Sunday, 23 November 2014

Water Becomes Wine

Wedding of Dawn and Simon Cole-Savidge

Saturday 22nd November 2014

John 2:1-11   On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."  4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."  5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now."  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

There are three subjects that they say you should never preach about:
            money, politics and sex.

Well, over the years that I’ve been preaching,
            I’ve spoken plenty of times about money
            and I’ve waded in often enough on politics
but I’ve not often had a chance to preach about sex.

Which is odd, when I stop to think about it,
            because if you ask the typical person outside of the church,
            what they think the preoccupations are of those of us inside it,
the chances are that they will say
            that Christians are preoccupied with sex,
            and who is allowed to do what, and with whom.

And yet the Bible, and Jesus in particular,
            talks a lot more about money and politics
            than about issues of sexual ethics and morality.
And so I will continue to argue that our preaching should primarily address
            issues of economics, and justice, and power;
            because these are crucial issues
                        for what it means to be followers of Christ
                        in this world in which we find ourselves.

However, today is a wedding, and so it is appropriate
            for us to have as our Bible reading
                        a story in which Jesus turns up at a wedding,
            and turns copious quantities of religious legalism
                        into unexpectedly fine wine.

So today I’m not going to preach directly about politics,
            and I’m not going to preach about how we use our money.
Rather, I’m going to preach about…
            the nature of the kingdom of God.
            (But sex might get a mention too, along the way).

John’s gospel, where we find this story of Jesus turning water into wine,
            has a special word that it uses to describe the miracles of Jesus:
            It calls them ‘signs’.

These ‘signs’ of John’s gospel
            are there, as signs often are,
            to point to something beyond themselves.

Just as a road sign might point to somewhere it wants you to go,
            or a sign on a building might point to what is inside,
So the signs of John’s gospel point to the kingdom of God;
            they point to the new way of being human before God
            that is coming into being through the person of Jesus.

And the very first of these ‘signs’,
            is set at a wedding party:
            a feast of celebration: of love, commitment, and faithfulness.

And at this party, Jesus transforms 180 gallons of water
            into the equivalent of 1,091 bottles of wine
            which is, when you think about it, quite a lot of wine for one party.

I remain quietly optimistic that there will be some wine on the table
            at the reception later,
but I think even Dawn and Simon’s collection of friends
            may struggle to get through over a thousand bottles in one sitting.

But back to John’s gospel, and of course, this is a sign:
            the importance here is not the water, or the wine,
            the importance is what they point to…

The water, we are told, was there for the Jewish ritual washing,
            it was the water of careful religious observance,
            it was the water of the law of the land.

The Jews of the first century had very strict rules about rituals;
            their whole society was built on adhesion
                        to a comprehensive religious legal code
            which regulated everything from when and how to wash your hands
            to what you could eat and wear, and even who you could marry.

The six water jars at the wedding, were just the tip
            of a whole Levitical and Deutoronomic legal iceberg
            that existed to ensure that those who kept its requirements
                        could be confident that their behaviour
                        wouldn’t jeopardise their covenant relationship with their God.

So, from a Jewish perspective,
            the water was very necessary.
Without it, the people at the party wouldn’t be able to wash in the right way
            and would become ritually unclean;
                        which would rather spoil the party;
            certainly for those who were very concerned
                        about their careful religious observance

And yet Jesus turned it into wine!

After Jesus had finished with them,
            the stone jars no longer held water
                        for washing and purifying,
            but wine for rejoicing, wine for celebrating
                        wine for the enhancing of life.

The party had been in danger of failing,
            because the wine had run out,
            and all that was left was water.
And in the face of this, Jesus transformed water into wine,
            turning a concern for strict religious law-keeping
            into a free gift of fine wine for everyone.

This sign of water-turned-to-wine
            points us to the idea that when Jesus turns up at a party,
the time for strict religious legal observance has passed,
            and the time for living life in all its fullness has arrived.

And this, says John’s gospel,
            is a ‘sign’ of the in-breaking kingdom of God

We get the same theme elsewhere in the gospels, of course,
            where the kingdom of God is spoken of as a party, or a banquet,
                        to which all are invited,[1]
            not just the righteous, the self-righteous, and the sanctimonious,
                        but the ordinary, everyday people
                                    whose lives are complex and confused.
            The kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed it,
                        embraces those whom others might deem
                        unworthy or unsuitable.

So let me put this as clearly as I can:

If the church is to be an outpost of the kingdom of God,
            then it needs to be less concerned with water,
            and more enthusiastic about wine.

It needs to be less concerned about the finer points of legal observance,
            and more enthusiastic about the new thing that Jesus is doing
            as he brings life and joy to those meet him at the party.

And so, as promised, we come to the subject of sex.
            This is, after all, a wedding celebration,
                        and none of us, surely,
                        are under any illusions about what that means.

Weddings are a celebration of the joining together
            of two people in love and covenant commitment,
not only for their own sake,
            but for the sake of the whole of society.

But, and here’s an interesting thing,
            Dawn and Simon actually got married some months ago.
I remember the day well,
            because Dawn turned up for a staff meeting that morning,
            and had to leave early to go and get married.

Simon and Dawn went to a registry office,
            made their legal promises in front of some witnesses,
                        signed some paperwork,
                        and were declared husband and wife by the registrar..

In the eyes of the law, they have been married for some time.
            But nonetheless, here they are today, with all of us,
                        for something even more wonderful to happen.
Today is where the water of their legal marriage,
            is transformed into the fine wine of a covenant entered into before God.

Today, the promises made at a legal ceremony
            in a Registry Office in Camden,
become promises made in the sight of God
            and in the congregation of his gathered people.

Water is turned into wine in our midst,
            and their marriage becomes itself a sign,
            pointing us all to the life-transforming potential
            of the coming kingdom of God.

It is one of the great tragedies of Christian history
            that those inside the church
have spent so much time and effort
            obsessing over the legalities of sexual ethics.

From debates over the rights and wrongs of contraception,
            to whether it is right for divorcees to remarry in church,
            to the current discussions around sexuality and marriage.

When we make such legalisms the touchstone of our faith,
            and when we allow our concerns for purity to dominate,
we invest ours energies into maintaining our jars of water
            whilst the wine of the kingdom runs dry in our midst.

And sometimes it takes a miracle to open our eyes
            to the work of love that God is doing in his world.
Sometimes it takes a wedding
            to turn our obsession with purity
            into something altogether more wonderful.

And so here we are today,
            and a miracle is happening in our midst.

Two people are joining themselves to one another,
            in the presence of God
            and in the company of his people.

And what God joins together,
            no-one should separate,
because the new is come, and the old is passed.

The kingdom of love is breaking into our world,
            and the blessing of God is ever made real in new ways.
Water becomes wine,
            and the party of celebration begins.

[1] Luke 14.15-24; Matt 22.1-14

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