The First Sign – Sermon for Epiphany 2C on John 2:1-11

January 16, 2022

We are in the season after the Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to the world as God’s Son. The themes that weave through this season include revelation, glory, baptism, and Christ as the Light of the World. There is a sense of celebration in this season, a sense of joy being released into the world as we recognize who Jesus is.

I don’t know about you, but these days I could use some joy. We wear ourselves out struggling with issues of greed and poverty, power and powerlessness, fear and anger, and an overwhelming sense of futility and weariness. People 2000 years ago had to deal with these same things. And yet, in the midst of it all, there was room for celebration. There was room for joy. And Jesus was right in the middle of it.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:1-11

“On the third day …” That has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Sounds a little like, “on the third day” after the Crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead. Well, in this case it’s “on the third day” after John the Baptist has pointed out Jesus to a couple of his own disciples, and they have left following John the Baptist to start following Jesus.

What are we to make of this story? Why would Jesus choose making a large quantity of wine at a wedding as his first miracle, or – as John always puts it – “sign”? There are only seven signs described in this gospel, and they all happen in the first 11 chapters. Three of the signs are healings. The others include feeding 5000, walking on water to reach his frightened disciples, and raising Lazarus from the dead. And while we might want to focus on the miracles themselves, their purpose is really to serve as signs, and signs always point to something beyond themselves, some other destination or awareness. In the gospel according to John, those signs consistently point to Jesus, so we will believe he is the Son of God. (John 20:31)

If the whole purpose of these signs is to get us to believe in Jesus, why would he choose such a superfluous, extravagant thing as replenishing the wine supply at a party to make that point? Of all the possible miracles he could have performed to kick off his ministry, why does he choose this one?

Here’s another problem this passage puts before us: if this is the way Jesus is to reveal himself to the world, why does he seem to balk when his mother tells him the wine is gone? Why does he act like it isn’t his problem the host has run out of wine? This isn’t the way we would expect Jesus to behave. We like to think of Jesus as being obedient to his parents, submissive and sweet, eager to help. What’s really going on here?

Before we tackle that question, let’s pause for a moment to consider why it should even matter to us. Remember that this miracle is the first sign Messiah has come into the world. And it’s a sign that most of the people at the party don’t even recognize, because it isn’t what they’ve been expecting. Only the disciples and the servants who filled the jars with water know what has happened.

How often do we miss the signs around us that point to Jesus, simply because we are expecting something else? We have it in our heads how Jesus should show up in our lives, and we fail to see when he actually does show up. We don’t see the signs that point to Jesus, or the fact that we are supposed to be those signs for others. So let me ask you: How have you been noticing God at work in your life lately? And who needs to see you as a sign pointing to Christ? Who needs to experience joy?

We don’t like to think of Jesus as a party animal. We want him to be reverent and holy and … boring. No wonder our churches are empty! Yet here is Jesus with his disciples, enjoying a wedding feast.

Cana was just a few miles north of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It’s quite possible that he and his mother were invited to this wedding because they are related to the couple in some way. This is a family affair. And a wedding celebration like this would last an entire week. We don’t know how long the party has been going on, but we know the groom was unprepared for the quantity of wine needed. And we also know the groom is blissfully unaware of the social catastrophe about to happen. But the mother of Jesus is on top of it. And she knows what to do.

Now here’s an interesting thing about this gospel. John never names the mother of Jesus. And she only appears twice in this story – here at the beginning, when Jesus tells her “my hour has not yet come,” and at the end of the story, when Christ’s hour does come in his death on the cross.

I have to confess I thought that, when Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come,” he meant his hour for being revealed as Messiah. It’s the season of Epiphany, after all, when we hear this story. But if we take a look at the dozen or so references in the gospel of John to “the hour” coming, we see that it usually means completion, or fulfillment. It is more likely that Jesus is referring to his death and resurrection than to the beginning of his ministry. So it’s a bit curious that Jesus says to his mother, basically, “Sorry ma’am, what business is it of ours if they are out of wine? This isn’t my day to die.”

And what is his mother’s response? She doesn’t address him directly. She tells the servants standing there, “Do whatever he tells you.” And she leaves it at that. We won’t hear from her again until Jesus says from the cross, “Woman, here’s your son” and to John – this John – “here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27)

So the last thing the mother of Jesus says in this gospel is “Do whatever he tells you” (v. 5). And with these words, she brings us back to the beginning of chapter one: “In the beginning was the Word… all things were made through him …” John makes no secret of connecting the beginning of Christ’s story to the beginning of the Creation story. In the beginning, God spoke everything into creation – now Jesus’ mother invites him into that creative process of speaking things into being. And he accepts the invitation.

He tells the servants to fill up the water jars, and they fill them to the brim. Draw some out and take it to the steward, he says. They do. The steward – or head butler – tastes the wine that was water moments before, and is amazed at its quality. He calls the bridegroom over and says, “people usually serve the good stuff first, and after their taste buds are numb, bring out the cheap stuff, but you’ve saved the good stuff for last!” Do you hear a little of “the first shall be last and the last, first” in here? But there’s something else you need to notice. It’s the jars holding the wine.

These were big stone jars. Each one could hold 20 to 30 gallons of water. This water was drawn from some source – a spring or well – and then poured into these jars. It was special water, used only for ritual purification. This means hand washing, and all the guests at this feast would have needed to wash their hands before sitting down to the meal. But they didn’t wash their hands in the jars. Water would be drawn from the jar and poured over their hands into a basin. The water in the jar always stayed clean and untouched.

In a couple of chapters, John will tell another story of water being drawn from a well, and Jesus describing himself as living water to a Samaritan woman. Last week, we remembered how Jesus was baptized into his mission, just as we are baptized into ours as followers of Jesus. Water is an important symbol for life throughout scripture. And here, in the second chapter of the gospel according to John, that life-giving water, which has been used only for ceremonial cleansing up to this point, becomes the best wine anyone has ever tasted. When the steward calls the bridegroom over, he doesn’t call attention to the lack of wine, but to its quality.

Do you see the connection between this sign and Christ’s fulfillment of his purpose? “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this wine, you remember me.”

Suddenly, the confusing comment about “my hour has not yet come” makes sense. Changing the water used for ritual purification into wine makes sense as the very first sign pointing us to Christ and his purpose. The rules and rituals of Jewish law are not destroyed – they are made new. They become the abundant, delicious, fragrant wine of Christ’s love for us.

This is the good news. John writes, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (v.11) Back in chapter one, John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. And we have seen his glory, like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) At the end of the gospel, John will tell us, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30-31)

This first sign is given to us so we will believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and believing, we might have life in his name: abundant, rich, everlasting life.

3 thoughts on “The First Sign – Sermon for Epiphany 2C on John 2:1-11

  1. Juliana Boerio-Goates

    I came across your light-hearted offer on Twitter to share your homily with someone still writing theirs on Saturday evening. I’m so glad I clicked on the link to read it. Some fresh perspectives for me – I especially found the connection to John’s Prologue enlightening. Would that women were allowed to preach in my faith tradition.



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