Sermon, Sunday 29 July 2023, the Wedding in Cana – Always the bride. Tessa Lang

1 Kings 17: v15. “And she went according to the saying of Elijah: and
she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.”
John 2: v5. “His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith
unto you, do it.”

Welcome to the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, when both our readings
remind us of God’s limitless and loving bounty, and how to readily
receive it. The spoiler hides in plain sight as do our exemplars: a widow
of drought-ravaged Zarephath and the mother of Jesus. Little wonder
the message is well camouflaged: the widow shares her miracle with
the prophet Elijah and the mother of Jesus with her divine son as he
transforms water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The widow, her son,
and the prophet had no food; a family wedding had run out of wine with
Jesus on the guest list. So please grab your spiritual sunglasses as we
gaze upon this dazzling surface, perhaps to glimpse the sublime and
ever-present relationship of God to his people.

Today we revisit the third “shewing” or miracle of Epiphany at a
marriage feast in Cana. The arrival of the Magi is the first epiphany,
when the Christ child’s divinity is revealed to gentiles. An essential
start, even if its participants numbered just 3, the setting was humble to
point of impoverishment, and political powers had them in their sights.
The second manifestation occurred in the River Jordan when the holy
spirit descended like a dove at Jesus’ baptism, causing his cousin to
suddenly recognise Jesus as Son and Sacrifice of God. We complete
the trine of manifestations this Sunday, then close the season next
Thursday with celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, timed
to honour the new infant 33 days post circumcision and his new mother
40 days post-partum.

John raises the curtain on Epiphany 3 in Cana, a small rural village a
few kilometres north of the small town of Nazareth, where Jesus has
lived amongst his relatives and their extended tribe without great
report…though not for much longer. Mother and son once again
appear at an official family occasion we can bracket with the
Presentation, albeit some 30 years later. There are changes:
Mary is now identified as the “Mother of Jesus” and Joseph is no longer
present. As the surviving eldest son, Jesus is head of the family,
though his invitation includes the first disciples he recently called:
Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; John’s older brother James and
perhaps John himself, sons of Zebedee and possibly cousins of Jesus;
Philip and Nathaniel. Drawn from family and close connections, these
recent recruits are at the starting point of a remarkable journey with the
incarnate God, poised to step onto the world stage. The countdown to
calvary has begun: building the faith and resilience of an inner circle is
essential.

John will make the task of building belief in the divine identity of Jesus
the foundation of his gospel, structured by seven statements (“ego
eimi” or I AM that I AM) and seven signs to illustrate the God-character
of Jesus. The signs all point to Christ as the incarnate God; six of them
are found only in John, with turning water into wine at Cana the very
first one. He also reminds us of their symbolic nature, selected from the
near countless acts of healing, manifesting, and commanding the
natural world that made up Christ’s daily life…when simply being in his
presence, touching the hem of his robe, transformed those with faith.
Timing also counts in wedding matters at Cana: John tells us that the
event occurred “on the third day”. The surface starts to shimmer…for
we are 2000 years advanced in time and can hear echoes of Genesis
from the Old Testament, with strongest tones gonging the New
Testament resurrection of the glorified Christ on the third day. I imagine
these would have sounded loudest for the gospel writer and evangelist,
as well.

The third day of the week would be a Tuesday, considered by Jews to
be especially favourable for a wedding – because the account of the
third day of creation features “…And God saw that it was good” twice
in honour of a double dip appearance of dry land, followed by grass,
and self-seeding herbs and fruit trees to grow upon it sustainably. It
certainly turned out to be the under-prepared bridegroom’s lucky day.
There is also narrative reason to mention the third day in context of the
first week of Jesus’ ministry on earth…the week the Son of God creates
an infrastructure to deliver a divine plan to redeem his fallen people
through his ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. Day 1 takes place by
the Jordan, with John the Baptist, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew.
Day 2 happens somewhere between the Jordan and the hills and
valleys of central Galilee, where Philip of Bethsaida and Nathanael of
Cana are called (the later initially asking the immortal question” Can
there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” – there must have been a
local rivalry).

Day 3 does not begin with Jesus. It begins with an occasion, a location
and one specified person “…there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee
and the mother of Jesus was there.” Then we learn that Jesus and his
disciples were invited to join, and just a bit further along, that the
brothers of Jesus were also present. Clearly this is an important family
event. No sooner had he arrived, dust still on his feet, than Mary
informs him “they have no wine”.

A failure of wine supply was more than a clumsy hint it was time to
collect your coats and leave; it was a serious embarrassment and legal
breach. Provisions relating to all aspects of the bride’s married life were
agreed and warranted in the ketubah or marriage contract, signed at the
time of betrothal and enforceable under Jewish law. The burden was
on the groom’s family to offer mohar (bride price) to her father and
mattan (wedding gifts from the groom) to her. Weddings were major,
lifetime events in this time and culture, shaped as it was by concepts of
law and honour. The entire extended family and surrounding community
were involved. The party spanned days, usually a full week,
proportionate when we remember that betrothals typically lasted at
least a year before the marriage could be celebrated and the couple
begin life under the same roof.

During that time, the bridegroom prepared for his responsibilities –
building and furnishing a home for his bride, most usually as an
extension or annex to his father’s house; putting aside resources for the
wedding; preparing for the future. Only when he was ready did the
bridegroom proceed to the bride’s father’s house to let the family know
it was time at last for the ceremony and feast. If a bridegroom and by
extension, his family, fell at the hurdle of hospitality during the first week
of the marriage when they had convened the gathering, it brought
shame, and would damage the family and relationship for life.

Perhaps you, too, have also known times when it felt as if the wine had
run out just when needed most. Like us, the Mother of Jesus does not
know what to do, but she knows who to ask – Jesus, her son and her
Christ – this she does, immediately, with direct and unshakeable faith.
When he responds to her as the Son of God – “Woman, what have I to
do with thee?” – instead of as a son or family member, she moves on in
faith, instructing the servants to “do it”, whatsoever he says.

Fortunately, it seems Mary is involved in the proceedings and known to
the servants; most significantly, it is Jesus who asks this task of them
as only the son of God could. Still, I am staggered that the servants do
the extra work without protest or delay: six stone vessels to fill with 20
to 30 gallons of water, weighing in at 170 – 250 pounds not including
the jar itself. Not like building the pyramids, but certainly hard work.
Not to mention the obvious: it wasn’t water that was in short supply!
She also gives us a masterclass in communication with the living God
who requires no instruction or commentary from us. We need only
come to him: ask, listen, then do what your saviour says, with the help
of other servants of God. The resulting transformation will be more
astounding that anything we could have imagined…as in Cana, the
miracle happens when the wine runs out and we realise we are
powerless to refill it.

I have come to believe that what Mary hears in Jesus’ reply, often
characterised as harsh or dismissive, is what she knows in her heart.
The sideways look of love and understanding that passes between
Jesus and his Mother in the artwork on the cover of today’s Order of
Service tells this story. And it can be said no better than the words of
her Magnificat “For he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: The Almighty has
done great things for me, And holy is his Name.”

Mary may understand that everyone passes through their own time of
birth and death whilst her beloved son is destined for a life like no other.
But did she understand what Jesus meant when he said “my time is not
yet come” on that day in Cana? That the last cup he would fill with wine
and provide to a feast on this earth would represent his spilt blood and
sacrifice? That he himself must drink the cup of judgment and death
that rightfully belongs to us to save us from sin and restore us to the
realms of joy and bliss, abundance and eternal life? We cannot know,
but I do believe she lived and died in acceptance of and gratitude for
her special relationship with God. Also, that she was right to be
confident Jesus would demonstrate his response to the question “what
have I to do with thee?” with his own multiplicity of meaning.

For Jesus does enter the narrative, directing the servants clearly and
without drawing attention to himself, re-purposing water vessels
designed for ritual cleansing; there was a lot of that called for at
mealtimes so they stood at hand. After all 6 are filled to the brim, he
tells the workers to draw out a sample and take it to the head Steward,
who pronounces it an excellent vintage, surprised that the truly good
wine has been kept for last! He was clearly none the wiser about
whence it came, the bridegroom equally bemused. It is a nearly private
miracle, when only Jesus and his mother; the disciples who witnessed
glory and believed; and the servants who did the work; who know the
source of the wine. Job done, and in God’s own time, remarkable when
you think that up to 180 gallons of vintage wine was manifested, surely
enough to cellar and supply the happy couple for all their love feasts
and celebrations.

Jesus’ intervention references the Old Testament scripture tradition,
where the metaphor of a wedding describes the relationship of God and
his people; bound together by covenant but living in permanent danger
of a dry party through the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience.
Scarcity of wine signifies separation, loss, and withdrawal of blessing.
The only substance water is transformed into is blood, as in the deadly
first Plague upon the Egyptians told in Exodus. Judgment and
separation can be overcome only if his vibrant new wine displaces the
old water of obligation and tears.

Jesus embodies the messianic promise of sweet wine flowing at the
ultimate wedding feast of love and true intimacy; a rich new wine that
cleanses God’s people from the inside, renewing and restoring health
and righteousness in a profound and permanent way, unlike the
external application of water and laws. This wine is given in endless
abundance and joy by the Lord of the Feast, the Bridegroom Jesus
Christ.

I think that is why the bride is not introduced at this wedding; she is a
place holder for each one of us, called and liberated to always be the
bride, never the lesser bridesmaid. As we move along the way of
redemption, we take on more of the image of God in which we were
first created. The wine keeps on pouring, inviting us to take our place
at the table with the God of our joy and gladness, now and always. This
is the everlasting miracle of the wedding in Cana, the first and
fundamental sign in the gospel of John. AMEN

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