Extravagant Sign

Sunday, January 17
Second Sunday after Epiphany

Focus Theme
Extravagant Sign

Weekly Prayer
O God of steadfast love, at the wedding in Cana your Son Jesus turned water into wine, delighting all who were there. Transform our hearts by your Spirit, that we may use our varied gifts to show forth the light of your love as one body in Christ. Amen.

Focus Scripture
John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

All Readings For This Sunday
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Focus Questions

1. Shining a light on Mary’s role in this story, what do you read between the lines about her words and actions in Cana?

2. What hidden abundance lies within our sacred traditions, ready to be transformed, in this hour, like the water in the great stone jars?

3. How is your church looking for ways to share God’s abundance with generations yet to come?

4. Why do you think the disciples “believed” in Jesus after this work of great wonder? What sort of faith do you think is rooted in miracles?

5. Do you need to see miracles in order to believe? If so, what is a miracle to you? What’s an example of a work of great wonder, a sign, in your own life?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

Timing and abundance intertwine in this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Actually, Jesus has not yet begun teaching or working wonders among the people, yet his mother has confidence that he can help when a crisis arises at the wedding of a friend. This short but beautiful text provides a glimpse of Jesus and his mother as human beings who had friends, who “partied,” who fretted when something went wrong, and who balked at leaving the party to solve another’s problem. The exchange between Mary and Jesus feels particularly familiar to any parent who has mentioned a need to her child, from a bicycle left in the driveway to a young relative who needs company at a family function. Not now, Mom, not me.

And yet Jesus does indeed respond to the need at hand, with ordinary, earthy compassion for the hosts who are in a terrible predicament, but with anything but an ordinary response! However much we appreciate hospitality today, the people of Jesus’ time and culture practiced it as a survival skill, a way of looking after one another in a hostile and perilous environment, and an assurance of being looked after in turn.

Learning from Mary

The first part of Jesus’ response to Mary’s observation that the wine has run out sounds almost modern in its detachment: “What’s it to you and me?” But the second part of his answer sounds solemn and theological: “My hour has not yet come.” Don’t we wonder if Mary wondered what he meant by that? Whatever, she may have thought, just make sure there’s wine for these poor folks, for everyone’s sake. And then she set about the task at hand, un-concerned, it seems, about timing and what the “hour” was.

Chung Hyun Kyung and other Asian women theologians have suggested that Mary is much more important to this story than we usually think; after all, she had raised Jesus to practice “compassionate justice.” We shouldn’t hurry past the “Mary factor” in the story, for her actions express a “compassionate sensitiveness to other people’s needs” that is often found in women, perhaps because women have an acute sense of need and vulnerability that may nurture a compassionate approach to life. Raised by a woman like Mary, “Jesus did not grow up in a vacuum” (see Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology). So timing, no matter how important, takes a back seat to human need at that moment, as it would throughout Jesus’ ministry. How fitting that the “hour” of Jesus is, in a sense, indeed here, not in an hour of triumph but in a moment of need.

Abundance in the background

Abundance is quietly in the background of this scene, in the overflowing gift of six stone jars of wine when just one might have been enough. The jars themselves are “special,” because they hold the water used in the religious purification rituals; they’re large, too, each one holding 15-25 gallons, and they’re “filled to the brim,” Ann M. Svennungsen writes: “And from these big and special and brim-filled jars came the best-tasting wine served at the wedding.” This wine, like overflowing grain and oil, are “signs of a golden age,” highlighting the importance of timing, and the guests, Svennungsen says, know something important is happening when such wonderful wine flows at the end, not the beginning, of the celebration. But she also observes that the real human thirst, like our deepest hunger, is for the life God offers us, the close, living relationship with the One who loves us.

It often seems that we are so spiritually hungry and thirsty that we fill our lives with material “stuff” in a futile attempt to satisfy those needs, and we even shape a distorted gospel, a so-called prosperity gospel, that says that God actually wants us to have lots of stuff. Over-consumption is not the kind of abundance that Jesus shares, or the kind that God gave us at creation, and it invariably and ironically leaves us sitting hungry in the midst of excess, longing for the abundance of God, thirsting for God’s grace. It makes sense, then, that Ernest Hess sees “drunkenness” as more than just a temporary state of having drunk too much wine, but “as a metaphor for all the ways we dull our physical and spiritual perceptions.” There are myriad forms of “wine” in our world, and they all hold the power to hinder us on our spiritual path.

God loves celebration and deep joy

Several scholars note that this story about a big celebration of an important life passage turns our attention to the ordinary but deep joy of living, and our habit of letting it slip by: “Sometimes, the church has forgotten that our Lord once attended a wedding feast and said yes to gladness and joy,” Robert Brearley writes. “God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in.” What a phrase for our reflection: “Too holy to be happy in”! It seems that we in the church need to examine our role in suppressing the joy of a life lived in and by grace, a life lived fully, abundantly, vibrantly.

It occurs to me that a dour attitude in the church might shed light on why so many people look elsewhere for sources and stories of joy in their lives, some of those sources better than others, of course, but many of them able to connect people with God’s own joy and goodness in ways that are meaningful and even transformative in people’s lives. The notions of “paying it forward” and of crowd-funding for people (strangers!) in need, and even the sharing of stories, memes and inspiring words on social media all suggest a hunger and thirst for meaning that at least includes some joy and happiness, not just repentance and sorrow.

How did those on the margins experience this wonder?

We also might experience this story from the perspective of one of the unnamed, marginal characters whose actions are nevertheless key to what happens. Kim Beckmann shares the responses of Bible study participants who read the text through the eyes of the workers who had to lug those giant stone jars full of either water or wine and were, in the process, “brought into the miracle.” One participant says, “When I think about what this means in terms of the heavy lifting of my work, my relationships, and even, frankly, my church life, I’m so blown away by this glimpse of Jesus, and so mindful of how drably dutiful I’ve felt about such a gift.” (I suspect that “drably dutiful” and “too holy to be happy in” are related in the life of faith.)

There is another question that nags at our hearts and minds when reading this story, what Carol Lakey Hess calls “the scandal of divine reluctance” when Jesus seems to balk at helping people in need. She sees a tension between that hesitation and the extravagant gift of the finest wine that follows it, and God’s seeming absence or inaction in the face of human suffering and need in any age or place: “In a world where for so many there is not clean water–let alone fine wine–where is the extravagance of God? In a world where children play in bomb craters the size of thirty-gallon wine jugs, why the divine reluctance?” (I’m reminded of the children for whom a “snow day” means no breakfast or lunch.)

What is our role in the story?

Like Mary, perhaps we have a role in the story, if we truly believe in God’s goodness and generosity, for we can “nudge God with our observation: they have no wine.” (This is a powerful way to approach prayer: putting the needs of others first.) One of the most powerful scenes in the film, “Les Miserables,” shows the masses of people praying to God for help in their suffering. Of course, the compassion and mercy that wind through the story in the person of one character or another suggest that we bear the responsibility to embody God’s own compassion and mercy for one another; that’s what Jean Valjean ultimately learned to do. We are no more able to answer the troubling questions of theodicy in our generation than any that came before us; still, Renita Weems urges us to “keep going the conversation between heaven and earth.”

It is still very early in a new year. What is “the hour” for you and your congregation? What call has come, what need has arisen, what unforeseen opportunities lie before you, that might lead to a re-arrangement in your plans so that the reign of God might break in? What surprises, like that of the wine steward, might await you? Every time we turn the page on the calendar, it seems, time is very much on our minds. Still in the first quarter of a new century, we evaluate where we are today and where we want to go in the years ahead, and we reflect on the challenges and possibilities before us, in our own “hour.” Polls show that the first ten years of this century were experienced by many as the worst decade in their lifetime, and yet we still struggle to recover from wars, terrorism, economic devastation, damage to the environment and destructive acts of “Mother Nature,” violence not just in our streets but in our movie theaters and malls, our workplaces and even our first-grade classrooms.

The time is now!

We don’t know what changes, for better or worse, lie ahead. Of course, that can also be said of our ancestors long ago, and we are grateful for their courage and foresight, and their generosity in thinking of us long before we ever existed. How will the times change the ways we serve and witness, too? When Mary went to Jesus about the wine shortage at the wedding feast, he said that his hour had not yet come, yet he provided the wine that was needed, and it was considered “the first of his signs.” When have you been surprised by a change in timing in your life, especially when beginning something new? When has your church had to change its plans and adjust its timing? What did you learn about yourself in the process?

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Sören Kierkegaard, 19th century
“Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.”

The Dalai Lama, 21st century
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Richard Cizik, National Association of Evangelicals, 21st century
“When I die, God isn’t going to ask me ‘Did I create the Earth in six days or five days?’ but ‘What did you do with what I gave you?'”

Carl Lewis, 20th century
“Life is about timing.”

Jesse Browner, 20th century
“Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle….Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”

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