preached at St.LUKE’S CHURCH, QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON on 20th January 2019. Text: JOHN 2.1-11
“This was the first of the SIGNS given by Jesus.........He let His glory be seen.”
Not “miracle” like in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John prefers the word “sign”. This might sound like just splitting hairs but it’s not.
In John’s gospel, we never find Jesus reluctantly performing the odd hole-in-the-corner miracle and then telling those involved to keep quiet about it in case people get the wrong idea about Him.
Instead, when John tells how He demonstrated His supernatural power, it is always a carefully calculated sign - something which points, which points beyond itself to the realm of the divine and brands Jesus as one entrusted with a divine mission.
When He heals the blind, this signifies that He is, as He proclaims Himself, the LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
When He raises Lazarus from the dead, the signal is that, as He Himself proclaims, He is THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.
So what’s behind the “sign” of turning water into wine?
It’s a slightly tricky one, isn’t it, because this time we’re not talking about the sublime healing of blind eyes or withered arms or the awesome power of exorcising devils or the majestic calming of the lake in response to a terrified cry of “Lord, save us, we’re sinking!”
We’re only talking about a village wedding reception running out of booze.
Now another difference between John and the other gospels is that John doesn’t have Our Lord teaching in parables, telling teasing little stories from life, like the other evangelists.
Instead, the pattern in John is that He does things and then He talks about what He has done, usually in a conversation with stooges who get the wrong end of the stick. So the “sign” becomes both a miracle and a parable rolled into one.
One obvious meaning behind the Cana water-into-wine episode is that Jesus’s wine, the “fruit of the vine” which He later promises at the Last Supper He will drink anew with His disciples in the Kingdom of Heaven, replaces the useless Jewish purification water in the jars just as His new message and method of salvation has made the old Moses covenant with God obsolete.
But that’s not very useful for you and me. What is far more important for our lives is that this “sign” is pointing to is the one thing that makes Christianity so inspiring: the lavish, spendthrift generosity of God.
I mean, just look at the scale of the thing.
Six monster jars of purification water, each holding 20 gallons. So you’re looking at 60 or 70 cases of wine - that is, the best part of 1000 bottles.
This is getting silly. Enough wine not just to get the flagging reception going again but to drown the whole village. More wine than the most determined bibber could bring back in a van from a Calais hypermarket! (at least unless and until we leave the EU customs union)
And never mind the quantity, feel the quality! This is the welcome occasion for an all too rare joke in the gospel: the master of ceremonies whispering to the bridegroom - “Why have you kept the best wine till last? We usually produce rough stuff when the guests have already got merry and won’t be able to tell the difference!”
Instead of which, as the friends and relatives nod off in a euphoric haze, we are left with enough vintage Chateau Lafitte to float a battleship.
What sort of a sign can this be? A sign that God is, in more senses than one, LARGER THAN LIFE and is always ready to open his wallet.
We are always being told that religion is being sidelined in our society. One of the saddest consequences of this is idolatrous worship of the market economy, the perfect, icy, heartless equation of supply and demand.
If you want to experience the results of competition in business, just take a package holiday by air and see how ruthlessly cost-effective a tour operator needs to be in order to survive.
They pack you like sardines into an ageing aircraft, six to a row with no leg- or elbow-room and serve you with a meagre plastic meal on a tiny plastic tray. You get the impression that it is a triumph of accountancy: not an inch of space wasted or a crumb of the dessicated bread rolls left over. Any frills you are stung for. And frills include not only alcohol but mineral water. (Unfortunately you can’t ask for tap water at 30,000 feet!)
The whole shabby cut-price-air travel experience was brilliantly parodied by Fascinating Aida, the satirical 3-woman musical comedy group. I saw them a year or two back in Brighton and they performed their famous hit number Flights for 50pee. The ticket may only be 50 pence but then they charge extra for everything they can think of – toilets, you name it – and the punch line is when you get to your destination, they expect you to jump out on to the tarmac if you haven’t pre-paid to use the steps!
Imagine if a charter airline had done the catering for the wedding reception at Cana. Each guest would have had to produce a pre-paid voucher entitling him or her to a half-full plastic glass of warm flat Prosecco, and a stale cheese sandwich.
We also witness at first hand the catastrophic effect of the market economy on the NHS. While managers and accountants are comfortably remunerated to devise more and more things which surgeries and hospitals can sell to each other and invoice each other for, the medical staff are so overworked, underpaid, demoralized and thin on the ground that they can hardly cope.
And yet, and yet, at the human and spiritual level, individual doctors, nurses, technicians and porters are still capable under great stress of acts of spontaneous and uncalculated kindness and self-sacrifice.
I mean there are still echoes here, almost but not quite lost in the vicious machine of the calculating market place, of those gospel values which Our Lord teaches us by His parables and by His signs.
Echoes in the human heart of those promptings in God Himself to get His wallet out and not to count the cost.
We know only too well, if we will only stop to remember, that our God is a God who would drive a celestial accountant, tour operator or health care manager to despair.
What a catalogue of imprudence the New Testament reveals:
the shepherd who would take a wholly uneconomic amount of time looking for one lost sheep
the ruinous amount the master of the house was prepared to write off as a debt owed to himself if only the debtor simply asked to be released
the joyful dash by the old farmer to embrace and forgive his errant younger son and kill the best fatted calf for him
the crackpot prodigality of the winegrower who got his wallet out and paid a full day’s wages to labourers who had only worked one hour.
And what about the signs given by the one who was God in human form? The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised.
Free healing. Unconditional forgiveness. God with His wallet out hoping against hope that He can love us into being like Him, into giving of ourselves to others without counting the cost.
And human miracles do happen. As I have seen, and I’m sure you have too, spiritual values can and do occasionally defy and break the unlovely law of supply and demand.
But as always, it is only with God’s help that we can make that breakthrough.
My words to you will be as weak as water unless God blesses them. But if He does, they just might be turned into the wine of consolation or of inspiration, according to your needs.
And He can and will give a sign of His extravagant, inebriating love for others through all our watery lives, if only we will let Him