Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Time for Celebration

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  John 2:1-11


We just heard about the miracle of turning water into wine.  Setting that story aside for a moment, when you think about Jesus’ miracles, what comes to mind first?  . . . .


What comes to mind for me, and for some of you, are the life-and-death things, the times when Jesus restored sight or the ability to walk, the times when he healed the woman who was bent over or brought the Gerasene demoniac back into his right mind, so that they became accepted members of the community again.  Those are the ones I tend to think of first.  So when I notice that this is the miracle story or sign that John tells first, I wonder why. 


What happens here is that Jesus saves the party.  You probably remember that weddings in ancient Israel were week long celebrations.  In those days, people lived by the day.   They did not have refrigeration.  Today’s food was prepared and eaten today.  There was no running water.  Today’s water had to be drawn from the river or the well and used today.  Tomorrow it started all over again.  Life was short and hard and it tended to be lived in the moment.  But weddings were one way of honoring the future.  Weddings anticipated a future together.  Weddings anticipated the next generation of this family, this village.  Weddings affirmed that life would go on and so they were occasions when the entire village came together to celebrate.


And in this case, Jesus saves the party.  That’s great, but if we compare it to healing a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years or restoring someone’s sight, it’s not on the same level of significance, is it? . . . Or is it?

If the bride and groom run out of wine at their wedding, it will never be forgotten.  It will create a kind of disgrace that we don’t have in our culture.   It might be like if someone close to you had a serious accident or even died on your wedding day.  You would always associate your anniversary with that tragedy.  Running out of wine is not that kind of tragedy, but there would also be a shameful association with your anniversary.  It would cast a shadow over your marriage.  So when Jesus comes up with more wine, he is really blessing the marriage.  Jesus’ healing miracles result in people being restored to community.  This miracle also preserves dignity and honor and a rightful place in community, for the bride and groom.


Jesus’ first miracle, as John tells the story, is to keep the party going.  He provides 120-180 gallons of wine.  Wine was a symbol of joy, but drunkenness was considered disgraceful.  Jesus provides wine to satisfy a large number of guests for many days of feasting.  He keeps the party going.


The story begins with the words “on the third day”.  Those words are fascinating to scholars.    Our immediate association might be with another third day, the third day after crucifixion, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.   That association makes a deep connection between the joy of resurrection and the joy of celebration.  It points to a reign of God characterized by deep, communal joy.  But some scholars say that the author of John’s gospel does not speak about Jesus’ rising on the third day and so that is not an appropriate association with this story. 


Another interpretation of the third day reference goes like this:  Five days have been described in chapter 1.  Adding three more days to those five, takes us to the eighth day.  The eighth day marks the first day after the first week of creation.  Remember that John 1:1 refers to “in the beginning” which also harkens back to creation.  This interpretation suggests that the first chapter of John is a reference to the first week of creation.  So the events of chapter two signal a new kind of creation.  And in a seven day cycle, the eighth day is also the first day, which is the language that John uses to describe the day of resurrection.[1] 


John is describing something deep, something foundational to Jesus’ ministry, something about the nature of incarnation.  John has connected Jesus to the beginning – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God.”  What is being revealed in Jesus is good, like the fundamental goodness of creation.  It is something new and glorious, like resurrection.  It is something joyful, like a week-long wedding feast with good wine in abundance for everyone. 


Abraham Joshua Heschel was a rabbi who escaped from Poland 6 weeks before the Germans invaded in WWII.  He became one of the leading Jewish theologians in the United States in the 20th century.  On this weekend when we remember Dr. King, it is appropriate to remember others who worked alongside him. Rabbi Heschel was a strong advocate for social justice.  He was among those who marched at Selma. 


Lecturing in 1963, he said,   "People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle....Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions. . . . To celebrate is to share in a greater joy, to participate in an eternal drama.”[2]


“People of our time are losing the power of celebration.”  He said that more than 50 years ago, but it still rings true.  The picture of Jesus that emerges from the gospels is of a person who knew how to celebrate.  His critics said that he was a drunkard and a glutton, but his friends understood the truth – that he shared in a greater joy.


John calls Jesus miraculous acts “signs”.  He is not as interested in the acts themselves as in the truth they point to.  This act is a sign of God’s abundance and joy.   Perhaps for John, this sign needs to be the first, because religious systems lose sight of it so easily.  Religious systems tend to get codified, to become lists of rules and regulations.  We get caught up in the work that needs to be done and the routine of daily life and we lose our capacity for joy and celebration. 


Or maybe I am just describing myself.  I can certainly get stuck in that trap.  I need Rabbi Heschel’s wisdom about celebration.  But here’s the tension I see in this story – there is a real need for action, not just for celebration.  The party almost ends.  It would have ended, shamefully, if not for Jesus and his mother. 


His mother who prods him into action.  “They have no wine”  she says.  And Jesus says, “It is not my time.”  But she puts him on the spot and tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  When is the time for celebration?  When is it the time for action?  How are they related? 


Consider this:  a young man finished the coursework for his PhD and took his first job.  He was at that stage called ABD – all but dissertation.  He planned to write it in the next year.  He left graduate school and took his first job as pastor of a church.  He was the father of a young family, just starting out.  The first year of a pastorate sets the tone for the future.  It is when the congregation and the pastor get to know each other and decide to trust each other.  It is a very important time in the relationship.  That was where Martin Luther King Jr found himself in the mid 1950’s.  That was his personal and professional context.  But in the wider world, Rosa Parks had refused to go to the back of the bus.  In Montgomery, it was the time for action.  There were people looking for leadership and they were looking hard at Martin.  He could have said, “It is not my time.  I have a young family.  I need to be a good father and husband.  I am new to this congregation.  God has called me to be their pastor.  It is not a good time.   It will not work.  For Pete’s sake, I have a dissertation to write.  It is not my time.”[3]  Martin could have said those things to justify himself.  Other people probably did justify themselves like that.  We have probably justified ourselves like that. 


It is one of the unsettling pieces of this story, that Jesus seems to need to be prodded into action by his mother.  Even Jesus has to discern what time it is.


So how do we respond to the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God who is fundamentally about shared joy?  Do we respond with celebration, which is to say with reverence and appreciation and keeping the party going?  Or do we respond with action, seeking to be God’s instruments of peace and justice?  This seems to be one of those questions of balance, which some of us spend our lives working out.


There is one detail in the story which offers one kind of answer.  Notice that the water jars have to be filled.  These are large jars.  They probably stand about waist high.  Jesus tells the servants to fill them to the brim, which requires a lot of trips back and forth to the well.  It is the unnamed, unnoticed servants who do the work.  And it turns out that they are the only ones who know what is really going on.  Verse 9 says that the chief steward, the guy in charge of the caterers, he didn’t know where the good wine came from, but the servants knew.


Sisters and brothers, you and I are called to be servants of God.  “We are the ones who administer the blessings of God to the world.  We carry the water which becomes wine. It's the hard, inglorious work of Hospitality.  There is paradox here.  We are the chosen ones, according to parts of the Tradition, but God gives us no special place at the wedding. Indeed, we are to serve, to work sometimes long hours for low pay and little recognition.  And yet we get to see, to understand, to stand under — his glory.”[4]


It is in trusting and serving that we come to celebrate the source of life’s blessings.  It is in serving that we truly appreciate the best wine.  That is when Jesus’ glory is revealed in all its fullness, when life is enjoyed most profoundly, when we can both act and also attend to the transcendent meaning in our actions.  It is like an especially good wine, beyond description, saving the best for last. We can only appreciate it, or not. 


Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  Is it our time?  Our time to act, our time to celebrate?  May it be our time to share in a greater joy, to participate in God’s eternal drama.  Amen.



[1] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John,  (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998) p. 66 

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who  is Man? (Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 117.

[3] This story comes from a sermon by Carl L. Schenck entitled Not My Time, found at www.goodpreacher.com

[4] These words are from Andrew Prior