January 14, 2018 Sermon
A Kingdom of Abundance
Scripture Reading: John 2:1-11
2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 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 10 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.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
“A Kingdom of Abundance”
Jesus performed a great many miracles. I was surprised to learn that the gospel writers recorded ONLY 37 of them…well, depending on the way you define a miracle, it’s possible they recorded more, but, still…only 37 overt miracles? If someone would have asked me before I entered ministry, I would have guessed the gospel writers described hundreds of Jesus’ miracles. And, of course, we know Jesus performed a great many more; the gospel writers told us Jesus performed many more than they recorded.
And when it comes to the substance of the miracles, if someone would have asked a younger version of myself, I likely would have said most of Jesus’ recorded miracles were miracles of healing: healing blind people and people with leprosy and people who couldn’t walk – those kinds of things. I probably would have found it difficult to name any other TYPE of miracle. But, it turns out, Jesus performed many different types of miracles:
- miracles of healing, for sure – physical healing, psychological and emotional healing, relational and social healing, even spiritual healing (which includes miracles of granting God’s forgiveness);
- exorcisms – you know, driving demons out of possessed people;
- miracles of power over nature – like commanding the winds of a storm to quit;
- miracles of resurrection – yes, Jesus resurrected people, which is different from healing;
- even one strange destructive miracle, in which Jesus cursed a fig tree and the fig tree withered; it’s the only destructive miracle I could find in the gospels, but it’s there;
And then there’s one more type of miracle. Actually, it includes miracles of some of the other types mentioned, but it’s different in its purpose if not its method. This type of miracle is the type described in our reading for today: miracles of abundance, miracles that demonstrate the kingdom of God to be so much more than the kingdom of the world, so much MORE than anyone could imagine or hope for. Think of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fish…and, of course, turning water into wine.
In order to better explain what miracles of abundance are about, I need to tell you something I’ve told those who’ve been attending my New Testament Bible study class: it’s critical to understand something about WHY Jesus performed miracles. Perhaps, like my past self, you’ve thought Jesus primarily performed miracles to PROVE that he was the Messiah. That’s part of it, to be sure…but there’s more. Certainly, Jews would have expected God’s Messiah to perform miraculous acts, since doing so was prophesied in their scriptures. Certainly, Jesus performed miracles to point to God and also to point to God’s power. BUT…there’s another reason Jesus performed miracles, and it has everything to do with the season of Epiphany, which is to say it has everything to do with making Jesus’ specific identity known – revealing what kind of Messiah God sent us in Jesus…what it really means for Jesus to be Messiah, and it has everything to do with Jesus’ primary work of ushering in God’s kingdom, here on earth and EVERYWHERE.
Jesus came into a world that for millennia had been shaped by the desires of people, particularly the desires of the most powerful people at the expense of everybody else. So…for the vast majority of people alive during the time of Jesus, the world was not a place of abundance. It was a hard, cruel place of oppression and abuse and, for them, scarcity. God sent Jesus to show that a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of world, is possible. Indeed, a different kind of kingdom is what God created the world to be: it’s a place called the kingdom of God. If and when God rules the earth, meaning everyone looks to God for direction instead of someplace else, this intended kingdom, this alternative to the kingdom of people, WILL become a reality. And Jesus performed miracles as a way of giving people, then and now, a glimpse into what that alternative kingdom, that alternative reality, looks like.
Which brings me back to miracles of abundance and our reading for today: Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana.
The miracle, itself, in its context, is a pretty amazing example of abundance in a less than abundant world. The context is a wedding banquet…which was a MUCH bigger deal in the 1st century Jewish world than it is in our time and place. Wedding banquets typically took place during autumn, when the harvest was in and so when villages experienced as much abundance as they did anytime throughout the year. Weddings typically involved participation from the entire village. And they weren’t one-day affairs but 5-7 day affairs which involved eating and drinking well beyond what took place pretty much any other time of the year. Another way to say it is this: a Jewish wedding banquet in a small first century town or village would have been pretty much the pinnacle of abundant living and celebration for the entire village, thereby providing a stark contrast to the ABSENCE of abundance that typified daily existence for everyone but the very small segment of society that held power.
So…imagine you were there…at the wedding banquet described in our scripture reading for today. Everyone in the village has gathered. Unlike your everyday existence, in which adequate food and drink is anything but a certainty, at this wedding celebration there is more than enough of everything to go around. You start to wonder what life would be like if there was ALWAYS enough to go around, ALWAYS enough for life to feel like a celebration instead of a bitter chore. For several days, you enjoy the eating and drinking and dancing and singing and playing of games, believing that this MUST be what life is supposed to be like.
Suddenly, you’re brought back to reality. There are rumors, little more than whispers, that the wine has run out…but the wedding banquet is not yet close to being over. Your thoughts drift back to real life, everyday life, in which everything is a struggle. If the rumors are true, wedding banquets aren’t even safe anymore. Nothing is safe from the cruelty of Roman oppression that seems to extinguish every last bit of hope out of life.
Then, just as suddenly, you hear a different set of whispers. Maybe the wine did NOT run out after all. Your few remaining days of enjoyment, of life worth living, are safe. And then yet another set of whispers. Maybe the wine did actually run out, but one of the guests, his name is Jesus, somehow managed to to turn water into wine, wine even better than what had come before. Could this signal something new, something different, maybe even HOPE of a world in which there is more than enough to go around, a world in which the good stuff never runs out, a world in which there is enough of everything…and in which the “everything” is better than you ever imagined: better food, better wine, better health, better relationships….BETTER?
Do you see how, in its context, Jesus’ miracle pointed to an alternative kingdom, to God’s alternative kingdom?
But that was then, this is now? What’s the message for us?
We don’t live in the same world Jesus lived in..for sure. Well, most of us don’t, anyway. So we’re going to have to do some searching around the corners of our lives to discover the message for us.
Since the miracle is about a kingdom of abundance that will replace a kingdom of scarcity, the first thing we need to do is consider the scarcity in our world.
Now, I don’t know about you, but REAL scarcity is pretty difficult for me to find in my family’s life.
- This time of year, right after Christmas, I typically have to do some downsizing in my house, particularly downsizing of my closet just to make sure there’s enough room for all my clothes to fit without getting too wrinkled. I don’t think that’s the kind of scarcity God’s alternative kingdom is supposed to do something about.
- And every week when I get home from the grocery store, I find myself trying to figure out why I purchased two or three new cans of something we ALREADY have 5 or 6 cans of in the pantry. Nope – not the kind fo scarcity God’s alternative kingdom is supposed to do something about.
- And then I get to thinking about my tech toys. If you count up all the phones and tablets and Raspberry Pis – it’s a kind of computer – and chromebooks and other computers I have – that’s right, every one of these things is a computer – I’ve easily got 10 computers of my very own, that doesn’t even count the combined technology inventory of the rest of my family. So…no scarcity there.
- True – I would like to have some things that I don’t have. I would really like to go on some vacations I can’t afford and will probably NEVER be able to afford…well, without making some cuts in other parts of my life that I’m not sure I’m willing to make.
Y’all, I hope you can see that scarcity is NOT an issue in my life the way it was for most of the people in the world Jesus entered. And, I’m just guessing based on the cars I see you all driving and the houses I enter when I visit you and the pictures I see of what you’re doing when you’re not here at church, I’m guessing that most of you are in the same situation I’m in: there are things you would very much like to have, but it’s not like you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from. For most of you, it’s not like the lunch catered from McAlister’s Deli that you’re invited to attend after second service today is going to be the highlight of your year.
But that DOES NOT mean we don’t need God’s alternative kingdom. It just means we need to look to some different places to see WHY God’s alternative kingdom is still needed:
- We can look to other parts of the world, even other parts of our own country. By the way, in my estimation, this is one of the BEST reasons for a congregation like ours to participate in mission trips. More than anything else I’ve done in life, mission trips open my eyes to people who are in need every bit as much as the people who were at that wedding celebration in 1st century Cana with Jesus.
- I talk to people everyday who have the resources they need in MOST aspects of their lives, but they still can’t get the health care they so badly need, at least not in time for it to do any good. Waiting three months to see a specialist when you don’t feel like you’ll be alive in three months doesn’t do you much good.
- As much as most people in the first century suffered from physical poverty and malnourishment, I feel that a great many people in our society suffer from emotional and relational poverty and malnourishment. There are an increasing number of people who feel lonely and isolated, especially aging people who’ve lost spouses and friends and who can no longer get out and about the way they used to…and so life for them feels every bit as bleak as life felt for first century Galileans.
- And, of course, there are STILL people who feel the brunt of various kinds of oppression and abuse every day. A powerful few still control much of what happens in our world. There are still systemic barriers preventing people of various ethnicities, genders, and lifestyles from fully experiencing the abundance others take for granted. There are still individuals with power who use the power they have to abuse others.
So..the first thing we must do is identify those people who are STILL in need of God’s alternative kingdom to become a reality here on earth. It would be too easy for us to sit back in our own comfortable chairs and suggest that alternative kingdom has arrived because WE are comfortable, all the while other people hunger at the core of their being to know what “abundance” means.
And then the second thing we must do is figure out how God is calling us, individually and collectively, to do whatever we have been gifted and blessed to do to metaphorically turn water into wine. True, we’re not Jesus. But ALSO true, Jesus has called us to do what we can to continue his mission, his ministry of ushering in God’s alternative kingdom here on earth. We, YOU, can:
- Travel to El Salvador and show the people there that the folks of the United States stand with them and for them. We may not be able to fully usher in God’s kingdom in El Salvador, but we can provide hope of that kingdom.
- Serve at Homeward Bound. Actually, do MORE than make and serve food, if you can. We, you can build relationships with people who might feel like they have been outcast from society. A conversation with one of you can truly usher in a new kingdom for such a person.
- Provide food every month for the food bank. Y’all, just like the wine ran out in Cana, there are people living among us for whom the food has literally run out. The kingdom of society tells those folks loud and clear that for some reason or another, they deserve scarcity in hunger. We can show every hungry person that there is a kingdom of people who say they deserve something better, something ELSE.
- Give to our congregation’s Love Fund. In the past month, I’ve helped quite a few people in true need out of that fund. Sometimes, all it takes is a single glimpse of hope that another kingdom exists right here, right now, to change EVERYTHING for a person or a family.
I’m reminded of Jean Valjean from the book and musical, Les Miserable. Valjean was an impoverished man who had resorted to stealing to provide food for his family. He was caught and spent a great many years imprisoned. Once released, Valjean had to carry a “yellow card” that identified him as a convict and prevented him from starting anew – no one would employ him or even rent him a room. One night, at his wit’s end, Valjean approached a church building, where he was given food and a place to sleep for the night. Recognizing in some of the silver items of the church building a chance at a new life, Valjean stole the items and tried to escape. After getting caught and returned to the church building by the police, Valjean was prepared to be sent back to prison, but the bishop of the village showed Valjean God’s alternative kingdom by telling the police that he – the Bishop – had given the items to Valjean, that the items had not been stolen. As you can imagine, that one little chance, that one glimpse of God’s alternative kingdom, changed Valjean forever.
Y’all, we can be the people who provide that glimpse. We can usher in God’s alternative kingdom of abundance all around us. We can change lives. Amen.