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Basic Instinct

January 21, 2013

“Basic Instinct” John 2:1-11 © 1/20/13 Ordinary 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

An old cartoon has some dinosaurs sitting around a conference table. One is standing at a flip-chart, a marker in her claw. The caption: “Brain stem storming.”

I don’t know what sort of planning T-rex and his kin did; it could have been quite coordinated and complex, I suppose. But they did in fact have brain stems, as do we. And in both species, the brain stem is associated with a very basic instinct, called the “fight or flight response.” It’s the drive for survival.

Sometimes in humans fight or flight is expressed in quite overt and violent ways. We kill. We destroy the reputation of others. We use our power to ensure that we will have our way. At other times, our basic instinct is expressed in more subtle and covert ways. Mind games. Manipulation. Seduction of others into a course of action against their better judgment.

Fight or flight has kicked in for every person at one time or another, from the encounter with the playground bully or the mean girl in childhood to the not-quite-ethical thing done to advance a career or a cause. But there is also in all of us another instinct even more basic than the need to survive. It is the memory, sometimes faint, that we belong to God. It drives us as much as salmon who swim to spawn, as much as birds who fly south for the winter, as much as our primal, brain stem responses. The church father Augustine described it in a famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Attention to relationship with the Creator is as vital to our existence as those necessities Maslow placed on the first tier of his famous pyramid or hierarchy of needs. There we find basic physiological must-haves like food, shelter, water, and warmth. Unfortunately, Maslow doesn’t seem explicitly to have put spirituality anywhere on his diagram, though we might argue that freedom from fear or the desire to belong, matters that appear up the ladder a bit, are drives for connection with something or someone beyond ourselves.

Whatever the worthy findings of psychology, though, something within us knows that simply having physiological needs met may be survival, but it is not life. For that we need to be connected with God, the Universe, something higher, whatever we choose to call the object of our longing. As one writer has put it, “There is a longing in the human soul for what is real, for what connects with the new vision of reality that realizes that all things are interconnected. There is a longing in the human heart for what is personal, for what addresses the most intimate core of our being in its eternal yearnings for love and union. There is a longing in the human spirit for what is immense, for what expands our vision further into the unboundedness of the universe” (J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: 119-120).

Yet sometimes we are so caught up in our necessary quest for the essentials of daily survival that we neglect the sustenance of our spirits. Indeed, such a thing seems a luxury, foolishness in the face of needing to put food on the table or keep our kids safe. Or if we are able to attend to our other primal urge, the drive for connection with God, something still seems missing.

It’s that latter concern that occupies us this morning. Let me first try to put some names on what we seek. I suspect what we long for is the experience of a kind of transcendence that will fill even the most ordinary of days with warmth and richness, meaning and grace. We would like to know the purpose of our troubles. We would like to feel full of God’s Spirit, empowered, enabled, entrusted. To use the images from the wedding at Cana, we would like to have the water of our mundane existence turned into the wine of abundant life.

Back in the day, I had a silly notion that I wanted to be and could be a sophisticated and elegant gentleman. And of course, how can one be sophisticated without knowing about wine? So I bought a couple of books on wine and read articles when they appeared in magazines I subscribed to. Like the one in The Atlantic Monthly by a wine critic who said his problem with his favorite French vintage was that he didn’t have any of it.

Perhaps we are like him. We know what we want and what its name is, but still we don’t have it. To put that in theological language, we know faith in Christ is supposed to provide the joy we long for, and fill our days with meaning, but it’s simply not happening. We could hardly compare the effect of our faith on us to the heady, explosive, inebriating effect of rich, red wine. It’s more like a cold drink of water—bracing, refreshing, sustaining, but predictable, colorless, routine.

Maybe like that wine connoisseur searching for his 1949 Burgundy, what we want costs too much. We’re not willing to invest so much of our lives to have what we long for. Drinking water most of the time, getting hold of a glass of good stuff now and again, really isn’t so bad. The alternative is to give up our hold on God, to stop trying to mold him in our image, and allow God to act as God will. That’s what was at issue in the gospel story. Jesus’ mother tried to stake a claim on him, to force him to act according to her agenda. But even someone so important could not sway our Lord. He acts on command only from God. Our Lord acts according to his own timing, his “hour.” Water will be turned into wine, but only on Jesus’ own terms.

Is your God or mine in prison? Do we think of him as our own possession, our own private Savior, who is supposed to do our bidding? Do we seek to control God, calling on him when we need him, dismissing him like a hired servant when we don’t? Isn’t such a closeted, constricted God really impotent in the larger world, not really big enough to be God? If we want God truly to have an impact on daily life, then we have got to let him out of his box and unhook his leash. We don’t gain abundant life in the usual way we get most everything else, namely, by acquiring and owning. It comes to us by a reversal of the usual order, unexpectedly, which is to say, graciously. It is only the God who stands apart from us as sovereign and holy who is powerful enough to change tasteless water into wine that explodes on the palate. When God comes to us on his own terms, he is indeed able to do more than we ask or think. And he will.

When we are approached by and encounter such a sovereign and surprising God, we are invited to submission and obedience. “Do whatever he tells you,” Jesus’ mother said to the servants.

I suspect we stay away from talk of obedience because we don’t want to be considered legalists or fall into the trap of making Christian life into some cut-and-dried list of do’s and don’ts that we attempt to apply to any situation without much thought. But for the author of this gospel, believing and doing are inseparable. Faith is not merely believing the right things; it’s acting on convictions. The writer in one place even goes so far as to contrast not faith and disbelief, but belief and disobedience.

Obedience is key not because we want to avoid punishment by a displeased, judging God. Instead, we obey God because it’s the only way we are going to be whole. It’s the only way to have the quality of life that we long for and God wants for us. Our frantic efforts to secure life on our own terms will bring us only exhaustion and despair. Our pitiful attempts at control will leave us angry and ostracized. Instead, as Walter Brueggemann has written, we yield ourselves to the one in whom we find our origin and our end, our creation and our consummation. “The true character of human life,” he observes, “consists not in buying and selling, not in being right or good. It consists in communion …companionship, at-homeness with God…[W]e are creatures for communion. God has created us with a restlessness for that uncommon rest. In an acquisitive society, we have skewed that desire into wantonness and lust of many kinds, but none of these pursuits ever finally satisfies our desire…It is communion that makes the self whole, and that communion requires disciplines…and renunciations in order to become available for life with the God who is not cheaply available” (Texts Under Negotiation: 44).

Such a gift of wholeness through obedience to the gracious, sovereign God cannot but cause us to celebrate with great joy, day in and day out, Monday morning as well as Sunday. At least, that’s how the ancient rabbis saw it. And so did the Shorter Catechism from the 17th century. The famous answer to its first question is “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Enjoy him. The Reformed tradition teaches that the best way we glorify God is to enjoy him, and the best way to enjoy him is to glorify him.

Yet despite that, there’s something still lurking in us that balks at the idea of enjoying, reveling in life as God’s gift. Isn’t that why we are a little scandalized at what went on at that wedding in Cana? We wonder why Jesus would turn 120 gallons of water into wine for people who already needed a designated driver. This is embarrassing. More wine, so the guests, including Jesus and his mother, could drink and dance more, laugh louder, and celebrate longer.

Our life together can be like a really great, memorable wedding reception. You’ve been to such a party, as have I. The quality of our common life and our individual spirituality can be so great that they draw people into an experience of amazement and wonder. Worship, fellowship, service, care, everything brings an exclamation like that of the host at the Cana feast: “This is the best I’ve ever had!” The church can awaken senses that are dulled to the taste, the smell, the feel of abundant life; educate the spiritual palate; bring wonder again in a culture where there’s so much to do, so much color and sound and so many special effects, and for that reason, people are bored.

Could it be true that people are looking for something that will genuinely stimulate and excite them, put them in touch with truth and beauty again, that will bring transformation, that will prove that life is worthwhile? Why else would books, websites and seminars on spirituality and discovering oneself be so popular? People know the spirit has been lost from their lives, and they want to recover it. Isn’t that what the Eagles lamented in their song about a mythical “Hotel California”? “So I called up the captain: ‘please bring me my wine’. He said: ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.’”

In my quest to become a sophisticated guy, I ultimately failed. I didn’t learn much about wine or build a collection of great bottles. But I did find out enough to know that if the taste is too acidic or too fruity, it’s not good. The best is balanced. Jesus calls us to such balance in our spiritual lives. To balance our concern for rationality and order with imagination and zest. We need not wave hands or speak in exotic tongues to be colorful nor need we go around with phony smiles. But we can sing with gusto, pray with feeling, give thanks for simple food, never let go and never stop sharing the sense of wonder that God has loved us so.

Water is the elixir of life; we can’t live without it. But it is not the drink of the festival. We are born again in the bath of baptism, marked as God’s own. But rich, red, flowing wine is the symbol of the reign of Christ. Abundant living is prophetic living, telling the world there is more to humanity than survival and consumption, that the basic instinct of a truly human being is to enjoy a rich relationship with God.

There is passion at the heart of all being—God’s passion, meaning both God’s excitement, and yes, God’s suffering. It’s what the Celtic tradition calls “the Heartbeat of God.” God in Christ turns the predictable into the surprising, the routine into the extraordinary, the old into the new.

When the world has no wine, we lift the chalice with joy and warmth and offer it the vintage of the ages.


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