New Wine

Holy Trinity, Vancouver
Holy Trinity, Vancouver (Photo: Priscilla Turner)



JANUARY 20, 2013



Crisis and Catastrophe

Every marriage has its fair share of early trials and tribulations. But few, if any, will thankfully experience what Swedish newlyweds Stefan and Erika Svanstrom did when they left Stockholm on their four-month honeymoon in December 2010. 

The couple were initially stranded in Germany, as Europe was hit by one of its worst snowstorms. Then when they got to the Australian city of Cairns, they were struck by one of the most ferocious cyclones in history. After heading south to Brisbane to avoid the storm, they subsequently discovered massive flooding. So they travelled west to Perth, where they only narrowly escaped raging bush fires. 

Not surprisingly, Stefan and Eva decided to leave Australia at this point. But on flying to New Zealand, they arrived in Christchurch just after it was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. They later sought refuge in Japan. But a few days following their arrival, Tokyo was rocked by that nation’s largest earthquake on record. 

The couple finally returned to Stockholm on March 29, 2011, and when Britain’s Telegraph newspaper caught up with them, their reactions were almost British in their stoic understatement. “To say we were unlucky with the weather doesn’t really cover it!” said Eva. “It’s so absurd that now we can only laugh.” “I know marriages have to endure some trials,” said Stefan, “but I think we have been through most of them…We’ve certainly experienced more than our fair share of catastrophes.”[1] 

The issue in life generally, of course, not to mention marriage, or any other long-term relationship, is not so much whether we will face problems, but how we deal with them when they come. And if today’s Gospel from John 2 reminds us of anything, it is surely that Jesus not only cares and cares deeply about every last detail of our lives; he is more than capable of helping us cope with our challenges. He is infinitely creative in coming with up with solutions to them. What is more, this caring, capable and creative Christ has shown that he is willing and able to go the distance with us. He will even go to the cross of Calvary for our salvation. 



The Caring Christ

It’s something of a trade secret. But if we’re honest, most clergy will admit that we have somewhat mixed feelings about weddings. Often they’re great. They’re usually happy occasions and they can be deeply meaningful when a couple approaches them in a truly spiritual frame of mind. But sometimes one can’t help wondering why people bother to get married in church at all, especially when they seem more concerned about what they’re wearing or how the photos will turn out than the solemn vows that they’ll be exchanging on the day.

And then there are the receptions. I can still remember the first I ever attended as a priest, when the groom had so much to drink that he ended up thanking me publicly and quite extensively for ensuring good weather. On another occasion, the family dynamics were so problematic that the bride’s parents kept the whole wedding party waiting for more than an hour to show how much they disapproved of her choice of spouse. And there can be a lot at stake financially, of course, as in all kinds of other ways.

According to a report last year in The Globe and Mail, the average cost of a Canadian wedding rose to a cool $23,330 in 2011 and the reception alone can easily run between $5,000 and $10,000 plus nowadays. In Jesus’ day, they may not have spent so much on elaborate dresses and flower arrangements. But a wedding reception was a major family and social event. It could literally run for up to a week and generous hospitality was considered an important obligation, especially for socially prominent families with significant households, like the one in our Gospel.[2]

John’s is the only Gospel to record events at the wedding in Cana. The apostle places his account right at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, just a few days after his dramatic baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which we celebrated last week in the church calendar, and the calling of the first disciples.

The details of the story focus attention on what might first appear a rather mundane situation, even allowing for the obvious cultural importance of wedding celebrations in first century Israel. I’m also a teetotaller. My standard line for years now has been that I only drink in church – at Communion, that is! So I may be at even more of a disadvantage when I personally think about the circumstances that provoke Jesus into action in John 2.

The basic facts are pretty simple. Jesus is at a wedding with his mother and his disciples. The location is a place called Cana, which only features twice elsewhere in the historical record, but was almost certainly quite close to his home town of Nazareth, that was also in Galilee. We’re not told exactly who is getting married. But we know that they have enough resources to hold an extended wedding party, attended by a number of servants or slaves.

And we all know the problem, because the hosts run out of wine and so cannot meet the expectations of their guests. In 21st century Vancouver, potential solutions might involve ordering more from the caterers or making an emergency trip to the liquor store. But they don’t have those options in John 2. So what is the response?

First, there’s a fascinating interchange between Jesus and Mary, who clearly knows that his  resources go way beyond what might normally be available. She is even prepared to challenge her son to intervene and I’ve always found that one of the most fascinating elements of this story.

It may be important to remember here that the New Testament consistently portrays Jesus as fully human as well as fully divine. There is also some evidence that as he develops into manhood, Jesus’ awareness of his true sense of identity and calling matures over time. So one way of approaching John 2, verse 3 following is to see Mary’s prompting as a kind of trigger point that encourages him to display the full extent of his miraculous powers publicly for the first time.

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replies in verse 4 to Mary’s statement that “They have no more wine.” “My hour has not yet come.” Yet after Mary asks the servants to follow Jesus’ orders in verse 5 and he responds by instructing them to fill six jars with water in verse 7, we know that what might first have sounded a bit like a piece of maternal nagging is actually a simple cue for action. And what dramatic and awe-inspiring action it is!

So why does Jesus do what he does at all? Verse 11 makes clear that a key purpose is to show who he really is and to encourage his disciples to have faith in him. But I think that there’s also a simple human explanation here as well. Jesus is not showing off for the sake of it. He initially seems reluctant to get involved at all. Nor is he making some sort of ethical statement about the desirability of having wine at wedding receptions or in any other setting, for that matter.

But what he is showing very clearly is that he cares about the people at that wedding reception. And that includes the embarrassed hosts who cannot entertain their guests in expected style and so risk exposure to public censure and even to a potential legal liability as a result. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard people tell me in pastoral situations that they simply can’t believe that God cares much about them and especially not about the mundane details of their lives, like jobs or housing or finances. But the miracle at the wedding in Cana gives us a powerful demonstration and reminder that our caring Christ is interested and involved in everything. What is more, this caring Christ is also our infinitely capable and creative Christ, who always makes a difference.



The Capable and Creative Christ

There’s an old story about a church which had a rule for staff using the church kitchen that whoever drank the last cup of coffee should refill the pot. The trouble was that people didn’t always take the time and trouble to honour it. So one day, in an effort to motivate her fellow staff to be more responsible, the secretary taped a neatly-typed plea to the pot. 

“If Jesus drank the last cup of coffee,” she wrote, “what would he have done? Go and do thou likewise.” But the next morning, she didn’t quite get the response that she wanted. Instead, it simply read: “Jesus would have turned the water into wine instead of coffee!”[3] 

Sadly, we never experienced that over coffee hour during my time at Holy Trinity. But imagine if we did this morning! And imagine how you would have felt as a guest, if you had grasped what truly happened at the wedding party in Cana. 

The sheer scale of what Jesus does is mind-boggling. We read in verse 6 following not only that Jesus changes water into wine without apparently lifting a finger, but he does so in great quantities. We are told that the six stone jars that the servants are instructed to fill with water in verse 7 each contain 20-30 gallons and they are all filled to the brim. By my arithmetic, that makes a total of up to 180 gallons, or 1,440 pints, or in metric terms, up to 690 litres of wine as an end-result. 

That would yield more than 860 bottles in today’s terms, and it no cheap plonk that Jesus makes available. The “master of the banquet” who is mentioned in verses 8 and 9, appears to be acting as a kind of official host and MC at the event. So it is he who stands up and calls forth the bridegroom whose family would have been responsible for providing the refreshments. But even though fails to understand the miraculous dimensions of what has happened, he knows how good the result is. “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink;” he observes rather drily, “but you have saved the best till now.” 

“But you have saved the best till now.” Again, I don’t draw any general counsel to drink fine wine from this passage, or even to drink at all, especially in our modern society where so many struggle with alcohol and the abuse of it causes so much personal and social devastation. But what I do see is our caring Christ showing himself to be not only an infinitely capable Christ, who is miraculously and abundantly able to turn hundreds of litres of water into wine, but a supremely creative Christ, who wants and provides only the best for his people. 



Concluding Confidence

And as I draw to the end of this sermon and so mark the end of my public ministry at Holy Trinity after 10 years, that’s the main message that I want to leave with you. It is in Christ that we see the wondrous caring, the marvellous generosity and the amazing capability and creativity of God in human form. It is in Christ and through his ultimate sacrifice on the cross before he rose again, that we can find the only true salvation. And it is in Christ by grace through faith that we can not only enjoy a new life forever, but a blessed and abundant one day by day right here right now. 

This past year has not been an easy one and I know that Holy Trinity has suffered more than its fair share of trials and tribulations. I have already expressed my regret for any problems caused by my absence on sabbatical or by my decision not to return at the end of it, and I want to repeat that today. But as I take my  leave, I remain confident that we can and should all move forward with hope and expectation for the future. 

At my stage in life, the opportunity to pursue a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard is a very rare one indeed. When it came at the end of November, I had obvious reasons to want to pursue it, but I also faced a major quandary. So I was very grateful to the Bishop and to members of the Parish Executive that they were ready to release me from my prior commitment to the church and to bless me on my way back to New England. 

I expect to spend much of 2013 working with one of the leading scholars in my field and finishing two book projects which I began last year. This is an exciting prospect. But it’s also a somewhat uncertain one and we would welcome your prayers for God’s leading and provision as we seek God’s way forward for 2014 and beyond. 

In the meantime, Kirsten and I leave Holy Trinity with many positive memories and with much gratitude. I would not be honest if I said that arriving here at the end of 2002 in the midst of the worst political storms in our diocesan history was easy or initially very comfortable. But we worked through those problems together and we ended up finding some pretty positive solutions. 

We have seen seasons of growth and seasons of relative retrenchment. But throughout, we have been deeply conscious of God’s faithfulness and we have been very thankful for the many, many people who have given so much in so many ways to the ministry of the parish. I wish that I could express my personal gratitude to every single one this morning. Instead, I must confine my thank you’s to those who are present here today and those who may hear this sermon on tape or online at a later date. 

As we part ways and as you now move forward to the election of a new Parish Council next week, to the search for a new Rector, and to all that 2013 may hold in store, I also want to take the opportunity to offer you one last word of encouragement. The past year may have been tough, but like the unfortunate young newlyweds whose story we began with, you can thank God that you have weathered the storm. 

And as you look to the future, you can also thank God that while your prayers, your ministries and your contributions will always be important, the ultimate outcome will not depend on you. It is in God’s hands. And who is this God on whom we must rely? It is no-one less than the God who revealed his true nature in the person of Christ, the miracle-worker of Cana. 

So this is an infinitely caring, capable and creative God. This is a God who was and is willing to give everything for our sake. This is a God of new life and abundance. This is a God of redemption and resurrection. This is a God who is not afraid to keep the best to last. This is a God whose glory is shown in signs and wonders. 

So may we never forget, whatever lies ahead, that this God, this wonderful, awe-inspiring God, is our God. This is our God in whom we live and move and have our being. This is our God whom we serve. This is our God whom we worship. This is our God and with God, all things are possible! This is our God and we can be absolutely confident “that in all things God works for” our good (Romans 8:28) and God’s glory. 

Let’s bow our heads in prayer!


[3] Source:, from Christian Reader, “Lite Fare.”

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From the Pulpit and Pen of Rev. Dr. John Oakes

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