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Front Page Article

Let the Party Begin

by Greg Albrecht

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine."
  "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied. "My time has not yet come."
  His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
  Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
  Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim.
  Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet."
  They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
  This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
—John 2:1-11

The very idea of any kind of party, any kind of laughter, feasting, light-heartedness and yes, even enjoyment of life itself, is suspect in some religious environments. Our keynote passage does more than just record history, it is inviting you and me to a party, a party that is already in progress! There's important teaching in this passage.

You may have heard one of the take-offs on our passage, which goes something like this:

Jesus turned water into wine almost 2,000 years ago, and ever since that time, legalistic religion has been trying to turn wine into grape juice.

I don't want to spend a lot of time on the specific chemical properties of what Jesus created, but we cannot ignore the obvious. Alcohol was not only served at the wedding celebration that Jesus attended, but he contributed to the fact that alcohol was present by creating it when the original supply had run out. There's no getting around that fact, though there are some religious authorities who twist themselves into theological pretzels attempting to do so.

The first eleven verses of the second chapter of the Gospel of John, is the first recorded miracle of Jesus. This is the very first recorded miracle he performed—and what did he do? Did he rent the Jerusalem Civic Center, and in front of a crowd of over 10,000 people, have people come on stage, people who seemingly suffered from all kinds of diseases, and heal them? Did he push them or blow on them, in what is today called being "slain in the spirit"—causing them to fall backwards, as a sign that they were being healed?

No, for this first recorded miracle, Jesus did not have a healing crusade.

Did Jesus have his disciples purchase advertising in the Jerusalem Daily Gazette about his prophecy seminar, and tell people living in that day that they really were living in the last times? After all, Jesus full well knew that the city of Jerusalem, and its temple, would be destroyed within the next 40 years. For his first recorded miracle, why didn't Jesus go on record as predicting the future? After all, his prediction would have actually helped people. If Jesus' ministry had been all about current events then people could have decided to move out of Jerusalem so that they weren't "left behind" (to use the phrase that has made a fortune for some engaged in "good," old-fashioned doom-and-gloom preaching). What's wrong with a little "scare the hell out them" old-time prophecy preaching? Doesn't the end justify the means?

No, for his first recorded miracle, Jesus did not predict the end for all those who lived in Jerusalem. For his first miracle, Jesus created wine from water—lots of it—probably about 120 gallons or so. There was a purpose to all of Jesus' miracles and signs. He didn't perform supernatural signs just to bedazzle people with his powers. His miracles and signs all pointed, in some way, to the kingdom of God.

For Jesus' first miracle, he went to a party in a remote little place named Cana, in Galilee. There's a good chance that this was a wedding of a relative of Jesus and his mother Mary, since they both attended, but they were not from Cana. Cana was about 10 miles from their home in Nazareth.

This party was not just a brief, two-hour celebration on a sleepy weekend afternoon. For Jesus' first recorded miracle, he went to a major celebration—a first century Jewish wedding party.

And, let's make sure that we define these terms. Today, when most of us in North America think of a wedding party, reception and dinner, we think of a short celebration, perhaps lasting a few hours. The celebration we are used to, depending on the financial ability of the bride and groom, and more to the point, the financial ability and willingness of their parents, is usually short.

I've officiated at and attended hundreds of weddings. I've been to lavish weddings, with huge guest lists and magnificent banquets, and I've attended and performed modest marriages in someone's backyard, at the beach or in a city park, next to some oak trees and picnic tables.

I've been to many wedding receptions where the only celebration to which guests were invited took place right after the wedding, and the fare was usually punch, cake, mixed nuts, and maybe sparkling apple cider. That's acceptable in our society, and of course it often happens because the bride and groom and their families can't afford anything else.

But wedding celebrations at the time of Jesus? Well, we're not talking about a reception that consisted of 30 minutes of polite conversation augmented by punch and mixed nuts. During the time of Jesus a Jewish wedding included a banquet. There was no specific place that the banquet had to take place. Some indications are that the wedding banquet could have taken place at the bride's house, or that of her parents. But, apparently more often than not the banquet was celebrated at the groom's house, or his parents. The banquet was really more appropriately called a "feast" because it took place over several days, perhaps as long as a week.

In order to host such a feast, a number of ingredients were necessary. Of course, you needed a bride and groom. You needed guests. You needed a place for the festivities. And you needed food, drink, music and dancing. Entertainment and speeches, laced with lots of humor, were also a part of many wedding feasts.

We're already in trouble with many religious ideas, aren't we? Drink—alcohol—that's a problem. In some religions it's not just a problem, it's taboo. Then there's music. Well, according to some religious traditions and prohibitions, if the music is anything but songs from their denominational hymnbook, it's probably questionable and "worldly." Then there's dancing. Another potential taboo in some religions.

There's another old joke about the degree to which some religious traditions frown on dancing. The joke goes something like this: "You know why the ______ (insert the name of a church or denomination) forbid pre-marital sex, don't you?" If you're going along with the joke, then you say, "No, why?" Then the joke teller responds, "Well, in their view, pre-marital sex could lead to dancing!"

So here we have Jesus, attending this wedding feast, right in the middle of what some good religious folks would call "worldly" activities and one of the worst things that can ever happen at such a time happens, the wine runs out.
Running out of wine was more than just a minor inconvenience. Running out of wine would have been seen as a negative commentary on the bride and groom and their parents. The bride, groom and their parents would have been humiliated, having failed to provide hospitality for their guests. The families involved would have scraped and saved for a long time to afford this most important event.

Life for the vast majority of people in first century Palestine was brutal. Most families lived right on the edge. They were always one crop away from bankruptcy. But in the midst of their poverty, a wedding was a time for lavish celebration, and it was planned for a long time.

At the time of Jesus, hospitality was a sacred duty. When disaster struck, it seems that only a few people at the wedding celebration knew that they had run out of wine. But those few were obviously deeply concerned, for if the wine ran out then the music and dancing and laughter would soon end, and the whole party would terminate, probably on a sour note.

Our passage tells us that Mary, Jesus' mother, gave Jesus a "heads up" about the fact that they had run out of wine. Mary knew that Jesus could do something about this problem. So Jesus gave the servants instructions about how six large water pots that probably each held something like 20 gallons of liquid could be used to save the party.
Jesus told the servants to fill up those water pots with water and then to take some of the contents to the master of the banquet—the master of the feast was probably someone much like the best man at our wedding banquets, a person who would have been charged with ensuring that the festivities went smoothly, as planned.

This person was surprised that the bridegroom and those charged with providing all of the hospitality for the feast had saved the best wine until later. The wine that Jesus created was high quality stuff!

The normal procedure would have been to serve the best wine first, when people might have been more inclined to notice the quality of the wine. This is not to say that people were inebriated, but the possibility of such a thing happening at a feast is obviously a factor. It's normal to be more sensitive about the taste of any food or beverage at the beginning of a meal rather than later.

And Jesus, in producing some 120 gallons of wine, did not just provide what was needed for the celebration to continue, he produced far more than was needed. How much wine was that? Well, think of the wine you buy in a bottle.

One hundred and twenty gallons would be about 400-450 bottles—400-450 bottles of expensive, $100-per-bottle wine.

What was this sign, this miracle, all about?

This was a marriage, a wedding celebration. The metaphor of marriage is used throughout the Bible to represent the relationship we humans can have with God. It's the most intimate relationship that humans can have, so it is an excellent example of the spiritual relationship God offers to us.

The wine is obviously a symbol of the Cross of Christ, the blood of the Lamb of God that would be spilled on our behalf.

Did you notice that the first verse of our passage describes that the day the old wine ran out, and the day the new wine was created was "on the third day"? Of course it was the specific point in time, during the wedding celebration, when all of this happened—but you can't read the New Testament without noting the phrase "on the third day" without knowing that it had reference to the Cross of Christ and of his resurrection.

Did you notice that the last verse of our passage (verse 11) concludes by saying that this miracle, this first sign of Jesus, was all about his glory? This entire miracle depicts, on a deeper, spiritual level, that something was horribly wrong in that culture. Something was tragically flawed within the religious system of that day. God had come, in the person of Jesus, to bring new wine, a new way of relating to God. It was the end of religion and the beginning of relationship.

It was a new way of relating to God, a invitation to a different kind of wedding celebration, a new life of joy and intimacy that would never end, a new covenant sealed with the wine, the blood, of God himself, Jesus, the Son.
This is, as Jesus said elsewhere, the new wine that will burst the old religious containers, the old religious wineskins (Matthew 9:17). This is the new wine of relationship with God, intimate, joyful marriage to Jesus, the bridegroom, a marriage that is forever.

This is the new wine of relationship with God that cannot be contained by religion. Truly, it is Christianity Without the Religion. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great Christian martyr of World War II (who was killed by the Nazis in the last days of their brutal regime) once said, it is "religionless Christianity."

It's the wine of Jesus that enables us, as the transformed children of God, to enjoy our lives—to laugh in the presence of God, to dance before and with him. The wine of Jesus fills us so that we may joyfully sing and rejoice. Wine, in this miracle, is a picture of how we as humans "taste" of God.

This wine is from the God of lavish generosity. This is God who makes sure that the party never runs out. Party on! This is the wine of new life that brings abiding, eternal joy— the wine of Jesus that never, ever runs out.

Jesus wants us to know that any wine that we have been given before we know him is "cheap." He wants us to stop settling for the cheap wine, and begin to experience the wedding feast of the Lamb, a feast that we can begin to experience now, in this life, right now, and of course one we will experience, in its fullness, for all eternity, as we sing, laugh and dance before the throne of God.

When Jesus wanted people to understand God's kingdom, he used parties as a picture of the reality of what it means to be in God's presence. He gave a parable of a great banquet where the lame, blind and poor are invited, not just those who are deemed to be worthy by religion, but the outcasts and the aliens. It was a wedding banquet thrown by a King for his son, and the King invited the wealthy, famous and powerful—those whom you might expect to want to attend such a feast. But, in clear teaching about the rejection of God's grace by institutionalized religion, this particular parable has the ones who you might expect to attend such a party rejecting the invitation.

In that parable (you can read it in Matthew 22), the king doesn't take "no" for an answer. He sends out more invitations. He so wants to share all that is his, he so wants to share the joy of his Son, the bridegroom, with everyone.
Those who are invited go to ridiculous extremes inventing excuses for their absences, and finally, those who are invited brutalize the servants who carry the message, and kill them. It's a clear message about what happens when Christ-less religion hears the invitation of God's grace.

In another parable Jesus talked about the father who killed the fatted calf and provided music and dancing when the prodigal son returned home (Luke 15:11-32). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the older son (who should, by all rights, have been joining in the party) was stewing in his own spiritual pride, cooking his own goose in the juice of his own self-righteousness.

Jesus threw huge parties when people came to listen to him teach and preach. On several occasions those who turned out to hear Jesus became hungry. So Jesus created, with a few fish and loaves of bread, a huge picnic for thousands of people (John 6:1-15). And, of course, we read in the book of Revelation about the wedding supper of the Lamb, the splendid celebration thrown by the groom for his bride (Revelation 19:5-9).

You may have heard of a Christian minister and professor named Tony Campolo. Though I have never personally met him, I have read several of his books. In one of his books Tony relates an experience he once had in Honolulu.

As I recall the story, Tony had just arrived for a conference. It was his first night in Honolulu and he was fighting several hours difference between Hawaii time and his normal sleep pattern. He couldn't get to sleep. So finally, at 3:00 A.M., he got up and went to get something to eat.

He left his hotel and found a coffee shop. When he arrived he was the only person there, but then, as he was in the middle of his meal, the coffee shop started to fill with women.

Tony Campolo observed that many of these women were dressed provocatively, and as he listened to their conversations, he determined that these were ladies of the evening who were finishing their work.

He was particularly interested in a conversation taking place at a nearby table, as one woman told the other that the next day was her birthday, but she bitterly commented that she didn't expect anything special, because she had never had a birthday party her whole life.

Tony waited until all the women had left, then he went over to the guy behind the counter and told him that he would like to throw a party for the woman, and Tony described her. The man behind the counter ("I'm recalling this story from memory, and I forget the name of this man, let's just say his name was Harry) said, "Oh, that's Agnes. She comes in here every night."

Harry thought the plan to throw Agnes a birthday party was a great idea. Harry agreed to make Agnes a cake. So, the next day, about 2:30 am, Tony Campolo arrived early, and decorated the little coffee shop, including a big sign that said, "Happy Birthday Agnes."

About 3:15, word had apparently gotten out on the street, because many street walkers who never came to the coffee shop were there early, waiting for Agnes to show up for her surprise first-in-her-life birthday party.

When Agnes arrived, she was shocked, she cried, everyone sang happy birthday, and then she did something unexpected. She had never had a birthday cake before, and she said she wanted to take the cake home so she could enjoy it. There was a stunned silence as Agnes picked up her cake and left. The party was over. No birthday cake to share, and no guest of honor, because the guest of honor had left the coffee shop.

No one said anything, so Tony, being a minister, broke the silence and suggested that he would lead in a prayer. So he prayed in that coffee shop which was filled, wall to wall, with ladies of the evening. Tony prayed for Agnes, that God would bless her and that her life could be changed.

When Tony finished praying, Harry leaned over the counter and said, "What kind of church do you belong to, anyway?" Tony said, "I belong to the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

I agree with Tony Campolo. I believe that's what the church of Jesus, the body of Christ, is all about. A church that laughs, sings, dances and loves. I believe that Jesus is the great wine steward. I believe he is the lavish giver. I believe he is the life of the party. I believe that he is the Lord of the Dance.

And I believe that life lived in the presence of God is pure joy, not frugal obligation, not dour requirements, but joy without end. This is not to say that we don't ever have our struggles. We do. We have upsets, pain and disappointment. But the party will continue. Life in Christ is pure exhilaration, for it is a party that never ends. The party is the kingdom of heaven, and it is fueled by new wine, new life made possible by our Lord and Savior.

We have all been invited to this party, the kingdom of heaven. Our invitation is given to us without charge, by God's grace. We can't pay for this party. We can't buy the wine, we can't even provide the appropriate wedding garments. God provides all of that, and more.

Remember one of the great lines from that old favorite hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness—"All I have needed Thy hand hath provided…." God, in his lavish love provides all that we need. And his lavish love will enable us, to party on, world without end.

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What is God like? A punishing judge? A doting grandfather? A deadbeat dad? A vengeful warrior? How do such 'good cop/bad cop' distortions of the divine arise and come to dominate churches and cultures? Whether our notions of 'god' are personal projections or inherited traditions, author and theologian Brad Jersak proposes a radical reassessment, arguing for "A More Christlike God: a More Beautiful Gospel."

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