The intersection of readers here and the gathered on a Sunday evening is likely nil, either way here are my thoughts ahead of Sunday, more than their 15minutes will permit. Posting allows for a sort of protospective feedback, a sort of wiki-preaching by committee – so a prize to anyone who can email the nine main points alliteratively or acrostically. I wrestle with the conviction that in sermon writing the impulse to pen something clever, or worse, something novel, is as irresistible as it is counter-productive and unedifying.. and there is that haunting fear that bad preaching has limitless potential to be poisonous.
- A Wedding Feast - John 2:1-11-
150 gallons of wine. If your Christian friends are not in the regular habit of hosting parties of the sort that 150 gallons of wine need be called upon, then speak gently to them, but they may have missed a conspicuous and central priority of the faith they profess. This is a passage much preached on and one still challenging in its implications. There is a lot of good news here, the first and possibly biggest challenge here is believing it, of taking it in by our tiny eyes, submitting to the glory of it.
1. News is Good News.
So, lest we take news for granted. The atheist bus campaign goes something like this “There probably isn't God, so just muddle along and have a nice day..” That is not good news essentially because it is not news, it is speculation. It is not positive observation, it's word play. I want to know the answer to painful questions: Does this story end well? Is all I do for nothing? And while agnosticism is a valid position, no one should pretend it is worth preaching, just as the channel tunnel is a valid route to France, no one pretends the tunnel to be a nice spot to pitch a tent in; it is dark, damp and boring.
Not only is speculation insufficient, it can be wielded woundingly: “My friend has just been hit by a car, is there a hospital nearby?” “Maybe... maybe not.” Not helpful, callous even. We are waiting for news, someone who knows the area, someone who can offer us an account we can wrestle with, an eyewitness testimony, news, data, someone who has found a hospital. John here has no time for ponderous bus campaigns; he claims to have seen God in the flesh, doing God stuff. So, Christianity is story, the story relating what it looked like when God came into flesh 2000 years ago, and Christianity is the story relating what it looked like when God came into my flesh 2000 years later.
2. God can be known through the senses and he is glorified in our satisfaction.
“Good” wine (v10)
In the beginning God created light and it was good, sky and it was good, land and it was good, vegetation and it was good... In Cana a man came, claiming to be God, this man created wine and it was declared by the master of the banquet to be? Good. Do you declare the Goodness of the things you see? God only does good; God is working all things for the good. In declaring goodness, you are observing God at work. The alternative is to say: things happen, coincidences occur, flavour is no more that primary appeals to basic survival instincts of biology.
In declaring 'good' wine, you are entering into a relationship with God which recognises his provision. This provision, this giftness of the gift nature of all of reality is good news. The alternative to gift is a debt unpayable for the undeserved privilege of that sunset, the wonder of that snow, the sheer sensory beauty that offers itself to us every morning. Few appreciate this with the clarity of the deep end of the Deep Ecology movement who venture that the Earth would be better without humans, such is the beauty of creation and our inability to pay for our tenancy. God wants us to let him provide for us, when God became a man this is how he wanted to be known, as our all-providing bridegroom.
And this is the experience of God, this is the manifestation of his glory (v11). I am willing to concede a certain mystery in the distinction between God and his gifts, but the Psalms encourage us to Taste and See that the Lord is good (Ps34:8). Do you talk in such experiential language about God? We should be encouraged knowing that the news about God is intellectually credible, but this scene in Cana wants more than that, here we are presented with an account of a God who would be existentially satisfying. Even existentially overwhelming, this is no meagre topping up of half-full bottles. If someone brought that much wine to a party at mine I’d have to think of options for bottling the vinegar.
3. God meets us in our shame.
“They have no wine...” (v3)
At a wedding like this it was the bridegroom's responsibility to supply the wine, at a wedding like this in those days, everyone was there, the whole community from miles around the village, for several days. And to compound this, in the ancient near east, in eastern societies now, they have a far deeper and more clearly articulated culture of shame and honour than perhaps we are familiar with.
So, have you let people down? Have you failed to live up to your own low standards? Have you aimed and fallen short? We know shame, we inherit cultural notions of what an adequate human being should at least manage, and then in our weakness don't come close. We are forgetful, we get sick, we get distracted, we find ourselves trapped juggling too many things, and cracks appear and the mask slips. Jesus offers a manifesto for us, for those who have let the wine run out, “Blessed are you, Blessed are the poor in Spirit..” He comes to our failing wedding party, crumbling marriage, fraught degree and announces, it is going to be alright, this story is going to end well, I am with you, I am on your side.
He meets us in our shame, when we've run out of wine, when we've let the world down. He lets us know he is working this out for the good. If I know that, Know that, then I can face anything.
? [(On shame and cultures of shame. I find the expression 'a shame-based culture' fascinating and foreign. Presumably we, in 21st century secular Britain, are just as likely to fail our ideals, just as weak to fulfil our aspirations, and I want to venture that this notion of a culture of shame is foreign because it is predicated on a quality of community now absent, or at least a proximity and longevity of relationship. So if shame is bound up with identity in community, we have saved ourselves from a ' 'culture of shame' in part because technology makes our identity more fluid and individual affluence has allowed us to move, to escape those people who would shame us and our past failures which would shame us. Christians should not be blind to this, the privatisation of shame.. we must put ourselves in the way of failure and allow ourselves to be known. Anyone?)]
4. God does not want us to be religious.
“...six stone water jars there for Jewish rites of purification” (v6)
So, these stone water jars, heavy jars daily carried down to the well lowered in, heaved up, heaved home. There are still such labour intensive rituals that we pin our hopes on, these fruitless, exhausting, cosmetic things we do to feel like we're OK. We are so desperate to cover our own brokenness, we perform elaborate, largely superstitious, displays of self-mortification, driving your fair-trade wine bottles to the recycling in that hemp bag on the back seat of your Prius. And all the armour we put on before a party like this, the names we drop, the tidy house we present, labouring that we might look like we're got it together. So too the Jews at this wedding, by scrubbing between their toes, making sure they didn't dirty themselves by touching gentiles, making sure they tithed their mint and dill, hoped that they might be thought a good person, holy and acceptable to God. This is religion, this is behaviour modification, and it is completely futile. Either you succeed and end up proud that you managed to make your feet a shade cleaner than Bob's, but pride a sin so you're back to the beginning. Or after forty years of scrubbing, your feet are no cleaner, you've scrubbed to the bone and the bones dirty, and you have only despair. [(Perhaps it is stretching the metaphor to say that the reason your feet are dirty after all this time because you had to be walking back and forth to the well filling the stone jars when they got empty..?)] Pride and despair are the two quantities religion trades in, religion only makes the problem worse. (Rom5v20?)
So if Jesus turns this water into wine how is the game changed? That which was done outwardly under the old covenant, those things we and the Jews do to fix things were a limited picture of what Christ would go on to do, finally, conclusively and prefectly when his 'time' came, on the cross. No longer are we cleaning ourselves to get up to him, he is come down that we might savour him as wine here.
5. God is jealous for the goodness Creation, his concern to restore is a picture of Heaven in-breaking.
“...you have kept the good wine until now” (v10)
There is good news in this passage because of what wine represents. Wine in OT prophecy is a sign of Shalom. Jesus here, with a precise intentionality, chooses a wine-less wedding to make wine his first miracle, aware of the meaning this held and prophecies it fulfilled, as there presumably had been other opportunities to start out his road to Calvary, miraculously turning wood shavings into coffee or clay pigeons into living birds at any point previous in 33 silent years.. To say that Jesus found himself accidentally at a wine-less wedding and decided then to begin a ministry would be to have things in reverse. Jesus is on a mission to proclaim a Kingdom which fulfils some of these prophecies which are anticipating the Messiah:
Isaiah25:6 - Jeremiah31:12 - Joel3:18 - Amos9:13-14
All of them, looking from a place where everything, the very creation, seems broken, all of them looking towards the coming Shalom, towards the coming New Creation, where a Messiah will come and everything will be rebuilt, redeemed, restored, renewed in those times, new wine will flow. Jesus is saying loudly and clearly: this is happening now, here is the new wine now, here I am the beginning of a restoring work of all creation.
Note in these prophecies, just like the wine they use as a picture, the new creation is earthy, it is being reborn out of the soil this creation (Rom 8:22?).
Wine is interestingly apt, it can be seen as representing both the ecstatic sensation of the Kingdom and the grace-filled and abundant economics of the Kingdom.
[(Note also John's parallels with the creation narrative, 1:1 in the beginning…, 1:3 names God as creator, then in 2:10 it is declared good just as in Gen1.)] [(“..until now.” There is temptation to look back, and to say oh things back then.. What does it mean of the new creation that ‘good’ is used as sufficient adjective on its own to set it apart from the old?)]
6. God has written a Bible we can trust
For me there is a reassurance in having a book which, while sometimes complex, again and again offers a robust internal coherence of anticipating things prophesied and then observing its fulfilment.
Are you comforted, excited by that? It is easy to take for granted. We live under that arch of promises that have been made, anticipating their fulfilment. Given their fulfilment in John's account we should have license to a reckless confidence of obedience now.
[(Further, there is something reassuringly unspectacular and domestic about this miracle, 'Social Embarrassment Avoided at Wedding' is not selling me your newspaper. If fictional or embellished, a mythologized Jesus ideally ought to grab my attention with a something bigger, or at least more humanitarian, political and useful. That text doesn't give us that is because, conceivably, this awkward miracle really was.)]
7. God is concerned for the peripheral, God is present in the nowhere places.
“at Cana in Galilee..” (v1)
So, there they were, broken under Roman rule, holding out for a hero. Just as we now hope some messianic politician would stand up at COP15 and fix pollution, that Bono would sing some world shifting song at Live Aid and fix poverty, because that is where change happens, the sort of big change we need, the sort of change that we can believe in.
Where are you looking for your rebuilding, renewing, restoring to come from? Where are justice and the good life going to come from for you? Lobbying central government? A new flat in next best postcode? A career in London? Cana is a nowhere place, the sort of place you have to spell out on the phone to the bank, Bethlehem and Nazareth were fairly peripheral, Cana was a satellite of Nazareth, archaeologists aren't sure where Cana was any more precisely than that. Yet, and yet everything we have in the new Testament, then the Jesus movement and its worldwide consequences up to and including our standing here now was catalysed in that obscurity, and from there to the Jerusalems and Romes of that world, from there. This is good news for every forgotten and unimportant square inch of earth, God is there restoring and rebuilding.
8. God is not a tribal deity, He will not be coerced.
When Jesus addresses his mother as 'Woman'(v4), his tone is brusque. (I love the word brusque). While not disrespectful, there is a hint of rebuke in this, we can understand Jesus here, as elsewhere in lk11:27-28 and mk3:32-33, as straining earnestly to confront the assumption of the day, that Yahweh was their tribal God, a private saviour, a politicking side-taker. Nothing could be further from grace.
What is your evangelical pedigree? Do you struggle with your family's faith? Just as God doesn't privilege the geographies we consider important, neither are we privileged into or ruled out of his goodness by dint of biology. Whatever your family upbringing. So, the good news we take with us is that Christianity is not a western thing, not a Jackson thing, its not a middle class middle England thing, the message of the saving grace of Jesus Christ is true truth for every man, woman and child who opens themselves to receive it, drink it in, and dance under it.
9. God is not a pragmatist. Extravagant worship and extravagant evangelism are appropriate for an infinitely good God.
Jesus here is intentional and explicit about the details as well as the symbolism of his actions. He does what he does here because he had a message to proclaim and a message to embody. So do we. There is something offensively unpragmatic about 150 gallons of wine, just as there was in the spilling of perfume lk7:36-50. What is the message that Jesus is embodying? How do we, in the small things in our own lives, point to the wedding feast the Jesus has initiated? We should allow ourselves to be challenged by the application of these.
I believe Jesus wants to save us from our narrow definitions of utility. Some of the commentaries cite weddings in the 1st century where guests might sue the host if the wine ran out, which may well be have been an issue here, and the temptation, quietly, is to reduce this ridiculous miracle into one of fiscal utility.
[(Please picture yourself, family gathering over Christmas, Uncle B is a bit late, rings to ask if there's anything he can pick up on his way over, “Oh yes, we're running out of drink could you grab some.” Half an hour later he's there with a trailer full of champagne, the good stuff, from the top shelf, with the security tags on. “Thanks, things were getting a bit awkward in there..” or even “Thanks, you saved me the petrol of popping out to Sains myself.” Don't be silly. Don't miss the glorious absurdity of Cana.)]
In applying this I would caution against thinking in terms of expense, an acutely post-industrial temptation. Rather think of the breadth of talents you have. If I spent a few days carving a sculpture to give as a gift for she that I love, if she then were to ask how much it was worth, it would be to miss the point entirely.
I should keep myself from applying this for you, as I will only work myself up into rant about stone and stained glass but these would be two points it seems not unbiblical to consider:
9.1 A rule of sevenths and Sabbath. Which is in this passage: this wedding happens on the seventh day of John's account of Jesus ministry, in the only passage where John makes a numbering of days [(counting with Carson who reasonably assumes 1:40 begins a new day, as Jesus spends the day with the Baptist's disciples before Andrew brings Peter the day after.)] We submit our calendars to God who has said that we only need work 6 days of the week and that he will provide for the seventh. On that day we should play, thrive and Be, be at Rest, rest in Wonder. It is possible even for an extended period to burn the candle at both ends, to work seven days out of seven, and it is profitable – it advantages your career, Eric Liddell could have run and presumably won his Sunday heats. But there is a bigger story going on, life in all its Lifeness is not found in making things faster, in reaching the top sooner. So, just as we can submit our calendars to God, we can submit everything else to God, and by Sabbathing those demonstrate His provision. Does your architecture, do your weekends, does your dining table offer pauses, ornament, candles, flowers, embellishment celebrating simply Being? Are they one seventh redundant? Are they one seventh playful?
9.2 A rule of craft and soil. Jesus chooses wine to do his miracle through, significantly because it fulfils a slew of OT prophecies and by those it draws on a cultural association of wine with Shalom. It is worthwhile to ponder why wine, and what does wine represent and practically involve even still now. To those who have taken the time to learn wine a single glass speaks of what grapes in what soil in what season, the wine betrays the tradition of the craft specific to that region, the oak of the barrel, the weather of that year and the age of that bottle. Wine is a superlative celebration of dominion done well, of that subtle relationship between man and nature, and the tacit knowledge of an ancient craft. What better way to epitomise Shalom. Now, just as then, do we affirm craft, excellence and agriculture in our community?
See how Mary speaks her situation to Jesus (v3) and asks Jesus for help. She does this because she knows his power and because she knows his character. On this basis we can be bold enough to pray. Contained within the act of prayer is obedience (v5), by which we are made conduits for the power we petitioned for.
2. Live symbolically
If Jesus is our model we should consider the extensive ways he worked to make clear and to embody the metaphors by which he defines his true nature and the nature of reality. This whole wedding scene so weighted with the poetic as to prompt some commentators to suggest it was in fact a parable. It is our prerogative to demonstrate otherwise, to do so intentionally.
We are to take responsibility for our joy, even, some have constructed, to initiate a 'Discipline of Celebration'. Christianity is not a glum deism it is a wedding feast, if we are not celebrating it is not for lack of good news.