A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.
January 20, 2013
Isaiah 36:5-10; John 2:1-11
I’ve heard a lot of stewardship sermons in my time, but none based on Deuteronomy 14. There we read that the Israelites are to thank God for his generous provisions by transporting a tithe of their annual produce to Jerusalem where it will be incorporated into a grand banquet to celebrate God’s goodness.
But if it is impractical to haul their produce that far, the Israelites have the option of selling their produce and taking the money to Jerusalem to use according to the following guidelines: Thou shalt bestow that money for whatever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household, and the Levite that is within thy gates (vv. 26-27, KJV).
Use the money for whatever my soul lusts after or desires…including wine or strong drink!? Are you kidding me? Somehow those verses were never mentioned in the Baptist church I grew up in…not even in the King James Version I just read!
As a matter of fact, there was even some embarrassment in my home church about Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John 2. On those rare occasions when our preachers talked about Jesus turning water into wine, they would usually indicate that what Jesus produced was “unfermented” wine…basically grape juice. Of course, they never bothered to explain how unfermented wine could expand and burst those old wineskins Jesus loved to talk about.
I’m reminded of that smart aleck teenager who was needling his tee-totaling great aunt about Jesus’ first miracle. When he reminded her of Jesus’ turning water into wine, her response was, “I know, and I’d have thought a heap more of him if he hadn’t.”
In his book, Come to the Party, Karl Olsson observes that much of the church has struggled with the Jesus who loved parties. “Jesus was, despite the sad world he inhabited and the solemn destiny coiled within him, the prime guest and the prime host of the party. He ate and drank; he let himself be doused with perfume; he was concerned about wedding wine and wedding garments. Without denying anything that was sad or sinful…Jesus was indeed the Lord of the Feast.”
Was he ever!
Remember, in Jesus’ day Jewish custom dictated that weddings last a week. That’s seven days of feasting, drinking, laying out of work and enjoying the company of loved ones. And we think weddings are expensive today!
Food and wine were the focal points of the celebration, and if you ran out of either it was a monumental social faux pas. As it happens, Jesus, his mother, and five disciples attend a wedding where the unthinkable happens. When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother sidles over to him and suggests in a not too subtle way that he needs to save the day. Jesus appears to tell his mother to back off, and we expect that to be the end of the matter.
Then without any explanation, Jesus instructs servants to fill six large, stone water jars with approximately 150 gallons of water, and then transforms the water into top-of-the-line, aged-to-perfection party wine. We’re not talking about the stuff that comes out of a box. We’re talking about the finest sparkling wine available, the best wine you ever tasted.
What does this scandalous story tell us about Jesus?
It affirms Jesus’ humanity, depicting him reveling for up to seven days with friends at a wedding. It confirms the earthy goodness of creation we read about in Deuteronomy 14, and it is a foretaste of the great Messianic banquet (or the magnificent wedding feast) all believers will enjoy at the end of time. It explains why Jesus offends the scribes and Pharisees who much prefer a fast over a feast. When asked why his disciples don’t fast more often like the Pharisees, Jesus remarks that wedding guests don’t mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, nor do they pour old wine into new wineskins. Jesus is the bridegroom of wedding, the life of the party, the new wine poured out from God, and it was time to feast rather than fast.
But this story also affirms Jesus’ divinity. It proves he has miraculous power over the elements of nature. His is a miracle of extravagance, transformation that brims over with endless possibilities. It reveals to us in this season of Epiphany that Jesus is the Son of that God who offers spiritual food in abundance, a never-ending river of delight, an ever-flowing fountain of life.
It reminds us that disciples of Jesus believe he is the author of abundant and eternal life, the ultimate source of vim and vitality, and from his fullness we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16). The wine at the wedding wasn’t top-of-the-line because of the purity of the water involved. It was the best because it came from the hand of Jesus. Jesus is at his abundant best precisely when human resources are depleted.
What does this story tell us about life in Christ?
At the risk of disappointing some people, life in Christ is not one big drunken party! The fact is celebration is not the whole of life or the Christian life, and there is a time to fast as well as feast. The fact is drunkenness is never affirmed in scripture, and alcoholism is a scourge in our country, and even in our churches. The fact is even though the scribes and Pharisees called Jesus a glutton and a winebibber there is no evidence he was either because he knew a life devoted to nothing other than physical pleasure was a dead-end street.
That said, there ought to be an artesian well of joy and celebration bubbling up inside of every Christ-follower, an aroma of extravagance and abundance around every Christian church. And the fact is, the lives of many Christians and Christian churches appear to be more like stale grape juice than top-of-the-line wine.
Karl Olsson notes that while many Christians begin their faith journey on fire for Jesus, they eventually settle for a low-grade fever of a faith that consists of believing the right doctrine, practicing disciplines like worship, bible reading, and tithing (mostly out of obligation), behaving properly at all times, and serving their church on a few committees. This is the extent of their Christian life and their experience in the Body of Christ.
No wonder so many people outside of church and faith are more inclined to avoid us than join us! Watch a typical church service and it seems dead. Monitor the life of a typical Christian and it looks as limp as lukewarm dishwater.
People today are craving life with a capital “L”. They are busier than ever, have more things than ever, and still have no life. And they are desperate to find it.
A friend of mine belongs to a church even though she disagrees with that church’s stand on women in ministry. When I asked her why she said, “Because the church has a vitality I find missing in most churches.”
I know what she means. Some time ago I got so exhausted with the thinness of my own Christian life and the American church I began to wonder if I wanted to remain in ministry. Since then I’ve tasted the new wine of a deeper Christian life that has not only renewed me, but motivated me to find a new wineskins for my life and this church.
My friends, if you are weary of having a life in Christ that is nothing more than a paper-thin ticket to heaven, I stand before you today to say there is something more, much more about life in Christ than you currently know. Jesus is not just some cartoon character in the New Testament. He is the fountain of life that can give you life, life to the brim.
And the same is true for our church. I believe, FBC, we are on the threshold of going deeper with God than we’ve before. And if I’m right, we are about to find out that what makes a great church is not just exciting programs and a superb faith. A great church, like great wine, comes directly from the hand of Jesus.
Tom Lane writes,
If Jesus could transform common water into wedding wine
Spit and dirt into new sight
Troubled sea into a pathway
Well water into living water
Could Christ transform the waters of my life
Into a shower of blessing?