Friday, 7 January 2022

Saving the best 'til last

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9th January 2022

Wedding at Cana by DUCCIO di Buoninsegna 1308-11, Tempera on wood, 44 x 47 cm, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

John 2.1-11
Weddings, in my experience, can be fraught with tension,
            despite their popular perception as being ‘the happiest day of your life’.
The ceremony, the exchanging of vows and rings,
            is usually fairly straightforward;
it’s all the other stuff that can cause the problems.
If I think back to my own wedding day,
            a truly terrifying 28 years ago this year,
I can still remember some of the hurdles we had to overcome
            on our way to what was, if I’m honest, a truly wonderful occasion.
The service itself went without a hitch, so to speak (!),
            although I do recall some raised eyebrows
            at our decision to omit the traditional statements
                        about marriage being given for the nurturing of children.
            Yes, even then we sensed a vocation to child-free marriage.
No, the problem arose as we arrived at the reception venue
            (Felixstowe Labour Club, if you’re interested)
which we’d hired for the princely sum of £25,
            and had spent the day before furnishing
                        with trestle tables borrowed from a nearby church,
            and decorating with balloons and ribbons.
We had set the room out with a ‘top table’,
            and four long tables for the guests.
The seating plan was a work of creative ingenuity,
            designed to avoid awkward meetings and generate joyful conversation.
So far, so good.
            The problem was with, you guessed it, the wine!
I think it’s fair to say that, as far as attitudes to alcohol are concerned,
            our two families come from quite different perspectives.
Liz’s family, and I know her Dad listens to my sermons
            so I don’t think there’s any problem with my saying this,
            are not exactly big drinkers.
And indeed many of those from her home church
            would have been strict teetotallers.
My family, on the other hand,
            cannot envisage a get-together for any reason, let alone a wedding,
            without a copious supply of table-wine.
Given that our respective and respected parents
            had generously offered to pay for the wedding reception,
we had commissioned Liz’s side to cover the food,
            and mine to cover the drink;
with the careful instruction to the caterer
            that they should ensure not only that there was plenty of wine,
            but also plenty of non-alcoholic drink too.
So far, so good. But as we arrived at the reception venue,
            and people started to find their allocated seats,
            it became clear that something wasn’t right.
Some of those who were looking forward to their wine
            found themselves confronted with a fine selection of Schloer bottles,
whilst some of those who had sworn to never let a drop pass their lips,
            had nothing before them but red, white, and rose.
Thankfully my best man was on the ball,
            and he realised that the caterers
                        had set two of the long tables entirely with wine,
                        and two with nothing but soft drinks,
            as if our seating plan had been devised around drinking preferences.
A quick word to the ushers and a few scurried rearrangements,
            and all was well.
Thankfully, our wedding did not go down in either of our families’ mythology
            as ‘the great wine disaster of 1994’.
Well, I like to think the bride and groom
            whose wedding took place at Cana of Galilee
                        had a similar tale to tell in later years,
            about how a guest at their reception
                        averted ‘the great wedding wine disaster of 30CE’.
You see, at their wedding, like ours,
            it was the groom’s responsibility to sort out the wine,
but if I’m honest, the stakes in the first century were somewhat higher,
            and the penalties for getting it wrong more far-reaching.
A first century rural Jewish wedding would have lasted all week,
            not just one afternoon,
and the whole village would have turned out and turned up
            expecting all the stops to have been pulled out.
In our world, weddings have become increasingly privatised,
            and despite the legal requirements
                        for public notice, witnesses, and unlocked doors,
            we have largely lost sight of the idea
                        that a marriage is a community event, a blessing for society.
In the first century, however, a wedding was the talk of the town,
            the centrepiece of society,
and the guest list extended far beyond family and close friends.
It’s likely that Jesus and his mother
            were part of the extended family of the couple from Cana,
            for them to have made the journey from Nazareth,
                        a walk of a couple of hours.
To run out of wine at an event such as this would have been unthinkable,
            an insult to society that would shame the couple and their family,
            and an omen of ill on the newly contracted marriage.
This is the context for the first public act
            undertaken by Jesus in John’s gospel,
and we need to understand the significance for the couple and their families,
            if we are to understand the significance of the sign
            that was Jesus turning water into wine.
He turns a situation of shame into one of rejoicing.
This, the first of the seven signs of the kingdom of God
            that we meet in John’s gospel,
is a decisive intervention into human affairs
            that saves people from shame,
            and replaces their dishonour with honour.
The first century world ran on systems of shame and honour;
            and the revelation of God
            which comes in the person of Jesus
is of a God who transforms shame
            and restores broken relationships.
Our world, too, has its systems of shame and honour,
            and we each of us live under the threat
            of being ostracised from society.
From the social media driven ‘cancel culture’,
            where people are dis-voiced for saying the wrong thing,
to the public shaming ritual of ‘doxing’,
            where a person’s personal details are laid bare before the online world,
public shaming is alive and well in the 21st century.
We may no longer tie people to the pillory at Charing Cross,
            but people are still pilloried in the press and online.
Some of us here today will have our own stories of victimisation or shaming,
            whether in our families or in our wider networks,
and it may be that we too need to hear this good news
            of a God who transforms shame into honour,
                        who overwhelms disgrace with grace.
It is not without significance that this first sign in Jesus’ ministry
            is a sign of joyfully abundant grace.
You may remember from the prologue to John’s gospel,
            which we spent time with the week before Christmas,
that in verse 16 the Word who becomes flesh
            is described as the one
            from whose fullness we have all received ‘grace upon grace’;
and this link with the prologue
            gives us a clue as to how we are to interpret
            the stone jars for the water for purification.
The prologue, in the very next verse, declares that
            ‘The law indeed was given through Moses;
            grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (1.17).
The thing is, we have to be careful with these water jars.
Too many preachers have gone down the troubling line
            of using them to characterise the so-called ‘legalism’ of Judaism,
            and its transformation into the fine wine of Christianity.
Personally, I blame Augustine
            for starting this kind of allegorical interpretation,
and the problem with it
            is that it reinforces the anti-Semitic trope of Judaism as legalism.
This wasn’t the case in the first century,
            and it isn’t the case now.
All religions are prone to legalism on occasion,
            but the historic witness of Judaism
            was that the law was a gift of God’s grace,
given to restore the divine/human relationship
            where it became distanced through human sin.
In a religious parallel to common-sense hygiene regulations,
            if someone is infected, unclean,
            they need to be kept at a distance
                        to avoid spreading their contagion.
And as we gather with our masks on,
            and as Omicron rips its way through our city,
            we all know the sense of social distancing.
In ancient Jewish culture,
            which of course lacked modern scientific understandings of disease,
the importance of distancing and cleanliness
            was nonetheless well known,
and these became encoded within their religious practice.
Being ‘unclean’ could mean
            that you had been in contact with something potentially harmful,
                        such as a dead body,
or it could mean that you had done something
            that compromised your purity.
And here we need to realise that this wasn’t all about sin,
            and it certainly wasn’t all about sexual sin.
The evangelical social purity movement of the Victorian era,
            with its emphasis on prostitution, immorality, and drunkenness,
has conditioned us to read the language of purity
            in a certain ‘sinful’ way,
and we need to resist this, even to repent of it.
A better way of thinking about the stone water jars
            is to imagine them as being full of hand sanitiser,
            except of course in this case without the alcohol!
Many of us have developed the ritual
            of sanitising our hands many times each day,
after we have touched things in a shop,
            or been on public transport,
            or shaken hands with someone.
It was a bit like this in the ancient Jewish world,
            with most people becoming unclean
            at multiple points through their day.
The ritual of washing was, at a hygiene level,
            about restoring purity so people could re-enter the home,
            so they could sit and eat with their friends and families.
But in a world where God was understood
            to be at the centre of society,
            at the heart of each home,
the language and rituals of cleanliness
            also became the language and rituals of the faith.
Because, in terms of human experience,
            it was essentially the same thing:
if God is holy,
            and our experience of ourselves is that we are not holy,
                        then we need to be purified
            if our relationship with God is to be restored,
                        if we are to draw near to God
                        and not be kept at a distance.
The cause of a person’s impurity
            might be direct sin
                        for which they need to confess and seek forgiveness,
            but equally any involvement in the compromises of daily life,
                        the experiences of being part of broken humanity,
                        not to mention the harm done to a person at the hands of others,
            can all strike a wedge between humans and their creator.
In this context, the Jewish system of ritual purification
            was a gift of grace,
            a mechanism for regular forgiveness and restoration.
The stone water jars don’t speak of Jewish legalism,
            they stand for God’s covenant,
                        for the law of Moses,
            and for God’s desire to restore broken human relationships.
The turning of this water into wine
            is not the overthrowing of that covenant,
            it is the fulfilment of it.
The sign of water-into-wine
            is a sign of God’s decisive action in Christ
                        to draw near to all who are sinners, to all who are far off,
            and to gift to all the fine wine
                        of a restored relationship with God.
In many ways it is a shame that last week was Communion rather than today,
            because of course the link between wine
                        and the death of Jesus on the cross
            is a deeply significant aspect of our own Christian rituals.
Although John’s gospel doesn’t contain an account
            of the last supper as we usually know it,
the link between the wine of God’s kingdom
            and the death of Jesus is very much there in the text.
It is only in the narrative of the crucifixion at the end of the gospel,
            and in our story for today of the wedding at Cana,
            that we get mention of Jesus’ mother;
it is only in these two stories
            that we find any mention of wine.
These two events, the water-into-wine and the crucifixion,
            book-end the gospel,
showing us that the fine wine of Cana
            is also the bitter wine of the crucifixion,
            which is in turn the sweet wine of communion;
as the death and resurrection of Christ
            creates and calls into being the community of Christ’s followers,
            who are themselves the agents of transformation in the world;
as the joyful abundance of God’s coming kingdom
            continues to draw sinners and saints alike
            into the loving embrace of God,
                        who reaches out to all, in Christ,
                        repairing relationships, relieving shame,
                        and restoring honour.
And as I draw these reflections on the story of water into wine
            toward their conclusion,
I have one parting question
            which I think it’s worthwhile our pondering,
and that question is this:
            does it feel like our wine has run out?
We might ask this question of ourselves as a church,
            and we might also ask it of ourselves
            as individual followers of Christ.
The Hebrew Bible juxtaposes images of feasting and famine,
            of drinking wine and thirsting for water,
to convey the mixed experience of God’s people.
In the book of Isaiah,
            the prophet is preparing Israel for a time of exile,
            a period of national trauma,
and in two consecutive chapters from Isaiah
            we find both the vision of a joyful banquet,
            and the recognition that sometimes the food and wine of feasting
                        must give way to the famine, guilt, and shame of exile.
It starts in chapter 24, with a prophecy of doom:
Isaiah 24.6-9
Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
            therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled, and few people are left.
 7 The wine dries up, the vine languishes,
            all the merry-hearted sigh.
 8 The mirth of the timbrels is stilled,
            the noise of the jubilant has ceased,
            the mirth of the lyre is stilled.
 9 No longer do they drink wine with singing;
            strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.
There is no escaping the fact that Israel’s wine was about to run out,
            the people of God were about to pass
            through the valley of the shadow of death.
But just as in the famous Psalm
            the darkest valley gives way to a table
            laden with food and an overflowing cup (Ps. 23.5),
so the hope that will sustain Israel in Babylon
            is the promise of a feast restored:
Isaiah 25.6-8
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,
            a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow,
            of well-aged wines strained clear.
 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
            the sheet that is spread over all nations;
             8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
            and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
            for the LORD has spoken.
So, back to my question: does it feel like our wine has run out?
As a congregation here in Bloomsbury,
            the last few years have been difficult,
            and we’re not out of the dark valley just yet.
From the recent pressures of the pandemic,
            to the long term decline in church attendance
            across all major denominations,
the people of God in our time are in retreat.
At a personal level, many of us struggle with faith;
            and Bloomsbury is one of those churches
            which attracts people who find themselves
                        in the last-chance-salon of belief,
            adrift from the certainties that nurtured them.
Maybe this is you, sustained only by the rituals of our inherited faith,
            the practices of devotion that keep us coming back for more
                        in hope that there is more to be yet discovered,
            longing for the fine wine and the abundant food
                        of God’s great banquet of faith.
Well, my friends, there is good news for us here,
            in the first sign of John’s gospel,
                        as Jesus turns water into wine, shame into honour.
This is God drawing near to us.
To conclude I’d like to share a short passage
            from Karoline Lewis’s wonderful commentary on John’s gospel:
‘This is a sign of abundance and a sign of promise.
It is a sign of abundance
            that manifests what grace upon grace tastes like.
It tastes like the best wine,
            more than you could possibly want or drink,
            when you least expect it.
‘It is a sign of promise,
            because the best is saved for last.’
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) (p. 39). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

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