January 17, 2016, What Happened at the Wedding – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I received a priceless gift in the mail yesterday. It was from my mother’s cousin Jane, who was best friends with my Mom from the time they were little girls right up to adulthood. Jane and my mother lived back in the day when people wrote real letters,, on paper, and since my Mom was a writer (we seem to be a very wordy family) her letters were long and well-written and worth saving – which my cousin Jane did. So yesterday I received an envelope with two letters in it – nice long letters – written about fifty years ago by my Mom in her beautiful and so very familiar handwriting.
It was unspeakably moving. It was like being given the chance to hear my Mom’s voice again. It was all the more moving, because these letters were written shortly after my mother had lost a baby – a little girl that would have been my baby sister, who was stillborn. So along with the daily-life bits about my sister’s Girl Scout trip and my Brownies picnic and my brother’s potty training, my Mom shared her pain at losing this child. She was not at all one for self-pity or complaining, but there is a sense in between the lines of her sadness and the weariness of going on with life after such a terrible loss. And all through I can also hear her deep and abiding trust that God is gracious no matter what happens. Well. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever received, I think.
To hear words, stories, from people who are far away or long gone, gives us a connection to those people. It helps us to know them in a way we never knew them while they were with us. To read what my mother has to say about her loss gives me a window into who she was that I could never have understood as a little girl. Words – stories – memories – these are things we need as human beings to connect us, mind to mind and heart to heart.
And that is why the Bible is a book of story. When God set out to make himself known to us, his children, he did it in the most human way possible. He made himself known to individuals – in the Old Testament, he revealed himself to Abraham and Moses and David and others – and they wrote the story of what God did in their lives. The Jews, who only have the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, have a deep knowledge and understanding of who God is just through reading those stories.
But what is available to us in the New Testament is deeper still, because in Jesus, God made himself known to people in the flesh, living and breathing, walking and talking and eating with them; teaching and healing, holding their babies in his arms – going to weddings with them. And those people that Jesus walked and talked with, they told their stories so that we can know Jesus – not just know about him, but really know him as a person, just as we get to know the people in our families better through the stories we hear about them. And the thing is, as we come to know Jesus, we know God himself. “No one has ever seen God,” John wrote, “but now – the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Today we read the story of Jesus going to a wedding in the village of Cana. There are all kinds of symbols and deeper meanings we could read into the story to “find the message” of it, but it is, first and foremost, a story: a true story about a real wedding with a real bride and bridegroom (even though John doesn’t tell us their names) and their guests, and among the guests were Jesus, and his disciples – Peter and Andrew and James and John and Philip and Nathaniel, and maybe others as well. And his mother, Mary, was there too.
John’s is the only gospel that tells this story, and that makes sense, because John was right there at the wedding with Jesus. And Mary, Jesus’ mother, lived with John from the day Jesus was crucified. She was like a mother to him, and they must have spent many hours together sharing their memories of Jesus’ life with them.
So John is the perfect one to tell the story of the wedding at Cana, because he and Mary were both there. He remembered how it was Mary who decided Jesus ought to do something about the problem of the wine shortage, which would have been a real embarrassment to the hosts of the wedding. And he could remember what Jesus said and did, and exactly what happened, and how people reacted.
Which is kind of a long, roundabout way of saying: John wrote down this story for much the same reason that my cousin sent my Mom’s letters to me: so that we can know Jesus as he knew him. John wrote in his first letter to the church at Ephesus that he wrote about the One he knew – the One he had seen and heard and touched – to draw them closer, to connect them, to each other and to God: “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
In the story of the wedding at Cana we don’t see Jesus the way we usually see him, surrounded by desperate crowds, preaching or healing or debating theology with scribes and Pharisees – for a brief moment he’s just a man, enjoying himself at a wedding, one of the guests. But as soon as there was a need, Mary knew who to go to. This story happened before Jesus had gone public, before he had made his power known to the rest of the world – he even told his mother that it wasn’t his time yet – but you can tell that Mary had always known that her son wasn’t just an ordinary person. She knew that he had the power to do something for this couple whose wedding feast was in danger of being ruined, and she trusted in his kindness. She didn’t even hesitate to really put Jesus on the spot; she was that confident of him.
Mary knew the Jesus that the writer to the Hebrews knew when he calls us to “come boldly to the throne of grace, where we may find mercy, and obtain grace to help us in our time of need.” Mary didn’t apologize for bothering her son, or bargain with him, or try to convince him that the bride and bridegroom were worthy of his help – she simply brought the need before him. Mary is a model for us in our prayers, that we can bring our needs to the Father without fear, without shame, without having to argue our case as if we were coming before a particularly scary judge. We bring our needs to a Father who is just like his son, who cares about our need because he cares about us, who is able and willing to help us.
As Jesus’ first miraculous sign we might be surprised by how un-showy it all was. Jesus miraculously transformed plain old water into wine: gallons and gallons and gallons of wine. But in the end, the only people at the wedding that knew where this amazing new wine came from, besides Mary and the disciples, were the servants. The steward – the one whose job it was to keep everything running smoothly – only knew that one minute he was facing disaster and the next minute the guests were exclaiming over the quality of the wine. The bride and bridegroom must have been just as surprised and relieved as he was when the new wine turned up. Only the servants knew – and not only did they know who made it all happen, but they got to be part of the miracle, just like the disciples would later get to take the food that Jesus blessed, and to feed the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes, and leftovers besides.
And that is a very important part of the story. Only the servants knew what happened, because Jesus didn’t come to impress the important; he came to bless the unimportant, to notice the overlooked, to raise up the last and the least. As Jesus carried on with his ministry, he would keep on reminding his disciples: the last shall be first, and the first last; the one who would be greatest must be the last of all, and the servant of all. And you can already recognize that theme at the wedding at Cana, where Jesus worked his first miracle quietly, with humility, transforming water into wine through the hands of “mere” servants.
But I think one of the most delightful things about this story is that Jesus made the water into such good wine. One of God’s Old Testament names was Jehovah-Jireh, the God who provides. How wonderful to know that he provides abundantly and excellently. The steward at the wedding exclaimed to the bridegroom, “People always serve good wine at the beginning of the celebration, and then when everybody’s a little tipsy they bring out the second-rate stuff. But you saved the really good stuff for last!” Jesus didn’t have to make great wine; good wine would have done. Even poor wine would have been OK. But he made excellent wine.
And when we, who are his brothers and sisters, are called upon to help out in times of need like Jesus was, it is a good thing to remember that wine, I think. When we make a dinner here at church and invite our friends and neighbors in, or when we get together to bring supper to someone who is sick, or when we provide clothing and housewares for those who need them, Jesus is our guide. As we are able, we give abundantly and excellently, not just enough, but graciously, for the sheer joy of giving. Because that’s what Jesus did in the story that John told us, of the wedding at Cana.
The letters that my cousin Jane sent me bring me closer to my Mom, even though she is not with me anymore. The letters that she wrote so many years ago tell me parts of her story that I never knew before; they let me know her in ways I couldn’t know her when I was just a little girl. And in very much the same way, the stories of the Bible, especially the gospel stories, let us know God better, and to draw us closer to him.
John, who was so close to Jesus that he calls himself “the beloved disciple”, chose to tell us the story of what happened at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where the disciples got their first inkling of who Jesus really was. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” John wrote, “it was the first glimpse of his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” It was a sign to them on that day, and it is a sign to everyone who hears John’s story, everyone who believes in the Wedding Guest who turned plain old water into the very best wine. In John’s story we see Jesus. It connects us to him. It lets us hear the voice of God.
Right up to the last minute, I wasn’t sure how to end this sermon. But my last word is this: read this story, read all the stories, for yourself. Communication by words isn’t really a live thing unless you have both a speaker, and someone who hears. When you read the Word of God it makes a connection. What I have said here is what I heard as I read and studied the story of the Wedding this past week. When you read it for yourself you will hear more, because the connection is personal, and God’s Word is like a deep, deep well that never runs dry. So read; read often; read as much as you can. And you will draw nearer to God as you do.