Text: John 2:1-11
The first sermon I ever heard preached on this story in John’s Gospel was not by a preacher and it was not in a church. No, oddly enough the first sermon I ever heard preached on this story came from inside a novel in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov.
The sermon begins:
It was very late, according to the monastery ideas, when Alyosha returned to the hermitage; the doorkeeper let him in by a special entrance. It had struck nine o'clock- the hour of rest and repose after a day of such agitation for all. Alyosha timidly opened the door and . . . there was no one in the cell but Father Paissy, reading the Gospel.
We soon learn that Father Paissy is reading today’s story in John’s Gospel, the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana. The sermon continues:
I love that passage: it's Cana of Galilee, the first miracle.... Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet
miracle! It was not men's grief, but their joy Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to
help men's gladness....'He who loves men loves their gladness, too'... He was always repeating
that, it was one of his leading ideas... 'There's no living without joy.'
Search the New Testament as you will, but you will never find Jesus uttering the words, “There’s no living without joy.” And yet, when I say those words aloud I can hear the Jesus I meet in the New Testament say, “Exactly. Precisely. Now, you understand. There is no living without joy.”
If you were to pick up the Bible and read the story of Jesus as told by Mark or Matthew or Luke, you would find the story told with different accents but with more similarity than difference. John, though, tells the story of Jesus not so much with a different accent but in an entirely new language.
The other three Gospels speak of the “miracles” of Jesus, but what is miraculous in John is called a “sign” or a “signpost,” a way to mark that the glory of God has been in that place. Some signs in John’s Gospel are earthshattering such as when Jesus heals a man blind since birth and later enters the tomb of his good friend, Lazarus, four days after Lazurus was buried and he escorts his friend out of the tomb and into the sunlight.
The first “sign” or “signpost” of God’s glory in John’s Gospel seems embarrassingly insignificant, something of so little import that it is hardly worth telling and yet John does. As the story opens, there is problem but hardly a crisis by any real measure. Running out of wine at a wedding reception may be a case (pardon the pun) of poor planning or a story of very thirsty guests, but it is not an earth-shattering story like Jesus healing a paralytic or feeding thousands of hungry folks with a few loaves of bread and fewer fish.
And, the very idea to perform the first sign in John’s Gospel is not even Jesus’ idea; it is his mother’s! She sees the problem. She appeals to her son. He tells her, “It’s not the right time, yet, mom.” She nods, ignores his answer, and tells those who are tending bar to bring three large stone jars of 20-30 gallons of water to Jesus and then do with it whatever he asks. They do and then bring some of this once water, now wine, to the wedding steward. He can’t believe his taste buds. Incredibly, the bridegroom must have done what no one ever does. He saved the best wine for last. Not only is there now no wine shortage, but everyone at the party is drinking the kingdom’s finest. Wine crisis averted! All rejoice. What a charming, even humorous, story, but the first miraculous “sign” of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Really?
My maternal grandmother lived in a small house just behind our house when I was growing up. Every Sunday, she would go to her tiny downtown Methodist Church where she learned that Jesus never had anything to do with wine or any form of alcohol and neither should we. While she may have been right to caution me about the power of alcohol, she had to do interpretive summersaults to explain this first sign by Jesus in John’s Gospel and then later when he passes the cup of wine during the last supper with his disciples.
My grandmother would insist that “Yes, Jesus did produce a large supply of wine out of water, but it was unfermented wine.” I told her that I could not find the word “unfermented” in the story. As a young adult, I thought myself way too smart as I mocked how my grandmother read this story. In my now later young adulthood, I realize that my grandmother and I both missed the “sign,” walked right past the “signpost” of God’s glory in this story.
John tells this story not because of any particular interest in wine, fermented or unfermented. He tells this story not so you and I will jump up and down and think, “Now, that’s a jaw-dropping miracle.” He tells this story as a GPS marker, a “sign” or “signpost” of the glory of God, as Alyosha says, “it's Cana of Galilee . . . It was not men's grief, but their joy Christ visited.”
The first “sign” of God’s glory in John’s Gospel is told not to frighten us or shock us into submission; it is told to awaken our joy. The late William Sloane Coffin, pastor of the Riverside Church in NYC, once wrote: “Jesus first visits people not in their sorrow, but in their joy . . . What does this say to gloomy Christians? Mind you, I’m not suggesting that all, or even most, of the sourpusses in the world are to be found in churches. But there are an awful lot who seem to forget that if only one tenth of what we Christians believe were true, we still ought to be ten times as excited as we are” (On Changing Water to Wine: Collected Sermons).
I wonder if our lives and our churches would not be running on empty, but full to overflowing if you and I woke tomorrow morning to discover that God delights in our gladness, is the architect of our joy, and is more than able to provide all that is needed even when we can only see what is lacking. I wonder if we might jump for joy like the surprised wedding steward in the story if we knew that Jesus has a life’s supply of forgiveness to extend even for those who are sure that for them forgiveness is in short supply, a life’s supply of love to extend even for those who doubt that love for them has any possibility at all.
The first “sign” or “signpost” of God’s glory in John’s Gospel is a tangible and tasty reminder that ours is a God of abundance and delight. The miraculous “sign” in this story is less about ordinary water turned into extraordinary wine but about how you and I are to live in joyful gratitude, day after day, for the abundant grace and love of God.
During his tenure as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, Howard Thurman sent the student Martin King, and his wife Coretta, a copy of his book on spirituals called Deep River. He inscribed the book: “To the Kings—The test of life is often found in the amount of pain we can absorb without spoiling our joy” (Papers 6.229). Like Jesus and Alyosha, Thurman would remind Dr. King as he prepared to enter a world of racist violence: “There is no living without joy.”
Thurman well knew that King was entering a world that laughed at joy and believed only in scarcity, a world that preached:
There is only enough room for us here, not you.
There is only enough power for us here, not you.
There is only enough love for us here, not you.
Scarcity was the main character at the Wedding Feast until Mary refused to take “no” for an answer and Jesus could not help ushering in joy abundant grace. In his Roman prison cell, the Apostle Paul could not stop talking about joy. In a Birmingham prison, Dr. King could not stop talking about joy. Amid the terrors of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu could not stop talking about joy.
Joy has nothing to do with pretending and putting on a happy face. Joy does not insist that injustice is not really unfair, that horrible acts of violence are not really that horrible, that gut-wrenching pain is not really so terrible. Joy is knowing that despite injustice, violence, pain, despair, disillusionment, our God does not run short on life-giving hope, life-transforming forgiveness, and life-making love.
Long before Dostoevsky, before Tutu, long before Paul, and even long before Jesus, the Psalmist said it best, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Joy is on the way not because Covid and all of our fights about Covid regulations are going away tomorrow, not because the cancer is about to disappear, not because the nation’s political parties are about to sing Kum-ba-ya, not because homophobia and abuse and neglect are about to be extinct. Joy is on the way because that is what God wants for us and in us and can’t wait for us to know and to share with absolute delight as far as the eye can see.
So, friends, join me on this winter’s day in a toast – to JOY!