Sermon given at St. Andrew’s URC Ealing 20th Jan 2019 by Revd Sue McCoan
One of the delights of being a minister is that you sometimes get asked to conduct weddings. I love it. I love being part of the preparations, and I love seeing all the clothes on the day, especially, of course, the bride. On this one occasion, the bride, who was already tall and stunningly good-looking, turned up in the most beautiful dress and the most eye-wateringly high heels that I’ve ever seen in real life. If I had heels that high, my toes wouldn’t reach the floor.
Outside the church, across the top step, was a grating, about this wide, with narrow slots. I did say to be careful – but who’s listening to the minister when the bride arrives. She sailed regally up the steps, and sure enough, her heel went straight down the grating.
Luckily she had good humour to match her good looks, and stood in one heel and one stockinged foot while two chaps from the church lifted the grating and prised the shoe free, and I nipped down to tell the anxious groom that she was here, but not quite ready to come in. It was all fine, but it could have gone horribly wrong.
Today we hear of Jesus at a wedding, where things almost go horribly wrong. It’s a consolation, to know you’re in good company.
This is the first miracle of Jesus, according to John’s gospel, and it’s wonderful that it takes place at a wedding reception. A wedding, the uniting of two people in marriage, is traditionally also a time of bringing together two families, and in the Bible a wedding is often used as an image of God uniting with his people, the wedding feast a taster for the heavenly banquet to come. This is long before East Enders and cynicism; you know, if you see a wedding mentioned in the Bible, that it is a good thing.
So here’s Jesus and his friends, and his mum, all having a great time at this wedding, until Mary goes off for a top-up and, oh no! the wine has run out. No nipping down to Tesco in those days – this is a disaster. Jesus is all set to keep his head down and blend in with the crowd – he’s not ready to draw attention to himself – but mother has other ideas. ‘Come on, our Jesus, you can sort this out’. Jesus can, and he does. He turns water into new wine, to everyone’s great delight, and the feast continues.
This story of the Wedding at Cana is a sign of God at work in Jesus. I’d like us to thin about three aspects of that sign, which point towards the ministry of Jesus, and so will set us up for the rest of the gospel and, I hope, for us, for the rest of the year.
The first aspect of this miracle, this sign, is the move from shame to celebration. Running out of wine at a wedding is more than a bit of a blunder; it would bring real shame upon the host if people got to know. Jesus moves quickly, once he’s been prodded into it, but he also moves with the most amazing tact and discretion. He slips into the kitchen, or the back room, wherever these water jars are kept and where the servants are working. He has a quiet word with the servants, and then slips back into the main room to mingle with the crowd. When the new wine is brought out, there’s nothing to suggest that it hadn’t been there all the time, perhaps just hidden away. All the master of the feast notices is that this is really good wine, especially for that stage of the feast when people had had a few and you could get away with serving the cheaper stuff. All that the people in the room know is that this is a great party and getting even better.
Jesus, in performing this sign, has taken away any hint of shame and disgrace and created a renewing of the celebration that works for everybody.
The second aspect of this sign, that I want us to think about, is the change from outer purity to inner joy. It is no accident that the water that Jesus turns into wine is the water that was used for the rituals of purification.
You will know how important it was for Jewish people to be ritually clean. It was one of the ways they kept themselves distinct as God’s people. There were any number of things that could make a person unclean, from eating the wrong food to touching the wrong person at the wrong time. Some of those you could avoid; others would just happen in the normal course of life, especially if you were a woman. So there needed to be some remedy for those times when you became unclean, so that you were ready to fit back fully into the community. Purification rituals using water, from hand-washing to full immersion, were one of the main ways to become ritually clean – and physically clean at the same time.
So this water matters. But Jesus goes much further than purity. Jesus takes the water from the jars that would be used for washing, so for external use, and changes it into wine which you can drink. Jesus is moving us from a faith based on observance and practice, to a faith based on inner transformation; from a symbol of purity, to an experience of joy.
And the third aspect of this sign is that Jesus takes a situation of scarcity, and turns it to one of abundance. The wine runs out. The resources that the host had provided are not enough. Jesus provides more wine and plenty of it. Those 6 stone water jars, we’re told, each hold 20-30 gallons. That’s about 100 litres each, so 600 litres altogether, equivalent to 800 bottles of wine. That should be enough to keep them going for a bit!
Actually this is not just enough. This is ridiculously more than enough, far more than you could possibly need, an embarrassment of riches. Jesus provides abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
There’s a pattern emerging here. From shame to celebration; from outer purity to inner joy; from scarcity to abundance. From human limitation, to God’s amazing grace.
It’s so easy for us to get stuck in our human limitations.
We can get stuck in shame, which has the effect of making us want to hide away. If we’ve upset someone, we might avoid them, not because we don’t want to face the other person and make friends again, but because we don’t want to face the fact the we’ve behaved badly.
We can get stuck in trying to do the right things, trying to make ourselves better people. There’s nothing wrong in doing good things, but it can become a burden, an obligation of duty rather than a gift of love.
And we can get stuck in the mentality of scarcity, and that tends to push us towards being mean to others. I’m not talking about people who are really hard up; I’m talking about people like me who have plenty but don’t always remember that. That can lead us into bad places at a national level. Here’s an example from America, not to point fingers but just because it shook me how easily good people can descend into meanness. A spokesman for Donald Trump, talking about the Mexico border, bemoaned the fact that the people who crossed it used to be mostly young single men and we could just send them back – but now it’s women, and children, whole families, not all from Mexico, and ‘we’re not allowed to send them back’ he said as if this was a huge outrage. These are people in desperate need; but in scarcity mode, we see them as a burden
Jesus offers us a way out of being stuck. Jesus leads us beyond our limitations to new possibilities.
Jesus calls us to trust that his love is bigger than our shame, and that we therefore need not hide, or shrink into ourselves. Jesus reminds us that his love is always there, sometimes quietly working behind the scenes, always to bring us into greater wholeness. Jesus teaches the way of abundance, of blessing, of being thankful for what we have and generous in our sharing.
This is the best wine; this is deep joy; this is life in all its fullness. This is a taste of the kingdom of heaven and we are invited to this feast every day of our lives.
Let’s pause, and dwell on that, and then I‘ll end with a short prayer.
For accepting us as we are,
And blessing us with more than we can imagine.
Whatever is going on in our lives,
May we always know your life, your wholeness, your joy.