January 20, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
Why start with this miracle?
In John’s Gospel, the first of Jesus’ signs was turning water into wine. The other Gospels call actions like this “miracles.” But John calls them signs.
Jesus’ first sign that inspired his disciples to believe in him was not healing a sick person, bringing someone back from the dead, forgiving sins, or exorcizing a demon, it was making gallons and gallons of excellent wine, about a hundred fifty gallons of wine. And in so doing he made a party last longer. Does this make Jesus seem like a more sophisticated savior, someone we would be less embarrassed about introducing to our friends than, say, Jesus the exorcist or the Jesus who touches lepers?
Or is Jesus’ first miracle a little trivial?
Maybe it’s not about Jesus loving a good party, although by all accounts he did. His opponents called him a glutton and a drunkard, and he often got in trouble for sharing table fellowship with the wrong kind of people.
And maybe it’s not just trivial, or the evangelist John wouldn’t have used one of his big words sign for it. The other things John calls signs that Jesus did include healing the sick, raising people from the dead, feeding a multitude on five loaves and two fish, and appearing, resurrected from the dead, among his amazed disciples. So signs are big, important, meaningful, reality-shifting events for John.
But how is making a ridiculous amount of wine at a small-town wedding reception on par with raising the dead, feeding the hungry, walking through locked doors to show the scars on his hands and feet and side and proclaiming that death has been defeated? As a sign, what does turning water into wine point to? What makes this wine so important?
A wedding or another big family celebration then, as for many of us now, was a time for good wine, a time to spend scarce money on the rarer things of life—a time to share food and drink that was special, less mundane. And because wine was something connected with special times and celebrations, this was a Biblical sign of the heavenly banquet, what’s called the eschatological—or last times— that great feast planned for the end of time as we know it.
For example, listen to the prophet Isaiah’s description of the age to come, the promised fulfillment of God’s plans and dreams for the end of time:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isaiah 25:6-9).
This is Isaiah’s image for the end of time, when all is brought to its fulfillment: an end to tears, a clear manifestation of our God, and a great feast for all peoples, a feast of really rich, fatty food, and wine better than the best you’ve ever tasted.
Furthermore, as we heard in today’s passage from Isaiah, a symbol of God’s joy over God’s people, of God’s deep love for God’s people, is a bride and a bridegroom and the delight and rejoicing they share, like at a marriage celebration.
So, when Jesus makes gallons and gallons of wine at a wedding reception, it is a sign, pointing to the scriptural promises that God will bring all people to God’s own self, that God will pour down God’s love and the abundance of God’s joy on all people, that the perfection that lies in God’s great future is real. But more—that the future abundance and grace and joy has begun in Jesus Christ. The future is now, the glory and grace and love of God are available now.
That’s why turning water into wine is the first of the signs Jesus did, and the rest of the signs follow. It’s saying, look! God’s future is breaking in now, God’s future has begun in Jesus. What else does God’s future look like? It looks like hungry people being fed, sick people being healed, dead people being raised from death, death itself being defeated. (These are the kinds of daily miracles we have seen and sometimes taken for granted.)
God’s future is available now. In the present. In this life. We don’t have to wait to experience hope. And we can trust that God will keep God’s promises for the end of time, because Jesus already brought the possibility of joy and hope and new life now, even into this world. Perfection is not yet fully present; perfect wholeness still lies ahead. But trust Jesus—God will keep God’s promises. God’s future has already broken into the present in Jesus.
So, how do we participate in this new life, God’s perfect, joy-filled future available now?
Mary gives the answer: do whatever he tells you. Seek life at its source. Seek joy at its source. Seek to know what Jesus Christ asks of you. This is the essence of discipleship. This is the key for joining Jesus in his new way of being in the world. This is the key: do whatever he tells you.
Notice that the people who knew where the water turned into wine had come from, the people who grasped firsthand, who saw with their own eyes the amazing thing happening in their midst were the servants. The ones who did what Jesus told them to do. While everyone else around them was caught up in whatever was going on at the party, the servants got to witness a miracle.
And they got to participate in that miracle. They got to have a hand in Jesus’ first sign. They just did what Jesus told them to do. They just did the simple, straightforward things Jesus told them to do and they got to participate in a miracle.
Do whatever Jesus tells you. Water becomes the finest wine. The mundane becomes miraculous.
Jesus tells us all some very simple, straightforward things to do. There are lots of verbs in the gospels—commands, instructions that really aren’t even that hard to understand when it comes right down to it that are about simple obedience. Jesus tells us to do things: love, share, give, serve, listen, learn, worship, pray.
(This list sounds a lot like what we are prayerfully following in our preparation for the upcoming revival with our presiding bishop next Sunday. Bishop Curry has asked us to seek to follow Jesus in his model for Christian life which he calls “The Way of Love, Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.” The eight verbs on this list are: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. There’s a poster on the bulletin board if you need a reminder.)
God even gives us particulars in our to-do lists: contexts and jobs and families, a community, and a church family in which to be obedient. Love him. Love her. Love them. Share your money, your time, your particular gift, your ability with that child, with that elder, with that family. Worship with this parish family. Pray at your desk, at your bedside, with your teenager, for your spouse, your partner, your parent, this world. Listen for what Jesus tells you to do. Do it. You may participate in a miracle, you may get a glimpse, a sign of God’s perfect future, a sign of God’s heavenly feast, even right here, right now.
My favorite story to tell on this Sunday each year is about just that, listening to a call and answering by following in the here and now. This is a story of a young man just entering his calling, finding himself and finding God working through him. This story is of a new father. I share it with you by quoting this young man’s own words directly and letting him tell you how it went.
Imagine a new father in the mid-60s sitting in his kitchen late at night drinking coffee and feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“I sat at that table thinking about that little girl,” he wrote later, “and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep . . . and I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak . . .
“And I discovered then that religion had to be real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. . . . I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.’”
“. . . And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “. . . stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave, me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.”
Three nights later, as promised by the threats that caused him to feel this desperate, a bomb exploded on the porch of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home. It filled the house with smoke and broken glass but injured no one. King took it calmly, saying, “My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
It takes courage to answer the call to follow Jesus. But when we are willing to do what he asks of us, those simple obvious things, we can turn the mundane into the miraculous. A prayer over a late night cup of coffee can become the strength to endure difficulties. The everyday experiences of our lives become miracles. And then soon you will begin to realize we are miracles, and we are the miracle makers.
So go and watch for the signs and be the signs.
Thanks be to God.
 The previous is from a sermon by The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter. Parenthetic sections are mine.
 Excerpt paraphrased from Yancey, Philip, Soul Survivor, p. 20-21.