Friday, January 25, 2013

Sign of Joy

Sign of  Joy
John 2:1-11[1]
For centuries, our faith has been more a source of oppression than celebration.  Long ago the motivation for being a Christian turned from joy over the coming of God’s justice, peace, and freedom to fear of punishment, guilt over our shortcomings, and the belief that humanity is inherently evil. It would seem that in the days when the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it became convenient to control people using fear, guilt, and shame.  And since the keepers of the faith insisted that people approach their faith from this perspective, they really had only two choices--to follow their leaders’ dictates to the letter or to renounce their faith and risk an eternity of banishment.  From that time until now, the prevailing spirit of the Christian faith in many cases has been repressive rather than joyful.
But our gospel lesson for today flies in the face of that kind of approach to religion.  We know very well the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in the village of Cana in Galilee.  But I’m not sure we get the point of it all.  In fact, I think many throughout the history of our faith have made a concerted effort to suppress the point of this first sign that he worked to demonstrate his glory, i.e., to show what he was about and what God’s kingdom was about.  Surely most of us have heard the saying that wine in ancient times wasn’t fermented, or if it was it was only lightly fermented.  The idea that Jesus would make a huge quantity of alcohol (around 150 gallons!) seems to offend the sensibilities of those who still view our faith from the perspective of fear, guilt, and shame. 
But that is precisely what Jesus did for his first “sign.”  He made a huge quantity of wine--and very fine wine at that, according to the steward of the feast.  What we have to understand is that the “signs” in John are a central theme running throughout this Gospel.  The signs Jesus works are the actions by which he demonstrates what he is about and what God’s Kingdom is about.  They reveal his “glory,” and they culminate with his being “lifted up (on the cross) in order to draw all people” to himself (Jn. 12:32).  The signs in John’s gospel are meant to demonstrate what Jesus is doing, and what God’s Kingdom is about.[2]
What would Jesus possibly mean to demonstrate by doing something like this as his first “sign”?  Well, I think we have to consider the context to answer that question about any particular text.  Jesus was a guest at a wedding feast in the small village of Cana in Galilee.  It would appear that this family was not wealthy, because it would seem that their feast was only going to last one day.  Traditional wedding feasts, even today, can last up to a week.  Unfortunately, even at this meager feast, the family had not been able to buy enough wine to last the whole feast.  And to run out of wine at a wedding feast would have been humiliating to the family, and not least to the couple who were starting their lives together on this special day.
Now, at this point I think we have to recognize that the place of wine in biblical festivities is a bit naive.  While there are places where the Bible criticizes drunkenness as a habitual practice, there are several places where drinking a lot of good wine is an essential part of joyful celebration.  Whether it’s a wedding feast, or even the feast that God promises to set for “all people” when the Kingdom comes in all its fullness (Isa. 25:6), wine is there as something that is supposed to make the celebration joyful.[3] 
I think that’s why Jesus’ first sign by which he revealed the light that he was bringing into the darkness of this world was the creation of a huge quantity of very fine wine.  If the wine had given out it would have ruined the celebration of these two people beginning their new life together.[4]  It would have been a mark against their family that would not have been forgotten in a small village.  It would have not only marred the joy of the day, it would have potentially marred the joy of their life together as husband and wife.  And so Jesus made enough fine wine to ensure that the joyful celebration of life continued.[5]
It may seem strange in church to hear that the inaugural sign of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel was the creation of a huge quantity of wine so that a drinking party could continue as long as it needed to.  But we have to remember that the whole point of this miracle was to ensure that this couple’s joyful celebration of their new life together could continue.  We may be surprised to hear that the means for doing that was 150 gallons of fine wine, but that was entirely appropriate in that day and time.  The main point is that Jesus’ first sign, the first act by which he reveals his glory to his disciples, the first thing he does to demonstrate what he’s about and what the Kingdom of God is about, is to promote the celebration of life.
More than that, Jesus’ action of ensuring that this particular celebration of life at Cana could continue points to the good news that God is working in this world through Jesus the Christ and through the Spirit of Life to restore everything and everyone to the place where we can all celebrate life.[6]  It seems to me when religion loses its ability to celebrate life, it loses its very heart and soul.  God created our world, and all that is in it, and stood back and said, “it’s very good” (Gen.1:31). When our religion looks at life and says “it’s very bad,” we’ve missed something very important.  Don’t misunderstand--there is much that is wrong with this world.  But the message Jesus came to proclaim to us, the message that we’re re-learning during the season of Epiphany,  is that God is in the business of making everything right, of making all things new.  And part of that message is that the life that God has created, and that God has redeemed through Jesus Christ, is something precious and joyful.  It’s something to celebrate!

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/20/2013.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2: 479.  Cf. also G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, 237, where he reminds us that “Only when signs are seen through the eyes of faith can they display their meaning and significance.”
[3] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 105: “One of the consistent OT figures for the joy of the final days is an abundance of wine.”  Cf. similarly, G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 36.
[4] Cf. Timothy L. Owings, “John 2:1-11,” Review and Expositor 85 (1988): 535-36; cf. also Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 36.  Cf. similarly, J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 479.
[5]Cf. Jack Good, “Defining Moment,” The Christian Century (Jan 13, 2004):16: Jesus’ “coming-out event was a party within a party, a celebration within a celebration. The work of Jesus began in a life-affirming setting. The sign of his ministry would be wine, a symbol of human conviviality and gladness.”
[6] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” NIB IX, p. 540.  She says that Jesus’ miracle is “a miracle of abundance, of extravagance, of transformation and new possibilities.” cf. also Sloyan, John, 38; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 479; and Hans Wildberger, A Continental Commentary: Isaiah 13-17, 534.

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