Sermon - Epiphany (Ordinary) 2 Year C - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
The wedding banquet of the kingdom
It must be the best remembered wedding feast of all time. The village wedding was a joyful occasion for the local people, but there would have been many others as there still are, all over the world -- an ordinary festival to the people -- it was like others except for one thing: Jesus was there, and when the host was embarrassed he provided the means for the festivities to continue. He turned the water into wine. John says, Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The account of the ministry of Jesus which John begins to tell at this point, goes on to tell of many other signs. John always calls these strange events 'signs', where others refer to miracles. There was an Old Testament tradition about signs, [ref Exodus 4:8; Is 8:18 and Ezekiel 4:3], and the Gospel writers were constantly aware of precedents in the scriptures for what they saw in Jesus. The expectation arising from a sign was that God was about to do something wonderful, as he did, for example, for the people of Israel in their escape from Egypt after he had given Moses a sign (Exodus 4:8) to show that God was with him.
At the wedding feast in Cana the effect of the sign that Jesus gave, by which he revealed his glory, was that the disciples believed in him. It was a manifestation of who he was, an epiphany, like the showing of the baby to the wise men, or his recognition by Anna and Simeon in the temple; but here, for the first time the sign is in his own actions.
What really happened
Well, you might say, but what really happened. I don't know how it would be described from a scientific point of view. Something dramatic happened which people remembered: the success of the banquet was attributed to him. It is our materialistic minds which suggest the need for more of an explanation than that the Lord of creation was present. And it is true, that in the way that we understand the world, the nature miracles (or signs like this) are harder to explain than acts of healing where psychosomatic factors could well be involved, or social miracles where the behaviour of people in a group is changed. You could, if you wish regard it as a social psychological phenomenon and refer to the power of suggestion (although John seems to rule this out by saying that the chief steward did not know where it came from when he tasted the wine); or you can think of it as poetry intended to be symbolic rather than scientific, and it is more like poetry where symbols have broad meanings; but I would ask you to consider at the same time that according to John in the preceding chapter there was a deep meaning in the symbol of the presence of Christ, in the lesson for Christmas Day:
If indeed the Word that became flesh was the Word through which the whole creation was called into being; if it is really his world, then some ecstacy of nature might be expected in his presence. [In Paul Tillich's definition a miracle is an ecstacy of nature.] However, I believe that God maintains consistency of behaviour of objects in the physical world for very good reason: more of that another time, but briefly, consistency of natural phenomena is part of the faithfulness of God. We can search around for explanations, but you will never get the point of any Biblical story if you test it against some criterion outside of scripture, if you insist that it must fit our preconceptions. The point of faith regarding this sign is that if Jesus is who Christians believe he is then, then nothing of this kind is absolutely impossible although it should not be seen as an exercise of arbitrary power. We believe the Lord came to his own creation, but that he came in humility. Whatever happened in scientific terms, the real problem for most people, is whether Jesus is indeed the Lord of creation, that is whether he is God. The disciples decided that he was.
A symbol of many changes
That it was a sign of his lordship is the main point of the story. The early Christians who passed it on to us would have remembered it and passed it on for that reason; but that is not all: it is a story full of symbols which reminded them of many other things about him and their life in relation to him. All of them strengthen the image of Jesus as the Messiah whose presence is a sign that the Kingdom of God has come near.
Jesus used the symbolism of wine, or the vine, and of wedding feasts, many times to illustrate important aspects of the coming of the Kingdom.
The extraordinary abundance of wine at the wedding feast in Cana would have reminded people of the overflowing generosity of God in the parables of Jesus about the Kingdom of God: the abundant harvest [Matthew 9:37; Mark 4:8], and the good measure, pressed down shaken together and overflowing [Luke 6:38]. More than enough of the best wine makes the same point about the Kingdom.
They knew Jesus as the true vine [John 15:1] and they remembered him in the way that he told them to remember him [1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 22:17-19] in the bread and the wine of the great thanksgiving (the Eucharist) at the Lord's Supper. Again the overwhelming generosity of God is celebrated.
The early Christians who recalled this story for us knew that although this was in John's account the first of the signs, the greatest sign was to came at the end in his death and resurrection; and the generous offering of his life would be conveyed to them in the Eucharist:
The greatest sign of the new covenant was the resurrection, and even the opening words of this story, `On the third day', would have reminded people of how this first sign pointed forward to the last great sign.
Replacement of the old covenant which the Jews observed by the new covenant giving all people in Christ power to become Children of God, was symbolised in the story by the water which was changed into wine being water which had come from the water jars of the Jewish rites of purification (verse 6) -- the wine of the new age, which is a free gift, replaces the water of the old ritual of cleansing. Indeed in the life of the church the old rite of washing was replaced by baptism.
This and all the signs are about making things new in surprising and wonderful ways. The point about newness in relation to this wine which appears strangely to be mature and good, would not be lost on those who recalled it when they remembered also how he said:
The point is that dramatic changes replacing the old by the new must come with the Kingdom of God.
The sign of the wedding banquet
In many and various ways Jesus taught about the Kingdom by using the celebration of a wedding as a symbol of what it would be like.
There is the parable of Matthew 22:2-9 "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son." Jesus goes on to tell how the invited guests made excuses and did not come, so he sent his servants out to bring in whoever they could find: "Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."
Then there are the stories of people being caught unprepared when the bridegroom arrives for the festivities [eg. Matthew 25:10]
or Luke 12:36: be ready to welcome the lord when he comes:
or how we might be surprised, even embarrassed, at who is honoured at the heavenly banquet: do not presume to take a place of honour at the feast [Luke 14:8]
The idea that people ought to be happy to celebrate with him was evident in the way Jesus and his disciples were noticed to be different from John the Baptist and his disciples.
The point is that the Kingdom has come when the Messiah in present; it is appropriate to celebrate when we are with him; we can fast at other times.
The Church is seen as the bride of Christ
Celebrating with Christ as the bridegroom is the theme of the celebration of the Kingdom in the book of Revelation: the great banquet at the end when the kingdom is established is at the same time the marriage feast of Christ, the lamb of God. The fellowship of believers, the Church, is the bride of Christ: [Revelation 19:7-9]
The image comes from the Old Testament in which the Psalms and the Prophets speak of God's love for Israel, his people, as like that of the groom for the bride. In the New Testament the church is seen as the new Israel.
The Old Testament lesson for today: Isaiah 62.5
or Jeremiah 2.2
St. Paul takes up the Old Testament image of betrothal to express the covenant of God with his people and applies to it his ministry on behalf of Christ:
We anticipate the great celebration
We have seen how in Rev. 19:7-9 the marriage is celebrated of the Lamb of God to which the blessed are united - the one who was sacrificed out of love is joined with the new creation - in the great celebration of the victory of God over evil:-
When we celebrate the great thanksgiving of the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist), giving thanks for his victory over sin and death, we anticipate that great marriage feast. We begin to share now in the new life that is created through the work of Christ showing the love of God for his people.
Marriage is also a sign of the Kingdom and a means of grace
Some Churches regard marriage as a sacrament like baptism and the Lord's Supper. We would certainly say with them that it is a means of grace given by God and that when we celebrate a marriage we look forward to the enrichment of peoples lives in much the same way as we anticipate in the Holy Communion the ultimate fellowship with God which we begin to know through faith in him in this earthy life. As people with their hearts open to the possibility learn of the love of God for them through their love for each other, so in the fellowship of the Lord's Table the means are available for us to develop further in both care for others and communion with God.
Do you older married people remember the traditional words:
The presence of Jesus and his disciples at the Wedding in Cana, reminds us too of this additional means of grace. Just as God takes the ordinary food and drink brought to the Lord's Table and gives himself to us as heavenly food for our pilgrimage to eternal life, so too he takes the ordinary stuff of human relationships and through them relates himself to us.
The wedding at Cana then is a sign of the coming of the new age, which we hope to celebrate with him at the marriage feast of the Kingdom when the joyous laughter of the Messianic age resounds to the glory of God. Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.
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Appended note on marriage:
There is a message about the nature of marriage suggested by this sign as well as the marriage feast being a sign of our new relationship to God. On others occasion I will talk at greater length of the Christian understanding of marriage. I will want to assure people who have experience of broken marriages of God's continuing love for them, and I will want to honour too those who choose a celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom; but today the gospel invites us to celebrate the mystery of Christ's love for us which we see in marriage as in the Eucharist.
It is the kind of love in which both parties are honoured: The image of the man's love for the woman should be seen together with the reciprocal desire and equal emphasis given to the woman's love for the man in the OT imagery of the Song of Songs or in St. Paul's advice to recognize the need of each for the other (1 Corinthians 7:3,4 ff.)] [See the new Marriage service statement on the nature and purpose of marriage in `Uniting in Worship'.]
Jesus' presence at the marriage reinforces the message that the Word became flesh. He entered into the common life of the people. He taught about marriage as part of the natural order -
People tend to believe sometimes that marriages are made in heaven, and it is true that Jesus went on the say `those whom God has joined together man must not separate', but he based this teaching on the earthly nature of people in God's creation.
The earthly nature of marriage [to which I referred recently in regard to our becoming children of God] is seen in Jesus' teaching about the resurrection when he answered the trick question (Matt. 22:30, Mark 12:25, and Luke 20:34-36). Marriage belongs to this earthy life into which Jesus came, and in which it gives us experience of a new spiritual relationship which his presence made possible.
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