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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 20, 2013

 The Life of the Party

Psalm 36:1-10; John 2:1-11

             In most parts of the world, a wedding is just about the biggest, the messiest, most lavish, most emotionally over fraught of all the human endeavors we ever encounter.  Remember the brilliant, delightful film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  It captures the power and family drama that every wedding holds.  (All families, even the best of them, go a little nuts at weddings!)  Last October we arrived with our group of Holy Land pilgrims in Amman, Jordan, just in time for dinner.  It was set up like a feast, and as dinner came to a close, we heard a sound emerging from the ballroom next door.  It was a Jordanian wedding feast, and it was loud; it was boisterous, it was raucous, it was brimming with joy and life.  It could have been My Big Fat Jordanian Wedding.  (I knew this wasn’t a bunch of Presbyterians!)  I could not help but to think of this passage, which only appears in John, of the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  We later visited Cana, and in the basement of the church we visited, built to commemorate this miracle, or what John calls this “sign,” was a large stone jar used to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification.  Cana is only a half-day’s walk from Nazareth, and a later Gospel of the Coptic Church in Egypt, which did not gain acceptance as Scripture, tells us that Mary was the sister of the bridegroom’s mother, which would make Jesus first cousin to the groom.  John does not provide us with any of these details, though.

             What John does tell us is that there was a crisis that threatened the whole wedding feast.  A wedding feast in first century Palestine was a seven-day affair, and on the third day of the feast the wine “gave out.”  Maybe more guests came than they anticipated.  (Maybe there were The Wedding Crashers, a movie that should never be mentioned in church!)  Or maybe they did not have enough money to buy wine for a seven-day wedding feast.  We really don’t know why, but John is clear that the crisis had to do with a short supply of wine.  There is an old Rabbinical saying, “Without wine, there is no joy.”  Wine was central to hospitality among these first century Jews, and hospitality is a sacred calling to Biblical people everywhere.  Maybe that is why feasts in general, and wedding feasts in particular, are so often used as metaphors for the kingdom of God in the Bible.  Life in the Kingdom of God is supposed to be a feast where all are invited and included in the joy of the feast, and where none are turned away.  Where Jesus is present there is joy, and there is hospitality and there is welcome.

             Connie and I went last night to see Hyde Park on Hudson, which tells the story of King George VI’s historic visit to America in June of 1939 as the winds of war swirled over Great Britain.  It was the first time ever a reigning British monarch had visited this wayward and rebellious American colony.  And the visit was not a pleasure trip.  Britain was being pressured to make peace with Germany, which now occupied Paris and threatened to overrun and control Great Britain.  The Brits were desperate for American support, and many in America were hesitant to engage in a war that was not seen as our own.  It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who thought of inviting them to his family home at Hyde Park as a gesture of hospitality.

             The motorcade arrives with great pomp and circumstance to the old, worn out estate, and everyone is tense about the visit, none more so than King George and Queen Elizabeth.  (The wallpaper in their bedroom depicts cartoons of colonials choking Redcoats!)  At the tense dinner party a table suddenly collapses filled with borrowed china, and with his stutter-struck speech, the King makes a joke, and finally laughter emerges, and there is room made for genuine hospitality.  After everyone leaves, Roosevelt insists that the King come for a visit in his study, just the two of them.  It is by far the best part of the movie.  The two of them proceed to drink too much, something Roosevelt enjoyed doing with his friends and political cronies, and then FDR, who understood much about human frailty from his own weaknesses and handicaps, looks at the new king and says, “You were splendid tonight.”  The king doesn’t know what to say.  Then Roosevelt says, “Young man, you are going to make your nation a fine king.  Your father would be very proud of you.”  It is a grace moment, and it opens up space between these men to connect, to talk about their weaknesses and self-doubts as only those who must bear the burden of leadership ever can.

             I thought as I watched this moment that this is the same Spirit that Jesus brought to the feast at Cana of Galilee.  It saved the feast from ending, and it added life and extended genuine community as only Jesus can.  When Jesus is present in a room, in a life, in a family, or in the life of a church, the feast continues.  It is the great gift that Jesus always gives. It is the gift of life.

             Roger Hull was for many years a Presbyterian pastor who served Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City and then Old First Church in San Francisco.  His father headed a large insurance company based in Connecticut, and when Roger retired from the church, he opened a vineyard in Sonoma County in northern California.  I love the name of the wine they produce!  He calls it “Convivial,” which means literally “with life.”  Whenever Jesus is present, He is there “with life.”  Jesus brings life.  Remember what He said in John 10:10?  “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

             At the first of His seven “signs” or miracles recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus brings life to the feast.  Jesus comes as “the way, the truth and the life,” and He turns what is common and everyday, water, into something special, rare and full of life.  Indeed, Jesus is brimming with life, and to encounter Jesus is simply to be more wonderfully alive.

             Mary, by the way, is the one who invites Jesus to take on this crisis, though she is never mentioned by name.  In John’s Gospel she is only “the mother of Jesus,” and to Jesus, she is “Woman.”  We need not make more of this than she does, as Jesus’ mother is not bothered a bit by His response.  But I love how Mary moves forward in this story.  She says to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”  I love this simple word from Mary, the one whom Beverly Gaventa calls “The First Disciple.”  Remember what Mary said to the angel?  “Let it be to me according to Your Word.”  “Do whatever He tells you.”

             What would our lives look like if we could simply do this?  Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek….”  What if we could do this?  Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  What if we lived into the large truth of these words?  Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  What if we really forgave those who have hurt us?  What would it do for us?  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….”  What if we could live this way, what might it mean to us?  Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, be harmless as doves.”  Oh, how our lives would flourish if we could actually do this!  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What would it do for us to mourn honestly over our losses and our own sins?  Jesus said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  What if we, like the servants in this account, did just what Jesus said?  What if we could sit as Jesus did at the great table of life, full of all its betrayals and disappointments and huge fears and uncertainties, and take what we have been given and give thanks for it?  I will tell you what it would do for us…  It would turn all of life into a feast, a huge family feast!

             One last thing to mention about this powerful text.  The wine steward does not get who has done this thing, but he witnesses to the truth of what has been done.  “Everyone else serves the good wine first,” he says.  But not Jesus.  Jesus has saved the best wine for last.

             I actually eat this way, though I was hardly aware of my eating habits until Connie noticed.  I have always eaten the things I don’t like at all, or the things I like least, first.  So then I can be free to enjoy the rest of the meal.  And I always save my favorite food on the plate, whatever it may be, for last.  So when a meal is served, Connie will often get a smile on her face and say, “Let me guess what you’re going to eat last.”  (Don’t you hate it when someone knows you better than you know yourself?!)

             Well, Jesus saves the best wine for last.  And in John’s Gospel, this is a clear reference to Jesus’ death.  John spends ten of his twenty-one chapters telling us about Jesus’ death, because it turned out to be the very best thing of all about His life.  It turned out to be the most lavish, loving, extravagant gift that Jesus had to give.  And even in His death, Jesus still brims with life overflowing, and imparts life everlasting.

             In chapter one of John’s Gospel, we read, “From His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  That is what I pray for you, dear friends.  And it is my prayer for this church.  Not that you will receive… all the guests at the wedding received from Jesus’ abundance.  We have received all we have, including life itself, from Jesus.  But my prayer is that you will know… that you will know Jesus and His benefits, that most of all, you will know His life.

                                                                                     Amen.

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