A Sermon for Evensong
A policeman stops a car which is driving erratically. When he approaches the driver, he sees that he's a priest. 'Excuse me Father', says the policeman, 'but have you been drinking?'. 'No', says the priest, 'I only drink water'. The policeman spots an empty wine bottle on the passenger seat and says to the priest 'So why do you have that?'. 'Well I never', replies the priest, 'he's done it again!'.
One the third day, Jesus is at a wedding with his disciples. It’s not his wedding. He doesn’t seem to be at the centre of things. I picture him on the fringes of the party, quietly enjoying himself with his friends and family. And then the wine runs out – disaster. So quietly, in a way that only the servants and those sitting with him know about, Jesus turns one hundred and twenty gallons of water into one hundred and twenty gallons of wine. More than enough to keep the village drunk for a week. And this, the gospel tells us, is the first of his signs.
But a sign of what? Jesus turns water into wine. Why? Is it just because he liked a good party, or hadn’t yet drunk his fill? What does this have to say to us? There are some clues to follow up, and the first is at the very beginning of the reading, which tells us that this happened ‘on the third day’. The third day, for Christians, is an important phrase, with resonances about the resurrection of Jesus. So somewhere, somehow this story has some connection with Jesus’ resurrection. But the third day is also the seventh day. You will have to take my word for it but this is the seventh day that the Gospel of John records. As you read through the first two chapters, things happen on one day, then the next day and the next day, so that the third day when this wedding happens is the seventh day of the Gospel. And the seventh day speaks to us of creation. What John is saying is that with the transformation of water into wine, the new creation is inaugurated. Remember that the very beginning of St John’s Gospel, which we heard at Christmas, is ‘in the beginning’ – the same as the first words of the book of Genesis. ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1.1); ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1.1). Jesus’ life and ministry, culminating in his resurrection from the dead, is the new creation. The changing of water into wine is the first sign of this new creation.
Water into wine, the sign of the new creation that finds its inauguration in Christ. And the sign has more to tell us about the new creation. Perhaps the first thing that we notice about this sign is the sheer abundance of it. Jesus turns six stone jars of water into wine. Each holds, we are told, twenty or thirty gallons of water. So Jesus produces somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. And this is not cheap unlabeled wine, it’s not Tesco value or whatever. This is really, really good wine. So good, in fact, that the steward of the feast tells the bridegroom off for serving the good wine later in the feast. God’s new creation, of which this abundance of wine is only a sign, is a new creation of immense generosity. We see this again in the feeding of the five thousand. Five thousand men (that is not to count the women and children) are fed and there are twelve baskets left over. God’s new creation is excessively generous.
The location of this sign is also significant – it happens at a wedding. There is a reason why the church is so interested in marriage, why we conduct marriages and why we celebrate them, and that is because marriage speaks of God’s commitment to us. In marriage, two people promise to be faithful to one another, to support and love one another come what may. And that is God’s promise to his people. God promises to be faithful to his people and to delight in them just as a bridegroom rejoices in the bride. There is a hint of this in Baruch’s prophecy – ‘Take off the garment of sorrow and affliction … Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God.’ Marriage is a sign of God’s love for us, and not just for us. The Christian understanding of marriage is that it is not just good for the couple themselves, but good for all of us. To quote the marriage service, ‘it enriches society and strengthens community’. The new creation is for us and it is for the whole of the world. The resurrection of Jesus, the new creation that he brings into being, is about the renewal of all things. It is same vision that we find in the vision of the Book of Revelation in which are promised the new heavens and the new earth, and in which God’s dwelling place is with people. In Christ all things are made new.
So what we are shown tonight is the arrival of the new creation in Christ, and specifically in his resurrection. This new creation is part of the abundant generosity of God, and is God’s commitment to his people and to the whole of creation that he loves us and will be with us. But let us remember that today we mark the feast of the Epiphany. This is the time when we celebrate the showing forth of God and God’s plans. Today we have marked the showing forth of the infant Jesus to the Magi. Next Sunday we will celebrate the voice from heaven at his baptism that announced that Jesus was the beloved Son of the Father. This evening we mark the showing forth of the new creation in water being made wine. But more that that, in the water being transformed into wine we have an image of our lived being transformed. We are transformed into God’s new creation. St Paul says that ‘when anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation’ (2 Cor. 5.17). It is in our lives, individually and corporately that the new creation is seen, that it is shown forth. We are the first fruits of the new creation. We show that new creation in generosity and in commitment, just as wine at a wedding is a sign of generosity and commitment. Just like the water transformed into wine, our lives are transformed as a sign to those around us.
Rather like the abundance of wine, there is much more to this story. There is the sheer joy and exuberance of the story, the way that the miracle happens on the edge of the wedding unseen by most. These too are signs of the new creation as well as the generosity and commitment that I have emphasized. What is clear is that our encounter with the God who shows himself forth in Christ transforms us – we are not left the same. The generosity of God is shown in our generosity, the loving faithfulness of God kindles the same in us. And just as the wedding at Cana shows us a God who comes to live with us, so our lives show forth the God who lives in us. This is the transforming presence of God with us. It’s not always comfortable, it’s not always easy, but God is present with us to change us, to transform us into the people that he created us to be.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel very transformed. The story is told of the great American evangelist and preacher Dwight Moody who was asked why he prayed each day for the gift of God’s Spirit. Surely, his questioner said, if God gives you his Spirit, it stays with you. True enough, replied Moody, but I leak. We have the transforming presence of God within us, but we leak. God is transforming us, but he has not finished with us yet. God is changing us, transforming us, but we are not the finished article yet. We still leak.
So tonight in our prayers, throughout the coming week, and all through this season of Epiphany, let us ask God to continue with his work of transforming us; to continue to fill us, even though we leak.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory,
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral 6.1.13.