Part of the preaching series, “Questions God Asks” and our Inspiration for Beloved Community Series
A while ago in our Wednesday Bible Study we were talking about a particular prayer that the apostles pray in Acts 4:29-30. I introduced the idea that what we pray for and how we pray can say a lot about how we perceive of God, and how we live our faith. The apostles’ prayer comes after Peter and John have just been released from being detained and put on trial by the Temple authorities. Instead of asking for persecution to end, or for things to get easier, they don’t even ask for safety. They recall the work God is doing in the world, and they ask for strength to keep on speaking boldly while the authorities want them to be silent. What does this tell us about how they understood their faith in light of how they understood God?
It certainly looked different than those who are always asking for something—if we were to only listen to prayers it would seem that God is a kind of cosmic genie, one who grants are wishes if we say the right words or do the right things. But is God really sitting around in heaven, waiting to do what we ask?
Think about the Lord’s Prayer for a moment. We just recited it a moment ago. This is Jesus teaching people how to pray—a template of a prayer his followers should pray. Your will be done . . . your kingdom come. This kind of prayer reorients us, focuses our attention on what God is up to in the world, on what God is asking us to be and to do. This kind of prayer reorients us when we get it backward, when we do things in the name of God that have nothing to do with God’s purposes and God’s character. I wonder if God, asks us a question at the same time: looking at our selfish pursuits and asking, “What does this have to do with me?” and consequently asking us, “What are my concerns?”
This morning’s Scripture is from John 2:1-11, and provides an answer to the question:
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing,each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
This scripture is a case study in how the way that we interpret a small detail may change the way we understand the whole story. One of those details is what is Mary asking Jesus? And Why?
Let’s step back for a minute. Weddings in Jesus’ day and in his culture were not like today. For one, they were one the “chief celebrations,” important cultural and community events. It wasn’t like today, where you have a list of people you send invitations—it was announced far in advance and not only all your kin, but your whole village got involved and invited. Not following custom, however, would bring about public shame for a couple, especially in a culture like Jesus’, with deeply embedded codes of honor and shame. This explains the concern for the dwindling supply of wine—this has the potential of a dishonoring situation. (I’ve seen this firsthand in Georgia working in a kitchen with Southern cooks who pull out anything they can to make sure that there is more than enough—who would rather see tons of leftovers than some not get their fill.)
I find it highly unlikely, given the context, that they ran out of wine because they were absent-mindedly unprepared for their guests, that they were careless or everyone was just drinking way too much. I suspect that they were running out of wine because they were people of little means, who could only do so much. This heightens the sense of panic in the air—where is the wine going to come from if the family can’t afford much more than they’ve already put out. If they were well-to-do, they could go and buy some, there wouldn’t be a scramble.
Now, we also need to ask, is Mary asking for a miracle? There’s no reason to think so, since at the end, we are told that this was his first “sign.” He hasn’t done anything miraculous yet. He and Mary are most likely there because they are relatives of some sort, and Jesus being an adult male in the family is being called to respond. Yet his response is peculiar, and his action is beyond what anyone would have imagined possible.
This brings us back to the question, “What are God’s concerns?” Jesus shows us. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke opens their Gospels with proclamation of Jesus’ mission—Jesus speaking—(which were the subject of my previous two sermons coincidentally), John offers us signs and symbols.
The first thing Jesus shows us about God’s concerns is that God is concerned with the ordinary. These are ordinary, everyday people. He wasn’t there because it was some great influential couple of the day, their occupations were obviously not of great note, and they weren’t terribly wealthy. Not the rich and the famous. These are the farmers and field-hands, carpenters and artisans. The housekeepers, bus-drivers, grocery clerks, construction workers. The people society rarely expresses gratitude for, but who put in most of the work. These are the people Jesus chooses to act on behalf of, and it clearly shows that your wealth and status don’t entitle you to greater attention from Jesus.
Jesus also cares about the ordinary circumstances in people’s lives—or else he would not have been there in the first place. God is intimately concerned with the daily routine, the mundane facets of our lives—fixing meals, washing the dishes, and changing diapers; our bodies, our emotions, our mental health; the dilemmas of everyday life. Jesus cared that this family did not receive shame and dishonor. So the Gospel tells us that Jesus is not so concerned with just saving souls and spiritual work that he overlooks the whole person. Neither should we.
This leads into the second thing, which is what I spoke about last meant, which is that Jesus shows us that God is concerned that we serve one another. One thing you come to notice in our text is that Jesus does not take public credit for his work. He sets it up so that the credit goes to the groom. Jesus counts himself among the servants, who act on behalf of another, and do not stand in the limelight. John shows us Jesus setting a pattern for servanthood: to give oneself for the welfare of others, without fanfare. The impact of his actions isn’t notoriety—unlike so many companies, organizations and public figures that sponsor service-projects so they can put a plaque up and put their name on something, doing good while others are looking. Jesus isn’t seeking his own glory, but those who do see are compelled to follow him as verse 11 says, “he thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” Serve one another, serve your neighbor, your community—not for your glory, but because God cares about them deeply, and is concerned for their welfare.
And yet there’s something more to this whole picture, because this story clearly becomes something more than ordinary. John calls it the first of Jesus’ “signs”—a carefully chosen word, unlike the other gospels which use the word for “miracle”—show of power that leaves people in awe, John calls these acts like this “signs” because they reveal something. What are the daffodils popping up a sign of? The spring! Jesus’ signs disclose something about the Kingdom of God, about the “true light that gives light to everyone [that] was coming into the world,” as it says in the opening of the Gospel. There are several potent symbols in this short narrative—a wedding, a banquet, water, wine, stone jars for ceremonial cleansing—there’s so much to unravel, we don’t have time—unless you all want to stay for another half hour—but all of these are supposed to cue us into the fact that this is really a story about the Kingdom of God.
Jesus shows us here that he is concerned above all in bringing the Kingdom of God on earth. He transforms what is ordinary in what is extraordinary:water into wine—and not just some, but an abundance. The text says that each jar held 20-30 gallons, and each Jesus had filled to the brim. That’s a symbol of God’s Kingdom: the beautiful transformation, an abundance of life. Jesus want to transform us, to take the old and make something new—just as he wants to transform the situation from something shameful to something beautiful.
Now we ourselves don’t bring God’s Kingdom—it isn’t by our power, our activity, our strength. But we partner with God, we ask, what is God concerned about in this world? And we align our lives around those doing his will. God’s kingdom breaks into this world all around us, God is only asking us to have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, to witness it, speak it, and live it.
We can grieve God, as we go about pursuing things that don’t concern his kingdom—pursuing bigger houses, better cars, catching every football game and every new episode of the latest show, getting higher on the company ladder—or we can ask, God, what concerns do you have? How can I be faithful, even in the ordinary, among the people I see everyday. The Scriptures are full of answers—and here in John, we see that Jesus is concerned about the details of our lives, he cares about us, but he is concerned that in everything we are pursuing his aims, not vice-versa. Why? Because when we seek first the Kingdom, we find a beautiful, abundant life.