Last week we began exploring the idea of coming to know God through our physical senses. We spoke last week about using our gift of physical sight to see the magnificence of God in the creation whether that was gazing upon a mountaintop or simply seeing beauty of light reflected in a puddle of water. We also spoke about using our gift of spiritual sight to see Jesus as the visible image of the invisible God and to see through Jesus that God is loving, compassionate, and slow to anger. This week I would like us to explore our understanding of God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit through our sense of taste.
There are many studies on how many different tastes humans can experience. While there are different conclusions from these studies, all studies seem to agree that humans can taste four basic elements. We can taste sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Each of these basic elements of taste can help us come to better understand God and his call upon our lives. Let’s begin most generally with our overall sense of taste as we explore our Scripture reading from the Gospel of John, Chapter 2.
Jesus and his disciples had been invited to a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. As we will see, Jesus’ mother was present at the wedding, and it seems that Jesus’ mother had some role or standing with the couple being married. Weddings at that time were lengthy affairs, sometimes lasting up to a week. Our Gospel writer, John, shared with us that Jesus performed his first miracle at this wedding.
John wrote, “1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him [Jesus], ‘They have no more wine.’ 4 ‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they [the servants] filled them [stone jars] to the brim [with water]” (John 2:1-7).
The account here begins with a wedding scene. What do we know about weddings? We know from our own experiences that weddings are a time of celebrating love, hope, promise, and joy. A wedding celebration, should we assign a taste to it, would be sweet, bringing about pleasant feelings.
But there is a twist in the story. There was no more wine for the wedding celebration. An important element to celebration which had been present was now gone. Jesus’ mother, Mary, knew the celebration was about to become unpleasant. Mary asked Jesus to intervene. Mary’s request left Jesus with a choice. Do nothing and let the situation play itself out or do something that brings meaning to his followers about His nature and His mission. As we know, Jesus chose to act.
Jesus instructed the servants to fill six stone jars each holding 20 to 30 gallons, to be filled with water. If I have my math correct that is somewhere between 100 and 150 gallons of water! And as we consider this scene, we want to remember that water, per se, is tasteless. In its pure form, water is neither sweet, salty, sour, nor bitter. It is without taste.
John continued the story. “8 Then he [Jesus] told them [the servants], ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’
They [The servants] did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he [master of the banquet] called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best [wine] till now’” (John 2:8-10).
What had Jesus done? I think there are three things to consider. First, the most obvious. Jesus solved the immediate problem. The wedding was without wine. Now the wedding had between 100 and 150 gallons of wine or about 4,000 glasses of wine. This was something physical all people could understand. Second, Jesus took that which was tasteless, water, and transformed it into that which was choice in taste. Jesus was revealing that to be his disciple would be a transforming experience as much as taking tasteless water and turning it into choicest tasting wine. Third, Jesus transformed the use of stone jars reserved for ceremonial washings to vessels containing new choice wine for the bridegroom and his friends. Jesus was revealing that something, someone, greater than religious tradition of the past was now present and that from those traditions would come a new sense of love, hope, promise, and joy in God.
John wrote in verse 11, “11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee (at the wedding) was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his [Jesus’] disciples believed in him [Jesus]” (John 2:11). Jesus had chosen to use the absence of wine, the presence of tasteless water, and His authority over nature to create an overabundance of choice tasting wine. In doing so, Jesus brought meaning to his followers about His nature and mission, which would be very much like the sweetness of a wedding with love, hope, promise, and joy in God.
As we discussed earlier, in addition to sweetness, we can discern other senses of taste such as saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. Let’s consider saltiness.
According to the gospel writer Matthew, one of Jesus’ first teachings to his disciples dealt with the taste of saltiness. Matthew wrote in Chapter 5 of his gospel that Jesus spoke to his disciples and said, “13 You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). What might Jesus have meant by these words?
First, Jesus spoke using the plural form of the word, “You.” Jesus was speaking a personal message to the 12 disciples. “You are the salt of the earth.” Second, Jesus said you, disciples, “are” the salt of the earth. In the present, at this moment, you are the salt of the earth. Jesus did not say, “Well, someday, perhaps, maybe, you might possibly stand a chance of becoming…” Jesus said “You are…” Third, Jesus called them “salt.” Salt was valuable in Jesus’ day. Salt preserved food. Salt seasoned food. Salt was used as currency. Whatever salt touches is changed by the salt. If you add salt to something, you cannot remove salt from it. Salt was used in the worship of God in the formation of incense. To the 12 disciples there was a sacredness to salt. It was common and valuable by holy when used by God.
“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) meant these disciples had faith in Jesus and in a faith that emphasized simplicity and humility not grandeur. Christian faith shown by this band of blessed people was expressed in worshipping together with expectancy and wonder. They did not establish a headquarters or form an army. Instead, they became uncompromising people inspired and rejoicing in the blessings given to them by God and they built their life into an intensive fellowship of affection, worship, and work. These people created fellowships that became infectious changing the cultural order. That is what salt does – it changes whatever it touches.
But Jesus had a warning. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message translation of the Bible put Jesus words this way: 13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?” (Matthew 5:13a). Jesus taught that we taste saltiness, we are reminded of our relationship to him, and the commissioning we have from him to be in the world bringing out the God-flavors of this earth. Saltiness reminds us that things have changed. We have changed. But if we do not remain in Jesus, then our saltiness will be removed from us.
Saltiness reminds us of our mission, just as sweetness reminds us of the hope, love, and joy in that mission. And having considered saltiness and sweetness, we have two elements of taste remaining, bitterness and sourness. Let’s consider bitterness.
Bitter is that taste sensation often described as sharp, disagreeable, and unpleasant. Bitter can, at times, be ascribed to the personality of some people because they are sharp, disagreeable, and unpleasant. Bitter can also be ascribed to an experience that is painful. Jesus’ disciple, Peter, had such a bitter experience.
Peter had pledged to defend Jesus with his very life. But when Jesus was arrested and taken for trial, Peter ran into the safety of the dark night as did the other disciples. From the shadows, Peter followed the men leading Jesus to trial. At the place where the trial was held, a girl questioned Peter saying, “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples?” “Woman, I do not know him,” Peter answered (Luke 22:57). “58 A little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’ ‘Man, I am not!’ Peter replied. 59 About an hour later another asserted, ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’ 60 Peter replied, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Just as he [Peter] was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’ 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:58-62).
Peter’s desertion of Jesus and his denial were a bitter experience indeed. When Peter could have shown encouragement, Peter instead separated himself from Jesus. When Peter could have shown he was a faithful friend, Peter instead said he never knew Jesus. When Peter could have shown love, Peter instead was indifferent to Jesus. Peter realizing what he had done wept bitterly. We can relate to Peter’s self-condemnation.
But there was another side of this bitter experience. That side rests with Jesus. Many of us understand part of Jesus’ experience with Peter. We likely have experienced, that in our moment of greatest need, close friends or family members separated themselves from us, they acted as though they never knew us, and they showed indifference toward our difficulties. Jesus understands your pain, the bitterness of that experience. But Jesus taught us that though we experience bitterness, we must not choose to become bitter ourselves. Though Peter deserted and denied Jesus, Jesus never became bitter toward Peter. Instead, Jesus awaited the opportunity to restore Peter and replace the bitter experience with a sweet experience. This is what Jesus taught us about bitterness.
Having explored bitterness, saltiness, and sweetness there remains only one of the basic taste sensations to explore. That is sourness. Sourness is a taste that is acidic, sharp, tart, and tangy. Sourness is a taste that we can find in the cross of Christ. Jesus was crucified, nailed to a cross, and hung in the sun to die. All four gospel writers describe Jesus’ death from different vantagepoints and through the eyes of different people who were present. But one detail is found in all four gospel accounts. Roman soldiers gave Jesus his last drink before death. The last bit of moisture offered to his lips, was wine vinegar, an acidic, tart, and tangy liquid. Vinegar, in a word, is sour. We do not know why the soldiers gave Jesus anything to drink, except perhaps to see what else Jesus may say. The soldiers’ experience in this crucifixion was different from all others. Those crucified cursed those around them. Instead, Jesus forgave those who crucified him and encouraged those who followed him. Perhaps giving Jesus a sour drink was intended to enliven Jesus’ mind so the soldiers could continue to mock Jesus. Or perhaps God used the sour liquid to enliven Jesus’ mouth so that those present could hear these words from Jesus, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
I think God can use all circumstances, even the sour moments, to bring good from them. “It is finished,” was Jesus words from the cross assuring his followers that the work of the Messiah had been completed and that his body and blood given upon the cross sealed the agreement between God and those who believed in Jesus Christ. “It is finished,” meant that the forgiveness of our sins promised by Jesus at the Last Supper, had been sealed upon the cross, even with sourness in his mouth.
Sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and sweetness can be found in the story of Jesus and used by us to remember the love and sacrifice of Jesus. In a moment, we will taste the elements of the Lord’s Supper, a bit of bread and a sip from the cup. In tasting those elements, we will remember Jesus; the sweetness of choice wedding wine of hope and love, the saltiness of the gospel message to change all who hear it, the bitterness that can invade our lives if we do not follow Jesus’ example, and the sourness of vinegar used to enliven Jesus’ mouth to proclaim to our benefit, “It is finished.” Come, let us taste and see the Lord. Amen and Amen.