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Edward F. Markquart

Series C

180 Gallons of Grace

Epiphany 5     John 2:1-11

Ever since the world began, wine has been a favorite beverage for meals, parties, celebrations, and especially for weddings. Wine and wedding have gone hand in hand for centuries. The Bible says that wine is the oil of gladness; that wine brings further joy to the party. Wine helps people smile. Wine helps people to be happy, and people want to be happy at weddings, so they often drink wine. Of course, not at Baptist weddings. Of course, not at Norwegian Lutheran weddings. But with those exceptions and a few others, people often drink wine at weddings, and this happens throughout the whole world. Wine is part of the celebration.

I remember the champagne toast at our wedding. The wedding ceremony and reception were at a Lutheran Church in St. Paul, and so we went back to my wife, Jan’s, home for further celebrating. I can still see my new father-in-law, George, down in the basement at the bar, uncorking the bottles of champagne. He uncorked that champagne and toasted us with feelings of pride. Wine and weddings, champagne and weddings, they go hand in hand and help make parties celebrations.

The gospel story for today is a wedding story.  It is a Jewish wedding. Jewish weddings during the time of Christ were gala occasions, festive events, and grand parties. Jewish weddings usually began on Tuesday nights, and the groom and his friends would go over to the bride’s house at night. On the way over, the groomsmen would be swinging their olive-oil lamps, having a fun time. The men would gather in front of the bride’s home, and she would come out to the front steps. Now, for the first time in her adult life, she would take off her veil and showed off how beautiful she really was. This removal of the veil was a special event. Then, the groom and the groomsmen, would again walk down the streets with their olive-oil lamps swinging and they would go over to the groom’s house to begin a seven-day party. Yes, a seven day party. During those seven days, family and friends would bring their gifts, their hot dishes, and their good humor. They would party for seven days.

At such wedding celebrations as these, wine was served. It was Biblical. It was the oil of gladness, a juice that made for joy. Remember that the Jews did not have a problem with alcoholism. Rarely, if ever, do you see a Jewish alcoholic. Why? Perhaps because Jewish families have grown up with wine. Wine was and is part of their daily life, therefore you rarely see Jewish people who become alcoholic.

In the story for today, Jesus came to such a wedding party. Seven days long. Can you imagine? Now, that is probably a disappointment to all those social activists who thought that Jesus should have been down at Capernaum solving all the social problems. That is probably a disappointment to some of those social do-gooders who thought that Jesus should only take care of the lepers, blind and lame, that he should spend all of his time healing the sick. That is probably a disappointment to all the Norwegian and Baptist pietists who think that Jesus shouldn’t go to parties and if he did, he should drink only grape juice. But here was Jesus at a real live party that was going to last seven days, a full week.

During this party, unfortunately and embarrassingly, the host ran out of wine. What to do? No wine! This was a Jewish wedding and not a Jewish wake. It is embarrassing to run out of wine. They didn’t have any 7-11 to run to. They didn’t have a state liquor store down the street. They didn’t have a grocery store nearby with shelf after shelf of various wines to chose from. What to do? They didn’t know. … Mary, the mother of Jesus, intervened. Why? We don’t know. Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine.” Jesus replied, “What does that have to do with me?” Like so many mothers, Mary seems to ignore her son and speaks directly to the servant, “Do what he tells you.” We can only guess the look on Jesus’ face. Jesus, knowing his mother and perhaps rolling his eyes, said to the servant, “Fill those big jugs out there with water.” Now, these were big jugs. Thirty gallons each. These vats were used for the rite of purification. That is, before their worship services, the Jews would wash their faces, before prayers they would wash their hands and feet. These water vats were for the rites of purification. Jesus said to the servant, “I want these vats filled up to the brim. Not half full. Not three quarters full. Not seven eighths full. Not fifteen sixteenths full. I want them filled right up to the brim. I want them fuller than full.” So the servants filled those six jugs right up to the top lip. Jesus then said to the waiter, “I want you to take some wine over to the maitre’d to see what it tastes like.” The servant took some wine over to the maitre’d. He sipped it and said, “That tastes mighty fine. The groom has saved the best wine until last.” The maitre’d looked at the six vats of wine and said, “That is a lot of wine. There is enough wine here for a whole city. For the whole country. For the whole world.”  Then comes a key line in the story and that line says, “This was the first of the signs that Jesus did in Galilee. By this sign, Jesus revealed his glory, the glorious presence of the Son of God. And the disciples believed the sign.”

Immediately, my mind flashed to the previous chapter, in John 1, where the Bible says, “We beheld his glory, the glorious presence of the Son of God, and from his fullness, (the fullness of six large vats of wine,) from his fullness, we all have received grace upon grace upon grace.” The law was given through the purification rituals of Moses but grace and truth were given through Jesus Christ. From His fullness, we all have received grace upon grace upon grace.

In the gospel of John, the miracles are always called “signs.” The Gospel of John is called the book of the seven signs, the seven miracles. I want to talk with you a moment about signs. If you drive out of our church, you will see all kinds of signs at the nearest intersection. You will see one particular sign painted red, with white paint, that says, “Stop.” It is a stop sign. You never think that this is a piece of metal with red and white paint on it. You don’t examine the ingredients of the metal or the paint. You simply read the message. You ask the question, “What is the message of this sign?” So it is with the signs in the gospel of John. You ask, “What is the message in this sign?” The signs all have messages.

What is the message of this sign of water into wine? The message is not so much the water into wine. The message of the sign is that Jesus took 180 gallons of Jewish laws, the rituals of purification, and transformed them. Jesus took 180 gallons of guilt, 180 gallons of laws, laws and more laws, 180 gallons of don’t do this and don’t do that, 180 gallons of laws that then numbered more than 600 regulations, and he transformed them into a new religion, new meaning, new wine that would burst old wine skins. Jesus transformed the old religion into the new religion. The miracle was a sign. The miracle had a message and you have to get the message. You stop at the intersection outside of church and see red and white paint painted on metal, you better get the message. Stop. It is the message that is important. And there is a grand message to Jesus’ first sign. 180 gallons of guilt are transformed into 180 gallons of grace.

180 gallons of grace. There is enough grace here for a whole city, enough grace for a whole state, enough grace for the whole wide world. From God’s fullness of grace, right up to the brim, we all have received grace upon grace upon grace. I love that line in the text where the vats are filled up right to the brim.

A number of years ago, when I first came to this church, there was an interim pastor by the name of Norris Halvorson. He was kind of like a bully goat in the pulpit. He never merely preached his sermons; he shouted his sermons so they could be heard two blocks away. Everyone loved old Norris, his wife Goldie, and his war stories from when he served our country in combat. I remember old Norris telling me, “Markquart, this wedding story is pure grace. Pure grace. There is not one trace of judgment in the story. There are no put-downs such as ‘you drink too much,’ or ‘you party too much.’ This story is pure grace.” I have always remembered Norris’s insightful observation.

At the same time, a number of years ago, when I first came to this church, a man by the name of Dick Malmo told me the following story.  Dick has been treasurer of our church forever. Dick said that he had gone to a church conference, and the speaker told the audience that “all of their sins had been forgiven. Your past sins. Your present sins. Your future sins.” The speaker emphasized that future sins would be forgiven and this impressed Malmo.   Malmo told me, “Markquart, I have a real good God. God will forgive all my past sins, my present sins, and even my sins in the future, even the sins I haven’t committed yet.” Malmo was genuinely proud of his good God who would forgiveness his future sins. Well, I have been here at Grace for a number of years now and can vouch for the fact that God has been busy forgiving Malmo for all the sins of these recent years. I can testify to the fact, that God has forgiven Malmo a lot during the past decade. What the speaker said was true. Malmo’s future sins would be forgiven.

You see, there is 180 gallons of grace, 180 gallons of forgiveness, for past, present and future sins. This awareness also grows out of Hebrews, chapter ten, where Jesus says that he is the perfect sacrifice for all sins forever.

Many of you have heard the following story. A man or women prays,  “Today Lord, I have not sinned. I have not lost my temper today. I have not cursed today. I have not lusted today. Bless me now as I get up. Amen.”

There is 180 gallons of grace to cover all the sins that we commit after we get up in the morning.

This new religion of Jesus is a religion of joy and happiness. It is 180 gallons of joy juice and happiness. Being a Christian is like going to a party. Being a Christian is like going to a Jewish wedding. The bridegroom is with us, and the bridegroom brings pleasure to our lives.

Jesus tells other parables that being a Christian is like being invited to a party. One time he told a story about inviting a whole bunch of people to a wedding feast but they couldn’t come. They had numerous excuses why they couldn’t come like they had to fix a new house or take care of their livestock. People had excuses of why they couldn’t’ come to the party.  But the point is, they were invited to a banquet, to a party, to a Jewish wedding. That’s what being a Christian is. It is like going to a banquet.  In another parable, Jesus talked about ten girls waiting for the groom to come to a Jewish wedding. Five ladies were prepared for the party and five weren’t. Five went to the party and five didn’t. Being a Christian is like going to a party. This mood would not have occurred if Jesus had been stern like John the Baptist. If John the Baptist had been our Lord, discipleship would be rigorous fasting, with no good wines, food and drink.

Christianity is not for sour pusses. Christianity is not for legalists. Christianity is not for people who love to wallow in their guilt like pigs like to wallow in the mud. Some religious people are like that; they seem to enjoy wallowing in the mud of their guilt. The purpose of this new faith is to make you happy and joyful. It is not supposed to make you feel grumpy or guilty. This new faith makes us free to love; it is not supposed to make us feel guilty. This new faith and new religion lets you know that God loves sinners; that God loves sinful people; that God loves imperfect people. This new religion is not to make you say to yourself,  “I am a crummy Christian. I am not a very good husband, not a very good wife, not a very good parent, not a very good pastor.” That isn’t what the gospel of grace is all about. This new faith and new religion allows us to be fully human in all of my sorrow, in all of my sinfulness, in all of my guilt, in all my stupidity, in all my bunglings. Forgiven, loved and celebrated. There is 180 gallons of grace for you and 180 gallons of grace for me. Never kind enough. Never good enough.  Never loving enough. Never prayerful enough. Always too selfish.  Yet there is 180 gallons of grace for you and me.

By contrast, the religion of Moses and the religion of the Old Testament is 180 gallons of religious laws and religious duties. It is all law and all duty and all obedience to laws. Go to church. Give your tithe. Give your alms to the poor. Observe the fast. Say your prayers. More than 600 laws for you to obey.  Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. You are never good enough, never obey all the laws enough, never as good as Jesus, always falling short, always trying to do a little bit more, offer your sacrifices, atone for your sins, do a good deed, try a little harder, shape up a little more. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. There is a ton of guilt, and you then wallow in a deep muddy puddle and feel that is where you belong.

But the religion of Jesus is not like that. This is a religion of new wine that bursts old wineskins. Have you ever gone to a Polish wedding? I have. It is a blast. It is a party. A feast. And so is it when you are a disciple of Christ.

I would like to tell you a parable from my own life, and this parable is titled, “The Three Purple Cows.” When I was a little boy growing up at my house, my parents had a lovely home with a lovely, formal dining room. We had this beautiful dining room table made of  mahogany wood, oval, glistening with polish. Against the far wall in that dining room, there was a classy china cabinet with glass doors and it matched the dining room table and chairs. On the top of that china cabinet, far out of reach of all children, were three purple cows made out of porcelain glass. There was the bull with the big white horns; the mama cow with the pink udders, and a little baby calf with a black tail. Every child or grand-child who came to our house always wanted to touch, if not play, with these three purple porcelain cows, but no one could them. They were off limits for youthful hands. I am not sure when the change came, when Mother changed and softened her attitude.  I think it was with her first grand child who lived down the street from her. His name was and is David Markquart, the first grand child living a block away from Grandma’s house … and the china cabinet. David would say, “Grandma, can I touch those three purple cows?” And Grandma would say, “No, not until you are older.”  Her answer wasn’t a simple, crisp, “No. Never,” as several of us had heard her shout. … One day, and I am not sure how it happened, David was alone in our house, even though he was six years old. That was not a real problem in those days, in a small town like Jackson. David was alone in the house and alone in the dining room, while I was with my parents shopping. We would be back in minutes. Seeing that he was alone, David pushed the dining room chair over to the china cabinet, crawled up on that chair, and stretched his arms as far as they could go and he touched it. He touched one of the three purple cows. A thrill ran through his body. He put his hand around the big bull with the white horns, brought out down and put it on the dining room table to closely examine it. He was touching it, feeling it, when suddenly, Grandma and Grandpa’s car pulled into the alley and into the driveway. David grabbed the bull, pulled the chair to the china cabinet, climbed on the chair, stretched his arm with the bull in his hand to the top of the china cabinet, as the door opened. He missed. The bull fell and the white horn broke off. No one said anything. David looked at Grandma. Grandma looked at David. He quickly climbed down from the chair and ran over to Grandma, hugged her legs and said, “Grandma, I didn’t mean to break your bull. I am so sorry. So sorry.” Grandma held him and said, “I know, David. I know.”

Grandma didn’t say, “David, if you are a good boy the rest of your life, I will forgive you.” She didn’t say, “David, you have to go out and shovel the side walks for three months, make enough money to pay for another bull, and then I will forgive you.”  She didn’t say, “After I get this bull glued back together and the damage is repaired, then I will forgive you.” No. She simply forgave him. 180 gallons of grace. O yes, I recall that he got a spanking, but that is not the important part of the story. The importance of the story is the love between a Grandma and a Grandson, and the love was preserved.

The years went by. There has always been this special affection between David and his Grandma.  It was a special affection between them that grew from grace, from an abundance of grace in their relationship. Time again passed. Mother and Father have died. My sister has the dining room table, china cabinet and chairs in her dining room. My brother has the print that hung over the dining room sofa. And me? I still have the three purple cows…and their story.

Grace. Old Norris Halvorson said the story was pure grace. 180 gallons of grace for the whole world. Amen.

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