Do you know that we’ve entered cold and flu season? I became acutely aware of that fact this week. Penny spent the first half of the week suffering from the stomach flu – from which she has still not completely recovered. And because I endeavor to be a good husband – sharing all things with my wife (in sickness and in health) – I got the stomach flu for the later part of the week. So it was in this acute awareness of cold and flu season that I began working on this week’s sermon. I was thinking about all we hear these days regarding what we should do to keep from becoming infected. We hear about getting vaccinated; we hear about getting plenty of rest; we hear about coughing and sneezing into our elbows; but most of all we hear about cleanliness. We hear about washing our hands regularly in soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. We’re supposed to wash: before, during, and after preparing food, before eating food, before and after caring for someone who is sick, before and after treating a cut or wound, after going to the restroom, after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, and on and on. The key to remaining free from infection is constant washing.
Now this week, as I contemplated just how successful my efforts to remain free from infection had been, I noticed something in our Gospel text for this morning. Something I might have otherwise overlooked. Jesus did not tell the servants to fill just any vessels full of the water He was about to change into wine. I mean, He could quite easily have told them to fill the wine vessels themselves. After all, by this point, they were all empty anyway. But no, Jesus tells them to fill the six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification. So I asked myself, why did Jesus tell them to fill those vessels specifically? And that got me thinking about the Jewish rights of purification. Just what were they all about?
The ritual washing for which these vessels were used is called the netilat yadayim which is the washing of the hands with a cup. These ritual washings – along with laws isolation – were about preserving the purity of the chosen people of God. One was required to wash after sleeping, or before eating and after eating, or after going to the restroom, or after coming in contact with anything that might be unclean. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What struck me about these rites of purification was their similarity to what we hear today about remaining free from infection. I was struck by their practicality and usefulness. These purity laws in the Old Testament kept the people of Israel safe. It limited the spread of infection. It kept the people healthy. These purity laws were in effect arguably the earliest public health laws we know of. And – although it would be wrong to try to know the mind of God here – this may have been God’s first purpose in instituting them. But while these purity laws were practical and useful to the people, the understanding of these laws was not practical, but moral and religious. This may have likewise been God’s intention, for only as these laws were followed zealously or religiously, did the people had some measure of safety from the spread of infection. But if God’s first purpose in the instituting of these purity laws was their understood purpose – moral and religious purity – then they were a failure. Why? Because, no amount of washing and isolation will keep you morally pure. Isolating yourself from those that might be infected with some physical impurity and regularly washing to cleanse yourself from any possible contact with physical impurity might protect you from physical infection, but it cannot protect you from moral infection. We cannot become morally infected by contact with anything external to ourselves. In the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark, following the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus and His disciples for not following these laws of ritual washing, Jesus said,“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
We are already infected inside ourselves by sin from our birth and no amount of washing can cleanse us from this terminal infection. In fact – based upon the result we see from these laws – just as God’s first purpose for these laws appears to be keeping the people safe, the second use of these laws appears to be demonstrating to the people just how incapable they are of become morally pure through any action of their own. The laws of washing instituted by God through Moses cannot cleanse us from our infection with sin. The waters contained in these ritual vessels cannot save of from sin.
But Jesus chose to use these ritual vessels to first manifest His glory. That’s what our text says. This miracle of turning water into wine was the first manifestation of Jesus’ glory. Really? I mean yes turning water into wine must have been pretty cool, and I’m sure all those there really enjoyed it (after all according to the master of the feast, it was really good wine), but does this seem all that glorious to you? So just what does John mean here when he says that this is the first manifestation of Jesus’ glory? There is only one reference to glory prior to this in John’s Gospel. In the first chapter of John we read:“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
So I believe if we are to understand just how this turning of water into wine was the first manifestation of Jesus’ glory, we must see it through the lens of this first reference to glory in John.
Jesus did not randomly choose just any old vessels to use. He chose to use the vessels set apart by the law of Moses for the purpose of purification. And our text says that He had the servants fill these vessels to the very brim – just as Jesus’ glory is “as of the only Son from the Father, FULL of grace and truth… And from His FULLNESS we have all received, grace upon grace.” These waters of purification filled to the brim could not cleanse the people of their impurity (physically yes, but not morally). But Jesus takes these waters and turns them into the finest wine and they are poured out for the people. But this is not the full expression of Jesus’ glory, it is only His first manifestation of it, for He says to Mary, “My hour has not yet come.” This manifestation of Jesus’ glory points to the place where Jesus glory is fully manifested, where His blood is poured out for our sins. The law cannot purify us of our terminal infection with sin. No amount of washing in the waters of purification can cleans us of our sin. Only through the outpouring of the true purifying waters in Jesus’ blood on the cross are we cleansed from the power of sin and death. It is in Jesus’ death on the cross that His glory – first manifested here – is truly revealed. THE CROSS IS OUR EPIPHANY!