A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 24 January 2021.
Possibly the most significant event this week has been the inauguration of Joe Biden on Wednesday. Following on from that have come executive orders, appointments and phone calls all carefully stage-managed. What a new President does in their first few days in office is watched closely all over the world.
The opening stories in each of the four gospels are likewise chosen with great care.
Two weeks ago we read the story of Jesus’ baptism, his inauguration if you like, the beginning of his public ministry. Last week we read about the calling of the first disciples, Jesus gathering his team together mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel. And this week we’ve read about the first of Jesus’ signs, as John’s gospel calls them, the wedding at Cana of Galilee.
Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t begin Jesus’ ministry in quite the same way as John does. For them Jesus’ ministry begins with preaching and teaching:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has
come near; repent and believe in the good news.’
These are the words used by Jesus in Mark’s gospel to open his ministry, Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning, Luke has the Nazareth Manifesto preached at Jesus’ first visit to the synagogue there.
All are examples of an inaugural address, if you like – they set the scene. But if actions speak louder than words then John is surely right to begin Jesus’ ministry with an action rather than words.
And this action speaks volumes:
- The wine has given out
- There are 6 stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification
- The quantity of water turned into wine is enormous
- The quality is the best
We quickly get the gist of what’s going on; and all this happens at a wedding.
Weddings are wonderful occasions.
But since the pandemic started we’ve had just two small-scale weddings at St Mary’s. They are currently allowed but only in exceptional circumstances and with just six people present. It’s been an immensely difficult time for couples wanting to get married, and weddings postponed from 2020, are now having to face the uncertainties of 2021.
But we all know just how important weddings are.
They’re rites of passage, marking a new start whenever they happen in a relationship. They’re moments of great intensity and joy in which family relationships get re-configured.
So it’s not surprising that the image of a wedding and the metaphor of marriage play such an important role in the Bible and later Christian thought.
In the Old Testament, the relationship between God and his people and in the New Testament the relationship between the Church and her Lord, are both likened to a marriage.
In Jesus’ teaching, a wedding feast symbolises the Kingdom of God.
Writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux explore the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, seeing there a metaphor for the soul’s relationship with her Lord or husband.
Not only is a wedding a joyful human occasion, but it’s also rich with potential meaning, ripe to express this Kingdom Christ came to bring, a Kingdom built on love and trust between God and his people.
So whether, as in three of the gospels, Jesus begins his ministry by preaching and teaching that the kingdom of God has come near; or whether, as in John’s gospel, Jesus begins by attending a wedding, and there turning water into wine, the message that is sent out is clear.
John wrote in the prologue to his gospel:
‘From his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.’
Saint John could have used the word ‘grace’ just once, but he doesn’t. He wants to express the overflowing nature of God’s love and mercy, ‘grace upon grace’, always here, always active, always working to transform doubt into faith, sorrow into song, and pain into peace.
May we live this out, as together we face the difficulties of this pandemic.