the first sign
Everyone has their favorite passages or books of the Bible. For me, the most insightful book is the Gospel of John. I love many other books – Matthew, Ephesians, Romans, Philippians, Jonah, Genesis, Proverbs and others – but to me, John is just different. John is the Gospel account that scholars believe is presented the most in chronological order. It is also a book in which John, the closest friend Jesus had among the disciples, chooses only a few of the miracles and signs that Jesus performs and then builds around them. He presents them beginning with what most feel would be the least abhorrent to the religious of the day, the Sanhedrin and Pharisees, and shows us how Jesus’s miracles steadily became more and more offensive to the religious leaders and to others steeped in religious tradition. John shows us how Jesus starts letting people see who He is but does so in a way that He could spend the time necessary to train His disciples for the task they would have left to them after He leaves. He knows it will take time so He performs signs and miracles that will allow Him to show who He is while doing it in a way to gradually increase their belief. John’s Gospel tells us many places along the way that “they believed” after one of His signs or miracles. Jesus is preparing them for His departure which would be followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit so His disciples could then go share the Good News and change the world forever.
When you think about Jesus’ ministry in the manner in which John presents it, it forces you to really contemplate the purpose behind each of the very few miracles or signs that he shares with us. It forces me to more deeply consider what Jesus teaches after these signs. Today, I want us to look at the first sign that Jesus performs. He does this at what is called by many “The Wedding at Cana”.
John 2:1-11 (NIV)
1) On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2) and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3) When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to Him, “They have no more wine.”
4) “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5) His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”
6) Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7) Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”, so they filled them to the brim.
8) Then He told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9) 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 10) 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.”
11) 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.
To help us understand this account we need to remember that ancient and traditional cultures put far more emphasis on family and community than on the individual. The purpose of a marriage was not primarily the happiness of the wedding for the bride and groom but was more about the coming together of the community. It was about another man and woman coming together to start and raise the next generation. The bigger, the stronger, and the more numerous the families of a town, the better the economy, the greater the military might, and the more everyone flourished. The wedding was a celebration for the entire town. Weddings may seem like a big deal today but they were nothing compared to weddings of that time and what they meant to everyone in the community. The wedding was the biggest event in the personal life of the bride and the groom up to that point in their lives. This is the day the community sees them as having come of age and now, full adult members of their society.
Verse 1 and 2 set the stage that this is a wedding and that Jesus, His disciples and His mother are all in attendance with the rest of the guests. Verse 3 then introduces what would be considered a huge disaster for the bride, the groom, and their parents. They have run out of wine, a very key component meant to add joy to the banquet. This most important day in the lives of the bride and groom is now about to become the most embarrassing of their lives. Instead of remembering it fondly the rest of their days, they will remember a day of utter shame.
In verse 11, John does not call this a miracle, even though it was. He chooses to call it a “sign”. A miracle is a supernatural event that could happen no other way but by the hand of God. Turning water into wine is a miracle of course, but John says it is even more when he calls it a sign. A sign is a symbol or signifier of something else. When Jesus chooses to do this John tells us it is the first sign done to reveal Jesus’ glory. It is the first sign done to reveal His true identify.
Anyone who is about to begin a career, whether in politics or launching a product for the first time or releasing their first song they hope to be a hit, will tell you that you choose that first public presentation very carefully. You plan out every detail to ensure the message comes across just right. Why would Jesus choose His first miracle/sign as one that “keeps a party going”? Why would Jesus use supernatural power to keep the wine flowing at this wedding? Could this act or sign have anything to do with what Jesus came into this world to do? Let’s consider three key things to help us unravel this first sign. 1) What did Jesus bring? 2) Why did He bring it? 3) How did He bring it?
So first, what did Jesus bring? In verse 9 we are introduced to the master of the banquet, the master of ceremonies if you will. He is the one known in the community as “the person” that can and will make the party great so that everyone enjoys this blessed event. Jesus, by intervening and turning the water into wine is in essence saying “I am the true master of the banquet. I am the Lord of the feast”. Now to an old country boy from Alabama that grew up as a Southern Baptist we have a hard time with that. We would say that, “No, Jesus came to humble Himself, to lose His glory, to be rejected by men and go to the cross.” All of that is true, but in a way, Jesus is putting even that terrible loss and pain into context for us. Jesus is saying, “I am going to suffer. I am going to deny myself. There will be sacrifice for me and even for my followers afterwards. But the reason for all of it is, at the end, all about a festival of joy! All of it is about resurrection and the new heavens and new earth, the end of all evil and death and tears. There is nothing compared to the feast that awaits the children of God at the end of history. This will be my first sign”.
Let’s look at a passage from Isaiah 25:6 – 8 (NIV), where Isaiah describes the great wedding feast at the end of the ages:
6) On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. 7) On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all people, the sheet that covers all nations; 8) He will swallow up death forever. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.”
Oh, what a day that will be!
Second, Jesus brings something with Him. Jesus uses something in this miracle. He uses six large jars that could hold twenty to thirty gallons each. Six multiplied by an average of twenty-five gallons would be one hundred fifty gallons of water, soon to become wine. That is a lot of wine which signifies just how big a party this is. The key point I believe we need to see and often miss though is that these were not water jars used for providing drinking water or for wine. These were jars used for holding water to be used for “ceremonial washing”. What does that term mean? The law of Moses was full of details outlining ceremonial washing. All of it was meant to signify a need in our lives. None of us could walk right into God’s presence. We were all flawed and in order to connect to God there had to be atonement, cleansing and pardon. These jars were specifically used for purification rites. They are not just some random vessels for holding water.
With the bride and groom facing certain public shame and guilt, Jesus rescues them. By using these specific jars for ceremonial washing, Jesus is saying that “I have come into the world to accomplish in reality what the ceremonial only symbolized.” For us to understand the joy that Jesus will bring, we have to understand sin. We have to understand that we are stained and need to be purified. We have to recognize we have guilt and shame and that we need to be rescued from it. When Adam and Eve first sinned, their eyes were opened and they knew that something was wrong with them. They knew it so much that they hid from God and even took leaves and tried to make something to hide their nakedness. Someone called or drawn by God knows deep down that there is something wrong with them and that they need deliverance. Only Jesus can bring that deliverance or rescue.
Third and finally, how did Jesus bring this cleansing and forgiveness we are seeing from this sign? Let’s look at the actions of Mary and Jesus. Mary may not know at this point that Jesus is literally the Messiah but she definitely knows that her son is no ordinary man. How could she not, considering the angel, the conception, the signs surrounding His birth? So, what does Mary do? She goes to her son once she learns about the problem. And what does Jesus do? He responds in the sensitive, loving and caring way we would expect the Son of God to reply, right? Wrong! Jesus responds in what anyone would think is a very insensitive way, especially to His mother, His ”immah”. Immah was the affectionate Aramaic term for mother just as Abba was the affectionate term for Father. Jesus calls her neither mother or immah. He just calls her “woman”.
We know from looking at the rest of Scripture that Jesus is not easily irritated. He does not say things that He regrets later. Even when He is tortured, He never speaks a harsh or angry word so Jesus is not just in a bad mood. Something is weighing heavily upon him. Jesus tells His mother that “My hour has not yet come”.
The book of John uses this phrase several times and each of those times Jesus is speaking about His death. Mary is saying to her son, “What a disaster”. Jesus in turn says, “Why are you telling me this? It is not time for me to die.”
As hurtful as this could have been to Mary, she does not argue with Him or even ask Him to explain or walk away in a huff. She remembers what the angels said years ago and just quietly tells the attending domestic servants, “Whatever He tells you to do, do it”.
Jesus is seeing much more than a wedding party that He is attending with His mother and His disciples. He is looking very far down the road. He knows doing this miracle is a sign of what He has ultimately come to do. If the shame and guilt of the bride and groom represent the sins of the world, then what does the wine represent in His mind? What is missing in order to turn shame into joy? Well, we know the answer because He creates wine in the jars used for purification and cleansing. Jesus knows and sees that He can bring joy to this world and cleanse humankind from guilt and shame but, “Mother, I am going to have to die to do it.”
In the Old Testament, God shows us over and over that He does not only want to relate to us as a king or even a Father. He also shows us that He wants to relate to us as a groom relates to His bride. He wants a deep, deep love relationship with us. Jesus even refers to Himself as the bridegroom in Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:19-20, and Luke 5:34-35. Jesus does this knowing full well that the Old Testament Scriptures are saying only the creator Himself is the husband of His people. John goes on in the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament to depict the end of all things with “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:9). This last event of history celebrates at long last the intimate and permanent union of people who love each other. This is what Jesus is coming to accomplish and He is telling His mother that hour has not yet come.
So how does Jesus bring us joy? He does it by leaving His heavenly existence at the right hand of the Father and leading a lonely, misunderstood life. He does it by going to the cross and dying in our place. Through that sacrifice Jesus tells us in John that He gives us His peace as Cory pointed out in John 14:27 last week, and also gives us His joy as John outlines in John 15:11 and John 17:13.
Jesus sat amidst all of the joy of that wedding feast, sipping and thinking of the coming sorrow of the cross, so that today those of us that are God’s children can sit amidst all this world’s sorrow and miraculously, daily, partake in Jesus’ own personal peace and joy. That is the “first sign”. There is only love, only one feast, only one thing that can really give your heart all that it needs. All this awaits the child of God.