Scripture Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The key to the story of the miracle at the wedding of Cana is, I believe, in the very last sentence of the story. It reads:
Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee; there he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
But the Good News translation is not quite so helpful here. The word ‘miracle’ is better translated as ‘sign’, as another translation puts it:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
For a miracle is always a sign of something- a sign that something deeper is going on. In John’s Gospel, the miracles of Jesus play a slightly different role than in the other Gospels. They are a bit like direction signs- they point to something beyond themselves. The signs in John’s Gospel point to the glory of Jesus, and the power and love of God which he is bringing into the world, they are signs of the rule of God breaking into ordinary life. Not everyone will understand the signs. But for those who will see, these signs help us to see who Jesus really is.
A few years ago, we took a holiday in Italy, and hired a car to get around the countryside. But then we discovered something disconcerting about the roundabouts on the small roads of Tuscany. In Scotland, as you approach a roundabout, there is usually a sign showing a diagram of the roundabout, with the roads leading off it, and where they are going to. So you’re prepared a bit before you get on to the roundabout. Once you’re on the roundabout, there’s usually a second sign at the exit, just to confirm that that’s where you need to go.
But the roundabouts of Tuscany often didn’t have the big sign at the approach to the roundabout. You had to get onto the roundabout and look for the small signs at each exit. I was usually the navigator, and I often I was too late to read the exit signs, and as a result, and to the great hilarity of our children, we had to drive round most Tuscan roundabouts at least twice. They were roundabouts for insiders: you had to be on them, before you saw the signs. And sometimes you could be too late.
In a beautifully written story, John the Gospel writer tells us that the first of the signs of Jesus took place at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. But it’s an unexpected sign, and not everyone realises what it’s pointing to.
Jesus mentions weddings a number of times in the Gospels. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a wedding banquet, for in the Hebrew Bible, a wedding is often a symbol of the joy which would come with the reign of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus compares his disciples to guests at wedding feast; and in this story, he and his disciples are actually attending a wedding- a wonderfully appropriate, joyful setting for first of his ‘signs’.
Weddings are usually joyful occasions, and wine was always an accompaniment to joyful times. The Bible is not always Puritanical about wine: for example, Psalm 104, describing God bringing joy and abundance, speaks of ‘wine to gladden the human heart’. But no joy in this world is eternal: and in this story, the wine runs out, which is a genuine crisis at a wedding.
For there were no caterers, no hotel function suites back then. The wedding was hosted and organised by the bridegroom’s family. And this was a culture in which hospitality wasn’t a business, but a sacred duty. It was unthinkable for the wine to run out: it would bring disgrace on the family. I think this was a well-off family- they had a steward and servants to help with the banquet. So it would make them seem really mean if they hadn’t enough wine for everyone. A well-family in a small town in Galilee would want to make a good impression at their son’s wedding. They would be the best of food and wine, and plenty of it- for perhaps the whole village would come. They would not want to disgrace themselves in the eyes of their neighbours by offering them the equivalent of takeaway hamburgers from McDonalds. The wedding at Cana was a classy affair.
So there is panic when someone realises the wine has run out. And here there is a strange wee conversation which Jesus has with his mother. Mary tells him about the crisis, but he replies by saying something like ‘And why should I be concerned?’, as if, in the great scheme of God’s plans for him, this not a major issue. Perhaps this is a wee reminder to us that God does not bend to our purposes.
At Christmas, we quite often think about the faith of Mary, about how she accepts with joy God’s plan for her to become the mother our Saviour. John’s Gospel doesn’t include the Christmas stories, but he does give an honoured role to Jesus’ mother, who, at the end, will be one of the few waiting at the foot of his cross. For Christ’s hour really comes at his crucifixion, when his blood is poured out for the sins of many. After that, wine would take on a new meaning for his followers, for whenever they celebrate Communion, wine will represent his blood, shed for you and me. His death is the decisive hour for humanity- but that time is not yet come.
And yet his mother, at this wedding, perhaps perceives that the time is right for something special to happen with wine at this wedding at Cana. And so, in faith, Mary nevertheless tells the servants to do whatever her son tells them. It’s a good Jewish household, equipped with the water jars which played an essential role in the purification rites which were so important in the Jewish way of life. But these symbols of the Law of Moses are about to play a role in a sign which points us to the Gospel of Christ.
At Jesus’s command, the servants fill the jars to the brim with lots of water. He tells them draw some off, and take it to steward who is in charge of the feast. The servants, we are told, knew what had happened. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, they are in on it. Their boss, the steward, is surprise, and a bit perplexed: he asks the bridegroom why he kept the best wine for last. He’s seen the sign, but he hasn’t understood it. But the servants, and Mary, and, says John, the first disciples of Jesus- and we who read this story in faith- know that this sign points us to who Christ really is.
I do love the detail that it is good wine. Not cheap wine, but wine you can roll around your mouth, wine you can savour, wine which has been looked after especially. I once went to a wine tasting at a family vineyard on the Rhine. I’m by no means an expert, and it was hard for me to tell the difference between the different vintages. But I remember she gave one glass to try, followed by another. Both were the same grapes, and both were the same year. But there was a difference: one of them came from vines further up the valley, where they got more sunshine. And at that point, I got just a wee insight into the knowledge and skill of a winemaker, who will work hard to get the grapes and the soil and the manufacturing process just right to produce and excellent wine.
God doesn’t fob us off with cheap wine: God offers us the best wine. Probably most of the other wedding guests hadn’t realised that something very special had happened. They were too busy enjoying themselves- perhaps some of them were, indeed, too drunk to notice that the best wine had now come out of the cellar. The sign was there, but they did not recognise it. But Mary, and the servants, and the disciples of Jesus- they knew where the really good stuff had come from. For those who have eyes to see, the really good stuff is the wine which brings true joy, deep, lasting joy. That is the sign of the wine of the wedding at Cana.
A few years ago, when we did one of the first Ding Dong Merrily Old High services for the Christmas lights switch on, someone from the Council said to me afterwards that it had been a successful event, for people had left the church with smiles on their faces. I wondered if, perhaps, people leaving a church with a smile on their face was something that wasn’t supposed to happen in the Highlands. Although usually, there are lots of smiles as people leave church after a wedding! Of course, it is hard to smile all the time. But we should be, above all, a sign to the world of the promise of the joys of believing.
The church is to be a sign, in our own day, which points people to Jesus. Now some of us will be insiders, like Mary and the disciples. We will have had signs along the way during our own life which point to the riches and joys of believing in God and following Christ. This is a joy which is so deep, which even the best human wine, the jolliest human wedding, can’t match. This is the joy of knowing that in Jesus Christ, God has come into our world, into our lives. This is the intoxicating joy of knowing the presence of God as close to us as our own breath.
And so, if you ask me what the church is for, I would say the church- that is, all of us- is to be a sign in our world. There are lots of ways of putting that in the Bible: we should be a light in the darkness, we should offer the water of life, we should offer Jesus as the bread of life. And we should offer the best of wine: wine from the divine winemaker, wine that brings an eternal joy which nothing human can match.
The church is changing as never before- it’s easy to get caught up in doom and gloom as we worry about money and falling numbers and the difficulties of speaking to our secular world about holy things. We can find ourselves mourning for the church of years gone by, a different age when things perhaps seemed better. But maybe, like the stone jars at the wedding feast, representing an old religion, the church is about to be filled with new wine instead of old, ritualistic water.
I hear that our St Stephen’s church choir would like to host a party for the entire congregation. I think that’s lovely idea, for it would be, in its way a sign for us all. For, in a way, we should be partying every time we meet, even (and especially) when we meet for worship.
Our Epistle reading reminds us that each of us have different gifts which we can bring to the life of the church: yet ‘there are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served’. Christ himself said he came to be a servant among us. And the servants at the wedding at Cana knew what the sign of the new wine meant- that this man Jesus was someone very remarkable. We are all called to be servants- serving people the wonderful new wine which tastes better than anything anyone has had before.
At a joyous, raucous, country wedding- which almost went very badly wrong, Jesus did the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. I think that we, the people of the church today in Inverness in the Highlands, are called to be a sign which points to the glory of Christ when we live in joy, and serve the world with the best wine. And yes, like a Scot on an Italian roundabout, folk might be a bit confused at first, and might have go round a few times before they see what the sign is pointing to, so we will have to be patient with them!
But let the church be nothing more or less than a sign for our times. Let we, the church, the body of Christ today, be a sign that points to him, and the joy he can bring to our troubled world. And let us surprise our contemporaries by offering them the good wine when they don’t expect it, the best wine that they didn’t even know was in the cellar. And perhaps they will recognise the sign, and see who the winemaker is.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible or the New Revised Standard Version
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 John 2.11 NRSV
 Matthew 22.1f
 Eg Isaiah 62.5, another of today’s RCL readings
 Mark 3.18f
 Psalm 104.15