Sermon: What God Is Like

January 20, 2019
Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 2:1-11

If you wanted to write a book about what God is like, where would you start?

If you wanted to write a sermon about what God is like, where would you start?

If you were me, you might start with a rhetorical question.

That was the challenge that all of the Gospel writers faced, and to their credit, none of them opened it with a rhetorical question, which puts them one up on me. John opened his Gospel with that lovely poetic section, echoing the first words of Genesis, “in the beginning,” and then going on to describe the pre-existent Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Each of the Gospel writers also had to tell the story of how Jesus made the transformation from an unknown laborer in an obscure Galilean village to a preacher, teacher, healer, and troubler of empires. All four identify Jesus’ baptism as the moment he determined his new direction. And in all four, he begins gathering followers, even before they tell us what he would preach, teach, and do.

John then chose this story, to skip other things he might have known about the early days of Jesus’ ministry, to tell of Jesus and his small group of followers, less than a week after his baptism, going to a wedding in a village called Cana, back in Galilee. Jesus was probably invited because he was a cousin to the bride or the groom, though probably “cousin” in the sense that everybody is related to everybody in small towns. Jesus’ mother and at least some of his brothers were also there.

Then: disaster. They ran out of wine. In our day, this would be an embarrassment for a caterer and an irritation for the family, but not a disaster. A closer comparison might be if the food ran out at a funeral, not just that there was not much left over to send home with people, but if not everyone could sit and eat. A family that found that happening at a service would be devastated. We avoid that situation at all costs.

And then they ran out of wine.

Jesus’ mother may not have been the first to notice, but she was the first to try to do something about it in John’s telling. She went to her son, who didn’t seem to think it was anything to concern him. She then manipulated him into taking action, by telling the servants to follow his directions. With an undescribed sigh recognized by children whose mothers have cajoled them into washing the dishes down the centuries, Jesus told the servants to fill up the ceremonial water jars – big stone water jars that would be used for ritual washing, rather than ordinary cleaning – and then to take jugs from those jars to the steward of the feast. When it reached him, the water had become wine, wine so good that he felt the need to tell the bridegroom that he’d got it backward, and saved the best wine for last.

And that, said John, is what God is like. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

Yep. That’s what God is like.

Should I fill that in a bit?

Lindsey Trotto writes, “Jesus’ actions are that of a friend and faithful community member; the provision of wine is a sign of shared hospitality. Rather than serving mediocre wine near the close of the wedding (when celebrants’ senses were less keen), Jesus brings a surprising abundance of fine wine. We may draw parallels to God’s work in the world. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry marks the start of God’s work in the world that has been long-awaited. The story leads us to expect surprisingly good and abundant things to come as Jesus begins his ministry. Starting the story with a provision of wine at a wedding feast, we can see Jesus’ mission as continuing God’s work in the world that provides hospitality and a space of belonging outside of the existing honor/shame structure.”

What is God like? God is like the extravagant host. God is like the one who sees that the guests receive more than they expect, more than they anticipate: “surprisingly good and abundant things.”

Further, God is like the host gracious to all, gracious to those at any social status. As Eliseo Perez-Alvarez writes, “In those days food and wine were not served indiscriminately to the guests sitting at the same table. It was based on their social status. Some guests got the cheapest wine — a mixture of wine, vinegar, and water — like the one Jesus was offered on the cross (Luke 23:36), while others drank grand reserve. The good news is that Jesus’ wine is for everybody.

“To be sure, Jesus neither promotes Rome’s saturnalia nor Greece’s bacchanalia. Jesus takes the side of the poor groom and bride who ran out of wine in the middle of the fiesta. The Nazarene clinks glasses of wine with folks who are exhausted by poverty, telling them salud, cheers, skol, meaning salvation, liberation, humanization, healing.”

What is God like? God is salvation for the poor.

But is God also somewhat indifferent to human need? Carol Lakey Hess writes (in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), “It may seem like a travesty to turn a narrative about divine abundance into a trial of God, and yet it is passages like this one about divine extravagance that make God’s absence in the face of poverty, suffering, and evil stand out. How do we reconcile a story of potent generosity with a world of tremendous need? If God is both generous and able, then apparently God continues to express Jesus’ attitude: what is that to me? Because we trust that God wants abundance (plentiful wine and lavish food are common symbols of God’s grace in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament), we follow in the footsteps of the mother of Jesus by prodding God for divine compassion and generosity.”

Ah, yes, Jesus’ mother. She’s the original actor in this story, she’s the one who sees that Jesus begins his work. “Do whatever he tells you,” she told the servants, and then Jesus told them to do something. Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung writes (in Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology, Orbis Books, 1990), “Mary’s action at the wedding at Cana (John 2) shows that ‘she is a woman with all the compassionate sensitiveness to other people’s needs, often lacking in men, especially those in power.’”

Is that what God is like? Like a man living out toxic masculinity, resting in the security of his power, needing to be manipulated into kindness? Is God sort of an every-century Ebenezer Scrooge, who had to be frightened into decency, but instead one who requires pleading and prayer to do good things?

I can’t fully explain Jesus’ reluctance here, but that isn’t the God I believe in. I believe in a God who is responsive to human need and human prayer. That’s what rings true here for me: Mary asked. Jesus acted.

That’s what God is like.

God also seems to have a sense of an appropriate time. John uses the phrase about Jesus’ hour having not yet come repeatedly in his gospel, until finally Jesus says, “the hour has come” – speaking of his impending crucifixion.

God also is prepared to give more than expected. John clearly expects us to associate the wine with celebration, but not just with celebration. Transformed in those purification jars, the wine symbolizes the blood Jesus will shed in the effort to cleanse the world. The abundance noted by the steward is a hint of the abundant love Jesus will display when his hour would come.

Andrew Prior writes, “Contra what the heretic prosperity gospellers preach, Jesus did not say life was meant to be easy or full of money. Rather, life was meant to be full of joy and fulfilment. Life with Jesus will have its own cost, and take us to death and resurrection; often not easy. We who follow Jesus have no ticket of exception from life’s pain and sorrow.

“But the wedding at Cana is clear; this discipleship is more wedding party than hair shirt. Life with Jesus, pruning and all, is life at a wedding reception.”

I imagine John sitting back after penning this story with a rather satisfied smile, at least after he’d finished fixing the things he didn’t like in it. Sitting back with satisfaction because in these brief words, he’d captured so much of the reality of Jesus, of the reality of God, of what God is like.

God is like extravagant abundance beyond expectation.

God is like salvation for the poor.

God is like one attentive to the prayers of humanity – even if it sometimes seems like one prayer ought to do, and doesn’t.

God is like one who responds to human need at the right time.

God is prepared to give more than expected.

God is the One who summons us to a wedding feast.

I’ll give John his satisfied smile. He was right. At the wedding of Cana, Jesus revealed his glory.

He showed what God is like.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

We might be closer to matching prepared text and recorded sermon today! We’re just not confident that it’s a trend.

The image is a 14th century fresco of Jesus turning water into wine found in the Visoki Dekani Serbian Orthodox Christian monastery near Decan, Kosovo. The artist is unknown. Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 20, 2019

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