Rev. Jim Zazzera, 2.19.2012, Faith Presbyterian Church
How many people here like poetry? I know some of us do, some of us do not. Yet, having a bit of a poetic sense may help us in our approach to scripture. This is especially true when we read the Gospel of John. So, I need you to be a bit of a poet today.
Poetry often uses “figures of speech,” to say something other than the literal meaning
of the words. One specific kind of figurative language is called “symbolism.” In symbolism, a thing (could be an object, person, situation or action) can stand for something else — something that is perhaps more abstract.
Let me give you an example – because symbolism is far better experienced than explained. Listen to this Robert Frost poem, one which many of you already know:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both, And be one
traveler, long I stood, And looked down one as far as I could, To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim; Because it was grassy and wanted wear, Though as for that the passing there, Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay, In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I marked the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh, Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
At one level, this poem is a simple description of a person walking through the woods. The poem has beauty and meaning at the level of story and picture. Yet the “two roads that diverge” in the first stanza, are also a symbol of something else. Simply put, this “forked road” is about more than a country walk, and represents the choices we make in life. We are reminded by Frost that the decisions we make at one point, at one
intersection—have an impact throughout our lives. The diverging roads in the poem
point us to other things in our whole lives. They are symbols.
At certain points, the Gospel of John functions in much the same way—where something is both true in and of itself—yet also stands for something else. The gospel writer calls these things “signs” — we might call them symbols. In all four gospels stories are told of actual happenings in Jesus’ life. And these stories are celebrated for what they are – conversations, healings, transformations. But in the Gospel of John, many of these stories are also highlighted for what they point to.
The story we read today is actually quite simple, though miraculous. Jesus is attending a wedding celebration in a small town named Cana. We are told that his disciples and his mother are also at the party. At a certain point his mother states, “They have no wine.” By this, Mary is not simply stating a fact, but as parents sometimes do, she is really saying, “Jesus, they have no wine, could you do something about it?”
Then Jesus says the strangest thing in the whole story: “Woman, what concern is that
to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Oddly, in Jesus’ response, Mary seems to feel Jesus has somehow given a “yes” to her implied request. So she says to the servants at the wedding “Do whatever he tells you!” Jesus points to 6 large stone jars (evidently empty after having held water used for Jewish purification rites) and tells the servants to fill them up with water. Then he commands the servant to take some of it to the steward, (the man in charge of the party). The steward is surprised at the incredible quality of the wine.
Interestingly, though the servants knew that this wine was the work of Jesus—we are not told how they react. The steward then calls the bridegroom and commends him on
saving the best wine for last. We are not told how the groom reacts either. And that’s the end of the story.
Strange, isn’t it? Then, to make things even more cryptic, the gospel writer ends with
this comment: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Now, even though this is simple story, I come away with lots of questions. Not the least of my questions is this: What did the Gospel writer mean when he said this was the “first of Jesus signs?” What did he mean by “sign?”
While John does not number all the “signs” of Jesus, some have said that there are
seven “signs” in this Gospel. In John, all of these signs are events we would call miraculous; all of these signs stand outside the laws of nature as we know them; and all are important because they point beyond the specific event to something else.
While the Gospel writer John is interested in these stories in and of themselves, he
almost seems to be MORE interested to what they point to, to what they symbolize,
to the deeper realities with which they connect us.
I remember years ago, I was part of a team designing and building a new sign for
the front lawn of the church I pastored. I remember how much time we spent planning the sign — the shape, the colors, the text, the cost. After it was first completed – we spent quite a few weeks admiring and talking about the sign. But soon, the sign simply faded into the background of our consciousness. The only thing that was important was that the sign helped people know about the church it pointed to. The only time we really talked about the sign again was when it somehow didn’t do its job. Most of the time – the lawn sign was effective as a symbol of the faith community it represented. The sign was the first step in connecting people to the reality of our congregation. That’s how symbols function. That’s what a sign is.
So what does John mean when he says this is Jesus’ first sign? So what is the reality to which this story points us? Once we get over the thrill of Jesus’ power to turn water into wine, what is our next step in understanding? Some of the specific words in the story help us because they are symbols themselves.
Let’s start with wine, what kind of images does wine conjure up for you? What does wine point to? [invite response]
Let me read your what writer and pastor Frederick Buechner says about wine: “Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one”
Wine can call to mind many things. Here, as the central symbol of this story it is full of meaning. And we would of course, be crazy to miss the connection with communion, the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus poured wine and said “This is my blood poured out for you,” he was pointing us to the deepest reality of our faith—a God who fully gives himself for us. The wine is a symbol of Jesus blood.
More than that, in Jesus time, wine was seen as the symbol of God’s coming at the completion of time. The slide I showed at the beginning of the service, points out this reality in a profound way:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who ploughs shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it. Here the wine
is a symbol of God’s victory and the celebration that will happen at the end of time.
One other thing to notice about the wine. In a story that is actually not that detailed, the Gospel writer makes sure to note that Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars “up to the brim.” Six stone jars, 180 gallons, every last drop. That is about 900 standard bottles of wine. Late in the party when people were no doubt pretty full of food and drink, Jesus provides well beyond what any gathering would need. Here, the wine
becomes a symbol of the abundance of God’s provision.
Next, think about the jars. Now you might think Jesus’ choice of where he put the wine was unimportant, and that he was only looking for a place to produce a large volume of liquid. But do you remember what was in these jars before Jesus had them refilled with
water? The NRSV says that these are “stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification.” Jesus not only replaces the substance that was in the jars with something different (water with wine); but in a sense, he changes their purpose. Jewish purification is now replaced by wedding celebration! Religion is now replaced by a party! Now that is something to think about. The old patterns and rituals are no longer relevant. The old way of relating to God is supplanted by something new and different. The jars filled with wine become symbols of the new reality in Jesus.
Do you see how all the symbols here are beginning to give us clues to a deeper meaning? This story points us to Jesus’ self-giving in his blood, our invitation to God’s celebration for us, the abundance of all that God offers, and the fact that what is here in Christ is different than anything that came before.
There are two other words here that help us with our understanding. The words are:
“Hour” and “glory.” These are words that actually point to the same thing. Throughout
John, the Gospel writer points to the occasion when Jesus is “glorified.” We are told in this passage, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory;” In the Bible, “glory” is a word that means “weight” or “importance.” To glorify something or someone means to give it greater importance or weight.
Glory can also be used to suggest God’s visible manifestation to human beings.
Remember the first chapter of John: “We have beheld his glory?” Most scholars agree that when John writes about Jesus’ “glory,” he is referring to the “ultimate moment of his glorification, his death, resurrection, and ascension.” Jesus glory refers to a certain period, a certain time, and certain actions. Jesus “glory” in John is the moment when the purpose of his work is revealed. So when John tells us this is the first sign—it is as if this wedding feast is beginning to give hints about the meaning of Jesus’ “glory,” the meaning of Jesus’ work on earth.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “My hour has not yet come?” What Jesus is
saying to his mother (and us) is that is not time for him to reveal everything about the purpose of his coming. Yet Jesus does go ahead and makes the wine from water anyway. Though seemingly reluctant, Jesus does reveal something.
Later in John, we can listen in when he is fully ready to reveal his glory, when (as
he says) “the hour has come.” In his final discourse, just before his death, he looks to heaven and says these words: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,” The “hour” is come, Jesus “glory” is at hand. “Hour” and “glory” are words that point to the end of Jesus’ earthly life and the culmination of his work.
So having come this far, what in the world do we know? What is any of this story about? How do these symbols guide our lives? How does Jesus’ sign connect us with God in Christ? Let me offer a few final thoughts about the miracle of water into wine and what the symbols in it it point us to.
First, in Jesus, God is doing something completely new. In the story, party wine takes
the place of the water of Jewish ritual. In the first century, Jesus presence changed how people related to religion and religious law. You might ask, what is Jesus wanting to replace in your life? What are the old practices and ways of gaining God’s approval the Jesus wants you to jettison? What is the completely new thing he wants to do in you?
Second, in Jesus, God overflows with abundance. In the story, the jars were filled to
the rim, 900 bottles worth of the world’s best wine. From the beginning of time, people have accepted the reality of scarcity, and bargained with the gods to give them enough. You might ask, what if Jesus has everything you need to live a life of joy and meaning? Where in your life are you worried about scarcity? What abundance is God pouring out that you don’t even see?
Third, in Jesus, God starts a celebration that begins now and continues forever. In
the story, much is made of the Jesus’ provision of the “best wine.” Jesus’ presence made the celebration even better! In the Old Testament there is clear testimony to God’s final victory being marked by rivers flowing with wine. The church affirms that God’s Kingdom begins now and proceeds from this time beyond all time. You might ask, where have you seen the kingdom of God in your life today? Can you claim, in the midst of all the struggle and suffering that you see in our world that God’s work in Christ will bring complete and final victory?
Fourth, in Jesus, God’s full work is done and real presence is revealed. In the story,
Jesus talks about his hour and John reminds us how Jesus reveals his glory. In fact, the church though long centuries has used this particular passage on the day of Epiphany, the day when we talk about God being “revealed.” Christians from the time of Jesus’ first followers to this very day have discovered and celebrated the heart of the Christian faith in Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension. You might ask, in what way are you being invited to think about the work of Christ in new ways? How has meditating on Jesus death & resurrection changed you?
Finally, there is one thing that I have not yet mentioned from the text. Listen to the
last verse: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” His disciples believed in him. Didn’t they already believe? After all, they were already following him. And did they believe because of the miracle of water into wine or because of what the miracle points to? Is changing water into wine enough to create disciples and gather a people that follows for thousands of years—or can that only happen because of the glory, the hour, the event that this wine points to—to Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension? So you might ask, what has called you to belief in Christ? How are you finding that belief deepened even today?
Lots of questions to ponder. Lots of symbols to reflect on. But for now, I would
like to end as I began – with some verse and a symbol: [Jenny May Sings]
Send some rain, would You send some rain?
‘Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again
, And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade
, Would You send
a cloud, thunder long and loud? Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down , Surely You can see that we are thirsty and afraid , But maybe not, not today, Maybe You’ll provide in other ways, And if that’s the case . . . (Chorus) We’ll give thanks to You , With gratitude , For lessons learned in how to thirst for You , How to bless the very sun that warms our face , If You never send us rain.
God sends us rain. God sends us wine. God sends us Jesus, and in him God’s glory is revealed. Amen.
Next Step Questions:
The following questions and scriptures are provided for Life Groups and individuals who want to further reflect on today’s message. If you need a Bible let us know. We’d be happy to provide one for you. A complete text and podcast of the sermon can be found on our web page at www.faithpresby.org.
What kind of things in our world stand as symbols for other things? Do you find that “symbols,” (one thing that points to another thing) are very helpful to you?
Look at this passage again. What is the most surprising thing in this passage? What did you NOT expect to see here? Do these surprises offer you any particular insight?
What does wine symbolize for you? What is the importance of wine in this story?
Do you have a hard time with miracles (in the Gospels, actions that Jesus performs that suspend the laws of nature)? Is there more focus in this passage on the miracle itself or what the miracle points to?
In the text, Jesus replaces the old waters for Jewish purification ritual with the new (and very tasty) wine. What might that mean for those who were faithful Jews at that time? Has God ever done something completely new in your life?
In the story the partygoers ended up with an abundance of wine. What do you worry about there not being enough of? Has God ever God surprised you with abundance?
Some people have said that the gospel of John focuses on God’s kingdom with us now. (Just like Jesus turning water into wine in his time.) What is God doing among us right now? How do you see it in your life? For what do you think we will have to wait?
When John uses the word “glory” he is usually referring do what God has done in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Meditate on that for a bit. What does God do for us in Christ? (See if you can go beyond simply saying “Jesus died for my sins.”) How does Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension reveal God to us and change us?
The story ends with saying “[Jesus] disciples believed in him.” Did they just believe because they saw the water turned into wine? What other things in the story might have empowered their belief? What kinds of things deepen your belief (trust) in God?
Suggested scriptures for the Week:
Monday: John 4:46-54 – Jesus heals an official’s son
Tuesday: John 5:1-18 – Jesus heals a man at pool
Wednesday: John 6:5-14 – Jesus feeds multitudes
Thursday: John 6:16-21 – Jesus crosses the sea
Friday: John 9:1-7 – Jesus Heals a blind man
Saturday : In preparation for worship on Sunday, read and reflect on John 2:12-25.
John 2:11, NRSV.
As traditionally listed, the signs are: (2:1-11), Jesus turns water into wine;
(4:46-54), Jesus heals the official’s son; (5:1-18), Jesus heals the man at the
pool; (6:5-14), Jesus feeds the multitude; (6:16-21), Jesus crosses the
sea; (9:1-7), Jesus heals the blind man;
(11:1-45), Jesus raises Lazarus, cf. The
Seven Signs of Jesus of Nazareth, John Teter, IVP, 2001.
Amos 9:13, NRSV.
John 2:11, NRSV.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary, “glory” p. 349.
Interp disctionary John, p. 540.
John 17:1, NRSV.
John 2:11, NRSV.