Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 17th January
The more I read the gospels the more I get a strong sense that wherever Jesus turned up – people – that’s ordinary people (not the suspicious religious folks) - got really excited. With him on any invitation list, or even when he would turn up unexpectedly (unlike some people who arrive at your door, sometimes!), it seems occasions became special. Why? – well essentially because if Jesus shows us exactly what God is like (as the New Testament teaches) – and if God wants good things for his world as we’ve had read to us – then Jesus being around was a cause for celebration.
We have an interesting picture in Isaiah about a marriage to a builder (?) – and we have to ignore what our comedians might make of such an image (!) – but essentially the marriage metaphor is one of rejoicing and joy, because God promises never to forsake his people – and as Corinthians tells us he’s a generous and creative giver of gifts – and no one misses out!.
we have another intriguing picture of what he’s really like (not what we’ve made
him) in the gospel reading from John – one that I never tire of thinking (or
preaching) about – the wedding at Cana.
This incredible account, so early in the gospel is the first miracle he mentions– and John, the gospel writer, tellingly refers to what happened as a ‘sign’ – a manifestation of God’s glory revealed in his Son: - another fitting Epiphany event.
One of the stories Bishop John likes to tell is of a schoolgirl who came up to one of the Welsh Bishops dressed in his cope and mitre and asked him ‘What are you for’? I’ve heard him ask others the same question – congregations of all ages about the church – what are we for? And I remember in theological college one lunchtime being asked ‘why are you a Christian’?. Hmm. Answer? To show what God is like – or (to use the St Bs strapline) – to help people ‘discover the love of God in Jesus Christ’.
In the first chapter, John talks in very lofty terms about the Logos – the Word being made flesh; being with God and being God – and then describing for us the calling of the first disciples in a way that shows Jesus as an attractive, compelling, almost teasing figure. There’s no doubting that people are drawn to Jesus – and as Jane Williams puts it beautifully: “when they are with him, they know they are at the heart of something wonderful.” I think the children in the presence of Aslan in the C.S. Lewis Narnia books feel the same way,
To get anything of the significance of today’s gospel we need to understand a little about what was going on in a Jewish wedding. After all the processions when they’d finally enter the groom’s house, they’d eat tons of food and drink lots of wine – wine that usually had to be diluted with water, because traditional Jewish wedding celebrations didn’t just last one evening (like weddings tend to in the west) – sometimes they could last a whole week! And in Jewish culture, it was the groom who was responsible for making sure that there was enough food and wine for everyone – and he paid for everything out of his own pocket, including paying off the bride’s father!
So back to John’s account – because he gives us some important information: he tells us that ’Jesus’ mother was there; and that Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.’ Cana would have been a small village in the mountains of Galilee about 8 miles north of Nazareth (it’s now a bustling tourist attraction), and a lot of people in that area were either related to each other or would have known each other, so it’s highly likely that Jesus knew the bridal couple.
So when the wine was all gone and Mary said to Jesus, ‘they have no more wine’, this was a real problem. It wasn’t just a minor inconvenience, like running out of limes, so you have to use lemons. No - under Jewish law, each family was socially and legally obliged to provide a feast of food and wine that met the social standards of the community. And to run out of wine halfway through the wedding party would have at least made you the laughingstock of the community, ostracized and labelled forever in community folklore as anti-social!
So Mary would have been genuinely concerned about the welfare of this young couple. In effect she was saying, "Look Jesus, this is serious!” And she was hoping that he could do something to help.
What are we to make of Jesus’ reply? It’s a curious one isn’t it? - if you have a look. “Women what concern is that to you and me. My hour has not yet come.” I wonder if he might be saying something like, ’Now listen, this is one area of our relationship where you really don’t have any jurisdiction over me. I can’t go running around solving everyone’s problems just because you want me to. I have to be sensitive to what my Father wants me to do. And right now is not the time for me to reveal fully who I am and why I came.’ I don’t think he’s not saying to his mother that he won’t do anything. He’s gently reminding her that this isn’t the main point of his ministry and that Mary would have to come to terms with this just like anyone else.
So - well meaning though Mary might have been - Jesus is demonstrating that his obedience is to his Father’s purposes – just like he told his parents when he was 12 and went missing in the Temple….And that’s probably why Jesus addresses her as "Woman" or “ ‘Dear Woman’ instead of ’Mother.’ His relationship with his mother is changing. From now on, instead of approaching Jesus as her son, Mary (like all of us) needs to learn to approach him as Lord, as Saviour – as the child of promise who was now beginning to fulfil his destiny: a destiny she knew all about – having ‘hidden all these things in her heart.
Notice that Mary doesn’t give any indication that she was offended or took this the wrong way. She simply says to the servants "Do whatever He tells you." She has no idea if Jesus is going to get involved or not. What she does know that if he does get involved, your best bet is to listen closely to him. And boy isn’t there’s a message there? If you and I do whatever we sense Jesus telling us, something will happen in our lives for good; even if it makes us uncomfortable; even if it’s hard work, or inconvenient. Even if it’s something we’ve never done before or takes us way out of what they call our ‘comfort zone.’ (okay let’s move on)”Now standing there were six stone water-jars…and Jesus said to them fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take them to the chief steward - master of the banquet."
Now you really aren’t supposed to drink water from those jars! Those were the ones set aside for ceremonial cleansing. What you’re supposed to do is take a cup of water from the jar, and pour it over the top of your hand, letting the water run down your fingers. Then you’d take another cup and pour it over the other hand – that’s all! So when Jesus instructed them to fill those jars with water, they were probably nudging each other in utter disbelief. And then when he said, "Now go and give some to the steward, they’d have been incredulous – and probably a bit frightened about the response.
"Do whatever he tells you, Mary had said – however
bizarre – and this most certainly was!"
And then we’re told that the Maitre D put the cup to his lips and tasted… vintage wine – nectar! So, not surprisingly he called out to the bridegroom and said, "Could you come over here for a minute?" "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink, but you have saved the best ‘til now! This wine is incredible!"
Okay – so what’s going on? Are you getting a sense of something incredible happening here? For one thing, no one really knows how it all happened. As far as we know, Jesus never made a big show by waving his arm over the water pots. He never said, "I command this water to become wine!" He simply willed it to happen, and it happened. And isn’t this the way Jesus still does his miraculous work today? – no hype, no fuss – often acting in such a sublimely, low key, respectful way that many of us aren’t even aware that something supernatural might be going on – even when it clearly is!
And this miracle wasn’t a ’necessity’, really - a life and death thing. It isn’t like some of the other miracles Jesus performed, where someone had suffered for years, or where a child’s life hung in the balance. Yes running out of wine was a problem, as I’ve said – an excruciatingly embarrassing faux pas - But it wasn’t a life and death issue.
And yet isn’t this the point: that God cares so very much about our "non-critical" problems! He cares about the details of our lives that we might be tempted to think aren’t all that important in the scheme of things – because he loves us! He wants human life to flourish. Some people have the mistaken idea that prayer is like calling 999; something that you only do if you have an emergency. But we are so, so wrong. God cares about everything that affects his children – just like any good parent would.
And a final thing – you can’t miss it. It’s the sheer quantity of the wine - 120 to 180 gallons! Why? – because he’s an extravagant, lavish giver of good gifts! The abundance of the wine is a symbol of God’s love and grace. There’s always enough for everyone and there’s always some left over. (You see the same thing when Jesus feeds 5000 people in John chapter 6. Remember all the baskets of bread and fish left over?) Jesus gives us everything we need – and more!
And the quality?!! This wasn’t Thunderbird (T-Bird) – the cheap booze that the hobos on the Philadelphia streets used to drink out of brown paper bags; it wasn’t Lambrusco – or a even a 3 bottles for £10 deal - this was the choicest Premier Cru – a first growth claret or burgundy. And he saved the best for last! The point is that those of us who invite Jesus into their situation find him saving the best things in life for last – and always surprising us!
(There’s so much here – so I’d better stop!!) Just one last thing: What’s this about those ceremonial jars? Isn’t Jesus is sending a message right from the word go that he’s going to transform all the stuffy and restricted practices of Pharasaic Judaism - into the new wine of the Kingdom. So this isn’t about doing church and being religiously correct (as we heard yesterday, staying within safe bounds, just in case) – it’s about the breaking in of something utterly and completely – and outrageously new!.
Have a look at the end of the reading. Jesus did this, the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee, and…? revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him – put their trust in him. It changed their lives. This was all about the exuberant, creative power of God at work in bringing uncomplicated human enjoyment to a wedding – and through the rest of their time with Jesus they had to learn so many things about God’s power at work – and not all of them palatable or easy to accept. But this was an occasion of anarchic joy that is so much like God as we encounter him in Jesus – a God who works in a rich variety of ways and doesn’t follow the rules!
The challenge of Epiphany is to invite Jesus more deeply into our situations – our lives – as Lord and Master – to show us what God’s like – and….let’s do whatever he tells us – look what can happen…?! Amen