Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please read: Isaiah 62:1-5 and John 2:1-11
If anyone intends to be married, they will probably spend some time planning what they think will be the perfect wedding for them. About 21 years ago, Kim and I were planning our perfect wedding. We were married in Mexico. As is the custom there, we planned a special rehearsal and a dinner for the wedding party the night before the actual wedding. We reserved all of the tables of a nice little restaurant near the church and selected a special menu. It was just what we wanted. That morning, the men went out for a round of golf while the ladies had a special brunch. So while all of us guys were still out losing balls, Kim was driving home from brunch and happened to go past the restaurant. She looked, and then she looked again, almost wrecking the car. Over all of the doors were the well known stickers from the Mexico City tax collector’s office. They had sealed the restaurant closed. We were still planning to have dinner there, but nobody from the restaurant had called to tell us that they had been shut down by the tax office.
So, you can understand how both Kim and I might empathize with the couple who ran out of wine in the wedding party of today’s lesson. They ran out of wine, but we ran out of a whole restaurant! Thankfully, though, in both cases, that’s not the end of the story...
Today we read of Jesus’ first miracle. Note that, unlike some of Jesus’ other miracles, in this one, no one is healed. No one is fed. Here, all he does is make a few dozen gallons of fine wine to keep the party going. Now, besides saving that anonymous couple from embarrassment, what good did Jesus mean to do by that? Of all the ways to begin a gospel, of all the miracles that Jesus could have performed, why did he do this one first?
Look more closely and you will notice that Jesus doesn’t do anything to perform this miracle. He says no magical words over the jars of water. There was no stunning, miraculous moment. Yes, the servants had to obey Jesus’ simple commands, and we all know that sometimes what Jesus tells us to do may sound a little crazy given our cultural proximity to first century Palestine. And sometimes miracles do happen when we simply take God at his word to us. But it pushes a bit far to make the central message of this story one of how we simply have to trust and obey Jesus. The source of the miracle is not in the servants carrying the water jars on command. The subject of the miracle is purely Jesus. John just says that when they brought back the jars, the normal old water had become wonderful wine. Jesus, Emmanuel. By simply being there, Jesus transforms the water into wine.
A key to interpretation may be the odd interchange between Jesus and his mother. Mary comes to Jesus, imploring him to help out the host in this dismaying social situation, but Jesus brushes her off with, “Woman, my hour has not yet come.”
Timing is a recurring theme throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus says the hour, his hour, is coming. It is the hour of Jesus’ death, that time when, lifted up upon the cross, all his power shall be unleashed upon the world. In that hour, everything will be made manifest, the veil between us and Jesus will be lifted. Yet now, right here at the beginning, at the beginning of John’s Gospel, at the beginning of this New Year, the veil is momentarily lifted. Jesus not only supplies the wine, he becomes the wine. He is the new wine!
As the steward tells the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” See? Jesus is now the new wine. The water in those pots was water used not for drinking, but for Jewish rites of purification. Now, with Jesus, there is new blessing, new purification, new revelation. Jesus, the best new wine, is not being saved until the end of this gospel. He is being offered right now, at the first. In Jesus, the good wine is offered first.
What a miracle! The people in Cana had gathered for just another wedding, in the middle of all the ordinary, humdrum mediocrity of everyday life. What is more ordinary than water? Yet, what is more absolutely essential for life? Here, amid the water, at the wedding, at a typical party, new life breaks in. Jesus, standing among them, is the new life, the living water that only God can give.
John tells us right at the beginning of his gospel in order to let us know, right up front, that Jesus is the source of miraculous, unanticipated new life, hope, joy, cause for celebration. One would expect the best wine to be saved until the end. One would expect the best part of Jesus’ story to be saved until the end, until the last chapter. But no, John cannot contain the good news any more than an ordinary wedding could contain Jesus. Jesus breaks forth in his glory. That day, everyone could see the glory breaking out even at a wedding party. It was all very miraculous.
When Jesus left the wedding at Cana, he still had a long way to go on his journey. There would be less glorious moments for him, times when he would be rejected, humiliated, misunderstood. His hour was to be an hour of intense, terrible pain and suffering. His hour would be the cross. The glory of his first miracle at Cana did not change that. Yet the sign, the glory, enabled Jesus to continue, a sign that God would not abandon him to darkness and death.
Likewise, when you leave this sanctuary, there will be less glorious moments for you on your journey. A sweet hour of worship doesn’t change the difficulties of your life’s journey. You may have to face brokenness, suffering, disappointment. Jesus never promised any protection against that. When you leave this sanctuary, you are called to go back into a world in which hope is always in short supply.
Yet, sometimes you go out quite different from the way you came in. In worship, perhaps in the singing of a hymn, in the reading and hearing of God’s word, in the laying on of hands in prayer, or even in thoughtful reflection during silence, you see, you hear, you believe, and you are changed. The veil between you and God, between eternity and today, is drawn back. Here in our church, as at the wedding in Cana, Jesus is revealed as Lord, as master of all.
It’s the image of a wedding party that Isaiah uses in his exile sermon to portray the final vindication of God’s salvation history for the people of Israel. They know better than most how things can go wrong, how oppression can bleed and burn the life out of you. But God promises to make things right. God speaks a word of hope: “You shall no more be termed forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate… Like a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
This is where the gospel of today’s texts gets really interesting for me. I’ve just started to read a book, Reading the Bible with The Damned. The author, Bob Ekblad, basically asserts that reading the Bible here in church is one thing. Reading it in a prison among murderers and rapists or with a group of recovering alcoholics who have lost everything, or with anyone whom society has marginalized or condemned is another kind of reading… Such people are often disillusioned by the church, because we have rejected them and shown at best indifference, if not scorn to their plight.
In the Isaiah text, God was speaking to the exiles in Babylon. The exiles had lost everything of any earthly value, and then they had been literally dragged off into cultural and economic exile. They were powerless slaves. They were wondering what had happened to God. They knew that they were lost, damned…They were the lowest of the low, but had God abandoned them also? And then the most amazing thing happens… God tells them a wedding story. No, I’ve not abandoned you, my love. You are my bride. Rejoicing can also be translated as dancing. In other words, God is so delighted to take his people up again as beloved that God dances!
Marriage is a metaphor used throughout the scriptures to speak of the relationship between God and God’s people. The prophet Hoseah compares Israel to a whore, a prostitute, but God tells Hoseah to marry the prostitute Gomer as a sign that God, no matter how unfaithful we may be, is still faithful and will pursue us. It’s all about grace, really. It’s all about unmerited favour, and for God, that happens among the most unlikely people…
The question is, whether or not we in the church can comprehend the amazing grace of how God has taken us back, sinners that we are; to call us beloved, and to redeem and restore us in loving relationship. I guess the question is whether we recognize how much of a surprise this really is! If we’re not surprised, you see, we don’t know the truth that we once were the damned also. We also were the forsaken, the lost, the forgotten, the hopeless ones… But God calls us beloved. God delights in us and dances over us. Just when it looks like the party is over and we’ve run out of all of our own resources, God shows up. The party goes on… I hope you will reflect on the fact that no one is excluded at God’s wedding party. God actually chooses the most hopeless despised cases, and calls us beloved.
I should tell you that Kim and I and the rest of our wedding party ended up going to another restaurant. We got a better menu, and one of many other memorable stories of our wedding to enjoy for the rest of our lives. Even before we said our vows, grace broke in upon us. It was a foreshadowing of much to come in life and faith. The truth is, things rarely go exactly as planned, and sometimes, everything just goes completely wrong. Sometimes, it feels as though we run out of everything. Your spouse runs off, you’re cut off from meaningful employment, your health withers away, or a loved one dies a painful death. Or even when everything seems to be going well, some people have a strange emptiness, even depression. Whatever it is, it’s just not enough. Something has run out.
The Good News for us on this third Sunday of Epiphany is that God does not run out on us. God does not abandon us. Even when the timing is off, the glory of God’s grace surprises us. Anytime Jesus shows up, be it at an ordinary wedding… or worship service… or tomorrow morning while you’re at work; anytime Jesus shows up, things are transformed. That’s God’s glory. And in the light of such glory, our despair turns to hope, fear is transformed into faith, apathy is changed to commitment, death is made into life, and sometimes… even water into wine. I pray that like those first disciples…you too would believe this good news is for you!
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.