Sunday, January 17, 2010

God Revealed in Joy

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

John 2:1-11
During last week’s adult Sunday School class, I mentioned that the Gospel lessons for the Epiphany Season each year remind me of the jumbled images you see projected on Jumbotrons at a major league baseball game. A picture of a ball player, cut into maybe sixteen squares, is shown. Gradually, the squares are put in their right places to, eventually, reveal a clear picture of the player.

Each Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Epiphany season, in effect, moves another square into place and we see more clearly Who Jesus is and what He means for us.

Of course, because Jesus is the Word made flesh, truly God and truly human, there are mysteries about Him we will never fathom.

Nowhere in Scripture am I more struck by the unknowable mysteries of Jesus, than when I read today’s Gospel lesson, John 2:1-11.

The incident itself is probably familiar to all of us. It happens early in Jesus’ ministry. He and his five disciples—more would be added later—are invited, along with Jesus’ mother, to a wedding in Cana, a town not far from Nazareth.

Wedding feasts in those days usually went on for seven days. While drunkenness was always prohibited to God’s people, wine was served with every meal.

At some point during this particular feast, the wine gave out. For some reason, Jesus’ mother got wind of this crisis and went to Jesus. She hoped that Jesus would do something about the situation. It would have been considered deeply embarrassing for the bridal family to run out of wine.

Jesus’ initial response to His mother is jarring. “Woman,” He says to her, “what has this got to do with you and me?” That always reminds me of the way my grandfather addressed my grandmother when he was upset with her. She was no longer Evelyn, but Woman, as in, "Woman, what do you want from me?"

I think that Lutheran pastor Deb Grant helps us to understand Jesus’ reaction. She says, “Mary was the first to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. She knew his potential. She knew he was capable of great things and had yet to reveal them. Jesus abruptly puts her in her place. It sounds rude to us. The time was at hand…for Jesus to fulfill God's purposes for him. It was important that Jesus [make] clear to Mary that she had no authority over him. The best thing that Jesus could do for his mother was to be her savior.”

Mary seems to understand this. She doesn’t argue with Jesus; she simply turns to the servants of the bridal family, telling them, “Do whatever he tells you.”

You know what happens next. The bridal family has six stone water jars on hand, jars used for religious purification rites. Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water. The water turns into wine.

Our Gospel lesson closes by saying that when the newly called disciples see this, Jesus’ glory is revealed to them and they believe—or trust—in Him.

What about this event caused the disciples to trust Jesus as Messiah, as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world?

We could spend ages on those questions. But I want to suggest something about this miracle—this sign pointing to Who Jesus is—that may have convinced the disciples to believe in Jesus.

Consider the trip Jesus and the disciples took to get to the wedding at Cana.* Just a few days before, they would have walked near the town of Scythopolis, a place where the Greco-Roman deity, Dionysus, also called Bacchus, was worshiped.

Dionysus was the god of wine and he was always associated with celebrations. It was said that once, he even turned water into wine.

Many people in that region, their lives dependent on agriculture and wanting to cover all their bases, not only worshiped the God of Israel—the one God of all creation, who had told His people, “I am the Lord, your shall have no other gods”—also worshiped Dionysus.

Before the eyes of the disciples and all the wedding guests, Jesus did in real life what some thought that a false god no one had ever seen had done. This is one of those epiphanies, among the lights of revelation from God, that John referred to in the prologue to his gospel when he wrote, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, Who is close to the Father’s heart, Who has made Him known.”

This is all more than a historical jaw from a pastor interested in history, by the way. Even today, we struggle with whether we’ll depend on the God revealed to us in Jesus and the Bible, or if we’ll hedge out bets, mixing in other deities or dependencies.

A woman I know was on vacation with her family out West. She talked her husband and kids into going to some area that New Agers claimed had a particular spiritual aura. It was said that if you walked around the area, new peace and success would come to you. As they traversed the terrain, this woman’s enthusiasm grew. “I can feel it!” she would say. “Can you feel it?” Her oldest child, a kid who had just been confirmed, wasn’t buying any of it. “No, Mom, I don't feel it” he said. “What are you looking for? Don’t you know that because of Jesus, you can talk with God any time? What more do you need than that?”**

Nothing, really! But that doesn’t keep some Christians from hedging their bets, adding a little bit more to their Christian "religion," as though we needed anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

Some Christians, for example, pray on Sunday and then consult their horoscopes in the Monday papers.

Or, they pray for daily bread and then base the value of their lives on how much money they make.

Or, in the case of even some theologians and pastors, they sing, “Glory to God in the highest” and then dare to replace the revealed Word and will of God with their own thoughts, feelings, and interpretations.***

Many Christians divide their loyalties more innocently, worshiping with their congregations one day and then, thinking that they can’t bother God, relying on themselves or their own ingenuity the rest of the week.

The Old Testament prophet Elijah described this sometimes-depending-on God-and-sometimes-turning-to-other-little-gods as “limping.” “How long will you go limping along with two different opinions?” he asked the people of Israel. “If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal [a false god of those times], then follow him.”

Jesus made it very clear that He came to bring God’s grace and truth to the world, but to receive Him means to lay aside all bet-hedging. I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus tells us, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

The early disciples, Peter and John, after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, were told by religious authorities, on pain of death to never speak the Name of Jesus. They said they couldn't comply with their command. "We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard," they said. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

The fact is that relying on anything other than God results from our desire to control our lives. We would rather have little deities we can manipulate than surrender our lives to the God we know in Jesus, acknowledge our sins, trust Him to bring forgive us, and to take us through good times and bad, all the way to eternity with God.

When the disciples at Cana saw Jesus turn water into wine, they saw the God Who had true dominion over the world. And they saw something about this God that I hope you see as you live from day to day.

In his book of daily devotionals, Hope for Each Day, evangelist Billy Graham, asks, “Have you ever watched a young couple communicate their love for each other without even a word?...Every glance, every touch, every smile conveys love. People deeply in love find absolute bliss simply being in each other’s presence.” He goes on to say that for those who have come to know God through Jesus Christ, “simply being in the presence of God brings joy.”

When Jesus turned water to wine at Cana, He showed us that God is the One Who can bring joy to us. The wine ran out and Jesus replenished it with even better wine.

When our capacity to cope with life runs out, Jesus gives us more strength than we imagined possible.

When our patience with family members or work situations runs thin, Jesus can help us endure.

When we grow weary, Jesus can renew our strength.

When our hope is gone, Jesus destroys our despair, stands by us, and throws down new bridges at the ends of what seem like dead-end roads. (There are many in this sanctuary this morning who have experienced these things.)

And when we die, the risen Jesus gives all who believe in Him life that never ends! All who follow Jesus know that God is the great joy-bringer!

In the marriage liturgy we use any time a couple is married here at Saint Matthew, there’s an ancient prayer we offer. It begins, “Eternal God, our creator and redeemer, as you gladdened the wedding at Cana by the presence of Your Son, so by His presence now bring your joy to this wedding…”

Jesus’ disciples knew that they were in the presence of God that day at Cana because they understood it’s always God’s will to bring us joy. In Psalm 16, King David wrote, “In your presence, there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures evermore.”

The past week brought sad days to our world. The earthquake in Haiti is heartbreaking.

And contrary to what some--like people whose initials are Pat Robertson--might say, the multiple tragedies that have befallen Haiti in recent years are not punishment from God.****

We live in a fallen, imperfect world where bad things happen. All human beings are born into sin and all of creation groans under the weight of an old world that is dying. Those groans--encompassing the tragedies and difficulties that come to the world world from which none of us is immune--are, the Bible tells us, the labor pains of the new heaven and new earth that Jesus will one day establish.

We await the return of Jesus, when He will set all things to rights and death and tears will be no more.

Even now, in the midst of the Haitian disaster, we see God’s Spirit moving in the hearts of millions—through their prayers, contributions of money, and acts of compassion—to bring joy and restoration to the people of Haiti.

Jesus' miracle at Cana is a sign that one day, God’s joy will have the last word in our world. It presents a clear picture of God showing us that beyond the wants and needs of this world, there will be a marriage feast which has no end.

In Jesus Christ, the whole world is invited to that feast.

You are invited. Amen

*This is discussed extensively in Following the Way: The Setting of John's Gospel, written by my late seminary professor, Pastor Bruce Schein. Rare is the day that I don't rely on his scholarship, remember his passion for Jesus Christ, or both.

**This is a true story, but I've changed a few details in order to protect the innocent...and the guilty.

***I once heard a Bible scholar from a major university report matter-of-factly that he and a group to which he belonged had cast votes on what in the Bible they believed. They voted, for example, that the resurrection had never happened, that Jesus never performed a miracle, and that Mary didn't become pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wondered why he and his colleagues even bothered being church members.

***On his 700 Club TV show, Robertson claimed that Haiti's poverty, history of repressive governments, and numerous natural disasters resulted from the country having made a "pact with the devil." If acquiescence to the devil, the sinful world, or our sinful selves resulted in the kinds of experiences which are the lot of ordinary Haitians everyday, I would have died long ago. Jesus says that it rains on the just and unjust a like. And the Old Testament figure of Job, about whose piety even God bragged, was not immune from unspeakable tragedy.

In Scripture, wealth is usually associated with insolence and with heedlessness to God. Jesus saw the wealth of the rich man asking about how he could have eternal life as an impediment to his relationship with God, so much so that Jesus said that the rich man needed to give away all he had before he could meet God in eternity. Wealth in itself wasn't (and isn't) the problem. Abraham, the founding patriarch of God's people, the Jews, was wealthy, for example. The problem was the role that money played in the life of the man who approached Jesus.

This is why Jesus later observed to His disciples that it will be harder for wealthy people to enter eternity than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Wealth is a powerful addiction, a consuming god that can create the false impression that it bestows all the blessed gifts to which we can aspire.

The poor know better. While no one wants to be poor and it's up to those of us with wealth to share our blessings--I say this from the perspective of a lower middle class American, wealthy by the world's standards--with others, the poor aren't addicted to their wealth. In that sense, they are more open to trust in God, not less.

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