A sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany
Who has been to an old-fashioned country wedding? They are splendid occasions, full of fascinating by-play and insights into the foibles of human nature. Can you imagine the effect if the beer ran out!
I thought this morning we could delve into the country wedding in the gospel reading and see what we find.
The Gospel of John is an intriguing book to study because each story has been written to include a series of underlying lessons for the reader. The story of the marriage at Cana is one of these. On the top layer we have a simple story of a country wedding but underneath John has chosen this story from his memories of Jesus to show us a series of deeper truths that are relevant to how we live today.
Starting at the surface level of the story. Cana is a small village 5-10 km from Nazareth. One of the Apocryphal gospels tells us that the groom was the grandson of Mary’s sister, which would explain why Mary knew about the problem and why the servants would listen to her.
A Jewish wedding in Galilee was a happy time and a high point in their lives for those involved, it lasted for a week. Jesus was a welcome guest at this wedding. They wanted him to be there. He wanted to be there – after his baptism in the Jordan, he has just spent three days getting there! They had no fear he would be out of his element, unable to fit in, that he would make others feel uncomfortable. There would be no awkward silences around the table where he sat. Can you imagine what it would have been like if another cousin, John the Baptist, had turned up? So, the first deeper point John makes then is that Jesus did not and does not hold aloof from innocent human happiness – a fact that many since seem to have forgotten.
Can anyone think of times elsewhere in the gospels where Jesus parties on?
(John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking and they say He has a demon; I came eating and drinking and they say; Look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’.)
So this is our first message from John: Jesus was an approachable person, a likeable human being. Ordinary people enjoyed his company and liked to share with him, and he liked to share with them. While many of Jesus' more recent followers might be dour, many others have been merry at heart. St Teresa for example disliked ‘gloomy people’ and prayed to be delivered from ‘frowning saints’. Apparently she could not only speak on serious subjects but could also tell a good story and make up amusing verses.
A famous teacher once wrote: “I commend cheerfulness to all who would win souls. There are more flies caught with honey than with vinegar, and there will be more souls led to heaven by one who wears heaven in his face than one with gloomy looks.” A thought struck when I read this – I had not thought of Heaven as a cheerful place. Earnest or worshipful, peaceful maybe, but not cheerful and relaxed. Odd isn’t it?
I think we sometimes forget this in our concerns to do the right thing.
This leads us to our second message from John. Jesus is at heart a very practical person. Our Lord assures us that on the Day of Judgement everybody will be taken aback by the verdicts being passed. Some who are much in prayer and prominent in public service but are ill-humoured, self-centred or unhelpful at home will be on the outer. Here Jesus’ behaviour at a local family wedding when the wine runs out, sets us an example. He does not grandstand his actions, it is all behind the scene. He does not show up the groom at his wedding.
Mary clearly feels confident to take her problem to Jesus – was he the mister-fix-it-man for his village I wonder? Not with power, as his ministry was only just about to start, but with kindliness. The critical point here is; Mary did not know what he would do; she just left it to him. She trusted him, no doubt from experience.
Do we have a similar confidence in Christ? And when we do take our situation to him do we have the confidence to leave the outcome to him as Mary did? Or do we try and prescribe the outcome?
We have Jesus' repeated assurances that we possess the fullest right to go to Him and tell him with utter frankness about our problems and difficulties, or the issues for others that are on our hearts. Are we confident that we are acting as we aught, or a bit embarrassed or doubtful about it? We need to remember that God has a Father’s heart towards us. It matters to him what becomes of us and how we fare. All that touches us is of interest to him – and is better for the sharing. But it is difficult, isn’t it, to not tell him what the answer should be – to tell him what he should do.
In this however we have to be like Mary, we have said what needs to be said and now we need patience. The life of the Christian is a life of paradoxes. We must lay hold of God, we must follow him closely, we must never let him go. But – we must let God alone to do his will – no pushing or second guessing the answers. Quietness before God is one of the most difficult of all Christian graces. At least I find it so - but I have found it easier the older I get – one of the gifts of increasing age, I think.
We can now move on to the third point John makes. I have said that Jesus did not grandstand the occasion. He did not even tell the bridegroom, or the MC, what was happening. He just gave instructions to the servants. And here for me is the amazing thing – the servants knew it was water yet they took it to the tables and the MC. How is that for confidence in Jesus by those who knew him! What would have happened if they had flatly refused to do it?
So when we have talked over our troubles with Our Lord and we are waiting patiently, we will find his servants, if they are obedient, doing what is needed.
Now this raises a serious question to ponder: ‘We will find his servants, if they are obedient, doing what is needed’.
The challenge from our perspective is that while we are sometimes the person asking for help, at other times we are the Christ’s servants obediently carry out the tasks we have been given. Or, and this is the worrying bit – not carrying them out, leaving serious issues not dealt with.
Perhaps this is what Jesus was thinking of when he said: “Not all those who say to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but those who do the will of my Father”.
Before we despair at our own shortcomings, we can take heart through a quick side-trip to today’s epistle and see what Paul says. He is talking about the life of the church and the way it and its members should function as a team, with each doing their own particular part. He says: “There are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in everyone.”
So, we are all called to service in the kingdom, but God provides us with that which we need for the tasks He asks us to perform. We each have our own special place, our own special contribution to make, our special gifts to contribute.
Our responsibility, and that of the church, is to recognise gifts have been given to us separately and as a congregation, and we are expected to exercise due stewardship with regard to them as those who must render and account to God. What has been given, no matter what the nature of that gift may be, is to be used for the good of the community and not for any selfish purpose.
The fellowship of the church is real, very real, and supremely significant. While we make our contribution to the work of the fellowship, so the fellowship itself is meant to give full scope and expression to each of us, helping us to be the true, cheerful children of a loving father. As a congregation then we must ask ourselves ‘are we enabling one another’? Are we on the lookout for those who have gifts but are not invited or supported to try using them? What are we missing out on? While we are awaiting a new priest to lead us, and with Lent fast approaching, it is a good time to explore the gifts we have been given and help each other to use them.
So to finish at the wedding: I see Jesus wandering back to his table, picking up his wine glass, now filled by the servants, winking at his disciples who had seen what had happened, and turning to talk to his friends and family.
So, as always with John, there are issues for us to take home and ponder:
Are we God’s trusty servants in this time and place? As individuals and as a congregation are we doing what we are called to do? Are there new directions, new tasks for us in this time of change that we have not seen or have ignored?