Last week, I zipped down the street to attend a United Methodist district clergy meeting. Now normally I would look forward to such a gathering with the enthusiasm of licking a dust mop. No offense to any of my pastoral colleagues, many of whom I’ve developed wonderful friendships over the years, but I have noted numerous times in print that I loathe church meetings. I wish I could have the time that I have spent in such unproductive sessions back. I could take a nice, long overseas vacation with my wife. That is, if I had the money as well as the time.
But I was actually looking forward to this meeting. For one thing, it was held at a church that was only a couple of miles from my house. I knew the proceedings wouldn’t be long, because a laity meeting followed ours. Our bishop, Mike Lowry, was on hand to address the troops and I always enjoy listening to him. He gave us a “pep talk” and held a Q & A session.
During his talk, Bishop Lowry instructed the clergy to sermonize frequently on the dangers of our age:
Bishop Lowry urged us to deliver distinctly Christian messages solidly rooted in orthodox, trinitarian theology. After the meeting, as I returned home, I thought how refreshing it was that we have a bishop who delivers such strong and clear messages.
And then it hit me:
Why would a church leader have to tell a bunch of clergy to preach Christian sermons?
New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Let me ask you a provocative question: do Christians have a love-hate relationship with the miracle stories in the Gospels? Think about it. On one hand, we thrill to the tales of Jesus strolling over stormy waves, morphing a measly sack lunch into a banquet for the multitudes and the ultimate miracle—His Resurrection from the dead, complete with flashing angels, rolling stones and fainting guards. As a kid, I would pore over the full-color pictures of these stories in our family Bible, and they never failed to fill me with awe and wonder.
On the other hand, we find ourselves stammering and stuttering when skeptics scoff at these stories. “Whoever heard of anyone walking on water? Have you ever seen anybody coming out of the grave?” We may even harbor secret doubts ourselves. I would venture to say that we don’t see miracles like the disciples did. We weren’t there with Jesus and we certainly can’t verify them because there were no videocams back then.
And then there’s the miracle of changing water into wine. It happened at a wedding reception, a noisy affair that could stretch out for days. The party was held at the groom’s house, and he and his new bride were treated like royalty. They did no work for a week, received gifts and wore festive clothes. Food was everywhere, wine poured, music played as the wedding guests–dressed in special garments provided by the groom–danced the night away. There was a master of the feast—a party coordinator, if you will—whose sole job was to keep the food and wine stocked so everyone could keep having a good time.
And this is where Jesus was, according to John’s Gospel. A raucous wedding party with feasting and drinking and dancing. We might think, “What was our Lord doing there? Shouldn’t Jesus have been in Sunday school, teaching a Bible lesson in solemn tones with a halo hovering over his head?”
Such questions were apparently fired at Him during His own day. The Pharisees accused John the Baptist of being demon-possessed because he wasn’t sociable. He stayed out in the desert, dressed like a caveman and refused wine. Jesus, on the other hand, was a social butterfly. In His own words, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:34 NET Bible)
So here’s our Lord at a party, turning water into really good wine, and we are left defending (a) a bona fide miracle (b) Jesus making alcohol and (c) the meaning of it all. After all, this was not a miracle to eliminate human suffering or meet a deep need like hunger or thirst; this seems more like a parlor trick.
John called all of Jesus’ miracles “signs.” He reports that the water-into-wine miracle was the first sign; six more were to follow. The Bible word for “sign” comes from a verb meaning “to signify” or “make known.” A sign on a highway does this. When I’m coming back from a 3-day revival, and I see a sign that says “FORT WORTH 20 MILES,” I get excited. Not because of the sign, but because of what lies beyond the sign. I know that soon I’ll be home with my family, eating from my own plate, watching my own TV, sleeping in my own bed. A sign is a mark or token that points to a greater reality.
So what does the water-into-wine miracle point to? I’ve seen many interpretations: some commentators say that it points to Jesus’ generosity. He turns ordinary water into wine: not a jug of Mad Dog 20/20, but a Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’96, a very good year. Others see divine empathy in this story. Running out of wine at a Jewish wedding was a faux pas that would send tongues wagging for weeks. Jesus helped the bridegroom and his family save face by performing this miracle.
Others get metaphorical, pointing to the transformation of H2O into wine as a symbol of God’s ability to turn something bad into something good. This is the track I want to explore for the next few minutes.
There were six stone jars, each holding 20-30 gallons of water. This water was not drinking water, but water used for ceremonial washing. Guests would come into a house and dip their hands into the water. It was a religious ritual, like Catholics making the sign of the cross or United Methodists kissing the Book of Discipline. Jesus orders the servants to fill the jars to the brim. After that, He tells them to draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet. By the time they get to him, the water has turned into wine.
In order to grasp the spiritual meaning of this story, we have to understand the significance of wine in Bible culture. It was a valuable commodity back then. A man who owned lush vineyards was considered to be wealthy, blessed by God. Along with grain and oil and honey, wine was part of the agricultural tithe, brought into storehouses for the support of the priests and their attendants, the Levites. The book of Ecclesiastes, which some believe was penned by King Solomon, says, “Drink your wine with a happy heart” (Ecc. 9:7b). Now I am not making the point that you should take up drinking as a hobby. God’s Word does not endorse booze as the meaning of life and sternly rebukes overconsumption and drunkenness. Let’s remember signage: for the ancient Jew, wine was a symbol of joy, gladness, abundance, prosperity and blessing.
When Jesus turned the ceremonial water into quality wine, He was giving an object lesson. He was pointing out that there was something far better than rote religion. The Old Testament system of sacrifices and washings and tithes was good because God instituted it, but the Law could not save. It could only point to its impotence to save.
The water in the stone jars represented the Old Covenant. The wine represented the New Covenant. Recall that Jesus used a cup of wine at the Last Supper. “And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28 NET). Jesus willingly shed His blood to provide spiritual cleansing that no physical washing could ever match. The water was filled to the brim of those jars, but now it was wine, leaving no room for anything else. When God poured Himself into Jesus Christ, He was telling us that we do not have to add anything else to the salvation mix. Jesus is enough! Jesus is all-sufficient! Jesus replaced the water of traditions and formalities with something far superior—the wine of Himself.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said (John 10:10a NET). True words, because Jesus was Truth; He cannot speak a lie. The world and the flesh and the devil are on a tireless rampage to snatch your joy, rob your peace and take away your assurance. But here is the Good News: “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10b NET). The word that Jesus used for life does not mean biological life, but spiritual life—eternal life in God. The word He used for abundantly means to “exceed a fixed limit.” Christ yearns for us to have His life so it doesn’t just come to the brim of our jars, but spills over. We do not seek what the world seeks as it pursues earthly goodies that will eventually rust and break and perish. We long for Jesus.
So go to the jar this morning. Go in faith and witness a miracle. Believe that it happened—and, more importantly, believe why it happened. And then drink heartily of the spiritual life that Jesus has provided through the shedding of His blood and His victory over death—and be glad!