Second Sunday after Epiphany (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s (Southampton) on Sunday January 17, 2016.

Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11

I.

“The wine dries up, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh…No more do they drink wine with singing…There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine; all joy has reached its eventide, the gladness of the earth is banished” (Isaiah 24:7, 9, 11).

This is hardly the jubilant celebration of a wedding feast. Rather, it is from the book of Isaiah in which the prophet describes the God’s impending judgment on the earth. This is hardly good news, that the earth will dry up, languish and wither (cf. 24.4). This impending doom is because, as the prophet explains, the people “have broken the everlasting covenant”, the covenant God made with his people at Mount Sinai, the covenant that God would be their God if the people remained faithful through keeping Torah. Nevertheless, as the Old Testament reminds us, the people were perpetually unfaithful, turning time and again away from God as they sought the wealth and wisdom of the world.

Despite their unfaithfulness, God remained patiently faithful. The doom and gloom of the prophet’s vision concludes on a note of hope, recalling the covenant on Sinai and anticipating a future of blessing and feasting: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. 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” (Isaiah 25.6-8).

The first vision of the future described by the prophet is one of the world left to its own deformed desires and devices; the second vision of the future is one in which God intervenes to liberate, restore, and bless the whole of creation, bringing an end to all suffering and death, and inviting everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, to feast at the messianic banquet.

Isaiah’s second vision for the future is precisely what John has in mind as he narrates miracle at Cana.[1]

II.

John intentionally chooses the miracle at Cana as the first of Jesus’ miracles. While the miracle is remarkable, the importance is less on the miracle itself and the potent symbolism the whole scene evokes. Like each of the Gospel writers, John is primarily focused on answering the questions: who is Jesus of Nazareth and why does he matter? Moreover, the purpose of John’s Gospel is so that those who read his account will “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31). It is with this purpose in mind that we read John’s Gospel.

The first chapter of John opens with what is essentially a re-telling of Genesis 1 with the focus on establishing that Jesus is the Logos, the Word-made-Flesh, who came to earth for us and for our salvation. Following this poetic introduction, we hear of John the Baptizer’s claim that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”(John 1.29, 35). Following this revelation, Jesus calls his first disciples and shortly the group is at a wedding feast in Cana.

As I’ve said, John intentionally frames his narrative with his purpose in mind. That the wedding takes place “three days later” (John 2.1) foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, the morning when God’s promised future dawns upon the entire world. Moreover, John’s account of Jesus’ first miracle takes place at a Jewish wedding.

That the wedding is Jewish is clear from the presence of the six ceremonial jars that were used for ritual washing by the bride. However, as Mary is quick to point out, there is a problem: the wine has run out. At this point, the words of the prophet Isaiah should be echoing in our ears: “The wine dries up, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh”. Without wine, the celebration is effectively ended. At this point, John’s intended symbolism becomes increasingly explicit: Mary is not simply asking Jesus to create more wine; she is also “asking that Jesus provide the sacrificial and supernatural wine of salvation spoken of by the prophet Isaiah and long awaited by the Jewish people”.[2]

In performing the miracle of turning water into wine, Jesus is revealing his identity as the Messiah; not only does give the best wine, he gives it abundantly – 681 litres, which amounts to over 900 bottles of wine, more than could possibly be consumed at the wedding, even considering that first century wedding parties in Palestine lasted nearly a week and the wedding in Cana is only on its third day of celebration. Jesus brings God’s richest blessings and he does so superabundantly. Indeed, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah’s arrival would be marked with a “miraculous abundance of wine”.[3]

The bridegroom was responsible for providing the wine; if there is a problem with the wine, the host is the person with whom to speak. However, Mary speaks to Jesus and in doing so she “places him in the role of the bridegroom”.[4] Recall our reading from Isaiah 62 where God identifies himself as the Bridegroom: at the wedding in Cana we see the promised Bridegroom in the flesh; Jesus is the Bridegroom of God’s people, the Messiah, the Son of God. He is the one who will usher in God’s eternal feast. The one who is “the true vine” will not only provide the wine for the feast, he will ensure that those who abide in him will bear much fruit” (John 15.1, 5).

Following the wedding at Cana, John the Baptizer remarks that “he who has the bride is the bridegroom” (John 3.29). This raises the question: if Jesus is single and celibate, who is his bride?

III.

Nuptial metaphors are one of the most prevalent descriptions of God’s relationship with God’s people throughout Scripture. Jesus’ bride are all those who believe that he is God’s Son, the Messiah, the Bridegroom. Therefore, Jesus’ bride is the Church[5], the multitude of disciples throughout all the ages who faithfully follow Christ. Jesus is the bridegroom who has the bride, the Church.

To say that Jesus has the church is to underline the depth of this relationship in the same way that a wife can be said to have her husband and vice-versa; it is the language of intimacy. Within the covenant promises of marriage, she is his and he is hers. In other words, life-long fidelity is the foundation of the relationship. There is a mutual promise to remain with and for the other in a permanent union.

Of course, this is a hard notion for a culture with a disposable view of relationships to accept. However, this makes it all the more good news that people need to hear: that in and through Jesus Christ, God choses to be with us and for us and that nothing will change God’s faithfulness.

But this is also a hard notion for God’s people to accept given our embarrassing tendency toward unfaithfulness. This is the essence of sin: disordered love, love that goes outside of the covenantal bond, love that refuses to put God first and foremost, replacing it with a myriad of cheap substitutes. However, the Church remains Christ’s holy and beloved bride; it is in her, in us, that God rejoices and delights (cf. Is. 62.4). Despite our unfaithfulness, God remains faithful and calls us to return to him. This makes the journey of repentance good news: we know that Christ waits for us with open arms.

The relationship between Christ and the Church is such that we cannot love the Bride apart from loving the Bridegroom and we cannot love the Bridegroom apart from loving the Bride. To claim to love the Church, the institution and the aesthetics, reduces the church to a charitable organization; to claim to love Jesus but not the church is to reduce Jesus to a spiritual sage. Christ and his Church form an indissoluble whole, a relationship that exists for the blessing of the whole of creation. To love Christ is to love his Church; to love the Church is to love Christ.

We show our love for the Bridegroom and the Bride through our worship and our witness. As we gather around God’s holy table, we are both preparing for an anticipating the heavenly wedding banquet. Through communion, we taste and see God’s promised future; through communion, Christ unites himself to us as our Bridegroom through the Holy Spirit; through communion, the Holy Spirit makes us into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the Bride of Christ.

The love that unites a man and woman as husband and wife bears much fruit, primarily children. The love that unites Christ to his Church also bears much fruit: those born of the Holy Spirit, disciples who trust in Christ and, like those gathered at the wedding in Cana, “believed in him” (2.11). The bridegroom calls us, his beloved bride, to go into the world to tell others of the upcoming marriage celebration. The marriage of Christ and the Church is one that brings life for the whole of creation: here and now through transformed, forgiven, and reconciled lives, but also in the future when Christ returns to claim his bride so that the whole world can rejoice and delight in what God has done in and through Jesus Christ.

Let the party begin!

Amen

[1] Cf. the discussion in Brant Pitre, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Lovestory Ever Told, 28-54.

[2] Pitre, 42.

[3] Pitre, 43.

[4] Pitre, 45.

[5] The image of the Church as bride comes to poignant fulfilment in Rev. 21.2, a passage that directly draws on Isaiah 25.

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