Missed Signs, Pastor Fred
If, the story of ‘the Wedding at Cana’ is primarily a miracle of abundant and overflowing wine, it’s probably not enough to actually make it into the gospels! But if it’s a sign, of something deeper, and more meaningful, about the realm of God, then yes, that’s significant.
‘Jesus did this,’ John, the Gospel writer tells us, ‘the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’
Weddings in Jesus time were not just one afternoon or evening, but lasted days, many days sometimes, and wine was a key ingredient of the celebration. This was long before the dangers of drinking and driving, of course. Long before alcoholism was listed as a disease by the AMA, and 12 Step programs came along.
But one thing is still the same today. For a private, or public party of any note – the good wine is always served first, and once the top-shelf stuff is gone, and the guests senses are less keen, then the 2-buck-chuck and the wine in a box, are brought out. And no one will much notice, at least, until the next morning!
That’s the first meaning of the water changed to wine at the Wedding in Cana! Not that they miraculously didn’t have a hangover, but the wine that Jesus serves, even at the last hour, is only, the finest of wines. Which is a sign, to all disciples and followers of Jesus, that what Jesus is bringing, in the dawning of the kingdom and realm of God, is better than anything else we’ve ever experienced.
John says, ‘When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “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.”’
Another 1st century tradition that is foreign to our wedding celebrations today, is that weddings in Jesus time were much more of a BYO affair. i) Because the whole small-town was basically invited, and ii) because it lasted days on end, and iii) because most families couldn’t afford to host a wedding celebration on their own, and iv) because there was no Macy’s or Target Gift Registry’s! – the guests would bring gifts of food and wine to share with everyone, potluck style.
It reminds me of our reception, Kim and I had, some decades ago, thrown together with the help of our classmates in the Seminary’s Refectory. Friday was graduation, and the next day we got married. Friends brought the wine, and my sister made the cake at our celebration, and we had more than enough too! I’ll never forget the Seminary receptionist, who was invited to the wedding, and, even though he was on desk duty that night, joined the celebration! Someone told me the next day, he had a whole bottle of wine sitting on the welcome counter! (Luckily, we were the only thing happening on a Saturday night at the seminary!)
When Jesus’ mother urges her son to get out there in the field and start using his talents – the wedding in Cana was his first public appearance in John’s gospel – Jesus reluctantly goes into action. “Do whatever he tells you,” his mother says to the servants. And, once engaged in his mission, Jesus doesn’t hold back! ‘Standing there,’ says John, ‘were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.’ They were empty because they had already been used for ritual hand-washing before eating. So, ‘Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.’
This is like a brew-pub quantity of drinks – somewhere between 120-180 gallons of wine! The guests would probably have had to stay many weeks, to finish all that! – I’d guess – but that’s not the point. The amazing overflowing quantity, of high quality wine, at the wedding in Cana, is a sign of the heavenly wedding banquet, the long awaited Messianic feast, where all will be made whole, and celebrate endlessly, in the kingdom of God.
Scholars argue over how many Signs there are in John’s gospel – 7 or 8 – because most are not labeled, as such. But some are obvious anyway, like the feeding of the 5,000 from 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Or the healing of the man born blind from birth. And the raising of Lazarus, after 4 days in the tomb.
Miracles, or signs? Or, perhaps both?! Jesus often down played his healings and exorcisms, teaching that the ‘wow factor,’ was not the point. He was not a magician – though you could say he did some pretty magical things! John called them signs, because they were meant to point to something beyond what you could see in the moment, something bigger, something much deeper, in meaning.
Jesus wants to connect us up, to the power, of the kingdom and realm of God: to the breath of life. To the power of humility, and strength of community. The miracle of grace and love. The want and need for justice and peace, realized thru collective non-violence.
For so long the Christian Church missed these signs, especially in the west. For centuries, in what is now called the era of Constantine, the gospel message was twisted into a worldly message of, might is right – all that glitters, is gold, an earthly politicized kingdom of majesty, is the destiny, and right, of the rich and well-educated, while people of color have been exploited and excluded. It’s so sad – and maddening – to see this, today in the Trump era. This is a last gasp, of a reactionary and very twisted message. For they still identify, church and state together, using the misnomer that we are a ‘Christian nation,’ which is a battle that should have been buried with the founders of our Constitution.
But the true gospel message is always being revealed through Jesus’ signs! There is no one miracle to solve all our problems. For, the kingdom and realm of God grow, person to person, one pop-up public sign, to another.
And even Jesus’ signs, were seen by relatively few followers. The changing of water into wine wasn’t witnessed by the wine steward, or the wedding couple, or anyone one of the guests, but only by the servants – which, when you think about it, we might have expected of Jesus – i.e., for him to hang out with the waiters and cleaning crew. The raising of Lazarus, as amazing a sign as it was, was still only witnessed by the mourners, at Mary and Martha’s house, in the tiny village of Bethany. The feeding of 5,000 may have been his largest crowd. But that’s still Chicago Theatre size venues, and not Wrigley, or Soldier Field size crowds.
Mostly Jesus appears to us in a stranger we meet, or in smaller groups, at Food for the Soul, or in a good play or powerful book, that reveals a sign, of the realm and kingdom of God, we had never seen or experienced before.
We often hope for a mind-blowing miracle. But it’s what they point to, that matters. They point to the glory of God, and the most fundamental realities of life itself, the kingdom and realm of God. And they always enter through our hearts and minds, one believer at a time – respecting our human freedom, while modeling for us, unending love and grace.
Let us celebrate the wedding feast – the ongoing miracle and sign – that has no end!