is demoralizing and discouraging.
There’s an alternative to abundance thinking and scarcity thinking. Rendle calls it “enough” thinking. To begin with, Rendle suggests that we need to realize that many a church simply no longer has the resources to continue doing what it has always done. This is especially true of churches in whom a measure of functional atheism was present.
But then, Rendle asks, “What if [church’s and church leaders] . . . find they actually have enough?” He asks further: “What if God has already provided, and has activated, what is feared to be missing?” What Rendle wants us to see is that we can trust God to have already put in place what is needed to fulfill our purpose of changing lives and communities in the name of Christ in vital and faithful ways even if those vital and faithful was in the present look differently than they looked in the past.
I believe this is where Jesus’ celebration miracle of turning the water into wine is going. Scarcity with its attendant anxieties and fears is replaced by enough. We can move from “Oh my, the wine is all gone” to “Wow, look there’s wine for everyone”. With God in Christ, there is enough, always.
Living out of and into this truth involves a different approach. If we once saw ourselves individually or together as the church to be the sole bearer of God’s Spirit to help, heal, and love the world, we need to make a shift. Now we need to ask where and how God’s work is already at work and then find the best ways to get behind that work, to do our part with God.
I tried to think of the best possible way to illustrate this. Tell me if this works. It’s a story from the ministry of a congregation in Indianapolis.
Through its outreach ministries, the church used to ask what people needed and how they could help. Then, the church would muster what resources they could and do their best. They discovered that the resources always ran out before the needs. By the way, that’s the way scarcity works.
Then, they began to ask people what they had rather than what they lacked, trusting that surely God is at work somehow and someway. In other words, they abandoned their “functional atheism”.
One of their success stories was a woman who said she was a great cook. The church took a risk and invited her to start cooking in their soup kitchen. It was true, she was a good cook. She then cooked for a church fellowship dinner. Word got out. Over time she went from cooking in several of the city’s restaurants to opening her own restaurant. No one had ever before asked her what she had, ever. People only saw someone who lacked. That’s what people asked about. With God in Christ though, there is enough. Sometimes it takes letting go of any functional atheism we may be holding on to and embracing God’s enough.
Does that illustration help? I hope so.
This year will mark the 56th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in D.C. Tomorrow we celebrate what would have been King’s 91st birthday.
King’s dream used the biblical banquet table where there is a place for everyone because his Christian theology claimed that in God’s kingdom the table is big enough and broad enough for everyone to take his and her place. Because of Christ, the world is new and the possibilities are new.
Listen. King said:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”