Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Seven Miracles in the Gospel of John - #1 - Water to Wine

We are going to begin to study John’s Gospel – but not the entire Gospel.  We are going to look only at the miracles in John.

The Gospel of John is written in very complex forms.  Billy Graham used to give all new converts a copy of this book of the Bible because he believed it was so simple, but it like an onion, with layer upon layer and one can never exhaust the depth of John’s meaning.

One aspect of this book is the fact that it is built around seven miracles:

Seven is a special number in the Bible, signifying completeness. 

Eight is a number that sometimes refers to re-creation, and as such many Baptism fonts are built with 8 sides.  Some scholars will say there is an 8th miracle in John, and that is the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.  And that would signify the recreation of all sinners.

Today we start with the first miracle – the changing of water to wine.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 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 10 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.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

We mentioned the significance of numbers, and we see right away another significant number “on the third day…”  What does that recall?  The resurrection of Jesus who was on the third day.

On the third day, there is a wedding, and it takes place in Cana

Cana of Galilee is was a very small near Nazareth. Jerome, a church scholar who lived in the 5th century and who translated the Bible to Latin (called the Vulgate), said that he saw Cana from Nazareth. It is mentioned briefly in some other historical documents, but never with any great significance.  It is just a tiny little town – and more of a place than a town.

I think of Cana and I think of places in the area where I grew up.  We had Crawford Land and Little Acres, and places that had names, but never showed up on a map and never had any signs saying Welcome to Crawford Land.  People just knew generally speaking where they were.

So Cana is just a humble little area. 

In Cana, there was a wedding feast.  Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were all there as invited guests.

Weddings are a big deal – I don’t care where you live or what time it is in history, they are big deals.

Couples come to me and ask me to do a wedding and I always give them a pamphlet on wedding policies for this church, and I think we charge $1,000 or so – which is really just what it costs us for the custodial work, the music, and the counseling program.  But I tell them, “show up with a license and we’ll stand in front of the fountain in the courtyard and it is free of charge.”

I’ve seen lots of elaborate weddings.  I was in India and traffic came to a standstill for an hour – we had to wait for the wedding elephants to go by.

In ancient Palestine a wedding was, of course, a very notable occasion.

Jewish law mandated that the wedding of a virgin should take place on a Wednesday.

The wedding festivities lasted for more than one day.

Today we normally have the festivities last for the afternoon or evening and it starts with a ceremony, and then we move to a place for a dinner or a reception.

In ancient Palestine, the feast came first, and then came the ceremony late in an evening.

Before the ceremony, there was a processional parade.  In a small community like Cana they may have made the processional a big deal. 

Referring to India again, we went to a small village and I was the guest of honor.  They put flowers around my neck, and put me on the back of a motorcycle and a brass band played in front of us as we literally went up and down every street in that tiny village.

There is another march – a recessional, in which the wedding guests conduct the couple to their new home.

They newly weds did not go away for their honeymoon; that tradition did not start until about 500 years ago.  Instead, the couple stayed at home.  For a week they kept open house and would receive guests into their home.  The bride and groom wore crowns and dressed in wedding clothing. They were treated like a king and queen and were even addressed as king and queen.  Their word was law.  Imagine, in a life in which there was so much hardship and poverty, this week of festivity was a joy to the community – and in a small community, weddings did not happen very often.

One gets the impression that Mary had a special place in this wedding event.

Perhaps she had something to do with the arrangements.  She was worried when they were running out of wine.  She had some sort of authority – because she was able to order the male servants to do as Jesus instructed. 

There is, in fact, a tradition that goes back only a couple of centuries after Christ, and perhaps may be older, that the mother of Jesus was a sister of the bridegroom’s mother. There is an early set of Prefaces to the books of the New Testament called the Monarchian Prefaces that even tell us that the groom was none other than John himself.  All very interesting – and may or may not be true.

Joseph is not mentioned here.  A simple explanation is that by this time Joseph was dead.

Now, even today, one of the most important traditions of a wedding is that something MUST go wrong. 

As pastor, I can tell a few stories of things that go wrong!

First wedding – the vomit king.
Lost ring

But in this wedding in John, the wine runs out.

Wine was essential for this event.

The ancient Rabbi Yehuda b. Beteira said, "there is no joy without wine.”

Psalm 104 says that God causes “the grass to grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to use,
God brings forth food from the earth,
15     and wine to gladden the human heart…”

To drink too much was a dishonor and a disgrace, but to enjoy wine was joyful.

They actually drank their wine in a mixture composed of two parts of wine to three parts of water.

And now to run out of wine in the wedding feast was a nightmare. 

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 

The word “woman” is misleading because to our ears it sounds rude. But it is not.  Perhaps “Lady” or “Ma’am” would be more appropriate of a translation.

This word “woman” is the same word that Jesus used when he was on the cross and speaking to Mary when he left her in the care of  John (John 19:26).

In other ancient literature it was a polite term of honor. 

In Homer, “woman” is the way Odysseus addresses Penelope, his much beloved wife.

Augustus, the Roman emperor, addressed Cleopatra as “woman.” 

So it may sound harsh or even disrespectful to our culture, but it was definitely a title of respect.

So Mary came to Jesus to tell him about the wine and Jesus replies, ““Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 

Again, the tone that we think we hear is not there – this is a very common conversational phrase. It means: ‘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.’ Jesus was simply telling Mary to leave things to him, that he would have his own way of dealing with the situation.

However Jesus spoke, Mary was confident of him. She told the servants to do as Jesus told them to do.

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 

Water was required for two reasons.

First, it was required for cleansing the feet on entry to the house. The roads were not surfaced. Sandals were merely a sole attached to the foot by straps. On a dry day the feet were covered by dust and on a wet day they were soiled with mud; and the water was used for cleansing them.

Second, it was required for the handwashing. Strict Jews washed their hands before a meal and between each course.

Jesus commanded that the jars should be filled to the brim. John mentions that point to make it clear that nothing else but water was put into them.

He then told them to draw out the water and to take it to the steward in charge. This would be like the wedding director at today’s weddings, or perhaps even better, the DJ at the reception, who introduces each guest and then calls on different people to give toasts.

When he tasted the water which had become wine, he was surprised by the quality. He called the bridegroom – it was the bridegroom’s parents who were responsible for the feast – and spoke almost in jest. ‘Most people’, he said, ‘serve the good wine first; and then, when the guests have drunk a good deal, and their palates are dulled and they are not in much of a condition to appreciate what they are drinking, they serve the inferior wine; but you have kept the best until now.’

Now what are some of the spiritual truths to be gained here?

  1. Jesus serves the best last.
Robert Browning wrote in his poem:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''

Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 7, “the end is better than the beginning.”

2.  Another way to look at it is when, where and why:

  1. When it happened – a time of joy.  Our faith celebrates joy.
  2. Where it happened – it is in a humble home.
  3. Why it happened – it is an act of kind mercy helping the newly weds avoid the disgrace of failing to show hospitality.

3.  Another point is that when things go wrong, we can turn to Jesus. 

Instinctively, Mary turned to Jesus when things went wrong. She knew her son.

It is still true that those who know Jesus intimately turn instinctively to him when things go wrong – and they never find him wanting.

(2) Understanding God is not faith – faith is faith even when one does not understand or anticipate the HOW of God.

Even when Mary did not understand what Jesus was going to do, even when it seemed that he had refused her request, Mary still believed in him so much that she turned to the serving folk and told them to do whatever Jesus told them to do.

Mary had the faith which could trust even when it did not understand.

She did not know what Jesus was going to do, but she was certain he would do the right thing. In every life come periods of darkness when we do not see the way. In every life come things which are such that we do not see why they came or any meaning in them. Happy are those who in such a case still trust even when they cannot understand.

One last spiritual truth – maybe the biggest of all.

There were six stone water pots – six is the number of imperfection.  These jars were for Jewish law of purification. 

Jesus has come to give new meaning to the old.

Jesus came to do away with the imperfections of the law and to put in their place the new wine of the gospel of his grace. Jesus turned the imperfection of the law into the perfection of grace.