Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany – January 7, 2018
“The governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.”
WE LOVE a good mystery. Here lies a prone figure, a person who has died in some way that precludes natural causes or self-harm. That makes for a mystery that must be solved, that’s important to us. We search for clues. Few are given at first, so we track each one, turning up elements here and there, and we try to piece the mystery together, find out what each element means. One person, then another become our suspects, the plot twists and turns. And finally, we know. The evidence leaves no doubt and we confront the killer. The better dramas keep parts of the truth from us, seeing if we can bridge the gaps in our knowledge for a correct conclusion. My wife figures these out in our favorite shows much earlier than I do. She has an instinct for it.
Every good puzzle has easy answers and hard ones. Sudoku lays down a grid of squares, nine by nine, with only a few numbers filled in. You must figure out where the rest go by deductive reasoning. Every crossword hides the answers under obscure clues that tease you and hint at the answers. Cryptograms substitute letters for other letters and leave you looking for patterns that represent familiar words. We love to solve things, putting pieces together and feeling good about ourselves when we have the solution.
I once bought the modern verdict that much of the Bible was made up, or misunderstood, or missing important details. Internal contradictions supposedly proved that the vaunted inerrancy of scripture could not logically be true. And if the Bible isn’t true in some way, it can’t be trusted on any point. And if that’s so, we don’t have a basis for leading our lives in a Christian pattern. The skein of yarn that wove that great tapestry of Old and New Testaments was being pulled out, row by row, as the schools of Theology made their conclusions that “the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, they ain’t necessarily so.” As my life was floating on a philosophy of self-justifying fuzzy thinking and pointless pursuits at the time, it served me well not to believe in biblical authority. Then my mystery-solving wife took to Christianity.
I finally had to come with her and see what this was all about. I found the tiny church sanctuary of St. Joseph’s in Berkeley, looking both ancient and futuristic in its simplicity, heard the familiar tones of a pipe organ fill the space, and the words of classic hymnody, Gregorian chant, and a priest beginning the service in words previously burned into my DNA: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…” I was back in the church of my youth. Had I known it, I would have been amazed that my wife had found one of the very few churches anywhere that could have offered those same prayers, same responses, same communion, same hymns I already knew, while all around us scores of other churches, Episcopal churches, were making it all up as they went. But why? I took communion. But I was unconvinced. My resistance was very strong.
So we joined the social hour, and then the diminutive priest held a Bible study. He warned us it would be only 45 minutes, and not to draw it out. He launched a most riveting hour and a half class on St. John’s 2nd chapter and the wedding at Cana, and by the end of it, I had my soul back. He connected one word here with a passage there, Old and New Testaments weaving a pattern of truth that couldn’t ever be a coincidence. How had I missed that? Scales fell from my eyes, and I was in the presence of God. I knew that such complex meaning, such fulfillment over centuries between the clue and the solution had to point to a Greater Mind, a Divine Authorship. It was true. And if it was true, I had to follow it. There was no alternative.
The Bible is nothing like a textbook, nothing like a manual for maintaining your car’s engine. It isn’t laid out with points, one by one, building understanding through simple definitions and step by step instructions. God doesn’t think like that. And He’s smart in making it a mystery, telling us some, keeping some back for a later time. We’re not ready for it all at once. We can’t hold the truly deep things when we’re young in the faith. And truly we aren’t interested in textbooks and manuals. They’re boring. We love a mystery.
And yet, it’s all there. In the Beginning, God… No “Once upon a time” kind of tale this is. Not “Long ago and far away, in a distant galaxy…” This is The Beginning. There is only one beginning, a definite point in time, the very beginning of time. And there we find God. And the first thing we experience is Him creating everything. Into the darkness of an endless space, He speaks: “Let there be light!” Don’t you feel that? Our atoms cry out recognition of our Master’s voice, the light that makes up our matter and energy knows its source.
The Bible had always daunted me, as it does so many others. Endless pages of begats, and angry prophecies, dense family stories with people I didn’t like or understand had always stopped me. Then we got a picture Bible for our son, and I read it to him at bedtime. It was the language of the King James, with richly illustrated pages, but it kept to the main story line, Genesis to Revelation. Reading the Bible to our son, I at last understood the plot line of the whole story. I could hang prophets now on that line, where they belonged, and could comprehend why each was where he was. The story is a good one. It leaves some things out, while hinting at greater things to come. The picture is completed in Jesus Christ, and our conclusions, based on His life, enrich us and fulfill our longings.
Early in Jesus’ ministry, He was called to a wedding with His mother, Mary, in a village of Galilee called Cana. He took a few disciples with Him. A wedding in those days was a week-long ceremony, beginning on a Wednesday or Thursday and lasting into the weekend. There was much feasting and celebration, and a goodly amount of wine would be consumed. It’s apparent that Mary had a close connection to this wedding, and so, when they suffered the embarrassment of running out of wine for the guests, she was apprised of it and was concerned. Here is where we enter the mystery.
It’s a wedding. This is important, because humanity fell apart first at the marriage level. Adam was given Eve, his wife, made out of his substance, as the completion of God’s intent to “Make man in our image and likeness. Male and female He created them.” Our most perfect reflection of God’s nature is in the loving union of marriage where the two sides of human nature, provider/protector and life-giver/nurturer, were joined and made one flesh. The fall from grace started there with a mutual betrayal, Eve being tempted, Adam failing to advise and protect her, them both sharing a guilty bite, and being ejected from the garden world. From that day to this, marriage has suffered and mankind has earned the wages of sin.
God sent His Son to become one of us so that we might be reunited to Him. He called Himself our bridegroom, and we, His redeemed, His friends, are to become His bride. Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding is no coincidence. He is there to restore the holy union, and His first public act of power would be to celebrate it.
Jesus mother comes to Him, a pained expression on her face. “They’ve run out of wine!” she presses her case to her Son, who’s divine nature she knows well. She’s telling Him to do something about it. As in the Temple when Jesus was a 12-year-old youth, His mother assumes a position with her Son that may be crossing the line. She has a great entrée with Him, no doubt. She is His only human parent, and He greatly loves and respects her. But when she criticizes the Son of God in His Temple, “How could you do this? Your father and I have been looking for you everywhere in sorrow?” her son is surprised at her. “How can you say you’ve been looking everywhere? Wouldn’t you have known I would be in my Father’s house, and doing His business?” She had no retort. His Father wasn’t Joseph, and they all knew it. It had to be strange to have God’s Son as your own son.
They have no wine. Wine is a fermentation that happens naturally when grapes are juiced. Some will add sugar and yeast, but these occur naturally anyway and will always turn the juice into another drink. The juice was formed over a longer time, as the vineyard grows from its winter pruning and long canes stretch out, forming large leaves, bringing in sunshine and drawing up nourishment with water from the earth. Water is turned slowly into sweet juice as the fruit develops and only in the last days before harvest is it ready. Water turns to juice and then to wine naturally. But it takes months.
Jesus in this instance is showing in parable form a truth He would later explain to His disciples. They may have remembered the day in Cana when He sat at His Last Supper, “I am the vine, and you are branches. Apart from me you can do nothing. Remain in me and you will bear a great number of fruits.” Vineyard talk harkened to the moment when wine was called for. He did it Himself, that time. He does it with our help now.
“They have no wine.” His answer sounds harsh to us. “Woman, what have I do to with you?” If we said that to our moms, they’d turn away and cry, or throw our supper in the trash, or worse. But in His day, “Woman” was a dignified reference. Jesus had been harsh toward the Canaanite mother of a devil-possessed girl until she humbled herself and took the place of His dog, ready to take His merest crumbs. Only then did He call her “Woman” and granted her wish. Jesus called Mary “Woman” from the cross, giving her into the care of John. It isn’t what it sounds like. But it is formal. He’s calling her attention to something. She isn’t to command the Son of God—not anymore. He’s 30, and about to take on the redemption of our world. He can’t answer to Mary now, and she can’t hold Him back from the hardest things He has to do.
Jesus did miracles that resembled natural processes, healing people who might have, over time, gotten well. God has put these processes into our nature and we presume they come by right. But the way a body heals is a miracle nonetheless. It’s just a slow one. Jesus did miracles fast, right under our noses, showing that nature belongs to Him. Water turns to juice in the vine, and then when pressed, to wine. He turned water to wine in one quick step, not perverting nature, but fulfilling it. Something in His look toward Mary gave her assurance that He had not refused her request. His hour would be His own and His Father’s to say, but He was still here at the wedding. She turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever He bids.
Fill six urns with water. This was about 150 gallons. It had to take some time, but in the end, He ordered them to draw some out and serve it to the governor of the feast. He hadn’t bought the wine, but was there to assure the guests all was well with everything. He exclaimed, “You’ve saved the best wine until now, even after we drank all the Gallo!” Of course. The wine Jesus brings can’t be anything but the best.
Wine was not to get people drunk. It was part alcohol and that killed bacteria, making a drink safe. But it was also tasty, and enjoyable. Wine was life, literally a life within a life, the yeast component transforming the juice into a new element. Jesus is our source of life, and it’s good. We are also to be transformed, an old life made into a new life by His divine act.
A wedding is transformational. What used to be two separate people become a new life. We are heading for that kind of union with God, Jesus to become our wedded partner. A great feast is preparing for us there, and the wine will be incomparable.
Jesus would later compare His fellow Jews with people who tried to put his new wine into old skins, dry and inflexible—an image of their defective understanding. When the wine fermented, the skins could not hold it and burst. And yet, they insisted that their old wine used to be better.
Finally, Jesus held aloft a chalice of wine at His Last Supper, with all seriousness, telling His Apostles, “This is my Blood, spilled for you and for many, for cleansing all of your sins. Drink this, every one of you, and do it repeatedly to bring me back among you.”
Wine is like a stream flowing through His life, pointing out one thing, then another, as we learn the mystery, and piece it together, part by holy part. He is the great vine and His Father, the vinedresser, and we are His branches and fruit, His wine, His prize, and His bride.
No, it was no coincidence that Jesus’ first miracle was recorded at a wedding. And no coincidence that I was brought back to faith in a Bible study of water turned to wine at a wedding in Cana.