The following is a sermon given by Rev. Roy Berkenbosch at Fellowship CRC in Edmonton, Alberta on May 26, 2019. It was part of the Canadian National Gathering 2019. Entitled "Vintage Gospel", this sermon reflects on John 2:1-11 and reminds us that Jesus is the incarnation of justice. You can read the transcript or watch the video below.
At first glance it seems a trivial miracle – this turning water into wine. A little party in some obscure village might have to switch to tea because the wine runs out, but surely there are needs in this world greater than more wine. Some people will be disappointed; the head steward will be embarrassed, and the bride may be fuming, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s not like feeding 5000 people or healing the sick or raising Lazarus from his tomb. We might wonder, did Jesus really leave the glory of heaven to make a barrel of wine??
In the other three gospels Jesus is introduced as someone who has more serious things on his mind - Matthew has Jesus doing battle with Satan in the wilderness, locked in high stakes combat with the tempter; Mark introduces Jesus’s ministry with an exorcism followed rapidly by multiple healings, miracles that take your breath away.
And in Luke Jesus launches his ministry with that visionary sermon from Isaiah,
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
By comparison, the wine making miracle seems not so obviously messianic, perhaps even trivial; yet John says that in this miracle Jesus revealed his GLORY and as a result of it his disciples put their faith in him.
The question is: How exactly does this miracle reveal the GLORY of Jesus?
It’s important to know that in John’s gospel, Jesus so called ‘miracles’ are called signs – they are important not so much for what they accomplish as for what they reveal about Jesus. Signs are symbols and they function within a field of symbols and as it turns out this ‘First Sign’ is rich with symbols.
Let’s begin with the wedding celebration –
John Stek who taught at Calvin Seminary for many years and was one of the principle editors of the NIV Study Bible –which means he knew a thing or two – says "if creation has anything like a sacramental meal, it is a wedding feast which both celebrates the perfection of creation and anticipates benediction fulfilled." (see Isaiah 61:10; 62:5; Jeremiah 33:10, 11)
The final act of the creation account is the creation of humankind, male and female bearing God’s image and given the glorious task of presiding over the flourishing of the good creation, tending gardens, creating cultures. God promises to make them fruitful and calls them to a life of deep meaning, purpose and joy.
As a sacrament of creation, the wedding is an occasion for the joyful affirmation of human identity and calling, full of promise for the future to be pursued in a life characterized by love and intimacy and blessing.
A wedding was a human enactment of covenant making and keeping that echoed their relationship with God who promises to bless them and care for them. Theologically, a wedding is a BIG DEAL
But listen, if the wedding at Cana has this kind of symbolic weight, representing the potential fullness, the flourishing future of the whole creation, then think, what does it mean that this wedding feast runs out of wine?
That’s the symbol that really matters here: a wedding without wine, a sacrament of empty cups. Promises failed and unfulfilled.
The great festive sacrament of creation has run out steam. The feast is a flop.
Jesus says his mother: They have no more wine. Their cups are empty
Boy isn’t that the truth, the sad truth.
From the very beginning human communities have failed to find the rich benediction that seemed so promising when Adam and Eve first held each other in primal embrace. Families in strife, nations at war, broken economies, broken communities; evaporated loves and commitments, famines and drought, floods and cyclones, dictators instead of leaders, hatchet men instead of governors, gangs of colonizers, legions of plunderers, the short-sighted and the far fetched, crooks and thieves and liars and cheats spoil the party, and there is none that is righteous, not even one...
The poet GM Hopkins was surely right when he said, “the world IS charged with the grandeur of God that flames out and shines like shook foil”
But he was equally right when he added those less often quoted lines
generations have trod, have trod, have trod
All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
and wears man's smudge and shares man's smell; the soil is barren now, nor can foot feel being shod.
Species at risk of extinction
Oceans choking on waste
Forests laid waste
They have no wine
The biblical word for all this is EXILE and when the Old Testament prophets warned of God’s impending judgment they often spoke in terms of the empty cup, the barren vineyard, and the silent earth.
Here’s the prophet Isaiah
"Joy and gladness are taken away from the orchards, no one sings or shouts in the vineyards, no one treads out wine at the winepress, my heart laments", says the prophet Isaiah (16:9-10) "… new wine dries up and the vine withers, the merry makers groan, the joyful harp is silent… in the streets they cry for wine … all joy is stilled (Isaiah 24)
Hosea laments, the wine presses will not feed people and the new wine will fail them.
Jesus’s mother stands in the tradition of these prophets when she says, Jesus, they have no wine.
Jesus, say the children, dying by thousands daily, we have no more food.
Jesus, say the refugees, millions of them, we have no home.
Jesus, say the poor, a billion and counting, we have no voice.
Jesus say the missing and murdered aboriginal women and other victims of abuse, we have no justice
Jesus, say the lonely and forgotten, we have no friends
Jesus, say the beguiled and bewildered, the shepherdless sheep of the modern world, we have no sense of truth
Jesus, say the broken hearted, we have no hope
Jesus say the grieving, we have no comfort …
Oh Lord, hear our prayer – Kyrie Eleison
But the prophets were bearers not only of bad tidings – they also dreamed of a new age, when the goodness of life would be recovered, the sweetness of justice restored, when all would again have their portion of the flourishing life, and the cup of life will run over with goodness.
Mother Mary herself dreamed of it:
“he will lift up the lowly and fill up the hungry with good things”
The prophets dreamed about it, again with wine in mind:
Isaiah 25, “on that day (of the Lord) the mountains will drip with new wine and the hills will flow with milk and all the ravines will run with water...”
Amos (9:13, 14) dreamed of the day that would come when the reaper, reaping as fast as he can will never the less be passed by the plowman getting the soil ready for the next crop, and the planter in turn gets passed by the one treading grapes: multiple harvest in such rapid succession that the seasons trip over each other producing their abundance
Jeremiah 31: 12 – the people will become radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, over the wine, over the oil
Isaiah 25 – on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wines
Old Testament anticipations of the coming messianic age have about them the tantalizing aroma of a great feast, braised legs of lamb, washed down with bottles of the finest vintage wines – a wedding feast as Jeremiah (33) says, the sounds of joy and gladness will return with the voices of bride and bridegroom.
Israel was looking for a feast to end the famine.
Jewish messianic hopes were bold and exuberant: in 2 Baruch 29:5, written at the time of John the Evangelist the rabbis preached that a day would come when the earth shall yield its fruit 10,000 fold; each vine shall have a 1000 branches, each branch 1000 clusters, each cluster 1000 grapes, each grape, (wait for it)120 gallons of wine...
THEREFORE Mary's simple observation, "Jesus they have no wine" sums up the hopes and dreams and visions of all who live in exile and who know the aching emptiness of unfulfilled potential
And THEREFORE Jesus’s provision of abundant vintage wine is nothing less than the sure sign that he is the messianic dream come true, the one in and through whom the lost goodness of the creation will be restored.
Not only restored, mind you, but multiplied and extrapolated to extravagant lengths – the best wine and plenty of it, more than the wedding guests could possibly consume. He comes not simply with grace and truth but FULL of grace and truth, (1:14) and it is from the “fullness of his grace that we receive one blessing after another” (1:16). He has come not so we could have life, but have life in all its abundance (10:10).
And we should notice that this best of all wines is made not from ordinary water but the water of purification, 6 stony jars full, 120 gallons according to the footnotes in my bible. This is law water, ritual water, water kept in 6 stony jars because 6 is the number of creation minus the Sabbath rest, creation waiting, creation longing. Law water was used for ritual purification, good for taking away guilt and defilement but falling short of adding joy and gladness.
Throughout the gospels and particularly in John Jesus repeatedly reveals himself to be the surpassing fulfillment of the law – for the law itself has become a legalism, the law has become a means for exclusion of others – the law has become an excuse for glorying in outward appearances of holiness and piety while the weightier matters of justice and peace are set aside. Jesus repeatedly confronts the stony water jars of the Pharisees and says that their meticulous washing and bowing and strict observances of ceremonial practices will not get them a seat at the messianic banquet. It is no coincidence that the very next story in John’s gospel is about Jesus’s angry denunciation of the temple tradition where he announces himself to be the new temple and his law of love for God and neighbour to be the new Torah, the new way, the new truth and the new life.
In other words, the messianic vision of the restoration of creation and the return of hopeful flourishing does not come about by the strict observance of religious ceremony much less by pious pretensions, but only by joyful participation in the life of Christ and willing journeying with him on the way of the Kingdom.
There is a pretty funny and slightly irreverent You Tube clip of Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) reading John 2 – in his telling the people are impressed with Jesus miracle and say things like, ‘go on, give us another trick, could you?’ And, ‘do you do children’s parties…” and so on. Perhaps without knowing it Atkinson is describing very well how many people think of Jesus miracles – as mere displays of supernatural power, sort of like divine trickery – but this of course misses the point. The sign in John 2 is not one of power over creational processes but one of imaging the Kingdom of God, casting an eschatological vision of radical reversal from scarcity to abundance, a tantalizing vision that invite us into a life of unexpected joy and unfaltering obedience.
The transformation of life under the law into life in the Kingdom of Joy is not a question of magic or trickery, but of obedience and imitation and embrace. Follow me said Jesus and I will turn your mourning into joy, your emptiness into fullness, your spiritual questing into purposeful Kingdom living, not by some miracle but simply because my way is the way of life, so give up your small ambitions, take up your cross, follow me love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus turns water into wine and he does so by embodying in his every word and deed the love and grace of God in a real and tangible way. He is the incarnation of justice and lives among us as the one truly human being, faithful to God’s claims on his life. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. He forgives sinners. He sets prisoners free. Through him God reconciles all things. He embodies shalom. His very life is the wine which restores joy.
And we post resurrection disciples know that the gift of wedding wine becomes finally the gift of his own blood. The glory that was first revealed to the disciples at Cana, when Jesus said that his hour had not yet fully come, that glory was fully revealed to them at Golgotha when his time had fully come and he gave his life.
In that hour, when everything that Jesus was sent to do was coming to its head and rushing to completion, when the disciples finally saw the true greatness and final seal of his glory, they saw it as blood and water flowing from his side filling up all the empty wine cups that we bring here to the table, cups that we bring asking for more wine so that we may remember and believe that the Blood of Christ is the cup of the new covenant of hopefulness.
And more than that, he calls forth a new community of followers, including the little clusters of followers known as the Christian Reformed churches in Canada, who are themselves inspired by his vision of the kingdom of God, who are liberated by his death and resurrection, and who are enabled by his Spirit to keep on incarnating his love in the world. That’s how 21st century water is turned into wine.
The planners of the national gathering chose as their final word for this event the glorious promise of Jesus in Revelation 21 to bring all that is implied in the sign of John 2 – the transformation from emptiness to fullness, from paucity to extravagance, from dreary religiosity to joyful engagement – to extrapolate and expand all of that until the very cosmos is filled with his glory, and there is a new heaven and a new earth, and the dwelling of God will be with mortals, all tears wiped away, no more death or mourning or crying or pain, the old order has passed, the empty cups have been filled and All THINGS ARE MADE NEW.
If you are at all like me, then there are days when such extravagance – ALL THINGS he says! – when this all seems a bit far-fetched and overstated – the Making New of All Things is longed for but ever so slow in coming and bad news can so easily Trump good news and faith falters and we know the truth of what Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that while Christ turned water into wine, the church too often turns wine into water – but that is exactly why I wish to conclude by reading once again Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians and offer it as a kind of benediction for us all: I pray that you, being rooted and established in love may have power together with all the saints to grasp the extravagant dimensions of God’s love, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love which is more than knowledge so you may be fully filled with all the fully filling fullness of God.
Fully filled. Fully fulfilled. The best of wines. Vintage Grace. Vintage Gospel. In the name of God the Creator, God the Messiah and God the Holy life giving Spirit. Amen.