Most preachers have the same problem every week. What story or image or question will hook the congregation? Do I open with a funny story, or a dramatic reading, or some erudite quote? What entry path can I blaze to help others find their way into a text? How do I start to proclaim good news?
One preacher writes about that problem this way:
I read the text on Tuesday morning, write the liturgy, and start to study and stew. Because from that moment on, until Sunday morning at 9:45 when I print what will be preached, there is an unrelenting search for the some way to get at the text. It’s always there. How do I start to proclaim good news? What story or image or question will hook them?
Which leads me this morning’s text: Why on God’s good-green-earth would John open his gospel with this story? Once he gets past chapter one’s poetic prolegomena—why lead with this story? Why not a miraculous healing? Why not a scintillating sermon? Why not open the eyes of the blind? Why not tell of the lame getting up to dance? Why record a miracle that seems like a parlor trick? Given all the troubles in the world why rescue a wedding reception that was drying up? John only includes seven signs or miracles in his gospel; why lead with this one?
C.S. Lewis writes in God in the Dock that God is always turning water into wine. As Lewis puts it:
God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine.”
So, is the miracle here a matter of timing? Jesus does in a few short minutes what God does with a season of growing and slow fermentation. Is the miracle the water to wine, or is it symbolic, or sacramental, or…. What are we to make of this delightful little story?
Lets sit with the details for a few minutes.
Jesus was at a small town wedding in the Galilean foothills. Jewish weddings were colorful affairs that lasted seven days. There were rites and rituals and the transfer of dowries; there was merriment and meals and joyous good will. But, this reception ran out of wine and with no Binny’s Beverage Depot around the corner there would be no quick fix. This party was ruined. Jesus’ mother draws his attention to the dilemma. He wonders why it’s his problem and not the wedding planner’s. But, as only a mother can, Mary translates his hesitation as a willingness to do something and she tells the servants to follow his instructions.
Jesus spies empty stone jars used for ceremonial purification. If the wedding had been going on for a few days—these were the empties, these were the jars used up by all the rules for rigorous religious cleanliness. So, Jesus sends the servants to the well. “Fill the jars with water.”
Six jars, at thirty gallons a jar, that’s one hundred and eighty gallons! That’s more than three fifty-gallon drums! That’s almost sixteen kegs! That’s a lot of water….! And shazaam—Jesus turns that well water into fine wine. That’s a lot of wine!
The maitre d’ confirms the quality and pulls the bridegroom aside to voice his astonishment, “This is an unheard of extravagance! You saved the best till last! Let the good times roll!”
Dear friends, we could read it all as a metaphor. Jesus is inaugurating a new way of being in covenant. The old laws and legalisms are empty; the new container overflows with grace. Edward Markquart puts it this way:
Jesus took 180 gallons of Jewish laws, and rituals of purification, and transformed them. Jesus took 180 gallons of guilt, 180 gallons of laws, laws and more laws, 180 gallons of don’t do this and don’t do that, 180 gallons of laws that numbered more than 600 regulations, and he transformed them into a new religion, a new meaning, a new wine that would bust old wine skins….180 gallons of guilt are transformed into 180 gallons of grace.
It’s a wonderful reading of the story. The old is gone; the new has come. There is no judgment; there is no wag of the finger; there is no picking of nits; there is no guilt. There is extravagant forgiveness. As John puts it, “Out of his fullness we have received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Kegs of it! Drink up! Thanks be to God!
Or, what if we thought about it this way? The movie “Big Night,” set on the Jersey shore in the 1950s, is the story of two brothers, Master Chef, Primo Pilaggi, and his maitre d’ brother, Secondo. They run “Paradise,” an Italian restaurant on the brink of bankruptcy.
Early in the film Primo labors all day to create a perfect seafood risotto, but a customer complains asking for spaghetti and meatballs as a side dish. Primo is livid. “She’s a Philistine!” He will not serve two starches together, nor will he put meatballs on spaghetti. He will not succumb to the “rape of cuisine” that is available across the street at “Pascal’s Italian Grotto.” You begin to see why there was trouble in Paradise.
Secondo loves his brother and his artistry as a chef, but he wants to make a few changes to broaden the appeal of Paradise. Primo will not capitulate. He says, “If you give people time they will learn…” And later, “To eat good food is to be close to God…”
However, the banker is at the door and they don’t have time. So, they agree to host a big dinner on a big night for a big Italian-American singer-celebrity. His visit will attract attention, be reported in all the papers, the restaurant will be highlighted, business will pick up, and Paradise will be saved.
The movie slowly builds to this culinary climax. Your appetite is whetted. The beauty is in the small details of food lovingly prepared—lush, colorful, reverent, rich, images. In the end a quirky eclectic cast of characters gather around the banquet table. There is something gentle. There is nothing vulgar, or flashy, there are no special effects, no illusions, no hurry, just people and the sacramental delight of a sumptuous shared meal on a big night.
The gospels are liberally seasoned with stories of Jesus eating and drinking. There are intimate dinner conversations and miraculous meals for the masses. Jesus eats with friends and strangers, saints and sinners. And over and over again those meals point toward the climax of the great wedding banquet when the Spirit and the bride will say, “Come!” And God will welcome us all to his table.
Years ago Massimo Salani, a theologian from Tuscany, responded to the expansion of McDonalds in Europe by writing that, “lacking the community aspect of sharing, fast food was not a Catholic model,” but that it, “reflects the individualistic relation between God and man introduced by Luther.”
Who knew Ronald McDonald was a Protestant?
The tabloids poked fun: “Theologian Excommunicates the Hamburger.” And, McDonalds released an official statement of rebuttal, noting that “fast food means being served quickly, not eating quickly.” But, maybe lost in this silly controversy was the reminder that Christian community has always been marked by breaking bread, by common table, by shared meal. And, as a first sign of the reign of God in the Gospel of John, Jesus assures the free flow of fine wine. I guess you could read this text as a precursor to communion and the gospel trajectory toward that great wedding feast.
A metaphor of the new covenant, or a hint of the coming kingdom, or…..
There is no mention that the bride or bridegroom knew who jump started their reception with the good wine; there is no indication that Jesus did anything to call attention to what he did. As the text reads only the servants and disciples knew. And we know that the disciples knew because John writes: What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him…
This is more than an image, or a precursor; this is an epiphany. It’s a revelation. For John this is an opening glimpse of God’s glory. And, for John, God’s glory is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The revelation of God as the Word made flesh is the glory of God.
So, I wonder if there is a hint here in the opening line.
John starts this vignette with, “On the third day a wedding took place…” On the third day of what? On the third day after what? On what third day?
In a gospel full of signs and symbols and numbers maybe this is pointing toward the resurrection. And, it may seem a stretch, but in a gospel where Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance….” Could this miracle be a window into an abundance of life that is not bound by death, not bound by the empties of this world, not bound by all that would diminish God’s will for creation’s shalom? The glory of God overflows with life for all.
Dear friends, no matter what your state in life, no matter what your struggle, no matter how empty you feel, God’s desire is that you have life: life lived in trust and tension with Jesus, life lived in the assurance of grace, life lived in gratitude, life lived in service to Creator and creation, life lived in fullness…. and that abundant life exists this side of the tomb, and it is not bound by the tomb. Even empty tombs will overflow with new life. To the glory of God.
Now that is not to diminish the suffering in this world, that is not to suggest a life full of cheap prosperity, that is not to dismiss the mess and mystery of most of our days, but it is to proclaim that God’s will for life will finally and fully fill creation to overflowing.
Glory be to God.
Prayer of response:
“Father in heaven, we thank you for your word. We thank you for the celebration that has begun in Christ Jesus. May we accept your invitation to come to you. Liberate us from the world of sin and misery and excite us for that day when we will celebrate the many gallons of your grace in eternity. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.”
First quote is the author, Roger Nelson, in the draft prepared for preaching on January 20, 2013 at Hope CRC, Oak Forest, IL
God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper Editor, Eerdmans Publishing, 1972
“180 Gallons of Grace,” sermonsfromseattle.com, Edward F. Marquart
Order of Service
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 6-7
Opening Hymn: “We Praise You, O God” PsH #237
Prayer for God’s greeting, “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7-8
Hymn of Response: “And Can It Be” PsH #267
Hymn of Preparation: “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” PsH #479
Scripture Reading: John 2:1-11
Sermon: “Gallons of Grace, Glimpses of Glory”
Prayer of Application
Closing Hymn: “Lead On, O King Eternal” PsH #555
Prayer for God’s blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” PsH #638