Weddings, Wine, and the Joy of a Christ-filled Life (A sermon from John 2:1-11)

The best wedding story I have ever heard comes from Robert Fulghum in his book, It was on fire when I lay down on it. It was a wedding he officiated that was produced on an epic scale by the Mother of the Bride, who Fulghum simply designates, the MOB. There was an eighteen-piece brass ensemble and gift registries spreading across most of the continental United States—with 24 bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower-petal-throwers, and ring bearers.  Fulghum says, "Looking back, it seems now that the rehearsal and dinner on the evening before the great event were not unlike what took place in Napoleon's camp the night before Waterloo. Nothing had been left to chance. Nothing could prevent a victory on the coming day. Nobody would EVER forget this wedding."

The great day came. The plans were all working --until the climactic moment of the processional. Fulghum writes:   “Ah, the bride. She had been dressed for hours if not days. No adrenaline was left in her body. Left alone with her father in the reception hall of the church while the march of the maidens went on and on, she walked along the tables laden with gourmet goodies and absentmindedly sampled first the little pink and yellow and green mints. Then she picked through the silver bowls of mixed nuts and ate the pecans. Followed by a cheese ball or two, some black olives, a handful of glazed almonds, a little sausage with a frilly toothpick stuck in it, a couple of shrimps blanketed in bacon, and a cracker piled with liver pate. To wash this down--a glass of pick champagne. Her father gave it to her. To calm her nerves. What you noticed as the bride stood in the doorway was not her dress, but her face. White. For what was coming down the aisle was a living grenade with the pin pulled out. The bride threw up. Just as she walked by her mother.  And by 'threw up,' I don't mean a polite lady like urp into her handkerchief. She puked. There's just no nice word for it. I mean, she hosed the front of the chancel--hitting two bridesmaids, the groom and ring bearer, and me. . . .  Only two people were seen smiling. One was the mother of the groom. And the other was the father of the bride. 

Fulghum explains how they pulled themselves together for a much quieter ceremony in the reception hall. And how "everybody cried, as people are suppose to do at weddings, mostly because the groom held the bride in his arms through the whole ceremony. And no groom ever kissed a bride more tenderly than he."  

One of the first stories we are told about Jesus in the Gospel of John is his attendance at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. The Gospel writer describes this story as a “sign.” He doesn’t call this a miracle, he calls it a “sign” – that is, the significance of this story is what the story signifies or symbolizes. The story discloses some things much more important than Jesus simply making sure the wedding party didn’t run out of wine. It is called a “sign” because it conveys spiritual truth. Gospel stories are not historical reports, they are spiritual proclamations, and they function much like parables in communicating spiritual truth.

Weddings in Jewish culture were highly festive, lively, joyous events, and that alone says something significant about a Christ-filled life. And then, of course, we have the wine, and what it symbolizes. In this story Jesus turns water into wine; in the church culture of my youth church leaders seemed to be much more concerned about turning the wine into grape juice. Certainly there are some scriptures that warn us of the abuse of wine. In writing to the Ephesians Paul says, “Do not be drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit of Christ.” On the other hand, there are many scriptures, especially in the prophets and in the psalms where an abundance of wine symbolizes abundance and fullness of life in God’s kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Listen to what the prophet Amos says, “The time is coming, says the Lord, when . . . the mountains will drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.” The wine in our story today functions as a symbol of the rich, full, joyful life the Christ wants each of us to know and experience.

Joy is the product of grace, and that is what the Christ brings into our lives when we trust him and follow him. In the prologue or introduction to this gospel, the writer says, “The Word [that is, the revelation] of God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory [Jesus embodies what a human being fully alive in the life of God looks like] . . . full of grace and truth. . . . From his fullness we have all received [everyone of us, whether we know it or not], grace upon grace.” Grace heaped upon grace. Grace in exchange for grace.

I think it is significant to note that the water changed into wine was from the water jars used “for the Jewish rites of purification.” Jesus, as you know, often provoked the religious authorities of his day in the ways he confronted legalistic religion and the misuse of purification rites and rituals as a way of creating a religious pecking order and worthiness system. So it’s not insignificant that the wine came out of jars used in purification rites. This is very contemporary, because too much religion today, and too much Christian religion in particular, is caught up in rewards and punishments, which fosters pride and competition, and often leads to elitism and exceptionalism and to the exclusion of those deemed unworthy.

Too much religion in general and Christianity in particular is graceless and joyless. The late Dr. Kenneth Chafin tells about a delightful woman, a relative of his, who quit going to church years ago because the church of which she was a member was such a killjoy. Some of the deacons would slip over to the high school the night of the Saturday dance and mark down all the young people of the church who were dancing. They would pass their names to the pastor who called them out from the pulpit on Sunday and embarrassed them. Who in their right mind would want anything to do with that?

When the master of the banquet tasted the water that Jesus had changed into wine he said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” The life that is made available to us by following the way of Jesus is the best there is, because it’s a life grounded in grace. It’s a life full of mercy, love, compassion, generosity, gratitude, and goodness. And that makes for lasting, authentic joy. 

I heard a comedian say one time, “Have you noticed how little kids seem to have a McDonald’s shaped vacuum in their bodies. They all want the same thing. In a moment of marketing genius the folks at McDonald’s called it the “Happy Meal”—a combination of food and a prize—that gives kids about five minutes of happiness.” He tells about the time when his kids went through the Happy Meal stage. They were in line waiting to place their order and he tried to convince them that the Happy Meal wasn’t that great of a deal. He tried to talk them into ordering something else and he would take them to K-Mart and buy them a toy.” They wouldn’t hear of it. They started chanting, “We want a Happy Meal. We want a Happy Meal.” He said the lady in the next line looked at him like, “Great day! Get your kids a happy meal you cheap skate!” 

He went on to say, “Our kids never come back and say, ‘Thanks Mom, thanks Dad, for all those happy meals. They brought me lasting satisfaction.’” He asks, “You ever wonder why Ronald McDonald has that stupid grin on his face. Thirty some billion happy meals—that’s why!” He says, “You would think kids would catch on. You would think they would finally say, ‘I’m not going to set myself up for disappointment any more. No more happy meals. But they just keep chanting, “I want a Happy Meal.”   

Now, let’s be honest. We are just big kids aren’t we? The only difference between us and our kids is that our happy meals get more sophisticated and expensive. How many people in our culture are living as if happiness is just one more happy meal away? If I could just acquire more money, more stuff, or more applause or more power, or if I had more freedom to do what I want to do. If I just had a different job, or had a different life, I would be happier. For how long? That kind of happiness is based on the desires and aspirations of the false self. That’s not who we really are. So it can’t endure. It’s a kind of happiness that is superficial and fleeting.

Who are we really? We are the daughters and sons of God, and we are designed to reflect God’s likeness. Our true self is the Christ self. So until we reflect something of the character and passion of God we will not know true joy. Until we embody some of the compassion, kindness, love, grace, inclusiveness, and truth of Christ, and his passion for what is just and good and right, until we echo and mirror the love and grace of the Christ, we will not experience true joy.

The pattern that leads to the joy of Christ is hinted at in our story. In the story when Mary tells Jesus that they are out of wine, Jesus responds, “Woman [which is a respectful title, not a derogatory one], what concern is that to you and me, my hour has not yet come.” Every reader of John’s Gospel knows that “my hour” is a reference to Jesus’ death, wherein is disclosed the glory of God’s love for the world. The story begins with, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” Once again, every reader of John’s Gospel would know that the reference to the third day is an allusion to the day when God raised Jesus from the dead vindicating his life and message. In John 12 the writer points out that the pattern of death and resurrection is the pattern for all spiritual transformation. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Out of death comes life. The path to true spiritual joy is always death and resurrection. We all have some things in our lives we have to die to, we have to let go of – harmful attitudes and egotistic desires that arise from our false selves. We have to die to our false selves so that our true selves, the Christ self, can flourish.

When Mary says, “they have no wine” speaking to the dilemma this newly married is facing, she could just as well be speaking to the dilemma multitudes of people are facing today. Many people today are living out their days without any substantive spiritual dimension to their lives. They are going about their daily business with no awareness, no authentic experience of God’s love. And this is just as true of religious people as nonreligious people.

When I pastored in Maryland before coming here one of my members, who was a Lieutenant with the Capital Police, arranged for me to sit down one afternoon with the Chaplain of the Senate, Rev. Lloyd Olgivie. One of the questions I asked him was, “What do you think is the greatest need in the church today.” Without hesitation he said, “For religious people to know God.” He was well aware that many Christians in our churches do not have any real God experience. Knowing about God is not the same as knowing God. When we come to actually know God through personal experience of God’s love, we often discover that we thought we knew about God no longer makes sense.

So much of what we experience today – the emptiness we feel in our souls and the alienation we feel toward others, our preoccupation with work or leisure, hour after hour of staring at a television screen, our need to accumulate more stuff, our frustrations and petty anger, feelings of disillusionment – all of this and more are symptomatic of our lack of any substantive spiritual life.

By contrast, the attitudes and actions that flow out of our true selves – the generosity and gratitude, the grace and goodness, the love and compassion – lead to a fullness of joy that enlivens us, that makes us feel fully alive. But it doesn’t happen magically. There’s no magical set of religious beliefs to adhere to or religious rites or rituals to perform. The life of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus and his followers show us the way forward. We must first claim who we really are, namely, God’s beloved daughters and sons. But also, we must become aware of who we are not. We must become aware of the trap of the false self and its egocentric tendencies. And we must trust the Spirit of Christ within us to empower us to become more loving, generous, and grateful persons. And as we do, the joy and love of Christ will replace the bitterness and selfishness of our false self.

Our good God, help us see how much of the frustration and anger and emptiness we feel are the consequences of living out of our false selves. Help us to realize who we really are and to reflect your character in our thinking and feeling and doing, so that we might enter into your joy. Help us to relinquish our quest for a fleeting happiness, so that we might enter into a lasting and eternal joy. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.


Popular posts from this blog

Fruits of Joy (a sermon from Luke 3:7-18)

Toxic Christianity in The Shawshank Redemption

The mythology of the demonic in individuals, institutions, and societies (Key text: Mark 1:12-15, 21-28)