It was at a wedding in Cana of Galilee that Jesus showed his first sign.
That’s a good thing to know, if you didn’t know it already. In Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus performs miracles. In John’s gospel, they are signs. They are miraculous events, but John calls them signs, not miracles.
Does that matter? Is there really a difference between a miracle and a sign? Not really. They’re both actions that Jesus does that seem to bend or twist the way we think reality is supposed to work. I guess that’s not a bad definition for a miracle.
It does matter a little bit, though. In John’s Gospel, the signs serve a purpose. Each of them is an action or an event, something that Jesus does. But each one also reveals something new about the hidden world of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is bringing into the world.
And here we are, the first sign, which happens at this wedding feast at Cana.
The wine had run out. Mary asked Jesus to do something about it. I wince when Jesus seems to snap at his mother that his time has not yet come, but Mary continues on, because she’s his mother and she’s not taking any lip from her son, even if he is the savior. St John tells us this: ‘His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”’ That’s what Mary does, always. Points us towards her son and urges us to be disciples, to do whatever he tells us to do.
And so the water was turned into wine.
Now, stop for a moment to think about how much wine Jesus made for this wedding feast. “Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.”
That’s somewhere between 600 and 900 bottles of wine.
That’s a lot of wine. That’s a lot of celebration.
When Jesus performed his first sign, he doesn’t mess around.
I said just a minute or two ago that in John’s gospel the signs that Jesus does always reveal deeper truths about the kingdom of God. This is about more than just wine.
When Jesus performs his first sign, the first sign of the kingdom, the first sign of the new covenant between God and humanity, it’s a sign of celebration in abundance. He isn’t stingy with what he offers. The steward isn’t let in on the secret, and he praises the groom for bringing out better wine, but for the disciples and the servants, for those who do whatever Jesus tells them, they see the bigger picture. God is joined to us in a covenant of abundance and a covenant of celebration.
Now, let’s be clear about what was miraculous in this event. It wasn’t that water got turned into wine. Friends, that happens all the time. I bet right now most of you have a bottle of wine or two at home. Or, since this is Wisconsin, maybe you have brandy. When Celeste and I lived in California, we were only an hour or so from two different wine-making regions. Everywhere, all the time, God is busy making water, and squished up grapes, into wine. It just doesn’t seem quite so impressive because it takes a while for the change to happen. And it doesn’t seem quite so impressive because we’re used to it.
But believe it, what happened at Cana is happening all the time: God is changing things, remaking the world and transforming it. Sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly, but everywhere you look God is at work. And everywhere you don’t look, God is at work there too.
But this was a sign that Jesus did there in Cana. It was a big sign. It was his first sign, the first of seven. It was a signal and a flag that told us about the work the Jesus had come here to do. For centuries, at least since Isaiah first shouted it to Israel in the ruins of their lives, humanity had been waiting for a sign that God was going to act.
And this was the first sign: abundance, and celebration, and frankly a crazy amount of really good wine. Just when it looked like the wedding party was ruined and done, suddenly there was better wine and lots of it.
And it was the first sign that God was going to act through this man, a man few suspected of being great. Even his own disciples thought he was pretty amazing but they didn’t understand how amazing it would be. And St John tells us right at the end of this passage why all of this matters: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
That’s why we hear this story now, at this time of the year. You’ll notice it again in the blessing at the end of the liturgy: The wedding at Cana is part of a trio of events that all go together. One was the wise men greeting the newborn Jesus. One was the baptism of our Lord in the Jordan river, which was talked about last week. And this is the third, with the wine at the wedding, when Jesus first revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. It’s a trio of epiphanies, just three of the many stories when we looked at Jesus and thought we had him figured out, and then we looked at him again and saw something different.
I’ll tell you, nobody went to that wedding expecting what happened. But afterwards, his disciples saw Jesus in a different way, and it changed their lives.
That’s how is is with God: when things seem to be in ruins, God is promising that it gets better.
That’s how it is with Jesus: we’ve come here all these Sundays, all these years, all this time, or maybe we’ve come here for the first time today, or for the first time in a while. We think we know him. We think we know what’s in those jars. But his mother winks and says to us “Do whatever he tells you. See what happens.”
And before you know it, it’s not water in those jars, but wine. Before you know it, it’s not wine in that cup on the altar, but his blood, the same blood shed for you and for me on the cross, and the same blood that fills us with life eternal.
That’s how it is with Jesus, when we see who he really is with the eyes of our hearts: the better wine is yet to come, and the party just keeps getting bigger and better.