2nd Sunday After Epiphany (01/20/2019)
Is. 62:1-5; Ps. 36:5-10; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
The wedding in the town of Cana was the first miracle that Jesus performed. Most of the wonders that Jesus did and are recorded in the gospels came to peple who were in desperate need – people who were sick, blind, lame, about to drown in a storm, possessed by demons, dying, even the dead. But here there is no great crisis, other than avoiding the embarassment of throwing a big party and having the wine run out. And Jesus was not especially eager to get involved in this problem – it’s almost as though his mother had to nudge him into it.
And yet this first miracle of Jesus is traditionally one of the three Gospel stories associated with the Epiphany, with the revelation of God’s taking human flesh in Jesus Christ. John – who by the way never calls the miracles of Jesus “miracles,” but instead calls them signs, because they point to the deeper significance of what God is doing in the world in Jesus – John says that the significance of the water becoming wine is that “Jesus revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
In this sign Jesus reveals his glory – he reveals the presence of God in the world. The Bible often uses the image of wine to describe the delight of the world that God is preparing for all humanity. Isaiah says: On Mount Zion the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, and he will swallow up death forever, and wipe away the tears from all faces. (Is. 25:6-8) This is what human beings are created for: the kingdom of God, which is like a celebration with good food and good wine that never ends and where death never separates us from one another. And now Jesus reveals his glory: the wine of the kingdom of God is here, here at this wedding celebration in Cana, the very best wine that has been saved for the end, and now is here for everyone to drink.
And the Bible also often describes the coming kingdom with the image of a wedding feast. Isaiah uses this image in today’s first reading: like a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so God will rejoice over God’s people. The book of Revelation ends with the wedding feast of the Lamb of God, where God is finally united forever with his beloved people. “The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast” – how many of the parables of Jesus start that way?
And what does Jesus use to make this fine wine served at a wedding feast – this sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God? Water from stone purification jars used for washings, little baptisms, that were commonly done in Jewish homes in those days to ensure that people and things are ritually clean. God provided this ancient way of expressing our need for forgiveness and being renewed and made clean before God – and now Jesus uses this water and transforms it into a sign of the transforming and eternal presence of the loving God.
Here at this wedding feast, the wedding of two unnamed people, it doesn’t matter who they are, they could be anyone. Here at this wedding feast, where Jesus has been invited to attend, Jesus gives them a taste, an experience, not just of good wine that they’re probably already too drunk to appreciate, but of the glory of God who promises us so much more. Jesus invites the wedding guests at Cana to participate right now in the Wedding Feast to come, where every tear is wiped away, where the families of the earth are joined together, where love is supreme, where all the families of the earth are joined together to celebrate the love in their midst that will never end.
Christians are people from the future – people who have seen, and who have experienced, the kingdom that is to come. In a world where the kingdom has not yet arrived – where death has not yet been abolished, where every tear has not yet been wiped away and in fact where new tears continue to be shed, where the peoples of the earth have not yet been joined together in an unending covenant of love, but where new walls and deeper divides among people seem to be popping up every day – in this world Christians say that we have seen the future that God has promised us. And not only have we seen it, we have experienced it, we have tasted it and felt it, we have practiced living in the presence of Jesus, we have eaten the bread and drunk from the cup of Jesus’s life and been transformed ourselves into something of what, one day, God has promised everyone can become. We have had an Epiphany, and we believe.
Two weeks ago, when we read one of the other traditional Epiphany stories, the visit of the “wise men” in the time of King Herod, I asked what that story means for us as the people of God called Epiphany Church. How are we being drawn into being an Epiphany in our life together? And so I’d like to think about what this story of the wedding at Cana means for us as we try to find and become an Epiphany for our own day.
First, it’s not a secret that people in the United States in 2019 don’t go to church like they used to. And a lot of people wonder: are we running out of wine? Maybe once churches were places God’s presence was experienced and lived out, maybe they still have some stone jars that gave people some security in the past, but if churches know how to use them to make the kingdom of God living and tasteable today, it’s not been evident to a lot of people. We all know people, even in our own families, who don’t see it.
I’ve struggled all week with how to express this point, and I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday when reading the news about the group of students from Kentucky, from an all-boys Catholic high school on a bus trip for the abortion march on Friday, who were filmed mocking and taunting some Native American elders who were on the Mall for another event. To call it “unchristian” doesn’t really capture how shocking and disturbing it was. And I looked at this as someone who grew up Catholic, who went to an all-boys Catholic high school, and my first trip to D.C. was on a high school bus trip to the March for Life. In these kids I saw a younger version of myself, and the communities that I come from. And I see just how much I have changed in the 40 years since then – not just in changing opinions about certain topics or how I live my life as a human being, as a husband, and as a Christian. The point I want to make, though, is that I have seen in my own life how Jesus transforms the old words into new wine that speaks of the Kingdom. It’s hard to change, and especially hard for communities. Paul is right; we all have different spiritual gifts, and discerning how Jesus is transforming us into signs of the Kingdom requires respecting everyone’s gifts and listening deeply to one another. It’s hard work; did you think filling six 20-30 gallon stone water jars was easy, in the days before faucets and hoses? But if there is anything that I know, it’s that if we’re willing to do the work, there is an abundance of new wine that Jesus will make for us, and he is often saving the best for last.
Second, it’s not our place to tell Jesus how to get us more wine. At Cana, Mary brought the problem to Jesus’s attention, but she didn’t tell him what to do about it. And who would have come up with the idea of turning the water in the stone purification jars into a good Pinot Noir? Nobody but Jesus would have thought of that. But Mary has confidence: she says to the waitstaff, I don’t know what he’s going to tell you to do, but whatever he says, do it. And Jesus tells the waitstaff to fill the stone jars with water, and then to take a glass of water to the head waiter, and I’m sure they had not the slightest idea why Jesus asked them to do that, or what they were going to say when their boss said, Why are you bringing me a wine glass full of holy water? But they did what Jesus wanted, and it worked. We don’t know how God will fulfill God’s promises, we don’t know how Jesus will turn our water into wine. He is in charge, we are not.
But how do we know what Jesus wants us to do? It’s interesting in this story that the main characters have no idea what has happened. The head waiter thinks this was part of the plan all along. He calls for the groom and says, Everybody else waits for the guests to get good and drunk and then serves the cheap stuff, but you rascal! You’ve saved the best wine until now! And the groom says, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but can I have some of what you’re drinking?
But John tells us that the waitstaff knew exactly what had happened. The people who were not guests at the wedding, who were not invited there to partake of the celebration, but the people who were just there to work and to be invisible – no one thought to ask them what had happened, but they knew. The people that no one thinks to ask are usually the ones who in fact know a lot about what God is doing. If we want to discern how Jesus is making new wine for us today, we need to constantly ask ourselves who is not here, who we aren’t listening to, who is on the margins and is being overlooked, because that’s where the epiphanies happen.