Last Sunday we looked at John’s account of the calling of the first disciples of Jesus. The last was the skeptic Nathanael, who asked Phillip whether anything good could really come out of Nazareth before Jesus convinced him that it was indeed possible. Nathanael was astonished that Jesus said he saw him sitting under the fig tree before Phillip called him, and Jesus told him he would see greater things than this.
Beginning in the next story, which I have just read, in which Jesus attends a wedding in Nathanael’s home town of Cana, located about five miles from Nazareth. Jesus and some of his family, including his mother, were at the wedding, as were the disciples Jesus had at that point. John tells us that they ran out of wine at the reception, and this leads into another of those really odd conversations Jesus has in the gospel of John.
Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine.” Jesus replies, basically, “So what? That’s not our problem.” And he adds this teaser: “My hour has not yet come.” And Mary acts as though she hasn’t heard a word he has said. She says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” What’s that all about? Is this something he has been working on at home? At any rate, the conversation is over and Jesus turns water into wine so the party can continue.
This seems like such a frivolous non-essential miracle done by Jesus. They’ve run out of wine? As Jesus said, “So what?” Everybody knows where the store is. And you don’t have to have wine to have a party. John only writes about seven of the miracles of Jesus, where other Gospels have many more, so it’s not like he was having to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find things to write about. Well, this is a good time to introduce the role miracles play in the Gospel of John, and we’ll get back to this particular one shortly.
John chose only seven miracles of Jesus to recount, while saying that he did many more. John calls these miracles “signs,” which means that they point to something important about Jesus. It also means that they could be missed or misunderstood, which we find to often be the case. The seven “signs” John tells about are this one about the changing of water into wine at the marriage in Cana; the healing of a Gentile nobleman’s son from a distance; healing a lame man on the Sabbath; feeding the 5,000; walking on water; healing a blind man; and raising Lazarus from the dead.
The seven signs are complemented by seven discourses by Jesus which feature the great “I am” statements which are unique to John. “I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the gate for the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way and the truth and the life; and I am the vine, you are the branches.”
Frequently the signs lead into the sayings. The sign is a window which opens up some aspect of who Jesus is. For instance, the feeding of the 5,000 leads into Jesus’ discourse about how he is the bread of life. Giving sight to the blind man leads into the “I am the light of the world” discourse. Raising Lazarus from the dead is the occasion for the “I am the resurrection and the life” discourse.
William Barclay writes about the role of miracles in John’s gospel: “To John the miracles were not simply single events in time; they were illustrations, examples, insights into that which God is always doing and what Jesus always is; they are windows into the reality of God. Jesus did not only once raise Lazarus from the dead; He is for ever and for all people the resurrection and the life. To John a miracle was never an isolated act; it was always a window into the reality of that which Jeus always was and always is and always did and always does.” (The Daily Study Bible Series, John, p. xxv)
Understanding John’s desire to use miracles which serve as signs leading to faith, we should take very seriously the fact that today’s story begins with the introduction, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” On the third day is, of course, the day of resurrection. This is a story with eschatological implications.
Many of the stories and parables Jesus tells about the end of time describe wedding banquets and celebrations. This is how he describes heaven – the wedding feast of the Lamb. It is a celebration – people dress up in their finest and the best food and wine are served. Attendants need to be sure to have extra oil for their lamps so they won’t miss out on the festivities. The invitees need to get their priorities in order so they won’t miss the party for what seemed more important at the time, whether it be work or pleasure. They need to clothe themselves in the bright raiment of joy and happiness rather than the somber clothing of judgment and bitterness – they need to come with the right attitude.
Many of the Old Testament passages which look forward to the day of God’s victory and salvation speak in similar terms. Isaiah 25, which Janis read earlier, says, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines… He will swallow up death forever… It will be said on that day, ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.”
Isaiah 55 begins, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Isaiah 62 says, “As a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Amos 9 promises, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord… when the mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel.”
We tend to think of gloomy images of the end times – of judgment, and separating sheep and goats, and fear of failure to be accepted. John points us to the joy and celebration aspect of it, the bride of Christ, the marriage feast of the Lamb, the invitation to all. John points to this story as a sign. He says, “Look! It is happening! The eschatological feast, the abundance of rich wine.” Yes, it was only one wedding in Cana, but it is a foretaste of what Jesus is all about and what he is ushering in.
Jesus told the servants to fill up the six stone water pots used for rituals of purification. They would have held 120-180 gallons of wine. That may be equivalent to the whole wine department at Ingles! Jesus didn’t just provide enough wine to get by for the reception, he provided an abundance which could not be used up. And it was not a half hearted effort, it was the best wine served all day according to the steward. John reminds us of the Old Testament promises and points us forward to the New Testament fulfillment and reminds us it is all about a celebration, not a funeral.
Jesus is not just going to be an adequate Savior. He is the one who is able to do far more than we can think or even imagine. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace upon grace upon grace. This is a savior who is able to feed thousands with a few loaves of breed and have a lot left over, heal multitudes, calm storms, and locate where the fish are. This is a savior who can even forgive sins, raise the dead, save the world. Through him, the grace of God overflows.
John the Baptist was the bridge from the Old Testament to the New, from the prophets to the Savior, but he couldn’t begin to imagine the change. Dressed in his sandals and camel’s hair, living on a diet of bread and locusts and water, preaching repentance and calling people snakes – it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist attending a wedding or drinking a glass of wine. I can only imagine what he would have thought if he heard that Jesus used the water jars for the important Jewish ritual of purification and turned that water of ritual into celebratory wine.
A wedding in Israel was, as it should be, a once in a lifetime experience. It was a time when poverty and hard work were set aside for hearty celebration, not just lasting a couple of hours but for a whole week. The bride and groom wore crowns and were addressed as king and queen. This was the high point of their lives. Jesus was there for this wedding, and he did something which allowed the celebration to be all that they had ever hoped for. He did it in a quiet, behind the scenes sort of way which did not make him the hero or the center of attention. The honor went to the host and the focus was still on the couple, yet this did serve as a confirmation for the disciples about who he was.
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The sign of changing water into wine is a foretaste of what Jesus will do for everyone as he began to share that abundance everywhere he went – healing, feeding, teaching, and caring. It would all culminate on another “third day” when the resurrected Christ would fling wide the doors to the heavenly banquet to which all are invited – the marriage feast of the Lamb. He says to all, “I come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly!” Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 14, 2018
Central Presbyterian Church