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Wine, Miracles, Ordinary Problems, and Hope

A sermon on John 2:1-11 and Isaiah 62:1-5

[For an audio version of this sermon, click here]

There are both relatable and unrelatable aspects to today’s gospel story, aren’t there?

There’s a wedding, a wedding that was perhaps a little more expensive than the family could afford. – That part’s familiar enough.

Then there’s the problem, which comes to a head when the party runs out of wine. -That could happen to anyone, especially at a party that traditionally goes on for days.

There’s even a family squabble, when Mary pushes Jesus to fix the problem and he pushes back. It’s not entirely clear why he doesn’t want to involve himself, but Mary refuses to be put off – apparently even in the holy family, you don’t say “no” to Mom!

This point in the story, of course, is where it veers off the beaten track: Mary wasn’t over-selling her son – Jesus really could perform miracles. He has the staff fill six massive jugs with water, and without any fanfare he turns the water into wine. Really good wine!

That’s the part of the story that John seems most interested in. That’s why this story is included in his gospel, identified as “the first of (Jesus’s) signs… (that) revealed his glory.” John 2:11).

But that’s not the part of the story that’s been rubbing at the edges of my consciousness this week. My mind has been rubbing against the ordinary edges of the story: the wedding, the wine, the family tension. They are such ordinary topics, but they can bring up a lot of pain if your story is… well… fairly ordinary.

If a wedding didn’t happen, or if it didn’t translate into happily ever after;

If the friction between parent and child about who gets to be in control sounds a little too familiar, triggering feelings of frustration or resentment.

If wine isn’t always a cause for rejoicing. If sometimes wine turns into water… the salt water kind that runs down your cheeks.

This week I’ve been thinking back to the wedding of someone I deeply love… a wedding where the wine didn’t run out, but I could have wished that it did. Because the groom indulged a bit too much. And while we all laughed about it in the moment, it turns out there wasn’t really anything to laugh about. And just two years later, that marriage was over, as his life, along with that of his wife – someone I care deeply about – got pulled down the drain of his substance and alcohol abuse.

Since then, the association of weddings to wine hasn’t been a source of joy for me. And I know I’m not alone. I know that the “happy ending of this story” – the part where there’s a ridiculous excess of wine to drink after everyone has already had quite a bit – ISN’T always a miracle. And sometimes neither are weddings; or even parent-child relationships; or plenty of other ordinary circumstances that hold our deepest pains.

And all that complicated truth about the messiness of real life leaves me asking: what good news does this story have to offer for those who haven’t experienced the miracle solution to their problem?

That question is what has had me thinking about all the ordinariness in today’s story… all the relatable details. Because this story isn’t JUST a story about a rather arbitrary miracle. It’s also a story about Jesus caring about the ordinary stuff of life. Because that’s what wine was in his time.

In a reflection on this story, author Rachel Held Evans write:

“Wine in this era was not a luxury. The scarcity of water, and its frequent contamination, made wine a necessity for cooking, nourishment, and hospitality. Along with grain and oil, the presence of wine indicated God’s blessing on a community, while its absence signaled a curse. Wine was a staple, the stuff of life.”[1]

Perhaps the most important thing about what Jesus did in this story was not the miraculous excess of it – the production of huge jugs of superior wine – perhaps it was the connection to such a relatable problem. The fact that he chose to begin his public ministry not with some grand production like calming a storm, or raising someone from the dead. But rather, Jesus chose to make some wine for a wedding.

And in doing so, he teaches us something pretty profound about the way that God chooses to show up. Rachel Held Evans continues in her reflection:

“It may be tempting to dismiss the miracle at Cana as a mere magic trick, an example of Jesus flexing his messianic muscles before getting to the real work of restoring sight to the blind and helping the paralyzed off their mats. But this is only because we have such a hard time believing that God cares about our routine realities, that God’s glory resides in the stuff of everyday life, just waiting to be seen.”[2]

God shows up in everyday life. That’s the witness of this gospel story…

But I know that can be hard to believe when there isn’t a miracle as evidence. That was the challenge facing the people of Judah to whom the prophet was speaking in our first reading today.

This reading comes from the third section of the book of Isaiah. It comes after seventy years in exile, that the people endured because they had not listened to the warnings of the prophets; It comes after they then did listen to inspiring prophecies of promise for restoration, and returned to the ruins of Jerusalem and Judah; It comes after they made it back to face a land that was still broken, still destitute, and they were frustrated that their reality did not match the promise for which they hoped.

They wanted a miracle, but that’s not what the prophet gave them.

Instead, they got a dialogue.

Their prophet gave voice to their frustration, their lament:“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.” (Isaiah 62:1)

And then the prophet’s voice switches. And the people hear God speaking back to them. “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give….” (Isaiah 62:2)

The people don’t yet have their miracle, but they do have a promise. The promise that God is faithful. The promise that God has not abandoned them, and God is their source of their hope… even when things look hopeless. It’s not the story of a happy wedding celebration, but it’s the pattern that God’s people have always held to when things were a bit rough – whether in the microcosm of our own lives, or on the scale of our whole society.

Theology professor Charles Aaron, in his commentary on this passage draws a link to the societal level of this pattern. He writes:

“with the movement from lamentation to hope, the passage fits well coming the day before the holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Both the passage and the holiday acknowledge the gap between what ought to be and what is. Both the passage and the holiday express frustration, but cling to God’s future. Surely the battle for racial and economic justice fits the image of one who refuses to keep silent. Nevertheless, the church holds tight to the promise that God will bring fairness and reconciliation.”[3]

Dr. King found in his faith the encouragement to keep crying out. To name his frustration with the way things are, but to do so with hope. To cry out with faith that God hears the lament, and that God cares. That God has promised it will not be like this forever. The future holds the promise of rejoicing, even of a wedding (as the prophet describes)… where we are the bride welcomed by our loving God.

And that’s our hope. A hope that applies to the pains in the ordinary brokenness of our lives just as it applies to the pains of our society.

And out of that hope we glean a lesson: to be emboldened by the prophet’s voice, to “not keep silent.” To voice our lament when the ordinary things in life are cause for pain, because we know God will hear it.

And we are emboldened to reach out to Jesus as Mary did and say “this is a problem, fix it!” And when he seems to be ignoring us, to not give up. Because we know that in Jesus we have the incarnation of the God who cares about the ordinary problems of life.

The answer might not always be on our timeline. (The exiles had to wait seventy years…) And we can’t dictate the terms. Jesus is both wiser and more creative than we are. (Which of us would have thought of taking jugs of water used for handwashing and turning them into wine?) We don’t get miracles on demand.

But we do get a God who promises to hear us when we cry; and we get a God who cares… even about the very ordinary things.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015, p. 154-155.

[2] Ibid, p. 155.

[3] Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

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