Wedding at Cana
John 2 v 1 – 11
A Sermon by Eleanor Childs, Lay Reader
17 January 2016
Our gospel reading is a lovely story. It describes Jesus’s first miracle. He has just begun his public ministry and called his disciples and we have this delightful account of their attendance at a humble village wedding. We don’t know who the bride and groom were nor what Jesus’ relationship to them was. Jesus’s mother appears to have had some role in the catering so it might have been a relative. Cana was an unremarkable small place not far from Nazareth. We can perhaps imagine its terraced houses and the gardens and orchards which, it is said, produced some of the best pomegranates in Palestine.
In any Palestinian village a wedding was a great occasion. The ceremony took place late in the evening and after it the young couple were conveyed to their new home. They walked under a canopy and via the longest most circuitous route so that all the village could come to the doors and wish them well. They didn’t go away for a honeymoon, they stayed at home. And for a week they kept open house and there was continual feasting and rejoicing. They wore their bridal garments and crowns on their heads and were treated like royalty. It was a probably the happiest time of their hard lives and was shared with all their family and friends.
But at this particular wedding catastrophe loomed. They had run out of wine. Now we need to understand certain things about their culture. Hospitality in the East was a sacred duty. And the hospitality at a wedding feast was expected to be lavish. In an honour and shame culture the young couple would never have lived down the disgrace of running out of wine at their wedding. Now we don’t live in an honour and shame culture, but I’ll never forget the utter dismay I felt when the wedding cake I’d made and iced for our daughter developed what looked like black measles on the journey across from Brussels to England. I’d peeked in the boxes to make sure the cakes hadn’t shifted and the beautiful icing was covered in black spots. We soon realised that this was caused by the tinfoil with which I’d carefully lined the boxes descending gently on the icing and staining it. I think that was probably the first wedding cake in history that had a close shave – in more senses than one. But although it was stressful it wasn’t the sort of catastrophe of our Bible story. We could have made a joke of it or nipped into Marks and Spencer for a replacement. The Cana wedding party would have had to live with the shame of it.
Jesus’ mother, Mary, tells Jesus of the problem – they have no more wine. Obviously she’s expecting Jesus can do something about this situation. But interestingly, she doesn’t prescribe or suggest a solution. Nor is she put off by Jesus’s apparently non- committal reply,’ Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour is not yet come.’ Now to us, this sounds pretty curt, almost a rebuff. But it wasn’t so. It’s merely a literal translation of the original Greek. The word ‘woman’ was a term of respect. Jesus used it again when speaking to her from the cross and consigning her to John’s care. The words ‘What have you to do with me?’ was a common phrase whose impact depended on the tone of voice or the situation involved. It could mean ‘leave it to me, I’ll settle it in my own way.’
‘My hour is not yet come.’ is a phrase Jesus used on a number of occasions. He moved according to his Father’s timetable, and not according to demands or requests directed at him by needy people or urgent situations. God is not there just to meet our needs. His agenda is far bigger and wide-ranging than we can imagine.
Mary isn’t at all put out by Jesus’ seeming non-response. Her next actions show that she trusts he will do something about it in his own time. She prepares for his reply by telling the servants to do what Jesus tells them. Obviously if he is just a guest, they would not expect or obey orders from him. The huge stone water jars standing nearby hold 20-30 gallons each of water. Palestine was a dry and dusty country and people wore open-toed sandals, so when a guest arrived at the house it was customary to wash his feet. And Jews also had strict laws for ceremonial washing of hands before eating, so a plentiful supply was needed for a large party. At this stage in the proceedings the water in the jars must have been running low so Jesus tells them to fill them up and then draw some out and take it to the master of ceremonies. He was the person in charge of all the practical arrangements of the wedding and it was his duty to taste and approve the wine before it was served to the guests. And as we read, he was amazed at the quality of the second batch of wine.
What can we learn from the account of this miracle? Several things, I think. First of all, God’s involvement in the ordinary everyday events of life. This was a village wedding in rural Galilee. The son of God started his public ministry in a little backwater far removed from centres of power and influence. The miracle wasn’t done ostentatiously to dazzle people. No taking the limelight from the wedding couple. No abracadabra stuff, just a quiet command to the servants to do an everyday job. Only the servants involved and the disciples knew what had happened. Some commentators have speculated that it might have been John’s own wedding or that of a family member. We don’t know.
Apart from meeting a very human need and sparing the wedding couple from shame and disgrace, it was, the text tells us, a sign revealing Jesus’ glory. v11 ‘He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.’ The purpose of this his first miracle seems to have been to demonstrate to his disciples who he was – the son of God, sovereign over the material world he had created, but deeply involved in the concerns of everyday life and able to transform it by his power. The word ‘glory’ is a multi-layered word. One of its meanings is honour and praise. Another meaning associates it with the revelation of God’s presence on earth. God is invisible but his glory is revealed on earth in events which demonstrate his character and presence – in creation, in salvation history, in miracles. This miracle revealed God’s glory on earth and identified Jesus as his Son. Glory is associated often with ‘radiance’. The radiant glory of the Lord so transfigured Moses’ face when he came down from the Mount Sinai that he had to wear a veil. Jesus in his character and presence on earth revealed the glory of God. Three of his disciples saw the dazzling radiance of it on the mount of transfiguration, but for most of the time it was only visible to the eyes of faith. The Pharisees couldn’t see it and denied it or explained it all away. And it wasn’t always a dazzling sight. Before he left the Garden of Gethsemane for the cross, Jesus prayed, ‘Father, glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you.’ The Cross didn’t look very glorious to the human eye. It looked like ignominious defeat, but it was the glorious triumph of God’s love and the liberation of the human race from its bondage to sin. This miracle of water into wine at a simple human festivity is the first sign of the glory of Christ.
Secondly, I think we have a model here for how to pray. Mary doesn’t agonise or try to persuade Jesus to intervene. She doesn’t tell him what she wants done. The wine has already run out, but she’s not getting in a flap. She simply presents the need and waits in expectancy, readying things for when he will act. Her trust in Jesus doesn’t falter in the face of his seeming refusal to act immediately.
And thirdly, God’s purposes and timing are not ours to know. We think we know what he should do and when. But his agenda is vaster than we can ever comprehend. We have very little concept of the glory of God and his plans for the universe. And his timing. Our lectionary reading last Sunday evening was from Isaiah 55 ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ What we do know, though, is that he has demonstrated his great love and care for us and that he has power to turn the water of life into the wine of rejoicing.