Sermon for Williamstown
27th of January, 2019
As I confessed last week, I’ve done some swapping around with Bible readings. Last week was the week that we were meant to hear the story of the wedding at Cana, and this week we were meant to have Jesus giving his manifesto at the synagogue of Nazareth. I swapped the two because I thought that the story of Jesus’ preaching at Nazareth fit better into the Sunday of Mourning than today’s incredible celebratory story with its gallons of wine. Both stories are establishing stories, tales of Jesus’ first actions after his baptism. In the gospel according to Luke, after Jesus has been baptised and tempted in the wilderness, he begins his Galilean ministry (as we heard last week) by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue. In the gospel according to John, after Jesus has been baptised and called his first disciples, he begins his ministry with the miracle we hear about today. Luke shows us Jesus as the one who brings liberation, inaugurating the kingdom of God in which the hungry are fed and the imprisoned set free. John shows us Jesus as the one who does signs and wonders, revealing his glory and his identification with the Father who sent him. For both Luke and John, Jesus is the one who brings about a new world and a new way to live.
The miracle at the wedding at Cana is, according to John, the first of Jesus’ signs. As with all miracles, we can find ourselves impressed or puzzled or dismissive of the unlikeliness of what happened. But the miracle itself is not the point. Amazing as it is for water to become wine, the point of the story is that the wine is a sign. The question is: what exactly is it a sign of?
There are almost too many answers. John likes his symbolism and metaphors; reading the Gospel according to John is frequently about solving puzzles and this short story is full of them. The miracle takes place at a wedding, where people are celebrating a great feast. The Scriptures were full of images of salvation and the coming of the kingdom of God as a great feast, often a wedding banquet. We see it in today’s psalm. The psalmist praises God for allowing all people to feast on the abundance of God’s house, and to drink from the river of God’s delights (Psalm 36:7). In Jesus’ life and ministry, and especially the meals he ate, we see the biblical imagery come to life. One accusation made consistently against Jesus during his lifetime was that he was a glutton and a drunkard; he was asked why his disciples didn’t fast as religious people were meant to. His answer was that ‘the wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast’. (Mark 2:19) At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus is a guest, rather than the bridegroom, but he is still the one who provides the feast with its best wine. It’s Jesus who makes the full celebration possible. In this wedding feast we see the coming of the messianic kingdom.
The story also tells us that the times are a-changing. We’re told that at the feast there were six stone jars standing ready for the rites of purification. The jars would have been made of stone because stone couldn’t contract impurity, making them perfect for the rites that enabled people to connect with God. But now that Jesus has come, the way to the Father is through him. There was nothing wrong with the rites in themselves. But they belong to the past and have now been replaced. The water has become wine; the old Temple has been replaced by the temple of Jesus’ body. Something new is coming in Jesus’ ministry, and the wine of celebration that replaces the water of purification symbolises that newness.
Jesus provides the feast with a lot of wine. It is almost funny how much wine is produced: over 120 gallons or 500 litres. There is nothing sensible or moderate about the amount of wine that the guests are now able to enjoy. One of the things that this wine symbolises is God’s love. The super-abundance of wine reminds us that God’s love is incredibly generous, extravagant, over-the-top. The God that Jesus reveals is a God of lavish liberality, who calls us from emptiness to excess, from the least to the best. Celebrating God’s extravagant excess is a prominent theme in the Scriptures, and an important part of this story.
One puzzling element of this tale is the conversation between Jesus and his mother. She approaches him and tells him that the wine has run out. Why? What does she expect Jesus to do? He is a guest at the wedding, not the host. Commentators have made various plausible suggestions for why she might have intervened and what she might have expected of her son, but initially that doesn’t seem to matter. Jesus tells her that he isn’t going do anything. His hour has not yet come. The hour will come with Jesus’ betrayal and death, because, in John’s gospel, it’s at the crucifixion that Jesus’ glory is revealed. Jesus appears to reject his mother’s request, if it was a request. He’s not even particularly polite about it – ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ And yet Jesus’ mother doesn’t give up. She turns to the servants, and tells them: ‘Do whatever he tells you’. The servants do; the miracle happens; and, John writes, in this way Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.
Why does Jesus initially hold back from intervening? Why should he need his mother’s prompting to act? After all, it’s Jesus’ divine Father who is in control of everything, not his human mother. Jesus’ initial response to his mother reminds us of that; human intervention can’t bring on his hour. His mother appears to recognise this and be leaving everything up to Jesus what she tells the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Jesus then does as his mother asks, despite his earlier refusal to take any responsibility. Why? What has changed Jesus’ mind? Did he intend the miracle all along, and simply gave his mother opportunity to show her faith in him? Did the divine Son need the prompting of his human mother to act? These are questions for us to ponder, because John gives us no answers.
In some ways these questions echo the questions we have about intercessory prayer. Why do we pray for the world and people in need? Surely God doesn’t need our prompting in order to act for good? Just as the nudging by Jesus’ mother and Jesus’ reaction to it remain a mystery, so does the relationship between our prayer and God’s action. But the fact that it’s a mystery doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray. After all, even if the first response to our prayers might be the equivalent of ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ the final response might be the equivalent of an over-abundance of good wine.
The wine in today’s story symbolises lots of things, but it is also just wine. For those of you, who, like me, don’t drink wine, imagine your favourite indulgence. For me that’s chocolate; for my brother it would be cheese; for some of you it might be beer or coffee. Imagine being presented with a ridiculous amount of that indulgence to feast on in good company. That’s at the core of today’s story, the message that the kingdom of God is an indulgent meal, a wedding banquet, an extravagant feast to which Jesus invites us. Right relationships with God don’t involve carefully purifying ourselves to make ourselves worthy; living in righteousness is enjoying an extravagant abundance of the best wine. As one commentator on this passage writes: ‘God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in’. This is the message that Jesus has come to bring to us; this is the glory that he reveals. God’s love is extravagant and generous, and we are welcome at his banquet. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Brearley, p. 262.