Giving Good Gifts
John 2:1-11, January 31, 2016
This is a special day in the life of our congregation. Today you’re invited to make a financial pledge to the work of the church for 2016. And we’re experimenting this year by pushing our pledge campaign after Christmas, and stretching Epiphany from one day into four weeks! Last week we had special Christmas music and we’ve been visited by a bunch of wise guys for the last three weeks. By now, I hope you know that there was great, symbolic significance to the gifts that the magi brought from the East. I hope you know that myrrh is “an aromatic gum that grows in Arabia and India, which was highly prized in Biblical times as a perfume and pain reliever.” It’s what the magi brought to Bethlehem following Jesus’ birth, and what his body was wrapped in after Nicodemus took it down from the cross. And frankincense was an essential ingredient in sacrifices made at the temple in Jerusalem. We understand Jesus’ death as sacrificial, so of course frankincense was an appropriate gift. And gold was used in art, and jewelry and as money. All societies recognize gold’s value. The magi and their gifts tell us a lot about how important Jesus’ birth was and is. Their arrival is the first epiphany that showed that Jesus is unique.
When Jesus was baptized it says the sky was torn in two and the Holy Spirit descended into him as a dove, and a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well-pleased.” Could anyone at the Jordan that day have missed signs and wonders like that? I don’t think so. That epiphany came as Jesus started his career, he was an adult when he was baptized.
The third event that Christians have taken as an epiphany is the first miracle that’s recorded in John’s gospel—when Jesus turned water into wine. I have to say, though, I’m not sure that “miracle” is the correct term for this amazing thing. John does not use the term at all in his gospel; he calls this “the first of the signs…and his disciples believed in him.”
There’s lot happening in these 11 verses. “On the third day” may mean the third day of the week, that is Tuesday or it may mean the third day of the wedding celebration. In Galilee in Jesus’ time, wedding celebrations went on for up to seven days. So it could be that Jesus and his disciples were arriving at about the middle of the party. They ran out of wine. This was a big, big deal. If you’ve ever hosted a party, you know you need to plan so there’s enough food and drink for the guests. And it’s really hard to know in some cases. For example, one of the questions I always ask to families planning funerals is how many people they expect, especially if the family is planning to offer refreshments. It’s really hard to estimate, and I’ve found that generally, people tend to under-estimate how many guests will attend—but they also plan for more than their estimate, because it would be embarrassing to run out of food. Embarrassing. And I’m confident that if that ever happened, someone would point out that the family was certainly modest about the impact that their loved one had on the community, and they were simply off on the count. It could happen to anyone. People in Wisconsin would understand.
Research tells me this would not have been the case in Galilee in Jesus’ time. The family that ran out of wine would be stigmatized so badly they might never recover their social standing. They’d be ashamed, publically, they would not just be called something like “Cheapskate,” they would become the embodiment of “cheapskate.” It is as this is about to happen that Jesus’ mother points out to him that they have run out of wine. She does not ask him to do anything; she does not order or suggest he do anything, she just points out this reality. I know how this works. Once when I was headed out to a social function, my grandmother said unto me, “You have other shirts.” She did not say, “Don’t wear that rag.” Or “You’re not wearing that, are you?” Just, “You have other shirts.” It was enough. I went and put one of my other shirts on. Mothers and grandmothers have that kind of power. [And yes, for the record, my mother is the only person who I can count on to read my sermons on the church’s website each week. Hi, Mom]]
And Jesus’ response doesn’t translate well. It sounds disrespectful to us, what he’s really saying, “Mom, it’s not our problem.” And “This isn’t the right setting for me to reveal that I am the son of God.” Timing is everything. Remember, this is really Jesus’ first public outing since he was baptized and at this point, he’s only got four disciples. In the other gospels Jesus tells people who see things like miraculous healings he’s performed, not to tell anyone, but they always do!
Mary ignores Jesus and instructs the servants to do what he says. Now, there’s got to be a backstory here. Mary has probably seen Jesus turn water into wine before. He’s a grown up, there’s a good chance he’s done this before at home. “Jesus, do that thing with the water, save this family from being shamed, is that too much to do for your mother?”
There were six big vessels that held water for ceremonial washing before eating. One would sit down and a waiter would come and pour water, drawn from one of the vessels into a pitcher, over the person’s hands, after that occurred one could eat and drink. The vessels could hold between 120 and 180 gallons. That’s a lot of water! They were planning on a lot of guests. Jesus told the waiters to take some water out of the vessels and take it to the one in charge, think of this person as the owner of the catering company. Between the washing vessels and the caterers lips the water for ceremonial washing—necessary to take part in the feast—became really, really good wine. Exceptional wine, wine that was so good, the caterer told the groom that usually people start with the good stuff, and bring out wine of lesser quality after the guests, let’s just say, might not notice the difference. Far from being shamed for running out of wine, this family was conspicuous in their exceptional hospitality.
It’s significant that Jesus is working with water here. Remember, just a few days before, John had baptized Jesus and said of him, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” and “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” [John 1:29 & 31] And it’s significant that the water Jesus turns into wine was intended for an act of ritual purification…we lose sight of that because of the abundance of what Jesus did, turning an act that would make one acceptable to enjoy hospitality, into hospitality itself. This is a party where Jesus performs his first sign. A party in his home town, with his mother and some new friends from nearby.
I know it does not say that Jesus drank any wine, in fact it never says explicitly in the Bible that Jesus drank wine, but you know he was at least around people who drank wine, and at least some of them knew fine wine from the cheap stuff. I think that makes a difference. Jesus’ first sign was in the most human of celebrations, and really the only ones who knew about it were the waiters who were working at the feast, his four disciples, and his mother, who obviously knew that he was able to turn water into wine. This nearly private act, revealed his glory—and made his first four disciples believe in him. [And we with the advantage of reading this account written so long ago, can hear and believe that Jesus is God’s Son.]
I’m pleased that we’re ending our stewardship season with this story. It tells me that it’s all right to have celebrations and that Jesus knew a good party when he saw one. We celebrate the “joyous feast of the people of God” at least once a month and you know it’s all right to be joyous in church. In fact, many of you say that your greatest joy comes from being a part of this church, of gathering here in this place for worship. That this place is like your home, and these people are your family. All of this is possible because of the support you give--it makes ministry happen here in the Heart of Oshkosh.
I think it’s entirely possible that Joseph and Mary cashed in the gold the magi brought them, so they could survive in Egypt. They turned that gift into food and rent. We turn the gifts you bring each week and place in the offering plate—or that your bank transmits electronically—into things like crayons for the Sunday school and paper for the bulletins, and paying the electric bill, and heating the ovens for Simple Suppers into acts of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ from right here. This is where it all starts. No, it all starts with your giving. No, it all starts with God our Creator, the one from whom all blessings flow—as we sing each week. What we give is really what we give back. And what we give back goes from here out into the world. Your financial support is an act of dedication and commitment. It is also an act of worship, a response to our living, holy and generous God, who loves each of us, very very much. Amen.