(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