Saturday, 19 January 2013

Wine. Lots of wine. Lots and lots and lots....

Posting thoughts and beliefs up here is a funny old game.  Some times, like the last post, what I write draws a lot of comment because people are grateful to see challenges to some of our misplaced beliefs and practices.  But then there are other times, like this one, when I read something in the Bible which simply reminds me about my own experience.  What I say below can't go without being commented on by me simply because this is all about the extravagant love of God, but the friends who have experienced cruelty and abuse at the hands of others, and for those whose livelihoods are based on breadline survival, God's extravagance can seem like a distant and cynical dream reserved for rich westerners.  I'd have to agree if extravagance was to do with deliverance from poverty, yet when the events of the reading below took place, it happened to people on the breadline in an occupied country, where rare celebrations were the only time people could over-indulge.  And my own perspective is one of difficult experiences, loss, and so on.  Yet still I want to write about God's extravagant love mainly because the Holy One seems to see something in us that I certainly don't see in myself, and I've been given a life that I would have been too timid to seek for myself.  No financial riches, just, well, something...

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Twenty three and a half years ago Alison and I were married. Ali’s home church was a Baptist church and they had a great hall at the back of the building. Given our limited means and the fact that, as a member she could hire it for free, having our wedding reception there was the obvious solution. It even had a stage so we did a few numbers with the band at the evening reception.  There was, however, just one problem. This particular Baptist church had a ‘dry’ policy. In other words no alcohol was allowed on site, not even for wedding toasts. You can perhaps imagine the amusement of my work colleagues when I explained to them that there would be plenty of drinks available, of all different kinds, but there was no alcohol.

Of course it was no problem. Back then I hadn’t discovered scotch and neither of us drank a lot of wine, (my how times change), and so we were quite happy to have a ‘dry’ wedding, although we were perhaps a little taken aback that about a month after our wedding, and as a result of the comments that some guests had made, that particular church voted to permit alcohol on site for weddings! Ah well...

But I wonder whether the pastor there had ever preached on this passage from John’s gospel, and if he had whether he would have somehow interpreted it to try and get away from the high alcohol content.  After all, how much wine do you need to get drunk? I know of people who regularly share a bottle with their partner over a meal and swear it makes no difference to how they feel. I know that for me, half a bottle would have me slurring my words as I wandered aimlessly around a room telling everyone how much I really love them.   On the occasions when I’ve had rather more to drink than I planned, I can faithfully report that I am a happy drunk, but not very well practiced, so half a bottle of wine would still probably be plenty. Now if we reflect that back to the story of Jesus at a wedding in Cana what we find is that the wedding has been going on for some time. We can probably be confident that a reasonable amount of wine has already been consumed.

We also need to bear in mind that these people lead pretty frugal lives. Having a nice cooked meal and sharing a bottle of wine several nights a week simply didn’t happen. From one day to another they did their best to eke out an existence. So it was for that reason that when they had festivals and celebrations, such as this wedding, they were encouraged to eat and drink extravagantly.

So the situation is that you have a large wedding party which has been going on for some time, and then the nightmare horror moment when the best man discovers that he didn’t buy enough wine. Mary, the mother of Jesus, notices this and tells Jesus, and in fact it would seem she puts him in a position where he has to act despite his reluctance.  He responds by telling the servants to fill six stone water bottles to the brim with water which he then changes into wine, wine that is so good that the steward, if you like, the Master of Ceremonies, comments that it is unusual to have kept this good wine back until the guests were already drunk.

Now that comment is telling. It means that the party had already been going for some time with much drinking and laughter. And then Jesus converts the water into more wine. What makes this miracle so important is not the quality of the wine, but the amount of it. I’ve seen the kind of stone water jars they used for ritual washing and they are huge.  So the estimate is that, with a party in full swing and the guests already merry, Jesus converts something like 180 gallons of water into wine. Now if half a bottle is enough for me, and by this point I had already drunk that half bottle, doesn’t it seem rather extravagant if Jesus sits down next to me with a gallon of nicely aged Merlot and says, ‘There you go Paul, that’ll keep you going for the rest of the party’?


And that is exactly the point. In John’s Gospel the miracles that take place are always signs of something. They are what we might think of as rather dramatic visual aids, and by anyone’s measure 180 gallons of wine is a pretty dramatic visual aid. It equates to about 900 bottles of wine. So what does it mean? You see this miracle, in may ways doesn’t seem to have a point because no one gets better or rises from the dead.  But the point is simple. The life which God offers is as different from normal life as a good Merlot is from tap water. The life which God offers is rich and full. Jesus says this later in John’s Gospel with the words, ‘I came that they would have life, and have it in all its fullness.’

Now unfortunately some of our more materialistic cousins over on the other side of the Atlantic have interpreted this as meaning God wants you to be rich in money and possessions. Rubbish! Experience suggests that the more people have the more they tend towards being shallow and thin. What Jesus is talking about here is the depth of life, not financial rewards.

And that has been my own experience. The thirty one year journey from when I first experienced God’s presence to where I am now has not been an easy path. I have felt challenged over and over again and have had to cope with changes I would never have predicted or desired. But the life I’ve been given in return has been rich and deep beyond anything I could have imagined.  Sure there are things I would change, and decisions that with hindsight I would have made differently. But we don’t have hindsight, we only have trust and grace.

So for me the message of this passage is quite simple. The Holy One does not offer us an easy life. Nor are we offered a financially secure life. Nor does he offer us a safe life. But the depths of experience and growth in who we can become in his light and love are offered extravagantly.  If only we would see that and be prepared to go out on a limb in our lives.

Why do we persist in drinking water and cheap plonk when what is being offered is beyond what we can imagine?

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