Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Winemaker

The Winemaker

Isaiah 62:2-5 Copyright © 2010, Robert J. Elder
John 2:1-12 January 17, 2010

We share two scripture lessons this morning, and, though I intended to speak mostly on the reading from John’s gospel, the events of the past week with the devastating earthquake in Haiti move me in the direction of the words from Isaiah as well.

Philip Wogaman is a professor of ethics and the former dean of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. I read least week that, following the earthquake, he began class with this question: 'What is the central theme of the Bible?'[1] The students responded the ways most of us would, I think: love, forgiveness, salvation. We could think of more along this line. The one answer he did not receive was the word hope. So he lectured on hope as the message of the resurrection. It is the biblical message declaring there is always a new day on its way. It is the message that no matter how tragic life may be, the possibilities for new beginnings are woven into the darkest of times; which does not discount the severity of Haiti’s present agony. What it does mean is that in the midst of even horrible circumstances there still exists the possibility for new beginning.

A death toll that, by some forecasts, ultimately could be as high as 500,000 people may be too much for us to comprehend usefully. But factor each death down to one individual, each becomes a unique person who no longer lives among us. It is one person who will never enjoy living into his or her twilight years or have children or dream dreams of achievement. And in all this there will always be the question:

“Why did God allow this to happen?”

Chapters 40 through 66 of Isaiah have come to be called “The Book of Comfort.” Isaiah declares to his people in exile that their land will be restored after its devastation and their exile from their homes. Isaiah declares: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall your land any more be termed Desolate: … for the Lord delights in you…” This is a message of hope.

Though the sorrow will remain in Haiti for generations, we have confidence in the words of Isaiah as well as dozens of assurances that I have received through e-mail this weekend, that the communities will rebuild and missionaries and funds, and health workers are already en route. Perhaps Haiti, too, will have a new name. The message of hope is embedded in the Resurrection. Now God’s people are asked to respond to the summons of Isaiah.

Now, to the story of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana. It is a very famous one. And rightfully so. Here we have the leader of a movement that has at times been followed in long-faced, dour fashion — this one to whom some respond sadly, almost mournfully – saving a wedding party just in the nick of time, bringing hope out of hopelessness even in this social circumstance, by helping out with the refreshments. It could possibly serve as a parable – for anyone who has felt afflicted upon finding themselves placed on the punch and cookie committee – that Jesus knows even in this way what it is to be human.

Acres of trees have given their lives for paper on which debates have raged over whether Jesus actually made fermented wine or unfermented grape juice; oceans of ink have been spilled on those forgotten forests to argue the pros and cons of wine making and drinking and other issues seemingly raised in this passage.

In fact, this passage has been so much discussed and so often misunderstood, it is probably just as important to say what it is not as to say what it is . The list of subjects not really touched upon by this passage include the following:

  1. It is not a lesson in how not to treat your parents nor a story of how a Jewish boy mistreated his mother. When she told Jesus that they were out of wine, he lamented to his mother that his time had not come. He said, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” Actually, the Greek could have been translated to say, “Pardon me, Ma’am, but what has this to do with either of us? Is this my problem?”
  2. This passage is not a demonstration of the fact that Jesus was particularly fond of married people, or that he supported the institution of marriage. This is not to say that he didn’t love married people or think that marriage was important, but you can’t prove these things from this text. It has occasionally been interpreted that way, but that is stretching things pretty far. This is not a story about marriage or weddings. Who ever heard a story about a wedding that not only fails to name the couple, but fails ever to mention any of the members of the participating families at all?
  3. This story is not a primer on the way Jesus acted at parties. Some have developed this conjecture to an extent that suggests the reason the wine ran out before the party was over was that Jesus and his disciples – invited at the last minute – came and drank up the supplies! Not likely.
  4. This is not even a public miracle story, in the way of other miracles or magic. That is to say, this was not a miracle performed in public to impress bystanders. No one even knew of the miracle except the servants, and there is no record that they said anything to anyone. Even if they had, who is likely to believe the word of slaves? And what would magic prove? The purpose of good magic is to hide the deceit of the magician, making things appear to be what they are not. While magic conceals the truth and promotes a fiction, the purpose of miracles is to reveal the truth and promote disclosure. True miracles of Jesus are meant to reveal who Jesus is to those in a position to see his ministry. But no one saw this, at least not publicly. It is not a public miracle story.
  5. One final thing that this story is not, and this may be the most misunderstood aspect of all. This is not a lesson on the Biblical standard concerning the use of fermented or unfermented wine. For decades the argument has gone on. Those who say that taking a drink is perfectly alright have pointed to this passage and said that it proves unquestionably that Jesus approved of the use of spirits. Just as adamantly, those who oppose the use of alcoholic beverages say that no grape was ever made that could ferment in the time it takes to fill some barrels with water and then dip some out, proving that Jesus used unfermented wine. This amounts to making the Bible give answers to questions that it is not even asking.
None of these truly represents John’s purpose in sharing this gospel story with us. In following all these false leads, wouldn’t it reveal us to be more interested in the wine than the winemaker? The point of this story lies somewhere in the miracle, unquestionably. But probably not as we may have been trying to view it. As one scholar said, “God has more in mind for us than the alleviation of household shortages.” Our view may have been too small. We need to read stories like this, keeping in mind all the while the whole purpose that John maintained in writing his gospel was that the person of Jesus might be better understood; that those who came after might have the opportunity to believe in him.

Had it been one of us performing this transformation of water into wine, it is not likely that we would have done it in the pantry; we would have walked to the middle of the ballroom, waited until the room grew quiet, perhaps asked for a spotlight and a drum roll. Then we would have brought it off while all eyes were upon us so that people might be convinced about our power and spread the word. Here, on the contrary, Jesus did his work in private, and only the serving people knew. We would likely have wanted to build up a following so that – because of our popular support – a crucifixion could have been prevented. Jesus seems unconcerned about popular support, and, ultimately, just as disinclined to take steps to prevent his own execution.

Clearing away the incidentals, we begin to see more foundational themes in this passage: that the best can come at the last; that even when disaster looms, over a wedding party, or over a cross, God wills that good should happen in the midst of it.

Isaiah’s words are also associated with wedding imagery. This time it was the metaphorical wedding between Israel and her Lord after the exile. And what we learn is that a major change of status such as that which takes place at a wedding, requires a change of name. When God reclaimed Israel after the exile, things became different. No longer was their nickname, “The Nation That God Forgot,” or “How Jacob’s Family Lost the Farm.” Now other nations would look to Israel and call her “God’s Beloved.” Would that such a transforming re-naming could happen for the people of Haiti in the coming months and years of rebuilding. Only women in our culture who choose to do so can fully understand the deep significance of changing one’s name on the wedding day, and even that simple act, once taken for granted, has undergone change in our culture. But there are cultures in which both men and women take on new names upon the occasion of their wedding, to match the new status that marriage necessarily involves for both parties.

That was the case with the disciples at this marriage in Cana. They began to see Jesus with new eyes. Have you ever had the experience of looking at someone that you have known well for a good number of years, and suddenly being struck by a feeling of separateness from them, the notion that you really don’t know them at all? This is most striking when it occurs to us as we sit with a parent or spouse, or very close friend or relative. And it usually happens when they haven’t the slightest idea what is going through our minds. We glance at them and are suddenly impressed by their distinction from us, and we see them, even momentarily, in a whole new way. Generally these feelings pass as swiftly as they come, and we don’t give them another thought.

I think that may be the way the disciples looked at Jesus that day, when they must have heard, after the fact, what he had done. It was the first miracle John recorded. Jesus didn’t even perform it for their benefit. But when they heard, they knew that they hadn’t even begun to understand who this man was, that somehow he was more than they had ever anticipated.

We have said many of the things that this passage is not. We must not fail to work at an understanding of what it is. Everything in the passage points to verse 11: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Faith was busily being born in the disciples in the most ordinary and unexpected of circumstances.

Think of it: when can you recall faith being born for you? Probably it has been on more than one occasion when you can recall that something special has gone on between you and the Lord. Still, chances are it was in an unpredictable circumstance. Was it at a large evangelistic rally? Was it during a reading of devotional literature that you suddenly came to the conclusion that faith was emerging in your heart? Possibly, at least at some point in your life, a rebirth of faith has occurred at an unlikely time, a time largely uninvited, unsolicited, and beyond easy explanation; in the kitchen or on a trip, or during a conversation. It may have surprised you.

Perhaps it was at the funeral of a loved one, a time when many people take a fresh look at what is important in their lives and discover the gentle tug of the gospel. Maybe it was at a wedding, as it was in Cana, when our thoughts are more likely to run along the mundane track of evaluating dresses, flowers, and aisle runners. Perhaps at that time, especially if the wedding involved someone very close to you, you found yourself experiencing an unsolicited birth of new faith.

It could have been under any of a hundred other everyday circumstances, when discovering a new relationship with Jesus was the last thing on your mind. Faith is not necessarily meant to be born at a wedding, but it can be born even there. That is what happened one day in Cana.

The focus of the story is not on the couple, the wine, the wedding, or even on Jesus’ mother. The focus is on Jesus, who was then seen by his followers as if for the first time: A revelation of who he was, beginning to dawn upon them. The focus of the story is not the wine, but the winemaker, the one who can make all things new: even a shabby little marital affair in a backwater district of Galilee. And once we have seen the meaning of the miracle, the disciples who hear the story and believe are us; for we realize we can be changed as fully by Christ as the water that became wine.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Thanks to “Hope for a New Beginning,” by Ronald J. Love, for helpful words last week on Isaiah’s word to us.