Wedding Onion

Lectionary Sermon on John 2:1-11 for the 2nd After Epiphany, C, Jan. 20, 2013

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John 2:1-11

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 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.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The Wedding Onion

I like to listen to music by a group called the Shins. They have a song with a great name: “Know Your Onion.”  How do you get to know your onion?  You peel off the outside layer, of course.  But then, you see that you have  not reached the core, but only another layer.  You can peel that one away, and what do you get?  Another layer.

That’s exactly what this story is like (and what most of the gospel of John is like).  There are layers to peel away, each revealing another layer, each with its own set of meanings.  I think it gets better and better as you go down, and what you reach is as important as it gets. The deepest layer deals with the questions: “What does God want from us?  How do we live in relationship with God?”  Let the peeling begin.

Onion Layer 1: the Wedding and the Guests

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On one story-level, Jesus simply goes to a local wedding. What does this mean?  By attending the wedding, Jesus affirms the goodness of human love, the family, the community.

On this surface level, Jesus is there as a guest, not the host.  So what concern is it of the guests if the host runs out of wine?  It’s none of his business.  He doesn’t want to draw attention to it, lest he shame the host.  So, just  let it go, right?

His mother intervenes, and he turns water into wine.  It’s a sign: a miracle.  I used to think that was what this story was here to tell us; period.  But a lot more is going on in this story.

Onion layer two: Jesus is there as Messiah

On another layer, Jesus is not simply a family friend, attending a local wedding, he is also more than that: he is a person with a mission.  He didn’t arrive alone: he has disciples whom he has called to follow him, and they are, with him at the wedding.

The way John tells the story, it’s only chapter two, but these disciples have already identified Jesus as “Messiah.”  Andrew said to his brother, Simon:

“We have found the Messiah” (1:41)

They expect him to launch his public ministry at any moment.  It is expected that this launch will come with “signs” that what Jesus is all about is a God-thing, not a human thing.  So, when will the signs begin?  Is it his time yet? Has his “hour” come? Jesus seems to think that it is not yet his time.  When his mother suggests he do something about the wine shortage, he hesitates.  She ignores his hesitation and starts organizing.  She tells the servants,

5 “Do whatever he tells you.”

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Jesus quickly acquiesces.

“7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.”

They they fill up the six stone jars with water, and the next thing you know, a “sign” has been performed.  He has turned the water into wine.  In fact, into fine wine.  Why is wine-making the first, inaugural sign?  What does it signify?

This is a sign that “the age to come” has dawned.  The prophets spoke of a time in the future, when God would act to redeem his people, and they pictured it as a time when there would be a banquet of rich food and fine wine.  Now we see that vision coming true; the new age has arrived!  (e.g. Isaiah 25; Jeremiah 31)

On this level of the “onion,” people often notice the theme of abundance that God provides.  The stone water jars were filled up “to the brim.”  There were six jars of 20-30 gallons each.  That is a lot of wine!  God provides life in abundance for his people.  Soon, in John’s gospel, we will hear Jesus say,

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10)

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That’s not a bad theme if you stop the peeling right there.

Onion level Three

But there is more going on in this story.  There are more levels to this onion.  On a deeper level, this story explores what Jesus’ life means in the context of Israel’s story.

The way John tells his story of Jesus, it begins in the beginning;  at the beginning of the world.

“In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh” (1:1, 14)

We, who are reading John know, from this prologue that Jesus is actually the divine Word, the source of Creation, now made flesh; become part of creation.  We readers are also told that Jesus can be compared to Moses, but yet, Jesus is different.  John tells us:

“17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

So, John prepares us to see both a similarity and also a contrast between Jesus and  Moses at the very start.  How will we see it in action, and why does it matter to us?

Well, Moses gave the people “Torah” or the law: all the instructions about the tabernacle, sacrifices, priests, the calendar of sacred days and the forms of sacred obligations – in other words, Moses taught people how to live with God; what God expects; how to be pleasing to God.  The obvious question is then, is Jesus going to change any of this?  Will Jesus teach a different approach to God?

Counting Days

Here’s how John tells the story.  Did you notice that the wedding happened on  “the third day”?  The Day sequence is important here.  Let’s do a quick review: One day, as John’s story opens, some people whose whole lives were spent concerned with Moses’ Torah, that is, some Priests and Levites, sent by Pharisees, ask John the baptist if he thinks he is the Messiah (1:19).  John says no, but that he was sent to prepare the way for Messiah (1:20).

The next day, so, the second day, John identifies Jesus as the: “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (1:29)  That is a short, cryptic title for Jesus.  How will Jesus do that job of taking away the sins of the world?

Remember, “sins”, in the Torah, the OT, included both moral violations, like lies, murder, adultery, theft, as well as ritual violations: like touching a pig, touching a corpse, touching blood, getting a skin disease.  Guilt and ritual impurity were all wrapped up in the bundle together in the law of Moses.

Sacrifices and Purity Baths

So, if you sin, what do you do according to the Law of Moses?  It depends on the sin, but two main ways of removing the guilt or the impurity were offering a sacrifice of grain, oil or an animal, like a lamb, and taking a ritual bath in waters set aside for purification.  It’s a lot of work, but that’s what the law of Moses required.

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John announced, on that second day, that Jesus was going to be the lamb of God – whose death would put a complete stop to the need for any future blood to be shed in sacrifice for sin.  But what about the ritual “sins” that needed the purification bath?

The next day Jesus calls disciples to follow him, including Nathanael, telling him he saw him under the fig tree.  Nathanael is surprised, but Jesus tells him he will see greater “signs.” (1:50)

Then, on this, the third day, they all go to the wedding in Cana – where Jesus does his first official “sign.”  He turns water into wine.  John says,

“11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Where is the water that is turned to wine?  In those six stone jars that Jesus told the servants to fill to the brim.  Just as there were six days of God’s creation work, followed by the day of Sabbath rest from work, so there are six water jars.  Why would anybody want to have six huge stone jars around?  For ritual baths.  These, John specifically tells us,were “water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” as required by the law of Moses (2:6).

Drinking, not Bathing

Do you see what has happened?  Now that the jars are filled with wine, they are no longer useful for a purification bath.  Wine, which Jesus will tell his disciples at the Lord’s Supper, is the symbol of his death, is now replacing the whole Jewish purity system.  And this is all happening on the third day, preparing us to notice that Jesus ‘ultimate sign, the resurrection from the dead, is exactly that third day event that meant the end to blood sacrifice for sin, once and for all.

Now we are deeply inside the onion.  Jesus, “the lamb of God” will be the last sacrifice; the last time any blood is shed.  The wine of the kingdom, the rich, well-aged banquet wine has replaced all those purity taboos and ritual laws.  The wedding banquet is the marriage supper of the lamb.  The six days of creation, like those six stone jars are fully filled to the brim, so that now, a new Sabbath of rest  from work can begin.  Grace and Truth have come.  A new Creation can begin.

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So now, “purity” before God does not consist of touch-me-not exclusions of the unclean, but, as Jesus showed us, of open-hearted embrace of exactly those people whom the purity laws had marginalized: outcasts and sinners, lepers and bleeding people, widows and women who have been singled out for censure.  Purity before God is now, as Jesus said, a heart matter.  “Blessed are the pure in heart: they will see God.” (Matt 5:8) In fact, fully embracing outcasts and people who had been excluded is exactly what Jesus taught us was now expected in this new age.

What does God want?

What does God want from us?  How do we live in relationship with God?  How do we live with the fact that we know ourselves – we know we are not perfect; far from it.  Is God mad at us?  Is he looking for ways to punish us?  Is he waiting for us to do something to make it up to him?   Make a sacrifice?  Take a purity bath? No!

Just the opposite.  When Jesus shows up, the party that was about to experience a major “fail” can now shift into high gear.  The best wine is about to be served.  God wills our well-being, our joy, our flourishing at the highest level.  This is a wedding scene – this is a love story.  This is the sign that God is on our side, working on our behalf so that we can experience life in abundance.

The Ask and the Hour

There is one more layer we have not uncovered in this onion.  It’s the odd problem between Jesus and his (unnamed) mother.  She points out the lack of wine, he wonders why that should be his problem, as a guest, especially since his time, or “hour” has not yet come.  She then takes the initiative, starts organizing, and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.

So, had his hour come, or not?   It appears that his hour had not yet come, until she stepped in and pointed out the need.  Until she got involved in the problem and made it her problem, nothing was going to be done.  When she did step up and address the problem at hand, the human need in the moment, and bring it to Jesus’ attention, then his hour arrived, and he acted.

There is something deeply mysterious going on here that I do not claim to understand.  It is as deep as the mystery of prayer itself.  Does God need to be informed about situations of human need by our prayers?  Does God need to be prodded, by us, into action?  Does God need an audience?   No, no, and no; of course not.  But for whatever reason,  God has chosen to give us prayer as a tool in God’s work in the world.

The Call

This is then a call to all of us to look around deeply at our world.  Where is it hurting?  Where is the pain?  Are we willing to look at it as our problem?  Are we willing to get involved?  Are we willing to take it up in prayer, and then start organizing people to address the problem, with the assumption that the prayer means that God is now involved?

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That’s exactly what Jesus’ mother did, and I believe that is exactly what God expects of us.  It turns out that we are not just guest-observers at a local wedding; we are full participants in the life of the community – in its joys and in its pains.  God’s hour comes when we step up and get involved with heart and hands and minds and, resources.  In other words, with all we have.

Come to the banquet: God loves you and has done all that is necessary – don’t bring a sacrifice, except a sacrifice of your praise, and don’t wait to be pure; that day is not coming.

Come and enjoy the wine of the kingdom along with all of the other impure folks who have come on the same basis – trusting that God has acted on our behalf already; the lamb of God has indeed taken away the sins of the world.  And come sensitive to the needs around, the people in pain.  Get involved.  Come in prayer, and come ready to roll up your sleeves.   The hour has come. “Do whatever he tells you.”  Come, live in the abundance of the new creation.

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