How God makes the ordinary precious: John 2


Read John 2.    New footage has surfaced showing the young newlywed couple on honeymoon in South Africa (pictured above) the day before the husband allegedly hired a taxi driver to kill his bride.  Security cameras show the Delwani’s kissing and chatting – and then it shows Mr. Delwani strolling outside to speak to their taxi driver while his bride checks into the hotel.  Did Mr. Delwani really hire the taxi driver to assassinate his wife, as the driver alleges, or was he merely inquiring whether the driver could give the couple a tour of the city?  The former is unthinkable.  It sends chills up the spine to picture the husband smiling at his wife and kissing her while plotting her murder.  Yet the next day, the Delwani’s taxi was hijacked and Mrs. Delwani was shot dead, while Mr. Delwani was released unharmed.  Mr. Delwani is innocent until proven guilty. He is on suicide watch in England, protected from extradition to South Africa until he’s found mentally stable enough to travel. But the case raises the issue of how people can hurt those they love.  While such evil is unthinkable, the unthinkable happens.  People kill, hurt and betray those they love all the time.  Why?  And what can we do about it?

Like the story of the honeymooning couple, John 2 starts with a wedding but ends with violence.  Jesus saves a wedding by turning water into wine, but days later he drives people out of the Temple with a whip of cords.  What’s going on?  Is Jesus giving into his humanity?  Is He acting like we do – loving and kind one minute, and rageful the next?  Or is He revealing the nuanced way in which God is humble and gentle and yet confronts evil with truth?  And if so, what is the lie that God is confronting with that whip?

John 2 opens with the account of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana.  The story raises a number of questions.  First, why were Jesus and his disciples invited?  I’m lucky if I get the “and date” added to the envelope.  It suggests that even though Jesus hadn’t started his public ministry yet, people already knew there was something special about Him.  His mother certainly knew.  When she heard there was a problem at the wedding, she went straight to her son and told him: “they have no more wine.”  Mary’s actions suggest she knew that if there was a need, Jesus could fill it.  Even though Scripture says this is Jesus’ first miracle, Mary’s confidence in her son implies that she knew He was fully capable of miracles.  And I love what she tells the servants: “do whatever he tells you.”  If only we could all have that kind of confidence.  If only we were capable of doing whatever Jesus tells us to do.  The world would indeed be a better place.  Mrs. Delwani, for instance, would be alive today.  But we’re not capable of it.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  And so the story continues.

Jesus’ response to his mother’s comment is seemingly contradictory.  Jesus tells her: “My time has not yet come.”  If His time had not yet come, why does Jesus then go ahead and perform His miracle anyway?  The story suggests that Mary brought on Jesus’ time earlier than it was supposed to be.  The story suggests that merely by ASKING, Mary caused Jesus to act.  Why?  Probably because for us to present a need to a loving God, is for that loving God to act on our behalf.  Our need meets His provision.

So when Mary says, “they have no more wine,” Jesus seems to reprimand her by asking why she is “involving” Him – again suggesting that to ask God is to involve Him.  And yet Jesus goes ahead and turns the water into wine anyway.  God always answers our prayers, but He doesn’t always give us what we ask for, as He does here.  An alcoholic might ask God for more wine, and be given jail instead – which could lead to rehab and a whole new life.  But in this instance, at this wedding, God chose to bless the couple with more wine.  I’ve always wondered why.  We don’t even meet the bride here.  Jesus doesn’t give the newlyweds a sermon.  He doesn’t send them on their way with a few words of wisdom – perhaps a sneak preview into 1 Corinthians 13 about how love “is patient and kind.”  Instead, Jesus gives them alcohol.  It’s a little strange.  The Bible says it’s okay to drink, as long as you don’t get drunk.  But the cross-over between those two states of mind is pretty quick.  Jesus turns the water into wine late in the event – meaning people have already been drinking a lot.  I’ve heard people say this miracle affirms that Jesus loves a party.  Yes, of course He does.  Jesus constantly describes heaven as a “feast.”   But why does He make more wine?  Yes, of course the wine is symbolic.  Jesus is giving them a forestaste of the “new wine” which is His blood.  As Jesus said at the Last Supper: “After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.”   Luke 22:20   The “new wine” is salvation by God’s gift of dying for us, instead of the “old wine” of trying to get to heaven by obeying the law perfectly.   It’s the “new wine” of love, instead of the “old wine” of the law.  It’s grace instead of perfection.  It’s God-righteousness instead of self-righteousness.

But if the miracle at Cana were purely symbolic, then Jesus could have done a different kind of miracle.  He could have made everyone appreciate water.  “Wow,” they might have said.  “Gee.  Water tastes BETTER than wine!  Who knew?  And who needs alcohol when we can have the Holy Spirit??”  This could have been a morality tale along the lines of Nathalie Babcott’s story, The Search for Delicious, in which no one in the kingdom can decide on the definition of delicious for the king’s dictionary until there’s a drought… followed by rain… followed by a universal declaration that water is the most delicious of all.  But the manager who tasted the new wine at Cana didn’t say that.  Instead, he praised the bridegroom for saving the best wine for last.  Again, yes, it’s symbolic.  God saved “the best wine” for last, by giving us Jesus after He gave us the law through Moses.  Here’s a quick summary of what I mean by that:  First, in the Hebrew Scriptures, God gave us the law.  And the law is spiritual.  It’s satisfying to hear that lying is wrong.  Our spirits respond when we hear murder is wrong.  Deep calls unto deep.  God’s laws are written on our hearts, and our hearts respond when we hear truth.  We like to know that adultery goes against a spiritual law – we don’t like to hear it when we’re actually commiting adultery, of course, because we don’t like to be reminded of our sin – but even then, there’s part of us that does like it, because it means there’s an order to our universe. There are spiritual axioms that are true.  It gives us more than ourselves to believe in.  It gives us something outside of ourselves to hope in (get the recording of Tim Keller’s April 1, 2012 sermon for more on this).  So the law is good, but it’s not best, because we humans can’t abide by the law.  We break it all the time – in spirit as well as in practice.  So the best wine is God’s sacrificial love.  The best wine is that God acted on our behalf.  He stood in the gap for us, by dying on the cross for our sins.

And here, in this miracle of turning water into wine, God acts again.  He does a physical miracle of changing water into wine.  Perhaps He was merely honoring His mother (although He refuses her request to stop preaching at a later date, showing God comes before mother).  Perhaps the event shows us that sometimes God gives us exactly what we ask for – so that we can start to learn to ask for something even better next time.  Or perhaps the miracle underscores the fact that Jesus was perhaps the only human with a completely healthy attitude to alcohol – if He was perfect, He always knew when to stop.  He would never have crossed over into drunkenness.  I don’t know why He turned water into wine, except that I know He did it out of love.  One way to take in the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love is to look at how quickly Jesus helps his mother, merely because she says: “there’s a problem.”

Moving on from the why of the miracle at the wedding, we look to the how.  The miracle occurred because the servants were willing to do what Christ asked them to do.  They filled enormous jars with water.  Each jar held 20 to 30 gallons of water.  The servants filled six of these stone waterpots with water.  It must have taken a lot of work.  And pouf – Jesus did the rest.  As Jesus’ mother put it, if we want miracles in our lives, we, too, need to “do whatever Jesus asks” – no matter how strange His request seems.  The sweetest wine came from the most ordinary substance.  That is one of the hallmarks of God’s miracles, for the very reason that His ways are not our ways.  He makes something precious out of something common.

Jesus follows this miracle, however, by an act of violence.  He makes a whip of cords and drives out the temple the animals and the people selling animals for sacrifice.  Stormie O’Martian claims the only time we should yell at someone is when they’re about to be run over by a bus.  If she’s right – and I think she is – what does this say about Jesus’ actions?

The story suggests that Jesus drove out the people selling sacrifices because, in effect, we were all about to be run over by a bus if we bought into what these people were doing.  So what were they doing?  What was so wrong with buying and selling animals for sacrifice?  Jesus accuses the people of making his father’s house a “den of thieves.”  But was it just that the sellers were charging exorbitant prices for the animals?  Was it that kind of thievery?  Or was it something far more profound?  Were the people selling animals for sacrifice robbing us of the only true way to be cleansed from guilt?  Were they, as Satan did in the desert when he tried to tempt Christ to avoid the cross, robbing us of the only way to salvation – to have God die for our sins?

Until we understand the violence at the heart of the gospel story – the violence that drives the whip Jesus wields – we will never be free of the violence in our own hearts.  Because in the story, Jesus doesn’t whip any humans.  He just wields the whip to drive out the biggest lie of all: the lie that we can buy or otherwise “behave” our way into being right with God.  Because Jesus allows the full weight of the whip to fall on his own body three years later.  Jesus was whipped for us: “by his stripes we are healed.”  He was whipped not just with a lash of cords, although he was whipped with that, but with all the furies of hell – so that we, who deserve hell, would never have to go there.

That’s why there’s love at the heart of this story of violence.  Jesus drove out those claiming to be able to give us a different stairway to heaven than grace.  Jesus acted just as we would yell at a small child about to touch a hot stove: GET AWAY FROM THERE!  That kind of anger is necessary to prevent serious burns.   And the lie of perfectionism  – that we can earn our way to heaven by being perfect – is a fatal lie.  Jesus died to free us of it.  He knows what’s in our hearts.  He knows our hearts are not to be “trusted,” as it says at the end of this chapter.  Only Jesus’ extravagant love could carry us to heaven, in the midst of our imperfections.

All we need is to want it.  We need to want to be precious.  We need to want to be more than our ordinary selves.  We need to long for God, and His righteousness, and His way – even in the midst of realizing we’re not able to do it on our own.

If we let Jesus in, and admit we need help, and ask for it, He will turn our thin watery lives into ones of richness and fullness.  Instead of looking at our lives as cups half empty, He can fill our cups to overflowing.  The new wine God gives us is full of body and flavor.  It’s a life full of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a life where we offer mercy to others, just as God offers mercy to us.  It’s a life of restored relationships, where we, like Jesus, can love others even though we are not supposed to put our full trust in them.  We won’t have a perfect life – it never will be, not on this earth.  But we can have a life of communion and joy in our restored relationships with a perfect God.  We can trust that God will take care of the rest.  We will never fully understand the ways in which God works, but we can trust that He can take something as ordinary as water, and make it as perfect as the richest of wines.  He can take something as common as we all feel at times, and make us the most precious of all.  He is longing to – because He loves us more extravagantly than we can even comprehend.

posted by Caroline Coleman in on April 2, 2012

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