“We’re running out of kabobs already!” someone (probably the mother of the bride or groom) informed the wedding party in a bit of a panic. “Everyone hasn’t even been through the buffet yet!” The night was still young and they had spent good money on grilled salmon-kabobs to fed 400 guests. What was going on?
The wedding was Graham and Jessica Neve’s, and a theory was hatched (possibly by Graham, who has been known for his imaginative storytelling) that we were victims of some kabob-loving wedding crashers who raided the buffet line and vanished without a trace. This theory of the disappearing salmon still sounds a bit fishy to me!
Now I was Graham’s Best Man and failed to be of much help on this occasion. Not only did I fail to track down and skewer the shish-kabob bandits, I also made the mistake of comparing the beautiful bride to a rusty old collector car in my Best Man speech! (To be clear, I was telling Graham to treasure and care for his wife with the pride of a car collector meticulously polishing his ’57 Chevy, knowing marriage grows more precious and valuable with age. Unfortunately, Jessica just heard me telling Graham he should not trade her in for a newer model when her shine begins to fade in her old age!)
Our Gospel reading today from John 2:1-11 shows Jesus being much more helpful than I was in a different wedding scenario. By the end of this sermon, I think we’ll all agree that Jesus one person we would all like to crash our weddings—and our everyday lives! Let’s take a closer look.
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.
Despite how extravagant weddings can be in our day, they are nothing compared to the lengthy wedding celebrations of Jesus day. Moreover, Tim Keller in his book Encounters with Jesus explains provides some background:
The purpose of a marriage was not primarily the happiness of the two individuals but instead to bind the community together and to raise the next generation…The bigger, the stronger, and the more numerous the families of a town, the better its economy, the greater the military security, the more everyone flourished… Each wedding was a public feast for the entire town because marriage was about the whole community, not merely the couple….It is no surprise, then, that ancient wedding feasts went on for a week at least. And with this background we can see that our text opens abruptly on a great disaster. Just a day or two into the festivities the family ran out of wine, the single most important element of an ancient feast… This was not a mere breach of etiquette but a social and psychological catastrophe, particularly in a traditional honor-and-shame culture (58-59).
Jesus is thrust into action by his mother, a bit hastily and against his own desire, and begins his messianic ministry as savior of the world by first saving a wedding feast. God revealed in human flesh goes public by miraculously providing more alcohol to keep the dancing and singing and eating and drinking going for a few more days! What a strange way to kick off a career in public ministry! Tim Keller invites us to
Imagine you are a candidate for office, an entrepreneur launching a brand, or a musician releasing your first major recording. In every case, you will choose your first public presentation with enormous care. Each detail will be carefully controlled so that every single thing you say or do will convey the message of what you are about. But look at this calling card, as it were, of Jesus’. Nobody’s dying, nobody’s possessed by demons, nobody’s starving. Why would Jesus decide that a quintessential signifier of all he is about would be to keep a party going? Why would his first miracle…use supernatural power to bring a lot of great wine to sustain the festivities? (61)
I think it’s really important for us to know that God is not only interested in our “spiritual life.” We have a tendency to separate the the sacred from the secular, our spiritual life from our everyday life. But God doesn’t care merely about our prayer habits, our quiet time devotional reading, our church attendance and soul’s well-being. He cares about our career, our social life, and our love life. Laughter and parties, recreational hobbies and dancing, salmon kabobs and sweet wine—these are all the handiwork and gifts from a good and joy-filled God.
We are in the third Sunday after Epiphany, the season of the church calendar that focuses on the various ways Jesus gradually reveals his divine glory to the world. This season of Epiphany, perhaps some of us need a new mental picture of God. The Old Bearded Man with a stern look on his face, wagging his finger at you when you start to loosen up and enjoy yourself at last—this is not the God revealed to us in Jesus.
This killjoy in the sky is far from the God who kicks off his messianic ministry by filling six sacred purification jars with 180 gallons of new wine to extend a village block party! Jesus reveals himself here to be someone not only interested in saving souls from eternal fire, but also saving a small town family from public humiliation and social catastrophe. Have you met this Jesus?
So, my first question today for us is: If Jesus was willing to show up in the ordinary events of a small town wedding, demonstrating his power and love, do you think he might be willing to meet you in your own everyday moments of need? When you get called into the CEO’s office and your job is hanging in the balance? When you’ve dropped the ball as a parent and feel like you’ve crushed the spirit of your child? When your marriage is running empty on love and you’re about to give up? In such moments we need to have the matter-of-fact faith of Jesus’ mother who invites (or pushes) Jesus into action with the words, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
JOHN’S DEEPER MEANINGS
But as is often the case with the Gospel of John, he is operating on multiple levels of meaning. On the surface we have a wedding feast that’s run out of wine. At a deeper level, John is winking at and nudging the reader to see another Wedding Feast in view. Let’s try to get into the mind of Jesus in this story.
As we’ve already seen, Jesus is at first reluctant to go public in this moment with his first miraculous sign. When his mother alerts Jesus to the wine shortage, Jesus says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (2:4). Commentators point out that calling his mother “woman” here is not as offensive sounding in the original Greek, but Jesus is still not thrilled to be thrust into action. Why?
I think this wedding feast in Cana has Jesus contemplating another Wedding Feast on the horizon—His own! Steeped in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus knows how the intimate relation between God and Israel is portrayed over and over again through the image of the marriage covenant (Hos. 2:7). Isaiah described the future messianic age as a marriage (Isaiah 62:5), and the grand climax and consummation of all history is described as the marriage feast of the “Lamb and His bride” (Rev. 19:7). That future day will also include new wine. Amos prophesies a day when God’s people “will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them; plant vineyards and drink their wine, And make gardens and eat their fruit” (Amos 9:13-15).
I can imagine Jesus somewhat withdrawn at the wedding in Cana, surrounded by jovial disciples but deep in thought, mixing metaphors in his head and pondering the Kingdom message he will soon go about proclaiming. He’ll soon be announcing, “I have come that they may have life—life to the full, life abundant or, like the stone jars in this scene, life filled to the brim” (John 10:10). He will soon be calling this new life of the Kingdom “new wine” that will burst the old wineskins and require a fresh perspective to carry and contain it.
In a way, Mother Mary is speaking to a deeper reality when she says “they have no wine.” As one commentator puts it: “Here is the impoverishment of the Old Covenant, the cry of spiritual need, the yearning for the messianic wine, the bankruptcy of all our ingenious human ways and resources” (Fredrikson, John: The Communicator’s Commentary, 68).
A few short years later the messianic movement Jesus’ launched will experience the dramatic outpouring of God’s Spirit and onlookers will mock and ridicule them saying, “These men are drunk on new wine” (Acts 2:13)! Indeed, in a sense they were! The Apostle Paul will be instructing Christians saying, “Do not get drunk on wine…instead be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). But back to Cana.
MY HOUR HAS NOT COME
Another clue to what is on Jesus’ mind is his words: “My hour has not yet come” (v. 4). The phrase “My hour” is used throughout John’s Gospel (5:28; 7:30; 12:23; 13:1) and always points ahead to the hour of his sacrificial death on the cross—the ultimate (though paradoxical) display of His glory. Keller suggests that Mary’s request to get Jesus involved here has got him thinking of his own wedding feast that will come only through the his painful hour of suffering on the cross—an “hour” Jesus really didn’t want to be reminded of now on such a happy occasion. Now Jesus is wondering why he’s being bothered to solve a wine crisis, when he came to earth to deal with a sin crisis. His hour will provide far more than wine!
SIX EMPTY JARS FILLED FULL (or FULL-FILLED?)
Next, what are we to make of the six jars of purification that Jesus uses in his miracle? The Jewish religion of Jesus’ day was focused on purity rites that made it possible for worshippers to enter the presence of a holy God. The six jars in this story were used in such “ceremonial washings.”
You are probably aware that Jesus stirred up quite a bit of controversy among the Jewish teachers and Temple officials of his day for boldly declaring some of Judaism’s sacred symbols and practices now obsolete, or fulfilled, in light of his coming. Even more gutsy, Jesus claimed to be replacing them with himself! (The very next story in John 2:13-25 has Jesus claiming to be the new Temple!)
So, here we find Jesus playing on the rich symbolism of six empty stone jars—empty, perhaps, in that they were never able to provide the ultimate purification that Jesus has now come to bring. The fact that there was six jars (six being the number for incompleteness or far worse), rather than seven jars—the Jewish number for perfection—might also indicate the view that the old ways of Judaism are no longer adequate to get the job done, and Jesus has come to “fill up” Judaism with what its lacking but always been looking forward to as he fills up these six jars. Jesus the long awaited Messiah is ushering in the New Messianic Age and serving up the new power and superabundance of messianic blessings! Jesus would teach that ritual washings only clean the outside while leaving the inside unclean. And only when Jesus’ hour had come, and he offered himself as the final sacrifice for all the world’s sinful impurity, would we experience the kind of purification of the soul that those stone jars could never provide. Moreover, Jesus wants to pour into, or outright replace, all our outdated spiritual containers with the New Wine of the Kingdom. But we usually enjoy when people take away or replace our precious traditions, do we!
Let me be clear: Jesus does not render the great Jewish traditions and symbols and practices bad or meaningless. Far from it! They were all temporary signposts pointing forward to Himself as their object and goal. As the Apostle Paul puts it: These [old covenant realties] are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17). And once you’ve reached the destination toward which the map was always leading you, you no longer need to keep the map around. Once the reality is standing before you, you’d be foolish to keep looking at its shadow.
EMPTY JARS TODAY
What does this mean for us today? You may be thinking, “We in the church today don’t have any empty stone jars that no longer hold water and are in need of Christ’s repurposing.” Not so fast! Do we not sometimes find ourselves beholden to old customs and outdated rituals that may have served us in the past but have now run dry—yet we keep coming back to them and hoping God will fill these practices with meaning and saving power?
When I was a new believer, I attended with my friends a late night worship service at Bethel University called Vespers. A couple thousand teenagers would squeeze into a darkened gymnasium, and sing together in unison with the college worship band. I was overcome with emotion and God’s presence in those times of worship. Vespers worship was like a ceremonial stone jar that drew me closer to God’s presence—for a time. For whatever reason, I rarely experience the intense emotions I once did through worship and music. I am tempted to return to that old jar, try to recreate that nostalgic experience, and force worship experiences to produce again that overflowing experience. But this is to desire the container, rather than the Wine of Jesus’ own Kingdom Presence and power!
Others have shared how they drew deeply from the stone far of a camp experience, or revival meeting, or Billy Graham crusade. On a special occasion in your distant past, you came forward, felt the call of God on your life, experienced God’s saving grace through an altar call. Rather than receive this one-time experience as a temporary stone jar to lead us into His abiding presence, we instead go searching to repeat the experience. We drive back to Covenant Pines to reconnect with God, or walk the aisle for the 4th time—this time really meaning it—hoping the emotional buzz will last this time. We are clinging to an empty stone jar that Christ wants to replace with or overflow with New Wine.
Perhaps, like many newer believers, you initially embraced some simplistic ideas about God, the Bible, the gospel and salvation, that were helpful in getting you started on your journey with Christ. But now Jesus wants to fill those old jars with New Wine and invite you to drink deeply of the scandalous nature of the Kingdom and the Cross-shaped life. This means courageously reexamining certain cherished theological beliefs and biblical convictions. A hallmark of Protestant Christianity is the belief that we need to continually go back to Scripture and test cherished traditions in light of fresh examination. Yet, you would be surprised how often self-proclaimed protestants resist such a process, and refuse any fresh discoveries in Biblical scholarship because it challenges their cherished theological traditions—whether it be Calvinism, Lutheranism, Billy Graham’s Romans Road!
What precious traditions and spiritual habits do you have that Jesus may want to replace or “fill full” with new Kingdom wine—that is, with His very Self?
There’s an echo of the Woman at the Well whose story we heard last week. Upon discovering the new Living Water that Jesus offered—“a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14)—she ran off and left her empty bucket at the well. Why cling to empty buckets and ceremonial washing jars, when the true Master of the Banquet is offering to flood us with so much more!
CONCLUSION & APPLICATION
So, let me close by asking where you find yourself in this story? What is message is God trying to give you through this wedding story?
Do you relate to Jesus’ mother who is freaking out about some unfortunate circumstances, but is rightly aware that Jesus stands nearby and has the power to do something about it? What is that situation that needs Jesus’ miraculous touch? May you have the same audacity to invite Jesus’ help!
Do you have a distorted mental picture of God who would never be caught dancing at a wedding reception—not to mention replenishing the wine and spirits to extend the part a few more days? Like some Baptists I know, were you taught that Jesus showed up at the wedding precisely to turn the wine into water? Does your God only concern Himself with “spiritual things” like prayer, Bible reading and church services? May you know that Jesus comes not only to save us from eternal fire, but also from all sorts of awkward situations and foolish decisions.
Perhaps you resonate with the servants in the story to whom Mary said, “Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.” Don’t ask questions. Don’t second guess. You have your orders, so just carry out His clear instructions. I find it fitting that this is the same Mary who, when she found out she was going to miraculously conceive a child, responded unflinchingly with the same obedient faith, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Now she says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” Even if you don’t know the endgame, will you act on what He has commanded you, and trust him with the result?
Finally, I hope we all will try to relate to the master of the banquet in the story, who thought he was in control of his situation but really wasn’t. When things began to spin out of control, we readers see the true Master of the Banquet at work behind the scenes—invisibly—bringing blessing out of a near blunder. The master of the banquet, unaware of the divine intervention, proclaims with joy, “You have saved the best for last” (John 2:10)! Let us all remember today who the true Master of our fates is, and not be surprised when we too find ourselves the recipients of undeserved mercies and grace.
No matter how dark things get in this life, or how out of control our circumstances may be at times, if we will pledge ourselves to the Heavenly Bridegroom and say the “I do” of faith, we are assured that we will all find ourselves at that Final Wedding Feast of the Lamb and no doubt shouting out with glee:
“You have saved the best for last, indeed!”
That’s good news! Have you said “I do” to Christ as Savior yet?