New Wine, New Life - Part 1
I read these words from a minister in Georgia, the state, not the nation: “Weddings are an accident waiting to happen”. Naturally, I had to read the rest of the essay. I mused about whether there was truth about his pessimistic view of nuptials. Are they really an accident waiting to happen, or is he being extreme? I thought about experiences I have had in ministry and concluded that there is some truth to his dictum. I have had families argue about where they are to be seated, inebriated grooms and groomsmen, missing rings, fainting brides, and grooms who haven’t shown up! And, I have had an objection! Yes, an objection! I have endured all manner of suffering from failed pant clips to people babbling their vows. “Weddings are accidents waiting to happen!” In fact, the accidents made the weddings more memorable than ever.
There is much stress about weddings, but we are not alone. Our text today from the great Gospel of John is a wedding with an accident about to happen. They ran out of wine! If you listen to the rabbis, they will tell you without wine at a reception there is no joy. Now, I do not want to take this as an advocacy for the overdrinking of wine, but I do want to stress the power of the imagery in this story, for if you look at weddings in biblical times they were enormously important.
In small towns and villages, like the one in Cana in Galilee, a wedding was a major social event. Often, there would be a short ceremony in the evening, then the bride and groom would be walked around the village. A canopy would be placed above their heads like a tabernacle, and they would be greeted by the townsfolk, who would applaud them even if they hadn’t been to the ceremony. It was a social event, a singular moment in the life of the community. The next day, the bride and the groom would hold an open house and invite people to celebrate their marriage. They would do this by putting on a big feast and providing a lot of wine. It was a way of thanking the community for being part of their lives. The bride and groom would also, at times, wear crowns on their heads, and they would be referred to as kings and queens. They were treated like royalty, and were given a special place. Even the things they said were taken as law – as being important. They were elevated in the community, important people, with an important role. So, when they hosted this open house, providing food and wine, and the wine ran out, it reflected poorly upon them and their families.
Two things could have happened: either people drank too much or they had not prepared sufficiently for the community, showing a lack of hospitality and respect for people. It is not a good way to start off your marriage or your relationship with the community. To lack hospitality, generosity or preparation was a terrible thing. So, when the wine steward comes to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who must have been a family friend or perhaps a relative, and asks, “Do you think there is anything that can be done about this?”
Mary turns to her son, Jesus and says, “They have run out of wine. What can you do?”
Jesus’ response to her on the surface sounds rather crass, rather aggressive: “Woman, why are you bothered with this, and why are you bothering me with this? My time has not yet come.”
On the surface it sounds rude. When you call someone “woman” it is deemed derogatory or rude. But that is not a fair reflection of the Greek, nor of what Jesus is saying. The reason I know this is because I remember the words Jesus spoke to his mother when he was hanging on the Cross, “Woman, behold your son!” It is actually a statement of respect, of recognition. When Jesus says to her “Woman”, he is simply recognizing her. Then, he says, “Why does it bother you?” and “Why should it bother me, for my time has not yet come?” As we discover through the story, Jesus did not want to fully reveal the power of his Messianic abilities at that time; he wanted it to be kept still a secret. We will see why in a moment.
Nevertheless, Jesus performs the miracle. He takes water and changes it into wine. It is a miracle. It is the first sign in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ Messianic power, and a moment of revelation, but only to very few people. In fact, we are told only the stewards and the disciples knew that he had done this. The crowd didn’t know. The bride and groom didn’t know. It is simply a miracle performed secretly and quietly at the beginning of his ministry.
Last Sunday, I preached from Revelation, and that incredible passage: “Behold, I make all things for you.” When I look at the story of the Wedding at Cana, we have one of two great examples of newness in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, this one and another one, which we are going to look at next week, which is the raising of the dead child. But this one is unique because it was the first. What is striking about it is its symbolism. It is important because, first of all, it is a joyous occasion. Weddings are, hopefully, joyful occasions. They are celebrations for communities and families to come together, moments of joy and praise, of dressing up and putting on your finest. Weddings are joyful occasions!
Throughout the history of the Christian Church, however, we have had a tendency to make them a little heavy, and by that I mean theologically heavy. There were great debates in the history of the Church, starting in the twelfth century with Lombard, as to whether weddings were sacraments. Oh, and we debated that in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and Protestants and Reformists have debated whether it is the seventh sacrament or whether it is simply a sign. But all of this is to lose the real power or it. The fact of the matter is, weddings are moments in The New Testament where Jesus reveals himself. He chose a wedding as the first sign of his messiahship. So, this wedding has become a symbol of the newness of life. Why? Because weddings ultimately are about new beginnings. No matter what had happened before, when there is a wedding, things change. It is a sign, a symbol of transformation. When Jesus was at the wedding at Cana, it was a joyous occasion, a moment of pleasure. He didn’t turn, as one of my friends likes to put it, wine into water. He didn’t take a glorious thing and turn it into something ordinary. He took something ordinary and turned it into something exceptional.
Oftentimes, as Christians, we wear our faith as if it is a burden, a weight on our shoulders. A lot of people think that the Christian faith and following Christ is one of joyous misery. They do! I am astounded by people that I run into who really think this is a joyless thing to follow Christ! On the contrary! Even when you look at the Beatitudes, that passage in Matthew 5 that many of you know – “Blessed are the poor in spirit...... blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness........ blessed are the peacemakers.” The word “blessed” in Greed is makarios, and that is best translated as “happy”. So even when you fulfill the obligations of the Christian faith, you are blessed, you are happy to do it. There is a joyous vibe about it all, and I think that sometimes gets lost in the weight of our own concerns about the world and its problems, which are many, and we lose the joyful and bountiful sense of what Christ brings to people’s lives.
There is a second image of the six water pots. They have great importance in Israel because six is a number associated with being incomplete. These six water jars that Jesus asked to be filled with water in order that he could transform it into wine were incomplete. In the Scriptures, the wine is a representation of the new power of God. In The Book of Amos, Chapter 19, verse 13, Amos talks about the “Day of the Lord” and when the day of the Lord comes, wine will flow down from the hills. We find the same thing in Hosea, Chapter 3, verse 18, “the mountains will drip with wine.” This isn’t literal wine, but that sense of abundance that comes when God acts. In other words, God takes an ordinary thing and changes it into a wonderful thing. He takes a thing of barrenness and lifelessness and restores to it something marvelous and beautiful. When Jesus turned water into wine at Cana it was a symbol of the newness of life and the power of the Messiah, and that the Messiah was coming to take ordinary things and make them extraordinary. It was the fulfillment of what God was doing. In our own lives there are times when we feel spirituality incomplete. We feel that somehow there is no more joy or power or zest to our lives and our faith; they are just ordinary things. Our walk with God – our worship, our singing of hymns, our daily devotions, our moral and ethical struggles, they are barren, they are incomplete. They will be and they are unless Christ is a part of them. When Christ is a part of them, they are complete.
There is also a sense in which this particular wedding party must have been thirsty. The wine steward was concerned about the thirst of the people. He was concerned that there was a great need amongst the people, and that the people needed something new. As I look at this story I see that by changing the water into wine, Jesus is addressing the thirst in people’s lives, and recognizing the needs of those around him. As I said, for the bridegroom, never mind the wine steward, this was a source of immense embarrassment. But when Jesus turns the water into wine, the people recognize something: Jesus isn’t watering the wine down. I have always heard that he just added more water to the wine and diluted it. They had already diluted it – the secret is out! The wine they served at weddings was two parts wine and three parts water anyway. Maybe someone said cynically, “Jesus just put a bit of wine in with the water in these water pots that made it look like more.” Nonsense! Because they said, “You have saved the best wine until last.” Now, who does that? It must have been embarrassing for the bridegroom and the party to realize that they had served people wine, and now the good stuff comes out for those who have survived the first lot of wine. But, it was the best wine. It was the real wine. It was the wine that reflects the grace of God.
It is not the wine itself that is powerful here; it is that Christ transforms it in a way that makes even the most thirsty find something wonderful in it. I think we live in a time where people have been served some pretty bad wine. They are unfulfilled and incomplete, and feel deep need in their lives, so-much-so that at times they have turned too much to real wine. There are people who are thirsty for something richer in their lives, and they don’t know where to go, or who to turn to. Well, the steward in this would tell them who to turn to: turn to Christ, turn to Jesus of Nazareth, he is the new wine.
I met the great theologian Gabriel Fackre, who taught at Andover Newton Seminary and was a Congregationalist minister in the U.S. I liked Gabriel incredibly. He was a fine man! He wrote a book called Go and Tell Evangelism. In it he said “At times, we become so hypnotized by our culture that we bury the treasure of the Good News.” You know, I think Thacker is right. As Christians, it is like we are ashamed to talk about the joy of our faith and the love and the grace of Christ, because we feel that our culture somehow doesn’t want hear it or has no interest in it. Yet, our culture is thirsty for something that is going to forgive and heal, restore and transform. It is not just in the spiritual realm that this is powerful, it also applies to the physical realm. Jesus didn’t turn water into metaphorical wine; he turned it into real wine. Therefore, at times in the real world, in the day-to-day world, there is a need for us to address the thirst and the needs of people in our society. Right now surely, and I have said this before, but it is a blight on our culture and our history that we have First Nations people boiling their water in great numbers because it is like glue. It has sediment in it and is killing them. This just isn’t right! There comes a point where people of faith, of compassion, and hospitality reach out like Christ did at that wedding, address it and seek to change it. Cathy Ross, a professor at Oxford, who is a missiologist has said that the great source of mission is hospitality. When Jesus, and she uses this illustration, turned water into wine, he did it wanting the hosts to be hospitable to the thirsty people who were in need. That, it seems to me, is an integral part of our ministry and the Gospel.
There is one last part to all of this, and I love it, and that is: abundance. There is joy, and celebration; water into wine, and a lot of it! The jars that we are speaking about, combined, would make about 120-180 gallons of wine. Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t recommend this at a party! One hundred and twenty to 180 gallons sounds absurd, doesn’t it? The water jars were actually used for the cleansing of hands and feet, as a hospitality to those visiting the house. It was a form of ritual cleansing in Judaism. These water jars are not little jugs on a table; these are huge jars for bath water really. So, this water turned into wine, would represent abundance. For those who first read this Gospel of John, they would be smiling at this point. They would know that this is the abundance that is being talked about. No wonder people thought that everyone was drunk when there is 120 gallons there. No! It is not that. This is the new wine. This is the wine of abundant joy. The same thing applies in the Book of Acts when the disciples at Pentecost got up to speak. Many of you know the story: they were accused of being filled with new wine, but they had drunk nothing, and were simply happy in their faith in Christ. They were filled with the Spirit of Christ. They were overjoyed and abundant in what they had experienced through their faith.
As we read in this story, for those who came to believe, who witnessed what Jesus had done, there is this tremendous sense of abundant joy. This abundant joy is what we need at the heart of our faith. James Freeman Clarke wrote a very simple little poem about the Wedding at Cana many years ago, but it is one that I have often thought captures the sentiment, and perhaps puts it way more eloquently than I can. This is what he wrote, and it sums it all up for me in terms of the impact on our lives.
Dear friend! Whose presence in the house,
Whose gracious word benign,
Could once, at Cana’s wedding feast
Change water into wine.
Come, visit us, and when dull work
Grows weary, line on line,
Revive our souls and make us see
Life’s water glow as wine.
Gay mirth shall deepen into joy,
Earth’s hope shall grow divine,
When Jesus visits us, to turn
Life’s water into wine.
The social talk, the evening fire,
The homely household shrine,
Shall glow with angel visits, when
The Lord pours out the wine.
For when self-seeking turns to love,
Which knows not mine and thine,
The miracle again is wrought,
And water changed to wine.
May your life be full of new wine and lots of it, because it is the grace of Christ! Amen.