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More Than a Miracle

(a sermon for January 27, 2019, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 62:1-5 and John 2:1-11)

After having now officiated at 250 some-odd weddings over the years – including two within my own family this year – I think I can say with great certainty that at just about every wedding ceremony, something almost always goes wrong!

Mind you, it’s usually something very minor:  the groom stumbles on a line in the marriage vows; the flower girl panics, starts crying and refuses to walk down the aisle; the musicians miss their cue, leading to several moments of awkward silence as the processional is supposed to begin!  You know, just little mishaps that are barely noticed, much less remembered; but then, there are also things that happen that everybody sees and no one ever forgets!

Like at the wedding I attended with my parents years ago, long before I was a pastor: where literally moments before the ceremony was about to begin the church organ broke down and my father (who would be providing music for the reception) was asked if he could possibly bring his electric organ over to the church so that there could be music for the ceremony!  And so my father and I immediately rush over to the fire station where the reception was being held, lift that Hammond B3 organ on the back of the truck, head back to the church and very discreetly roll it into the sanctuary where the church organist was waiting, sheet music in hand; all of this in the space of ten minutes!  But we’re running late, and so after hitting the power switch, Dad and I go back to our seats and the organist sits down to begin playing the processional music.  Except – and this is an important piece of the story – that particular instrument was equipped with an electronic rhythm maker, AKA an automatic drumming machine which somehow in transit had inadvertently been switched on (!); so the moment the organist set her hands to keyboard to begin playing “O, Promise Me,” immediately the sanctuary was filled with a rousing and incredibly loud swing beat!  No matter the years that have gone by, I will never forget the sight of my father, red-faced and slinking down the church aisle, amidst riotous laughter (!), to turn off that automatic drummer so that the wedding could proceed!

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a great lesson for a young pastor-to-be, but not the one you might think.  For you see, I also noticed that day that while we all laughed at what had happened, at the end of it all what people remembered the most about that particular wedding day was how beautiful the bride was, how great the ceremony was, how much in love she and her groom looked to be, and how much joy there was in their starting out on this journey of life together.  So often, you see, at a wedding – as in life, actually – there’s so much more to what’s happening than what you can actually see.

In our text this morning from John’s gospel, we’re told that “there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee” and that it was attended by Jesus, his disciples and, as it happens, also Jesus’ mother.  And under the heading of something always going wrong at a wedding, during this celebration the unthinkable happens: the host runs out of wine to serve all of his wedding guests. Understand, this was no mere faux pas; in a culture where hospitality meant everything, it was literally humiliating for a family to run short of wine; indeed, this was the kind of mistake that would tarnish their family’s reputation for years to come. So with a bit of prodding, shall we say, from his mother, and even though in his own mind it was a bit early to “go public,” that his “hour has not yet come,” Jesus changed six stone water jars, each one holding some 20 to 30 gallons of water, into wine for the celebration; and not just wine, but good wine, the kind of wine that any right-thinking host would have brought out for his guests early on in the evening.

This was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, and on the face of it, changing water into wine seems to be a great act of hospitality and celebration (I always loved the story about the little boy who heard this Bible story in Sunday School, and afterward when his mother asked him what he’d learned that day, the little boy replied, “I learned that if you’re going to have a party, make sure you invite Jesus!”).  And moreover, the fact that there’s this little exchange between Jesus and his mother just makes the story for me; not only is it truly funny and delightfully real (“They have no wine,” Jesus… “Well, what’s that got to do with me, Mother? Will you please just stop pushing me!”), but also, in all seriousness, it hearkens back to everything we read about during the Advent and Christmas seasons:  Mary’s knowledge, from the very beginning, of who Jesus was and why he’d come, not simply to this wedding celebration but indeed for humanity itself.

So, no doubt, there’s great significance in this miraculous changing of water into wine; but as we heard this text read this morning did you notice that it’s never actually referred to as a miracle?  That’s right; in fact, none of the miracles Jesus performs in John’s Gospel (and there are seven of them) are called miracles but rather signs.  In other words, in this story – as with so many other stories about Jesus, especially as they’re given to us in John – there is much more happening than simply what we see.  The miracle, as it were, is meant as a sign that points us beyond the miracle itself to what we’re supposed to see:  Jesus’ power and his glory.

More than a miracle, you see, as great as that is, it’s a proclamation of everything that Christ’s coming brings to the world!

For instance, it’s worth noting that those six 30-gallon jugs of water Jesus sent them to fill were containers used by devout Jews to fulfill the law as regards ceremonial washing; even and especially at a wedding feast, there were rituals of cleansing that needed to be followed.  So these six jars were not have simply been filled with buckets of well water, but with the purified and undefiled water of the Pharisees; this is what served as the “vessel,” so to speak, of Jesus’ miracle, and in doing so Jesus transformed these symbols of an older time and older way into a harbinger for the future and the imminent arrival of a “kingdom” of God!.

I mean, even the idea that Jesus would transform something tired, worn out and empty (like, old jars of water) into that which is rich, fragrant and ripe with the fullness of joy (as is new wine for a wedding feast) points so clearly to power of God; a power manifest in abundance where once was scarcity; celebration where uncertainty had once prevailed; the salvation of God’s own people symbolized by new, good wine!  You see?  Ultimately, it’s not about water becoming wine per se, any more than it is about a harried father of the bride saving face at the reception!  It’s more than a miracle, but a sign which reveals glory of Jesus, who takes the old and makes it new;  in whom a seemingly dead end of living becomes a new life filled with purpose, both now and eternally.

And the best part is that just as in the aftermath of this wedding celebration and everything that happened there, “his disciples believed in him,” even now, these are the signs by which we also come to know him… and believe.

Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas, makes a point of saying that in John these “signs” of Jesus happen when “human resources are at an end.”  At the wedding at Cana, there is no more wine left; likewise in the other miracles recorded in John, for instance when “humans have come to an end of their medical skills, supply of food, and supply of courage, Jesus heals, feeds, and comforts amid the storm.”  Even and especially in the cross, we bear witness to the Word made flesh coming to an end of his earthly life – it is his hour of death – and yet even in death, “God who sent him will flow into him with resurrecting power that will result in his glorification.  A miracle of supply where there is only lack.”

McKenzie’s words are a reminder to us that most often in our lives we are unaware of the glory and power of Jesus in our lives until those moments that we have no other resources in our lives, or from within ourselves, to draw from.  It’s only in those times when we’ve come to realize that the old lives we’ve led have nothing more to give that we discover, much to our surprise and amazement, that there’s been something new and transformative happening all along! I mean, how is it that there are moments in each of our lives when despite the cacophony of competing voices all around us and the many contradictions that would seemingly assault us, we still can stop in the silence of a new morning and know that it is a gift at the hand of the divine? How is it that the person in the midst of their own struggle of life and living – whatever that struggle happens to be – has had every bit of strength and courage tapped out of them, and yet still wakes up in the morning secure in the knowledge of what’s expressed in that wonderful hymn, “deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome some day.”  How is it that any of us can look to the nations of the world as they currently exist, with all their division and hatred and evil seeming to run unabated, and yet still be confident to our very souls that in the end truth, and justice, and dare we say, love will prevail?

It is because ours is the God who has given us a sign in the person of Jesus, who is the Christ; and who is the one who is the very fulfillment of those hope-filled words of prophecy we heard this morning from Isaiah:  “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch… You shall no more be termed forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her.”  And, get this:  “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Sounds like it’s time to break out the new wine, because there’s going to be plenty of it!

Beloved, it’s as simple and as all-encompassing as this: Christ has come into the world not to leave that world as it is, nor to leave you and me standing alone in the midst of life’s sorrow and its emptiness.  Christ has come that we might be filled up as surely as were those stone jars with water that became wine.  Christ has come that you and I might begin to recognize the signs of his presence and power; and in doing so start to behold his glory: in our worship, in our work, in our prayer and service, in our relationships with one another, and in life unfolding.  And the thing is, when it happens it might just seem like a miracle; but in truth, it’s much more than that.  It’s the place where by God’s good grace life – true life – begins!

That each one of us here might discover that wondrous truth for ourselves is my prayer for us today.  May it be said of you and of me , just as those wedding guests discovered in Cana, that the best was indeed yet to come.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on January 27, 2019 in Epiphany, Jesus, Life, Ministry, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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God’s Delight

gods-love(a sermon for January 17, 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 62:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

One of the very first weddings I was asked to perform as a young pastor was for a couple of “seasoned citizens” in our community.  Both the bride and groom were long retired, and had been widowed for quite some time: in fact, their story was that they’d been longtime friends – they grew up together in that town – and years later, when each had lost their respective spouses they’d found support and comfort in each other; so eventually they decided that they wanted to spend their remaining years together, and now they wanted to get married.

And so here we were all together at the home of the bride for some “pre-marital counseling,” which even back then seemed pretty odd to me, given how young I was at the time (in fact, I remember saying to them that I should be asking them for advice, not the other way around)!  But as I recall, it was all going very well; at least until I asked the bride, whose name was Agnes, a very simple and routine question:  if she intended to take the groom’s last name when they were wed.  And it was at this precise moment that the warm gaze of this wonderful woman suddenly turned “steely” in my direction as she answered firmly, “I most certainly am not!  I have spent a lifetime building a name in this community, and I’m not about to give that all up now to marry this man!”

It’s at this point that John, the groom, turns to his bride-to-be, eyes wide open and jaw having dropped to the floor, and says (and I swear, he answered it just this way), “Madam, if you’re going to marry me, you’re going to have to take my name!”  Well, from there on things just got ugly (!); and as they then engaged in a rather heated “discussion” of this particular issue, I awkwardly shuffled papers around wondering if there was a way I could slip out of there!

But by golly, come the wedding day – yes, there was a wedding day (!) – Agnes didn’t take John’s name, and John had to learn to live with it!  And truthfully, I could completely understand why:  in that community there were (and in fact still are) several businesses and buildings with Agnes’ family name on them, and as far as Agnes was concerned, that family name was emblematic of her very identity, who she was and what her life had been up till that point, and she wasn’t about to let that go!

There’s no underestimating, you see, the importance or power of one’s name!  Last week, you’ll remember, we spoke about how a name not only says who you are but also often a way of showing whose you are; well, likewise, one’s name also goes a long way in establishing or preserving one’s identity in the world.  There’s a reason why some new parents will often take months to choose the right name for their newborn; not only does it need to sound good (especially when you’re yelling that name out the back door:  “Michael Ware Lowry, you get in this house!”), but it needs to have meaning, some level of power and significance for that child being named, whether it’s in the meaning of the name itself, or who or what that name might represent; because that name, in some fashion, is going to express something of its bearers’ identity, and so the right name becomes crucial.

There’s actually a fair amount of biblical precedent for all of this: there are many instances throughout scripture where one’s name has everything to do with his or her character or faith; and, in fact, there are stories when a change of name ends up representing a shift in that person’s relationship with God. In Genesis, for instance, Jacob’s name becomes Israel, which tells us that Jacob is no longer a liar or deceiver, but now “the prince with God.”  There’s Abram who, in faith, becomes Abraham; Saul of Tarsus, who as a result of his conversion on the Damascus Road, takes on the name of Paul, an apostle of the Lord. Each name change ends up affirming the true identities of its namesake to the entire world.  Well, this morning as we return to Isaiah we see a similar affirmation extended to the nation of Israel and the whole people of God, which includes you and me.

Now, what’s interesting about this passage is that it’s set on the devastated streets of Jerusalem.  This is what is often what is referred to as “Third Isaiah,” and it takes place just as God’s people have been brought home from exile: just as God had promised, just as Israel had hoped and prayed for so long; and yet, what’s clear here is that Israel’s story isn’t done.  They’ve come home, but it’s far from a glorious homecoming: now there’s poverty and unrest, the temple is in ruins, and there’s still this matter of Israel’s very identity, the hard reality that after all this time who and what they thought they were as God’s people barely existed anymore, if at all!  What happens to your identity after losing everything?  How do you recover when everything you are has been stripped away from you?

Well, that’s the issue here, and another interesting part of this passage is that most scholars believe that these first few verses are actually Isaiah’s words, as opposed to God’s, and that it is, in fact, a bold prayer from the prophet to God for vindication:  “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.” (One commentator I read this week suggests that this verse should be read this way:  I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent!”) “For Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch.”  In other words, “We’re still praying, God; we’re still hoping with everything within us that life will be what it once was and what it should be; can it be, O God, that righteousness can be ours once again!”

And the Lord does respond to this plea with another promise:  but this time the promise has to do with identity. Yes, “the nations shall see your vindication and all the kings your glory,” because “you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”  A new name; as The Message translates it, “a brand-new name straight from the mouth of God… no more will anyone call you Rejected, and your country will no more be called Ruined.  You’ll be called Hephzibah,” which means “My Delight,” and your land will be named Beulah, which means “Married.”  And why this name change? It’s because “GOD delights in you, and your land will be like a wedding celebration.”

What an amazing image that is!  Two people coming together, starting a new life with a new name; everyone rejoicing in this blessed new beginning:  what we have here are the people of God with a new name that not only defines, but proclaims exactly who they are and what they are about: that they are neither desolate nor forsaken but ever and always “God’s Delight.” They are henceforth and forevermore God’s own creation that embodies God’s loving purpose; and for this God rejoices!

It’s a wonderful affirmation: one that does tell us everything we need to know about God’s people, and the good news, dear friends, is that here’s a name and an affirmation that includes and encompasses you and me.

Of course, you have to wonder just how many of us find ourselves laboring under the weight of old names rather than the new. Those names might not be exactly the same as “desolate” or “forsaken,” but it could well be that some us have been saddled with names like “demeaned” or “abused” or “ignored.”  Or “lost;” “confused;” “hurting.”  Or maybe worst of all, “without worth” and “alone.”  There are so many – maybe even some in this sanctuary this morning – who know the weight of having had a name like that; they know what it’s like to have walked through a lifetime feeling unappreciated, undervalued, often despised and even abandoned.  And you see, the weight of something like that can literally end up destroying everything else that’s good about life.

Years ago in a former parish there was a woman who had a great many problems in her life, not the least of which was a complete and utter lack of self-esteem.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that she really thought of herself as a totally worthless person; and she lived her life under that assumption.  To tell the truth, this was a woman who had a great deal going for her in life:  she had a wonderful family, a good job, she was well-loved by the people around her; but this self- identification as being worthless and unlovable had colored everything else in her life.  In all honesty, the sheer weight of that was the source of a great many of her other problems!  And I remember asking her, “what is that you really want?  What is it that will make things better?”  And her answer, simply and profoundly, was this: “All I want is to be loved.  I want to be valued. I want to know I belong.”

And that’s what we all want, right?  To be loved and valued and appreciated and of worth to those around us; we want to know we belong to something and someone.  That’s what God gives us, friends; because we are named as God’s delight, each one of us uniquely created and formed in such a way that that we truly shine as we have always meant to from the beginning.

So often we forget that; or worse, we ignore it. How often it is that we carry ourselves – even you and I who are named and claimed as the people of God (!) – how often it is that we carry ourselves through this life as though it doesn’t matter; as though we cannot possibly make a difference, as though we can’t change the world, or at least touch the hearts and lives of those who within that world. And having said that, let’s be clear: ultimately, it’s God who does the work of change and spiritual growth and healing and restoration; that’s also the clear message in our Isaiah reading this morning.  But it’s also true that God has placed within each one of us what we need for that change and growth and healing to happen; that’s who we are, that’s how we’re named, you and me.

That’s why I included this morning the reading from 1 Corinthians: that “there are varieties of gift, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”  Ordinarily, you know, we tend to take these verses as a way of saying that everybody has a gift and a role to play in the body of Christ – and that’s very true – but I also think this means the each one of us needs to take good care never to assume that we don’t have the gifts necessary to fulfill what God would have us do; that we might not have the capacity for spiritual gifts!  Because trust me here, because I’ve seen it again and again: so often it will be the least likely person, at least in our eyes, who will have exactly what God needs, and frankly, what we need at that particular moment in a singular situation… and it’s been, and I mean this literally, delightful.

Right now all around us – even here in this little house of worship on Mountain Road – there is more untapped potential for the business of the God’s kingdom than we can possibly discern; more opportunities for outreach and care and extravagant welcome, more avenues for justice and peace and proclamation than we can ever know; and that’s because here are people who have been named and claimed as “God’s delight.”  The question is, when will we embrace that incredible new name that the Lord has bestowed upon us?  When will we let go of the old names and the old ways that hold us back from being the people that we can be that God wants us to be; when do we go from forsaken and desolate to a divine delight?  When will we finally join in the joy of this incredible wedding feast that’s already begun and live unto our identity as disciples of Christ and members of the Church?

That’s the challenge, beloved; that’s the call that even now our Lord is making upon our lives.  And he calls us by name, the name that he has given to us.

So let us answer that call with boldness…

…and as we join in the celebration,  may our thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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