March 13, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
Over the years I have had some interesting experiences officiating weddings. Some of those experiences have been strange, some have been funny, and some have been very touching. One of my most memorable experiences was officiating at the wedding of a couple who were both in their 80s. They dated in college, went their separate ways, and married others. Years later they both lost their spouses and met again late in life at a college reunion. I have a picture of them in my office, and both of them are gone now. He passed away two years after they married and she passed away about two years ago. It was a very memorable experience performing their wedding. Some weddings, though, are memorable for the wrong reasons. Years ago, at another wedding, just before the processional began, the bride approached me and said, just so you won’t worry, I have contacted the sheriff’s office and they have promised to drive by to prevent any trouble. Actually, until she said that, I wasn’t worried about anything, but I immediately began to wonder what kind of trouble she was anticipating. I certainly didn’t ask!
This morning, as we continue our series of messages Now, but Not Yet, we come to a miracle Jesus performed while attending a wedding ceremony.
This is not one of the major miracles of Jesus, if it is proper to describe any miracle as less than a major event. This miracle is different from the others. No one was healed by this miracle, as happened on many other occasions; no one was raised from the dead, as happened with Lazarus (John 11:43), with the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17), and the daughter of the synagogue official (Matthew 9:18-26); this is not multiplying a few fish and loaves into a feast for thousands of people (Matthew 14:13-21). This is a much smaller miracle in terms of impact.
This miracle seems out of place in light of what John says at the end of his gospel, in the final verse – Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (21:25).
With so many things to record about Jesus, it seems a little odd that John would record this miracle, where no one is healed, it is not a life and death situation, and almost no one realized at the time that it even took place. The fact that John includes it – and presents it as the first miracle of Jesus – means there must be something very significant about this miracle of Jesus.
I believe the significance of this miracle is that it represents the new life and accompanying transformation that comes because of Jesus. Jesus is all about bringing new life and transformation. I believe this is underscored as the miracle took place at a wedding, where two people begin a new life together and their lives are transformed because of that new life. And when the water is changed into wine it is a sign of the depth of change and transformation Jesus can bring about. Seen in this light, this miracle sets the stage for all that is to follow, as the gospel is about new life and transformation.
So let’s go through the story and see all the ways it shows new life and transformation.
Then, as now, weddings were important events, maybe even more important in the day of Jesus. The lives of the far majority of people in that time and place were very difficult. Poverty was a daily grind, and scratching out a living was an incredibly difficult task for most people. There were very few days of rest and relaxation and no vacations. It was get up in the morning, scratch out a subsistence living, and then repeat the next day and the next day and the next, and on and on. Weddings, then, were like an oasis in the midst of hard lives. The celebration for the couple would go on for about a week and would involve the entire community. The married couple would not go away on a honeymoon, but would stay in their home and be treated like a king and a queen by the community for the week. That week was a gift because their future would be full of so much hardship and struggle.
This is why, I think, Jesus often portrayed the kingdom of God like a banquet or other occasion of celebration. Those kinds of examples would really resonate with people in his day. Imagine what it was like to live at a time when life was so fragile. It wasn’t just the difficulty of making a living, or the challenge of providing adequate food and shelter for your family, but also the medical challenges. A minor infection that would barely register as a slight inconvenience to us would be life threatening in that time. Life was incredibly hard and incredibly fragile, so the image of a banquet and a table overflowing with food was a very, very powerful and attractive image.
The new life and transformation presented by Jesus is a cause for celebration. This is a story that should remind us that faith is not a stale or stodgy exercise, but one of joy. When I was in elementary school the minister of our church was a very serious, very dour man. I can’t recall him laughing or even smiling. There was about him a manner of severity. I don’t mean to pick on him, but he was a scary guy because he was always so serious. I was in the sixth grade when a new minister came to our church – William Norris. We always called him Reverend Norris but we jokingly referred to him as Wild Will. Talk about a night and day difference! He was very gregarious, with a loud laugh that you could hear a block away and you heard it often. It was a lot of fun to be around him, and to a great extent, it changed my conception of faith from one that was stale and boring to one that was exciting and worthy of celebration. There are times, certainly, for solemnity, but not all the time. Even at a funeral service we can appreciate a bit of humor and recognize that at such a difficult time there can still be an attitude of joy because of the promise of faith.
This attitude of joyous celebration was in direct contrast to the dour and long-faced attitude of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day. Reading about them in Scripture, you get the feeling they were not much fun to be around. People brought their children to Jesus; I don’t think many people brought their children to the scribes and Pharisees. You can tell a lot about a person by the way children react to them, and from what we see in the gospels Jesus was a magnet not only to children but to all ages.
While attending this wedding celebration, the wine runs out, and Mary comes to Jesus to tell him. It’s interesting to note that she asks nothing of Jesus. She never says, can you do something about this situation? I don’t think there is even a hint of a suggestion that Mary was asking Jesus to do anything.
Jesus responds to his mother by giving what sounds like a very abrupt answer, and the NIV actually takes some of the edge away that we find in other translations – “dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” Even in that gentler translation it sounds kind of abrupt, doesn’t it?
I once read an article by a skeptic trying to discredit faith, and the author of the article used this verse as an example of what they considered to be the harsh and mean personality of Jesus. Obviously, the person did no research into the verse, as the language may sound a little abrupt to us but that is not the case. The word woman is the same word used by Jesus from the cross as he committed his mother to the care of John.
(The Gospel of John, Volume One, William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible, pp. 114-115)
The rest of the response meant something along the lines of don’t worry; you don’t quite understand what is going on; leave things to me, and I will settle them in my own way.
What Mary did was what people have since done on countless occasions – she turned to Jesus when there was a problem or a need, and she trusted him. That is the essence of faith – to say Lord, I don’t know how this situation can ever be resolved, but I’m going to trust you. That is not to say that we abandon people and tell them just trust God, everything will be okay. The book of James warns against that kind of response (James 2:14-17 – What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.)
Mary is exhibiting a trust that runs to the deepest level of life, and is a trust that says whatever happens in life I remain in the hands of God and I will always be in the hands of God. For people who lived such vulnerable lives, that was a powerful level of trust.
So Mary tells the servants do whatever he tells you, and Jesus tells them to fill six stone water jars to the brim. They were large containers – twenty to thirty gallons each John says – and they were used to comply with the religious regulations of washing. They probably had some water in them already, but Jesus asked for them to be filled to the very top. Then he tells them to draw out some of the water and take it to the master of the banquet. And in what must have been an awkward moment, the master of the banquet tasted what was brought to him. I say awkward because I don’t know when the water became wine. The servants may not have realized it was changed yet. They may have seen it as water that people used to wash their hands, arms, feet, and ankles. The sight of someone drinking it would have been an interesting moment.
The master of the banquet pulls the bridegroom aside and says everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now (verse 10). The practice would be to serve the best wine first and after a few drinks, when people were tipsy enough to be unobservant, you would bring out cheap wine.
There is abundance in the life of the one who follows Jesus. The amount of water in these containers means a lot of wine – far more than was necessary. There is abundance to the life of the one who follows Jesus. Jesus says later in John that I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). That statement, unfortunately, has been turned into a gross caricature by some, as they have twisted it to mean only a financial abundance. The abundance offered by Jesus is of a more spiritual nature – it is an abundance of love, an abundance of hope, an abundance in the depth of relationships, and so much more.
Then the old is turned into something new. Dirty water in some stone jars becomes sparkling wine, just as Jesus can take a broken heart and make it whole, bitterness becomes joy, even death becomes life.
Everywhere Jesus went, he brought newness and life. He took water and made it wine, he resurrected Lazarus, he healed the sick – new life always followed him. There are countless people who could testify to the newness Jesus has brought to their lives.
As I thought about the ending to this message I considered a story of someone who experienced a radical, monumental life change because of the gospel. As I thought about it, it seemed more appropriate to think of more incremental changes in life. Most of us have not had a huge 180-degree turn of life experience. For most of us, God’s grace has brought smaller, more incremental change to life. Jesus turned the water into wine in a sudden miracle, as he does some lives. Most of us though, follow the longer change – like the slower fermentation process when wine is made. Just as the miracle of changing the water into wine wasn’t obvious to most people and was mostly seen in retrospect, so it is with our lives. We may not see some of those changes until we look back from a point further down the road in life. But those changes and the transformation does come. It may be the eventual change of getting over a hurt, overcoming a doubt, moving on from a failure, realizing that our trust in God has grown.
May we give thanks for the change and transformation he brings.