John 2: 1-12
February 26, 2012
It may have happened. It may not have happened. But it’s kind of neat to think that it did. Years after Jesus’ death, years after his resurrection and the beginnings of the church, there is a family reunion that takes place in Jesus’ childhood home. He’s not there, of course, but he’s there in spirit with his brothers and his mother, who get together, as most families do, far too infrequently. And it’s true, by the way; it’s true that Jesus did have brothers, as they’re mentioned a number of times in the New Testament, including what we read today.
Maybe it was the annual Passover celebration that brought them back home, or maybe some other family tradition, or maybe they just wanted to spend some time with their Mom. Mary, of course, would be elated at to have them there; and she would’ve tidied up the house and fixed their favorite meal for them, as mothers do when their grown kids come home..
And so there they all would be, with one chair noticeably unoccupied; and they would be there eating and drinking and laughing. And they would tell stories, all night long. Oh, those family stories! How many times would they begin a sentence with “Do you remember when….?” How many times would they reminisce, “How about that time….?” Oh, the stories that would be told and relived and re-membered all over again.
And inevitably, at some point, someone would bring up that time at the wedding in Cana, when the wine ran out.
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we begin a journey. Our 40 days in the wilderness, as it were. Forty days to prepare ourselves for that glorious Easter morning when we celebrate the risen Lord and the eternal joy that is new life.
But there is a reason we are not there yet. We have to take a trip to get there. And as with many things of faith, the trip is just as important as our final destination. And that is why, during this Lenten season, we will journey together with the Gospel of John – and specifically, the seven miracles around which the writer of John tell the story of Jesus. Except John doesn’t call these miracles “miracles.” He has a specific name for them: he calls them “signs” – signs not simply of Jesus’ power over the natural order, but signs of the glory of God that rested in him. Seven signs that we’ll look at on this Lenten journey:
- Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana
- Healing a centurion’s son and a crippled man
- Feeding the 5000
- Walking on water
- Healing a blind man
- Raising Lazarus from the dead
- And, of course, his own resurrection
For John, the significance of these miracles, these signs, does not rest solely in the act of the miracle itself, but in that to which the miracle points. Like mileage posts that tell you as you drive along, that you’re 50, 35, 25, 15, 5 miles to your destination, miracles in the gospel of John are signs that point us closer and closer to who Jesus is.
And so we begin this journey with John’s first sign – which takes place, of all things, at a wedding party. Kind of an odd place to begin a ministry, isn’t it? I mean, Matthew’s Jesus begins things a little more conventionally, behind the proverbial pulpit preaching a sermon on the mount. Luke’s Jesus launches into things with a wilderness temptation for forty days. But John – John’s Jesus starts things off at a raucous, fun-loving wedding party. And not just any wedding party, mind you, but a wedding party where the wine runs out.
Can there be anything more embarrassing, more mortifying than hosting the biggest party of the year, a true community event like a first-century Jewish wedding, and not having enough refreshments? You can almost hear Jesus’ brothers and Mary, gathered around that kitchen table at our imaginary family reunion, expressing as much. They’d recall how weddings back in the day were huge occasions, where the celebration afterwards would literally go on for days. No two or three hour reception here, folks – we’re talking about a whole week. Now that’s a party, people! So it had to have been the wedding faux pas to end all wedding faux pas: to run out of wine right in the middle of the party. And yet that’s exactly what happened at this wedding that Jesus and his brothers and mother attended all those years ago. An epic wedding party fail.
And Jesus’ family would recall, with much humor, how Mom had shared this bit of news with Jesus. Now she would claim in her defense that she was only passing along information, nothing more. Right, they all would say. They knew better than that. Moms are always up to something! There’d be a few chuckles as they remembered how Jesus responded, slightly perturbed by his mother’s passive prodding. Something like the way The Message translation puts it: Jesus saying to her, Don’t push me.
Didn’t matter much what he thought, though, did it! Jesus wound up doing what he mother wanted anyway, because that’s what good sons do. Six huge purification jars, filled to the brim with water, suddenly transformed into nearly 180 gallons of wine! Can you imagine that much wine! Mary and Jesus’ brothers, shaking their heads in amazement, as they always did when they remembered that wedding, as they always did when they remembered anything about Jesus.
And so there it is: the first sign of the gospel of John, turning water into wine. And so this is for us a sign of……well, of what? Of the importance of wine to a wedding party? Of Jesus’ missed career opportunity in the viticultural industry? Of his personal emphasis on the fifth commandment to “honor thy father and mother?’ What was this first sign about? Was it a sign of Jesus “wowing the crowds with a nifty parlor trick;” at a wedding nonetheless, a more “chic” entrance into his three-year mission than a stuffy sermon on a mountain or forty days in the wilderness?
What are miracles about, really? Maybe that’s the question we ought to be asking ourselves first. What are miracles about? I remember a seminary professor, asking that very question in class one day. We were studying John’s gospel, so it was very much on our minds. And I remember, as we were having this conversation, how it was springtime outside our classroom window that day, the very beginning, where the tips of the dogwood trees that lined our campus were just starting to show their brilliant white. And I remember how one of our students, he and his wife, had just welcomed their first child into the world the week before; our classmate’s eyes at the time showing that beautiful worn-down glow of the elated exhaustion of a new parent.
And we knew – we knew that spring happens every April, we knew that babies are born every day. But that didn’t make either of those things any less of a miracle. Which is partly why, I believe, our class was able to understand that miracles, at their core, are about seeing God-in-action around us, especially in ways that aren’t so out of the ordinary.
Because let’s face it – having lots of wine at a wedding in Jesus’ time was not out of the ordinary. As miraculous as that whole water-into-wine thing was, I’m not sure that’s the miracle John wants us to focus on here. Could it be that the real miracle, the one deserving of our attention on this first Sunday of Lent, was not just that they had more wine, but how good that new wine was?
See, there’s this wonderful little exchange that takes place at the end of our story! The headwaiter of the wedding, the one whose job it is to see that all the plans, all the preparations go off without a hitch, he comes and gets a taste of the new wine, not knowing where it came from, not knowing how it got there; and after he tastes it he goes and finds the bridegroom, the guy who paid for everything. And he says to him:
Everybody I know begins with their finest wines,
And after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff.
But you’ve saved the best till now!
God's saved the best till now! That’s not how we typically think of things, is it? We like to remember how the best days were sometime in the past, already gone by, all nostalgic. What’s that expression we like to use: “Oh, those good old days!” Or maybe the best hasn’t happened yet; maybe it’s in the future, at the consummation and the second coming, in the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore. And so we say, “the best days are yet to come!”
But no, this miracle, this sign in the second chapter of John tells us: No. The best isn’t in our past, and the best isn’t in days to come. The best is now. Right now.
Tell me something, First Presbyterian – what kind of God do we worship who saves the best wine until now? What kind of God do we journey with this Lenten season, journey with our whole lives long, who serves goodness after goodness, mercy after mercy; and just when we think our jars have run out, God fills them with a goodness and a mercy that’s even better than what was in them before?
I’ll tell you what kind of a God that is – it’s a God of miracles and a God of signs; a God who shows God’s presence not by wowing us with miraculous feats and wonders, but simply by filling our jars with the better stuff. That’s what our God does! God keeps filling our jars with new wine that’s even better than before.
God keeps filling our jars, even when those jars get tired and run down, even when they’re a little broken or a little chipped. You know those times when you feel like you’re running on empty, when you’ve given it all you can, when the goodness of God that used to be in you has been all used up? My friends, that is the very moment when God fills you with something that is even better than before.
Today, as we begin our journey, we gather before this table to be filled with God’s goodness. And while we may not think of communion as a wedding party, it is very much a celebration. Here at this table, our cup is filled with new wine. Here at this table, our plate serves up the bread of life. Here at this table, you and I have a little family reunion of our own – where we, too, remember all that Jesus did, for us, for the world, and collectively shake our heads in amazement and gratitude.
Because as we receive God’s gifts at the table today, we realize that we are like those servants in the wedding story – the servants who were the only ones who truly recognized what Jesus did that day. We, too, have witnessed the miracle, the “sign” of all Jesus has done – not just turning water into wine, but an abundance of some of the best wine around.
So let us share this meal with the world – a world whose jars are running empty; always on empty Let us fill them with the goodness of God – a goodness that keeps getting better and better and better. That’s a story that deserves to be remembered over and over again.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God. AMEN.