St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

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