Empty Jars

January 27th 2019, Pastor Galen

John 2:1-11

A Sober Situation

Jesus and his disciples are attending a wedding reception, and the wine has run out.

A 1st Century Palestinian wedding reception with no wine is like a crab feast with no crabs, a birthday party without a birthday cake, or a 4th of July Party without fireworks.

In other words, this is a catastrophe!

But in order for us to understand just how devastating this situation is, it’s helpful if we understand a little bit about 1st century Palestinian Jewish life and wedding celebrations.

 

Small towns like Cana had relatively small populations. Cana probably had at most 1,000 people, and so a wedding like this did not come along every day.

Life was rather difficult for first-century Palestinian Jews living as an oppressed minority under Roman occupation with very few rights. For example, in other biblical accounts, we learn that a Roman soldier could come by and force a first-century Jewish man to carry his armor for a mile.

Most people lived day-to-day, paycheck to paycheck, with no savings, sick leave, or retirement plans. Many men were day laborers — they often spent their days waiting out in the town square for hours at a time, waiting for some wealthy landowner to come and hire them to work in their fields for the day.

 

And so, weddings in those days were a wonderful distraction from the toilsome reality of life. And by the way, wedding celebrations did not just last one day – they lasted for seven whole days! And the whole town was invited.

An essential element of celebration in first-century Palestinian Jewish culture was wine. The wine was rather watered down — it did not have nearly the same alcoholic content that wine does today. But it was nevertheless a critical element in the celebration of a wedding feast.

 

And so, running out of wine somewhere in the middle of a much-anticipated 7-day wedding festival where the whole town was invited was probably the worst nightmare for the hosts of this wedding feast. Not only would this situation cause the festival to come to a grinding halt, but this would cast tremendous shame and embarrassment on the couple who just got married, and indeed their whole family.

 

Jesus – Do Something!

 

We might find it interesting that Jesus and his disciples are attending this 7-day wedding festival when there were so many other important things Jesus could be doing. We can imagine him healing people, or teaching. But attending a wedding feast? But we see in the Gospels that Jesus was always present with the people. Jesus did not separate himself off in some ivory palace or lock himself away in a religious library. Jesus is always with the people, and so when it’s time for a celebration, that’s where Jesus is.

It’s Jesus’s mother who makes him aware that the wine has run out. And in response, Jesus says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). This word “woman” is not as disrespectful as it might sound to us. It’s a formal word, and somewhat distant – but it’s probably more the equivalent of saying “mother,” rather than “Mom.”

But why does Jesus respond this way? And what does Jesus mean by the statement that his “hour has not yet come”?

Well, in other places in the Gospel of John, the “hour” refers to the time when Jesus is lifted up on the cross. It’s the time when Jesus is glorified, when he reveals himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God. So it seems that Jesus is saying that if he were to do what his mother wants him to do, it could set off the chain reaction that would eventually lead to his death on the cross.

I’m really not sure what Mary had in mind when she approached Jesus. Perhaps she just wanted Jesus to go to the store to buy more wine. Or perhaps Mary wanted Jesus to do some sort of flashy miracle here — something that would show all of these townspeople who Jesus really is. You see, Mary has known since before Jesus was born who Jesus really is – she knows that he is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And she’s had to hold on to that secret all of these years. So maybe Mary wants Jesus to do something showy and impressive here, to get everyone’s attention and show them who he is and why he’s come. Maybe Jesus could make it so that everyone’s cup would automatically refill with wine every time they drank from it, or cause it to rain wine down from out of the sky.

But Jesus tells his mother that his hour has not yet come.

But then Mary does something very interesting. She turns to the servants and says “do whatever He tells you to do.”  Mary seems to understand that Jesus is not going to do what she wants him to do, but she has confidence that he is going to do something.

And sure enough, Jesus does indeed act, but in a way that is quite shocking.

Empty Ceremonial Jars

There’s a very remarkable little detail regarding this miracle that’s really rather scandalous when you stop to think about it. I want us to consider for a moment the containers that Jesus used to turn the water into wine. Now there were probably plenty of empty wineskins laying around, and Jesus could have used some of those. Or if necessary he could have miraculously caused wine jugs to appear out of nowhere.

But instead, Jesus turns and sees six massive stone water jars sitting off to the side – the types of stone water jars that were usually used for the Jewish rites of purification. And he sees that these vessels are empty.

You see, the Jewish people had all sorts of religious ritual requirements. They had to wash their hands thoroughly before eating and before going into the temple and before engaging in all sorts of religious rituals. It wasn’t just about being free from germs – it was symbolic of being cleansed from sin, and the leaders taught the people that it was necessary to do all of these purification rituals in order to be accepted by God.

The fact that these six huge stone water jars were sitting there empty means that at one time the family who is hosting this wedding feast had been a very religious family who had done all the right religious rituals. They probably went to the synagogue every week, said all the prayers, offered all the sacrifices they were supposed to offer.

But the fact that these huge stone water jars seem to be sitting there empty indicates that they weren’t being used anymore.

Maybe the family didn’t see the point in doing all the rituals and so they just stopped doing them. Or maybe in the midst of all the wedding preparations they were just too busy to keep up with all the religious rituals they were supposed to do.

And so these massive ritual purification jars are just sitting there in the corner gathering dust, empty, purposeless, a reminder of the bygone days when religions played a more central role in their life.

The Best Wine

Jesus sees these empty stone purification jars, and he tells the servants to fill them with water, and to draw some of the water out. And somehow, miraculously, the water becomes wine! And not just any wine, but the best wine ever! And a LOT of wine. Each vessel held somewhere between 20 and 30 gallons of water, so that means that Jesus made somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine!

In doing this, Jesus saved the wedding festival from coming to a grinding halt, and he saved the hosts and the newly married couple from tremendous shame and embarrassment.

But Jesus also did this miracle to show his disciples and those closest to him something about who he was and what he came to do. Most of the wedding guests, and even the host of the wedding festival, probably did not even know that this miracle had taken place. But his followers and his family who were there with him saw Jesus use empty, no-longer-used religious vessels, and fill them with something that brought joy. And this is a beautiful picture of who Jesus is and what he came to do.

New Wine for You

Jesus didn’t come to institute rigorous religious requirements, nor did he come to do away with all of the old religious systems altogether. He came to take what was old and make it new again. He came to bring fresh vision and purpose to what had become empty and meaningless. He came to bring abundant life and joy.

And I believe that Jesus wants to do the same for you – and for our church.

Maybe there was a time when you read your Bible regularly, but now it’s just laying there gathering dust. Maybe you used to pray every day, but it seemed like your prayers just weren’t being answered, or maybe you just got busy and so you just stopped doing it. Maybe you used to find a lot of joy in doing good things for others, but it seems like they don’t appreciate what you’re doing for them, so you’re tempted to give up.

I believe that Jesus wants to fill those places in your life that are empty with new wine. I believe that Jesus wants to reignite the passion that you once had for God. I believe that God wants to do something new and fresh in your life. Jesus may not always do exactly what you want him to do, but he will always give you what you need if you ask. The Bible says that God is a Father who wants to give us good gifts (Matt. 7:11), and Jesus said that our Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13).

New Wine for Our Church

I also believe that God wants to bring a new sense of life and joy to our church, to give us fresh vision and purpose.

One of the things that struck me when I first came to this church is all of the different ways that this congregation is serving the community. From hosting the food pantry and running a thrift store, to putting on monthly family fun nights and a weekly Sunday morning children’s ministry, this congregation is doing a lot of things to reach and serve the community.

But it also strikes me that there are a lot of places here in our church building that are only used once a week, or even less frequently. I get the sense that there was a time when every nook and cranny of this building was filled with people, and I would love to see that happen once again! And I’ve seen a lot of items around the church that used to be used frequently, but now they’re gathering dust because we don’t have enough people or volunteers to make use of them. I’m praying that God would bring more people to join us in our mission, and that we would once again be able to make use of all of the resources that we have here in our church.

Just like those empty ritual purification jars, Jesus wants to fill us with fresh new wine. Let us offer ourselves up as willing vessels, and let us allow God to do something amazing and miraculous in us!