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The First of his Signs

The First of his Signs 

Sermon preached at Enmore, 2nd.Sunday after Epiphany, 20th. January 2019

Readings: Isaiah 62.1-5; 1 Cor. 12.1-11; John 2.1-11.

This morning’s readings from the Old Testament and Gospel, tell the tale of two marriages. Old Testament prophets frequently spoke of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel as being like a marriage but it was a troubled marriage. When Israel’s best sons and daughters were carried off into exile in Babylon many in Israel thought the marriage was over. In their view exile was like a divorce and God appeared to have abandoned his people. Then came the miracle of the return from exile and a renewed sense of hope that maybe God hadn’t forgotten his people after all. The context of Isaiah 62 is the experience of those Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem after years of exile in Babylon. They returned with high hopes and great expectations but their early enthusiasm was quickly dried up. Jerusalem was a mess and the task of rebuilding slow and difficult. The prophet Haggai writing around this time describes their situation in these words: “You have sown much and harvested little, you eat but you never have enough, you drink but you never have your fill, you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.” (Haggai 1.3-6)

Into this situation of discouragement and despair, Isaiah speaks wonderful words of comfort, God is giving the marriage another chance: Jerusalem, which is now like a bride forsaken, is to be rescued and God will again delight in her. The land now termed desolate will be called married. If the prophet had in mind the physical Jerusalem then this is a prophecy not yet fulfilled. The city of Jerusalem has rarely enjoyed peace and tranquility and to this day remains a focus of international conflict with two nation states claiming it as their capital. But Isaiah has more in mind than the physical wellbeing of Jerusalem: his prophesy looks forward to a new era in God’s relationship with his people where the relationship will be characterized by joy, for God promises to be faithful to his people.

The Gospel reading from John 2 gives us the well-known story of the marriage at Cana in Galilee. Weddings are joyful occasions. The love and joy experienced by the wedding couple seem to spill over and touch everyone in their vicinity. At weddings we enjoy the company of family and friends, good food and wine. (Mind you, you can have a good wedding without wine. When Rosemary and I married her parents and mine were non-drinkers so there was nothing stronger than sparkling apple at that celebration, and we thought it was a great day.) But Middle Eastern weddings often ran for several days and without abundant supplies of clean water and no refrigeration, running out of wine was a calamity. For the host and hostess this would have meant disgrace and terrible loss of face. Yet, this is far more than a story about Jesus intervening to rescue a family from social embarrassment. John tells us that this is the first of Jesus’ signs. A sign is not simply another word for a miracle. When John wrote his Gospel he had lots of miracles to choose from but he ignored most of them and chose just seven which had a special meaning and significance. More than that, the signs in John’s Gospel are moments when earth and heaven intersect or in other words they are stories which point from an earthly to a heavenly reality. In John’s signs you get a glimpse of what he calls ‘Jesus’ glory’-they tell us something about the character of Jesus.

This first of Jesus’ signs gets off to a bad start. John tells us that it was the mother of Jesus who alerted him to the fact that the wine had run out. (Incidentally John never calls Mary by her name, he always refers to her as the Mother of Jesus. And in his Gospel she only appears here in John 2 and then at the crucifixion of her son.) Jesus’ response to Mary’s comment, can be roughly translated as – this is no concern of ours. But then he adds the enigmatic `my hour has not yet come’. However, surprisingly, Jesus’ Mum seems to ignore this statement completely and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. Mary had absolute confidence that her son Jesus could deal with the situation. `Do whatever he tells you’ is a good line for any follower of Jesus. Throughout the gospels we read how Jesus taught his disciples by word and action. Like us they were slow learners. Faced with 5000 hungry mouths to feed – Jesus says to his disciples – feed them. They look at him in consternation. We only have 5 loaves and two fish! And he says bring them to me, and the crowd is fed. Then there was the time when he sent out the disciples two by two, without any resources and told them to heal the sick and preach the good news even though they had no Moore College training and they returned days later in outspoken joy, telling him: `It worked!’ The deaf heard, the blind saw and the sick were healed!

So what is this first sign really about? Some of it may be obvious: the occasion is a wedding so John wants us to connect Jesus with the Old Testament theme of God’s marriage to his people and the promise of the long awaited Messianic feast that will go on into eternity: a feast where the joy is unending and the wine never fails. Jesus is giving a foretaste of that banquet. The water –jars which Jesus gets the servants to fill are the jars used to hold water for the Jewish purification rites. The Torah declared that you needed to get clean by ritual cleansing before you came to worship God. The Talmud specified how much water you needed: one hundred men could be purified with about a cupful. Yet Jesus takes 120 gallons of the stuff- that’s enough water to purify a whole nation! – and he turns it into wine. John is telling us that from within the old Jewish system God is doing a new thing, bringing purification to Israel and to the whole world. Furthermore, the steward at the feast notes that the best wine has been saved until last. Not the Jacob’s Creek but Grange Hermitage. John is making the same claims about Jesus. Throughout Israel’s history God sent his leaders and prophets to declare his message to his people but now he sends the best messenger of all: he himself appears in human flesh. So for those with eyes to see an ordinary wedding in a very unimportant place in the vast Roman Empire is transformed into a place of revelation. The disciples of Jesus are brought close to God.

There is more to learn in John’s narrative. Notice the opening sentence of John 2. `On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee.’ There is nothing in the narrative to link the third day with anything that has happened before, so why the reference to the third day? ‘The third day’ links the wedding story with the crucifixion and resurrection story which is ‘The Story’ that all seven signs in John’s Gospel are pointing towards. And what did Jesus mean when he told his mother ‘my hour has not yet come’? Two more times that line will be repeated in John’s Gospel (7.30 & 8.20) and then when we get to the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, John finally tells us that ‘the hour has come for Jesus to be glorified.’ Again within this narrative about a joyful feast there are hints of a darker day when Jesus will not enjoy the best wine in the company of friends but will be offered sour wine on a sponge held against his parched lips, hanging on a cross in the presence of his enemies.

As usual with John there are hidden depths to every narrative but if there is a message that comes through more strongly than anything else in this story it is the theme that Jesus is the giver of life. “I am come that you may have life and life in all its fullness”, Jesus declares a little later in John’s Gospel and this theme runs throughout all of John’s narrative. At the end of the gospel the evangelist tells us that he has selected these signs from the many done by Jesus in the presence of his disciples that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and so have life in him. John fills his gospel with symbols of the grace of God being found in bread and wine, water and light. And every time we gather for the Eucharist we are reminded of and look forward to, the heavenly wedding feast of God with his people.

Philip Bradford