Sunday, January 17, 2016

Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 128
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Thou shalt also be a crown of beauty in the hand of Jehovah, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God.

There are millions of people who are walking around today with their minds on the possibilities of what might happen to their lives tomorrow. See, there are millions of people who have bought a lottery ticket for the Powerball with its prize of more than a billion dollars. The winner's life will be changed completely overnight. Even if the prize goes to multiple winners, each one will have more money than they know how to use. Oh, a million dollars can be spent in minutes, but a billion dollars is more difficult to piddle away. There are those who are foolish enough to blow it in time, but it will be a life-changing experience even for the foolish ones.

There was a movie in the mid-eighties called "Brewster's Millions." Richard Pryor played Montgomery Brewster, a man who was set to inherit $300,000,000 from his great uncle. The will had a complicated set of conditions that Brewster had to abide to receive the inheritance. He had to spend $30,000,000 in thirty days. He could not donate too much to charity or retain any assets; at the end of the thirty days he had to be exactly where he started. The trouble was that he could not tell anyone the conditions. He had to spend foolishly while they tried to help him be responsible. He had to waste it while they tried to keep him in check. They even tried to earn him money, and in the end took up a collection to help him pay his bills. He almost lost it all because the lawyers cheated and hid some of the money so that Brewster would still have a few dollars at the last minute. They would then handle the estate and claim a hefty fee for their work.

The point of the game was so that Brewster would learn how to handle his money. By the end of the thirty days, his uncle reasoned, Brewster would be so sick of money that he would be responsible with it. It worked. Brewster, who was a failed minor league baseball player before the inheritance, realized the value of the gift and began his new life with a good attitude. The winner of tonight's Powerball will not have such an opportunity. They will go from average to billionaire overnight. How do you handle such a huge change?

Every person who has gone to buy a ticket, myself included, is dreaming of tomorrow. We are thinking about what we will do. Paying off my bills will be pocket change. I saw a house on the Internet I wouldn't mind owning. There are islands that only cost a few million. My husband could quit his job. I could open a studio where struggling artists can have work and gallery space. I could give money to my children so that they will not have to struggle. There are a few charities that will certainly benefit and I will find other ways to be generous.

I'm sure similar thoughts are going through the heads of millions of other people, most of whom will never see their wishes or dreams fulfilled. We won't win, our lives won't change. In a way, I know that's a good thing. See, the minute the world knows that I have a billion dollars (or whatever it turns out to be after taxes) my life will be changed in ways I won't like. People will be knocking on my door, begging or demanding that I share my windfall. Strangers will want to be my friend, and acquaintances that have not been very good friends will pretend that we have been besties all along. People will become angry with the word "No" and will call me selfish, greedy. They will try to guilt me into generosity or take advantage of my heart. My life would change if I won, but not only in positive ways. I've been thinking that the negative might just outweigh the positive; perhaps I don't want to be a billionaire.

Our Gospel lesson is set at a wedding. That is another time when a person's life changes dramatically. It isn't quite as true for modern marriages since so many people live with their spouse for a time before the wedding, but in ages past the wedding was the moment when everything became different. The bride left her home and began living with her groom. The husband took his wife into his home and they began a new life together. They had to learn to rely on one another, to work together, to deal with all the surprises that come as they discover all those habits and attitudes that were never revealed during the courtship. Perhaps, like Brewster's uncle, they believe that the test period will make the marriage stronger, although I'm not sure that's proven to be true. Unfortunately, the best outcome is often that those couples realize that they can't handle living together and they never get around to the marriage.

We don't know anything about the marriage in today's Gospel lesson; we only hear about the party. We don't know much about the family or the couple; we don't even know why Mary was so interested in their problems. Weddings were large, festive affairs that lasted for seven days and as in all things, hospitality was extremely important. The success of the marriage feast was a matter of honor for any family. Empty wine casks would have been disastrous and Mary knew that it would be a disappointment for both the couple and their families.

Mary wanted to help, and she knew that Jesus had the ability to do so. God was an intimate and abiding part of His life and she had no doubt that Jesus could do something. She had seen the hand of God at work in Jesus' life: angels announced His coming and warned His parents of danger. She saw the miraculous signs that accompanied Him. He was knowledgeable and wise about the things of God. She remembered all these things and treasured them in her heart. She knew that He was kind and generous and that He would not allow the family to be shamed. Did she think He might produce a miracle? Perhaps she was concerned because the presence of Jesus and his disciples contributed to the shortage. Whatever her thoughts, Mary had faith. "Do whatever He tells you to do."

She didn't push Him; He didn't need to answer the call. As we think about all the problems around the world, it seems very odd that this was important enough to get Jesus involved. Wine at a wedding seems frivolous when you think about all the other miracles of Jesus. The honor of a family seems unimportant when there are people who are sick and oppressed by demons. He knew it was not yet His time: this was not His problem and He could have simply ignored the request.

However, He told the servants to fill the jars. The stone pots were used by Jews for purification; they were used for washing the utensils and the guests' hands. Water was helpful because at least the guests would have something to drink to quench their thirst, but Jesus knew that the problem was about something much greater, more personal than thirst. Mary was asking Jesus to protect the honor of the hosts. Water was not enough.

Once the jars were filled, Jesus told them to take some to the steward. The steward was very surprised because the wine he tasted was better than anything they'd offered to that point, down to the bottom of the barrel. The party had already lasted some time and the guests were already drunk; they would not have known the difference. The gift was exceedingly generous; it may have been excessive. At least we would think so. In our day, good guests know when it is time to leave. Imagine how hard it would be to get them to go if a hundred and twenty gallons of the finest wine is flowing so freely!

There's a photo that has made the rounds on social media of a shelf in a liquor store. The sign above the shelf says "Water" but the shelf is filled with bottles of wine. The words say, "Jesus was here." We laugh at the joke, but what does this miracle, or sign, have to do with the Kingdom of God? Why would John use this particular event as the first of the seven signs, the miracles with a message, which showed that Jesus was the Messiah? Even if it wasn't His plan, why is this the way Jesus began His ministry?

The wedding was a symbol of the arrival of the Messianic age, both in Judaism and early Christianity. The Old Testament text shows this promise. Isaiah repeats the promise that they'd heard so many times: though you are Forsaken and Desolate today, your name will be changed to Hepzibah which means My Delight is in Her. The people of Israel had turned from God repeatedly throughout their history; they suffered the consequences but God always brought them home. He allowed the exile so that His people would turn to Him and Isaiah was encouraging God's people with His faithful promise.

See, God delights in His people and He is faithful, even when we are not. Jerusalem would be vindicated and restored. She would be like a crown of beauty or a royal jewel in the hand of the King. God would rejoice over her. This passage uses the image of marriage: the restoration that God has promised will be like a bridegroom marrying a bride. The relationship between God and His people is like a family: intimate, close, real.

The abundance of wine was also a symbol of the coming of the Messianic age. Many Old Testament texts reveal the promise that the extravagant goodness of God will be revealed. Jeremiah writes, "And they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow unto the goodness of Jehovah, to the grain, and to the new wine, and to the oil, and to the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all." (Jeremiah 31:12) This imagery continues today in the Eucharistic feast as we celebrate a foretaste of the feast to come.

The Messianic age was promised to be a time when God would display His glory. It seems a little odd, then, that this miracle was kept hidden from those who were there that day. This miracle was very personal. The only ones who knew what happened were Jesus, Mary, the servants who filled the jars with water and the disciples. Even the steward had no idea; he was surprised when the good wine was held until the guests were already drunk. The bride and groom and their families may have never even known how the problem was solved.

This first big sign seems so insignificant compared to the other signs that John lists in the stories of Jesus. Jesus heals the official’s son, a paralyzed man, and a man born blind. He walks on water and raises Lazarus from the dead. He feeds five thousand people. How is God glorified by a bunch of drunk partiers? We might find we are asking the same question about the work we are called to do in this world. "How will you be glorified by this?" we might ask, "It seems so mundane and unimportant." But God is merciful in ways that we do not understand. He just asks us to be obedient and to respond to the needs that come our way.

God does not do miraculous things for fame or glory. He does what He does out of love for His people. That's the kind of life He calls us to live. We don't have to make a grand gesture or do something that will bring fame or power. We don't need a billion dollars to do God's Work. He calls us to serve our neighbors in their very mundane and unimportant needs and He gifts us with everything we need to do it. Jesus' first miracle was a behind the scenes gift of mercy. The same will be true for the opportunities He sends for us to serve; they will be intimate, personal, real. In the end they might even be hidden; the one served may never know that God has done something incredible. That's not the point: God is glorified by the very act of obedience; you praise God by doing what He is calling you to do and by trusting that He will provide everything you need.

God's grace was given for you; God's lovingkindness was manifest in Jesus Christ for each individual child of God. He was given for YOU. This gift is truly life-changing. And while this gift is personal, it is given to make you part of the body of Christ. He came to make you one with Him. He sent the Holy Spirit so that we would be joined together in faith. We share in His Spirit not for our own sakes but for the sake of others. And we need one another. We can't do it all alone. Paul writes, "Now there are diversities of gifts." He lists nine gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues." We are each given a portion of these gifts, in good measure, to be used in acts of mercy and grace. God will be glorified in those acts, no matter how inconsequential and hidden they seem.

We join in our actions with the psalmist as he sings a song proclaiming the greatness of God. God's love extends to the heavens, His faithfulness to the clouds. His righteousness is firmer than the mountains and His judgments are right. He rules over all of creation, gives life and breath to all that breathes. Yet, this song about the greatness of God reminds us that we are welcome into His presence. The psalmist sings, "And the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings." The psalmist knows that God will provide for His people everything they need; He is worthy of our trust no matter what He is calling us to do.

The psalmist sings, "How precious is thy lovingkindness, O God!" The Hebrew word translated as lovingkindness in the American Standard Version is "chesed." As with many Hebrew words, it is difficult to translate into English. None of our words fully encompass the depth of its meaning. It is sometimes translated "steadfast love" or "mercy." This word, especially when it is used in reference to God, is about the divine love that is so faithful that God does everything, even forgives, for His people even though they do not deserve it because we are unfaithful and filled with sin. In other words, this lovingkindness is the heart of grace, it is about the loving God doing what only God can do.

Jesus could have done nothing for the host at the wedding banquet, but He was exceedingly generous. We don't have to do anything, either, but when we've been given such a great gift, when we have been forgiven everything and given more than we could possibly expect, how can we not let God's generosity flow through our own lives? It might seem unimportant. It might not seem like the right time. But we never know how God might use us in a miraculous way, turning water into wine for someone, perhaps even for their honor.

Why does honor matter when there are so many in the world who are suffering? Why did God put so much importance on the honor of the family at the wedding in Cana? To honor someone is to value them and God values His people. Our gifts are not meant to make us famous or powerful. God gives us gifts because He values His creation, this means all men, including those who reject God's word today. He wants them to be restored to Him. He loves them enough to be merciful, to bring them home, to make their world beautiful again. He values them and wants them to know peace. So He calls us to use our gifts in a way that will show them His mercy so that they will see His glory and believe.

I don't know if I should want to be a billionaire. I have to admit that I am among those running the possibilities through my head today. I hope that if I am so blessed that I will faithfully use the gift to God's glory. Even more so, however, I pray that I will faithfully use the gifts I already have to respond to every opportunity that God gives me to serve Him and my neighbor. I don't need a billion dollars to glorify God. God is glorified not by the stuff of this world, but by our obedience to His call. Isaiah, writes, "Thou shalt also be a crown of beauty in the hand of Jehovah, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God." It is God that makes the simple extravagant and the unimportant valuable. I just need to fill a pot with water and He'll make it the finest wine because He is exceedingly generous and able. He has changed our lives forever in ways that we may never fully understand, but we can trust that He will use it for His glory if we go forth in faith and obedience.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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