Who Did That?

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Lesson: John 2:1-11

It was just a little over a year ago that I was involved in a family wedding.  My younger daughter Rebecca celebrated her first anniversary a couple of weeks ago.  I was blessed to play a dual role, as people in my line of work sometimes get to do.  I was both mother of the bride and the officiating minister.  Now, I’ll bet you’ll have no trouble guessing which one of those two roles was the most time-consuming and stressful, not to mention expensive.  The wedding was amazing, joyful, very few mishaps or awkward moments, a special blessing given that blended families were part of the picture.  And – it was a lot of work.  My daughter didn’t get crazy about minute details and did not remotely resemble a “Bridezila;” she was very organized, she did her homework, she stayed calm, and that’s certainly part of the reason things went smoothly.  But she was also lucky.  In my experience with other weddings, things sometimes happen that good planning won’t solve.  There was the limo driver who forgot to pick up the bride after dropping the bridesmaids at the church.  There was the best man who got drunk before the ceremony.  At an outdoor wedding officiated by a friend, there was the duck that stood in between the minister and the couple, quacking off and on through the whole ceremony.

So, what happened at the wedding at Cana?  Poor planning?  Bad luck?  Did more people show up than they expected?  Then as now, running out of food or wine was a serious embarrassment.  Jesus’ mother says to him, “They have no wine,” which apparently really means, “They have no wine.  Fix it.”  But Jesus thinks it’s none of their business; plus, the timing is bad.  Mary[1] completely ignores this, and turns to the waiters saying, “You do whatever he tells you.”  So in spite of his misgivings, he tells the servants to fill six very large stone jars with water, and to draw some of that water, now turned to wine, and take it to the chief steward.  The chief steward hasn’t seen any of this, but he does know wine, and he is amazed at the quality.  In Jesus’ day a wedding typically lasted a week,[2] and most hosts would serve the best wine up front, wanting to make a good impression.  They’d save the cheap wine for later, when the palettes of the guests have been, shall we say, sufficiently dulled so as to not recognize the drop in quality.  But this host, the steward assumes, has ignored the traditional timing and saved the best wine for last.  No one would leave this wedding thirsty, for abundance and blessing has overflowed.[3]

In an irreverent but usually spot-on comic strip called “Coffee with Jesus,” a couple of people are chatting with Jesus about the wedding at Cana, traditionally considered his first miracle.   The man chimes in, “I like to use that miracle to explain to teetotalers that God is pro-alcohol.”  Jesus says, “It was a wedding, Carl.  I don’t turn water into Scotch in your office every morning.”[4]  So while I think we can safely say Jesus isn’t anti-alcohol, this miracle isn’t about drinking.  There is a deeper reality here that John is trying to communicate to us.  Last week, Jesus baptism showed us how he took his place among the ordinary folks.  Today’s passage is intended to show us this is no ordinary guy.  This is someone who can perform miracles.  John tells us this is a sign, a sign that revealed Jesus’ glory.  Because of this sign, his disciples “believed in him.”  The point of this miracle, this sign, is not, “Wow!  How did that happen?”  It’s “Wow!  Who did that?”[5]

All the signs and miracles in John’s gospel point to who Jesus is.  In fact, that’s the purpose of John’s gospel, as the narrator explains in the closing verses at the end of the book: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[6]  As Cornelius Plantinga writes, “…God’s family never does miracles just for the fun of it.  Miracles are not mere magic. … No, miracles are ‘signs.’  Miracles attest to the power and presence of God and the presence of God’s son.  Miracles tell us in miniature and in brief what is always true on a grander scale.  They say ‘God at Work!’”[7]

The wedding at Cana not only shows us that God is at work, but something of what God is like, what God is about, and therefore, what Jesus is like, what Jesus is about.

We’re told that the jars of water that Jesus turns into wine are stone jars used for the rite of purification – in other words, they represent Jewish law, the purity code and its distinctions between what – and who – is “clean,” and what and who is “unclean.”  Jesus turns that water into wine, and these concerns about clean and unclean give way to joy and celebration.  And Jesus provides this celebration with the very best wine, in abundant quantity.  The jars are filled to the brim.  The God that Jesus reveals is a God of lavish generosity and extravagance.[8]  The whole scene evokes images of the great banquet of God, that the bounty of God’s blessing is at hand – that the Messiah has arrived like a bridegroom ready to join his bride, and the law is fulfilled in Jesus who reveals that God is abundant love and calls God’s people to abide in that love.

The chief steward made the ironic statement that the good wine had been saved “until now.”  This is a symbolic way of saying that Jesus is better than what had come before.  He is the apex of God’s glory.  In God’s own timing, the Messiah had come.  When the guests were getting parched and the host nervous, and there was no recourse but to shut the party down, it is at this point that Jesus quietly intervenes.  It may not have been the most convenient time for Jesus, but because of the need of the guests and the request of his mother, he will do what must be done, for that is why he came.[9]

This wonderfully symbolic story does raise a tough but very real question for us today.  If these biblical miracles are like a sign that says, “God at Work,” how can we see God at work now?  Well, one way to look at it, as C. S. Lewis and others have pointed out, is that many of Jesus’ miracles are small, fast examples of the big, slow acts that God performs all the time.  Every harvest God feeds the multitudes with many loaves multiplied from a few grains.  Every summer, along sunny hillsides not far from here, God turns water into wine.  Jesus does the same thing fast and on a small scale.[10]

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we honor tomorrow with a national holiday, wrote: “At the center of the Christian faith is the conviction that in the universe there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and history.”[11]  The miracle, the sign at the wedding at Cana connects Jesus to this God – our God who is able, as King puts it.  God is able to create and sustain the world.  God is able to work through human history to save that world.  King described how one event followed another to bring a gradual end to the system of desegregation.  He concludes, “These changes are not mere political and sociological shifts. … When in future generations men look back on these … days … they will see God working through history for the salvation of man.  They will know that God was working through those men [and women] who had the vision to perceive that no nation could survive half slave and half free.[12] … The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth ultimately will conquer its conqueror.  Our God is able.”[13]  God is able; and the miracles of Jesus show that he, God’s son, is also able.

One of the most common but most important ways we can see that sign that says, “God at Work” today, in our own lives, is in the way God helps us to confront the trials and difficulties of life.  Every one of us faces troubles and Christianity has never denied this or pretended that people of faith are exempt from them.  Quite the contrary: Christianity affirms that God is able to give us the power to meet them.[14]  And this, too, is a way, a sign that Jesus reveals God’s glory.  King wrote, “[Christ] offers neither material resources nor a magical formula that exempts us from suffering … but he brings an imperishable gift: ‘Peace I leave with you.’  This is the peace which passeth understanding.”

King tells of a very personal experience with this.  Almost immediately after he became part of the leadership in the Montgomery bus boycotts, he started getting threatening phone calls and letters.  He quickly realized these weren’t just cranks; they were real threats.  In his words, he felt himself “faltering and growing in fear.”

After a particularly draining day, he was settling into bed when the phone rang.  An angry voice used an offensive racial epithet and told him that before the next week, he’d be sorry he ever came to Montgomery.  King hung up but couldn’t sleep.  It seemed all his fears had come down on him at once.  He got out of bed and began to walk the floor.  He went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee, ready to give up.  He tried to think of a way to back out of the picture without looking like a coward.  He decided to pray.  He bowed his head over the kitchen table and prayed out loud: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership but if I stand before them without strength or courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, King says he felt God’s presence has he had never felt it before.  It seemed as though he could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.”  Almost at once he felt his fears dissolve and his uncertainty disappear.  He writes, “I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”

Three nights later, King’s home was bombed.  Strangely enough, he says, he accepted the word of the bombing calmly.  Writes King: “My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust.  I knew now that God was able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.”[15]

King’s new inner calm might not have come from a flashy show of divine power.  But it was no less a miracle.  No less a sign that said, “God at Work.”

Turning water into wine at a wedding might seem like an odd or even trivial way to announce that Jesus is God’s son, that Jesus is “God at Work,” given all the weighty concerns of the world; concerns like racial inequality and economic injustice and terrorism and war and on and on.  It was only a private party, after all.  It was done in plain sight, but no one actually observed it, and apparently only Jesus’ mother, the servants and the disciples ever did know where all that great wine came from.  Oh, yes, and we do, too.  We, the readers of John’s gospel, know.

In the miracle at the wedding at Cana, human resources are at an end.  In other miracles in John, when people have come to an end of their medical skills, supply of food, and supply of courage, Jesus heals, feeds, and comforts amid the storm.  At the wedding at Cana he supplies what is needed so that the celebration can continue.  So that the feast can continue.  He does it quietly.  It isn’t a flashy show of divine power.  But then, most miracles aren’t.

There are miracles of love and justice and hope taking place all around us.  Even in our own lives.  Extreme acts of generosity.  Just this morning I read Joy Snyder’s description of the menu served at the REST shelter over in our Duncan Hall on Friday night, including little homemade individual cheesecakes, and of the hospitality extended, and the listening that took place.  It is a miracle of generosity, a miracle of kindness, care and compassion.  We see miracles of gracious, gracious acts of forgiveness.  We see miracles of people overcoming their fears, and standing up for what is right.  All these miracles point to the sign that says, “God at Work,” the sign that says God’s promise to the least and the last, to the lost and the lonely, and to the depleted and to those who’ve run out of steam, is there in fullness, in abundance, in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  So that the celebration can continue.

I’ll drink to that.

© Joanne Whitt 2013


[1]  The gospel writer/narrator in John doesn’t actually use Mary’s name, but only refers to her as the mother of Jesus.  Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple (New York: T & T Clark, 2005), p. 116.

[4]  “Coffee with Jesus: Water to Wine,” Radio Free Babylon, http://radiofreebabylon.com/RFB%20Images/CoffeeWithJesus/coffeewithjesus6.jpg.

[6]  John 20:30-31.

[7]  Cornelius Plantings Jr., Beyond Doubt (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), p. 45.

[8]  Dan Clendenin, “Party Time: The Wedding at Cana,” January 11, 2010, http://journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20100111JJ.shtml

[10]  Plantinga, ibid.

[11]  Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our God Is Able,” in Strength to Love, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 109.

[12]  King, p. 113.

[13]  King, p. 114.

[14]  King, pp. 114-115.

[15]  King, pp. 116-117.

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