The Table is Set

By Paul Koch

There is something fascinating and beautiful, even poetic, about a well-set table. When you enter into a room and the table has more glasses, plates, and silverware than seem necessary for a single meal, you know you are getting ready for something special, something beyond the usual. It is no longer just about eating; it is about an experience, about conversation, laughter, and fellowship. There is a ritual to the whole event as well, movements that all the guests will go through as they create memories that evening. There is love, I think, encapsulated in the abundance. In the courses and the wines, the cloth napkins and the dessert forks, there is graciousness and kindness.

When you sit at a well-set table, you know you will be there for a while. When we have guests at our table for Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving dinners, you can always tell those who haven’t had such an experience. They get a bit anxious as they feel we need to wrap it up. They want to move on to the next thing. But there usually isn’t anything else to move on to. We sit and talk and laugh and pour more wine and rejoice in that seldom appreciated gift of time. A dinner like that can sometimes go for 4 or more hours. We hear new stories from one another and quite often revisit stories that have been told over and again, though we never get tired of hearing them. And when you see that table set, you know the possibility is there for an incredible evening. You may not know exactly how it will unfold, but you have some idea, some sense of things from the very beginning.

The story of our Lord’s first sign at the wedding feast in Canna is like that beautifully set table. You can see right from the beginning that this is about something far more than a simple wedding, something more than another miracle of our Lord. Something even greater than turning water into wine. This wedding wasn’t held on just any old day, as the text says, “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there” (John 2:1). On the third day, Mary finds out that the wine has run out. A major disgrace for the hosts of the feast to be sure. So, she tells her son all about it. He doesn’t seem too concerned, “Woman what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” What he has come to do is greater than this moment, and it is not time yet for his great work to be completed. This text then turns our eyes forward to what will come, to what he will do. To things unfolding on a greater third day to an hour of glory book-ended by a cross and an empty tomb.

Yet we want this text and this moment to be the whole feast. We like this Jesus, the wine providing guy who will bail us out of a jam. This is the Jesus of our usual prayers. You conduct yourself all day long as if you mattered most. There are those you hurt, those you fail to help. You move from one selfish act to another, and then at the end of the day when you are faced with a challenge too big for you, too overwhelming, then you turn to our Lord. You have run out of wine, and you hope that Jesus will work a little magic to make it all better. Do you ever wonder if he hears those prayers and simply says, “What does this have to do with me?”

I remember working with a couple once that was on the verge of a divorce. Like most couples dealing with major issues in their relationship, they didn’t seek help until the bitter end, until that moment when you wondered if there was any way to salvage the mess of a marriage they had created for themselves. From my experience with them, the gifts of our Lord were never a major priority in their lives. They were too busy in their own careers, too busy making sure their children had all the right experiences to concern themselves with any sort of meaningful relationship with Christ. But here they were. Their wine had run out, and they desperately needed some of that Jesus magic if they were to make it.

They both spoke about how they prayed for wisdom and for peace, for understanding and reconciliation, for something, anything, so that they wouldn’t tear apart their kids lives by getting a divorce. And yet you could tell that it was difficult for them to even sit next to each other on that little sofa in my study. I’m not a licensed counselor, and I knew I was in way over my head. There was no way I had the skills to unpack the years of marital neglect and distrust that had formed between them. There was plenty of blame to go around and a deep desire for justice. Luckily, I’ve gotten better over the years in realizing when something is too big for me. I usually refer them to a professional who has the time and resources to really help them. But I thought that perhaps there was one thing I could do. In fact, there was one thing that I felt I was pretty good at doing. I could proclaim to them the gifts of Christ. I could freely give what they refused to give each other. In fact, I could help them best by getting them back into the fellowship of God’s children, back into that place that is defined by the hour of our Lord’s glory. A place of abundant forgiveness.

Just as Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about the lack of wine, so Mary doesn’t seem so concerned about his terse response. She simply turns to the servants at the feast and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” So, what does he do? He turns some water into wine. Well, he turns a lot of water into wine. Actually, he turns a lot of water into a lot of good wine, the best wine. Not the kind you usually bring out at the end of a fest. He has them fill these 6 large jars that were used for ritual purification, each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water. He has them filled to the brim. So, on the conservative side, this would have been 120 gallons of wine. The gift that Jesus provides is more than enough. It is an abundance. It is the best. It is wonderful and incredible. But remember his hour has not yet come. He’s just setting the table.

This story that happened on the third day is directing us to something greater, something more than just providing what we are lacking. It is interesting that in John’s Gospel Mary disappears from the narrative from this point on. She will be strangely absent until chapter 19 when we find her at the foot of the cross. There she appears again terrified at what she is watching. She who was directed to look for his coming hour watches him die upon Calvary’s cross. She saw him take water used or purification according to the Law and provide an abundant outpouring of the best wine is there now sees with her own eyes his anticipated hour. The hour when they pierce his side and out pours a flood of blood and water. The table is set for the third day, for the resurrection, for the joy, for hope and salvation for all who believe in him.

From his side flows the gifts of new life. The water of your Baptism covering you in the righteous garments of Christ. The water that claims you even now and declares you to be the children of God. And the blood that comes in with and under the wine so that you might feed upon the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins. The wedding feast set the table for the hour of Christ’s glory, the hour he says to you, “I love you, I will not forsake you, I will not abandon you.” And today the table is set again for a more glorious feast to come. A feast that will not end, a feast of eternal welcome and joy and laughter in the glory of God’s abundant gifts.

This table is what we attend today. This table is all I could offer that couple longing for reconciliation. Bread and wine, water and word. A place to hear again those life-changing words, “I forgive you.” This could give the courage, the freedom, the willingness to forgive one another. It can give life and hope to you today. In fact, God has promised to do just that. The table is set for you.