Something very ordinary becomes something extraordinary.
On 16.01.22 Pete Stevenson, one of our Church members took the service, reminding us that God can do the extraordinary with very ordinary things
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
I have a confession. I struggle a little with miracles. Not that God is unable to do them or shouldn’t do them, I don’t see why they are necessary in God’s plan. After the miracle of creation… what more do we need? I struggle with why, even in Jesus’ time, God cures some but not others. When it comes to Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine, I struggle even more. Can we really expect God to perform miracles to cover our lack of planning? It reminds me of friends in my student days who were convinced they were about to run out of petrol and so they prayed and swore they saw the petrol gauge go up. Really? Why didn’t you plan your journey better? Speaking as someone who has run out of petrol several times, I’m not being holier than thou but I never really thought God should help me out of my own stupidity.
I have a number of, what you might call, mischievous questions on today’s gospel reading.
· Why didn’t the hosts do their sums and calculate how much wine they needed?
· The 6 stone jars capable of holding 25 gallons a piece. That’s about 700 bottles of wine. Just how much wine was needed?
· A stone jar holding 25 gallons would weigh about 120-150kg. Surely it would take at least 4 people to carry it.
I look to commentaries to help me, and they all seem to gloss over these practical questions. Some commentators describe the culture of the time and the embarrassment of a host running short, another suggests the rich bounty of God giving more than was needed and the family could sell off the excess. I don’t really buy that. Weddings in that time would have involved the whole village and gone on for several days, maybe 6 days. Maybe 700 bottles of wine was not unreasonable! Perhaps the stone jars for ceremonial washing never had to be carried anywhere but were a communal facility topped up by a nearby well or spring, water that had not been used for another purpose, which made it ritually clean for purification? I don’t know, these are my ideas in the absence of finding out anything more authoritative. Others dwell on the significance of the first 4 words of the reading ‘On the third day…’ and think it’s a reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day. To me it simply prompts another question, what happened on the previous two days?
I think it’s instructive to consider where the story lies in the gospel and the style or purpose of the gospel writer. John would sometimes link the physical with the spiritual, after the feeding of the 5000, Jesus declares ‘I am the bread of life’ In the story of raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection, whoever believes in me will live, even though they die’, words spoken at every Christian funeral. My question, what happened the previous two days?’ is quite straight forward. Look at the previous chapter and Jesus is choosing some of his disciples; Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathanael. The 2nd half of John chapter 1 is littered with ‘The next day…this happened, The next day…that happened’. Then Chapter 2 starts ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana…’. We shouldn’t get hung up over whether this happened over three consecutive days, the gospel writers were not writing a chronological biography of Jesus. If you compare gospel stories that overlap with each other, it’s nigh impossible to figure out what happened when. For me, as the years go by, I find myself being worrying less about what actually happened, when and where and when but try and discern, why is the story there?
I have some sympathy for those who find belief in God a bit of a stretch who think accounts like these perhaps got exaggerated in the telling but it greatly saddens me when I see them throw the baby out with the bathwater. They may point to the early parts of the Old Testament when God seems to hate almost everyone, but then fail to see a sort of evolution going on with our idea of who God is throughout the Bible. About 2/3rds through the Old Testament there is the story of Jonah and the whale (or big fish), that’s quite a stretch, how did he breathe!? but it’s the first time the word grace is mentioned in the Bible (Those that cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs, Jonah 2:8), God’s undeserved mercy, favour and forgiveness. The prophet Micah near the end of the Old Testament succinctly says ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’. (Micah 6:8). Then Jesus comes and turns some of the early Old Testament on its head. I read on an Episcopal blog ‘We take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally’ I like that. I think there are important lessons from all these accounts if we make a little effort.
Forgive me if I might sum up this morning’s gospel reading in a sentence… On the third day, there was a wedding at Cana and Jesus turned something very ordinary into something extraordinary. What happened the previous two days? Jesus was choosing very ordinary people to be his disciples. We read in Luke 6 Jesus spent a night in prayer before choosing the 12 disciples the next day. The thinking is, Jesus was really careful about his choosing. I put to you an alternative; yes it was worthy of a lot of prayer but maybe Jesus chose at random, he chose the very ordinary, knowing that if the kingdom of heaven was to truly come down, then it had to be possible through nothing more than God’s Spirit and ordinary people.
Think about it for a moment. Peter denied, Thomas was a grumpy person who doubted, Judas betrayed and possibly dipped his fingers into the collection bag, Jesus nicknamed James and John the Sons of Thunder, they wanted to know what was in it for them, Simon was a zealot, a terrorist in modern day parlance who wanted rid of the Roman occupation, Matthew the tax collector and cooperated with the Romans creaming the top off his tax collecting. That’s seven out of twelve flawed followers whom Jesus was relying on to change the world. That leaves the remaining five, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, James (son of Alphaeus) and Thaddaeus and some of those we’re not even sure what they did before or after Jesus’ ascension. Isn’t it interesting that the apostles who were the key players in the early church were those with the biggest flaws. I even think Jesus would have accepted Judas back if he had only repented like Peter had.
I was a deacon at our church back in the UK, some churches have Vestry, others Parochial Church Council, others Elders. Ours had deacons. We were sat round the table in one of our meetings when one of our members blurted out ‘If it wasn’t for Jesus, I’d be horrible!’ For the life of me I can’t remember the context, but we sat in a rather stunned silence, a) because we were each trying to think of something meaningful and encouraging to say, but mainly, b) because we all knew it was true! Penny could have a sharp tongue, if you proposed an idea that had flaws, Penny would be quick to point them out. Conversely, if an idea passed the Penny test you knew you were on to something good, and that made her a very valued member. I once took a service and she came up to me afterwards and simply said ‘thank you Pete, that was good’. It felt like the Archangel Gabriel himself had come down from heaven to say thank you. Someone, who by her own admission, could have disagreeable flaws, but by God turned her inclination to be sceptical into the gift of wisdom and was someone highly respected by all and could be of great encouragement. On the third day there was a wedding in Cana and Jesus turned something very ordinary into something extraordinary.
I don’t know about you but I need that kind of message, heaven knows, I’m sometimes horrible even when I supposedly do have Jesus. Jesus chose the very ordinary, knowing that if the kingdom of heaven was to truly come down, then it had to be possible through nothing more than God’s Spirit and ordinary people.
Our Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians lists some gifts given by the Holy Spirit for the common good, not for our own edification, or to make us feel good or give us warm fuzzy feelings but for the common good. Gifts like wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, various kinds of tongues, the interpretation of tongues. Sometimes my head is full of all my flaws and the things I can’t do, God wants to change all that. By God’s grace and His Spirit, let’s strive to be a good wine that gladdens the hearts and lifts the spirits of those we will be with this week.