All four gospel writers begin the story of Jesus differently. Mark jumps right into his baptism. Luke tells us the stories of Mary and Elizabeth. Matthew focuses on Joseph and traces Jesus’ family tree back to Abraham. Finally, John gives us a magnificent prologue that tickles our imagination with it’s poetic imagery:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
John ends his beautiful narrative with a powerful statement that sets up his entire gospel: “And the Word became and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And “from his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”
Then, after telling the stories of Jesus’ baptism and the calling of the disciples, John begins chapter two with the first of seven “signs” that show us what “grace upon grace” from chapter one looks like. John calls them “signs” instead of “miracles” because a miracle is a supernatural occurrence that bends the laws of biology, chemistry or physics. But a “sign” is something more. It points beyond itself. It says something important about Jesus that John’s readers need to know. Signs bear witness to what “grace upon grace” looks like.
The first of these signs is our gospel lesson: Jesus changing water into wine. It’s a doozy because it tell us not only what “grace upon grace” looks like. It tells us what “grace upon grace” smells like, tastes like, feels like, and sounds like. It is also a sign that is performed for an entire village. This means it’s a sign for everyone, Jew and Gentile, young and old, men and women, slave and free. This makes it even more powerful. So, let’s jump into the story and see what “grace upon grace” looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, and sounds like.
The story begins with four very important words: “On the third day.” Make no mistake about it, this phrase is loaded with meaning. Jesus would rise from death “on the third day.” New life would burst forth from the tomb “on the third day.” A greeting of peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples “on the third day.” “On the third day” is resurrection language. It symbolizes new and abundant life, given to us by Jesus. It’s the language of “grace upon grace.”
But we’re not there yet! The story does not begin with abundance. Instead it’s day three of a wedding feast, which in ancient Palestine lasted approximately one week. They were not even half way through this community celebration and the wine had run dry. This would have brought the party to a screeching halt. It would have been a source of deep shame for those who arranged the feast.
Not surprisingly, wine is more than an alcoholic beverage in this story. It is also a symbol of joy and celebration. In other places in the Bible, a lack of wine is used figuratively to describe hard times in Israel. “There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;” the prophet Isaiah proclaims. “All joy has reached its eventide; the gladness of the earth is banished.” [Is 24:11]
Furthermore, Old Testament prophets used it as a metaphor for the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Isaiah said “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods, a feast of well-aged wines.” [Is 25:6] Amos said that “the mountains will drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with it.” [Am 9:13] Joel said “In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk.” [Joel 3:18]
And so we see that our gospel lesson has a deeper meaning. It is a metaphor for our lives and what happens when joy is depleted, when “grace upon grace” is nowhere in sight. I don’t need to fill in all the gory details. we know them by heart. We know what it’s like to have the joy sucked out of us. We know what it’s like when times of feasting and celebration have come to a screeching halt. We know what it’s like to feel like the tiniest drop of grace is nowhere to be found, let alone “grace upon grace.” This is the situation John’s story places us in, both literally and metaphorically. It’s not a pretty sight.
Thankfully, the story continues! At first, Jesus is hesitant to do something. He tells his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? my hour has not yet come.” I don’t believe Jesus is sassing his Mama here. Don’t put harshness in his tone where it was not intended to be. Instead, Jesus is telling her he’s not sure if the time is right to reveal who he is. But for whatever reason, Mary is certain that this IS the time. And so she says the servants “Do whatever he tells you.”
Apparently, Jesus changes his mind. He looks over the gathered crowd and sees six stone water jars. These jars would be used for the ritual hand washing that would occur each night as the guests arrived for the feast. He instructs the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.
At this point in the story, all eyes were on Jesus. After all, he had just breached the social protocols of his day. He was an invited guest but now he assumed the role of the one in charge of the feast. It was a bit out of order to say the least. “Now draw some out,” Jesus told the servants, “And take it to the chief steward.”
The chief steward was probably thinking to himself, “Could this day get any worse? I miscalculated the amount of wine needed for the feast. I brought shame to the wedding party. And now one of the guests is handing me a goblet of water. give me a break!”
Reluctantly the steward took the goblet. The first thing he noticed was the color of its contents. It wasn’t clear, but a deep, beautiful red. Then he sniffed it’s bouquet and it filled his nostrils with delight. He took a sip, swirled it around in his mouth, and an explosion of flavors hit his discerning palate. After swallowing it, the chief steward knew he had tasted “grace upon grace.”
“Jesus, I don’t know how you did this, but thank you for this extraordinary gift. Everyone usually serves the good wine first. They save the cheap stuff for later when the guests are drunk and can’t tell the difference. But you, you have saved the best for last. I don’t really know what to say, but I know that God has graced this wedding feast today. Let the celebration continue!”
John is trying to tell us that this abundance of wine is what “grace upon grace” looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, and sounds like. It is God making an appearance in our lives when we thought all hope was lost. It is the scent of joy being restored. It is the best wine we’ve ever tasted at a time when we least expected it. This “grace upon grace” warms our hearts with gladness. It fills our cups to the brim and overflows into the lives of those around us.
If we can’t quite fathom the amount of grace that flows thought this story, consider the math, brought to you by Karoline Lewis, Assistant Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary: “Let’s round up and assume 180 gallons for the miracle at Cana. A standard bottle of wine is 750 milliliters, so we’re talking close to 1,000 bottles of wine. And how many grapes per bottle of wine? Since it takes 2.6 pounds of grapes yields one bottle of wine. We are talking about a ton of grapes, over a ton!
“What difference do these facts make?” She asks. “It starts breaking down for us, in ways we might better grasp, just how much grace is implied here.”
Friends in Christ, John tells us that we have all received “grace upon grace” from the Word who became flesh and lived among us, Jesus Christ, the true steward of the feast. Therefore, if we feel like our joy has run dry; if we feel like the times of feasting and celebration have come to a screeching halt; if we feel like all hope is lost, may we remember John’s story of “grace upon grace” when we least expect it. May Jesus, the steward of this feast, fill our lives with hope as we spread the good news of what God has done, and is doing, in our lives and in our world. AMEN
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck