The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, January 17, 2010. The text for this week’s message is John 2:1-11.
The story of the wedding at Cana is a story that most people have probably heard at some point. It’s one of those stories that we know when people just say, “wedding at Cana.” It pops into our head right away. And it is a perfect example of how important it is to be familiar with Scripture. There is so much in this story that we can easily miss simply by not spending some time in the Old Testament. Again, it’s one of the reasons I really want to encourage everyone to read through the Bible this year; to dwell in the richness of Scripture.
I have to be honest with you. I’m sure there’s a place, somewhere, for Bibles that only include the New Testament, but I don’t really like them. Is that bad of me to say? I don’t know, maybe, but stick with me for a minute. What kind of message do they convey? It may not be intentional, but they give the subtle message that the Old Testament is not important. I’ve heard churches proudly proclaim that they are “New Testament churches” as if they have it all figured out and we don’t need the Old Testament. Given the number of times that I have preached out of the Old Testament, you can already guess how I feel about these messages.
The Old Testament is foundational to the New Testament. When the New Testament authors were writing, they only knew the Old Testament as their Scriptures. Are we to suppose that because we have the collection of 27 books and letters that we call the New Testament, that we don’t need to know the other 39 books of Scripture? I would say it is quite the opposite. Because we have the New Testament, we need to know the Old Testament all the more; because so much in the New Testament is written with an Old Testament worldview in mind. We can’t forget our foundations.
There needs to be a balance between these two parts of Scripture. What is it about this particular section of John’s gospel that makes me say this? This passage, which is so familiar to so many people, is making some major claims regarding what is going on in Jesus’ ministry, but we don’t necessarily see them because we aren’t familiar with the Old Testament foundations or the cultural surroundings of this part of the text.
During this time, weddings were huge events. A typical Jewish wedding took place at night, and the wedding party would be awaiting the arrival of the groom. When the groom was spotted, there would be a great amount of shouting and excitement, and the bride would drop everything that she was doing in order to put on her wedding dress. There is a sense of anticipation and excitement when it comes to the wedding. The bride would come out to meet the groom, and they would go to his house for the ceremony.
Upon the consummation of the marriage, there would be a seven-day festival. It was a great feast and a very public event. It was a celebration. Can you imagine having a seven-day wedding reception? It’s like everything just stops because this marriage is so important to everybody. Everyone is having a great time, and it is because of the love that is being expressed between the bride and groom.
The anticipation of the bride at the arrival of the groom was shared by the Jewish people who were eagerly awaiting their Messiah during this same time period. Remember, at the time, they believed that the Messiah would be a great political and military leader that would restore Israel to the prominence it had under King David. The people of Israel were keeping an eye out for the Messiah; at least they were supposed to be. But you see, they lost sight of this. They lost sight of what was really important. They let the mundane, day to day parts of their lives overshadow what was going to be the most important and exciting event in their history.
But now, as John writes in his gospel, the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, shows up at a wedding, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that this is where his first miracle takes place. What we see here is Jesus basically announcing his arrival to the people, but in a very subtle way. You see, what’s also important for us to realize is that weddings were symbolic of the Messianic kingdom. In Isaiah 62, when there is talk of the salvation of Jerusalem, when the focus is on the restoration of the people, the language that is used is marriage language.
As we continue in the New Testament, we see the theme of marriage and the kingdom of God getting used over and over again, especially by Jesus. In Mark 2, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom. In Matthew 25, we have the parable of the ten virgins who were awaiting the bridegroom. Just three chapters earlier, Jesus tells of a parable about a wedding feast. The people were not unaware of the wedding imagery when it came to the Messiah and the kingdom of God. John himself comes back to this theme in Revelation 19:9, when he talks about the marriage supper of the lamb. That would have been part of this great feast of the wedding celebration.
All of this imagery and expectation and anticipation are bound up in the fact that Jesus is coming to a wedding. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And all it takes to uncover it is an inquisitive mind, some time and some familiarity with the Bible and Bible study resources. I remember one time in college when I was helping a person write a paper on Isaiah. The one real piece of advice that I gave her is to always ask one question. “Why?” If you ask that simple question over and over again, you’ll start digging deeper and deeper into what is going on in Scripture. It does take some time, but it is not impossible.
There are a lot of good resources out there, but the best resource is the Bible itself. Because, here’s the kicker, the more you read and study the Bible, the more sense it begins to make. You can make connections that you never even thought about. Light bulbs start coming on all over the place. It just takes some time, dedication and perseverance. And this is just the beginning.
Now, I’m going to say what some of y’all are probably thinking now. Is it possible that I am looking too much into this? Is it possible that this isn’t at all what is going on in the text, and I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, as the saying goes? Because isn’t that always one of the dangers when we come to interpreting the Bible? Don’t we run the risk of taking things the wrong way and getting things mixed up? Absolutely, there is always a risk of taking things too far. But, lucky for us, the wedding isn’t the only thing that points to the kingdom of God being at hand in this passage.
Did you notice the problem that presents itself immediately in the passage? In no time at all, Jesus’ mother comes up and says, “They have no wine.” This was a major no-no in Jesus’ day. And it’s not because you can’t have fun at a wedding reception without wine. It’s not because these people were really thirsty. It is a matter of hospitality. It was the host’s responsibility to make sure that everything was taken care of and that people were not in want of anything. For them to run out of wine would have been seen as inhospitable. And so, what does Jesus do?
He tells the servants to fill these giant stone jars with water and take some of it to the master of the feast. They do just that, and the master of the feast is impressed with the quality of the wine. It is apparently later in the feast because he basically says, “Thanks for saving the best for last!” This was unusual because typically, you’d start with the good stuff and by the end of the festival, you’d expect it to be a little more watered down. The groom would have been given a boost in his hospitality points by this act, in a culture where hospitality was so important.
We could spend some time here talking about the importance of hospitality in light of this event, but I think that is another discussion for another time. Hospitality is so important for us as the church, that it warrants more discussion at a different time. What is important for the train of thought that we’ve been riding today is the wine. Why would the wine be important? Now, you see? There’s that one little question again. “Why?”
Wine is important because it helps bring to mind one of the promises of God that is found in the prophet Joel. Joel was written sometime after the exile to Babylon. The people are back in the land, but there is still a sense that they are in spiritual exile. Joel tells the people that there is still the need to return to the Lord. There is talk of the day of the Lord, the day when the kingdom of God will be brought upon the earth. And in that day, when it comes, when not if, Joel 2:24 says, “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” The connection was made by the first century that large amounts of wine would be associated with the coming of the kingdom of God.
Now, going back to John, he writes that there were 6 stone water jars, each holding about 20-30 gallons. Do some quick math on that, and we’re talking about 120-180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine. At one point it was water, but now it has been changed to these large quantities of wine. It is a subtle miracle of gigantic proportions. Because who are the only people to know what happened? Jesus’ mother, his disciples and the people who served the water/wine. That’s it.
John closes this story with two statements that are important. First, he says that this is the first of Jesus’ signs where he manifested his glory. What is a sign? Well, as we read through John’s gospel it becomes clear that a sign is not a neat trick to amuse people. A sign is not a miracle that Jesus does just for the sake amazing people. A sign is something that points to something larger than itself. Often it gives you direction, or it lets you know some important information.
Jesus’ miracles are signs because they point to something far beyond their surface meaning. In this case, turning the water into wine at a wedding feast is symbolic of the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus is ushering in the Messianic era, and the people don’t even realize what is going on. Truthfully, at first glance, we don’t necessarily know what is going on either. But who does? His disciples, and that’s the second important statement that John makes.
John writes that Jesus’ disciples believe in him. It sounds so simple, but it is the proper response to what happened in this passage. They make the connections; they saw all that happened. They knew that something major was going on. It’s clear through reading the gospels that they still had a long way to go to fully understand what was going on, but they made the first step, and I think that is so important for us to remember.
You see, when it comes to reading the Bible in 2010, we’re going to start seeing things that we haven’t necessarily seen before. We may not fully understand what is going on when we read them, but if we press on and continue to dwell richly in the word of God, things will start to come together. It is a process. It will be a long process, and it may take several months of doing it before things really start clicking for you. But isn’t that worth it? Isn’t it worth the time investment to be able to read and understand God’s word better than you did a year ago? I think it is, or else I wouldn’t have challenged you to do it in the first place.
There are several things that we can learn from this passage, but I think what I want to emphasize is the fact that there’s always a little bit more that we can learn. The disciples believe in Jesus after this event, but then spend a good amount of time trying to understand their belief. They spend three years with Jesus and even then, it is not until they see his resurrected body that they really start to understand. It is a time investment to read through the Bible in a year, but I can promise you that it will be worth it in the end.
So where it is in your life that Jesus is turning water into wine? Where is it in your life that God is working in some awesome ways, but you miss out? Are you like the disciples, who see what Jesus is doing and put your trust in him? Or are you like the master of the banquet? Do you taste the goodness of what God is doing, but fail to see the fullness of it? You see, the master of the banquet just knew that this was the best wine of the celebration. He didn’t know why it was so good, and he didn’t see the incredible implications of Jesus’ first miracle. Because he didn’t go any further. He didn’t dig deep enough. Dig deep this year. Read the word of God and let it affect you in some serious ways.