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It's Not About Wine

John 2: 1-11


What does the word gospel mean? Anyone? Yes, I know you did not expect a test this morning. You are unprepared. You did not get a chance to cram last night and no one made up any cheat sheets. But, really does anyone know what the word gospel mean? The word comes from the Greek word engallion?and means "good news". It refers to any good news, it could be a story, an announcement or even a proclamation. Although we refer to each of the first 4 books of the NT as "The Gospel according to..." only the book of Mark refers to itself as a gospel.

I have always been fascinated by the different ways that each of the writers of the gospels begin their rendition of the good news. Mark was probably the first gospel written and circulated in the early church. After introducing John the Baptist, Mark tells how the first disciples- Andrew and Peter were called by Jesus. Then he tells three healing stories. Mark is a man of action. He starts right into the story with both feet running.

Matthew is a man of learning and order. After his birth narratives he begins with the preaching ministry of Jesus. For Matthew it is not the miracles but the message that he wants his readers to focus on. The former tax collector wants to make sure his audience knows the rules.

Luke shows the greatest concern for people and the supernatural. His birth narrative is the longest and he uses it to retell how God touched the lives of people in miraculous ways. Then he introduces us to the Jesus who is rejected by his hometown friends. He wants us to feel that emotional pain of loneliness and isolation. Then he retells the same healing stories that Mark tells. This is one of the reasons that scholars believe that Mark was first. Luke appears to be dependent on Mark for much of his material.

We can see that the authors have their similarities, they all want the reader to know early on about the healing miracles. They also have their differences but, none are as different or unique as the gospel of John. Now here was the party animal of the group. I wonder what frat John would have joined. What a stranger way to start a gospel? There is no mention of any healings, no teaching, no dramatic miracles. What did John have in mind when he wrote this? And why did he conclude the story by saying that this was the first miraculous sign? What kind of Savior is he trying to present? Someone who has nothing better to do than perform trivial miracles at parties? To answer these questions we must dissect the story and discover its true significance to the beloved apostle in order to answer these questions.


John begins the account with a key phrase "on the third day". Recent studies into the wedding ritual from the first century indicated that a wedding normally lasted seven days.1 John is saying that it was now the third day of the celebration. His mention of the exact day has more theological importance than chronological. We do not need to know the day this event took place. For all practical purposes what does it matter whether it is the third day or the fourth or the second or the fifth. Rather, than be a detailed story teller, John is trying to gain our attention. He knows that the reader is familiar with the phase. With the light stroke of his pen2 he marked off his text with a yellow highlight pen. He is sending a signal to the reader to take note, pay attention. I am about to tell you something important. This story is not about wine or miracles, its about something more important than either.


After grabbing our attention, John goes on to retell a dialogue between Jesus and his mother. Some scholars have speculated that Mary may be reminding Jesus that both he and his disciples had failed to bring a present with them. Ordinarily, the guests were expected to bring a present of wine. Whatever, her reason my first reaction is to recoil over the harshness of his response; to question why he would show such disrespect to his mother? Actually, the term for "Dear Woman, or O, Woman, "is used in the Semitic language in ordinary speech to show respect for an elder. He is acknowledging her authority over him but, he is also making a statement that has a two-fold message. First, the time has come for Jesus to leave his family, to step out. At this point Mary trusts him completely. Later she will come to doubt his sanity and attempt to pull her son away from public ministry, but here she has total confidence in him.3 The time has come for Mary to step away from her son. She will not reenter his life until the hour of the Cross when Jesus tenderly commends her to the care of the disciple, John.

What a difficult task this is for a parent; to let go and allow their children the freedom of adulthood. This Christmas I really enjoyed seeing Jennifer and Sarah. We had fun sharing with one another our stories and talking about our future plans. I regretted saying goodbye. Part of me still wants to hold onto them; to keep them at home where I can enjoy them company. Part of me still wants to tell them how to run their lives, but I know that the time has come for me to let go. The time has come to allow them to make new discoveries on their own, to learn how to rely on their own gifts and inner resources, to accept responsibility and most importantly to enjoy the satisfaction of their own accomplishments. At the wedding in Cana, the time had also come for a mother to let go.


Another insight I discovered while reflecting on this passage was that the divine will does not cater to human whim. John wants us to know that Jesus performs his sign according to God's will, not at whimsical desire of the crowd. This is a consistent theme throughout the ministry of our Lord. During a discussion about Sabbath regulations, Jesus told them

5:19 I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself: he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

5:30 By myself I can do nothing...for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me

Later in the gospel, one of his brothers became frustrated with him. He may have been envious or frustrated with the way his older brother was publicly embarrassing the family. He taunts Jesus by asking him why don't you go to Jerusalem, after all, the big name prophets made a public appearance in Jerusalem. Jesus responds
7:6 The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right.
The wizards of Harry Potter's world understood this problem also. In the first book Harry suddenly discovers that he is a wizard and has been granted a scholarship to the most prestigious school for wizards-Hogwarts. The groundskeeper Hagrid who is a defrocked wizard is sent to take Harry shopping for books and school supplies. On their way to the store, Hagrid refers to the Ministry of Magic. Harry asks "But what does the Ministry of Magic do?" The groundskeeper explains that the role of the Ministry of Magic is to prevent the Muggles from discovering that witches and wizards still exist. Harry does not understand the necessity of keeping the Muggles in the dark, so he asks "Why?". Astonished Hagrid says, "Why? Blymey, Harry, everyone'd be wantin' magic solutions to their problems."4

Jesus constantly felt the pressure to perform by either appeasing the skeptic, or entertaining the curious, or satisfying the needy. People sought him more out of self-interest than lordship. Many of the 5000 that were feed one day deserted him the next day when he started talking about suffering and death. However, in his Gospel, the beloved disciple wants the reader to recognize that Jesus acted in response to God's will not human whim.

This produces an uncomfortable feeling in me, as I consider the types of prayers that I so often offer to God. Do I expect him to be at my beck and call? Do I want God to perform just so that life will be a little easier for myself and my friends? Are my prayers simply a wish list to satisfy my own selfish desires? Am I truly asking that thy will be done in all my petitions?

John Calvin added a word of caution in our approach to prayer when he wrote, "...we should not be confident in our ability to wrest something from God5


Mary's response is fascinating. He tells the servants. "Do whatever, he tells you." Perhaps unknowingly, Mary has given valuable guidance for the life of a disciple. We are to do whatever he tells us. 

I have worked on many projects both in the church and community. The projects that are the most fun and accomplish the greatest amount are always those that have a group of people who are willing to do whatever it takes. When a request is made, they do not take issue or tell you why Presbyterians don't do it that way. They do not respond with "But we have never done it that way." They do not spend time listing all of the reasons why the project won't succeed. They make things happen and get the work done.

My friends we have some tasks before us. We need to put a new roof on this sanctuary. We need to rebuild our youth program. We need to discover who we are and what God expects of us. 

Are you willing to do whatever he asks?


After Mary gives her instructions to the servants, John provides us with some seemingly trivial information about the volume capacity of the stone jars. First century rituals for washing and purification are now well know from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The instructions and procedures were quite elaborate. The traditions go back to the book of Leviticus 11:29-38 and were continued on into the first century.6 In the gospel of Mark we read:

7:3-4 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders: and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe
For the Jew, before a person could participate in the sacred ritual of the marriage ceremony they had to be pure before God. Only about a cup of water was necessary to purify a hundred people. But here, in this story, there is well over a hundred gallons! That is enough water to purify the whole world.

Get it?

Do you understand what the Apostle John is saying?

Jesus is that purifying water that is available in enough quantity for the whole world. The story is not about wine. Rather, the story is about justification, about getting right with God? It is about purification. How does someone get close to God? 

By the way he tells the story the apostle John, tells us that we are no longer right with God through the rituals of the Law, but through the transforming power of Jesus. The power to change, the power to heal, and the power to restore is unleashed by the Word of our Lord not the acts of men and women.

Herein lie the beauty of the sacraments. When we take a piece of bread or drink from the cup, our act of devotion does not make us right with God. The sacrament points to the reality of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The elements are a sign that we have been made right with God because they point us to the person who died for us on the Cross.

The story is not about wine. It is about the transforming power of God to change lives. It is a story that is gospel, because it brings good news to everyone who hears and believes. 


Notice that none of the guests or the steward of the party know anything about the miracle. They are simple delighted over their good fortune and send their compliments to the bridegroom. The miracle is hidden from their eyes. They are blind to the supernatural movement of God. This is quite revealing to our understanding of miracles. They are not signs to the world to produce faith. Miracles will usually remain hidden from the world. Miracles are for the servants of God; to those who have been obedient to his Word. They are the ones who are allowed a glimpse into the mystery of faith. They are the ones who are allowed to witness the supernatural power of God.

The skeptic will always have their rebuttals. They will always be able to refute or explain the natural cause of a supernatural event. 

Several years ago, a series of Dilbert cartoons illustrated how the skepticism of a skeptic prevents them from seeing and believing in miracles. Ratbert has developed psychic powers. In one strip, he predicted that a coin would fall on its edge when it was flipped. He then went on to correctly predict, the next 200 coin tosses. Dilbert cannot believe that this rat has any special powers so he calls in an expert-Ken the skeptic. Ken is determined to prove that Ratbert's so called psychic powers are merely illusionary by challenging the rat to accurately describe the content of an enclosed envelope. Ratbert says that its a charcoal drawing of a woodchuck eating a small orange. Ken the Skeptic triumphantly says, "Nice try you little fraud, but that a long way from an ink drawing of a beaver eating a tangerine."7

Miracles never happen for the skeptic because the skeptic never wants to see them. They choose to remain blind to the reality of the eternal. Their appetites are satisfied not by spiritual but by food and drink. John's intent is not to prove that Jesus took water and turned into wine. John offers this story to convince us that Jesus is among us not to perform tricks for us, not to wait for our beck-and-call, but to provide life, abundant life for those who believe that he is the Christ the son of the Living God.

1 Ear F. Palmer, The Intimate Gospel, (Waco, Word:1978), p 29.
2 Earl F. Palmer, common phrase he uses in lectures and preaching.
3 Earl F. Palmer, The Intimate Gospel, (Waco, Word:1978), p 29.
4 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Socerer's Stone, (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997, 65).
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, p 891.
6 Earl F. Palmer, The Intimate Gospel, (Waco, Word:1978), p 30.
7 Scot Adams, Dilbert, 1998.

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