We heard the story of the wedding at Cana yesterday. It’s one of my favorite stories. There are layers and layers of meaning, but at its heart, it’s the story of Jesus making more wine when a party ran out. What’s not to like? Thoughts after the jump. As a reminder, if you’d rather listen, you can do that at Bethany’s website. It’ll be up tomorrow.
So, I did the math. And the story is, Jesus made somewhere between six and nine hundred bottles of wine that day.
That is a lot of wine. An outrageous amount of wine.
How big was this wedding? It can’t possibly have been that big, that the refill required nine hundred bottles of wine. That’s outrageous.
It’s so outrageous that sometimes folks, including folks who are inclined to take other parts of the bible word for word, are tempted to suggest that this can’t possibly mean what it says. The story must be an allegory. The wine must be a symbol. Because otherwise, this story is outrageous.
All of Jesus’ other miracles respond to serious need—like blindness or paralysis or having nothing to eat.
You don’t get the sense that anyone really needed more wine. I mean, maybe it was awkward for the host to run out of wine. But worse things have happened.
If Jesus showed up for one of us today and said, I can do anything you need, I don’t think many of us would put 900 bottles of wine at the top of our list. It’d be fun, but there’s real life to deal with.
And yet, according to the gospel of John, this is Jesus’ first revelation of life. See, in the gospel of John, they aren’t called miracles. They’re called signs. Everything Jesus does is intended to show us something, point us toward something. The miracle itself is not the point, but what it points toward.
And this is how Jesus starts: at a wedding, he makes sure the wine doesn’t run out. And he doesn’t just arrange for a few extra bottle of two buck chuck. He provides an outrageous amount of excellent wine. Only the best. And lots of it. What is this about?
The people who think it’s symbolic aren’t totally wrong. There is symbolic meaning here.
For centuries when prophets and poets would imagine what it would be like when God brought creation to completion, they used the image of wine.
Hear their words:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps… the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. (Amos 9:13)
In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water… (Joel 3:18a)
They shall come and sing aloud… they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil… their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. (Jeremiah 31:12)
On [God’s] mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever. (Isaiah 25:6-7)
When death is swallowed up, there will be a feast with wine. The mountains will drip wine. There will be grain and oil and plenty of wine.
The wine is rich with symbolism. Just as cookies and milk says comfort, and filet mignon says luxury, so too, for Jesus and his neighbors, wine says God is here. The time of rejoicing is at hand.
The symbolism is rich, and the reality is even richer. Jesus is not just content with a small symbolic glass of wine. He announces the good news of the kingdom by making an outrageous amount of wine for people who’ve already had plenty to drink. It’s absurd. It’s crazy. It’s an extravagance, an embarrassment of riches. It’s too much.
And yet, this is how Jesus is first revealed to his closest followers—in extravagant, joyful, overflowing abundance.
It is so easy to get caught up thinking about what we don’t have—materially and abstractly. Some of it we don’t really need—the latest phone or computer, another pair of shoes, yet another book from Amazon, even more to eat when our pantry is far from bare. But often we really are in need. We need just a little more to pay the bills. We need better health. We need more time. We need peace. We need hope.
And we know so many who need so much more than we do. How can we talk about abundance when there are people who don’t have a warm place to lay their head? How can we talk about this kind of outrageous excess when children arrive hungry to school every morning?
Is this kind of story, about Jesus providing outrageous excess, really what we need as 21st century Americans who, while we may struggle financially, on the whole lead very privileged lives? Do we need this parable of excess?
I think this is precisely the story we need. Because it shows us what true abundance is like. It shows us what true life looks like.
As American Christians in the 21st century, there are at least two temptations that threaten to keep us from life. One is the temptation to consume more and more and more. We are told every day, all day long, that if we had just a little bit more, just a little bit better, then we would live the good life. Our concept of abundance has been totally skewed. Even the poorest among us owns infinitely more than the vast majority of the world, and still we consume more and more, drawn like magpies to everything that glitters. We are tempted to believe we can buy our way to abundance.
Even as we are tempted to consume more and more, we are also tempted to reject the kind of outrageous joy that is offered here. This is our other temptation. We are heirs to the mighty protestant work ethic. We are taught that virtue lies in work, working harder and longer. We are taught that idle hands are the devil’s tools, and while we might roll our eyes at the outdated cliche, some deep part of us believes we are what we do. And we are tempted to distrust joy and turn even sabbath rest into a tangle of do’s and don’t. We are tempted to believe that we can earn our way to life.
But one day in the village of Cana, Jesus turned water into wine—for no good reason, without much work, simply as an expression of joy. And he showed us the truth about God’s abundant life. We cannot buy it. We cannot earn it.
It is given to us. The life that Jesus offers is a gift that is surprising, and joyful, and outrageous—as outrageous as 900 bottles of wine.
It is not magic. It does not solve every problem. Before it is all said and done Jesus will walk ultimately through the valley of the shadow of death. But death does not win—not bodily death, not the daily death of trying to buy and earn our way through this world.
What is real and true endures, leaps up high with life, and, as Jesus showed one day in Cana, it breaks into our ordinary, everyday lives with foretastes of glory.
It happened once. At a wedding in a little town called Cana. Just when they thought they had run out of wine there was more! More than enough!
It happens all around us, even here, even now. Jesus breaks into our lives. The Spirit shows up. The world shimmers, and living waters flow free and fast.
We can dismiss it as unnecessary, or outrageous, or unrealistic. We can ignore it or explain it away.
Or, like Mary and the disciples, we can open our eyes and our hearts, and see that with God our cups are overflowing.
Maybe it all comes down to this: in those moments when joy overtakes us, when goodness breaks through the daily grind and we’re overcome with laughter, let’s not rush past those moments. Let us not dismiss them as meaningless, or as distractions. Let’s stop, savor the wine of gladness, and drink deeply of the abundance of life, marveling at the glory of our God who comes to us, dwells with us, leads us through death into life, and who sometimes, when we least expect it, fills our cups to overflowing. May this, and none other, be the life we seek.by Sarah W. Wiles January 20, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA