I wonder if anyone’s been involved in organising a wedding recently? The level of planning is often extraordinary. And of course whenever anyone mentions ‘wedding’ the cost of a particular item seems to double. I looked up the average cost of a UK wedding last year. It was £30,355. Now you can get married in church for less than 500 quid, but it’s the venue and the number of the guests that make the difference.
So anyone planning a wedding will be used to drawing up a budget, working out what can be spent, tailoring wishes to fit the finance, and dipping into the overdraft or credit card. It’s the way life works, you have a certain amount of resources and cut your cloth accordingly.
From the reading we’ve just had in John 2:1-11, it seems that the typical first century Jewish wedding might have been a bit different. It sounds like the wedding Chantal and I attended while we were in India.
We were staying with a retired bishop, and he had been invited to take part in a marriage ceremony. The couple obviously had lots of clergy friends, as there was a grandstand at the front of the church with all the vicars all standing on it. Each one had a part to play in the service – but as there were over 30 of them, they only had a line or two each. And there was only one service book, so they had to pass it from one to the other. So someone would say ‘Do you so and so take such and such to be your wife’ and then the book would travel down to the other end of the grandstand where the next chap would say ‘to have and to hold’ – and then there’d be a pause and some fumbling around while the book made its way up to the top – ‘from this day forth’ and so on.
Anyway, the bishop said to us: ‘Would you like to come too?’ And we replied ‘of course we can’t, we haven’t been invited’. And the bishop said, ‘oh we don’t worry about that, you’re my guests.’ No-one batted an eyelid. We were welcomed, sat down with the honoured guests, given a banana leaf covered with biryani. Near the door stood the poor people of the community, each receiving a parcel. It was so generous.
In John 2, the whole village seems to have turned up and they seem to be heroic drinkers too. Disaster! The wine runs out – not just an end to the party but a cause of shame to the family too. As the story unfolds we see how Jesus responds to their lack of resources. We realise that the resources we see in front of us are only part of the picture – God has his resources too, a way of transforming things.
Stories like this are sufficiently common in the Bible that we can say there’s a consistent theme. Think of the feeding of the 5000, or when Elisha feeds 100 with a few loaves of bread. God sustains an entire nation through 40 years in the desert by the gift of manna. And when the Old Testament prophet and his servant are surrounded by enemy soldiers, Elisha prays ‘open my servant’s eyes’ so he can see the fiery chariots of the armies of God.
God can transform the resources we have. His resources are all around us. So when in our lives we ask ‘How will I manage’ or when in the church we ask ‘How can we sustain the children’s groups’ – we need to bring that honestly, humbly before God, ask for discernment so that we can see what we already have, and allow him to transform the situation.
Verse 3 starts us off with the statement ‘They have no wine’. They is emptiness, a lack, a need… Or is it potential? In v.6 Jesus sees an opportunity: ‘Standing there were six stone water jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons’. Can we like Jesus see the opportunities in the challenge? If plans don’t work out the way we intended, is our reaction to mourn what is lost or to look for the silver lining?
I was watching a programme about recruits training to be paras, and this guy called Kojo had been called in to see the officer. ‘Kojo, why are you here?’ he said. ‘Because I failed sir’. ‘That’s the problem Kojo, you see it as failure and don’t learn from your mistake.’ Yes, it’s a bit of cliché, but they gave him a second chance. To start again with a different mindset. Not a closed attitude, but one of growth.
‘Fill them up with water’ Jesus says. He takes ordinary water, nothing fancy but what’s there to hand. The resource that they have in abundance becomes the raw material out of which God can make something special. He takes the things of everyday life and transforms them in the service of his Kingdom. God has given us gracious provision through his creation – gifts, talents, resources – are we able to discern the ways that God has already blessed us?
Do we have light we hide under a bushel, talents that are buried because we can’t see how to use them? Church communities often have an idea of what they would like to be, how they aspire to be like somewhere else, but in doing so can easily neglect their existing strengths, their particular God-given charism.
Perhaps the greatest asset that wedding couple had was their need. If they had fullness and self-sufficiency they might never have brought it to God. But they came in their emptiness and lack, so God provided.
An awareness of our own need is an immensely powerful thing, for it opens us up to the help of others and the grace of God. Have you ever been in a group where people are talking about some shared task which everyone is finding difficult but no-one quite has the guts to say so and it’s all a bit unreal? Then somebody has the courage to say what’s difficult – and the situation is transformed. That willingness to be vulnerable has built community and created a team.
In the same way we need to be honest with God in our personal prayers. Of course he knows what we need – but the act of asking opens us to his grace. In the life of a church we should be honest with God about our needs and bring them to him in shared prayer.
Doing that means we are able to listen to God’s will together, and ask ourselves ‘is this the right course of action?’ For not every need is one that it is right to fill, not every project is crying out to be blessed if only we have enough faith.
I heard of a church that had a grand plan to celebrate the millennium. What this church really needs is a spire, someone thought. A big pointy thing with bells in. The money wasn’t there, but they built one anyway. I don’t think God works like that – if something is his will he makes it plain and part of that clarity is providing the necessary resource, sometimes admittedly at the last minute. Believing in the provision of God does not excuse us from making difficult choices about what can be funded and what not – but we have to discern prayerfully when God is calling us to step out in faith.
When we are called to offer what we have, even bring our emptiness, God can transform it into what is needed. In v. 10 the steward has tasted the wine and comments that the best has been saved until last. God does not do things by half measures! When we intend to be a blessing to others, when we share the good things we have, God provides what is needed. It’s interesting that churches which give a free Harvest Supper often collect at least as much in donations as churches which charge – and everybody feels good about being generous.
So God’s transformation leads to joy, and most importantly it brings in the Kingdom of God. Those old stone water jars were used for ritual washing, an external cleansing from sin. But Jesus transforms their contents into the rich wine of the Kingdom, wine which speaks both of his sacrifice and of joy. Jesus is able to take the regular worship and change its heart so that people encounter him. As it says in v. 11. ‘This was the first of Jesus’ signs and his disciples put their faith in him.’
Finally, we do not know how Jesus did this. There is no explanation. No scientific account. The reading gives us no hints. But people obeyed Jesus, even when it seemed counter-intuitive. It’s a lot of work to fill up seven thirty gallon jars with water. It’s a big step of faith to take a ladle-full to the wine taster. But as they obeyed, Jesus was at work, making it happen. Striving for the Kingdom of God can be a lot of work. Speaking of our faith can be step into the unknown – how will people react. But it is as we bring what we already have, even as we bring our emptiness, to God, that Jesus transforms it into glory.