By David Zahl
My wife and I recently went through the process of buying a new mattress. I don’t know how familiar you are with that industry, but it is completely bonkers. I mean, it puts used-car sales to shame. The same company sells the same mattress under different names at different stores. No one is required to disclose anything. There’s all sorts of haggling involved, and there’s no guarantee of pretty much anything. But you know that you’ll walk out of there with something.
Now there are a million disrupter bed-in-a-box companies, like Casper, and those you are supposed to buy without having ever even slept on the thing. So you go online and you try to find reviews of mattresses, and it turns out that none of them is trustworthy. Not only the reviews but the sites themselves are all paid for by the mattress industry. Forbes wrote this huge thing about how it’s the most corrupt industry in America.
So here I am, trying to go on Reddit — which, if you’ve spent time on Reddit, you want to minimize your time on Reddit — I’m trying to get some bearing, something trustworthy, some indication of where I should put my money and where not, but the deeper you dive into the mattress industry, the deeper you realize that everyone is flying blind. No one knows what’s going on. Not even Oprah Winfrey.
This enormous part of our life, sleep. We all have mattresses in this room; I’m pretty much sure of it. It’s completely stupefying. It’s completely stupid. All of us are operating on a wing and a prayer. A few get lucky and have a mattress they swear by, but most people sort of just deal with whatever it is that they got about eight to 10 years ago or they inherited. You wake up with a sore back thinking that that’s your body breaking down rather than the sign of a terrible mattress. It’s a good metaphor for life. Nobody knows what on earth they are doing. We’re all looking for some sort of sign, some kind of indication of where we can put our trust, where we can put our money, where we can find something that is authentic and true.
John’s Gospel refers to these miracles of Christ as “signs,” and I love that. I mean, a sign is something that points beyond itself. There aren’t as many miracles in John. So you sort of have to take them all seriously, and there’s really only seven, but this is the first one, and it seems to be the most trivial. Compared to what else goes on in John, the healing of a terminally ill child, the feeding of a starving population on a hillside, in fact the raising of Lazarus from the dead, making extra wine at a wedding is just not on the same level. It’s nice, if you’re at that wedding. But it doesn’t have the same kind of gravity.
So what’s going on here? The wedding service of the Episcopal Church references this particular miracle. It turns out this first sign is so fitting because it’s a harbinger of all that Jesus would do and be for the world. And what he would do and be for the world is a giver of gifts. It is a sign of divine generosity. ’What is it that he gives? Who does he give it to? And when does he give it?
Well, first of all, what he gives is wine. He gives not just okay wine; he gives good wine. And by that we’re talking about a wedding that would have been going on for a week. It would have been a pretty serious embarrassment to run out of wine. It basically meant that the party would end. As anyone knows who’s thrown a party, you want just enough for people to get tipsy and for social inhibition to come down a little bit, but not so much that anyone is really having a hard time the next morning or making a fool of themselves. So first of all Jesus brings extra wine, which is to say that he prolongs the joy and the mirth that that would be evident in this celebration. It goes against the grain of a perception of Christianity, of God, as the enemy of fun, of Jesus as the ultimate killjoy. How many people say, “I’d like to be Christian, but maybe later in life, after I’ve had my fun.” Like Saint Augustine: “God, make me chaste, but not yet.”
All you have to do is look in Webster’s Dictionary and see what the definition of the word preach is: “To give moral advice to someone in an annoying or pompously self-righteous way.” Great! I mean, maybe that’s not what it’s supposed to mean, but that’s how it’s commonly used, if you’re preaching at someone. No wonder Kierkegaard said that Christ turned water into wine, and the church has spent 2,000 years turning wine into water.
But this Jesus is not a killjoy. In fact, he lavishly brings joy; he brings 180 gallons of the good stuff. You know, joy’s important. We don’t talk about joy that much, but the poet Christian Wiman says that suffering did nothing for him when it comes to God. What drew him to God were experiences of joy, of falling in love. You can try to make sense of illness and terrible things in your life. But if you have a downbeat outlook, you will not be able to make sense of joy when it comes. It always comes in little glimpses, and that’s what drew him to God. So Jesus brings joy.
Secondly, he brings faith. It says at the end, “and his disciples believed in him.” They already believed in him, because they’re following him, they’re his disciples, and yet he gives them faith again. Faith is something we think we need to generate on our own. Perhaps faith is something you either have or you don’t, and here you see that Jesus creates faith in those who maybe had it once or maybe it’s waning or maybe they’d forgotten and need it again.
So he gives joy and faith. Who does he give it to? Well, that good wine he gives to those who won’t appreciate it, to people who are already “lightheaded,” as some Baptist translations put it. He gives it to drunk people who would have been happy to drink whatever was around. But this is the good stuff. He gives good wine to those who don’t appreciate it.
And not only that; he gives good wine to those who were ill-prepared, to those who organized this wedding, who blew it when it came to the headcount and are embarrassed. He gives his gift to those who don’t know what’s going on because they’re drunk or unprepared. Maybe they’re running on fumes. By the way, people can get drunk on all sorts of things. The point of this is not to talk about alcohol; people are drunk on self-pity very often, and I think they get drunk on resentment. They get drunk on blame or on self-loathing.
But who did he give faith to? He gives faith to those who should already have it. In other words, he gives gifts to the wrong kind of people and to those who are too hungover to know what’s going on. He gives what is counterintuitive. The steward says this incredible line: most people put out the good wine first and bring out the bad stuff once everyone’s had a bit to drink, but you’ve saved the best for last.
I think in life people consciously or unconsciously believe that the wine of their life has run out. Maybe their best days are behind them, they missed an opportunity to lead a better life, and they’re living inside of a box canyon of a decision that they made 25 years ago. I can’t help but think that we live in a town where people sometimes move back in order to recapture their glory days, as though if they can live here close to the university, then maybe they can get a little taste of when the wine was still flowing.
But we see in this episode that what looks like too late is right on time. Martin Luther says that Christ waits to the very last moment, when the want is felt by all present and there is no counsel or help left. This shows the way of divine grace. It is not imparted to the one who has enough.” The poem Mary Oliver has this beautiful poem, “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” and when she prayed, she said, “Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour / me a little. And tenderness, too. My / need is great.”
So, this guy who gives gifts to the wrong people, at the wrong time, who saves the best for last. I’ll give you one image of it, and then I’m finished. If you talk to a lot of film critics, they say that the popular idea is that the best film of all time is Citizen Kane, but if you drill down and you really get to the serious, crème de la crème of critics, I’ve noticed over the years that they all say that actually the greatest film ever made was made in 1916, called Intolerance. It’s subtitled Love’s Struggle Through the Ages. It’s three and a half hours. It’s on YouTube, and it is brilliant.
I only watched it because someone knew I was preaching on this passage and said, If you haven’t watched that, then you’re an idiot. And so I went and watched three hours on YouTube, and I’m so glad I did. It really might be the greatest film ever made. It’s about the waves of hardship that crash against the human story. I mean, it’s certainly ambitious. It tells four different stories in four different times. It tells the fall of Babylon in 560 B.C. It tells the story of Christ in his time, in Galilee. It tells the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in the 16th century, in France. And it tells a modern story in Pittsburgh, of corporate greed, and workers going on strike and moralistic cruelty and all these forces that oppose love.
If you watch a silent film, you know that everything feels sped up and stressful. They’re all running everywhere, even though they actually weren’t running everywhere. It’s the way the film was done, but it feels frantic. You’re seeing Babylon and all these set pieces. And you’re seeing the court in France and everyone is so cruel to one another and the Huguenots.
And then all of a sudden, everything goes calm. The set simplifies, and we’re in Cana of Galilee. And it’s one of the first points and only points in the film that’s stable. And it’s warm and it’s joyful and it’s safe, and we watch as Jesus goes into this wedding to which he was invited. He had a social life, turns out. He does this sign with the wine, and as he does it, the shadow of a cross falls over him, as if to say, the sign that he is making here is pointing towardsomething else; it’s pointing straight to the cross.
And then the film goes back to chaos. It goes back to a different time. It escalates, and the cuts get shorter and shorter and all of a sudden we have cruelty and sorrow and injustice and lovers separated and people sentenced to death and people being massacred in the streets and just the worst possible things imaginable, and it culminates in the crucifixion of Christ.
At that very moment, just when you think it cannot get any worse, all of history stops. Angels appear in the sky, and the next thing you see is an image of an enormous prison with huge walls, filled with prisoners on the inside, and you watch as the walls dissolve and it becomes an empty field full of flowers, and this field becomes populated with old and young and soldiers and prisoners and children, and they’re playing. There are cannons there, which have ivy growing on them, and children are laughing, and heaven and earth have come together. Light streams in from the east and the west and the north and the south and it forms a cross. It gets wider and wider and then it says, The End.
God saved the best till last. So how about you? Where are you this morning? Does your life feel like a runaway train? Do you look at the headlines? The world just seems to be escalating in insanity. Do you see people around you who are drunk on resentment and anger and self-righteousness? Do you feel like maybe the wine is running out in your life?
No matter where you are, God has more for you. He has not finished giving his gifts. He has saved the best until last. And what he has saved is another wedding, which is the wedding of the Lamb, the great picture of heaven that we have in every Gospel, this moment wherever confusion will be made clear and every bit of hardship that you’ve suffered or are suffering now will lose its sting, and where you will rest like you never rested before. Your back will feel great. And we get a taste in just a few moments when we are offered a different cup of wine, the cup of salvation, the cup that will never run dry.
David Zahl is founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries and college and adult educaton minister at Christ Church, Charlottesville, Virginia.