2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, year C
Isaiah 62:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, John 2:1-11
Our Gospel today is the story of the miracle at Cana in Galilee. A wedding feast – which in those days lasted a whole week – is in progress when the wine runs out. Jesus solves the problem by turning water into excellent wine. The quantity is enormous: 120 gallons is equivalent to around 800 modern bottles of wine!
Taken at face value this is a remarkable story, but John indicates that there is more going on here. The clue is in verse 11: ‘What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory.’ ‘Sign’ is John’s special word that indicates that these miracles are more than miracles. Understood correctly they have a meaning, for they reveal who Jesus is and what he is about. We could say that they are a sort of enacted parable; that is, a parable told in actions, not words. Like all the stories in John’s Gospel our scripture passage is a feast of symbols and images, some obvious and some obscure, served with a good dash of irony. Remember that the feast is a recurring theme in the Old Testament. Isaiah described God’s decisive action in history in these terms:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. (Isaiah 25:6)
Remember also that this is often conceived as a wedding feast, for the relationship between God and Israel is likened to that between husband and wife. We explored this a little in relation to Jeremiah 31 at the Covenant Service two weeks ago, but it is stated even more clearly later in the book of Isaiah:
the Lord will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
As a young man marries a young woman,
so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:4-5)
This age-old theme of feasts and wedding banquets is carried over into the New Testament and is surely at the back of John’s mind when he relates this story. The irony is that here we see Jesus, the true bridegroom of the true Israel, coming to a wedding feast as an invited guest.
So the story has a rich heritage, rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. But for all that, it is told in John’s inimitable style, raising more questions than answers. Although this is a wedding feast, did you notice there is not a single mention of the bride or groom? Jesus’ mother seems to take some responsibility for the wine running out – was this the wedding of a family member or someone else well known to Jesus? Why does Mary bring it to Jesus’ attention – what did she think that Jesus could do about it? Why six stone jars – does the number six have any significance, or is that a red herring? Why does Jesus speak to his mother in such an odd way – “woman, why do you involve me?” These are all interesting matters which biblical scholars like to debate, but in my opinion are all peripheral to the central meaning of the story, so we shall need to set them to one side.
For me the central meaning of the story is very simple. Jesus attends a wedding feast and totally transforms it. It is a picture of the way God, through Jesus, works. And so too Jesus wants to transform our lives, our church, our community, if we will but let him.
Let’s look at a couple of verses in more detail and see what they have to tell us.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. (v.7)
Note first that this miracle was performed with water. Water is a very ordinary thing, the most common substance on planet earth. And yet it is this plain, ordinary substance that Jesus uses as an instrument to manifest his glory. The English poet Richard Crashaw expressed this in a memorable phrase: ‘the modest water saw its God and blushed’. This reminds us of the sacramental life of the Church, when God uses ordinary things – the water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper – to extraordinary ends. It reminds us also of our own calling as Christians. For who are we? Ordinary people, frail and insignificant; and yet God uses such as us to minister his grace to a thirsty world.
Jesus transforms water – ordinary water, set aside for washing plates and cups, feet and hands – into wine.
But notice that the jars are not just filled, but filled to the brim.
This is a miracle of quantity as well as quality – we are reminded that God does nothing in half-measures.
Why? Because that is the way that God always goes things. God is generosity itself. Consider his creation: a million seeds squandered to produce one living plant. A whole universe brought into being in order to prepare for human beings, the pinnacle of his creation. Excess, superfluity, adundance is God’s trademark.
This is the first, though not the last time that Jesus, through his actions, will demonstrate God’s abundant generosity. However, John has already told us what God is like in the prologue to his Gospel: ‘From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” (1:16) To borrow another biblical phrase, the image is one of a cup running over, as God’s grace and joy and peace and love overflows into the lives of men and women. Later Jesus will perform another miracle of abundance when he produces so much bread that a crowd of five thousand people cannot eat it all. And later still we are reminded of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the experience of the early church of the spiritual gifts dispensed to the church.
The picture of God we find in this passage is quite clear: our God is not a frugal God, a penny pinching God, miserly apportioning his gifts. On the contrary: here is more than enough for all. Which reminds me of Jesus’ story of another wedding feast, when servants were sent out to the highways and byways with instructions to invite anyone they met on the way to come to the party. Jesus concludes: “So these servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (Matt 22:10) Such generosity and grace without limit, truly offered to all!
Although it is not the main intention of the story, I think it is inevitable that we find here a challenge to our own attitudes and practice. If God is so generous, so rich in dispensing his grace and mercy, and, apparently, so indiscriminate in doing so (for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and his rain to fall on the upright and wicked alike – Matt 6:24), does this not question our meanness and pettiness of spirit?
I am reminded of the story told toward the end of John’s Gospel. A few days before his death, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Judas is offended: this perfume could have been sold and put to a better use. Leave her alone, says Jesus, she is doing what she can for me while I am still with you.
Mary’s action had no useful purpose beyond expressing her love for Jesus. And what about water changed into wine. Some scholars have struggled with this miracle. In a way it seems so pointless. No disease is cured, no sight or hearing restored, no one is in danger. At least when he fed the 5,000, it was to meet people’s hunger. But this is wine, for goodness sake. Certainly an embarrassment for those who had arranged the feast, but hardly the end of the world.
Perhaps the pointlessness of providing all that wine is the point. This is a difficult message for us Methodists, in particular, to hear. For we are a practical and pragmatic people. Our founder John Wesley had a puritan dislike of what, in his opinion, was unnecessary, wasteful and trivial. Everything done for a purpose; not a moment to be wasted. When he built his new chapel on City Road, he praised it as ‘neat, but not fine’. It was later generations who put in the marble, memorials, pipe organ and stained glass windows, all of which I am sure would have Wesley turning in his grave.
Our tradition is about practicality and purpose. It’s what we might call the Thomas the Tank Engine approach to faith. Are you familiar with Thomas the Tank Engine? Thomas seeks the approval of the Fat Controller, who is the god-like figure in charge of the railways on the island of Sodor. And what is the highest praise which the Fat Controller can give a locomotive? ‘Thomas you are a Really Useful Engine’.
So for those of us – and I certainly include myself – who tend to measure life and even faith in terms of what is really useful, the story of Jesus’ most impractical offers an alternative perspective. As water for cleansing becomes wine for celebrating it captures a sense of joy which is all too often absent from the Church.
No wonder the master of the banquet exclaims: you have saved the best till now!
The master of the banquet didn’t know what actually happened of course, but he speaks a spiritual truth; you have saved the best till now. And Jesus hasn’t even got properly started yet. His hour has not yet come. If you think that’s the best, Mr MC, you just wait and see! You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Which makes me wonder… in our own walk with Jesus, what is the best that he is saving till now? What grace, what mercy, what wealth of spiritual gifts, does God want to pour and pour abundantly into the lives of his people? For as Paul writes:
…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Cor 2:9)
No matter how great life seems to be, God has something better. No matter how low we get, when the wine and the joy has run out , God has something better. God wants us to drink deeply of the wine of joy, the wine of grace, the wine of the kingdom, the wine of new life.