The miracle of turning water into wine is the first of Jesus’ “signs” in John’s gospel, literally the first miracle that Jesus performs. Why does he start with this one? What does it mean? And what do his strange words to his mother mean? This sermon will address these questions and show how Mary’s attitude, expressed in her words to the servants, is one that all of us disciples can emulate.
Sermon Text: John 2:1-12
[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.]
The Republican candidates for president debated last week in prime time. Well, seven of the eleven remaining candidates debated in prime time. The other four were forced by debate organizers to take part in what’s called the “undercard” debate, which takes place earlier in the evening—during “happy hour”; it’s the “happy hour” debate, as at least one person complained. Sen. Rand Paul, who was one of those four, boycotted the undercard debate. He said, “It isn’t about viewership. It’s about being designated as part of the people who aren’t going to win. There is only one debate tonight, let’s be honest about this.”
Sen. Paul understood that the undercard debate symbolized something: Here are the candidates who don’t stand a chance; they don’t deserve a place on the “big stage.” No wonder Paul didn’t want to be part of it! Rightly or wrongly, the undercard debate is a sign that says, “It’s time to think about dropping out of the race.”
It’s a sign… Interestingly enough, in the gospel of John, all of the miracles that John makes reference to are called “signs.” Jesus doesn’t perform these miracles as “brute displays of power,” as one commentator said, to impress people, to dazzle the masses; no, he performs them because they communicate something important about meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are signs. They point something deeper. Notice verse 11: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.”
But turning water into wine isn’t simply one of the signs; it was the first of the signs. The Greek word for “first” has a nuance to it that means more than simply “the first one to occur”; it also carries the meaning of “primary” or “first in importance.”
Think about it: the first miracle could have been healing the sick—as a sign pointing to the fact that Christ heals us from our sins. Or it could have been calming a storm, as a sign that Christ has the power to bring peace into the world and order out of chaos. Or it could have been giving eyesight to the blind, as a sign that Jesus restores our spiritual vision and help us to see God’s glory. Or it could have been raising someone from the dead, as a sign that Christ has conquered death and will give us resurrection in the future. Jesus performs all those miracles, of course; but not first. Instead, he makes wine.
Is the threat of “running out of wine” important enough to require a miracle to solve? Well, running out of wine was a crisis for groom’s family. The bridegroom was required to supply the wine for the reception. And this wasn’t a one night affair: Jewish weddings in the first century lasted for days. If the bridegroom misjudged how much wine he would need, he would bring disgrace upon his family. In fact, the bride’s family could even sue him. The point is, it was a big deal.
So Mary, whose family is likely close friends with the groom’s family, wants to save her friends from shame, embarrassment, and possibly a lawsuit when she goes to her son asking for him to solve the problem. Since this is Jesus’ first miracle, she probably has no idea what Jesus is capable of doing, but she believes he can solve the problem. So Mary goes to him and says, “They have no wine.” And Jesus speaks some very puzzling words in reply: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
Woman, what does this have to do with me? First, addressing her as woman wasn’t rude or disrespectful; it’s the equivalent today of saying, “Ma’am.” But calling his own mother “Woman” was brusque; it was a little shocking; it certainly wasn’t a term of endearment. Jesus was, mildly, rebuking her. But Jesus chose his words very deliberately. When he says, “what does this have to do with me?” he’s saying, in effect, “If you’re asking me to solve this problem as part of my ‘responsibility’ as your son, I can’t do it. Not anymore. Now that my public ministry has begun, I’ve got something much more important stake than doing your will; I have come to do the will of my; and my Father isn’t interested in me rescuing our friends from the embarrassment or shame of running out of wine at this party. That’s what you want; it’s not what my Father wants. And given a choice between obeying you and obeying God, I’ll obey God.”
In the ancient Jewish world, there was no closer, stronger, more intimate human relationship than the relationship between a mother and her son. So for Jesus to brush her off like this was shocking. But we’ll see Jesus do it again: In Luke chapter 11 a woman in the crowd cries out, ““Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But Jesus said, “Blessed instead are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” In Mark’s gospel, Mary and Jesus’ brothers fear that Jesus has lost his mind, and they’re waiting outside his house to see him. And people in the crowd tell him, “Your mother and brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
One point Jesus is making is that for a disciple of Jesus Christ, no one or nothing—not even the people and things that we value most in life, that we hold closest to our hearts—can come before God. When we’re forced to choose, no matter how painful, we must choose God.
Late last week, Iran announced that it was releasing an young Iranian-American pastor named Saeed Abedini, who converted to Christianity from Islam. While he and his wife and two kids lived in Idaho, he made frequent mission trips to Iran, even after being warned by the Iranian government not to take part in any of the house churches there. He went anyway. He was finally arrested, sentenced to eight years in prison, and tortured. He was given opportunities to renounce his faith and be set free. He refused. He had served three years before the events of last week.
Just think: our Lord asked Pastor Saeed to give up a lot for the sake of his call—his freedom, his health, his safety, his ability to see his family for three years. And even before he got arrested, he must have thought about the risk. “Will I ever see my family again if I make this trip?” He could have easily said, “I have to think of my family first. I don’t want to risk my kids growing up with out me—not having a father at home.” But he went to Iran anyway. Pastor Saeed embodied the truth that when it comes to following Jesus nothing—not even wife and children take priority ahead of your faithfulness to Christ. So incredibly hard!
If he was willing to do that for Jesus, what are we willing to do? Are there things in our own lives that we’re making a higher priority than our heavenly Father?
So I’ve talked about Jesus’ question, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” But what about the next sentence? “My hour has not yet come.” As pastor Tim Keller points out, if we understand what Jesus is talking about when he refers to his “hour,” then we also understand what a major non sequitur this is. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “What does this wedding-related problem have to do with me? It’s not my time to die.” Because throughout John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” means one thing: his death on the cross. What does the cross have to do with this wedding?
In his sermon on this text, Keller asks his congregation to imagine what you think about when you attend a wedding… If you’re married, you think about your own wedding. And if you’re single and you’re attend a wedding, what do you think about? You think about the wedding that you’ll have in the future. Weddings make us think about our own weddings. And Jesus was no different. This wedding made him think about his own wedding.
And you’re probably thinking: “Hold on a minute. Jesus is single, and he’s knows he doesn’t have a wedding day to look forward to in the future!” But he does have a wedding. The Bible—both the Old and New Testaments—describe a wedding in heaven between God and his people, between Christ and his Church. In fact one of the symbols the Bible uses repeatedly to describe our life in heaven with God is a wedding feast. See, for instance, Matthew 22 and Revelation 19. Every month during Communion I make reference to “feasting at Christ’s heavenly banquet table.” That’s a picture of a wedding feast. And it’s also describes, using poetic imagery, heaven as a great celebration where wine will flow freely. In Ephesians 5, Paul compares the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the Church.
Now, this is poetic language to describe heaven—it’s probably not meant to be taken literally. But… it’s easy to see why being at this earthly wedding would put Jesus in the mind of his future heavenly wedding—especially since Mary, in asking him to supply the wine, was asking him to play the role of the bridegroom. Christ will one day be that bridegroom. We will belong to him and love him forever. But something has to happen first…
I’ve performed dozens of weddings as a pastor, and I can safely say that in every one the bride is beautiful. Glowing, even! Even brides who may not look so great in “real life”—because of their hair, their makeup, their dress. All brides are beautiful when they get married. Now think about this heavenly wedding. Because we human beings are helpless sinners, we are not naturally beautiful to God. But if we’re getting married, we need to be. So what does God do? He makes us beautiful by sending his Son, who takes the ugliness of our sins away from us by dying for them on the cross; and in exchange Christ gives us the beauty of his righteousness. When we place our faith in Christ, we are now beautiful to God. Mary is asking him to be the bridegroom, but he knows it isn’t time yet.
So after first brushing off his mother’s request—when it seems like he won’t give her what she asks for—he ends up giving her what she asks for, although in a way she probably didn’t expect. Why does he do it? Because Mary changes; her faith in Jesus deepens. At first she asks him to do this thing as his mother, and he says, in effect, you don’t know what you’re asking. But when she turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you,” something has changed within her; she’s not saying this as his mother, but as a believer; as a disciple.
So from the perspective of the servants, Mary gives them and us the greatest advice in the history of the world: “Do whatever he tells you.” By all means, we need to do whatever Jesus tells us, and an entire sermon could be preached on that alone. But think about that statement from the perspective of Mary. What an amazing attitude she has!
First, notice how bold and persistent she is. It seems like the Lord says “no” to her, yet she doesn’t give up. It reminds me of a couple of parables that Jesus tells, including the one about a man who has unexpected company late one night, and he’s out of bread. Because hospitality is so important in the ancient middle east, this is a crisis. So he goes to a neighbor’s house—at midnight—and asks for some. At first the neighbor refuses, but the man doesn’t give up, until finally his neighbor gives in. Jesus says we should pray like that! In the same way, Mary doesn’t give up. When she tells the servants to do whatever he says, she believes that the Lord will do something to solve the problem.
Does this mean that if we’re only persistent we’ll always get what we ask for. No, of course not. For one thing, it could be that what we ask for, if we received it, would inadvertently harm someone else—or would interfere with some better plan that God has for us and for the world. Also, what we ask for isn’t always the best thing for us. But we can trust that God hears the prayer underneath the prayer. God answers the prayer underneath the prayer.
Let me give an example. Twenty years ago my dad died of cancer. In the year leading up to his death, I prayed—as earnestly and vigorously as I could at the time—that God would heal him. And of course I meant a real, physical healing. But during the course of that final year it became clear that there was a deeper malady that God was interested in healing than merely his physical health: My dad needed spiritual healing. He needed the medicine that only the Christ the Great Physician could offer. I’ll never forget the afternoon when Dad told me that he had been praying a lot, and he talked about his faith for the first time. And he said he wanted me to go buy him a Bible—one that was easier to read than the King James that he was accustomed to. So I did. And I saw this change overtake him in his final months. His heart melted. His spirit became light and free, even as his health deteriorated. I’ll never forget when his pastor visited him, in the days before his death. Dad was in and out of consciousness at that point. The pastor prayed with him and said, “Alton, you’re O.K.” And Dad stirred enough to nod and say, “I know.” And he was O.K. I knew it. For eternity he was O.K.
So God heard my original prayer—for Dad’s physical healing—and answered it with something better: Dad’s spiritual healing. His salvation. How he would spend eternity. It’s a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: From an eternal perspective, we spend only a small fraction of our lives in this world. There is nothing more important that we can do during this brief time than to get our lives in a right relationship with God while we still have time.
And that’s why I think this miracle is first and most important: Because it signifies the reason that the Word became flesh: in order to rescue us and give us eternal life with God, in heaven, in resurrection.
Here’s what I also love about Mary telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”: She’s trusting that Jesus will handle this problem. “Do whatever he says, because I know that whatever he says will work. I don’t know what he’s going to do, but I trust that it’ll be O.K. I’m going to leave this problem—which I can’t solve on my own—in the Lord’s capable hands. Therefore, I’m not going to worry about it. He’s got this under control.”
Brothers and sisters, don’t we all need that attitude?
So this Tuesday I’m going to have a skin cancer on my ear removed. It’s not life-threatening. And I realize that I’m talking to many of you who have faced genuinely life-threatening health crises; you’ve faced far scarier things than basal-cell carcinoma. But there was a period of time over Christmas when I was waiting for the biopsy—first time I’ve dealt with that scary word “biopsy.” I didn’t know what it was going to be. And I promise I didn’t worry much. I prayed that God would heal it, but I also said, “Lord, you’ve got a plan in all this. You’ve got this under control.” And I did experience peace. And it was because I trusted that whatever Jesus did with this little crisis, however he handled it, it would be for my good.”
My job, as he reminded me a couple of weeks ago, was simply to “do whatever he tells me,” and leave the rest to him.
May we all follow Mary’s advice and her example. Amen.
 Luke 11:27-28
 Mark 3:31-35
 Luke 11:5-13