This sermon is taken from John 2:1-22. I was taking a class on the Gospel of John at the time, and I had learned that these two stories are inseparable from on another. Since the story of Jesus in the Temple was the lectionary text for that day, I decided to add in the wedding at Cana story as well. I think too often we can get caught up on either one of the stories without focusing on the other: either we focus far too much on the awesome grace that Jesus provides, as symbolized in the jars overflowing with good wine, neglecting to take sin seriously; or, we forget about grace and come down entirely too hard on the side of judgment. The truth is that we need both. We need both grace and truth. This is a difficult paradox for many to hold in order. How can you be gracious while simultaneously whipping the money changers out of the Temple? Yet that is exactly what John wants us to see here: grace and truth are inseparable.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 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 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.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
So, if you know me well, you know that one of my favorite shows of all time is Friends. I happen to own all ten seasons, and if you come over to my apartment, you’ll see them proudly displayed on the shelf below the T.V. In fact, there are many times when a real-life situation will remind me of a scene from Friends, and that’s exactly what happened when I was reading this passage about Jesus in the Temple this past week. There’s a scene early on in the show when Chandler is dating Janice, and he comes to Ross and Rachel for advice, because Janice was upset with something he said. When they ask him to explain, he says: “Ok, well, Janice said, ‘Hi! Do I look fat today?’ and, uh, I looked at her…” at this point Ross cuts in and says, “Woah! You looked at her? You never look. You just answer. It’s like a reflex – ‘Do I look fat?’ ‘No!’ ‘Is she prettier than I am?’ ‘No!’…” and so on and so forth. Gradually, what Chandler comes to understand is that, in this relationship, being absolutely truthful all the time is probably not the best policy. There are some things you just say to make your partner feel good, because what is valued in those situations is not necessarily the truth, but the emotional well-being of the persons involved in the relationship. Of course, nobody involved in this scene considers that it is possible to value both.
Fortunately, we have been blessed with a number of persons throughout history who have been willing to look. We have been blessed with a number of persons who have been willing to answer the unasked questions with the sometimes very painful truth. We are blessed that though most of the world is content to turn a blind eye and answer by reflex – “Is segregation wrong?” “No!” “Is the Church corrupt?” “No!” “Is the monarchy unjust?” “No!” “Does the earth revolve around the sun?” “No!” “Is the Temple a marketplace?” “No!” – there are people like Rosa Parks, like Martin Luther, like Thomas Jefferson, like Galileo, like Jesus, like countless others who have been willing to speak the Truth boldly and prophetically even though they faced social ostracization, imprisonment, torture, and even death. We are blessed because without people willing to speak this Truth, many of us would still be stuck in cycles of oppression – stuck in poverty, stuck in slavery, stuck in systems of violence, in intellectual and religious censorship, and in sin – which is our own means of oppressing ourselves.
We call this willingness to speak the Truth the prophetic voice. Now many of us – myself included – grew up thinking that a prophet was someone who foretold the future, and that the prophetic meant the hint of things yet to come. But actually, that’s only because so often we read the prophets as pointing forward to Jesus; indeed, many of the New Testament writers have conditioned us to read the prophets as future-tellers, because they found evidence for claiming Jesus was the Messiah in the writings of the prophets. But while many of the prophets certainly seem to have dabbled in future-telling at least a little, future-telling is not the role of a prophet. The role of a prophet is to hear and speak God’s words to the people, even if those words are not ones the people wish to hear. More often than not, the role of the prophet is to speak Truth into the midst of lies, deceptions, and misunderstandings that often characterize places of established authority. Because, as almost anyone who has been in a relationship knows, any relationship based on maintaining the status quo, on keeping the peace and not riling anyone up, overtime develops certain narratives to counteract the truths that threaten that status quo, narratives like “mom only drinks to cope with the stress of her job,” or “my husband only yells at me because I constantly mess up,” or “my friend only makes fun of me because that’s just how he is.” And institutions, such as churches, schools, nations, international organizations, etc. – because they have been around a lot longer – have mastered the art of these deceptive narratives. Here are a few examples of past narratives that have already been disrupted: “Only the church has the power to pray souls out of purgatory, and in doing so we are providing a service for which we deserve to be paid.” “Imperialism is good because we are really saving the people we colonize by civilizing and Christianizing them.” And, of course, “Segregation is right because persons of color are genetically inferior.” Yet even today, after confronted with the Truth, these overarching narratives show remarkable resilience, still existing in modified forms – “I am only wealthy because I am doing God’s work and God has blessed me for it; therefore I deserve to be wealthy.” “We must invade that country because it is our job to liberate the people there by bringing them capitalism and democracy.” “Of course the prison population is predominately made up of persons of color – they are more likely to commit crimes – i.e., morally inferior.”
It is the job of the prophetic voice, embodied in people across time and space, to challenge these deceptive narratives. It is the role of the prophet to counter the lies with Truth. And while Jesus is the ultimate Truth-bearer, indeed is Truth itself, is the Prophet, capital P, who is come into the world, the prophetic does not begin and end with him. Jesus comes from a long tradition of prophets in the Hebrew Bible – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Obadiah, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi, Habbakuk, Haggai, Joel, Nahum, not to mention those who didn’t have books named after them – Deborah, Moses, Miriam, Elijah, Elisha, Balaam, and so on and so forth. Jesus is not the first, though he may rightly be called the epitome. Nor is he the last, as we have come to see. Indeed, anywhere there is Truth being spoken against the dominant deceptive narrative in a society, there the prophetic voice can be found.
So what does all this have to do with the Jesus story? I mean, is the cleansing of the Temple simply one more example of this prophetic voice? Well, yes and no. The cleansing of the Temple is one example of the way in which Jesus embodies the prophetic. In John, it happens to be the first example, for the following reason – although this story is found in all four Gospels, in the other three it comes toward the end; it is the catalyst that sets in motion Jesus’ crucifixion. Think about it for a second: Nobody knows who Jesus is. This is some random guy who comes into your place of worship and starts upending tables and driving people out, tossing the elements of worship aside and calling your sacred space a ‘den of robbers’. What would you do? The reaction in John is actually quite mild – the people ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In the other Gospels, the people end up having Jesus executed! So this prophetic act of Jesus is perhaps the most radical in all of his ministry, the most likely to upset the status quo. That is why John puts it first in his Gospel – he wants to show us that Jesus is not just here to be a nice guy. Jesus didn’t just come to save everybody and make everybody happy. No. One of the most important points about Jesus is that he brings Truth. He is the Truth. And that is something John feels we need to know immediately. Here we see a perfect example of people doing just what they were supposed to be doing according to the dominant narrative – you have to trade in your Roman money for Judean money, and you have to purchase your sacrifice so you can worship in the Temple, because this is what God wants – and Jesus not turning a blind eye, but instead looking at the Temple, looking at the established system of religious authority, and saying “actually, you know what, you do look fat. You do look like a marketplace.”
This is a perfect example of Jesus’ prophetic power. It is a sign, to use John’s language, of Jesus’ Truth-bearing capabilities, but if you read John really carefully, you’ll notice that Jesus performs a lot of signs and the actual signs aren’t the point. They’re called signs, not miracles, for a reason, because a sign points somewhere beyond itself, and in John it always points to something about Jesus. John has already told us in the prologue, but now he shows us: grace and TRUTH came through Jesus Christ. And so if you ever want to know where that prophetic power comes from; if you want to know what it is that makes Rosa Parks able to say “I don’t think I should have to stand up” or Thomas Jefferson say “When a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government” or Galileo say “And yet it moves” or Martin Luther say “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God” or the prophet Amos say “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” John’s answer is that you only need look to the Word that became flesh, the self-expression of God that has been made visible in the singular person of Jesus the Christ. That, John says, is the source of all Truth.
So what do we do with this? As Christians who follow Jesus, the source of the prophetic voice, what are we meant to do with it? Well, for one thing, we are certainly not called to ignore it. I would even go so far as to say that we are invited to embrace it, to speak the truth in love even if it means that somebody’s narrative is disrupted, even our own. See, I have been talking about institutional sin, about being a prophetic voice in the face of established authority, because so often I think this piece gets missed when we talk about Jesus as a personal Savior – but the thing is that Jesus asks us to speak the Truth to ourselves too. During this time of Lent, as we journey together with Jesus and reflect on our own spiritual journeys, in a time when Christians traditionally called themselves to repentance, what would it mean for us to examine our own lives in light of the prophetic Truth that is Jesus Christ? How might we challenge our own deceptive narratives that keep us in bondage to ourselves? In other words, what is the story we keep telling ourselves to justify the things we are doing – or the things we aren’t doing – that keep us from living into the Kingdom of God, and how does that story measure up to the prophetic Truth? Because the implications of the incarnation, of the Truth revealed in God’s Son, are not an either/or. It is not that Jesus either challenges us personally to live a better life or that Jesus challenges the places of established authority. It is a both/and. In the same way that we are a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of the wider world, we must also be willing to speak words of Truth to ourselves.
And here at last is where the wedding at Cana story comes in. For those of you checking your watches, don’t worry – this story won’t take as long to unpack. But I can’t stop here, because it is impossible to divorce the story of the Temple from the wedding at Cana in John. See, we’ve been leaving out a word. We’ve been focusing on Truth, and that’s all well and good, but we have to recognize that before we can even begin to think about Truth, there needs to be Grace, and that’s what we get with the wedding at Cana. It is the height of eschatological symbolism – eschatology is a fancy Bible scholar word that essentially means the study of the end times. The reign of God, the coming of the Kingdom, the New Jerusalem, and all that jazz. Jesus’ first sign takes place on the seventh day of his ministry – the last day of Creation, the final rest – at a wedding, a traditional Jewish symbol for the final days. And Jesus turns water into wine, good wine, an abundance of wine. As is always in John, the sign itself is not the important piece; it always means something. This wine is a symbol of the grace upon grace that Jesus offers. It is the cherry on top of the eschatological sundae in this story, because the Jewish Scriptures say that in those days ‘the wine will flow freely’. This story is not about judgment, or war, or violence, or any of the other negative things we might associate with the end of days; it is about the overwhelmingly abundant gifts of God that are available in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. It is about those same gifts that are now made real in Jesus Christ. This sign, the first sign that Jesus does in John, is an act of Grace. An act of grace, by the way, that the majority of the people at the wedding don’t even recognize – recall that the steward thought that the host had simply waited to bring out the good wine.
All of this comes before the Temple story, before the prophetic pronouncement of Truth. So before we even begin to talk about Truth, we must talk about Grace. What is grace? First and foremost, it is the intentional withholding of judgment, an act of leniency – but it is more than that. Grace is overwhelming generosity where one might expect guilt and retribution. And it is generosity that comes, not out of a desire to “heap burning coals” on the head of one’s enemy, as Paul writes in Romans 12, but rather out of a deep and genuine love for the other. Francis Chan tells a story that illustrates grace actually quite nicely – he says that his daughter came home one day, hesitant to show him a test she’d just gotten back. And when she finally did, he saw why – she had gotten a C, which, for her, was a bad grade. In response, he says that he decided to take her out for ice cream, because he wanted her to experience grace. The truth part came later, when he told her that he expected her to study and work harder so that it wouldn’t happen again. But this story that Francis Chan tells is an excellent example of how grace and truth are related to each other – an example confirmed in the placement of these two stories in John’s Gospel. Grace is not the hard-won product of our response to Truth, but rather the very context out of which Truth is borne. Before we even have the chance to confront ourselves with the Truth, we are engulfed in an overabundance of Grace. And, of course, before we even stand in the midst of the Temple and shout, ‘stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ we must recognize that God’s Grace has already saturated its hallowed courtyards. You cannot have Truth without Grace – no one will listen. And you cannot have Grace without Truth – nothing will change. So let the wine flow freely and let the prophetic voice march on, because the Spirit of God and of Jesus the Christ is forever at work among us. Amen.