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January 14, 2007 (The Second Sunday after the Epiphany)—“New Wine from Old Containers”
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
I am sure we each have our own favorite wedding stories. As someone who has performed hundreds of them over the years, I certainly have my share of them. Most times I find that the pastor, the couple, and the families each have differing emphases for the marriage. Mine generally focuses on the preparation for a lifelong union with God at the center. Many couples are checking off the pre-marital counseling as just one more requirement on their list to prepare for The Day. Parents of the bride and groom, as I meet and work with them, frequently have an entirely different agenda altogether.
There are those times when I’ve had to give an ultimatum. Only one of us is performing the ceremony—“It is either I or the mother of the bride. You choose.”
And then there are the receptions.... Video accounts of Spring Break in Miami have nothing on the behavior I have witnessed at some of these Bacchanalian feasts. The relatives we generally keep tethered in family closets or basements come out to romp and show their colors in dramatic display at such gatherings. How many times have you seen the bride dissolve in tears of embarrassment or the groom color and ball his fists or the beefier groomsmen escort someone out? Bride and groom are often left to wonder what guests will remember of the day—the ceremony they worked so hard to ensure reflected the love they shared for one another or the sophomoric free-for-all that followed.
Perhaps when I retire from active ministry, I could make a good living as an idea and script consultant for Hollywood on their latest iterations on “Bridezilla” or “Mother of the Bride” or another episode of “Lost.”
Depending on which commentaries or histories of ancient Middle Eastern culture you read, you will find conflicting suggestions about wedding traditions in the days of this Gospel account and suggestions about the reasons for Jesus’ attendance at the wedding.
Many suggest that the typical wedding feast was seven days long. We are introduced to the feast on its third day. As those of you who have spent any time in other countries have seen, water was not as safe to drink as wine—and certainly not as much fun. Wine was very important. Wine was a symbol of joy. One ancient rabbi stated, “Without wine there is no joy.” Rules of hospitality would suggest that any townspeople who were so inclined would be welcomed at the feast, and since all of the wine planned for the week was consumed in three days, that would indicate it was a sizeable number. Since families grew up with wine at meals and public drunkenness was a great disgrace, it was not the debauched kind of celebration we would expect with so much alcohol available.
But just like there are expectations of parents of the bride and groom today, the provision of quality wine in adequate amounts was expected of the family hosting the wedding. The fact that it had run out threatened a serious loss of honor. Friends, especially those from the inner group of wedding celebrants, usually sent gifts such as wine ahead of time to be available for the wedding celebration. Lack of wine thus implies lack of friends.
By providing wine for the wedding celebration, Jesus rescues the honor of the bridegroom. That was certainly important for the groom and his family, but is this the type of miracle we would expect as Jesus first? Is this how we would expect the Son of God to intervene on our behalf, or would we expect such a powerful One to instead do away with all disease or change all hearts and put an end to war?
What is it that this particular miracle tells us about Jesus as he begins his ministry among us? In addition to this Johanine recounting of Jesus’ first miracle, perhaps you have heard the latest revisionist account of Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress in John 8:
“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ ...”
“When they kept on questioning him, Jesus ... said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ ... When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders....”
All of a sudden a rock came out of nowhere and hit Jesus. He slowly turned, spied the person who had thrown it and said, “Mother!!!”—then muttered, “You never could hit the side of a stable.”
I’m not sure about you, but my siblings and I each have our own individual inflections that indicate our frustration as we sometimes grumble, “Mother!” But no matter how old I get, she is still my mother, and there are things she knows about me and things she can get me to do no one else can.
As O’Day writes in his commentary on John:
The preparation for the miracle concludes with the words of Jesus’ mother to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (v. 5). Her words echo Pharaoh’s words about Joseph in Gen 41:55, in which Pharaoh expresses unconditional confidence in Joseph’s ability to resolve the situation of scarcity; they also give full authority to Joseph. The words of Jesus’ mother do the same thing. She has not been dissuaded from her initial position that Jesus can do something about the lack of wine (v. 3), but in the light of Jesus’ words in v. 4 she cedes the initiative for acting to Jesus. She continues to trust in Jesus’ ability to act, but will not curtail his freedom (O’Day, John, p. 537).
How often do we wish that we could order Jesus to do what we want him to do? Somehow, like Jesus’ mother who simply says, “They have no wine,” we need to have the faith and confidence that Jesus has the power to act and yet give Jesus the freedom to act however he deems best. Perhaps we would do well to simply lay our problem at Jesus’ feet and trust that he will respond in the way that is best for us, not tell him how to respond and refuse to acknowledge any other answer than the one we want.
In this apparently simple miracle, there is also rich symbolism. Those six stone water jars used for purification held 20-30 gallons. Note that the jars were empty and that the servants had to fill them with water before the miracle occurs. Jesus is not transforming the purification water that was in the jars into wine, but he is transforming new water that has been placed in old containers. O’Day suggests: “New wine is created in the ‘old’ vessels of the Jewish purification rites, symbolizing that the old forms are given new content. Perhaps you, too, find it interesting that the only other time John uses this word for “fill” is when the disciples fill up 12 baskets until they spilled over with the left-over bread after the feeding of the multitude.
Could it be that our bodies are like the “old container” and that Jesus can transform what was inside the “container”? Once again God uses water to make new and pure and invigorating what was polluted and gives us cause for celebration.
The steward does not appear to be willing to accept that this was a miracle and instead tries to reshape what happened by his frame of reference—the bridegroom must have kept more and better wine out of sight until now. The disciples, however, allowed their minds to accept what they saw as a miracle and believed in him, the one who had just invited them to join his ministry.
Are we more like the steward or the disciples? Must we make God fit into our frame of reference? There are those who reject all miracles because they do not fit into their scientific proof requirement. There are those who strongly believe in divine miracles but only see God working in the supernatural events of life. They do not see God being active in seemingly natural events that occur.
John calls this miracle “the first of his signs” or “the beginnings of his signs.” If a sign draws attention to itself, it has not fulfilled its purpose. A sign points to something else. This sign points to God’s awareness of our everyday lives and his involvement in even the most mundane. This sign points to God’s new purpose for old laws in the gift of his Son. This sign also points to God’s abundance and Jesus as his means by which it is provided.
A sign points to something else. May we be a sign that points to God as the One that gives abundantly and gives cause for celebration of lives made new.
Copyright © 2007 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org