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Monday, February 1, 2016

The Eschatology in the Wedding at Cana story

At the Edge of the Ages[i] (John 2:1-11)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 24, 2015

            “In the beginning …” – that’s how the Bible starts, the first book, Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1. 
             “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).  We find ourselves at a turning point.  At this point, the first verse of the Bible, whatever existed before has changed.  One age has given to another – the age of our universe.  Whatever came before is beyond what we can observe or describe in any words or images that make any sense to us. 
            Here’s the beginning of the Gospel of John.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  By the Word, he refers to the second person of the trinity, the Son.  The Son was before that change from one age to another – from pre-creation, to the universe as we know it. 
            The Son preceded the transition.  The coming of the Son in human form in Jesus of Nazareth heralded the end of our current age and the dawning of the final age.  The story before us, the action of turning water into wine at the wedding in the village of Cana points to the end and the beginning.
            How so?  Can a seemingly small miracle be the harbinger of a move from this eon to the next?  This is a small village wedding for poor people who cannot afford enough wine.  He helps them save face.  There is no more here, is there?
            It begins “on the third day.”  Unfortunately, a few normally reliable Bible version, The Message, The Good News Bible, and The New Living Translation translate this poorly, neglecting this theological essential phrase.  I like each of these translations, but in this instance each disappoints because the Greek is pretty straight forward and not in need of any cleaning up.  It says, “On third day.”
            Remember John’s method in telling the story of Jesus.  Some guess this gospel was written in the 60’s.  More scholars think it was in the mid to late 90’s.  Either way, John came decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  At the end of chapter 20, John tells us this Gospel was written, so that we, the readers, “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing have life in his name.”
            The carefully crafted story uses symbolism.  Every word is intentionally chosen.  Every word has purpose.  Opening chapter 2 “on the third day,” John is not giving Jesus’ schedule.  This Gospel is organized theologically not chronologically. 
The third day?  Resurrection.  The community that first heard John read in church, probably in Ephesus, was already a Christian community.  They already knew that Jesus rose on the third day.  “Third day,” signals that what comes next is about the era after the resurrection. 
             John is about to tell us about life in the age to come.  But, we know it has not come yet.  In this time and place we lean into the Kingdom by embodying what we learn about, the worth of people, the power of love, and the presence of God.  But this time and place is still a world fallen in sin. 
Jesus’ resurrection summons us into the Kingdom. 
We take a step when we open our hearts, confess our sins, receive forgiveness, and receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts. 
We take another step when we commit to live as Jesus’ disciples so that we no longer live by the values and expectation of 21st century America or any other contemporary culture.  We come from our culture but as his disciples, our worldview is transformed.  In Christ, we see everything differently.  We see as he sees. 
We take another step into the Kingdom when we begin living as Jesus lives.  His Spirit lives through us and the fruit that is produced blesses those around us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  This is the outpouring of God in us. 
John’s first readers heard “on the third day,” and immediately thought life in the Kingdom of God.  They knew that they stood at the threshold where this day and time, history as we know it gives way to God’s Kingdom.  We are in that threshold between “the then” (resurrection), and “the not yet” (the Second Coming of Christ).
In the Cana wedding, we glimpse life in the Kingdom.  It is like wedding where the bride and groom are poor.  How do we know that?  Cana was a small, unspectacular village.  Peasants lived there.  Families saved up for years for the lavish wedding celebrations. 
The joy was continuous and all-consuming … unless the family was so poor that they ran out of food and drink.  Then, the party would thud to halt.  The bride and groom and their families would lose face.  In a culture where shame was a heavy burden and saving face was valuable currency, an already poor family would be humiliated.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a poor family wedding in a small village, and horror of horrors, the wine runs out.  What do we do?
The mother of Jesus approaches him.  Highlight that.  In the Kingdom, Jesus is present and approachable.  Right now, at the threshold, we go to God by way the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit.  I don’t know if it is better to approach God by Son, in person, than by the Spirit.  I am pretty sure “better” is the wrong word to use.  I am also pretty sure that when Jesus returns, whatever our relationship with Him will be, it will be different than it is now.  In the Kingdom we approach God in a way that is unlike our approach now. 
Jesus responds to his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  Why does he say that?  This events of this story happen first century Cana.  In deed Jesus did not come to rescue weddings.  He came to give glory to God and to show people that by following him they would become children of God. 
We straddle the generations so that God speaks at a couple of levels of experience.  God is present in our daily lives through the Holy Spirit.  Also, God has planned eternity and through Jesus invites us to be part of that eternity.  We are headed for a time when the supplies never run out and the party never ends.  In Christ both are extended to the disciple – relationship with God now, salvation now, and eternal promise.
Mary is not cowed by Jesus’ response.  She tells the servants to do what Jesus says to do.  It is the essence of discipleship.  We die to ourselves and live in Christ.  Our view of the world is shaped by the Holy Spirit.  We approach all people in the love that Jesus give us in abundance.  He models this love and fills us with it.  The end of verse 5 is the disciple life captured in a simple sentence.  Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.
Jesus tells the servants to fills the purification jars with water.  This is 180 gallons and we know what Jesus does next.  The water becomes wine – the equivalent of 1000 bottles of wine, the best wine.  It is better than any wine the steward, a wine expert, has tasted.  Jesus’ gift to the poor couple was to pick up the bill for the wine – over $100,000. 
This is what it is like in the Kingdom of Heaven.  All who are in Christ are invited.  The party does not end.  No one is embarrassed.  Jesus picks up the check.  And the longer we are there, the better it gets. 
God’s tendency to give special attention to poor and disadvantaged people is another key aspect of life in the Kingdom that comes up the wedding of Cana story.  For some background, think back to when Mary was first told she would be Jesus’ mother.  She sings a praise, now titled the Magnificat.  In this song, found in Luke 1, Mary sings, “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1:52-53).
Why does Mary include this in her praise of God?  The Cana wedding shows us.  The water Jesus changed became not only wine, but the best wine.  Who knew the source?  The servants.  The steward, the one with the highest social standing there, was confused.  He was not sent away empty in the sense that he didn’t get to imbibe the new wine.  He was the one who tasted it.  He was the one shocked by how much better this party was with this new wine. 
To go away empty is to receive a blessing apart from the relationship with the blessing-giver.  He went away empty because while he enjoyed some incredible wine, he did not have the connection with Jesus that goes with it.  The disciples did. The passages ends with the narrator telling us “his disciples believed in him.”
So we can say, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding in a small village where they run out of wine, but then Jesus turns water into new wine that flows with abundance.  In turning the water into wine Jesus gives exaggerated grace, extravagant grace, excessive grace.[ii] 
God continues to give this grace today.  He gives it in the word – the Bible.  We receive God’s grace as he speaks through the church, through revelation of himself in his created world – nature, and through the Holy Spirit. 
It is not that God loves wealthy people less than poor people.  Poor find it easier to receive all that God gives because they know how desperately they need him.  The wealthy, and this would include middle class Americans, rely on themselves, their own resources, insurance, savings, the best health care money can buy, home security systems, and retirement plans.  None of those things are evil, but each of those things adds to our sense that we don’t have need.  We are self-sufficient.
This is why in Luke 18 when the rich man asked Jesus what he needs to do to enter eternal life, Jesus tells him he must give up his wealth.  Jesus doesn’t tell other rich people he meets this requirement, but he says it to this guy because he can see the riches are preventing the man from seeing his need for God.  The guys does not decide to follow Jesus.  He goes away “sad,” writes Luke.  He knows Jesus is more valuable than his riches but he will not allow himself to give the riches up.
We live in 2016 America, not 90AD Ephesus.  That’s why this first miracle of Jesus is so surprising.  In a simple act in an out of the way village in a pre-enlightenment society Jesus shows what the Kingdom of God is like.  Can we see it?  Can we describe it to others?
We stand at the edge of the ages.  Soon our universe will end, and the age of the Eternal Kingdom will begin.  In Christ, we will be with God in that Kingdom, drinking new wine. 
We can share that new wine with people who don’t know Jesus but only if we truly ignore the influences of the fallen world around us and walk in unobstructed faith.  That happens when we keep out attention on the ways God is revealed in Jesus – at his birth; at his baptism; at this wedding; and in ways we will discuss in upcoming weeks.  We keep our attention on Christ and the Holy Spirit opens our eyes. 
This week, seek examples of his grace that come into your life and put the taste of new wine on your tongue.

[i] G. Sloyan (1988).  Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: John (John Knox Press, Atlanta) p.37
[ii] -

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