On Making Someone Else Look Good
According to U. S. Government statistics, inflation has averaged about 4 percent over the past twenty years. This may not seem like much, but these compounded increases add up over time. Perhaps some of you will remember when gasoline was 28 cents per gallon, and the station attendant gave you a set of steak knives when you "filled 'er up!" Well, consider these costs: In 1975 a first class stamp cost only a dime, a jar of instant coffee sold for $.79. Today that same jar will set you back $6.79. Pork chops sold for 29¢ per pound. That same pound now costs $2.49. No doubt about it, inflation will eat up your wealth just as surely as thieves will steal it and the government will, well, take it from you.1
One thing that has not changed much over the last twenty centuries is that everyone likes to attend a good party. In Jesus' day the best parties were often thrown in conjunction with weddings. Usually they would last for weeks and everyone would eat and drink until they couldn't do so any longer. John uses this occasion of a wedding party to tell us some very important things about Jesus and ourselves.
John is the fourth gospel and its author makes little attempt to provide a chronological account of Jesus' life. The other gospels at least give this appearance. John suggests his objective in writing: "These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). John's Gospel includes signs, miracle stories, and other literary devices to relate his narrative. Hear our morning text from John:
2:1—On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
2:2—Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
2:3—When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "'they have no wine."
2:4—And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."
2:5—His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
2:6—Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.
2:7—Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.
2:8—He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward" So they took it.
2:9—When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom
2:10—and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk But you have kept the good wine until now."
2:11—Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Before we attend to what this passage's meaning is for us today, let's take a look at several ways that John writes his story for deeper meaning. In verse 1 "wedding" is symbolic of the prophetic tradition for the time of fulfillment of God's purpose for his people. The wedding feast was an accepted symbol of the joy of God's reign. Also, Mary's concern with the shortage of wine may suggest that the wedding was that of a near relative.
In verse 4, "My hour" (See also 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1) refers to John's timetable for the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel through the messiah. John tells us in verse 6 that "stone water jars" were used for the wine. Stone was used because it was thought that it could not contract ritual uncleanness. John's reference in verse 8 to the "chief steward" needs to be examined. At Gentile banquets, to be "steward" was a mark of honor for a guest. Jewish weddings may have followed a similar practice. In contemporary society, we might call this person a headwaiter or toastmaster or simply host.
Often when addressing this text from John's Gospel there are two primary areas that people want to explore. The first is how exactly did Jesus turn water into wine. I am certainty not going to ask what motivates people to ask such a question, but I do know that once Soren Kierkegaard quipped that the church’s great miracle was to turn the wine of Christ back into water. The other part of the passage that many people concentrate on is the reply of Jesus to his mother. There is a theological explanation for John's recording of Jesus’ terse reply to his mother, but we will address that issue later in Lent when we explore Jesus’ notation that "his hour has come."
Today is the Dedication of Church Officials and we as a church are praying to God that they uphold this sacred trust God and we have placed upon them. Last week we all dedicated ourselves to God's guidance for the coming year through our participation in the Wesleyan Covenant Service. Today is similar, but different, because today we dedicate our leadership in the church, whether official or unofficial. When I thought about leadership this week, I decided that I wanted to explore something in our lesson from John 2 that I had never noticed before. It comes from the part of the text that reads:
When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom (10) and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now" (John 2:910).
The steward was passing out the wine and it made him a very important fellow indeed at this wedding festivity. He was checking the quality of the wine and made, what was to him, a startling discovery. Now I know that people in our time would never stoop to this old trick of partythrowing. At least, I think I know. But to illustrate the kind of scene John tries to convey in the story, I want to attempt an analogy. I have been told that at some Super Bowl parties, the kind that I'm not invited to, that the host will pull out a case of Heineken or Michelob to get the first quarter of the football game started. Then after the guests have poured down a few cool ones, he will pull out the much cheaper Old Milwaukee, hoping that none of the guests either notice or care about the host's cost saving measures.2
At the wedding in Cana, however, the steward discovered that the groom had saved the best to last. He thought the groom to be an extravagant host and generous man. He complimented the groom on his generosity in front of the whole gathering. In effect, he made the groom a hero at his own wedding. Certainly, there were a few servants and disciples who knew the real story. But the point of the story is that Jesus, by working this miracle, had made someone else look good. Do you think the groom denied his newly acquired notoriety?
Every young student knows of Isaac Newton's famed encounter with a falling apple. Newton discovered and introduced the laws of gravity in the 1600s, which revolutionized astronomical studies. But few know that if it weren't for Edmund Halley, the world might never have learned from Newton.
It was Halley who challenged Newton to think through his original notions. Halley corrected Newton's mathematical errors and prepared geometrical figures to support his discoveries. Halley coaxed the hesitant Newton to write his great work, “Mathematical Principles of Natural philosophy.” Halley edited and supervised the publication, and actually financed its printing even though Newton was wealthier and easily could have afforded the printing costs.
Historians call it one of the most selfless examples in the annals of science. Newton began almost immediately to reap the rewards of prominence; Halley received little credit. He did use the principles to predict the orbit and return of the comet that would later bear his name, but only after his death did he receive any acclaim. And because the comet only returns every seventysix years, the notice is rather infrequent. Halley remained a devoted scientist who didn't care who received the credit as long as the cause was being advanced. Others have played Halley's role. John the Baptist said of Jesus, "He must become greater, I must become less." Barnabas was content to introduce others to greatness. Many pray to uphold the work of one Christian leader. Such selflessness advances the kingdom.3
Wouldn't it be a great blessing to us all and to our church, if our leaders this year could take a page from John's Gospel and make someone else look good. Each of us has this opportunity by the deeds we do on behalf of the church this year. If leaders can lead in a way that makes those who are led look good, then we all prosper. And more importantly, maybe the Kingdom of God will draw a little closer. Amen.
David Neil Mosser
1. “Your Church” (January/February 1998), p. 8. For relevant texts: see Isaiah 33:6; Matthew 6:19, 20; Luke 12:33; and 1 Timothy 6:17.
2. This illustration in no way endorses the use of alcohol, it rather recreates the narrative suggested by the quotation: "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.”
3. C. S. Kirkendall, Jr.