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Sermon | Wine and a whip
Text: John 2:1-12: 13-22
Speaker: Joel Miller
In the second chapter of his gospel, John puts two stories back to back that seemingly don’t have much to do with each other.
The first is when Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The second is when Jesus clears, or cleanses, the temple in Jerusalem.
None of the other gospels record the water into wine story. All three of the other gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke include the clearing of the temple. But they each put it toward the end rather than beginning of the story, right after Jesus enters Jerusalem in his triumphal entry during the final week of his life. In their telling, this dramatic public act of temple disruption serves to convince the powers that be that Jesus has finally gone too far and must be dealt with forcefully.
So John includes a unique story, then puts a pivotal commonly told story at the front, rather than back end, of Jesus’ ministry.
Looking at these two stories together would make for a good elementary school compare-and-contrast assignment. So let’s all get in touch with our fifth grade selves for a bit and give it a whirl.
One takes place in the small Galilean village of Cana. The other is in the holy city of Jerusalem.
One is a wedding celebration. One is an annual pilgrimage festival.
One is about the creation of something new – wine from water. The other is about the potential destruction of a long standing institution.
In one, Jesus becomes the life of the party, or at least enables the party to stay alive and well. In the other, Jesus rains on the parade of temple leaders, or at least puts them on notice that the establishment they oversee is doomed to fail.
In short, one features wine, another features a whip.
The fact that Jesus enacts both of these very different stories, the fact that John puts them side by side, says something about who Jesus was, and who we might be as those looking to follow the Jesus way.
Many contemporary wedding liturgies led by Christian pastors include mention of the wedding at Cana. A common phrasing goes something like this: “Eternal God, our maker and redeemer, as you gladdened the wedding at Cana by the presence of your Son, so by your Spirit bring joy to this day.”
The brief cameo of this story in church weddings has the effect of reminding listeners that – Hey, in case you forgot or hadn’t heard – Jesus was into weddings. Never had one himself as far as we know, but he didn’t turn down the invitation when he got one. And not only that, but in the only story we have of him attending one, he gladdened the wedding. He gladdened it by his presence, just showing up, and he gladdened it by making sure the wine didn’t run out. I guess he could have saddened the wedding by turning the wine into water. But no, just the opposite.
Like in many traditional cultures, weddings in Jesus’s time were multiple day affairs. Maybe a whole week. It would have been one of if not the biggest lifetime financial expenses for the host family. Guests would have perhaps brought some food and drink to contribute, but assuring there was plenty for everyone throughout the extended celebration was on the hosts – a matter of honor. This was a big deal.
We learn that Jesus and his disciples received invitations. And Jesus’ mother, Mary. We don’t know who the wedding was for. We don’t know who sent those invitations and how they knew Mary and her boy, all grown up now.
We do know that Jesus hadn’t formally begun his public ministry. This wedding serves as a coming out event of sorts for him.
It’s Mary who learns that the wine has run out and goes and tells Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t want to get involved. As the NRSV translates it: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” In other words: “Come on, Mom. Not a good time.”
But Jesus has been blessed with a very persuasive Jewish mother who won’t take no for an answer. When she says it’s time, it’s go time.
If you’ve ever hosted a large event, trying to calculate how much food to make or order, you know the balancing act of wanting to make sure you have enough for everyone, plus a little extra, without overspending and having way too much left over. Jesus changes the calculus and creates abundance. About 150 gallons of wine if you do the math with the six jars that hold 20-30 gallons each. Now there’s plenty for people who didn’t even get invitations. They’re going to have to start handing this stuff out on the street corners.
Wine made for good parties, but it’s worth noting that the alcohol content would have been lower than our wines now. In the ancient world carefully processed wine was a healthier drink than unprocessed groundwater. So along with this being his first act as a minister of the gospel, Jesus is also serving as a minister of public health. If the wine tastes especially good, which it did, all the better.
John concludes the story by saying it was the first of Jesus’ signs. And that’s how it all began. At a wedding in the little village of Cana in Galilee.
From Cana, after a few days in Capernaum, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. It’s another celebration. The Passover festival. That longstanding annual invitation to remember the Hebrews’ deliverance from bondage out of Egypt.
And perhaps the taste of that wine is still on Jesus’ lips as he makes that pilgrimage. The wedding songs still in his ears. The sweet images of everyone having enough and more than enough. An economy of abundance. Perhaps it awoke something in Jesus that what happened in Cana didn’t need to stay in Cana. Maybe his mother was right. Maybe it was time. It was time for everyone to wake up to this vision of the Creator’s gifts for all people. Time to call out those who were keeping all the wine to themselves. Time to act like we’re all actually delivered from bondage. Time to throw a spoke in the wheel of the machinery that had taken on a life of its own, the temple system, that no longer served the people or reflected the glory of their God.
It was a multi-day journey to Jerusalem and not an easy one. It was long recognized that fulfilling the required temple offerings of animals didn’t make for practical packing and travel. Pilgrims could bring money to buy what they needed in Jerusalem, and an economy had grown up around the city with the raising and selling of these animals around Jerusalem, and the exchanging of foreign coinage of Jews coming in from distant lands.
None of this is problematic per se. I’m pretty sure I’d rather put some coins in my travel bag than a sheep. But the market has a way of exceeding mere practicality and provision to one’s fellow human beings. It has a way of becoming the thing rather than remaining in service to the thing. And wealth and power, once slightly off kilter, have a way of trickling up, concentrating in smaller and smaller circles of people. Relationships start to look more like Pharaoh’s Egypt than God’s promised land. More like a gated community where those on the inside have plenty and those outside fight for scraps. Less like a wedding where there is wine in abundance for everyone, and then some.
We aren’t told how much forethought went into it, what was going through Jesusj’ head on the route from Galilee to Jerusalem, but as John tells it, when he finally gets to the temple, he gets right to it. No hesitation this time. No motherly nudge necessary.
Jesus makes a whip of chords and drives out the animals. He pours the coins of the moneychangers on the floor and overturns the tables. He shouts: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” It must have been quite a scene.
On this MLK Jr. weekend we can contemplate all kinds of similarities between Jesus’ actions here and the kinds of demonstrations Dr. King helped lead.
Now again, this buying and selling and exchanging was, in its best form, a tremendous service to others. But when market values have pulled off a coup in the house of God, it’s time for a holy disruption. This. Must. End.
What a trip, to have these two stories right by each other. Celebration and disruption. Joy and rejection.
Can you feel both of these stories alive within you? Both of these longings?
The story of Cana: The longing for more celebration. More enjoyment. More of the good stuff available for all who gather. Spread the table wider. Send out the invitation further. Gather and welcome more into the family. Let no one go hungry or thirsty. Revel in the miracle of abundance.
The story of the temple: Can someone please make all this stop! Stop reducing every interaction into a business transaction. Stop turning the temple of God, the earth itself, into a marketplace. Stop with everything being up for sale – the minerals, the trees, the animals, the land, the water, even human beings. Stop pricing out the poor. Stop polluting. Stop!
We talk about keeping a work/life balance. How about a wine/whip balance? Do you need some healthy abundance? Do you need to just be present and celebrate the moment, celebrate love, participate in the warmth of humanity? There’s plenty of wine for all that.
Do you need to dust off your whip and break down some harmful structures that are keeping you and too many people down? Overturn some tables, maybe use your outside voice on the inside?
How is your wine/whip balance?
Or maybe it’s not a matter of balance at all. Maybe it’s just one big story, one big celebration, with Jesus as the host, and everyone is invited. Even those animals that got driven out of the temple. Sorry about that animals this isn’t your fault. You’re set free to roam and graze and be your animal self. And the Christ would have us be set free from all that binds us. To raise a glass, pass the wine. Let those non-market values of mercy and abundance spread from our little village into God’s great green temple of the world.