John 2:1-11, Psalm 36:5-10
I’ve been reading a lot about biblical literature recently as I’ve been preparing a conference paper. I mostly look at OT literature, of course, but there are some good stories in the NT too. There is a skill in being able to convey a narrative in just a few paragraphs, saying something meaningful, developing characters and often ending with an unexpected twist. And biblical stories are admired for their tight composition.
In this story not a word is superfluous, the plot takes unexpected turns, and it is packed with literal and symbolic meanings. Like much of John’s gospel the simple account is underlaid by deeper levels of significance.
Take the first phrase: “on the third day”. When we hear this phrase we who are steeped in the Christian faith surely hear an echo of the empty tomb narrative. If you read John 1, the previous chapter, there are three times where it is said something happened “on the next day” – making four days already – so some add up those four days and suggest that if this wedding takes place on the 3rd day it is actually the 7th day after the narrative began. So the symbolism either sends us back in time to the original Sabbath, a day for rest and celebration, or forces us forward by the familiarity of the phrase to a memory of the resurrection. Either way the reader of this short story right from the start is encouraged to expect a joyful outcome.
The setting of a wedding feast further enhances this mood of expectation and celebration. Right throughout the Old Testament and gospels and ultimately the book of Revelation the wedding feast is an image of the Kingdom of God – and festivity, parties and celebrations are typical of that Kingdom. The fact that so many of the messianic and eschatological prophecies are of a feast leads one commentator to say “Our world will not end with a bang or a whimper, but in a cosmic-sized party with God and humanity feasting together!” (D. Buttrick) This story is another reminder that the saving grace of God is festive. And all are invited to that party – the mention of invitations in the story is a practical note but also must have deeper meaning – after all it comes immediately after the story of the call of the first disciples, and in John this call is like the other gospels “follow me” (1:43) but it is framed by a repeated invitation – “come and see” (1:39, 1:46).
The stone water jars are another detail of the story full of symbolic meaning. They were an ordinary part of the household – water jars used to fulfil the cleanliness laws of the Torah: the washing of hands and vessels. This was a Jewish wedding, after all, and even a wedding feast had to honour the rituals. But as the story was passed down, it is clear that when Jesus used those particular vessels to hold his new wine he was symbolising his intention to move from the old ways to the new. The time for rituals had passed; the time for celebration had begun.
Water and wine are also important symbols of faith. John’s Gospel has a number of stories about water alongside this one. In chapter 3 Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and was told that his life could turn around if he would be born again – baptised by water and the Holy Spirit. The story of the woman at the well in chapter 4 has Jesus speaking of “living water” – a symbol of the power of God to change lives. John’s is the only gospel that mentions Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in chapter 13 – an act that shows him transforming leadership into service.
But here water is transformed into “good wine”: wine that by its very abundance will last beyond the week’s wedding festivities – a symbol of the wine shared at the last supper and a symbol of the wine in the feast to come at the end of the age. The readers of John’s gospel may well have had in mind Isaiah’s words of prophecy: “on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, of well aged wines.” (25:6) And there is another symbolic connection too: the new believers of Acts 2 who were so full of the Holy Spirit they were accused of being drunk on new wine – the transformation Jesus brings through the power of the Holy Spirit is as intoxicating as generous barrels of good wine.
And yet, despite this rich symbolism, when we compare it with the other gospels it is an unusual choice that John makes to mark the inaugurating event of Jesus’ ministry. It is a story that the other gospels don’t have. It is interesting to compare how each of the gospel present the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. In Matthew Jesus is baptized and then led into the wilderness to struggle against the temptations the world offered. In Mark Jesus immediately begins to heal the sick. In Luke he speaks powerful words in the synagogue: revolutionary words about prophecy and fulfillment and justice. But in John he goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.
Why does John use this story to begin his account of Jesus’ ministry?
What’s more, in the way he tells the story Jesus is almost pushed into prominence, with his mother Mary playing an important part. This is her introduction in John’s gospel. Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke she is not shown to us as the young, obedient woman entrusted with Jesus’ childhood and care. Here she is a woman of some authority and responsibility, relating to Jesus on adult to adult terms. She only appears once more in the gospel, at the crucifixion – and is again there addressed as “woman” by her son. It seems she has a role beyond that of mother: in John’s gospel Mary is a model disciple, believing in the mission of Jesus and prompting him to fulfil his destiny.
So the conversation between them is also full of symbolic meaning. Her statement “they have no wine” is both an obvious assessment of the situation, but is also a petition on behalf of a people who needed a new paradigm for viewing their world. Mary is asking if Jesus would use this occasion to show his followers what he was on about. Would his presence indeed transform their lives? Would the joy and celebration of the kingdom be shared at this moment, at this time of opportunity?
His answer to her seems dismissive, and yet he acts as soon as she turns to the others and invites them to respond in faith and obedience too. When he says “my hour has not yet come” it is the first of several similar references in the gospel – a reference to the moment of crucifixion which according to John was the moment of true glorification of Jesus – the time in which the purpose of his life came to a conclusion. At the end of this passage we are told that Jesus revealed his glory, but for John that revelation would only be complete in the light of his death on the cross.
And yet, the miracle Jesus did at the wedding did result in belief and wonder, and no doubt did confirm for the disciples that this was the Messiah they had been waiting for. They knew that when he came the Messiah would bounteously feed, and heal, and restore to life, and here was Jesus doing just that. And so it IS a good introduction to the ministry that would unfold.
I just mentioned the word “miracle.” And yet John does not use the Greek word for miracle (thauma) but chooses to use the word “sign” (in Greek semeion). This puts quite a different emphasis on the event. The value and importance of signs is that they point beyond themselves, to something much more important, much more real, much more valuable. Think of a sign pointing the way to Uluru. No-one would stop and camp at the sign as if they had arrived; the reality is indescribably greater than the sign.
So when turning water into wine is described as a sign, what is the greater reality it is pointing to?
I want to mention a few aspects but I am sure there are more.
- The first thing to notice is the extravagance of God. This wasn’t just a few bottles of wine – it was six huge stone jars full. Canberra’s wine merchant Jim Murphy passed away a few years ago. But for many years he was a friend of Thorwald’s – they were on the council for the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture together. When we were planning Thorwald’s farewell he was invited to come along. He wasn’t available to come but he asked how many guests we were expecting and offered to provide wine for them all. He was a generous business man and friend. But in our story today at the end of a party Jesus transformed between 500 and 600 litres of water into wine. What a sign of God’s extravagance. Think of creation: think of the bewildering variety of species of plants and animals; think of standing under a night sky in a remote place and look at the stars and try to fathom the Mind of a creator who is responsible for all of that. Or think of Jesus’ parables where a tiny mustard seed becomes a bush large enough to house all the birds of the air, or a little leaven is enough to provide a truckload of bread, or a group of itinerant workers are paid a day’s wage for a mere hour’s work, or a rebellious runaway son is given a hero’s welcome upon return. The God known by the psalmist is also celebrated for generosity and extravagance – such as the words we read this morning: “All people feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Ps 36:8). When Jesus turned 6 large water vessels into wine he was giving us a sign of God as the generous host who not only fills our cup but fills it to overflowing.
- Secondly I think the sign is about the possibility of ordinary becoming extraordinary. It’s good to have Jesus at our weddings, in our homes, at our workplaces, everywhere that has significance in our lives. Because of Jesus’ presence, the ordinary became extraordinary. One of my commentaries puts it like this: Jesus’ presence “transforms the waters of our humdrum daily activities into pearls of grace.” I think this story talks about transformation. The way Jesus’ presence can give meaning and content to our lives. The way being filled with the spirit of God allows us to mirror that extravagance and generosity to those around us. The way gospel values can shape the way we relate to others so that we can lend without expecting return, give with no thought of reward, cheerfully go the second mile, extend hospitality to those who cannot repay us, forgive seventy time seven those who offend us, and even pray for our persecutors.
- Thirdly, I think this story can be for us a sign of new possibilities. It is an inspiration to see that Christ can make good wine out of what could have remained plain ordinary water. Let me give some examples I’ve observed here over the years:
- Some of you have faced tragedy or disappointment that could have made you angry or withdrawn, but you have remained open and hospitable, interested in others. Good wine.
- Some of you struggle with illness or disability that could make you selfish and demanding, but you are patient and willing to share what abilities you do have in support of others. Good wine.
- Some of you have achieved so much that you might have become proud and swollen with self importance. But you put others ahead of yourselves and humbly appreciate your place in our community. Good wine.
- Some of you have been bruised and injured in relationships and could have become cynical and hard. But you relate positively to others and are models of hope and faith. Good wine.
- Some of you have struggled with doubts and questions, and could have collapsed into faithlessness, but you are still here, an important part of this faith community. Good wine.
And where we can see God at work in our lives we would want that to spill over and affect others around us. Isn’t this a simple explanation of evangelism – our desire for others to be transformed so that the hope that gives us meaning, the underlying peace that sustains us, the joy of knowing a gracious and extravagant God can be their experience also.
- Lastly, the sign of the new wine, the over the top extravagant generosity of 600 litres of good wine, is a sign that life is to be enjoyed. Life with Jesus should not be an onorous duty, it should be fun. The Kingdom is about Grace, and Surprise, and Joy. When my children were young our family developed the practice of celebrating communion together at home. We would break bread as a sign of God’s presence in a broken world, but we would share a cup of grape juice with the understanding that festive drinks such as wine are used at parties, so this juice and yes, wine as they grew older, symbolized for us that God is also present in our good world and our good times.
If you are having a wedding, make sure Jesus is there. But make sure he is there in the everyday routine too, because this story has reminded us that in the presence of Jesus all our moments can be filled with joy, grace, and new possibilities.