Recently I’ve had occasion to think a lot about wedding receptions. We had a fairly small wedding, family and closest friends only, but that doesn’t mean that planning a reception was easy. You find a caterer, you negotiate a price, you pick a menu, and you stress out about whether or not there will be enough food.
When it came time to get our wedding cake, multiple friends gave us the same advice. They told us that we would be tempted, pressured even, to order a cake that the bakery said was big enough for every person at the reception to get a full piece. Our friends all told us to only order half of that. They said most people only ate about half a slice anyway, and others didn’t have cake at all, so a smaller cake always turned out to be plenty.
We were convinced they were wrong. We knew that as soon as we did that, there would be a massive run on cake that would end with half our guests getting none. And so, we ordered the big cake.
I was thinking about that when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus goes to a wedding reception in the town of Cana, and his mother is there. And she comes up to Jesus and tells him, “they’re out of wine”.
Now, maybe she wanted a glass herself, I don’t know, but the big issue here is not just that no one had wine. It’s that this was potentially humiliating for the couple who had just been married and their family. It reflected badly upon them as hosts, and opened them up to the ridicule of others. The fact Mary pulled Jesus aside was probably because she didn’t want the families to be embarrassed at their own wedding.
Mary already knew that there was something extraordinary about her son. I’m not sure she knew just how much so, but she knew he could do something to fix this. But when she tells him that the wine has run out, his first response isn’t “okay, I’ll fix this”. It’s, “Mom, why is this my problem? It’s not my time yet.”
His mom, like most moms, doesn’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t even respond. She just tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do. And Jesus, maybe knowing he’s not going to win against his mother, tells them to fill up six large, stone jars with water. And then he tells them to draw some out. And when they do, it’s not water anymore, but wine.
Scripture tells us that when the chief steward tasted it he called the groom over and said “why did you keep the good stuff until now? Everyone knows you start off serving the good stuff and then, once everyone is drunk and they can’t tell the difference anymore, you switch over to the cheap stuff.” Sage advice from the Bible.
But more importantly, we are left with this: the first of the signs of who Jesus was, and this final line “and his disciples believed in him.” Jesus performs many more miracles over the course of his ministry, but this is the first. And it was the one that started to truly reveal to the ones around him who he was.
I confess that I read this a story today and I feel a little anxiety for the newly married couple. We were so worried about running out of food at the wedding, and this was our nightmare. We didn’t want to be embarrassed. That’s why at the end of our reception, despite our friends’ unheeded advice, someone sent us to the hotel with a box filled with over half of our wedding cake. And Heidi doesn’t even like cake.
We were so worried that what we had wouldn’t be enough, that we vastly overestimated our need, to the point that in the end a lot went to waste. Now, this is an extreme example, but I think it points to what we do in a lot of areas of our life. We worry that we don’t have enough. We worry that the cake will run out, or the wine will run dry. We worry that we won’t have enough money, or we won’t have enough time. We worry that our best won’t be good enough, or that we won’t make it through.
We worry so much that we often fail to see that we have more than we need.
Now at this point you might be saying, “but the people in this story…they didn’t have all that they needed. They ran out! This is a cautionary tale about not getting caught with too little.”
And that’s one way to look at it. But it’s not the only way. And, I would submit, it’s not the way to look at it if you want to see Jesus.
Jesus performs a lot of miracles in his life, but as miracles go, in a real way, this one wasn’t all that impressive at first glance. He didn’t feed 5,000 people. He didn’t raise someone from the dead. He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t do anything that really transformed the world or changed lives. He just helped out a family that didn’t pick up enough wine at the store. Creating infinite wine is hardly the stuff that inspires discipleship.
But like I said, the real point here is not that they ran low on wine, and it’s not that Jesus can make more. If Jesus hadn’t been at that wedding, maybe it would have been a little embarrassing for the family for a little while. Or maybe not. Maybe they would have cut everyone off and said, “look, you all drank all the wine already…you’ve had enough.” Either way, we’re not talking about a crisis.
What we are talking about, though, is this: Jesus was there, and because of that scarcity became abundance.
Asking Jesus for more wine seems so trivial. Like asking Jesus for a parking space or praying that the ball will curve just enough that it makes it through the goal posts. But if you look at the miracles of Jesus, you find a common thread. Every time, the people thought that they had either lost something, or they didn’t have enough of something. They had lost life, they had lost health. They didn’t have enough fish, they didn’t have enough bread. And every time that they thought there was too little, Jesus transformed it and they ended up with an abundance.
This is just a common, everyday example that, if you ask me, may have had something to do with the fact that Jesus’ mother asked him to do it. And Jesus knew enough to listen to his mother.
And it’s an example to us too, especially those of us who are in the habit of buying enough cake to feed a small army. We tend to be the same people who worry we won’t have enough in the places where it really counts. Places like our spirit. Places like our hope. Places like our faith. It’s a sign that Jesus can create something incredible in those places where it feels like we have run dry.
Maybe you’ve experienced that. Maybe you have hit your rock bottom in another way. Maybe something in your life has reached the point of not being sustainable anymore. Maybe the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have enough wine, but that all the wine in the world couldn’t satisfy your thirst.
A lot of us here know something about that.
An acquaintance of mine reached out to me several years ago and told me they needed to stop drinking. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They went to meetings and went to counseling and did everything else. But the hard part for them was the faith piece. They kept being told to have a higher power, and they had grown up with the kind of religion that had, in my mind anyway, probably had something to do with driving them to drink. They wanted to do it on their own. They didn’t need, as they put it, the superstition and religious mumble-jumble. And they wanted to be sure I knew it.
Okay, I said. I’ve always wondered why people single clergy out to tell us why they don’t need God. I think they think it’s going to shock us or offend us or something. But at any rate, I said okay, and that they should do whatever works for them.
But gradually, they started to see that they couldn’t do it alone. That as much as they wanted to reach into their own stores of self-reliance and strength and resolve, at the end of the day they were coming up empty and it wasn’t quite working. Eventually, they opened themselves up to the possibility that maybe there was something bigger than themselves in the world, and maybe that something, whatever they called it, was going to provide the miracle. Maybe in their hour of greatest need, that something would fill them up, not with wine, but with strength where there was none. Serenity where there never had been any before.
They wouldn’t quite call that something God. Not yet anyway. I would, but they wouldn’t. And that’s okay. I’m not sure that the groom at the wedding in Cana ever figured out exactly what had happened either. All he knew is he had more wine.
But the reality for me is this: we all, regularly, know what it is to run out of wine at the worst possible time. We are all scraping the bottoms of our barrels in more ways than one. We are all facing shortages, physical and spiritual, and we are all afraid of losing more. And yet, we live. And often, we more than live, we thrive.
Whether we see it or not, whether we believe it or not, I think it’s because someone is filling us back up without us even knowing. I look back at the places in my life where I had absolutely nothing left in my own, and I see how even in that scarcity, God transformed nothing into a blessing. I have had my share of miracles, whether I know it or not. Whether I give God the glory or not. Whether I choose to believe it or not. The challenge for me is that when the steward comes back and says to me, “did you know all this wine was here? Where did all this good stuff come from?” That I don’t pretend that I’m somehow responsible for it. And that I don’t pretend like it just came from nowhere. That I open my eyes to the miracles around me.
I’ll close with this. Tomorrow is the day we observe Martin Luther King Day. As a college student in Atlanta, his hometown, I was always aware of his impact there. Some nights I would drive down to his old neighborhood, down to where his tomb is now, and I’d think about who he was, and how he did what he did. I would think about what it meant to have that kind of courage when everyday you knew there were people who literally wanted you dead. People who, in the end, got their wish. To keep on day after day like that is a miracle.
I think Martin Luther King was a great man. But what amazes me even more about his story is his faith. He was first and foremost a pastor, and more importantly, first and foremost a Christian. I have to believe that there were days when the wells were dry, and yet, someone filled him up again and again. He may have been a great man, but he believed in an even greater God. And in the end, I think that God worked miracles to fill him up again and again, and to keep him going when most of us would say “no way”. And throughout his life he gave the glory and the credit for that back to God.
You and I, we might not being making speeches on the Mall. We might not be inspiring social change on the level that he was. We might not be fearing for our lives everyday yet still moving forward. But we are all wrestling with our own fears. We are all pushing back against the voices that tell us there’s not enough. And we are all waiting for the miracles when our wells run dry. On this day I challenge you to do this: find the places where you have already been filled up. And then give God the glory. I promise you, your life will change because of it, and you will rarely be left with the fear of an empty glass again. Amen.