January 20, 2019: "The Unexpected God"
“The Unexpected God”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 20, 2019: Epiphany 2
Isaiah 62:1-5 & John 2:1-11
In preparing for my message this morning, I was reminded of a quaint little film from the late 1980’s called Babette’s Feast. It is set in a desolate and tiny village on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, in the latter part of the 19thcentury. The drama revolves around two sisters, the daughters of a Luther pastor, who carry on his ministry to the poor and elderly after their father’s death. Including the sisters, there are only twelve people living in this tiny village. The sisters, Martine and Phillipa, gather the tiny community into their cramped home each week for Bible study and prayer. Sometimes they are able to cobble together something that looks like a community meal, but it doesn’t happen often. One day, a young girl appears at the sister’s door with a letter asking that she be taken in and cared for. This young girl’s name is Babette and she is a political refugee from the growing unrest in Paris. Exasperated as to how they will care for this young girl with such meager means, the sisters offer to take Babette in if she will cook and clean for them for free. Babette agrees.
Cooking for the sisters was not much work, after all. It turns out that the sisters have eaten the same meal every day for several decades: boiled fish and stale bread. For a Parisian such as Babette, this bland diet will simply not do. She tries to spice up the sister’s food, using new ingredients and techniques, but the sisters won’t have it. Sometimes they spit the food out on Babette’s shoes; other times they will sit at the table, armed folded, refusing to eat. They would rather go hungry than deviate from their decades-old routine. But Babette stays faithful through it all, caring for the sisters in the same way they have cared faithfully for their community.
One of the more intriguing parts of the film are these little flashbacks that happen throughout that help us to understand each character. We learn in one flashback why Martine is so icy. She had once been pursued by two well-to-do men, both of whom she refused. This sent her father into such a rage that he expelled her from their home. Two regulars at the weekly Bible study scowl at each other the whole time, and we learn in a flashback that they had a spat many years before over the line between their properties. A husband and wife arrive together hand-in-hand, but as they return home and are out of sight of the others, they quickly separate hands and walk a few feet apart. Babette watches all of this with great fascination from her place in the kitchen. In such a small town, nothing goes unnoticed, and Babette quickly learns that everyone has a story.
One thing that keeps Babette grounded living in a foreign land and in a foreign house is a Parisian lottery ticket that she holds closely in the pocket of her apron. A friend of Babette’s in Paris renews the ticket for her each year, and one day Babette wins! 10,000 francs suddenly makes Babette the richest person the small little town had ever seen. Martine and Philippa are sad—they know for certain that Babette will take her winnings and go back to live in Paris. But, remarkably, Babette’s response to her good fortune is much different. Babette decides to stay in the tiny little village with the sisters, and to thank the sisters and the town for their welcome and care for her, she is going to offer a banquet—yes, a banquet—for the entire town.
Babette uses her connections to get everything she needs. She imports delicacies from Paris, fine china and silverware, and linen table clothes whiter than fresh-fallen snow. Babette’s feast turns out to be a veritable and incredible meal, the likes of which the diners had never seen before. There is wine and soup, quail and roasted suckling pig, cheeses and fruit, and course after course of sweet desserts. As the diners burry themselves in all the delicious food, the speed of the film slows down. In the slo-mo filming of the banquet we see some wonderful things. The neighbors who fought of the property line all those years ago nod and smile at each other. We see the husband and wife and each has a fork in one hand, but we don’t immediately see their other hands. Slowly, the camera pans to beneath the table where they are holding hands while they eat. Each diner has a look of pure ecstasy on his or her face.
The next day, as the sisters survey the mess after Babette’s feast, they are once again sad that Babette will take her left-over winnings and leave for Paris. However, when the sisters ask Babette about her future, they learn that she has no money left. Babette reveals to them that she was formerly the head chef of a fancy restaurant in Paris. Babette tells the sisters that in her restaurant such a fancy for 12 people a price of 10,000 francs. “Now you’ll be poor the rest of your life,” Martine says through tears. Babette smiles and says, “An artist is never poor.” Phillipa gathers the three together in a warm embrace and intones the final line of the film: “But this is not the end, Babette. In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be. Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”
The people of Jutland were religious people, pious people. They went to prayer and Bible study weekly. They had their issues, but nothing truly serious could ever plague such a small and remote village. And yet, their lives are not what they could be. Babette’s feast brought old enemies together, estranged lovers back together, and it brought a sort of transformation to the community that redeemed their hollow lives. The village became a community at Babette’s feast even though it had been in existence forever. It became a community because a community is not just some place that you live—a community is place where you flourish and live interdependently and share love and concern with your neighbors. Babette’s feast was unexpected, and that is the brilliance of the whole thing. It was unexpected and it changed some sad and dreary lives forever.
It is this very thing that we see taking place in the gospel lesson today. This is the moment that Jesus’ ministry begins. And judging by his response to his mother, he wasn’t quite sure this was the time or place. But not even our Lord is above the instructions of his mother. Mary is concerned because the wine has run out at the wedding banquet they are attending. This is one of those moments in Scripture where we might not emotionally connect with something that appears to be a crisis. I’m sure we’ve all been to places where the food or drink ran out, but it did not send us scrambling to Jesus to do a miracle. But in Jesus’ time, running out of wine was the very height of dishonor for a host. Even more than that, it was the very height of dishonor to the bride if her new husband could not provide for the banquet. Such dishonor could have pushed the bride’s father to break the marriage convent and take his daughter, and her dowry, home with him. This is a big problem, and Mary knows just what to do.
John tells us that there were six stone jars in the banquet hall, each holding twenty to thirty gallons of water so the guests could wash up before the meal. That’s 120 to 180 gallons of water that Jesus is about to turn into wine. Talk about a feast! Jesus’ first miracle turns all of that water into wine, but not just any wine. When the steward tastes it, after almost watching his world denigrate because the wine ran out, he is astounded that this new wine is better than the first. In a commentary on human nature, the steward takes the wine to the groom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” John tells us that Jesus’ first revealed his glory and the disciples believed in him.
How wonderfully unexpected! The Lord of all creation, the Word made flesh, the Wisdom from on high, the babe of Bethlehem, and the Jesus of the cross used his first miracle to ensure that a groom’s honor remained intact at his wedding banquet. All the healing and teaching and loving that we’re going to watch Jesus do throughout the rest of his ministry is stuff that we can rightly expect—these are the things Jesus came into the world to do. But turning water into wine? That seems more like a hattrick than a revelation of the glory of God. Could it be that Jesus’ first miracle was about more than just water and wine and a groom’s honor? Could it be that Jesus’ first miracle was not about his power but about God’s plan for each and every one of us?
My friends, I believe that is exactly what Jesus’s first miracle was all about—it was about showing to you and to me and to all of creation God’s intent of transforming everything from water into wine. Look, we’re not as sad and bound by routine and afflicted by petty arguments like the tiny village in Babette’s feast. Well, at least not all the time. But sometimes it can be just a dreary and sad. We’re not immune to the falling victim to fear and anxiety and worry. We’re not immune from the dangerous things that happen in this world. We’re not immune to questions that haunt us about health or faith or life itself. We are not immune to panic when, like the guests in Cana, we realize that the fun has run out and the jars are empty. We also no immune to the times when life feels hollow and not as rich and full as God intends for it to be. But just as Babette did for those villagers, and just as Jesus did in Cana, God is ready to transform the ordinary of our lives into something extraordinary. God does this by bringing us out of error and into the truth. God does this propelling us into righteousness when the bonds of our sin have been broken. God does this by taking away death’s sting so that we can fully enjoy the gift of life. Water into wine. Sin into righteousness. Error into truth. Death into life. This is the God we serve--the unexpected God we serve.
And so today I think there are two things we must do in light of this very good news. Out God is the unexpected, turning our water into wine. First, we must give thanks. We didn’t do anything to deserve this God who loves us so deeply, and there is nothing we can do to push our God away. We must accept God’s deep love for us and the transformation God so deeply desires for us to experience. We must accept it—it true and worthy of our full acceptance. And second, we must remember that God’s love, God’s will for transformation, is not limited to those we think are worthy, to those we think deserve it, to those we like and agree with or are friends with. The Wise Men taught us this when they were the first to bow down and worship the baby Jesus. They were outsiders, heathens, the most unlikely of all. But that’s our God, the God of Jesus Christ. God isn’t just on the side of those who are in—in the church, in power, in style. God is the God of all. If we truly want the full, deep, and rich life that God has in store for us all—and I think we all want that, we must live with eyes and ears wide open to the big and small miracles God is doing at every moment.
Give thanks and watch, and the water into wine moments are happening all the time. Thanks be to God! Amen.