God Of The Party
In China, white is reserved for funerals. At weddings, brides wear vibrant red instead, the color of good luck. In German tradition, when a little girl is born her family plants several trees, which they then cut down and sell when she gets engaged to help pay for the wedding. In Mexico, the bride and groom are tied together with a ribbon, which the bride then saves as a keepsake. And in the ancient world, well, no one could throw a party quite like the Jews.
A traditional Jewish wedding was the event of a lifetime for the family putting it on, and they would save up for it long in advance. Half the town would be invited, and the other half would turn up anyway.
Even Roman occupation couldn’t suppress the vibrancy: the smell of roasting lamb and fresh-baked bread, the roar of laughter and the music of strings and drums, the dancers stomping and clapping and whirling around the sky young couple glowing with possibility. Through it all, guests would toast with goblets full of free-flowing wine, shouting “l’chaim!” – “to life!”
You can catch a glimpse of this beautiful chaos in Paolo Caliari’s painting, “Les Noces de Cana,” which depicts a Jewish wedding that Jesus and his disciples attend in the town of Cana.
At the particular wedding, which you can read about in John 2:1-12, Jesus’ mother Mary – like so many matriarchs before and after – has a thankless task: making sure everyone’s cups and plates stay full. As she rushes around the kitchen directing servants, she receives terrible news: they’re out of wine. Without the ability to keep the refreshments coming, the hosting families could be embarrassed in front of everyone they knew.
So Mary turns the only person she can think of: her son Jesus. After all, if having the Messiah for your son can’t help you out when you need to save the party, then what hope is there?
At first Jesus protests: “What does this have to do with me?” he asks. “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4 ESV). Mary, however, will have nothing of it, and just tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” Jesus concedes; apparently even the Son of God is unwilling to displease his mom.
Jesus directs the servants to fill up six huge stone jars up with water, and then take some of the water out and have the man in charge of the wedding taste it. These aren’t any ordinary jars, either – they’re jars traditionally used for Jewish purification rites. Jesus is taking a physical symbol of the intricate laws God gave to the Israelites, and he’s using it to perform a miracle – a miracle based not in survival or necessity, but in bounty and jubilation.
The master of the feast drinks from the cup the servants bring him, and proclaims it not just fit to serve to the guests, but delicious. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine,” he raves to the groom. “But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:11 ESV).
The Word made flesh has turned commonplace, ordinary water into the wine of celebration. The Messiah who will later heal lepers and raise the dead has launched his ministry and first demonstrated the power of God at a small-town party.
At first glance, this miracle seems strange – even inconsequential. It’s not as flashy or as life-changing as most of the other miracles. In fact, it goes mostly unnoticed by the very people it benefits. In spite of that, Jesus’ turning the water into wine reveals a crucial truth: God does not just want to be involved in the tragedies and crises of people’s lives. In the rise and fall of empires, or the affairs of Kings and rulers. God wants to be invited to the small-town party! “Joy,” Christian apologist C. S. Lewis asserts, “is the serious business of heaven.” Anne Lamott says that “Laughter is carbonated holiness.” And in Ecclesiastes 9:7, Solomon writes “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do” (NIV).
Jesus is taking a physical symbol of the intricate laws God gave to the Israelites, and he’s using it to perform a miracle – a miracle based not in survival or necessity, but in bounty and jubilation.
As he proceeds through his ministry, Jesus actually compares the Kingdom of God to a party on multiple occasions. In Luke 14:15-22, for example, he imagines a man inviting his friends to a large feast. When they refuse to come, he instead invites the poor and crippled, the blind and lame, and any travelers far from home, so “that my house may be filled” (NIV).
And of course, we can't miss the foreshadowing of the Lord's Supper - where Jesus will employ wine as a symbol for his own blood. The freshness of new life, the joy and celebration of the Christian experience, is based upon the bitterness of Christ's suffering and death on the cross. Both at the beginning and end of his ministry, Jesus turned disappointment into celebration. When Jesus performs his first miracle at Cana, he’s foreshadowing a crucial message of all of his ministry to follow: God doesn’t just want to be invited to the party. God is throwing the party – and everyone’s invited.
- How many Bible stories can you think of where God provides food or drink for people? Why do you think eating and drinking with people is such an important act? Is it about survival? Nourishment? Community?
- What role does food and festivity play in the life of your church? Does your religious community celebrate well? Why or why not?
- Jesus is often depicted as very serious, spending his time combating the greatest evils on earth. This story, however, can be read as an example of Jesus enjoying a party – enjoying a celebration of love and community and fun. How does this contribute to your understanding of his character and the purpose of his ministry?
- Can you think of some personal examples of how God blesses the ordinary and joyful parts of life, or something that demonstrates his sense of humor?
- Some people believe that the wine in this story is simply grape juice, while others believe it is the genuine alcoholic beverage we would consume today. Still others believe that it was likely partially wine - made from grapes - mixed and diluted with water (this was commonly done in the ancient world, not only with wine but also with beer). Which do you think it was? Why?
- Keep this in mind: Many people do not realize that the ancient world did have ways of acquiring fresh fruit juices - the easiest of them being squeezing the grapes straight into the cup - or else ways of preserving fruit based beverages without allowing them to ferment, even without modern refrigeration.
- Many people find that the Bible is not as clear as they would like it to be on the topic of alcohol. We will provide two lists here: verses that seem to be more "pro alcohol" and then verses that seem to be more "anti alcohol". Read them by yourself or with a friend and discuss how these verses might fit together, and how the message here might be harmonized. Also, does the context of these verses provide any clarification on their meaning?:
- Deuteronomy 14:22-27
- 1 Timothy 5:23
- Ecclesiastes 9:7-9
- Psalm 104:14-15
- John 7:33-34
- Isaiah 25:6
- 1 Peter 4:3
- Ephesians 5:18
- Proverbs 20:1
- Proverbs 23:20-21, 29-35
- Proverbs 31:4-5
- 1 Corinthians 10:23-24
- Romans 14:21
- 1 Timothy 3:2-3, 8
- Isaiah 5:11, 22-23
- Isaiah 28:7
The Search For A "Thou Shalt Not" by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez (Biblical Research Institute)
Beer and Wine: The Bible's Counsel by William H. Shea (Biblical Research Institute)