John’s Gospel focuses on the signs which Jesus did and what they show us about him. He performed his first sign at a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. He had been invited there with his disciples and his mother Mary was there too. Weddings at that time could last for a week, making catering difficult. Something went wrong and the wine ran out. It was not just a minor inconvenience; it was possible to be taken to court for not providing a feast of the required standard. Mary turned to Jesus for help and as a result we see his first sign – water turned into wonderful wine.
The readings at the 10.30pm Saturday and noon Sunday services were Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11. The reflection is given below.
We live our lives surrounded by signs of various types. Around the Cathedral there are signs which direct people to various parts of the sim: ‘Conference Center’, ‘Dock’, ‘Meditation Chapel’ and so on. Some road signs are given in words in a similar way. They may point to the city you wish to reach and tell you how far away it is. At junctions you sometimes find a red sign with white writing which says ‘STOP’ which is pretty obvious in meaning. Increasingly we have programmable signs on our major roads which tell us of problems ahead such as fog or a queue or spray. They may also urge us to take a break if tired or not drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These signs are all very well if you speak the language of the country you are driving in. I know when we have been in Germany or France it has not always been plain what a sign in words means until we have seen it a few times and worked it out.
To avoid the language problem signs are often given as pictures. Some are fairly easy to interpret. A picture of a car with wiggly lines behind it is quite obviously showing the risk of skidding on the surface hence it is warning of a slippery road. A set of three circles one above the other – red, orange and green from top to bottom – is quickly recognised as traffic lights. But what about a picture of a piece of fencing with vertical posts and then a bar at the top and the bottom? Does that mean that there is new fencing along the road? It actually means that there is a level crossing for trains which has a gate or a barrier to prevent road users crossing when a train is coming. And then you have l l T or something like that, with the T shorter than the two l’s. It could be some kind of code but in fact it means that of three lanes on a road, one is closed. Interpretation is not always easy with pictorial signs.
In John’s Gospel he makes the focus on signs and what they show about Jesus. Signs point us to a deeper truth than just what appears on the surface, just as road signs mean more than coloured markings on a piece of metal. The wedding at Cana is the first of the signs that John points us to. As with all signs which are not given explicitly in words, there can be various interpretations and the one I am focusing on may not be the one you believe is being highlighted for us here.
If we look at the surface of this story first, we see a typical Jewish wedding in a small town. It was usual for the wedding celebration to go on for up to a week and all the village would be invited to attend. It was very bad manners not to accept the invitation. It’s likely that Mary knew the family involved or may even have been related to them, as she and Jesus and his disciples all seemed to have received an invitation. It would be natural in that case for her to be concerned about the problem when she realised the wine had run out. Catering for such a number over so many days was not simple. There were expectations placed on families about what kind of feast was of the proper standard and in fact a family could be taken to court for failing in its duty to provide well enough at the feast. Running out of wine could have been a major disaster for the family. No wonder Mary turned to Jesus for help, probably not knowing what he might do.
Large goblet shaped jars cut by a lathe from a single stone have been found in Jerusalem and elsewhere. It could be that they are the type referred to here. The law in the Old Testament required certain washings to be done and since that time the Pharisees had added many more rules and rituals. With a large number of guests over several days, a great deal of water would be needed for washing hands. These six jars had a practical purpose but they were also a sign or symbol in John’s eyes. They represent the law, with all its lists and details of what to do and what not to do. What Jesus did with these jars was to show a ‘sign of the times’, the new era of grace.
We have a low railway bridge near our home. So often, despite the height being clearly written on it, lorries which are too high have attempted to go under it and found the top of their container ripped off and cargo all over the road. This is on a main road and causes major disruption as the road is closed to traffic while the debris is moved and the bridge checked for structural damage. Now we have flashing signs some distance away which come on if the lorry is too tall, saying ‘Turn around’. Still some persist in not believing the words and go on to try to get under the bridge.
John speaks of ‘grace upon grace’ in Chapter 1 verse 16 but, in case we don’t believe his words, he lets us see this demonstrated. The water in the jars would not have been fit to drink but only for washing hands. This water was turned into the finest wine, the highest quality which was wonderful to drink and in abundant quantities. It was superior to any other wine at the feast. The jars contained the water of the Law, which was not able to refresh the people, but Jesus arranged for them to be filled to the brim with the wine of the Gospel of grace, wine that brings joy and gladdens the heart.
The purpose of this sign was that Jesus’ disciples might believe in him, that they might see his glory. For many at the feast there was no perception of how the wine had come to be in their goblets. Only the few knew and saw Jesus revealed as having command over creation. They had to use faith to discern his glory.
We too are disciples of Jesus and this sign is for us also. We have been shown that it is grace not the Law which characterises our faith now. We have been offered abundant life, full to the brim with grace. We should not go back to living a faith full of rules and regulations. Instead we should share that grace with everyone. It doesn’t need to be high profile. Jesus did this sign at a local wedding, nothing special, and few of the guests knew what had happened but it had a profound effect on the celebration and on those who observed what he did. We can do small things, barely noticed by most people, and in that way share the grace which has been given to us.
If you see a road sign it makes sense to take notice of it. It is there to guide you to travel safely. Surely we should pay even more attention to the signs of Jesus as we journey through life.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor