A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (16/01/22): His First Sign

John 2:1-12

Jesus did this, the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
One of the characteristics of John’s telling of Jesus’ story are the “signs.” At key moments in his ministry Jesus does something, a miracle, a sign, which reveals, in action, some aspect of himself. These signs, miracle, show who he is and what he is setting out to achieve. The signs, in a way, play a similar role in John’s Gospel to the role played by parables, especially parables of the kingdom, in the other Gospels.
We perhaps could almost imagine a parable that started: “The kingdom of God is like this, a rich man gave a wedding banquet, and when the wine had run out. . . . .”And this story, The Wedding Feast at Cana, probably sticks in the memory of those of us who first heard it as small children in Sunday school in the same way that The Good Samaritan or The Prodigal Son do. They are in a similar place in our memories because they are all stories that were told to us at about the same time and all have a similar dramatic memorable quality. The difference between the parables and the signs in John’s Gospel is that the parables are stories told by Jesus, whereas the signs are stories told about Jesus. The “signs” do reveal something about who Jesus is, the transformation he is making, and what the kingdom he is bringing about will be like. Which is the substance of the faith of his followers. These are the things which we believe. The outcome of the signs, starting at the wedding feast at Cana, is that his disciples believed in Jesus. And it is that belief, their faith and their witness to the signs and to what the signs say about Jesus that becomes the faith of the Church.

But what does Jesus do? And what do the disciples believe as a result? As every Sunday school child knew; Jesus coverts water into wine! One of the things “we” and by we I mean preachers, but also any Christian who tries to talk about their faith and the Bible, one of the things we have got into the habit of doing is trying to explain Jesus’ miracles. Particularly we try to make them seem possible or at least plausible to modern listeners (ourselves included) and to modern ways of thinking. So usually demons are explained as mental illness. The Feeding of the 5000 is explained as the prompting of generosity among the crowd. And I have even seen attempts to explain how Jesus walked on water.
In the case of transforming water into wine it can be pointed out that Jesus only does what the grape vine does, but more quickly. “You see,” the explanation goes, “Jesus really could have done this. Actually he’s only doing something that in fact already occurs in nature.” So much of our attempts to explain the Bible amount to little more than trying to explain it away. And this explanation does rather seem to underestimate the complexity of what grape vines do, and that is to say nothing of the process of converting grapes into grape juice and grape juice into wine (avoiding turning into vinegar on the way) which involves the unsung hero of the piece, the mould that grows on the grape skins!
The point of the miracle, when we have stopped trying to explain it away, the point is that Jesus is the one who can take hold of the substance of reality, in this case water, and make into something new and better, wine. The kingdom which he is establishing is a change in the world that is so profound and so dramatic and so complete that it requires changing the substance of reality. Creation itself needs to be remade into a new creation. And the sign to indicate that Jesus is the one to do all of this is his ability to change water into wine. John has already put this in another way in the introduction to his Gospel: the Word became flesh and lived among us. (1:14) The Word, the creative and recreative force in the universe has become human, the human Jesus of Nazareth.

Wine of course has a metaphorical value. In a way it is always more than a drink. Even in ordinary use, it symbolises something. It stands for joy and celebration. It is associated with conviviality and with hospitality. Along with bread it symbolises life, especially a good life. It is no accident then that the first sign which Jesus performs is the conversion of water into wine. Water itself is necessary for life, though it also carries with it in the ancient Hebrew mind an undertone of chaos, destruction and even death. Jesus converts that water into the symbol of happy living, wine. And not just that,
Jesus produces wine of the highest quality and in an outrageously large quantity. He produces the equivalent of over 1000 bottles of top quality wine.
I don’t know how big the wedding feast is. But that is an awful lot of wine by anybody’s standards. The transformation which Jesus brings about is both excellent and abundant. The life which Jesus is offering to those who put their trust in him is the best that they could imagine and far more than they could hope for. Jesus says at one point: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10) Converting water into wine is the practical demonstration of that claim.

But if we were to stand back for a moment, and looked at Jesus’ action, in its setting, we might question whether such an extravagant demonstration of his power is really called for. Does the problem which has arisen really require the solution which Jesus provides? There is a curious, even startling, feature of some Jesus most dramatic and spectacular miracles. There occasions when he really does take hold of the substance of reality and remake. But he does this, in his most spectacular miracles, when it doesn’t really seemed called for. Some of his most amazing signs solve problems which in reality have other, more conventional, solutions. Or the solution which Jesus provides is out of all proportion to a problem that was barely more than trivial. Jesus feeds the 5000. But they are not 5000 in the midst of a famine at the point of starving to death. He feeds 5000 who have missed their tea but are less than half a day’s walk from the nearest shop! What is the problem he solves at Cana? He provides more wine at a party, so that people who are apparently already drunk can carry on drinking. As Methodists we we might be tempted to say to him, “Really? Jesus, did you have to?” All that he has done here is save face for the steward and the groom. He has saved them the embarrassment of having the party break up a little early when everyone drifted off because they realised there was nothing left to drink. He has prevented a social gaff. He averted an event that might take a bit of living down, and be gossiped about for a while. But this was hardly a life and death crisis.
There is something gratuitous about Jesus does. What he does is far more than was necessary or expected. His answer to even our trivial problems is often something quite profound. And in another way he takes something which is quite ordinary and turns it into a sign of God’s extravagant grace. He turns a small problem into an opportunity to reveal something of the kingdom which God is bringing about through him. In doing this Jesus steps from the periphery into the centre.

Jesus is a guest. Jesus is often shown as a guest at parties. The contrast that often made between John the Baptist and Jesus is that no one ever invited John to a party. There is something in the quality of his character that made him welcome at social gatherings. But whereas later he is the honoured guest, later he is often the reason for the party, here at the beginning he just seems to be part of the crowd who have been invited. Cana after all is a short distance from Nazareth. Were the hosts close to Jesus’ mother? Did they invited her, and out of courtesy to her invited his son and his friends to come along too?
So when Mary addresses her son with the problem: “They have no wine.” Jesus’ answer to her appears to be curt to the point of being impolite: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? He is also quite correct. Really what is this to do with them? This is not their problem. Perhaps Mary is aware that a solution to the problem is within Jesus’ grasp. And she knows that hold back from others what other have need of is not how God intends his gifts to be used. So despite Jesus’ rebuff and evident reluctance her oblique prompt leads him to action. Jesus is present in the world as a guest. But as we have already observed, he is the Word made flesh. Whilst he is guest, wherever he goes in the world what his “guestness” conceals is that he is the ultimate host of all things. For the first time at Cana we see Jesus move from the role of guest into his true status that of host to all people. John observes at the end of this story, that this was the first occasion when Jesus revealed his glory.

One of the favourite lines in the story is the moment when the steward realises what has happened and goes to the groom in apparent surprise and admiration: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
The steward knows how you run a wedding feast. Presumably this isn’t the first he has organised. He knows how these things work. Why don’t you serve the good wine last? Well, because at that point the guests are in no fit state to appreciate it. Once again what Jesus has done is extravagant, wasteful even, by conventional standards. Except there maybe a little more to it. Why don’t you serve the good wine last? Because it is an implied insult! It suggests that you are keeping the good wine for yourself, or for more worthy guests. Hoping your current guests would go away before you had used up the inferior stuff and had to reluctantly break up the bottles of the good stuff and waste it on people who couldn’t appreciate it and hadn’t deserved it in the first place. May be it would take a day or two after the feast to figure that one out. And then initial admiration might turn to outrage and anger. This is the typical outcome for Jesus’ ministry. At first what he does is welcomed and celebrated. But then on a little further consideration people, especially those in power or with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, with a little further consideration the changes which Jesus brings about are seen as a provocation. Jesus by serving the best wine draws attention to the shortcomings of the wine that had already been served at the feast. Jesus by pointing to a better world and by offering a new and abundant life draws attention to the shortcomings of what currently exists and the life people are able to live. Even as Jesus gives and gives extravagantly, what he does is also judgement. Those who claim that the world is as good as it can be already, and that the life they offer is the only one worth having, are shown to b false and inadequate. This ultimately is the provocative content of Jesus’ ministry and is what gets him killed. In John’s Gospel it is in his death that Jesus’ glory is finally revealed.

Jesus, at Cana, quite rightly points out to his mother:
My hour has not yet come.
That hour is still some time away. There is much to be said and done in the meantime. Insulting and provoking his host at this point maybe a little premature. But Jesus does it anyway. And at this point it is only the servants who filled the stone jars who know the truth. Those with power in the room are blissfully unaware. So for the moment Jesus’ challenge can pass unnoticed and unaddressed. But as more time passes, and as Jesus provides more and more signs, that situation cannot continue.
The ultimate sign is of course the resurrection. Those in power in the world can wield death against Jesus. But after that their power is exhausted. Their power is insufficient to prevent the one who converts water into wine form converting the old world into a new creation and from giving life, in all its fulness who believe in him. Amen.

His First Sign by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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