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Signs and Wonders

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
January 20, 2013

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him (NRSV).

          “Jesus did this,” John says, “he turned water into wine,” and perhaps before I say anything else I need to say something about that.  I remember calling my brother-in-law, Chuck, on a Saturday night years ago when I was struggling with this passage.  Chuck is an Episcopal priest in Texas, but since we both follow the lectionary we often end up preaching from the same passage of Scripture.  So I called and asked, “Are you having as much trouble as I am with this story about Jesus turning water into wine?”  “What do you mean?” he asked.  “Well,” I said, “the people in my church might not see it as a miracle.  They’re Baptists, from the Bible belt.  If Jesus turned water into wine at one of their weddings the mother of the bride would have to figure out how to get rid of the stuff.”  “Well, that’s where we’re different,” Chuck said.  “My folks are Episcopalians, from Texas.  This is, like, their favorite story in the Bible.  All I have to do is start reading it and they say ‘Yee-hah!’ real loud.”

          But for us, at least for some of us, it’s different.

          And so, before I begin to talk about this miracle I need to say that wine—as far as the Bible is concerned—is a good thing.  Psalm 104 says wine is a gift from God that “gladdens the heart.”  Ecclesiastes 9 says, “Eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart.”  In Isaiah 25 we hear that God himself will make for his people “a banquet of the best meat and the finest wine.”  It’s a good thing, but too much of almost any good thing can be bad.  While there are 145 positive references to wine in the Bible there are 40 negative ones, and all but one of them has to do with the abuse of wine.  These are the ones Baptists have traditionally focused on, and I think I know why.  I think Baptists have seen what the abuse of alcohol can do to a person, to a family, to a community.  They’ve seen how lives can be ruined, and homes can be wrecked.  They would rather stay away from alcohol altogether than run that risk, and they certainly don’t want to cause anyone to stumble, as Paul might say, by setting the wrong kind of example before their weaker brothers and sisters.

I hope that through the years that kind of compassionate response has had its desired effect, and that thousands—perhaps millions—of people have been spared a life of alcoholism.  But at some point what started out as love became law, and instead of abstaining from wine out of consideration for their weaker brothers and sisters Baptists began to believe that wine itself was the problem, that this gift from God that gladdens the heart was actually an evil thing, and that its production and consumption had to be stopped.  Which is to say, you can go too far in either direction, and Baptists went too far.  They began to watch each other, and tell on each other if they caught their brothers or sisters having a glass of wine.  Some of those same brothers and sisters were kicked out of the church because of it. They stopped using wine for communion and instead began to use Welch’s grape juice, a pasteurized product invented by a Methodist layman who was a strong supporter of the temperance movement.  And they began to challenge the Bible itself: I remember getting a “purified” New Testament in the mail where all the references to wine had been edited out and the translator insisted that what Jesus made at that wedding in Cana was nothing more than grape juice. 

No. 

Jesus made wine.  He made the kind of wine that “gladdens the heart” (if you know what I mean).  And he made a whole lot of it.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed by just how much he made until this time through the story. 

When I was in high school my mother got a new washer and dryer.  It was a wonderful gift except for the fact that we lived in a house with no running water.  Not a problem for my mom: she bought two shiny, new, galvanized metal trash cans and put them right there beside her new washer, one for clean water she could dump in and the other for the dirty water that would come out.  And then she told me it would be my job to empty the dirty one and fill the clean one.  So, that’s what I would do when I got home from school every day.  I would look at those two cans, and if Mom had done a load of laundry I would start carrying the dirty water out in buckets and pouring it out onto the garden.  And then I would go to the well up on the hill to fetch enough water to fill the other can.  I tried to put it in the form of a math problem once: “If Jimmy’s job is to fill a galvanized metal trash can with water, and he has two, two-and-a-half gallon buckets with which to do it, and the well is an eighth of a mile from the house, uphill in both directions, how much will he hate that job?”  Answer: A lot.

But I found out last week that one of those galvanized metal trash cans—if you fill it to the rim—holds 31 gallons, and that’s when I began to have a whole new appreciation for how much wine Jesus made at that wedding in Cana.  John says, “Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim.”  Those jars weren’t uniform in size, apparently.  Some must have been a little smaller and some a little larger.  But each of those six stone water jars held nearly as much as a galvanized metal trash can, “and they filled them up to the brim.”  I can still remember what it was like, when I finished that job, to look down through that crystal clear water to the bottom of the can.  There was a lot of water in there.  And if Jesus had been there to turn it into wine it would have been a lot of wine. 

And that’s partly what this story is about. 

It begins with the announcement that “on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited,” which is good to know.  They didn’t just crash the party.  But some of his disciples may have been heavy drinkers because the next thing we hear is that the wine has run out and Jesus’ mother comes to him as if it were his fault.  “They have no wine,” she whispers.  That would be embarrassing in almost any time or place, to run out of wine at a wedding, to have to start saying to the guests, “Sorry!  I guess we underestimated how many freeloaders there would be!”  But it would have been devastating in that setting, in a little village in the Middle East where people put so much emphasis on honor and shame.  The bride’s parents would have never lived it down.  And so Mary, who must have been a close friend or relative, came to Jesus and said, “Ahem!  They have no wine!”  What she didn’t say—at least not out loud—is “Do something!” 

But Jesus said, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  Some commentators have mentioned that his reply sounds a bit disrespectful, as if he were saying, “Woman!  What is that to you and me!?”  But remember that this is what Jesus calls his mother from the cross when he nods toward the Beloved Disciple and says to her, “Woman, behold your son.”  It’s not disrespectful; it’s the name he uses in their most intimate moments.  I can almost hear him whispering it: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  And what he means is, “I can’t do anything about it.  Not yet.  I haven’t yet been revealed as the Son of God.  My hour has not yet come.”  But Mary was his mother.  She knew who he was and what he could do.  And she seemed to believe that this was the time and place to do it.  She said to the servants who were standing there, “Do whatever he tells you.”  And then the servants turned to Jesus and waited for his instructions. 

What’s the Son of God to do?

He sighed and said, “You see those jars standing there?  Fill them up with water.”  They did.  I don’t know how long it took them.  I don’t know how many trips they had to make to the well.  But eventually all six of those jars were filled to the brim with cool, clear water.  And Jesus said, “Now, draw some out and take it to the chief steward.”  And they did.  They dipped up some of that water, and took it to the steward, and asked him to taste it.  And when he did he was amazed.  He called for the bridegroom and said, “I don’t get it.  People usually serve the good wine first, and then, when everyone is drunk, they bring out the cheap stuff.  But you!  You’ve saved the best for last.”  And John ends the story by saying, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Let me say a little more about that.

This was the first of his signs, John says, and in this Gospel Jesus performs seven signs—he turns water into wine, he heals a royal official’s son, he heals a paralytic by the pool of Bethesda, he feeds a multitude with a little boy’s lunch, he walks on water, he heals a man born blind, and he raises Lazarus from the dead.  Some people would call these miracles, but John calls them signs, and a sign—as you know—always points to something else.  I was thinking about those big Holiday Inn signs you used to see along the highway.  Do you remember them?  They were huge!  65 feet tall, with blinking light bulbs that made a big arrow pointing to the Holiday Inn.  The signs were so impressive you could almost miss what they were pointing to, and that’s one of the dangers in this passage.  I could spend all morning talking about Jesus turning water into wine, and what an amazing thing that was, and never get around to what that sign pointed to.  Imagine somebody going to Disney World, stopping to admire the sign at the front gate, and then turning around and going home.  The sign and what it points to are two different things.  So, what does this sign point to?  It points to the glory of God.

“Jesus did this…and revealed his glory,” John says, and it happened in that moment when the steward tasted the water that had become wine.  He didn’t know it.  He didn’t know where the wine had come from.  But the servants who had drawn the water knew, and when the steward called for the bridegroom and told him that he had saved the best wine for last the little hairs on the backs of their necks stood up, because in that moment they realized that it was Jesus who had done this.  “He revealed his glory,” John says, which means he gave away the secret of his identity.  The glory of God began to shine all around this miracle, and the servants realized that Jesus could have done this only by the power of God.  I mean, really, it’s God who makes wine in the first place isn’t it?  He sends the rain that waters the roots and causes the sap to rise up through the vine and out along the branches where it fattens and sweetens the grapes, and then, through the natural process of fermentation, water becomes wine.  All Jesus did was speed up the process, a lot, but when he did he tipped his hand, the glory of God was revealed, and first the servants and then his disciples saw him for who he really was.  But here’s the important thing:

His disciples believed in him.  For them it wasn’t just a miracle; it was a sign.  It was like one of those big Holiday Inn signs pointing to Jesus and saying, “Here he is!  This is the one!  Believe in him!”  And to their credit the disciples did.  It reminds me of something that happened to me last week.  I was out running along a country road in Kentucky.  It was a cloudy morning, threatening rain, but then—for just for a few minutes—that thick blanket of clouds was ripped open and the sunlight poured through.  I could see the sun itself, a brilliant orange ball peeking through, and the only color visible on that otherwise gray, rainy day.  I think it was like that for those disciples, that when they realized what Jesus had done it was as if the sky had been ripped open, and the glory of God had come pouring through, and suddenly there he stood before them, the Son of God, so radiant that it hurt their eyes to look at him.  In chapter one of this Gospel they say, “We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  They believed in him. 

What about you?

At the end of his Gospel John says, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name.  What kind of life?  Abundant life.  Because when Jesus makes wine he doesn’t make just a little wine, he makes a lot of wine, and when he gives life he doesn’t give just a little life, he gives a lot of life.  And in the same way that the wine he makes is the best wine there is, the life he gives is the best life there is.  It’s delicious, abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.  He’s offering it to you right now.  He’s holding out a cup that is full and running over.  All you have to do is reach out and take it.  So, here’s the question:

Will you? 

And if you won’t…

why not?

—Jim Somerville 2013

 
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