A sermon preached by David Barton on the Third Sunday of Epiphany. Readings: Revelations 19, 6-10. John 2, 1-11
A wedding! We all know about weddings. We’ve either been to them or been married. So we can all, as it were walk into this gospel passage, picture it all, see the shy young bride and groom receiving the congratulations of their guests – and we can feel the embarrassment of the wine coming to an end. The terrible thought: they would always be remembered as the couple at whose wedding the wine ran out. Of course, it was not a grand wedding like the ones we know. These villages in the Galilean hills were poor: a wedding like this would be very simple. But, the point is: remember the fun and delight of a wedding. Because Weddings in the bible also stand for the gathering of everyone into the love and the kingdom of God. That’s what the middle reading today is all about. The wedding feast of the lamb, and the angels are singing their hearts out with delight.
So the point here is Joy – whatever else goes on as we probe into this story, look out for that. But this is the fourth Gospel. And it’s a Gospel with layers of meaning. The Wedding Feast of the Lamb is one layer. But notice also that John says that this is the first “sign”. This Gospel is written round “signs”. Events, miracles if you like, like this one. They go on throughout this gospel, in a growing crescendo until the last sign, which is the unveiling of God’s Glory in Cross and Resurrection.
And, as always with the fourth gospel, we must look at the detail. When there is no more wine the MC tells Jesus’ Mother, “The wine has run out” and she goes to Jesus and tells him. Now Mary the mother of Jesus is referred to twice in this Gospel. Once here and then at the foot of the cross – in other words at the first and last sign. And notice, she is referred to as, not Mary, but “the Mother of Jesus”. Jesus’ reply to her here is a strange one: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come”. The “hour” in John’s Gospel is always the Cross – the moment when the love of God for us is utterly laid bare. In this Gospel Jesus always knows that this is how it will end: everything he says and does works towards it. Jesus won’t perform miracles to order. He will only point onwards to that end.
Now one of the things about this story is that it is easy to come to false conclusions. A number of years ago a friend of mine, then a young lecturer in religious studies, set up a study group of Jewish and Christian students. He chose this, the fourth Gospel as the basis of discussion. All went well until this moment, when the Jews got up and walked out. And, on one level, they were right. In John’s symbolism, the wine running out stands for the failure of Judaism: its exhausted. Mere water is left, to be replaced by the rich wine of the Christian faith. But the Jewish students were only partly right. There is a deeper layer of meaning here. Human systems, human institutions fail. All of them. Even churches fail. Think of Wales, and all those nonconformist chapels which are such a feature of every Welch valley – often two or three of them in the smallest village. Once packed full they emptied in a generation. Now they are turned into antique shops or cafes or holiday cottages. As Anglicans we shouldn’t think the same can’t happen to us. So we need to probe this text further and see what John is saying.
And here John does not want us to miss the link to the Cross. At the cross there is the second exchange of Jesus with his Mother, with again, the same form of address to Mary: “Woman”. “Woman, behold your son,” he says. We usually take that to mean that Jesus is referring to the beloved disciple, John, who stands by Mary at the foot of the cross. But look again: the one who is Mary’s son is Jesus. He asks her to look at him. She carried him in her womb and brought him to birth and nourished and raised him to a man. And now she is to see this broken body, and remember what she alone has always known – that in him is the strength and power of God. Now she is to learn what the power of God really is: love that will stop at nothing. Love that will face out injustice and cruelty and still forgive. That’s what we see on the cross.
We are not saved by the miracles of Jesus. We are saved by his defeat, his failure, his acceptance of the cross. Jesus was fully human – in the humanity he took from Mary. The most complete and full human there ever has been. He was that because he was totally open to the love of God flowing through his life. It directed everything – which is why he ends up on the cross. And we too are to find a place for this life of God in us. If we do the opposite of that, if we shut God out we end up less than we can be. In danger of being less than human, like the High Priests and the Romans who bring about the crucifixion. That is why John is so damning of them.
So to be fully who we are we need to open ourselves to the love of God, and have our eyes open to the way in which the face of Christ is there in every human being we see. That’s what Mary learned looking into the face of her son.
And this is not a matter of despair or gloom: it’s a matter of Joy, because this is grace and love poured out in abundance.
Look again at the Cana story. Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. He says “Fill the water pots with water.” And they do, and draw it off ready to serve. They must have thought it all very odd. But obedience is important here if we are to learn this Christian life. What God in Christ calls us to do is not always what we would think is the best thing to do, or even would want to do. But they do it. And they take it to the ruler of the feast, and he tastes it, and it is wonderful. He can’t help remarking on it. And everyone drinks it, and they are delighted by it. And notice the quantities here. 120 gallons is the usual calculation! More than enough for the wedding! And this is what God’s love for us means. Grace, and love pouring out through the cracks and fissures our everyday life. Putting this sign here, at the start of his Gospel, John asks us to be witnesses to just that.
Spending a long night in A&E up at the JR a few weeks ago, and watching as tired, overworked Doctors and Nurses cared for the many people who came through the doors, I reflected on how much we all depend on the compassion of strangers. To see it, it is to witness the grace of God. And it is the same for us. When we go the second mile, turn the other cheek, forgive till seventy times seven, care for the stranger, we become channels of God’s grace. We may do it obediently, out of sheer duty. But then, like the servants, we begin to know. Because doing it we enter the new world of God’s wedding feast, and find ourselves coming alive with the new life of Christ. And the angels round the throne of the Lamb laugh and rejoice with us.