Ask most pastors which they’d rather do—a wedding or a
funeral—and most will tell you they’d take the funeral every time. There are a
lot of reasons for that, but I like to explain it terms of focus. At a funeral,
everyone is focused on their own mortality, so their attentiveness to spiritual
things is heightened. There is anxiety, but it is a focused, real, tangible
anxiety—an anxiousness to hear a word from the Lord.
Weddings, on the other hand, often have a different kind of
anxiety—a disproportionally whacko brand of anxiety. It’s amazing to see what
people will be wrapped around the axle about as so much pressure is put into a day
full of too many expectations. What is supposed to be a joyous occasion often
winds up as a Maalox moment, not only for the wedding party but for the pastor,
Every pastor has stories about whacked out weddings and I’ve
got more than my share. There was the outdoor wedding I officiated where the
fog was so thick that you couldn’t see past the first row of guests. I wound up
doing play by play. Or the one where I showed up only to discover that the
whole wedding party were dressed in 3 Musketeers outfits. Or the one where I walked
into the rehearsal to find the mother of the bride and male wedding coordinator
(think “Franc” from Father of the Bride)
screaming at each other and the bride in convulsive tears. Or the couple who
insisted on writing their own wedding vows—she wrote two pages, he wrote three
sentences, each of which began with, “I will try…” I quoted the eternal words
of Yoda to him: “Do or do not, there is no try.”
I’ve had late brides, missing grooms, meddling mothers,
passed out bridesmaids…and that’s just the wedding party. I myself have also
dropped the rings once and had to crawl on my hands and knees to look for them
in the middle of the service. And then there was the time I called the groom by
the wrong name through half the service. Note to self—never do two weddings and
a funeral in one day.
So when I read this story from John’s Gospel, I can relate
to the tension that’s there. Interesting that this story only appears in John
and that, according to John, this was Jesus’ first miracle—fixing a wedding.
Notice, though, that Jesus wasn’t the officiant (smart move).
In fact, first century Jewish weddings really had virtually no religious
component to them. Marriage was more of a civil contract than a religious event
and weddings looked a lot different than they do today. A brief synopsis:
Marriages were largely arranged as economic transactions
between the father of the bride and the bridegroom. Daughters were essentially
property and the father had to be compensated for her leaving the household.
Engagements, which lasted several months, were binding (remember the story of
Mary and Joseph). On the day of marriage, the groom and his friends went to the
bride’s house. She came out, accompanied by family and friends and dressed in
jewelry and flowers and accompanied the groom to his house while all the
relatives sang and danced along the way. When she entered the groom’s house,
they were officially married. That was it. No wedding coordinator needed. The
post-wedding celebration, however, would last for one to two weeks. That’s
where this scene in the Gospel takes place.
We have to remember, though, that the Gospel writers rarely
told such stories just to report what happened. There always seems to be
another layer and John is no exception. There’s a reason that John connects
Jesus’ first miracle to a wedding and centers the action around wine. See, both
are significant Old Testament symbols that John’s first readers would have
latched on to.
In the passage we read this morning from Isaiah 62, you
might have noted the marriage language, which is a common way for the Bible to
describe the relationship between God and Israel – God as a bridegroom, Israel
his bride. The same image is also used in the New Testament and by Jesus
himself in some of his parables. The image is one of commitment and fidelity.
Israel, as we have seen, was sometimes unfaithful. The book of Hosea, for
example, describes the brokenness of that relationship as God has Hosea marry a
prostitute who will be unfaithful to him as a symbol of Israel’s own
unfaithfulness. In Isaiah, however, the image is full of promise—God says of
Israel, “My Delight is in Her (62:4).
The setting of John 2 is thus a kind of reminder of that
relationship—that Jesus’ first miracle is that of insuring not only a
successful wedding, but one that will be talked about for centuries to come.
John uses the wedding motif as a sign of larger things to come—the
reconciliation of God and his people made possible through the person of Jesus.
Then there’s the wine. In the Old Testament, an abundance of
good wine was a sign of the abundance of God’s coming Kingdom. Amos 9:13, for
example, talks about that coming time when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine
and all the hills shall flow with it.” A similar image is used in Joel 3:18.
Wine and vineyards were symbolic of the goodness of God and the promise of his
abundant care for his people. With that in mind we can look at this wedding
story with an even greater meaning.
Mary and Jesus are attending the wedding feast and the wine
has run out. This would have been a major faux pas on behalf of the groom.
Since the party lasted days and sometimes weeks, it would be important that
there be a steady supply of wine, even if it was watered down some to make it
last longer. In this case, however, it’s all gone. Very bad.
So Mary states the obvious. “They have no wine.” Unlike the
Gospels of Matthew and Luke, who picture Mary as a gentle servant and adoring
mother of the baby Jesus lying in a manger, she enters the story in John’s
Gospel as, according to Debbie Blue, “an irritable menopausal Jewish lady
kvetching to her unmarried, unemployed son, ‘They have no wine.’”
Jesus himself sounds just a bit irritable when he responds
to her kvetching: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has
not yet come.” First of all, can you imagine calling your mother, “Woman” and
then basically telling her to zip it because “my hour has not yet come?” Jesus
would seem to be causing a “scene” which would have added to the already tense
Before we see Jesus as a bad son here we need to understand
the theological significance of his statement. Jesus is not being intentionally
rude here, but is in some sense wanting to distance himself from his familial
relationships. He is now launching out on his mission and will redefine who his
family is. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother and his brothers and sisters come to
a house in Capernaum where he is teaching and send someone in to get him. The
messenger says to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside
asking for you.” And Jesus replies in a way that would have stunned his peers:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him he
said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my
brother and sister and mother.”
It’s not that Jesus is denying his family, it’s that he is
redefining the family in terms of God as Father. He opens the definition of
God’s family to all who will do God’s will. Jesus’ statement to his mother in
Cana functions in the same way. He is after a much larger agenda than blood
relationships, and the “hour” that he speaks of will be the moment that enables
the whole human family to find its common redemptive link. More on that in a
Mary doesn’t seem to be offended by this, but rather seems
to know her son very well. He will do the right thing. “Do whatever he tells
you,” she advises the servants.
I imagine Jesus pondering all this for a moment before
telling the servants to fill six large stone water jars with water. These
weren’t jars to hold water for drinking. Rather, they were to hold the water
for the rites of ceremonial purification. John adds the detail that these were
stone jars, which were the only kind that would keep the water ceremonially
pure. Guests at the wedding would dip their hands into the water and purify
themselves before entering the party—think of it a bit like the hand sanitizer
we put in the pews. 120 to 180 gallons of that kind of water would seem to be
excessive, but Jesus tells them to go ahead and fill them to the brim.
What happens next, of course, is miraculous but perhaps even
more interesting is the way that Jesus reveals the miracle. He has the servants
draw out some of the water and take it to the chief steward—think head caterer
or maitre d. He tastes it and using his refined palate determines that this is
outstanding wine. Mind you, he doesn’t know where it came from. So he calls the
bridegroom over, who is supposed to be the host, and praises him for saving the
good stuff til the end of the party. I imagine the cheapskate groom was pretty
surprised himself! And there’s no indication that he ever thought to find out
who saved his party. Neither does Jesus take credit for it. John just leaves
the miracle hanging there.
But John does make sure that we know that this was “the
first of his signs.” The word “signs” indicates that the miracle itself was not
the point, but that it pointed to something else. When we put all this
together, we begin to see that this wedding story was, in some sense, a kind of
statement of Jesus’ mission.
Did you notice how the story begins? “On the third day.” In
the Gospels, amazing things always happen on the third day. Jesus’ resurrection
from the dead would be on the third day. John wants to foreshadow at the
beginning of his Gospel what will be happening at the end—that Jesus’ coming
“hour” will be the defining moment for all Israel and for the whole world. It
will be the hour of his glorification on a Roman cross, followed three days
later by his ultimate glorification in resurrection. This wedding, in other
words, points us toward a funeral—but a funeral that is cancelled three days
after the death.
That “hour” would be the ultimate sign of God’s extravagant
love for his people, his “bride.” The promise of Amos and Joel, the promise of
Isaiah, the time of mountains dripping with the sweet wine of God’s Kingdom
would be made real in that “hour.” The cross and resurrection would be the
initial invitation to God’s ultimate wedding feast—an eternal party that
celebrates our union with him. It will be a time when hand sanitizer is turned
to wine, and death into life.
Tony Campolo wrote a book once entitled “The Kingdom of God
is a Party.” John would say the same thing, I think. Jesus’ first sign is a
sign of abundance and extravagance, an invitation to embrace the lavish grace
of a God who can not only save a botched wedding but save his people, too.
And yet, how many times do the people of God forget that
gift and spend their lives kvetching in the corner, complaining about the state
of things, blaming others and condemning people to their own version of hell.
You get the idea that they’d be much more delighted with God’s wrath than God’s
extravagant love for all God’s people.
I’m sure you heard Pat Robertson, a self-proclaimed
Christian, say this week that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment on a
people because somewhere in their history they made a “deal with the devil.”
They were now getting what they deserved. He said the same thing when 9/11
happened, and he’s not the only one. There seems to be a mean, stingy,
recalcitrant streak in a lot of people who claim to follow Christ.
We need to see different signs—signs of God’s extravagance
and to be extravagant ourselves in love for all God’s people. We’re called to
stop focusing on our own self-righteous rituals of purification and instead
turn our sanitizing into serving. When someone else’s party is crashing, we’re
called to join Jesus in bringing out the best and lavishing it on all the
We have an opportunity to do that this week—to share
Christ’s lavish love on people who are broken and hurting, recognizing that we
are all part of his family. We can imitate Jesus by being extravagant in our
generosity toward relief of pain and suffering in Haiti. We can turn ordinary
items like towels, soap and toothpaste into valuable commodities for people who
right now have nothing. We can be lavish with our time by putting together
health kits or by serving others here in our own community. If we’re really
following Jesus, then we’ll want to join his party.