Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Third Sunday of Epiphany.

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: John 2:1-11

Throughout his Gospel, St John describes the miracles that Jesus performs as ‘signs’. These are not simply spectacular acts. They are that, but more than that, they all reveal something important about Jesus and who he is. St John is well aware that Jesus did many other signs apart from the seven he records in his Gospel. St John writes at the end of the Gospel:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

He has, then, chosen these particular signs so that we too may believe in Jesus in the way his first disciples believed in him.

St John describes what happens at Cana of Galilee as the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’ (John 2:11). As the first of his signs, it shows us how we are to interpret and understand the signs that are to come. This week’s passage describing the wedding at Cana is meant to be read as part of what came before it, and it needs to be understood as an integral part of St John’s opening of his Gospel.

Having introduced us to the Word made flesh, St John describes the calling of the first disciples by outlining the first week of Jesus’ ministry. Last week, we looked at the first four days. This week’s reading is a part of this sequence of days. St John tells us the wedding took place on the ‘third day’ after the days he has outlined, that is, on the sixth day of the opening week.

So far in the Gospel, we have learnt that believing in Jesus the Word made flesh means believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. What is clear from what St John writes is that this is precisely what the first disciples did believe. ‘We have found the Messiah’, Andrew tells his brother Simon (John 1:41). ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote …’, Philip tells Nathanael (John 1:45). Nathanael expresses what they all hope and why they have come to Jesus:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ (John 1:49)

We are so used to thinking of Jesus in spiritual terms that we fail to appreciate the significance of these words. For these first disciples, this was a political statement as much as a theological one. The disciples are signing up to what they hope will be a revolution in which God and Israel will emerge triumphant. Jesus’ response does nothing to dampen their expectations. He tells them they will see ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ on him (John 1:51). With the angels on their side, in the struggle that’s to come, how can they lose?

So where does the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel lead these, his new disciples, who have pledged themselves to follow him? He takes them to meet his mother at a wedding! It will turn out to be quite a wedding, and the amount of wine that Jesus provides will help them get over any initial disappointment they may have felt. But it’s not how we would expect the ministry of the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ to begin. St John has written of Jesus, the Word become flesh, that ‘we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). St John tells us at the end of his account of the wedding that, in this sign, Jesus ‘revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (John 2:11).

While turning water into wine is quite a spectacular act, it’s a bit of a surprise that this is how the Son of God begins the work he came to do. So, the obvious question is: why does Jesus choose as his first sign to provide wine for guests who have already had more than enough to drink, so much, in fact, that the wedding has run out of wine? How does getting a wedding party out of an embarrassing situation reveal Jesus’ glory and lead his disciples (and us) to believe in him?

And where for that matter does his mother fit into all this? The way St John begins the account of the wedding is itself a little odd. St John writes:

‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.’ (John 2:1-2)

Now as a statement of fact it’s perfectly accurate. But St John has been describing the Word through whom everything came into existence, the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Son of Man whom angels will ascend and descend on. It’s been quite a build up to the first sign, but now suddenly his mother takes centre stage. It’s a bit embarrassing for some protestant believers. As if Jesus apparently getting people drunk isn’t hard enough to explain away, now there is the central role that his mother plays in all this to deal with.

It is hard to work out quite where Jesus’ mother fits into all this. That she is involved so prominently in Jesus’ first miracle seems to suggest her importance, but then when the mother of Jesus, (St John doesn’t use her name), tells Jesus that they have run out of wine, in our translations into English at least, Jesus seems to be, well, a bit dismissive. Jesus says to her:

‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ (John 2:4)

We can soften this a bit. The word translated ‘Woman’ was, at the time, a respectful way to address women. It was not, however, used to address one’s mother. And then, Jesus says to her, basically, either what’s that got to do with us or, more pointedly, what’s that got to do with me? Now it’s a fair point, and Jesus can be seen as simply stating the obvious. The shortage of wine is not their responsibility. Except that this isn’t how the mother of Jesus understands Jesus’ reply. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. To us it sounds as if Jesus has refused his mother’s request for him to help. His mother, however, seems to have understood it to mean that he is about to do something to remedy the situation.

As well, then, as the issue of how this sign reveals Jesus’ glory, we now have the problem that apparently Jesus didn’t want to reveal his glory this way in the first place, and only did so because of his mother’s intervention. Hopefully, we can explore the significance of this another time. For now, it’s worth noting that the next time we will hear of the mother of Jesus in St John’s Gospel will be at the Cross when his ‘hour’ has come and when Jesus, as he is dying on the Cross, entrusts the Beloved Disciple to his mother, and his mother to the Beloved Disciple. This means that when the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel, is writing his Gospel, the Mother of Jesus is living with him.

So how do we explain what’s going on? It is often said that there are no parables in St John’s Gospel in the way there are in the other three Gospels. We don’t, for example, get parables like the Parable of the Sower, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan. In St John’s Gospel, however, Jesus’ signs often function like parables. Yes, they happened. Unlike the parables in the other Gospels, they are actual historical events, but what happened has meaning that goes beyond the event itself. They have a symbolism and deeper spiritual meaning. So, for example, when Jesus heals the blind man in John chapter 9, he uses it as a way of teaching about spiritual blindness.

Now we can see this symbolism and deeper spiritual meaning clearly with the blind man or when Jesus uses his feeding of the 5,000 to teach about the need to feed on him. But what is the deeper meaning here at Cana? With the other signs, Jesus himself often brings out the meaning of the sign. Here he doesn’t; we have to look for it ourselves.

We don’t, however, have to look too far. St John does provide some clues. Firstly, there is the strange case of the missing bride and bridegroom. Philip has described Jesus as the one ‘about whom Moses and also the prophets wrote’. In the Old Testament, Israel is described as being married to God. She is his bride. The prophet Isaiah writes:

‘For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.’ (Isaiah 54:5)

The marriage between God and Israel took place at Sinai, after Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt. It is described in the book of Exodus. In Exodus chapter 19, for example, God tells the people of Israel in words that can be described as a marriage proposal:

‘Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.’ (Exodus 19:5)

The people all respond ‘as one’:

‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ (Exodus 19:8)

God then tells them when the wedding will take place:

‘… prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.’ 
(Exodus 19:11)

The covenant, that is, the ‘marriage’, then takes place as God gives his people the Law. The Law, including the Ten Commandments, is given, like the Wedding at Cana, on the third day, the day the Lord appears on the mountain. The Law is Israel’s marriage vows. This is what she promises to do (Exodus 24:3; 24:7).

Tragically, however, that didn’t happen, and Israel proved an unfaithful bride. The prophets describe it in graphic detail as spiritual adultery (see, for example, Ezekiel 16). But the prophets look forward to the day when God will again take Israel as his bride (see, for example, Isaiah 54:4-8; 62:1-5). Through the prophet Hosea, for example, God says:

‘And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.’ (Hosea 2:19-20)

What is more, the prophets talk about the age to come when this will happen as being a time when there will be an abundance of wine. The prophet Amos says:

‘… the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.’ (Amos 9:13)

In the prophets, wine symbolizes the age of the Messiah (Isaiah 25:6).

At the wedding at Cana, it is not just the third day, it is also the sixth day, and it was on the sixth day that the first ever wedding took place as the woman is created from the side of man (Genesis 2:21). The Messiah is also the second Adam. This time the woman in the person of the mother of Jesus, the new Eve, invites obedience and not rebellion.

At a wedding, it was the duty of the bridegroom to provide the wine. At this wedding, the bridegroom only appears at the end when the chief steward, who assumes the new wine has been provided by him, compliments him on its quality.

By providing the wine, Jesus has himself taken on the role of the bridegroom and his mother represents the people of God. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them just as Israel promised she would do. His mother represents Israel; she is the daughter of Zion and the bride of God. As I have said, when his hour finally comes, Jesus will entrust the Disciple whom he loves to her as her son; and to him, the Disciple he loves, he will give her to be his mother. The Beloved Disciple will ‘take her to his own’ (John 19:27). And as the Beloved Disciple and his new mother stand there together at the Cross, from Jesus’ side will flow water and blood as the Church comes into being (John 19:34).

That this is how St John means us to understand what is going on is confirmed by what he writes later in his Gospel. In chapter 3, he writes about a discussion between the disciples of John the Baptist and an unnamed Jew about ‘purification’. You will remember that St John tells us that the stone jars that Jesus orders to be filled with water are for the Jewish rites of purification (John 2:6). John the Baptist’s disciples are worried that Jesus is baptizing more people than John. In his response, John describes Jesus as the bridegroom and himself as the bridegroom’s friend (John 3:25-30).

As we have seen, St John concludes his account of the wedding at Cana with the words:

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)

There are many lessons we can take away from the account of the wedding at Cana of Galilee: that God always provides generously; that we should always obey Jesus commands; even that we should not be afraid to drink wine and enjoy the gifts of creation. And they are all good points, but they hardly qualify as Jesus revealing his glory in a way that would lead his disciples to believe in him as the Son of God, the King of Israel. Glory speaks of God, and the setting and way in which Jesus reveals his glory can only mean one thing.

In the same way God revealed himself as the Divine Bridegroom to his people at Sinai, so Jesus has revealed himself to his disciples as the Bridegroom the prophets promised. This is why the disciples who know what ‘Moses and the prophets wrote’ believe in him.

But first, Jesus’ hour must come. Once it has, God will again take his people to be his bride. It will be a time for rejoicing; a time when the wine will truly flow.

Which is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with us?

We are used to talking about the Church using a variety of New Testament images. One image that is not used a lot is that of the Church as the bride of Christ. It is, however, an important image, and one, I would dare to suggest, that speaks directly to the Church today.

In our second reading this week, St John combines this image of the Church with what we have learnt about Jesus in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. He describes how, in his vision, he hears a voice cry out:

‘… for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready …’ (Revelation 19:7)

Nor is it only St John who thinks like this. In Ephesians chapter 5, St Paul writes about marriage and the relationship that should exist between a husband and wife by comparing it to the relationship of Christ to his Church. He writes that this is a ‘mystery’ that is ‘mega’ (Ephesians 5:32), that’s the actual Greek word he uses! As we may say, it’s totally awesome.

There is, however, a real disconnect between the Biblical images we use to describe the Church and the way we actually do church. Not that there is anything wrong with the images themselves. After all, they are drawn from the New Testament itself: the family of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Spirit. These images of the Church are personal and relational. Even the image of the Church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, which at first sight might seem not to be, on closer inspection is completely personal and relational. It describes not the building believers meet in, but believers themselves, both individually and corporately, you and me. We are the dwelling place of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19).

No image, however, is more personal and relational than that of the bride of Christ. And here in lies its liberating power. For in the Church, we have allowed other images of the Church drawn from the world around us to take over how we think and act. We don't give them names, but their anonymity makes them all the more controlling. The images that dominate us are those of the business and the organization. We may pay lip service to the Biblical images when we meet on Sundays, but it is these other images that govern our imagination and behaviour.

It is these images that are at work, for example, when we hold synods, conferences, and church council and committee meetings. It is these images that dominate our thinking when we talk of finance and fund raising. It is these images that influence our attitude to clergy and church leaders.

If we were to remove talk about God (and, in most cases, it would require little effort to do so), then not much would change. If you don't think that's fair, read the minutes of any church meeting. Apart from a brief prayer to start with and, perhaps, the Grace at the end, the meeting is exactly like that of any other business or organization. It isn't that as a church we don't need to organize and raise money. It’s just that we move quickly from the need to organize to becoming an organization and from raising funds to focusing on finance.

If today we came across Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathaniel, we would send them on a business management course. We certainly wouldn't take them to a wedding.

The image of the Church as the bride of Christ is an image that challenges our conception of the Church. It is an image that gets to the heart of our identity as the Church and as believers. The Church exists solely for Christ. Its existence has no meaning apart from his love for us. We are God’s gift to him the heavenly bridegroom. One day, we will be married to him, and, until then, we look forward expectantly to our wedding day.

In our worship, we not only look back to our Lord’s Last Supper, we look forward in anticipation to the Lamb’s Supper, to the marriage feast at which we, the bride of Christ, will be presented by God to the Divine Bridegroom, his Son. Meanwhile, every Eucharist we join in celebrating is a spiritual communion with him. We are his – and his exclusively.

Seeing our services on a Sunday as a preview in the present of what will take place in the future should, I would suggest, have some effect on how we conduct them. It certainly should make us want to turn up to them and, perhaps, be a little bit more hesitant than we are about cancelling them.

But it is not just our services that are affected when we think of ourselves as the bride of Christ. Listen to this amazing passage from St Paul. He writes to the Church at Corinth:

‘I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-3)

Being a believer is about being in a relationship with Christ. It is about knowing him. Our longing should be to get to know him better and to please him more. Doctrine can seem dry and academic, and often it is. At its best, however, it is a description of the One we love. Ethics, rather that being a series of instructions about what we should or should not do, should be about how we return the love he has shown to us.

How well do we know him? How much do we want to please him? How important is he to us? The question Jesus asked Peter, he asks us, ‘Do you love me more than these?’ (John 21:15). How much do we love him?

In the Old Testament, Israel, despite her original good intentions, is consistently unfaithful to God. She persistently engages in idolatry by worshipping other gods beside the LORD. The people of Israel didn’t stop worshipping the LORD; they just wanted to worship other gods as well. This is why prophets describe it as spiritual adultery. It is not simply sin; it is betrayal.

So too with us. Our unfaithfulness begins with how we think of him and what we think about him. As we think of him less, we think of ourselves more. Our betrayal is seen in our values and attitudes, in our priorities and goals, and in what is important to us. The image of the bride of Christ challenges each of us to put Christ at the centre of our lives, to make him the focus of all we think and do.

A bride at her wedding wants to be beautiful for the person she is about to marry. She doesn’t see her vows as something she has to make, but something she wants to make. We believe that Jesus is Lord, and that’s right for that is who he is. But our Lord is also our Lover. If we see him purely as our Lord, then our obedience to him becomes a duty. Seeing him as our Lover makes it a pleasure. Our service is something we give willingly out of our love for him.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was described in a biography of her as ‘something beautiful for God’. Our desire both as a Church and as believers should be to be beautiful for God. Our eyes should be for him and for him alone.

The Blessed Virgin Mary tells us, as she told the servants at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it’. May we respond, not reluctantly out of a necessary obedience, but joyfully out of a passionate desire to please him who has given himself completely for us and to us: ‘we love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19).

One day, Christ will come for his bride, and it will be the time to celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb. It will be a time when we will need all the wine he can provide. Maranatha!

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

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