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Weddings can be adventures. I will never forget one several years ago that went just beautifully until the very end of the ceremony. In that tender moment when bride and groom kissed, the bride's five-year-old brother, the ring bearer, let out with a "YUK!" The congregation was on the floor laughing. As people left that afternoon, the placed glowed with everyone's grins. And in years to come, when people think of that wedding, the one thing they will remember is YUK!
In a way, that is what we are confronted with in our gospel lesson. This one ALMOST became one of those weddings to remember and for a reason which would have mortified the bride and groom.
Consider the scene...a village wedding feast, a really notable occasion, especially in this exceptionally poor, dusty region of Judea...a genuinely joyous event. Your invitation would have come from the groom (the one who would be footing the bill, a practice that some of my friends who have many daughters would like to see resumed). The ceremony would be scheduled for a Wednesday evening (that was the rule to allow travelers to avoid the necessity of going any distance on the sabbath). Then the other card in the envelope would say, "Reception to follow over the next seven days and nights.(1) RSVP." They needed to know how many would be showing up so they could make adequate preparation for food and drink. They would certainly not want to run out of anything, because in that part of the country, a lack of hospitality was a terrible social faux pas.
As to the ceremony itself, it would be preceded by a huge feast with the actual exchanging of the vows late in the evening. Afterwards, the couple would be led on a winding trek through the town by the light of flaming torches, a canopy over their heads, allowing the other townspeople the opportunity for congratulations and good wishes ending up at the couple's new home. Then for another week or so, the newlyweds would host an open house. They would wear crowns and dress in their bridal robes. They were treated like king and queen and, for that week, their word was law.(2) In a life of poverty and hard work, such a week was truly a great occasion.
As to this specific wedding in Cana of Galilee, about four and a half miles from Nazareth, no doubt much of the town was involved in the festivities. Jesus' mother, Mary, was there, so probably, the principals were relatives of hers or, at the very least, good friends. Joseph is not mentioned, and scholars believe that by this time, he had died. Some even indicate the belief that Jesus remained in Nazareth until he was thirty years old because Joseph had died and the family needed the care of the eldest son until the brothers and sisters could become self-supporting, but that is just conjecture. Mary was probably close enough to the wedding family to have helped with the arrangements, for, as we shall see, she had authority over the servants to get things accomplished. Jesus was invited. And he showed up...WITH his disciple friends. A good time was being had by all when, horror of horrors, the wine ran out.
Now, nobody runs out of wine at a Jewish wedding. It is an insult to the guests, for as we mentioned, hospitality in the East is more than a social grace, it is a sacred duty. It would be a terrible humiliation for the bridal couple, and, in a small town, it would have been talked about for a generation. ("YUK!") EXPECTATIONS, you see.
Understand something here about wedding "rules" in Jesus' world, and especially the rules about wedding gifts. There were four classes of wedding guests: the poor guests were not expected to give any gift; the honored guests (for example, a ruler, or a rabbi) should not give gifts. Guests who were merely acquaintances or who were relatives living in a different village were expected to make some contribution to cover the cost of the week-long feast. Guests who were close friends and relatives of the bridegroom were under obligation to reciprocate for wedding gifts which the groom had given to them at their own weddings (or to give with the expectation that they would be reciprocated at their future weddings). If a guest did not reciprocate with the correct and appropriate monetary gift, the groom could file a suit against him in court!!! The groom and his parents were expected to provide food and drink for the guests - if the feast had to end prematurely, because of the lack of food or drink, the groom would be expected to "make good" with a larger gift to his friends and relatives at their (future) weddings. That could be a substantial financial loss for this young man.(3) Are you beginning to see? The lack of wine was much more than just embarrassment or inconvenience.
So Mary came to Jesus, the head of her household, the one to whom she probably came for years with problems like this, ever since her husband died. "My son, they have no more wine."
Jesus responds, "Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come."
There is no indication as to whether Mary had the slightest clue of what he was talking about, but she did have every confidence that he would come up with a solution, so she just told the servants, the ones waiting on the tables, "Do whatever he tells you." Come to think of it, that is good advice anytime we encounter Jesus, isn't it?
Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. Six huge stone water jars normally used for washing road dust or mud from a traveler's hands and feet, each holding between twenty and thirty gallons - that means between 120 and 180 gallons total. Okee Dokee! Jesus then instructed, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward" (the maitre d'). We know the rest of the story. The water had been turned to wine. Gallons and gallons and gallons of it! Is there a warning here? Be careful when you ask the Lord for something? His sense of proportion is different from ours. When the Lord steps in, things HAPPEN...BIG time!
Are you ready for that? One of our most eloquent writers has asked, "Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet gloves to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets..."(4)
The wine, of course, was excellent. The maitre d' even joked to the bridegroom, "Hey, this is better than what we started out with. Most people would use the really good wine first and then come out with the Mooby Fooby (remember that stuff?) after everybody is blitzed." Perhaps he thought, "Well, what can you expect from a newlywed?"
Little did he know...and when it comes right down to it, little do we know. We know the result: the water was turned to wine and the celebration was saved. How did it happen? The problem was turned over to Jesus. That is all we know, other than the fact that he handled it.
I remember one of those old "Kids Say the Darndest Things" shows with Art Linkletter. Art, himself a preacher's kid, asked a little girl what her favorite Bible story was, and she responded with this one about Jesus turning the water into wine. Linkletter asked what we learn from the story. The girl answered, "If you run out of wine, pray."(5)
I think it was Mark Twain who quipped after a reading of this story, "No wonder Jesus was invited to so many parties!" Indeed.
Another little girl who had just been told this story from the gospel was asked what does this story teach us? She replied with wisdom beyond her years, "I guess it teaches us that when you have a wedding, it's a good idea to have Jesus there."(6) Amen and Amen!
I remember the story of the cynic who commented to a friend that he could not believe that Jesus actually turned water into wine. The friend, who happened to be a recovering alcoholic who had come to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior, replied, "I don't know anything about that. I just know that, in my house, Jesus changed whiskey into furniture."
As I said at the beginning of this, IN A WAY, our lesson confronts us with the story of an ancient, small-town wedding. IN A WAY! You see, the gospel of John NEVER tells stories...this one or any other...for just their narrative value. As you Bible scholars know very well, of all the gospel writers, John ALWAYS has a point to make. The setting here is a wedding, an image long associated with God's marvelous provision for the faithful. Centuries before, Isaiah could pick up the spirits of the exiles returned to Jerusalem: "As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you."(7) At the end of history, the book of Revelation describes "a new heaven and a new earth...And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband."(8) For John, this scene in Cana is not about a miracle. In fact, John simply calls it a SIGN. What do signs do? Point us to something. In this case, John comes right out and tells us: HE THUS REVEALED HIS GLORY! If I recall my Greek well enough, the word we translate as "glory" (doxa) means more than radiance or light, but it also carries with it the sense of weight or heft. Put all that together and the message for John (and remember he places this event right at the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry) is not about Jesus rescuing a party, it is that this Jesus whom we are about to get to know is some HEAVY-DUTY fellow, someone to take exceedingly seriously!
For those who were meeting this incredible man for the first time, this was an important note. For those of us who have met him so many, many times - so often that we are almost inclined to take him for granted - this is an important word as well.
Our old friend Fred Craddock once said that he tried to condense everything about a text into one sentence. This was the heart of what he would say in the pulpit, drawing of course, as he preached, from all the research done during the week. Interesting idea. And it did not take too much wrestling with this text to come up with that one sentence summary. It is this: THIS JESUS IS SOMETHING! This Jesus is something. This JESUS is SOMETHING!
Has the wine run out in your life? Has the joy of your faith gone away? Is your life like those jars, just sitting around, empty? Surely, one of the lessons of this wonderful story can be that "THE BEST IS YET TO COME." When we invite Jesus Christ into our stories, the ordinary can become extraordinary and we will be rejuvenated as never before.
There is an ancient account around about the priest who was pulled over by a state trooper because he had been weaving all over the road. The officer came to the side of the car, looked in, saw the priest, and at the same moment, saw what looked to be a thermos. "What's in the bottle, Father?"
"Nothing but water, officer."
"Let me check." The officer sniffed. "Water, nothing. This is WINE."
Whereupon the good father clasped his hands together, looked reverently toward heaven and said, "Praise be, He's done it again!"
Has the wine in your life run out? Remember, THIS JESUS IS SOMETHING! And he can do it again. He can do it again.
1. See Judges 14:12
2. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia:
Westminster, 1975), pp. 96-97
3. Janet Hass, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1998 01 18," #138, 1/15/98
4. Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone To Talk, p.58
5. Ann Brizendine, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1998 01 18," #33, 1/13/98
6. Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1998 01 18," #25, 1/12/98
7. Isaiah 62:5
8. Rev. 21:1-2