BIBLE READING: John 2:1-11
There is a Nigerian folk tale about how the tribal chief sent his messengers to invite all the men of the tribe to a great feast. "All the food will be provided," they announced, "but each man must bring a jug of palm wine." Now, one of the men, Ezra, wanted very much to go to the great festival. But he had no wine. He paced the floor, trying to think of a solution for his dilemma. Finally, his wife suggested, "You could buy a jug of wine. It is not too expensive, for such a great occasion." "How foolish," Ezra cried, "to spend money when there is a way to go, free."
Once again, he paced until he came upon a plan: "Rather than wine, I will carry water in my jug. Several hundred men will attend the festival. What will it hurt to add one jug of water to the great pot of wine?" On the day of the feast, the tribal drums began to beat early in the morning, reminding the men of the great festival. All of them came, dressed in their finest clothes. By midmorning, they had gathered at the home of the chief. As each man entered the tribal grounds, he poured his jug of wine into a large earthen pot. Ezra carefully poured his container into the pot, greeted the chief, and joined the dancers.
When all the guests had arrived, the chief commanded the music to cease. He ordered the servants to fill everyone's glass with wine. As the chief spoke the opening words of the festival, all the guests raised their glassed and drank. Suddenly a cry of disbelief arose from the crowd, and they quickly drank again. Now, what they tasted, was not wine, but water!
It seems each guest had decided that his one jug of water could not spoil the great POT of palm wine!"
We’re all here this morning in an attempt to get close to God. That’s why you have gotten up, gotten dressed, and come into this place — to be close to God.
And then we hit you with a weird story. First of all, the amount of water is huge. About 450 litres of water. What were they doing with all that water? Well, this water is for the Jewish rites of Purification. The Jews had many such rites for making oneself pure. Here, in this story, 450 to 680 litres of water is present. This is for the ritual of purification.
The ritual of purification was strictly regulated by the Torah. This was not water for cleansing, but rather water as a sign of preparation to worship. You know worship. Worship is when we all come together to meet God, to get close to God, to be with God. And the Torah declared that one needed to get clean, by ritual cleansing, in order to get close to God in worship. In fact, in the Talmud, it is specified how much water is needed for the rites of purification. Only about a cup of water was necessary to purify a hundred men. But here, in this story, there is well over a hundred gallons of water! That is enough water to purify the entire world!
Jesus is that purifying water which is available in enough quantity for the whole world.
The water in the jars was water used for the rites of purification, so that people would be ready to worship. As people came into the wedding, into this time of worship, they would dip their hands into the water and purify themselves, making themselves ready for to be with God.
So the meaning of the
story is not that Jesus took plain drinking water and turned it into wonderful
wine. Rather, the issue here is purification, making oneself right with God.
That is to say, Justification. How does one get close to God? Jesus has, in
this story, transferred us from one means of getting close to God — the rituals
of purification as specified in Torah — to himself. He has become, in this
story, the new path to God.
The steward notes that the good wine has been saved until the last. And John is making the same claim about Jesus. Throughout the history of Israel, God sent the great patriarchs and the prophets. But now, in Jesus, the best is being saved until the last. Earlier John claimed that John the Baptist was former; Jesus is later and greater. You get these comparisons throughout the Gospel of John. Moses was the former; Jesus is the latter and the greater.
In verse 10, the story seems to stop. The narrator steps in and says, “This is the first of his signs.” In John’s gospel, a sign is not a “miracle” as we sometimes describe miracles, some reversal of natural processes. A sign is something which points beyond itself to something else.
If you look in your rear-view mirror and see a flashing blue light, and you say, “There's an ambulance behind me,” you do not really mean that. What you mean is that this is a sign that a ambulance is on its way. The sign precedes the thing itself, points beyond itself to the real thing. This, Jesus’ miracle at Cana, is said to be the first of his signs, a sign pointing to his glory. When they saw the sign, they saw glory. Suddenly, a mere wedding party transformed into an occasion of revelation, a moment when some were brought close to God.
You’re here because you want to be close to God. But how can you? Am I only speaking for myself with I say that my sin keeps me far from God? How can we come close to God?Jesus is God’s act of coming close to humanity even in the face of humanity’s self-designed attempts at salvation.
In other words, this story speaks about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus in his Messianic form, Jesus as God among us. Messiah means “the Anointed One,” the one who is anointed by God to stand for God.
And yet the church is guilty of frequently using Jesus for non-Messianic purposes. Have you ever seen a sign advertising some business and in the bottom or the top there will be a little symbol of a fish – an ICTHUS. The advertiser is telling us that they are a Christian business. Christian has become an adjective, modifying the noun, business. Christ is judged basically on the virtue of his utility, his helpfulness in getting things that we want, things that we wanted before we met Jesus. This is non-Messianic use of Jesus. So we come to church hoping to find self-esteem, or peace of mind, or for help making it through next week. All of that may happen here. But it’s not the main event.
The main event is to come here hoping to meet, or more to the point of today’s gospel, hoping to be met by God.
Jesus is clearly in command of the situation. He gives the orders. He makes the sign. The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the Messiah who brings us close to the glory of God. Jesus bursts in as Messiah, devastating all of our attempt to save ourselves. In his temptation in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread. Now, we want him to turn water into wine. Turning water into wine is impressive. Yet, it is trivial, in itself. When you think about it, this is a rather trivial way to begin a gospel — at an ordinary wedding reception with ordinary problems like the wine running short.
But by the end of this story, all of this has been swept away. Glory breaks out. Our trivial usages of Jesus are overcome and the Messiah shines through.
Is the church’s Jesus merely the church’s errand boy? Is the Jesus the creation of the church, or is the church the new creation of Jesus?
Jesus is among us, not to provide wine, but to provide glory, glorious, brimming life.
Acknowledgements: Judy Stark; William Willimon