Last week we read the opening scene in John’s Gospel. A man named Philip found his friend, Nathanael, and told him about a rabbi, a new one who was passing through town, an itinerant rabbi. This was not unusual in first century Judaism—rabbis would emerge, their ministry gaining a following, then perhaps fizzle out. If a rabbi became super popular, there would be whispers that this one, this man, this leader, finally, might be the messiah, ordained by God, the chosen one.
The most acclaimed rabbi emerged in the generation after Jesus. His name was Simon ben Kosevah, but he came to be known as Simon bar Kokhba. “Bar Kokhba” means “son of a star,” Simon the son of the star, they called him. It’s a Hebrew phrase from Numbers 24, verse 17, a prophecy: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites.”
The passage goes on to prophesy that this person would vanquish the enemies of Israel, the son of the star as a conqueror. That’s who they thought Simon bar Kokhba would be, a messiah who would lead a military liberation against Roman occupation of the Jewish people. It was rabbi Akiva, the most respected Jewish sage of the era, who gave Simon bar Kokhba his name. Akiva who named him the messiah as Simon amassed followers from throughout the land, a peasant army, freedom fighters, liberators, who took a stand against Rome and established an independent government, which lasted almost three years, what everyone heralded as a messianic age, the fulfillment of prophecies, until the Roman empire turned to scorched earth tactics, destroying villages, committing atrocities, genocidal warfare. After the devastation, the people realized that Simon bar Kokhba was not the messiah.
I think this story helps us get a sense for the widespread hope for a messiah among villages throughout Judea, hope for a messianic age in the hearts and minds of ordinary people throughout the land, as they worked and lived in a society always under the oppressive boot of the Roman empire. Itinerant rabbis wandered the countryside, some genuine and pious and holy, others were like snake-oil salesmen, taking advantage of religion for their own gain, even political gain, as revolutionary rabbis promised the messianic kingdom, self-proclaimed messiahs promising a new age.
That’s probably why Nathanael isn’t very interested at first when Philip tells him about the talk of the town, the news about another rabbi wandering his way toward Jerusalem. “So,” Nathanael says, “Where’s this guy from?” Philip answers, “From Nazareth.” And Nathanael responds, “That place is a…” he probably would have used the same sort of language president Trump a few days ago to describe black and brown immigrants from a few countries he doesn’t like very much.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael says of Jesus’ hometown (John 1:46). Nothing good comes from that dump of a town, way up north, miles and miles from Jerusalem—Nazareth insignificant place with insignificant people, worthless.
And here he is, in our passage for today, showing up in Cana, another place of no significance. There’s nothing holy about town. No religious significance. No commercial centers. Nothing of political importance. This rabbi from Nazareth ends up in the most trivial places. The archeologists aren’t totally sure anymore where this village was, because there was nothing memorable about it—nothing worth remembering ever happened in Cana, nothing to record in the annals of history, just one of those places where ordinary life happened, inconsequential to worldly affairs.
Jesus takes his new friends: Peter and Andrew, Philip and Nathanael, and probably others in his band of followers, unremarkable people, not even worth remembering their names—he takes all of them to a wedding celebration for two people who don’t even get names in the story either. Nothing about this is memorable, nothing about this is important, nothing world-historical about this.
It sounds like Jesus is there to mingle, to have a good time, to drink a little and dance with friends. When the wine begins to run out, Mary prods her son: “They have no wine,” she says. Jesus seems indifferent, but ends up gong along with his mother’s plan. He gets together with the wait-staff, the servants, and tells them to fill some jars with water, and that water became wine.
And no one knew anything that happened of the miracle, except his mom, some of the disciples who must have been following Jesus around the party, and a few servants. There’s nothing public about this miracle. This is a sign, it says in verse 11, the first of Jesus’ signs, to reveal his glory. But his glory is revealed to servants, several of them, while the rest of the people go on with their celebration, without seeing the revelation.
If this is a sign of what Jesus is about, as an emerging rabbi, his messianic age will be underwhelming—a life of ordinary signs, appealing to ordinary servants, in ordinary places, a life without consequence to the movers and shakers in society, nothing like the appeal of messiahs that look and sound like Simon bar Kokhba, world changers.
This sign in Cana harkens back to ancient Jewish prophecies, not of wars of conquest but of dreams of abundance, a world where there’s enough food and drink for everyone, always with more left over, like water turned to wine, more wine than imagined—“a feast of well-aged wine,” Isaiah prophesies; “mountains shall drip with sweet wine,” the prophet Amos declares, “and all the hills shall flow with it” (Isa 25:6, Amos 9:13).[i]
Jesus hasn’t come to lead a violent revolt against the powers that be; he isn’t that kind of messiah. He has come to provide God’s generosity, welling up in ordinary places like Cana, among insignificant people beyond the centers of power. In a lot of ways, this is an absurd miracle, a senseless sign. It’s hard to know what difference it might make for the people gathered there, other than a great party.
But this is also a glimpse of what Jesus was sent to proclaim—that there is joy, that there is delight in the presence of others, that fellowship makes us glad, the loveliness of being together, the frivolous happiness of enjoying the abundant life of God—not only for ourselves, but the joy of invitation, of welcoming others into the celebration of life, the mutual delight in providing for others, the gladness of serving and receiving. “I have come that they may have life,” Jesus says later in John’s Gospel, “and have life abundantly.”
This is grace. A life of grace. Offering signs of joy in a world full for terror. Offering abundance in a society consumed with hording wealth. Offering hospitality in a country obsessed with borders. Perhaps there is little consequence in this kind of life—of giving ourselves to joy, to the fullness of joy for everyone—but, as we read along in John’s Gospel, we discover that this kind of life is too much for the power brokers in this world. They kill Jesus for living such a life. It turns out to be the case that the people who control this world have built their lives on the misery of others—with their politics of fear and their economics of accumulation.
The invitation, today, with this story, is to live as if there will be enough for everyone, to live as if no one has to suffer misery for others to experience abundant life, to know that all of us can live by grace, out of the generosity of God, trusting that we can share what we have because what we have has already been given by God—to believe that water will be turned into wine, that God has given us joy, the delight of life together. And that life, that joy, happens in places like Nazareth, places like Cana, among servants who refill glasses and wash dishes and pick up dirty napkins—revelations there, everywhere, perhaps unseen by most of us.
[i] “On one vine will be a thousand branches, one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a hundred gallons of wine” (2 Baruch 29:5; cf. 1 Enoch 10:19).