Scandalous Grace: Jesus' Meals with Sinners: Scandalous Grace Part 1

Sermon by David Strain on January 9, 2014

John 2:1-10

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If you would, take your copies of God’s Word or turn in your bulletin to the back of the bulletin where you’ll find our passage for this evening – John’s gospel chapter 2 and the first eleven verses; John 2:1-11.  

At the Table with Jesus

Who you eat with says a very great deal about you.  Who is welcome at your table speaks volumes about your view of yourself.  Your place in our society speaks volumes about what you think about other people. That’s true now; it was particularly true in the days in which Jesus conducted His earthly ministry.  Table fellowship was one of if not the most important social convention of the ancient Near East.  It is fascinating, therefore, to realize that a very great deal of the major blocks of teaching coming from the lips of Jesus was delivered over a meal of one fashion or another.  Sometimes a hastily improvised meal like the Feeding of the Five Thousand, sometimes a carefully prepared meal like the Last Supper, but almost every time He’d sit down to eat He also opened His mouth to teach.  And as He did so controversy almost always followed; scandal, in fact.  Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.  The unclean and the outcast and the socially excluded were welcomed at His table and He was welcomed at theirs to the chagrin and anger of the religious and respectable elite of the day.  

And so over the next ten weeks or so we’ll go to dinner with Jesus on our Wednesday evenings together, starting tonight with the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee in which Jesus’ public ministry began.  We’ll see as we study this passage in John’s gospel chapter 2 that Jesus is pointing already at the very dawn of His ministry to the full significance of His own person and work.  We’ll go with Him to this wedding feast at the beginning of this earthly work and we’ll conclude our series in ten weeks or so from here with another wedding celebration with Jesus; it will be the Wedding Supper of the Lamb when Jesus returns to complete and bring His work to perfect consummation.  And so our pastoral staff will be leading us over those weeks each taking a different meal, different times and different places in the gospels, different types of meals, but all of them show us and expose to us something of the person and work in ministry of our Savior.  

There are, if you like, many dishes that will be served.  Some of them will be sweet – they will provide deep, lasting comfort as we go to dinner with Jesus Wednesday evening after Wednesday evening.  Some of them, however, will leave us discomforted and shaken.  We will be led to fresh self-examination and, I trust, even to fresh repentance.  But God helping us, more than anything else, we will be led to see Christ in all His sufficiency and glory and grace as the supreme object of our devotion and our delight, the One with whom we long to enjoy unbroken, intimate fellowship here and hereafter and forever.  So all of that is, if you like, a preface to the next ten weeks or so.

Let me now direct your attention to our passage this evening – John’s gospel chapter 2 verses 1 through 11.  This is the Word of Almighty God:

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.  When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’  And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.’  His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’  And they filled them up to the brim.  And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’  So they took it.  When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk feely, then the poor wine.  But you have kept the good wine until now.’  This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.  And his disciples believed in him.”

Amen, and we praise God that He’s spoken to us from His holy Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

An Ancient Custom and Elaborate Affair 

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England put it well when it declared that Jesus, “beautifies and adorns the state of matrimony by His presence and first miracle that He wrought at Cana of Galilee.”  We shouldn’t overlook the fact that here is Jesus really doing two things that we often do not think of Him engaging in really at all.  First He set His seal of approval and affirmation on marriage as a sacred institution uniting one man and one woman forever by blessing this particular marriage.  This celebration at Cana in Galilee – Jesus loves weddings and He loves marriages.  And secondly, don’t miss the simple fact – Jesus came to the party.  Jesus came to the party; He celebrated.  As you might know in those days the celebration of a wedding was an elaborate affair, even more so perhaps than in our own day, the party typically lasting seven days, over a week, or even more at times.  Weddings, then as now really, were major operations meticulously planned.  As the details of our text make plain, Mary, Jesus’ mother, seems to exercise at this wedding a significant role.  She seems to have some part in facilitating this event.  She’s able, for example, to order the servants around and give them direction in verse 5 which suggests even more that this wedding may have been, actually, a member of the extended family that Mary would have some proprietary involvement in the celebration.  

And notice that in verse 2 we are told Jesus was invited to the wedding with His disciples.  Now that rather gives the impression that the invitation went to both Jesus and the Twelve.  But the Greek of the text suggests a different arrangement actually.  It says that there’s a dual subject – Jesus with His disciples.  But there’s only a singular verb – He was invited, which has led some commentators to suspect that Jesus is the invited guest, the member of the family and the disciples have crashed the party, which some commentators begin to wonder may be the reason they’ve run out of wine.  There’s a bunch of uninvited guests that no one has prepared for!  Now to run out of wine at these occasions was actually a major social faux pas, one that was known to occasion legal action by the bride’s family.  You could be sued for failing to provide the kind of celebration the father of the bride felt his daughter was entitled to.  So things are not going at all well at this particular wedding celebration.  The tension is mounting.  

So Mary, who feels some responsibility to prevent the embarrassment, turns to Jesus in desperation.  You can imagine her, can’t you?  Perhaps she’s been working in the kitchen, maybe she’s helping out as things are being prepared, maybe she’s helping seat guests or serving as a hostess, making sure everyone’s happy and has had all that they want.  And now she comes out wringing her hands and she takes Jesus to one side and in an anxious whisper she tells Him what she knows – they are out of wine.  “What are we going to do?  This is going to be a disaster!”  And in His response, Jesus’ words and work here at the feast actually take us right to the heart of the Christian Gospel.  They tell us in the first place what Jesus came to do, verses 1 to 5, especially verse 4 in His reply to Mary.  And they tell us secondly what Jesus came to bring, verses 6 to 11.  What Jesus came to do and what Jesus came to bring.  

I. What Jesus Came to Do

First of all at Jesus’ response to Mary, here’s what Jesus came to do.  Mary let Jesus in on the impending scandal in verse 3.  “They’re out of wine, the party’s in full swing – what are we going to do?”  And His response in verse 4 has had Bible scholars and Bible readers ever since utterly perplexed.  Look at how He responds to His mother’s implied plea for help.  They’re out of line.  “Woman, what has this to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”  It seems like a total non sequitur, doesn’t it?  I rather picture Mary sort of going, “Huh?”  “What has this got to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”  They’re out of line.  What are you saying?  Notice – what does that mean?  Well notice the rather abrupt form of address with which Jesus speaks to Mary – not “mother” but “woman.”  Actually it’s not quite so antagonistic as it sounds to our ears.  Some Bible versions, maybe you have a Bible version that does this, have attempted to soften it to capture the real intention of the text with translations like, “Dear woman,” which is too sentimental or “Lady,” which, as Don Carson points out, makes Jesus sound like a New York cab driver.  Carson actually suggests that the southern, “mom,” might be a good modern equivalent, so y’all have got it right!  There is no lack of respect in Jesus’ response in other words.  He’s not being curt and dismissive when He says to Mary, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?”  But there is some distance.  It’s not intimate and familiar; there is some distance.  

Jesus’ Preoccupation is No Earthly Agenda

And that’s important to see.  Here at the very beginning of His ministry as He enters upon the public work of redeeming sinners, Jesus is distancing Himself from the old ties of family as though to say to Mary that while those bonds are still important they must no longer constrain or control Him.  No merely human agenda, however precious to Him, will be permitted from now on to direct the course of His ministry.  His life’s ministry will be governed by a different set of concerns.  It’s interesting, as Guy Waters pointed out on Sunday morning, that the only other time Jesus addresses His mother in John’s gospel is in John 19 verse 26 when hanging on the cross.  There again He calls her, “Woman.”  “Woman,” he said to her, seeing John the beloved disciple, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “behold your mother” – taking care of them both.  At the beginning of His earthly ministry here in Cana and again at its end at Calvary He uses this form of address.  Here at the wedding feast where verse 11 says He first revealed His glory and once more at the cross where that glory was climactically revealed in His self-giving love, He speaks of Mary as the “woman.”  

It’s not hard to hear there the echo of the ancient promise of Scripture that one day the Seed of the woman would come who would crush the serpent’s head.  Mary is the woman and Jesus is her seed.  And so when He says to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” He’s not merely distancing Himself from her, He’s pointing out that His role is not simply the role of a dutiful son toward a loving mother, but of a promised Savior before a sovereign God.  Literally what He says in verse 4 is, “Woman, what to Me and to you?”  It’s an idiom that means something like, “Woman, what do you and I have in common over this particular issue?”  He’s letting Mary know she’s anxious about a social faux pas at a wedding, but His concerns are altogether different and of far more profound import.  Look at what He tells her.  Here is the great issue occupying His mind at this moment in the celebration of the wedding at Cana.  Even as His ministry begins He says, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His whole focus is turned toward a different crisis, you see.  Not the petty crisis here over wine at the banquet but the great climactic crisis of His life, a time He calls “His hour.”  It’s actually a phrase that rings again and again throughout the gospel of John and it always points to the cross.  

For example, in John’s gospel chapter 13 we have a great image, perhaps the greatest image of the effect and result of Jesus’ sufferings upon all who believe the Gospel.  You remember what happened?  Jesus, in the Upper Room on the night in which He was betrayed, stood, divested Himself of His outer garments, wrapped Himself in a towel, and did something scandalous and shocking that took the disciples’ breath away, something none of them were willing to stoop to do – He washed the disciples’ feet and so showed them what He came to accomplish on their behalf was the profound cleansing that only a servant utterly given over to the accomplishment of the will of God could perform.  And John prefaces that whole episode like this.  He says, “Now before the Feast of the Passover came, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of the world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  His hour had come.  

The Coming Hour for the Great Work of Salvation

That’s what His hour means.  It was the hour appointed by the Father in which the love of Jesus for sinners like you and like me might reach its fullest expression. It was the ordained hour of His departure, the hour of crucifixion and death, the hour where He would shed His blood and make us really clean from the stain of our sin.  That is where Jesus’ attention rests.  Even here in John chapter 2 and verse 4, at the dawn of His ministry, Mary’s talking about wine at a party and Jesus is already focused on the cross.  This is why He came.  The hour, He says, it not yet, but it’s coming.  And He would do nothing prematurely to risk precipitating a confrontation with the powers that be.  He would take no steps to attract attention to Himself before the appointed hour had arrived.  The picture we get, isn’t it, is of a man wholly dedicated to the will and program of Almighty God, resolute in His determination to follow the plans of the Father.  The hour had been set.  There was an appointed time.  It would be the hour when His glory would be manifested.  It would be the hour when He would be lifted up.  But not in the adulation and the praises and esteem of the crowds, but lifted up, rather, on a Roman cross, stripped and beaten and reviled and rejected, bearing shame and scoffing rude, sealing our pardon with His blood.  That was the great work that He was given to accomplish and He is intimating to Mary that He would do nothing, that He would take no steps toward that goal before the hour had come. 

The central focus, do you see, of Jesus’ whole life and ministry from first to last, was the accomplishment of the plan of the Father in the Father’s time.  His gaze here looks down the years as He sits at the wedding dinner at Cana in Galilee with His family and His friends around Him, with the sounds of laughter and joy and revelry engulfing Him and washing over Him, He sits there contemplating the hour.  Here is the celebration of the marriage in the little village of Cana; He’s looking already to Golgotha when friends and family, some of them there with Him, will utterly abandon Him and desert Him when the sounds of joy and celebration will be replaced by mockery and insult and even the despairing cries of the women who loved Him and His own mother along with them.  He is focused, utterly focused, on the cross.  That was His great preoccupation.  

The Cross of Christ: Our Great Preoccupation?

Let me ask you this now – what is your great preoccupation?  Is the cross of Christ at the center or at the periphery of your life?  Is Christ crucified such old familiar news, the old, old story, that you rarely if even dwell on His atoning work, no longer find yourself drawn back again to the foot of the cross and back again to the nail-pricked hands and the spear-pierced side to sit and weep for your sin and then stand in joy to praise the Redeemer who gave everything to make you His?  The cross was already the focus of Christ’s mission and it ought to be the focus of our lives to follow, to trust in, and to cling to Christ.  Nothing could be more important for us this evening than we come to follow the direction of Jesus’ gaze as He sits here in John chapter 2.  We need to turn our eyes where already we see Him looking.  We must look to the cross where He bore our guilt and our condemnation.  We must look to that hour when He was beaten and rejected and crucified that we might be ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.  There His love was lavished on us.  There we were reconciled to God; we were adopted into His family.  There our debts were paid and our guilt was undone.  There we were won and held secure in the redeeming embrace of Jesus Christ.  Here’s what Jesus came to do – He came to die for you to make You His.

II. What Jesus Came to Bring

And then secondly and briefly, look at verses 6 to 11 with me.  Here’s what Jesus came to bring.  Jesus, it turns out after all, it not indifferent to the problem at the wedding but He uses it as an opportunity to display His glory, verse 11.  Mary certainly seems to sense that whatever His strange non sequitur response to her question means He does intend to do something, so she instructs the servants to obey His every instruction.  And He tells them to fill the large water jars with water, to take some of the water to the master of the feast and when the master tasted it he exclaims, “This is the best wine” – mature, full-bodied, rich.  Without a word, without any display, notice who does all the action here.  It’s not Jesus; it’s the servants.  There’s nothing to draw attention to Jesus.  Without a word, without any display, without attracting any attention, Jesus turns the water into wine.  The very elements themselves will be the silent commands of His will and water turns to wine.  

Hidden Glory and a Cross-Shaped Life

This, verse 11 says, is how He manifests His glory – incognito; hidden.  This is glory but glory revealed in humility.  It’s not the glory of outward show, seeking to impress and to manipulate with demonstrations of raw power all too familiar in our own day. Christ’s glory, you see, is always cruciform; it’s always cross-shaped.  Even here in this first miracle there already is an echo of the final demonstration of His glory when He hung between two criminals and none of the trappings of outward majesty shown around Him.  At Calvary, His glory was most fully revealed.  As God’s appointed Savior, His hour at last has come.  And those who are standing around Him did not see it and His disciples deserted Him.  They fled and hid.  And the crowds mocked Him.  It was glory revealed but it was glory incognito, glory seeking not the display of raw power but seeking the glory and honor of the Father and the redemption of those He came to save.

We ought, I think, to take Luther’s famous dictum as our own in light of the humility of Jesus.  Luther said, “Crux probat onmia – The cross is the test of everything.”  Test your motives in all your work for the Savior’s sake with this question.  Test your motives in all your work for the Savior’s sake with this question – Is it cross-shaped?  Is it incognito?  Is it self-effacing and Christ-exalting?  Am I acting for the extension of my own influence or for the advancement of the honor of my Redeemer?  Am I doing this in a way that mirrors His own self-giving service of me taking the form of a servant, humbling Himself, becoming obedient even to death, even the death of the cross?  Is it cross-shaped? His was a cross-shaped life, wasn’t it, from its first beginnings here in Cana to its climax at Calvary – a cross-shaped life.  And it is a cross-shaped life to which we here are being called.

The Meaning of the Miracle: The Arrival of the Era of Messianic Blessing

And notice the miracle itself.  What does it mean?  It is a sign, verse 11 tells us, a sign communicating what?  Verse 6 tells us what these water pots were for.  He says, John says, they were for ritual purification.  In Mark 7 and verse 3 we have a note which tells us what that means.  Mark says the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders.  That is to say they had to wash ritually, regularly, whatever they wanted to eat.  That’s what these water pots are for, for ritual washing.  They function here in John chapter 2 as powerful emblems, really of the whole system of old covenant ritual and regulation that governed and constrained the life of God’s people ever since Moses came down the mountain at Sinai.  And that means, therefore, that it was an act of astonishing significance when Jesus turned this water, this water once used for ritual cleansing, into mature wine to be used for a wedding party.  

I wonder if you see the message.  It is that Jesus is the hinge of history.  Everything pivots upon His appearing and His person and His work. Nothing can be the same again now that He has come.  The old system of ritual cleansing and purification is being rendered redundant and in its place a new age of joy and wedding celebration is being brought in, inaugurated, symbolized here by the best wine and mature wine that Jesus willed into being.  You know the prophets spoke about that day, a day of Messianic blessing in precisely these terms.  Isaiah 25 verses 6 to 8:  “On the mountain of the Lord the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.  And he will swallow up death forever and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”  That is what Jesus is saying He’s come to bring – the age of Messianic joy when He will wipe our tears from us and bear away our reproach by bearing it Himself.  The thing that the water pots were meant to point to, cleansing, has now come in the wounds of our Redeemer.  His blood can make the foulest clean. 

Solid Joys and Lasting Treasures in the Savior

What a grounds for joy that is.  You remember joy, right?  Joy.  It turns the corners of your mouth upwards, warms your heart; it makes you sing.  What a grounds for joy.  Joy should be a chief mark of a child of God living this side of the cross.  You know celebration is one of those ghastly overused words in our day but I think it fits this context perfectly.  That is what should make our lives, especially our Lord’s Day gatherings together as we come to praise and pray and hear the preaching of the Word of God – wedding joy, the bride of Christ, celebrating the coming of the bridegroom.  Gone is the old system of burdensome ritual; here now is the age of rejoicing, aged wine well refined; the era of salvation has been inaugurated in the redemption Jesus provides.  So here is Jesus at a wedding feast.  The sights and sounds of joy are all around Him, aren’t they?  You’ve been at receptions and rehearsal dinners and in wedding services and there’s joy.  And that’s much the same as we find here but Jesus wants to point us to something deeper and richer and fuller.  The joy of the wedding will pass, you see.  The celebration of earthly delights will always only ever be temporary.  But here in Jesus here’s the inexhaustible fountain of never failing joy.  Drink from Him; go to Him.  “Fading is the worldlings pleasure, all their boasted pomp and show.  Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.”  And they know it because they know Jesus who brings the new wine of full, free, redeeming grace.

Will you pray with me?

O Lord, our God, how we praise You for our Savior the Lord Jesus.  We ask first for pardon for taking His name glibly on our lips, forever speaking of the cross without a heart that weeps for joy that we have been made beneficiaries of His redeeming love.  Have mercy on us.  And with the psalmist we pray now together, ‘O Lord, restore to us the joy of our salvation,’ in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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