Saturday, January 19, 2019

Epiphany 3 - Turning Water into Wine

John  2.1-11
Over my many years of involvement with weddings, I think you could say that I’ve seen them all!  I’ll never forget the bride who had taken rather too much liquid courage, and who went down the aisle waving to all her friends and relations.  “Hello Auntie Freda!”.  “Hello Sarah - thank you for coming!!

                Then there was the bride who wanted the perfect wedding.  Six white horses pulled her carriage some 10 miles from her home.  She had white doves in cages on either side of the church door.  Everything was colour co-ordinated to the ‘nth’ degree - even the bridegroom’s pocket handkerchief had to match the flowers and the order of service.  I had, of course warned her that something was bound to go wrong - for nothing in life is absolutely perfect.  The great moment of her entrance arrived, and as she lifted her foot over the church step, we all heard the terrible riiiip as she caught her petticoat on her shoe!

                I’m very happy to say that my own daughter had heard all these stories over the years - so she knew that expecting perfection was a pointless exercise.  Which is why she was able to be so amused by the fact that at her wedding, the best man left the wedding rings back at their flat - and had to go and retrieve them during the first hymn!

                I have to say, though, that I have never yet been to a wedding which has run out of booze.  These days, I suppose, if that did happen, we’d be able to dispatch the ushers to an off-license to fetch some more.  But such consumerist luxuries were not available to the people of Jesus’ time.  So when the wedding at Cana ran out of wine, no-one except Mary knew what to do about it.  She knew her own son - and even though he had not performed any public miracles yet, she clearly knew what he could do.

              There’s a lovely intimacy to the conversation that takes place between them.  Mary presents Jesus with the problem. “They have no wine”.  Jesus’ response is initially rather defensive.  “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come”.  But Mary knows her son.  She knows that he won’t be able to stop himself from helping.  So she doesn't reply to Jesus - she just turns to the servants and says “Do whatever he tells you”.

                And, of course, you know the rest of the story.  By turning plain water into glorious wine, Jesus performs his first public miracle - and (in John’s words) ‘revealed his glory’. 

                Interestingly, none of the other Gospel writers bothered to record the miracle at Cana.  They were much more interested in healings and exorcisms.  But something in John's imagination resonated with Cana.  He saw, in Cana, a sign that pointed to the very purpose for which Christ had come into the world.  The wedding guests saw water turned into the best wine.  John saw a man who, in this first sign, revealed the very purposes of God.

                It's perhaps worth remembering that only John records Jesus as saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10.10).  This is what the miracle at Cana is all about.  Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine--the symbol not just of life, but of abundant, joyous, and extravagant life.

                Think about it.  Water is good. There is nothing wrong with water.  There is nothing which needed fixing in the water.  Why then should Jesus need to change it into wine?  The message of Cana is that Jesus doesn't only transform the bad into the good (like when he heals the sick or casts out a demon).  The message of Cana is that Jesus has the capacity to make the good even better!  That is one of most persistent themes of John's gospel.  Jesus hasn't only come to give life, but to give life 'abundantly'.

                This, then, is the promise for those whose lives are already pretty good.  The epiphany moment at Cana is the promise for those who are already heading in the right direction--those who have a basic trust in God, those who look out for their neighbour, who do what they can, when they can, to be good Samaritans. This is the message for those whose life is already like good, fresh water - nourishing, and life-sustaining.

                There's a message here:  "enjoy the water...but taste the wine!" God doesn't call us to only live lives of duty and right as they are.  Yes, we should live by the commandments - but there’s more to following Jesus than simple obedience.  Remember what he said?  “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  Not just life, but abundant life...joyous lived in celebration and exuberance.

                This doesn’t mean that God promises us each a mansion, good health and wealth.  Neither does it mean that we will never experience pain and suffering.  But, it does mean that the good clean water of our lives can be transformed into the best wine through the love of God.  As we begin to taste the new wine of the Kingdom, we begin to look for God's capacity to transform and elevate even the most apparently awful of circumstances.  

                Sometimes, for example, I sit with sick and elderly people who despair of the fact that they now need others to do things for them.  Understandably, they mourn the loss of their independence, and resent the fact that they can do nothing on their own.  But then, I ask them,

                "Tell me.  You have spent your entire life caring for others...your children, your friends in the church, your neighbours.  How did that feel?"  Invariably, the sick or housebound person will tell me, in so many words, that their service to others made them feel needed, wanted, and that they had a role in life.

                "So," I tell them, in so many words, "isn't it time that you gave the gift of your incapacity to others?  Isn't it time that you let others feel needed and wanted - by caring for you?"

                That's just a tiny example - but I think its a real example of how, if we will let it, Love has a way of pouring new wine even into difficult and tragic situations.  Love has a way of helping us find new meaning, richer meaning, better, deeper taste.  The trick is to taste the wine.

                A Christian finds their joy by learning that God is at work in every circumstance of life...changing water into wine. Christians find their joy in the exuberant celebration of each moment of life - trusting that God is present now, that Love is at work now. 

                God is not only found in our Sunday morning Eucharist - though this is the central act from which our whole community-life flows.  Here we drink the greatest wine of all - the wine that offers us food for the journey of faith.  Wine which is infused with the very presence and reality of God.  But God is also found in the concerts and events we enjoy together, in the love shared among the Monday Club here in church, in the sharing of time and talents in our charity shop, in the coming together of community in our Play CafĂ©, in the sharing of a warm welcome by our week-day church stewards.

                Sadly, there are some Christians who have a gift for turning the best wine back into water. I mean there are some whose service of God seems so joyless, that its hard to believe they have any good news to share at all.  I’m talking about the kind of Christian who thinks that their personal view of God is the only one possible, and who spend a great deal of their time attacking and opposing other Christians.  It could be said that such people have a gift for turning wine back into water!

                But that’s not what I see here, at St Faith’s.  I see a group of people who are deepening and growing in faith, turning water into wine with every encounter, every meeting, every act of faith.  For every time there is laughter among us, water turns into wine.  Every time that a building is made ready to better-serve the community, we turn water into wine.  Every time we help a homeless person, or set a young person on the journey of faith, we turn water into wine.

                Come on in, and taste the new wine of the Kingdom!  Amen.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Epiphany 2019

I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles. But I bet none of us had journeys which were as arduous as those of the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  They would have crossed blazing deserts, and freezing mountain passes.  They would have had to wash in streams, and eat food gathered or trapped along the way.  Their journey was remarkable.

We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.

Actually, they were wrong.  Jesus never was the King of Jews in any earthly sense...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross.  In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world".  No, the Magi were wrong.  The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.

Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived something like two years late. (Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear, and based on that information he slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem who are under two years old. )

So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth.  Wise men?  Perhaps not.

So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.

And yet...and yet...  The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem.  But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to an unremarkable house in a rural back-water...and to a baby who had been born in a food trough.

And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, they knelt in homage to him. When they met him, Jesus was nothing like they expected.

And that’s because, in Jesus-of-the-stable, God was declaring a new way of living, and a new way of thinking. Human beings had tended to think of the Universe as a ‘top-down’ place – with God in heaven, dispensing rules and justice from the sky.  But that was a mistake.  Through Jesus, especially the Jesus revealed at the Epiphany, God was re-forming our picture of where God is.  Not in the sky, looking down…but here among us, one of us, part of us.  No longer the ‘top-down’ God of our ancestors; this is the ‘bottom-up’ God.  The Kingdom of God is an upside-down place – where the poor are the blessed, and the powerful are condemned – as the Magnificat has just reminded us again.  It is the Kingdom in which by losing, we win; and by giving, we receive.

But we still fail to recognise this, don’t we?  Even Christians are duped by the promises of power or celebrity.  We find ourselves ‘looking upward’ in hope towards political dogmas, or individual politicians.  We trust that the powerful of our nation know what they are doing – when in reality they are just as confused as the rest of us…stumbling in the darkness.  Or we look upward to celebrities, modelling our life-choices, our fashions, our financial decisions on theirs.  But we find no peace there either.  Or we look to great church leaders, great Bishops, prominent Christian writers - or even our parish priests - to save us.  But they turn out to have the same feet of clay as all of us.

The ‘bottom-up’ Kingdom of Epiphany teaches us to look for God in the simple and earthy things of life.  The Sky-God is silent – and looking upwards to such a God, or to other powerful beings – will not help us to find ‘him’.  As Moses discovered in front of the burning bush, it is the ground which is holy, not the sky.

When we look for God in a stable, we find ‘him’ in the love of his parents, and the care of a community of Shepherds and Wise Men.  God is found in the love between neighbours and friends.  God is found in the simple sharing of a meal.  ‘He’ is found in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  ‘He’ is found in a simple act of charity.

The Wise Men had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him, in the dirt and squalor of a back-water town. Their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty fell away; and the new reality of Jesus took their place.

You see, really wise men and women are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men and women embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.

I wonder what our journey this year will be like - our journey with God both as individuals, and yours as a parish.  If we are able to listen to God’s voice, in the middle of peace and prosperity, as well as chaos and darkness, we will find God speaking into our situation.  There is always something to be learned, always some new spiritual growth to take place even...perhaps the darkest times.

I imagine the Wise Men had some dark times along their road.  But through it all, God was with them...guiding them, prompting them in new that at the end of their journey, they could encounter the God-child himself.

So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to be open to the journey.  Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in your life as a church.    Make a pact with God that you will listen to ‘him’ more, searching the scriptures more, worshipping more, giving more, and receiving more.

If God can lead a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to a new Epiphany at the manger, then ‘he’ can do the same for us.

But we have to be ready to go.   Amen.