January 14, 2018
The First Sign of Life
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any more wine.”
Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My hour hasn’t come yet.” His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each holding about twenty or thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did. When the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, he didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
The headwaiter called the groom and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rate wine only when everyone’s already had too much to drink. You have saved the best until now!” This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
* * * * *
I love this passage from John’s gospel, simply because it is so outrageous. Last week I made the claim that curiosity is a spiritual virtue. This week’s passage points to an equally audacious claim, that pleasure is another kind of virtue. I mean, 150 gallons of really great wine? After everybody’s already been drinking? That’s not the kind of Savior most people imagine!
But before we go there, I want to introduce a little more back-story to John’s Gospel. I promise, we’ll come back to the wine. There’s just a little more context here that might be helpful.
If you read John’s Gospel, you’ll quickly discover that it’s full of surprises. It starts with Jesus’ unexpected invitation to be curious. “Come and see,” he suggests. “Come and see,” Philip says to his good friend Nathanael. Don’t give in to disinterested cynicism. Don’t assume you know what you’re getting into. Let your imagination be piqued, let yourself be open to surprise. Come and see what God might be doing in this world. Whether you’ve been religious your whole life or new to the game, can you be open to the possibility that there are still surprises?
From the beginning, John’s Gospel is alight with the mysterious. This isn’t a linear sort of Gospel, moving neatly from one thing to another. The other Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - the ones called the “Synoptics” - have a common narrative, the same rough sequence of events. Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to be using the same chronology and story-line. But John’s Gospel? That’s an animal unto itself.
Let me give an example. In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke - the whole story of Jesus’ ministry happens in one year’s time. It starts in Galilee, near his hometown, then gradually moves south. When he comes into Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover, it leads straight into the events of Holy Week and the cross. In contrast, John’s Gospel covers a three-year span. According to John, Jesus goes into Jerusalem four different times!
But the difference in John’s Gospel is a lot more than chronology. It’s theology as well. The biggest difference has to do with the sense of time and purpose. Not to get too deep here, but in the Synoptics, everything is linear, it’s moving toward something, toward an end, toward the kingdom of God. Jesus has come to begin God’s kingdom in this world, an end that will only be fully realized in the future. It’s what we pray every time we say the Lord’s prayer – “Thy kingdom come.” The big word for it is eschatology.
John’s just different. For one thing, he doesn’t talk about the kingdom of God much. Instead he talks more about eternal life. But that doesn’t just mean something you experience when you die; it’s something we’re part of right now. God’s eternal, mystical, life-giving presence keeps breaking in to this world. We’re going along, living life on one plane, when ‘boom!’ God’s light breaks in – then disappears again. What’s happening in John’s Gospel is what’s called realized eschatology. We’re not waiting; it’s already here. It’s just that we don’t always see it.[i]
So in John’s Gospel, we have this series of ‘signs’ from Jesus. They point to God’s mystical presence, just hidden behind the clouds. It’s as if suddenly the clouds break open and we see the sun – and then it disappears again. John’s Gospel is full of these signs and wonders. In fact, Chapter 1 ends with Jesus promising Nathanael just that: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Our passage this morning begins in Chapter 2, “on the third day.” This is only the third day of Jesus’ ministry, but we already know who Jesus is. John the Baptist has already testified to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” the one who is “the Son of God.” We already know who Jesus is, and we’re about to see him in action.
And it begins at a wedding in Cana. Not with a healing. Not with forgiveness of sins. Not with a confrontation or demands for obedience. It begins at a wedding, in Galilee, not far from home, with his friends and his mother all present.
It’s his mother who instigates things, wouldn’t you know. The hosts have a problem. Not a crisis, not a tragedy, but an unfortunate problem. Nothing like life-and-death, let alone eternal life. They’ve just run out of wine.
Jesus’ response is priceless. “What business is it of ours, Mother?”
Which his mother, of course, ignores, turning instead to the steward. “Do whatever he says.”
So that’s how the first sign comes about. The first big, beautiful, breaking in of God’s signs and wonders. With Jesus’ mother telling him to make more wine. Which he does. 150 gallons of really good wine. Not a bad way for God’s presence to make itself known.
We know that religion – especially Christianity – has the reputation of being all judge-y, and, well, holier-than-thou. It also has the reputation of being super-serious. A buzz-kill. You have no idea what it’s like when strangers find out you’re a pastor and all of a sudden the laughter stops, and people edit their stories. Just the other day the UPS guy came to the door. He had been bantering with the neighbors across the street who were out shoveling their driveway. I opened the door, he looked aghast and said, ‘You didn’t just hear what I said, did you?” He was telling a joke, and he was worried I might take offense.
We’re supposed to be serious, right? Serious and really, really somber?
To be fair, we come by that reputation honestly. It goes way back, back to the Puritans of New England, back to John Calvin’s suspicions of excess, back to the austerity of desert monks. Throughout Christian history, some elements of the faith have been convinced that the senses can lead to debauchery and distraction from the presence of God. And of course there’s truth there. Selfishness and self-absorption are never virtues, even if they mean taking pleasure in the goodness of God.
And this can be serious business. We deal with some pretty serious stuff, like sin, and death. I think we had seventeen deaths in the church last year, and it’s hard not to be sad when you’ve faced that much loss. Pastors and deacons and Stephen ministers - we’re face-to-face with people’s crises and tragedies and needs, and it’s hard to toggle from that to having fun without feeling disrespectful of another’s grief. We carry some heavy, serious stuff. Truly, it’s an honor to walk alongside one another. But it can all lead to a sense that religion is always serious. That being faithful means being somber. When nothing could be farther from the truth.
Only sometimes it takes a miracle to learn that. A miracle like Cana, in Galilee.
One of my favorite tales of all time is Isaak Dinesen’s short story Babette’s Feast. It’s set in a small, remote village in Denmark, where a Lutheran pastor has founded a strict sect marked by simplicity and austerity. Neither of his daughters marry; he rejects the suitors who ask for his daughters’ hands in marriage because they are too worldly, too frivolous. But his daughters keep the faith, and they keep the church alive even after their father has died.
They are joined by a young French woman named Babette, who has escaped the civil war in Paris, where her husband and young son were both brutally murdered. Gratefully she enters the shelter of their home. And immediately things begin to change. While she obeys the restrictions of their order, she insists on the freshest vegetables and fish as she prepares their meals, and gathers herbs from the fields to flavor them. She washes the windows, lets in light, and makes the simplest things more beautiful.
The story culminates on the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the church’s founder. His daughters have decided to honor it with a special meal. The church has fallen into squabbles and fights, and they hope this meal, and memories, will help unite them again. Coincidentally Babette has just received word that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery. She asks permission to prepare a feast for the commemoration, a real French dinner.
Reluctantly, the sisters agree. As they see the parade of succulent food she orders, the sisters are horrified. “Like the early Christian martyrs, they determine to meet the presence of evil with resignation, in silence, with their minds on heaven, not earth. No one will think about the food.” Learning there will be wine at the feast, they are aghast. They will simply have to pretend they are drinking water.
As the dinner goes on, the twelve at the table are transformed. At first the elderly guests turn to thoughts of the hereafter and punishments they expect for their sins. But the exquisite red wine works its magic, even against their will. As the dinner unfolds, friendships are restored, cheeks brighten, the mood lifts. The wine takes down their guard, and they wonder at the gift of sheer pleasure. When dinner is ended, they join hands and sing a hymn under the night sky:
The clock strikes and time goes by:
Eternity is night
Let us use this time to try
To serve the Lord with heart and mind
So that our true home we shall find,
So that our true home we shall find.
And Babette, in the kitchen, is smiling, knowing her own secret: she was once the chef at the Cafi Anglais in Paris. She has performed her magic, the magic of beauty, of pleasure, of abundance, of joy. “I made them happy,” she says with contentment. [ii]
I made them happy.
It is a strange sign, isn’t it, that Jesus chooses for his first miracle? Perhaps it wasn’t his intent; perhaps it was simply his mother’s goading. But somehow I think not.
“My time has not come,” he tells her; but it had come. It truly had. Because there was a need, for scarcity to be replaced by abundance; for worry to be replaced by wonder; for love to be celebrated and enjoyed.
That is our need too, isn’t it?
I love this about John’s Gospel: Jesus’ first miracle is not forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t first demand discipline, or mastery of our desire. He doesn’t begin by seeking our self-control.
Jesus begins with joy. Unabashed, ridiculous, over-the-top, extravagant joy. The best. The very best. And lots of it.
Isn’t that a wonderful way to begin?
I can just imagine Jesus smiling to himself, and saying, “I made them happy.”
[i] W. Hall Harris III, “Major Differences Between John and the Synoptic Gospels,” https://bible.org/seriespage/2-major-differences-between-john-and-synoptic-gospels.
[ii] Excerpt from pages 187-201 of Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago.