2022 Jim Somerville
What Kind of Truth Is This?
First Baptist Richmond, January 16, 2022
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Jesus was at a wedding, John tells us, when his mother came to him and said, “They have no wine.” And he said to her, “What concern is that to you and me?” which is only another way of saying, “That’s not our problem.”
But maybe it was their problem.
This is only a hunch, so don’t quote me, but I have a hunch that Jesus was at a family wedding, maybe his cousin’s wedding. I don’t think I would have had that hunch before a sermon I preached here last November, when I was talking about the women at the foot of the cross and mentioned that in John’s Gospel one of them was Mary the mother of Jesus, and another was her sister… which would make her Jesus’ aunt. I looked up from the sermon and said, “Did you know Jesus had an aunt?” Nobody said anything, but if I didn’t know it I’m guessing some of you didn’t know it either. And if he had an aunt, and if she had children, it would mean that Jesus had some cousins. And if she lived in the village of Cana, just up the road from Nazareth, and if one of her children were getting married, it is altogether possible that Jesus would be invited to his cousin’s wedding. And when he asked if his disciples could come, too—not his “plus one” but his “plus twelve”—his aunt may have grudgingly given her permission.
But that was before she knew how much they would drink. Again, this is just a hunch, but I can almost see Bartholomew (or one of the other disciples we never hear anything about) pouring the last bit of wine into his glass and looking around for more as Mary’s sister pulls her aside and hisses, “Thanks a lot! It’s only the second day of the wedding festival and your son’s wine-bibbing buddies have just polished off the last bottle!” It was a problem, and it wasn’t only a problem of going to the liquor store and getting more. Chances are good that this family had spent everything they had to host this wedding, and now they had run out of wine. It would have been like telling everybody in town, “Hey, we’re poor!”
Back when I was in college (and before I met Christy) there was a girl I thought I was in love with. And so, while I was working at a summer job in South Carolina, I made plans to visit her in Ohio, just for the weekend. I got off work early one Friday, cashed my paycheck, and flew to Cincinnati on Piedmont Airlines (remember them?). She picked me up in her daddy’s car, and drove me back to her parents’ place, which was impressive. We spent the next day together and that night I asked if I could take her out to dinner. “You pick the place,” I said, “and make it a nice one.” And she did. She picked a very nice place. As soon as we walked in I knew I was in trouble. Because this was back in the days before everybody had a credit card, or at least before I had a credit card. If I couldn’t pay for dinner with the money in my pocket, I couldn’t pay for dinner, and that began to look like a real possibility.
When the waiter came around she ordered an appetizer (something I had never done in my entire life), and then she picked out what looked to be the most expensive entrée on the menu. I countered by picking out the least expensive entrée, and I tried to enjoy it, but all through the meal I was doing math in my head, and I’m not very good at math. I was trying to add up a long column of figures and measure them against the money in my wallet. I think I was trying to carry the one when the waiter stopped by and asked if we would care for dessert and before I could say no she said yes.
And that’s when I became almost certain that I wouldn’t be able to pay the bill. And that feeling, the feeling of knowing you may not have enough, is a terrible feeling. So, I don’t know what I said as I watched that girl spoon crème brûlée into her mouth, but I knew that in about twenty minutes, when the waiter brought the check, I would face one of the biggest embarrassments of my life. It turned out to be even bigger. I must have forgotten to carry the one because when I saw the total my heart just sank.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I am so sorry. But I don’t have enough money to pay the bill.”
Now, multiply my embarrassment by a hundred times, and step back in time 2,000 years, to a wedding in First Century Israel, where the host runs out of wine. In that time and place the categories of honor and shame were the only categories that mattered: honor was what you wanted to acquire, and shame was what you wanted to avoid. If you were throwing a wedding banquet you wanted everyone to have a good time, and you wanted to have enough of everything, especially the wine. “Wine gladdens the heart,” as the Scripture says (Ps. 104:15), and there is no time when you want a glad heart more than at a wedding. So, imagine Mary’s sister coming to her with a panic-stricken look on her face, and telling her, “We have no wine!” and then imagine Mary, who may have had some ideas about why, going to look for Jesus. When she found him she said, in a voice loud enough for his disciples to hear, “They have no wine!”
Jesus looked up and said, “Woman, what is that to me and you? My hour has not yet come.” It sounds disrespectful, but it was also true. This is only chapter 2 of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ “hour” will not arrive until chapter 13. That’s when he will begin to enter into his glory. But his mother doesn’t seem to care. She turns to some of the servants who are standing there and says, “Do whatever he tells you,” and they look to him for instruction.
Jesus sighs and sees that he has no other choice. He looks around and sees six stone water jars standing there, used for the Jewish rites of purification. He says, “Fill up those jars with water,” and they do, and it must have taken a while, because each of those jars held twenty to thirty gallons. And then he says, “Dip some out and take it to the steward,” and they do, and when the steward tastes it he says, “Oh, where did this come from!?” He turns to the bridegroom (who may have been Jesus’ cousin) and says, “Everyone always serves the good wine first, and then, when the guests have become too drunk to tell the difference, brings out the cheap stuff. But you people! You’ve saved the best until last!” And suddenly the shame that was gathering over the event is blown away by a sudden gust of honor. This is the best wedding ever, and the hosts are the most generous hosts in history!
But Jesus’ disciples are there, and they’ve seen what just happened. They’ve seen how it wasn’t the hosts, but Jesus, who brought out the good stuff, and plenty of it. They saw how he did it, by turning ordinary water into the best wine anyone had ever tasted. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” John writes; “he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
What kind of truth is this?
Let me say two things about that: 1) John calls this a sign, and a sign is more than a miracle. A sign always points to something beyond itself. This sign allows the disciples to see Jesus for who he really is: the Son of God. And 2) when he did it he revealed his glory, “glory as of a father’s only son,” which is to say that his glory was God’s glory and when he revealed it he revealed something of the truth about God. And this is the truth: that with God we never have to be afraid of not having enough.
Walter Brueggemann writes: “The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance.[i] Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity. It tells how well the world is ordered. It keeps saying, ‘It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.’ It declares that God blesses—that is, endows with vitality—the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind. And it pictures the Creator as saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit.” This is the glory of God, and it is what the disciples see in Jesus on the day he turns 180 gallons of water into 180 gallons of the best wine anyone has ever tasted.
Brueggemann goes on to say that Israel celebrates this kind of abundance. “Psalm 104, the longest creation poem, is a commentary on Genesis 1. The psalmist surveys creation and names it all: the heavens and the earth, the waters and springs and streams and trees and birds and goats and wine and oil and bread and people and lions. This goes on for 23 verses and ends in the 24th with the psalmist’s expression of awe and praise for God and God’s creation. Verses 27 and 28 are something like a table prayer. They proclaim, ‘You give them all food in due season, you feed everybody.’ The psalm makes clear that we don’t need to worry. God is utterly, utterly reliable. The fruitfulness of the world is guaranteed.”
And then Psalm 150, the last psalm in the book, is described by Brueggemann as “an exuberant expression of amazement at God’s goodness. It just says, ‘Praise Yahweh, praise Yahweh with lute, praise Yahweh with trumpet, praise, praise, praise.’ Together, these three scriptures proclaim that God’s force of life is loose in the world. Genesis 1 affirms generosity and denies scarcity. Psalm 104 celebrates the buoyancy of creation and rejects anxiety. Psalm 150 enacts abandoning oneself to God and letting go of the need to have anything under control.”
All of this is the truth about God, and all of it is evident in the sign that Jesus performed that day at a wedding in Cana, when he made enough wine to gladden the hearts of everybody in town. And yet, those of us who call ourselves his disciples often remain paralyzed by the fear that there won’t be enough, a fear that doesn’t even enter the Bible until the 41st chapter of Genesis, when Pharaoh dreams of famine. Apparently that dream has crossed oceans and centuries to haunt the sleep of those of us who live on this side of the world.
Brueggemann writes: “We [Americans, who live in the richest nation on earth] never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity—a belief that makes us greedy, mean and un-neighborly” (just like Pharaoh).
“The conflict between the Bible’s liturgy of abundance and the American myth of scarcity is our defining problem,” Brueggemann says. “The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal confession declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things—nothing can separate us from God.”[ii]
Why then, do we worry about our lives, as Jesus asks in Matthew 6? Why do we worry about what we will eat and drink, and about what we will wear? Our heavenly Father, who made the world and everything in it, knows that we need these things, and if we simply continue to seek his Kingdom and his righteousness all these things will be added to us. We know that. We’ve heard it a thousand times. And yet we still worry. I’m guilty of it myself.
Last week our business manager showed me the church budget we had projected for the year 2022, a budget that is nearly $400,000 more than we took in last year. I felt a little bit like I did that night in Cincinnati when the waiter presented me with the check. I said, “You know, when we came up with this budget we didn’t know we would still be dealing with COVID. We thought it would be over by now and everything would be back to normal. We thought the pews would be full of people and the offering plates full of money. This budget, under these circumstances, doesn’t seem very realistic.” Turn the clock back 40 years and it could have been me, explaining to that girl, “You know, when I asked you out to dinner I thought we would go to some reasonably priced restaurant, where you would order reasonably priced food. I certainly wasn’t counting on this.” And she would have said, “No, but you also weren’t counting on this,” and then she would have dropped her father’s platinum credit card on the table and paid for the entire meal—which is exactly what she did![iii]
It’s the kind of thing Jesus did at that wedding in Cana of Galilee. He dropped his father’s glory on the table. His disciples saw it, and remembered it for the rest of their lives. When John was writing about it years later he said, “The Word that was with God and was God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only Son” (John 1:1, 14). It’s another way of saying that Jesus’ glory was God’s glory, and Jesus’ abundance was God’s abundance—that the one who made wine out of water that day was merely reflecting the nature of the one who made everything out of nothing.
And that’s the truth about God.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” Religion Online (from an article that originally appeared in The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999 [https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/]).
[iii] She laughed and told me, “I wasn’t expecting you to pay for dinner. You paid for your plane ticket. I have a summer job, too. I’ll pay daddy back later.” If I had known her better I probably would have known that was the plan all along. I didn’t, but I do know Jesus better. I know that when he says we don’t have to worry about our lives, we don’t. And now I simply need to learn how to live the truth of what I know.