Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Guest at the Wedding: A Sermon on John 2:1-11

"Wedding at Cana" by Nicholas Markell

 Scripture can be found here...

If you were an avid reader of the advice columnist known as “Dear Prudence,” you would have the impression that it was rare to find a wedding where something DIDN’T go wrong. Just a few examples from her column:

There are the brides whose demands for multiple showers and expensive taste in bridesmaids’ dresses threaten to bankrupt their wedding parties.

There are the angry divorced parents who threaten not to show up if the other party is invited.

There are the friends or relatives whose inability to either hold their liquor or speak about politics with civility regularly makes social gatherings a nightmare.

The whole thing makes you want to shake all parties involved, and ask, what is a wedding supposed to be about, anyway? Read enough of these letters, and you will start quietly advising the couples you love to go to city hall with their best friends and call it a day.

One day, Jesus was at a wedding, and something went wrong. The wine ran out.

We are once again picking up exactly where we left off last week. Jesus has gathered a few disciples around himself—five in total, just a handful of men who are interested in being learners and followers of this still enigmatic rabbi. And on the third day after last week’s part of the story left off, they are all guests at a wedding. And Jesus’ mother (who, in the Fourth Gospel, is never called Mary) is a guest, too. We don’t know exactly where “Cana” was, though there is a village (known today as Kafr Kanna) that’s a distinct possibility. It’s a little more than four miles northeast of Jesus’ hometown.  A few scholars make the case that any wedding attended by Jesus, and his disciples, and his mother, might just have been Jesus’ wedding, that he was the bridegroom. To which others reply, in a small village in first century Palestine, the likelihood of absolutely everyone being invited to a wedding was pretty high,  so this doesn’t sound that unusual. But hold that thought. We may wander back to it.

Jesus is at the wedding, and when the wine runs out, his mother speaks to him. I love their exchange, because it reflects a fairly classic (and, evidently, timeless) exchange between parent and child when the parent wants the child to do something, but is reluctant to give a direct order or make a direct request. “There are still dishes in the sink,” “Your college applications are due tomorrow,” and “I can’t see the floor in your room,” are all splendid examples of the kind of indirect communication I’m talking about.

The mother of Jesus says, “They have no wine.” At a wedding in first century Palestine, this would be a fairly catastrophic turn of events. Hospitality is an enormous cultural value in the Middle East to this day, and to run out of the drink that symbolizes abundance and celebration throughout scripture would be a humiliating situation for the hosts and the couple. The mother of Jesus seems to be speaking out of compassion for her neighbors: she doesn’t want to see them shamed. She also seems to be speaking out of a hunch that her son will know what to do.

There is no way around it: Jesus’ response to his mother sounds to our modern ears like a verbal slap. It isn’t, really: Jesus uses the word “woman” in this way regularly, and it is a respectful form of address. What he says next—“…what concern is that to you and to me?”—is actually a Semitic saying that is not about coldness or callousness in the face of suffering, but a real question. Why should this concern us? Should we intervene? Can we be of help?

And then: “My hour has not yet come.”

We have to face it sooner or later. You can hardly travel a single sentence in the gospel of John without running into words that are heavily coded and deeply symbolic. In the Fourth Gospel we’ve already run into Light and Word and Messiah and Water and Lamb and Seeing and each and every one of these words falls into this category. Here, the word of the hour is: the Hour.

The phrase “my hour” or “the hour” is used throughout the gospel of John to point to the time of fulfillment of Jesus’ saving work, a time also called his “glory.” It is understandable that we might fast-forward to the end of a story we already are familiar with, and assume that Jesus’ “glory” would be the moment of resurrection. But for this gospel, the hour, Jesus’ glory, encompasses Jesus’ arrest and suffering, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.

When Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come,” he means the moment that points to his glory. And it becomes clear as we read through this gospel that no human being—not even his mother—is able to say when this will occur. It is a moment that is entirely in God’s hands.

And then the mother of Jesus is speaking to the servants, perhaps with a knowing little smile, and saying, “Do whatever he tells you.” She has a hunch.

As it happens there are six enormous, stone water jars standing right there, jars used by good Jews in their purification rituals. Jesus instructs that they should be filled with water. Now, it may be obvious, but I’ll mention it anyway. There is no hose available. There are no spigots, or indoor plumbing in this village so small it promptly fell off the map sometime during the honeymoon. The filling of these jars with buckets of water drawn from a well will be the work of servants, in the Greek, diakonois, a word that may sound familiar to our deacons following last week’s training. It’s the word from which we get “deacon” and it’s also often translated “minister.” And this language nerd finds its etymology is fascinating:  it comes from two words that mean “to hurry” and “dust,” and it means, one who hurries so much in their tasks, they are kicking up dust.[i] Depending on how many diakonois there were at the wedding, the task of bringing water totaling between 120 and 180 gallons from a well to this wedding reception will take considerable time and effort. But it is done.

The miraculous change of water to wine happens without our seeing… it is mentioned almost incidentally, “the water that had become wine,” as the steward who tastes it has no idea where it came from. But the servants know. The diakonois who were running around kicking up dust as they sought to do what Jesus told them to do. They know.

The steward makes a pronouncement: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

And there’s another one. A word, a weighty, symbol-soaked word: Now. Because, as it turns out, Jesus’ hour has come. And we have confirmation in the very next verse: Jesus did this, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory.

And all this might prompt us to wonder, and even ask: Really? Wine? In a world filled with hurting people? People in need of cures, and the restoration of their sight, and the ability to walk, and release from oppression? Into that world Jesus comes, and his very first public act, the first sign pointing to his mission and manifesting his glory, is to make sure no one is bothered by the lack of wine at a wedding? It’s so strange, on the surface, that one scholar calls it “the gratuitous generosity of God.”[ii]

What is a wedding supposed to be about, anyway? Isn’t it supposed to be about love? Well, yes. And what could be a greater sign of love, of the gratuitous generosity of God, than Jesus’ death on the cross?

The gospel of John has a view of the cross that is unique in scripture. John sees it as the manifestation of Jesus’ glory. This can be very hard for us, and something the other gospels don’t embrace in the same way. In the other gospels, God transforms what is a truly dreadful, evil act of execution into something life-giving and glorious. John sees the crucifixion itself as glorious, because it tells us of the lengths to which God is willing to go to save lost and suffering humanity. For John, this is the fullness of God’s love revealed.

And what is a wedding supposed to be about, if not love?

And so John bookends his gospel with these two stories, because the miracle of the wine, at the wedding feast in Cana, is dripping with foreshadowing.

The mother of Jesus appears exactly twice in the gospel. Here, at the wedding, and later, at the cross.

Jesus transforms water into the most excellent wine at the wedding feast. Before Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit, he’ll drink sour wine held to his mouth in a sponge.

Jesus’ first sign is given at a wedding, an occasion for joy and celebration. And it concerns wine, which Amos tells us, will flow on the mountains on the day of God’s salvation. And the wine is connected forever with Jesus’ blood, which flows from his side as he hangs on the cross.

And about that idea of Jesus as the bridegroom… well, he is, except probably not in the way those scholars claim. Throughout scripture we find key passages like this one in Isaiah, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). God, in the moment of saving God’s people, is described as a bridegroom. And in the other gospels, in Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus refers to himself as bridegroom: ‘Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”’ [Luke 5:34]. Jesus is the great bridegroom, and all those who follow him, and listen to him, and kick up dust as they hurry to do what he tells them—they, we, are his bride. And, as John told us from the first words of the first chapter, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

This is a story of what the poet Richard Wilbur called in a wedding toast he composed for his son, “sweet excess”:

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

This first sign in this gospel of signs and symbols and weighty words makes no earthly sense. But it makes sense from the vantage point of earth and heaven bending together, as they do in Jesus. The sign points us towards God’s extravagant love and gratuitous generosity. God’s love chooses to bless us. And the blessings brim, and overflow, and never run out. We see it at the wedding, we see it at the cross: they are both all about love. And we see it at every moment in between, where there will be healings of eyes and legs and relationships. But the first sign we receive is a sign, if nothing else, of love, flowing, overflowing, enough, and more than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Strong’s Concordance G-1249: diakonos.
[ii] Kathryn Schifferdecker, in “I Love to Tell the Story: Narrative Lectionary Podcast 111: Wedding at Cana.”

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