The Opening Act
What does “God with us” look like? We’ve been building towards this. During Advent we sang O Come O Come Emmanuel, a song of longing for God to come, a song of anticipation of God being with us. Then at Christmas, we proclaimed that God was with us, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Now it’s Epiphany, and we look for the word become flesh to reveal God’s glory, and show us what it looks like when God is with us.
For centuries, the people of Israel had been asking the same question. They had been longing for the day when God would come to be with them. What would it look like, they wondered? How would God reveal God’s glory? In their poetry, in their songs, in their stories, people of Israel had developed a number of images that suggested what the coming day of the Lord might look like.
There was the imagery of war, the picture of God as a mighty warrior who would come to earth and defeat the enemies of God’s people, ushering a new age of peace and justice.
There was the imagery of purification and judgment. God’s elect would purify themselves by adherence to the law and rites of purification so that when God comes as judge the righteous would be rewarded and the unrighteous punished, an image of a final judgment.
Then there was a different sort of metaphor, the one that we heard in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the image of the coming of God as a wedding. In this image, as Isaiah tells us, the Lord will delight in you on the day of God’s coming, as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. This is an image of joy and delight, of a great wedding banquet that marks the new age of God with us.
How do you imagine God with us? Like a great victory in war? The final judgement? A great wedding banquet? Is God King, Judge or Lover in your imagination? Or maybe you have a different image altogether.
What does God’s glory look like? Where do you see God’s presence revealed in the world?
Think about that for a sec, and then let’s turn it around. Suppose you’d been given the task of showing people what “God with us” looks like, what if your life’s mission was to reveal to people the glory of God, how would you begin? What would be the very first thing that you would do? What would you show people? Who would you want there to see it?
You might choose a high mountain top as the place to reveal God’s glory, or maybe a great temple. Maybe Canterbury Cathedral, or St. Peter’s in Rome, or maybe Jerusalem. A place where great crowds could gather, religious leaders, political leaders, journalists to spread the news. Maybe you’d do something awesome, a great deed of power, tapping into the imagery of God as king, or as judge.
If it was up to you, how would you reveal God to the world?
That’s the question faced by Jesus as our gospel reading opens today. The prologue of John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came to make God known, to reveal God’s glory, to show us what it means for God to be with us.
What would Jesus do for his opening move? What will be his first public act, the first sign that reveals who he is and what he has come to show us?
Opening acts matter. Some of you might remember a young man whose first public act was to give the eulogy at his father’s nationally televised state funeral. This first act revealed that young man to be thoughtful, well-spoken, and compassionate. Eventually, in large measure as a result of that first public revealing, the young man became the prime minister of our country.
For Jesus the stakes are a lot higher than that. How would he begin?
On the third day, John writes, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and Jesus had been invited, along with his mother and his disciples. Weddings were a big deal. The whole village was invited, and the celebration would last for at least three days, maybe a whole week. Weddings were meant to be joyful occasions. But at this wedding there is a problem. “They have no wine.”
Now for us in our day, to run out of wine at a wedding might be a disappointment, or an inconvenience. But for this young bride and groom, it would have been a disaster. A wedding had to have wine. It was not just a drink, it was also a sign: a sign of the harvest, a sign of God’s blessing and favour, a sign of joy, a sign of hospitality. To run out of wine would bring shame on the bride and groom on this day when they were meant to be honoured and blessed.
Jesus’ mother is on the ball. She sees both the problem and the opportunity. Some people are good at that. She turns to Jesus, “They have no wine.”
He kind of brushes her off. “What concern is that to you and me?” And she just ignores the brush off, and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. He goes into the back room, he sees the six stone jars which are for the Jewish rites of purification, 180 gallons in total, and he tells the servants to fill them with water. Which becomes wine. And not just any wine, but the best wine. When he tastes it the chief steward at the wedding is amazed.
And Jesus did this, John writes, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
What does glory look like? What does God with us look like?
It looks like a God who shows up, a local who accepts the invitation to a wedding and wants to be part of the celebration, part of the community.
It looks like a God who brings us joy, who wants us to be joyful, who wants us to celebrate, who comes into our lives bearing gallons of wine so that we can keep the party going.
It looks like a God who cares about hospitality, who wants us to invite everyone to the table, and gives us what we need to serve up a feast, a God who wants no one to be excluded, who goes into the back room so that the servants can take part in the celebration too.
It looks like a God who cares about a poor young couple in a small village, who doesn’t want them to be shamed, who wants them to know that they are loved and blessed.
It looks like a God who doesn’t get too fussed with rites of purification, preferring to take those stone jars and use them to bring joy to the people.
But above all else, it looks like a God of grace.
“The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”
Sheer abundance. Gallons of wine. Enough to keep the wedding party going for weeks! And it’s not the cheap stuff. No, it’s the good stuff, wine that might ordinarily be served only to special guests for the first few rounds, but Jesus makes that available to all the guests, not worrying about hierarchy or social convention. Grace tends to break the rules. I’m pretty sure that the servants in the back room got their own jug too.
Our God is a God that loves to gather with us around a table. Our God is a God that celebrates relationships and community. Our God is a God of grace, of exuberance, of over the top generosity, of shocking abundance, more than we can ask or imagine. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. God’s generosity is as inexhaustible as 180 gallons of wine at a village wedding. There is no one bottle per table limit.
This was the first of Jesus’ signs that revealed his glory. The first thing he wanted us to see as we begin to understand what it means for God to be with us. So that we can believe and live lives of faith.
You see, our faith is not meant to be a dour affair. Our faith is not meant to be a grumpy faith, burdening our lives and the lives of others with moral and religious obligation. Our faith is not meant to be a battle in some culture war or political campaign. Our faith isn’t a means of satisfying a judge and making our way to heaven. Our faith is much more than an ethical system, and it certainly was never intended to make us get all judgmental.
No, our faith is meant to be more like a wedding where the wine is fabulous and never runs out. Jesus himself said that he came so that we could have life and have it abundantly. Our faith is about living life fully, joyfully, abundantly, it’s about living life in relationship with God and each other, it’s about extending hospitality, building community, loving God, and loving one another.
With grace upon grace. That’s what God with us looks like, that’s how Jesus revealed God’s glory. With wine, at a wedding, the first of his signs.
Yr C P2, January 20 2019, St. Albans Church
Readings: Isaiah 62.1-5, Ps 36.5-10, 1 Cor 12.1-11; John 2.1-11
Image by Rodrigo Contreras Kobrich, Creative Commons