It’s no small thing to choose a first miracle. After all, this will be your public introduction, the image that will travel with your name as word of you gets out. Pundits and commentators will pick it apart for years, searching for clues of who you are and what you’re going to be about.
If I were in charge of Jesus’ public-relations department, I’d advise him to avoid any early resurrections, so as not to peak too soon. I might suggest walking on water as an eye-popping opener. Or maybe giving free food to the masses as a defining values statement. Expelling a demon sends a powerful message. Calming a storm has metaphoric resonance even a child can appreciate. A standard-issue healing sets a tone of gravitas.
But no. Jesus decides to introduce himself to the world by brewing up six vats of wine.
I’ve always found this choice profoundly disappointing. Of all the miracles Jesus performed, there is none less necessary. There’s no suffering child or capsizing ship or oppressing evil or grieving relative. It’s 11 p.m. at a wedding reception. The only thing at stake is whether or not the party will go on long enough for Peter to initiate a third round of The Electric Slide.
And it’s not just what Jesus does. It’s also how he does it. He makes between 120 and 180 gallons of wine, a ridiculous quantity. I can’t be the only Mennonite whose frugal soul shudders at such senseless extravagance. “If you say tonight’s the night to go public, Jesus, who am I to doubt it? But surely you can find some more useful way to apply your powers. Like, say, mixing up six vats of Pepto-Bismol or miraculously cleansing the dishes.”
But what if the extravagance, the blatant “unnecessity” of this first miracle, is in fact both its point and its glory?
Interestingly, Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 is followed immediately in John 12 with another tale of embarrassing extravagance. A pint of pure nard, worth an entire year’s wages, is dumped out on Jesus’ feet. My frugal concerns are validated — by Judas Iscariot. Jesus, the maker of too much wine, defends the gesture fiercely.
There is, it seems, an extravagance at the heart of the gospel message. It’s true that disciples of Jesus are called to a daily-bread existence. But such existence is not meant to compensate for Depression-era shortage. Precisely the opposite. We take only daily bread because God’s kingdom is of such abundance that we expect to wake up tomorrow with fresh bread covering the ground.
In the writings of the prophets, abundant wine was one of the key symbols of God’s eschatological kingdom. It stood for joy and celebration and gladness. In the Gospels, the wedding feast is one of the most consistent pictures of what God’s kingdom is like.
Jesus’ teachings on discipleship are full of talk of sacrifice and selfless laying down of life. But if we ground our gospel here, we may have missed the point. As Hebrews says, it was “for the joy set before him” that Jesus endured the cross (12:2). By Jesus’ own testimony, he has come “that [we] may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). He has told us these things so that “[our] joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Sacrifice is the cost of the journey, but joy is the ultimate goal. Jesus’ first miracle is an invitation to embrace the extravagant gifts, to find our strength as disciples in the wild, wonderful waste of divine goodness overflowing. This is the ultimate shape of the kingdom — not “sufficient sips” but 120-gallons-full, poured out and running over.
Drink deeply, and rejoice: Christ has come, and the kingdom is near.
Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church.