Jesus attends a Wedding
A Homily from John 2:1-11
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Antioch Baptist Church, Godfrey, Georgia
January 18, 1997 (Second Sunday after the Epiphany)
The story that is our text for today is one of the oddest in the gospel. It takes place in the second chapter of John, after a very impressive first chapter. We have been told that Jesus is the word that was with God in the beginning. We have heard John the Baptist testify that the Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus like a dove, and that Jesus is the Son of God. John then shows us Jesus, walking along through the wilderness like Chang Kai Shek in the old TV series Kung Fu. He points to one person, and changes his name. He points to another, and seems to read his mind. Then he says that these things are nothing. In fact, Jesus himself tells us that in the following chapters we are going to see the angels of God moving back and forth from heaven to earth, just as they did in the mighty miracle stories of the Hebrew Bible.
All of that happens in just the first chapter. We know that Jesus is the transcendent Word of God as well as the physical child of God, and the last words of the chapter tell us to expect some amazing miracles. So how does the chapter start off, well its pretty amazing I tell you. It starts off, “And then there was a wedding…”
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to some pretty impressive weddings, and modern weddings can be pretty amazing things. In many cases they take over a year to plan, and according to an article that I read, they cost an average of fifteen thousand dollars. Weddings in Jesus’ time were even more astounding. Typically, they lasted for seven whole days of constant feasting and celebrating. If you were married in Jesus’ time, you knew that you were married; and if you forgot, your in-laws probably kept the catering bill to remind you.
So granted, weddings of this era were even bigger deals than they are today, and seven days of feasting in an era before fat free foods is pretty impressive, it is still not what we expect as the symbol for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. One minute, he is talking about the host of heaven descending to earth, and the next minute he is chatting with his mother over a plate of hour d’ourves.
It seems like a pretty normal event. Not the sort of setting for a story about the son of God. But make no mistake, this is a very important story. In this Gospel, it is the beginning of the public ministry of Christ. It is the first miracle in the gospel, and it sets the pattern that all of the later miracles will follow. This is a very important moment.
So, how does it begin? Well, with a catering problem. Jesus and his mother are sitting at one of those white-covered tables, munching on tiny sandwiches and making chit-chat, when she leans over to him and says, “They’re out of wine.” Now this would have been a sign of poor planning on the host’s part. As I said, these weddings lasted for a week, and to run out of wine early could spell disaster for the celebration, and have been an embarrassment for both families for years to come. Nevertheless, this would have been the host’s problem and not Jesus’.
And so Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what does that have to do with you or with me?” Now, I grew up with a pretty old fashioned upbringing, and my first thought is, “Jesus, now that’s no way to talk to your mama;” so I think this sentence requires a little explanation. It is important to remember that Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic, the language of the area. John translated what he said into Greek, which was spoken all over the known world the way English is spoken over our world today. We in turn read an English translation of that Greek translation of and Aramaic phrase.
Addressing a woman in this manner, in the original language, was not really that rude, and it occurs several times, in Hebrew, in the Hebrew Bible. It was a way of letting the other person know that you were mildly annoyed with them.
Even if it wasn’t rude, though, it would still have been unusual to use this phrase with your mother. But that is what Jesus does. “Woman,” he says, “what does that have to do with the price of tea in china? It’s none of our business.” What is he trying to do by addressing her this way.
Essentially he is carrying on what John the Baptist had begun in the first chapter, he is setting himself apart from his earthly family so that the world can come to see him as the Son of God. In this moment, and with this phrase, Jesus clearly establishes himself as being like no other person in history. He has no parental or earthly authority except that of God who sent him. Jesus, with one word, severs all earthly ties that might keep him from fulfilling his ultimate, divine mission. Jesus is not being rude here. John is using this moment to give us another glimpse of the uniqueness of our Savior.
Of course, this does not give fair credit to Jesus’ earthly parents. You will notice that Joseph is not mentioned at all, and Mary’s name is not given, She is described only as “the mother of Jesus.” This may seem unfair, and without the other gospels it would be. But the Gospel of John is not a comprehensive history of the life of Jesus. It was written roughly two decades after the last of the other three. By the time this gospel was put together, many, many people already knew a lot of amazing stories about Jesus. What John sets out to do is not tell more stories but rather to help us better understand who the Jesus of those stories is.
So, knowing that we will have other opportunities to understand the person of Mary, John shifts the spotlight exclusively to Jesus so that we can see him, first and foremost as the child and emissary of God.
But, there is still the matter of the wine. It’s a wedding, and they have run out, and Jesus’ mother is not to be deterred. She does not bother to answer his question, but instead tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” This is an important theme throughout this gospel, and it is one of the hardest truths for us to remember. “Do whatever he tells you.” Obey. Jesus’ mother is confident that there will be a miracle, perhaps she remembers a night that didn’t seem to long ago, when an angel promised her a miracle, all she had to do was obey. Jesus’ mother understood that, and so she says to them, and perhaps to us as well, “If what you need is a miracle, you will get one, if you do what he says.”
So often we want it the other way around. It seems reasonable that if God wants us to be obedient, than we should first get to see at least a little of the divine power of God. But it does not work that way here. Jesus is just another guest at the wedding until the servants of the host start doing what he says. Likewise, for us, Jesus is just another philosopher or Sunday school teacher until we begin to live and act as he has taught us. Until we obey.
What, exactly, were the servants asked to do? Well, there were six jars in one corner of the house that were used for a Jewish purification ritual. Now these were not small pitchers like you might imagine. These were huge vats, each holding at least twenty and perhaps even thirty gallons of water. Jesus says, “You see those huge tubs over there, fill them up all the way to the top.” Now that was a lot of water. They could not just turn on the tap and fill them to the brim. Every gallon of water had to be hand-carried from a well that might not even have been on that property. Even if it was, we are talking about between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and eighty gallons of water. That's a lot of trips back and forth, and remember that there was a wedding going on. I’m sure that there were lots of other important things that the servants could have been doing.
Nevertheless, they obeyed. They carried bucket after bucket, each one probably heavier than the last, from the well to the enormous drums. This was a tedious, time-consuming task, and I can only imagine that they must have rolled their eyes a time or two at how silly it all seemed. Hauling enormous quantities of water, in their experience, had nothing to do with making wine. But whether or not it seemed crazy to them, they kept on lugging those buckets.
Interestingly, the word that is used here for “servant” is the same word from which we get the title, “deacon.” Truth be told, we are all called to be deacons of the church. To carry on the day to day tasks that keep the church alive, to carry the seemingly never ending stream of buckets toward a barrel that never seems to be full. I’m sure that many modern deacons could relate to the frustrations that these deacons faced that day. But then, as now, obedience can be rewarded with a miracle.
And they received an amazing miracle. All one hundred and eighty gallons of that well water became one hundred and eighty gallons of the finest wine that anyone had ever tasted. Now, I actually heard a sermon once where a preacher tried to convince us that this wine was not wine but some type of Welch’s grape juice. Well, he was wrong, and I know he was wrong because, in verse ten one of the guests of the wedding says that, “Most people serve this stuff first, and then, when everyone is drunk on it, then they bring out the cheap stuff.” Grape juice does not make you drunk. Wine does.
Really, grape juice is no different from water. The kind of water that for centuries had filled those barrels. Water that could quench your thirst for a moment, but you would get thirsty again. Water that would make you clean for a moment, but you would get dirty again. That was the way things had always been, but this day marks the beginning of God doing a new thing. Soon, those barrels, and the rituals of purification that they represented, rituals that had to be repeated over and over again, would not be needed anymore. With one single action, with one single person, God will sweep away the ugly mass of sin that had separated humanity and God.
Scripture tells us that God had waited for that day the way a young man or woman waits for their wedding day. Come to think of it, it is not so strange that Jesus is introduced to the world at a wedding. A wedding is a time when two people, who custom and society have kept apart until the right time, are brought together. A wedding is a time when two people who have ached for each other and dreamt about each other are finally brought together, mind, flesh, and soul, and they are brought together for all time.
This is exactly how God has waited expectantly for us, and how God celebrates being united with us. In our Hebrew Bible reading this morning, Isaiah tells us that, “as the groom rejoices over the bride” so God rejoices over us. Fervently, passionately, God has always desired to be near to us, to be an intimate part of our lives. On this day in Cana, the process for that reunion was begun with Jesus’ introduction to the world.
And so, God celebrates with a wedding, and a miracle that meant joy and celebration for everyone present. I once had the privilege of hearing an Orthodox Jewish rabbi speak. The question was asked, “Why do you go home and drink wine as part of the Sabbath?” He answered, “For exactly the reason that you should drink wine. Because it makes you happy.” I can only imagine that with one hundred and eighty gallons of wine, they were very happy.
But that is the kind of generous God that we serve. God does not offer us tiny miracles and tiny gifts. Amos says that the hills will overflow with wine, and I assure you that almost two hundred gallons of wine at a wedding party in a small town in the desert is definitely overflowing. That is how God gives to us. God does not offer us little pieces of grace. “I will forgive you this today, but you we will see about the rest tomorrow.” No! God washes it all away with one joyous pass of a mighty hand.
God does not offer us little cups of love. No, truly God’s love flows in gallons over us. For God so loved the world that we were given God’s only child. That’s not a little bit of love, that is everything.
When God acts in our lives, it is amazing, it is miraculous, and it is in quantities that we cannot imagine or comprehend. We do not serve a God of petty miracles. We serve a God who transforms lives as miraculously as that water was transformed into fragrant wine.
The transformation may not come in ways that we would expect, and God gives us a part to play. That part is different for each one of us. In fact, the only common thread is that, no matter what, we are all asked to be faithful and obey. We may be asked to do the tedious, or the task may seem impossible or even irrelevant, but the servants who carried those endless clay pitchers of water that day, were the first people to see a miracle of the Son of God. In fact, they got to share in making the miracle happen.
Who knows what God will ask of us in the future. Whatever it may be, we know that, even if we cannot see the results now, we serve a God of generous celebration who will bring not small but mighty miracles into our midst. We need only hear, obey, and celebrate. Don’t forget that last. It is the nail-scarred hand of Christ that, to this day, offers us a cup of wine in remembrance, and a reason to dance and laugh with joy at our long-awaited union with God.