Isaiah 55:1-1, John 2:1-11
January 20, 2013
I have always loved this passage from Isaiah. It’s one of the my favorite writings in this section of his book which tells about the future restoration of Israel. And it is one of my favorite choir anthems!
The future restoration of Israel was very important to the people to which this was written. They had gone through a lot! I sometimes like to think of ancient Israel as being like a deli. (I guess it would have to be a Jewish deli, right?) For the last 800 years or so before Christ, there was what seemed like a whole series of countries waiting in line to conquer them. It was like there was somebody pulling that chain in a deli that changed the numbers. “Ok who’s next? Who’s next to conquer Israel?”
For the first half of the book of Isaiah, it was the Assyrians. They had conquered the northern kingdom, the one actually named Israel, and they’d left the southern kingdom called Judah living fearfully next door. The city of Jerusalem was in Judah The latter half of the book, which many scholars feel was written after the time of Isaiah, (perhaps by a Second Isaiah) describes time of the next conquering empire – the Babylonians. You remember them! Their exile was one of the most traumatic times in Jewish History. Our reading from chapter 55 falls in that time.
But that wasn’t the end. There were many people in that deli! The Persians, under King Cyrus, would conquer the Babylonians, He would allow the exiles to return to their country. But they were still under Persian domination. After that, Persia lost big time in a war with a new power arising in Greece, under a man named (anybody?) Alexander. After Alexander died and his empire crumbled, Egypt took over. They ruled until they were defeated by the Syrians. (Not to be confused with the Assyrians!)
So, do you see what I mean? By the way, there’ll be a quiz next period, so be sure to study! Whoever scores the highest will get to clap the erasers! Remember that? You’d see little kids standing in the middle of a huge cloud of dust! It’s a wonder we all didn’t get “white lung disease!”
Anyway, Israel won their freedom from Syria under a man I’ve mentioned before, Judas Maccabees. I’ve mentioned him during Palm Sunday, because he’s the one who came riding into Jerusalem in triumph, while the people waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna, blessed his he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Sound familiar?
So, Isaiah’s words about the restoration of Israel were very important to the people! And this chapter, I think contains the greatest of those words. To the people under the Babylonian occupation, he said, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. And you who have no money, come and eat. Harken diligently to me, and eat what is good. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found.” And seriously, I can’t read those words without hearing the music!
By the way, I also want you to notice the universality of Isaiah’s message. “Behold you shall call nations that you knew not, and nations that you knew not shall run to you.” Does that sound a little like “Good news of a great joy that shall be to all people?” There are many such words in Isaiah’s writings about God’s light to the whole world!
The people in exile needed these words of hope. They needed to know that times would be better, and that they could seek and trust God in the present time, despite the difficulties of their world. Sound familiar? Sometimes I think we need such a prophet in our time. On Christmas Eve I spoke of the darkness of the world into which Jesus came, and how that darkness is still around. If you remember, it was only days after the tragedy of the children in Connecticut, and the firefighters in New York, and only weeks after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. I read from the prologue of John’s Gospel, where he declared that the light “still shines despite the darkness, and the darkness has never conquered it!” Those words are similar to Isaiah’s words. He gave that same hope to the people of his time, as indeed there did seem to be this stream of nations and empires stepping up to that counter waiting their turn, waiting their pull of that chain!
Enter Jesus. And when Jesus came on the scene, the chain had been pulled once again, and who was next up to the counter? Rome. They’re the guys we always have to keep them in mind when we read the Gospels. (And the rest of the New Testament, for that matter!) Rome, was the greatest, most powerful empire the world had ever known. They conquered the entire Mediterranean world, most of Europe, and even a good part of the British Isles. And the Roman rule was bittersweet. They were brutal, yet they gave the world things like art, science, literature, architecture, and even the beginnings of representative government!
Against that backdrop of Rome, we have the life and ministry of Jesus. And here, against that backdrop, we have this his first miracle. That’s the this story we read today. And I think this is great, because here Jesus was taking part in a wedding. He was participating in one of the great celebrations of life. Not only that, but when they ran out of wine, he solved the problem. He turned water into wine. Frankly, I don’t see how you can look at this story and then take a stern, always-serious view of the Christian faith. This story speaks to us of the joy in life that Jesus was sharing. It speaks of the words Jesus would say later, I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly!
As I thought about that story, I could hear Isaiah’s words, “Ho everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” Those were words of abundance and joy, too – not just restoration! And now that theme is taken up hundreds of years later in the ministry of Jesus! Think of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. He told her, “Whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst. And the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John Chapter 4) Later he would describe the abundance of life as coming back to us “pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” That’s the abundant life he came that we might have!
Many have argued the significance of the wine in this story. There have been those who have thought it somehow inappropriate, or out of character, for Jesus, our savior, to have provided this wine. They’ve said, “Well, it was very weak in alcohol. It was more like simple grape juice.” Or they’ve said, “Wine was safer to drink than the natural water.” But why then does the steward at the feast say, “Every man serves the good wine first, and then when men have drunk freely, the poor wine?” That flies in the face of those who try to explain this away! Jesus didn’t just make wine. It’s clear here that he made good wine! And he made a lot of it!! 120 to 180 gallons of it! (Do the math!)
But that’s not the point, though. It’s not the indulgence, or the over-indulgence, that’s important here. It’s about the abundance! It’s about God wanting us to have joy in our lives. It’s about God wanting us to celebrate this life he’s given us. It’s about God wanting to share in that joy, and to celebration with us! This story speaks of that. Isaiah’s words speak of that, too!
And one more thing. And perhaps this is the most important of all. Gods abundance is not dependent on the conditions of the world! It is not dependent on the circumstances of life! That was true in Isaiah’s time. It was true in Jesus’ time. And it’s true in our time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people who have done mission work in the poorest countries come home with the same story. They tell how joyous and loving people in those churches are. They have nothing, but they have a faith and trust in God that dwarfs our own! They are happy. They are joyful. And they are even generous! They have very little, and yet they see the abundance of life!
Can the same be said of us? Life is not always easy. I don’t have to tell you that, I’m sure. But do we seek to live the joyful life anyway? Do we let circumstances get us down, or do we believe what our savior said? I know I have to ask myself that same question when things are difficult. This is not easy, my friends. The darkness is all around us in this world. And the temptation to see only that darkness can be great. So instead, we can look to Jesus. We can think about the abundance he lived in this story. We can know that abundance can be ours as well.
We can look to Isaiah’s words about the restoration of Israel. And we can know that we have been restored, too. His words are still true. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.”
Eternal God, you have restored us through your son, Jesus. You have made us new. Help us to know that. Help us to live in his light no matter how deep the darkness around us. Help us to uphold one another and to live joyous abundant lives as your people. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.