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Sunday, 22 January 2012

God's Extravagance


Some years ago now, when my daughter got married, my husband and I went to France to buy the sparkling wine they'd chosen for toasts and so on, and they ordered the rest of the wine on sale or return from Majestic or one of those. Of course, frantic panic and calculations about how much to get – but we all got it right, and there was plenty but not enough, as my daughter said, to be worth sending back! So we shared out what was left among the various families, and very nice it was, too! But wouldn't it have been awful if we'd got it wrong?

And, in our Gospel reading for today, that is exactly what happened The wine ran out. I gather that wedding parties in those days tended to go on for about three days, and it isn't clear at what stage the wine ran out; probably towards the end of the festivities. We aren't told why, either. Perhaps the wine merchant let them down, or perhaps her relations drank more than the bridegroom's family had expected, or perhaps they just didn't calculate properly. Who knows? Anyway,they ran out of wine. Total embarrassment and despair, and probably a great deal of fury going on behind the scenes.

But among the wedding guests were a very special family. Mary, the carpenter's widow from Nazareth, and her sons. Cana isn't very far from Nazareth, only about twelve miles, but that's quite a good day's journey when you have to rely on your own two feet to get you there. So it's probable that either the bride or the groom were related to Mary in some way, especially as she seems to have been told about the disaster with the wine.

And then comes one of those turning-point moments in the Gospels. Mary tells her eldest son, Jesus, that the wine has run out.

Now, as far as we can tell, Jesus is only just beginning to realise who he is. John's gospel says that he has already been baptised by John the Baptist, which implies that he has been out into the desert to wrestle with the implications of being the Messiah – and the temptations which came with it, and John also tells us that Simon Peter, Andrew and some of the others have started to be Jesus' disciples and had come with him to the wedding. But, in this version of the story, Jesus hasn't yet started to use his divine power to heal people and to perform miracles, and he isn't quite sure that the time is right to do so. So when his mother comes up and says “They have no wine,” his immediate reaction is to say, more or less, “Well, nothing I can do about it! It isn't time yet!”

His mother, however, seems to have been ahead of Jesus for once, on this, and says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you!” And Jesus, who was always very close to God, and who had learnt to listen to his Father all the time, realises that, after all, his mother is right and the time has come to start using the power God has given him. So he tells the servants to fill those big jars with water – an they pour out as the best wine anybody there has ever tasted. As someone remarked, right at the fag-end of the wedding, when people are beginning to go home and everybody has had more than enough to drink, anyway.

I don't suppose the bridegroom's family were sorry, though. Those jars were huge – they held about a hundred litres each, and there were six of them. Do you realise just how much wine that was? Six hundred litres – about eight hundred standard bottles of wine! Eight hundred.... you don't even see that many on the supermarket shelves, do you? Eight hundred.... I should think Mary was a bit flabber-gasted. And it was such good quality too.

Okay, so people drank rather more wine then than we do today, since there was no tea or coffee, poor them, and the water was a bit iffy, but even still, I should think eight hudnred bottles would last them quite a while. And at that stage of the wedding party, there's simply no way they could have needed that much.

But isn't that exactly like Jesus? Isn't that typical of God? We see it over and over and over again in the Scriptures. The story of feeding the five thousand, for instance – and one of the Gospel-writers points out that it was five thousand men, not counting the women and children – well, in that story, Jesus didn't provide just barely enough lunch for everybody, quite the reverse – there were twelve whole basketsful left over! Far more than enough food -all the disciples could have a basketful to take home to Mum.

Or what about when the disciples were fishing and he told them to cast their nets that-away? The nets didn't just get a sensible catch of fish – they were full and over-full, so that they almost ripped.

It's not just in the Bible either – look at God's creation. You've all seen pictures of the way the desert blooms when it rains – look at those millions of flowers that nobody, for a very long time, ever knew were there except God. Or look at how many millions and millions of sperm male animals produce to fertilise only a few embryos in the course of a lifetime. Or where lots of embryos are produced, like fish, for instance, millions of them are eaten or otherwise perish long before adulthood. And millions and millions of different plant and animal species, some of which are only now being discovered.

Or look at the stars – have you, perhaps, been watching this Stargazing Live programme this week with Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain? All those millions upon millions of stars, many with planets, some with planets like our own that may even hold intelligent life..... God is amazing, isn't He? And just suppose we really are the only intelligent life in the Universe? That says something else about God's extravagance in creating such an enormous Universe with only us in it! Our God is truly amazing! And who knows, somewhere, in a galaxy far away, God might be being worshipped by beings who are far different from us – perhaps they are five feet square, one inch thick, and ripple! Or perhaps they are more like plants than like people.... who knows? Apart from God, nobody knows! But it's fun to speculate.

But there's a more serious side to this than just science fiction, much though I love it. The point is, doesn't an extravagant God demand an extravagant response from us? His most extravagant act, so far as we know, was to come down to earth as a human being, a tiny baby, born in an obscure village in a dusty corner of the world, totally helpless, totally vulnerable.... our own celebrations of Christmas, no matter how over-the-top, don't even begin to come close!

And yet our response is, so very often, "meh!"; lukewarm! We tend to give God the minimum, rather than the maximum – that's much too scary! And yet we're told that the measure we give will be given back to us, pressed down, shaken together and running over! As the response to our Psalm reads, “How abundant is your goodness, O Lord.”

We hold back. We follow God only a little bit. We don't dare give the full tithe, the full ten percent, because we think that in times of recession we can't afford to. Or we think it doesn't apply to us. Well, I'm not one to preach prosperity theology, but God does promise all sorts of blessings on us, material or otherwise, if we bring in the full tithe.

Or, perhaps we do follow God whole-heartedly – but we see Christianity as a matter of judgementalism, of a God who seeks excuses to condemn people, rather than excuses to forgive them. We see people proclaiming in the media, or on Facebook, or elsewhere that God hates a given group of people – usually gay people, or women who have abortions. Such nonsense – how can he hate those he came to die for? He may or may not approve of their actions, but – well, he doesn't approve of everything we do, either. We too are sinners, and know that we are!

Would our extravagant God, the one who produced eight hundred bottles of top-quality wine at the tail end of a party, would that God really be mean-minded? Yes, we have seen from Scripture that God can be extravagant in his judgements as well as in his gifts, but not, normally, against people who are trying to follow him as best they know how. It is those who turn against God, who follow false gods, and who, worse still, encourage other people to do the same, they are the ones who come under judgement.

Sometimes, though, we can't respond extravagantly to God's extravagance because we are afraid to allow God to be extravagant with us! Maybe we'd be asked to do something we really don't want to do.... or live somewhere we don't want to live, or.... you know the scenario. But, my friends, if an extravagant God calls you to do something extravagant for him, won't he give you extravagantly, abundantly, the strength and, yes, the desire, to do it?

Jesus came, he told us, so that we can have life, and have it abundantly! Abundantly. Are we allowing God to be extravagant in our lives? Am I? Are you? Amen.

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