By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 20, 2019
John 2:1–11 (NRSV)
The Wedding at Cana
2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “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.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
At times when I study scripture, I get stuck. I am sure many of you have similar issues. You read something over and over, you get to a point you believe that you understand what is going on, and then you read it again and you just sit there knowing that God is telling you something but you just cannot get out of the way to let Him speak.
That is where I was this week. I have read this passage many times. When people who are exploring faith or are new to the faith ask me where they should begin to read scripture, I almost always tell them to read John. It is my favorite Gospel. I like it because there is action, adventure, excitement and drama, triumph over evil, you know everything that makes a story good, John has it and more it speaks about Jesus. And when there is Jesus there is hope.
I sat there this week, I read this passage over and over. I considered everything I had known about it and I studied everything I could. And yet I sat praying, “what could you possibly want me to say.” The main reason for this is because I grew up in a temperance-oriented community, so this first sign of Jesus has always been a struggle for me. I grew up being taught that wine in the story was not really wine. Throughout most of my life I was questioning this story, I knew Jesus did something remarkable but to be honest I questioned why.
Before we go deeper, I want you all to know that the wine in the passage is, in fact, real wine. No matter how you look at the passage the wording used refers to wine. And people have been making wine for thousands of years so wine is a word they know how to use. I also know that this is really wine because, wine was a sign of blessing in ancient Jewish cultures. They would not celebrate without actual wine, and even to this day in religious observances they are required to use actual wine. The last thing to mention is the fact that there is references in this passage to the effects of the consumption of wine, so why would they mention that if these people were simply drinking juice.
With that out of the way, there is much more going on in this passage. During the season of Epiphany, the season of revelation, we should see something about God revealing Himself, or the Gospel, to us in some way. What is God revealing to us through this story?
If we are to look at the life of Jesus and try to construct a timeline, we would find that it is difficult. Most of the time Jesus and his disciples are running from one end of Israel to the other, they are getting into verbal confrontations in the temple and the next scene they are on a boat going across the sea. Some might be troubled by this because when we read a biography today, we are accustomed to the authors beginning at the figure’s birth or maybe even giving a brief history of the parents, and then proceeding through their life in chronological order. This was not that important to the gospel writers for many reasons, the main being that world at that time was largely illiterate so most people listened to the message orally. And if you are giving an oral account it is interactive, meaning there is a person speaking and a group listening. There are situations occurring all around and the speaker is asked to speak into their situation. How does faith speak to our current situation? Why should I believe that God cares about me? If I am having an interactive conversation with someone, I rarely begin with history. We usually begin in the present and go backwards then forwards, usually there is a circling back to the present, and a side trip down somewhere that may or may not have any real value but was interesting at the time. Unfortunately, because paper was scares in the first century the side trip discussions of the disciples and apostles were not always recorded.
The gospel accounts are not exactly in complete chronological order, and that is ok. John for example has Jesus clearing the temple near the beginning and the other writers place that right before the trial. Does that mean John is wrong, no it just means when John was speaking to the people, he taught that event needed to be spoken of earlier. Why is up for debate, but John’s gospel is believed to be the last written so maybe the people needed to hear about Jesus getting upset at the exploitation early because they were facing similar situations in their own lives. The gospels might not be in complete chronological order but there is chronology within. The baptism of Jesus occurs early, and the crucifixion is near the end. What happens in-between is like every conversation we have ever had about life, filled with switchbacks and roundabouts.
Today’s passage is one that scholars agree to be early in the ministry of Jesus. It occurs after the baptism and after the initial calling of the disciples, but before Jesus really enters ministry. Directly before they go to the wedding, we hear about the calling of the first disciples, Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathanael. When Jesus spoke to Nathanael, he told him that he would soon see greater things. Right after this they go together to a wedding and we observe what is regarded as Jesus’s first sign.
Weddings are an important event in anyone’s life. It is the joining of two people, that unites two families together. It is a union, a partnership, but so much more. It is the melding of two ancestries, two beautiful family histories together, what were separate are now united and everything after that the greatness and the tragedy will be united. Today we enjoy a good wedding celebration, to be honest if there is cake, I really do not mind a celebration that is minimalistic. I will be honest I like weddings, but the celebration is the part I enjoy the most, the party, and at times the dancing. Jesus’s first sign was at a wedding celebration. Think about that for a moment. Last week I mentioned that the baptism of Jesus was a point in life where Jesus was leaving behind everything, he did for the thirty years prior and entering a new life. A wedding celebration is very similar. We celebrate this united future, what was once separate is not together, its something new. God is revealing something here.
I like a good wedding celebration, but our best celebrations today are nothing compared to the celebrations they had in the ancient world. Their parties would go on for days sometimes it would last an entire week. The ancient Jewish people knew how to celebrate. And rightly so, people would travel by foot to attend, and they would be hungry, and thirsty. They might not have seen these friends or family members for an extended time and they needed to catch up. And in an era without social media that could take time. The social standing of the new couple was often galvanized by the wedding celebration. The longer it was the better the union would be seen.
They are all celebrating this wedding on the third day. On a Tuesday, I do not know if that matters, but who has a wedding on Tuesday? They are celebrating, and Jesus’s mom has found a problem, a scandal. “They have no more wine.” She hurries over to Jesus and informs her son of the issue. Have any of you ever thought why at this point? Why did she go tell Jesus? Why did it even matter to them? Was this a close family member’s wedding or was Mary just sticking her nose in another people’s business? No matter what the reason was she told Jesus.
The response of Jesus might set some of us on edge. He says, “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” To our ears this almost sounds rude, but it is a traditional conversational structure. We do not go around saying Woman today, but this is our culture, this was not rude in their culture, it could be translated as dear woman. But the interesting thing is that there is something going on in this response, even though it is a common conversation, it is uncommon that a son would use this with his own mother. John is trying to show us the new life Jesus has before him, this division of the old and new. A son would have said, mother, not woman, yet Jesus says woman. Without missing a beat, Mary takes the response and immediately goes to the servants and informs them to listen to whatever Jesus has to say. There is a revelation here, Mary know that Jesus was moving away from the family business and entering the lifestyle revealed to her by the angels.
The servants listen to Mary, and they turn expectantly to Jesus. They look expectantly at Jesus because they are aware of the situation, they are the ones carrying the food and drinks out to the guests, and they know that when the wine is gone the celebration is over. We do not know how long this celebration had been going on, but we are given the impression that it is not a traditional length of time. The servants are nervous because if the family cannot continue the celebration it might be omen to economic hardship, which might translate to a loss of their livelihood as well. The party must go on, and they have one hope, Jesus.
He looks around and sees stone jars nearby. These stone jars are used for purification. They are the equivalent to the sink today. These stone jars were used by the guests to wash their hands before they began to eat a meal. The interesting thing is the amount of these jars. To require six jars holding thirty gallons of water informs us that this is a large party, with many guests how many parties have you attended that required one hundred and eighty gallons of water just, so the guests could wash their hands? It must be an important family.
Six jars are there so he says fill them up with water. They do it because Mary said to do whatever he said, so the jars are filled to the brim. They quickly hauled one hundred and eighty gallons of water to the celebration. This is not a small endeavor, today we have electric pumps and running water, and to get that amount of water takes time, just filling our gas tanks takes longer than we have patience for, yet these servants are doing this by hand.
At this point we have an additional revelation. The jars are used for religious observance, the purification of the hands so that they can participate in the feast. Jesus has them fill these jars with water, he then tells them to take a cup from the jar and give it to the head steward. As they do this the water has turned to wine. Good wine, the best wine at the party. The wine that most would have served at the beginning of the celebration not at the end. If you were to have purchased this wine it would be the top shelf bottle, not the bottom shelf box. Jesus turned the water in the purification vessels in to wine. Many see this as a sign or a prophecy of the new covenant, grace overcoming the law.
The steward drinks the wine and loudly boasts to the crowd, this bridegroom is amazing, this has gone on for a while, and we have all enjoyed a fair amount. But this guy he is now serving the good wine. The wine most of us would have served at the beginning he is serving when we are all drunk. Imagine the surprise of the bridegroom. He knew what was purchased, and he knew what was served. He knew that he served the best stuff that he purchased at the beginning of the celebration just like everyone would have expected yet now they are drinking something better. Another revelation? Could this be telling us that there is something better in our future if we listen to Christ?
One sign, the first sign, a sign that many of us might consider pointless. Yet it is filled with so much. Only a few knew what happened for sure. The disciples knew because they were there hanging out with their new friend. The servants knew because they had carried in all the water. The bridegroom knew that there was one hundred and eighty gallons of wine at his party that he had not purchased. And Mary, Jesus’s mother knew. One sign, the symbolism is full. It reveals that God is opening the heavens with flowing wine, which was a prophecy from Amos and Joel which is saying that when the messiah comes there will be an abundance of blessings in the land. And the wine filled the jars used for purification. What was once used as a symbol of washing away what was unclean was now the vessel of celebration.
There is more to this. The first sign of Jesus happened during a celebration. This should tell us a great deal. Our faith should be enjoyable. So often we focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, and we focus on the things we sacrifice to follow him. Is life always about sacrifice? No, we are told to weep with those that weep and to share in the joy of others. Celebration, like fasting, is a spiritual discipline. But do we take time to celebrate? Do we take time to enjoy the friendship of those around us? Are our schedules so filled with things that we forget to enjoy life occasionally? Jesus’s first sign was to keep the party going, imagine that. The first miracle Jesus performed many of us would consider to be frivolous, without value, unspiritual. Yet Jesus used a party to reveal to those around him that he had power over nature and could turn something as simple as water into something as valuable as wine. And he did this for one reason, they were out of wine and when the refreshments are gone people start to leave.
God has a plan and purpose for you in this community. You may not fully know what that is, it might require sacrifice, you might endure hardship for it. People might ridicule you for your faith and people might say that your faith is a joke. But there is hope and there is joy also. Jesus wept, and Jesus laughed, Jesus was angry, and Jesus enjoyed playing with the children. Jesus taught deep spiritual lessons and Jesus celebrated at a wedding. God wants us to enjoy our lives in a way that brings glory to Him. God wants us to be bearers of light in the darkness, and that requires us to lighten up at times. When was the last time you let yourself have fun for the glory of God? When was the last time you celebrated your life with God?
Let us now enter this time of holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends considering the joy of the lord. The joy of the lord. And let us celebrate.