Sermon - 20th January 2013
Desolate or married?
Scripture - Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
[Wine. Congregation given the chance for a glass or two of wine. Small Reformed Communion glasses – at first a nasty cheap wine, after a better more expensive wine. Give them a chance to taste and comment. Maybe something subjective about the taste…. Explain the point of the story is that at weddings the best wine given out first and, once people had become a little tipsy, the cheaper stuff put out.]
Today’s readings have three themes in common. They are both, in their own way, prophetic – they speak or show God’s perspective into a situation, they are both about God’s abundant generosity and they are both about marriage.
The Bible has lots of images of marriage within it; today’s Gospel story of Jesus blessing the marriage at Cana with his first sign is often invoked in Christian marriage services – probably because it’s the only time the Gospels record Jesus being at a wedding. In the New Testament images of the Church as the bride of Christ waiting for marriage are common and, our Old Testament passage from Isaiah offers a vision of Israel’s transformation akin to that of a bride being married to her love. We have, however, in our community, a somewhat mixed attitude to marriage.
Those of us who are a little older will have memories of the bitter sweet marriages of friends. We’d go, we’d rejoice in their love and how they were able to give public voice to their love and their commitment and we’d dream of the day when such social and legal protection could be given to us.
The advent of Civil Partnerships at the very end of 2005 changed all that and now we all know many couples who have formed Civil Partnerships. Events, however, move quickly and it looks like marriage itself, as opposed to Civil Partnerships, will be opened up to us before long. The European Court dismissed a claim from a Christian registrar who felt that helping couples affirm their love and commitment was contrary to her faith, the Baptist minister Steve Chalke has recently, finally, gone public about his support of gay marriage and the attitude of many of the churches to gay folks getting married looks more and more shrill in an increasingly tolerant society.
So with these memories and experiences we can empathise with some of the emotion present in the Isaiah reading. The voice is that of a prophet speaking to the people, promising them of God’s love and transforming power. The people who had been in exile are now returned, but the city is still in ruins. The Temple, the walls and the monarchy – all the symbols of a sovereign people - are in ruins and need rebuilding. The people are desolate.
Like so many of us, not that long ago, they felt despised, forsaken by God and God’s people and they didn’t believe that the transformation symbolised by marriage in this passage could ever be theirs. Many of us remember believing that we’d never be able to marry our lovers. Many of us remember believing that society would never truly accept us. We put up with intolerance, legal discrimination and social violence believing that nothing would ever change. But change it did. The people of Israel were promised, in this passage, an amazing change;
Nations would see her righteousness instead of her ruin, kings her glory instead of her poverty. She would be given a new name, no more would she be desolate but now she would be Beulah – which means “married”.
At the marriage in Cana we know that Jesus wasn’t really ready to start his ministry. John starts his Gospel with this story and, for John, it seems that this was the earliest example he had of Jesus offering one of his signs. He blessed the wedding, perhaps wryly thinking that the couple should have got a better deal from the hotel!
We know that Jesus already blesses the loving committed relationships that we have in our community and that, when marriage comes, he will continue to bless that love, that commitment and that desire to live in stability.
The gay Republican commentator, Andrew Sullivan, wrote some years ago, that the things which would change America around homosexuality would be the right to marry and the right to serve in the Armed forces. Certainly, from our British context this seems to have been proved true. Someone’s sexuality is increasingly irrelevant and the arguments marshalled against equal marriage seem both tired and illogical.
Some say we can’t be married because we can’t procreate – ignoring the thousands of children that we bring up. Others say it’s redefining marriage and this has never happened before – ignoring redefinitions in enabling divorce, in increasing women’s rights in marriage, and in outlawing polygamy. The spectacle of Catholic bishops seeking to defend children from gay marriage is, to say the least, a little ironic.
Our society has changed so much and, whilst there are still problems, we are seeing our name and status changed just as Israel was changed from desolation to the delights of marriage in our Old Testament reading.
God’s Abundant Generosity
The story of the Wedding at Cana is almost at the start of John’s Gospel. He doesn’t include any birth narratives of Jesus but, instead, starts with his long hymn-like prologue. This story is the first time we meet Jesus in this gospel and one of only two times we meet his mother, Mary.
In John’s Gospel the miraculous things that Jesus does are not referred to as “miracles” but “signs”. This is to encourage us to look beyond the event to what it symbolises. Simply turning water into wine is a marvellous thing to do and might get people to reflect on Jesus’ supernatural power but, really, so what? But if we think about the qualities of the God this sign points to we get drawn further into the mystery of God’s loving kindness.
As we’ve seen, it was the custom, then as now, to serve wine at weddings. Then, as I suspect now, you start with the good stuff and then use cheaper wine once people are a bit tiddly. The stone jars would have held between 20 and 30 gallons each and to turn all the water in these to wine provided so much more than the guests could have ever got through. So the sign is:
- about a God who is extraordinarily generous,
- about a God who bestows good things on His people and
- about a God whose life is abundant.
The Jesus who is presented in this passage in John’s Gospel points to a God of great blessing, deep generosity and abundant life. This is the God that we should be experiencing and the God we should be presenting to the world around us.
But Jesus didn’t just tell others about God, he demonstrated and showed God’s abundant grace. He didn’t preach a sermon at the wedding about how God’s grace was like boundless amounts of good wine – he showed them, he came up with the goods. When we show what God is like we have to show this in our lives.
- If we say we believe in a God who doesn’t judge, then we need to set aside our judgementalism.
- If we say that God welcomes all to His table, then we need to practice that radical hospitality too.
- If we say that God is loving then our lives need to reflect that love.
Both our Old and New Testament passages are, in their own ways, prophetic. By this I mean they show and speak God’s truth into a situation. In Isaiah the prophet sees a glorious, transformed, future for Israel which is different from their then current state of devastation. In the Gospel passage Jesus’ actions show something of God and his abundant grace. Both passages allow us to see something of God and remind us that in our lives of Christians we are also called to be prophetic – to speak and show God’s truth in our own contexts.
Our relationships should speak of the grace and love of God – especially those of us who are married and are waiting for the state, and the church, to catch up.
- Our practice of radical hospitality should reflect the love of God which extends to all.
- Our generosity with our time, out talents and our treasure should reflect the radical love of God which gives and doesn’t count the cost.
- Our radical espousal of issues of justice should reflect the righteousness of God who is the source of all justice.
- Our believe in the dignity and worth of each person should reflect our belief in that all people are created in God’s own image.
Jesus performed signs to point people towards the truth of God. Instead of simply preaching to them he showed them, by his love and his actions, the God he wanted them to learn to love. We need to live lives which are also signs of the love of God.
Our lives should be prophetic, full of the abundant grace and generosity of God and should be a sign to others of the covenant we have with God. Like those stone jars of water turned into wine we need to allow ourselves to be continually transformed by God into the best wine.