This week we start a new series: this time on John's gospel. We won't cover all of John's Gospel this year but we'll make a good start. We're starting with ch 2 but we will come back to chapter 1 just before Christmas.
More than any other book in the Bible probably, John's gospel can be studied over and over again with more being discovered each time we read it. The ideas in it are simple at first sight but then as you examine them you realise that there are deeper and deeper meanings to be found in the images and descriptions that John gives us.
Before we begin looking at today's passage, we first need to think about the reason John is writing. What you find, as you work through John's gospel and compare it to the other 3 gospels, is that John leaves out a lot of what they contain and includes quite a bit of material that they don't have. For example, John doesn't have any of the narrative parables that the others have. There's no account of the transfiguration or the institution of the Lord's Supper. There are no reports of Jesus casting out demons; no mention of Jesus' temptations. At the same time, the material found in chs 2 to 4 appears only in John, as do his regular visits to Jerusalem and his dialogues with the Jewish leaders in the Temple and synagogues. Similarly the final discourse to his disciples at the last supper appears only in John. Finally, John records a series of sayings of Jesus which begin with the phrase “I am”, pointing to Jesus' identification with the God who spoke to Moses at Sinai, identifying himself as “I am who I am”.
So as we come to look at John's gospel it's important that we understand that what we have here is different from the other gospels. It's not any better or worse. It isn't any more or less true an account of Jesus' life. But it is different. John has set out to report on Jesus' life with a particular aim in mind. In fact he tells us what it is. If you turn to the end of John, to John 20:30-31, you'll read this: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." So John's aware that there's much more that could have been written, but he's selected this collection of sayings and actions, words and works, for the specific purpose of bringing people to belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and as the Son of God, so that through that belief they might have life in Jesus' name.
Now knowing that that's why John writes should help us as we study his gospel to understand better what we find here. That's certainly true of today's passage. John 2:1-11.
What we're told as we read this report of this wedding at Cana in Galilee, of the changing of water into wine, is that this is the first of the signs that Jesus performed. Now that's a clue straight away. In the other gospels the word used for Jesus miracles is more often mighty works or works of power, or wonders or miracles. But in John they're always signs. That is, special actions by which Jesus reveals his glory to those who believe and which confront others with the need to decide about him.
John begins his account of Jesus ministry with this sign and a series of discussions that point us to Jesus' role as the Messiah who brings in the new kingdom of God. These signs illustrate how, with Jesus coming, the old has gone, behold the new has come! Chapters 2 to 4 present the replacement of the water of purification with the new wine of the Kingdom of God; the old Temple by the risen Lord Jesus; they give an exposition of the new birth, a contrast between the water from Jacob's well and the living water that Christ gives and the contrast between the worship at Jerusalem or Samaria and worship in spirit and in truth.
So with that introduction, let's look at the wedding at Cana of Galilee. "On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.” Notice, by the way that Jesus was part of the normal social life of the community. There was no sense in which he withdrew from life, just because he was different or had a particular ministry to carry out. There's no precedent in Jesus' life for the lifestyle of a hermit. Notice too that the works he did were performed in the external world of nature and history, not just the internal world of human thinking, feeling, and willing. That is, there's something intrinsically down-to-earth about Jesus' ministry, and that's shown nowhere more clearly than in this the first of his signs.
Well, they're at this wedding and the hosts run out of wine, something that was a terrible thing to happen in a shame culture. The bridegroom was responsible for providing for his guests and not to do so was an affront to the guests and especially to the bride's family. It may well be that Mary was related to the groom and was responsible in some way for the catering. That would certainly fit with Jesus also being invited. Anyway when the wine runs out, Mary comes up to Jesus and says "They have no wine." It's not exactly clear what she had in mind but she obviously hoped Jesus might do something to help the groom. In any case Jesus gives her what seems a fairly tough response. "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." The idiom he uses almost has the sense of “What have we got in common that would lead you to think I'd get involved with your problems?” It doesn't sound very nice does it? So why does Jesus respond like that?
Jesus' Family Ties are Broken
Well, here we come to the first of the major points of this event. Up to this point Jesus has simply been Mary's eldest son. She's no doubt relied on him as the eldest son since Joseph died, but now things have changed. Jesus has now begun his public ministry and from now on everything, even family ties need to give way to his divine mission. Up to now he's lived as a normal human being, but from now on he begins to live as the Son of God who has a divine task to fulfil. And so, not for the last time, Jesus distances himself from Mary and the rest of his family. There's to be no inside track to Jesus. There's to be no approaching him as you would an ordinary human being. From now on everyone must come to him on the same basis; that is, faith in his redeeming work; and as we'll see in a moment that is in fact what Mary now does.
But first notice the use of the phrase 'my hour (or my time) has not yet come'. This is one of those phrases that pops up regularly in John's gospel. I guess it's a similar idea to the 'day of the Lord'. In John 12:23 we discover that Jesus' hour is the hour of his glorification. It's as though when Mary asks him to do something about the wine, Jesus has a sudden prophetic flash of inspiration and remembers the Old Testament prophecies about the Messianic age as being a time when wine would flow liberally. Listen to some of them. Isa 55:1: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Hosea 14:7: "They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon." Amos 9:13-14 : "The time is surely coming, says the LORD, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit." So for Jesus to do this miracle is in a sense an announcement of the coming of the new Messianic age.
There's also some significance in the fact that the responsibility for providing the wine belongs to the bridegroom. What Mary is asking Jesus to do is to perform a task which is very significant in terms of who Jesus is. Turn over a couple of pages in your bibles to John 3:27-30. There we find John the Baptist reminding his disciples what he'd told them about Jesus. What's the description he gives of Jesus? He's the bridegroom. Of course that idea is developed further through the pages of the NT, for example in 2 Cor 11 and Eph 5, where the church is described as the bride of Christ. At the end of Revelation we find the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. So again, this act of Jesus providing wine for a wedding feast points forward to the Messianic age to come.
Well, despite Jesus rebuttal, Mary perseveres, this time speaking not as a mother, but as a believing disciple, putting her trust wholly in Jesus. She says to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." In other words, she's perfectly content to leave the matter in Jesus' hands.
That's not a bad model for prayer is it? When we pray to God for help, sometimes it's with the sort of attitude that Mary had at first. That is, that God's there to help us out. That's his job, after all! But that's to mistake faith in God for a belief in some sort of magic that we can control. Better to ask God for help and leave it to him to work out how to answer. Better to trust him to know what's best for us. Not that we shouldn't keep asking, mind you. Mary isn't the only one in the gospels who was refused at the first request but when they kept asking, their faith in Jesus was rewarded by having their request fulfilled. So keep asking until you have a clear reply, but always with the attitude that God knows what's best for us in the long run.
Jesus brings true Purification from Sin
Jesus responds to this act of faith by Mary, by telling the servants to go and fill 6 stone jars with water. And here we come to the second major point of this event. The 6 stone water jars are those that were used for the Jewish rites of purification. Now Jesus doesn't just choose these because they hold a lot of water, though that's certainly true. No, he chooses them because this act of changing water into wine is an act that will signify the passing away of the old order of law and tradition and the coming of a new and living way of providing purification from sin. The water with which the jars are filled represents the old order of Jewish law and custom which Jesus replaces with something far better: the new wine of the Kingdom of God. The jars being filled to the brim, signifies that the time for ceremonial purification is now completely fulfilled. From now on purification comes from the saving power of Jesus blood, signified by the wine.
And of course as the wine is brought to the chief steward we're told that it isn't just wine, it's unqualifiedly superior wine. In other words, there's a qualitative difference between the old order and the new. The new wine that Jesus provides is in a class of its own. The old order could only give a picture of what it might mean to be cleansed from sin. The new order actually accomplishes it. In his vision of the throne room of God in Rev 7, John sees a great multitude dressed in white and when he asks who they are is told: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Only the blood of Christ can cleanse people from sin so they're washed completely clean.
There's also something about the generosity of God in the quality of the wine here. This is Penfolds Grange when they expected Jacob's Creek, Chateau Rothschld rather than Vin Ordinaire. It says something about the overwhelming generosity and lavishness of God's blessings that he pours out on his people. The Kingdom of God that Jesus comes to bring in will offer such goodness that it'll take our breath away. Later in John Jesus says he came that we might have life and have it in all its abundance.
And so this report finishes with a second reference to Cana of Galilee, just to let you know that the section is complete, and the statement that this was the first of the signs that Jesus performed. Then we're told that he thus “revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.” Notice that the two go together. The signs reveal his glory to those who believe in him. In John's gospel Jesus glory is seen always through the eyes of faith. Plenty of people saw the signs, but only those with faith recognised them for what they were. Perhaps the best example of this is in John 9 where, following the healing of the blind man, there's a long discussion between the Pharisees and the man who can now see. He has no doubt that what's happened has come about because Jesus comes from God, but they won't listen and at the end Jesus says to them "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." (John 9:41 NRSV)
Let me finish by reminding you of where we started. The reason John has written this is “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” These miracles are signs that are understood in the light of faith in Jesus and that at the same time bring faith in Jesus.
The question for us as we read this account along with the others in this gospel is, do we believe in Jesus? Do we believe that his coming has provided the only effective way of receiving purification from our sins? Do we believe that he is the one sent by God to be the Messiah, the saviour of the world? Do we believe that he came that we might have life and have it in all its abundance? This well-known miracle of changing water into wine is more than just a miracle. It's a sign, a pointer to the deeper truth of who Jesus is, of the glory he reveals to those who believe in him.
These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.j