Sermon: January 17 2016

Readings

Isaiah 62:1-5

Ps 36:5-10

1 Cor 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It all began with the Magi: pagans, turned by our tradition into wise kings, who first made him known to, of all people, Herod, the Roman client king of Judea. It seems now an ill-advised thing to have done, foreigners telling Herod that there is born another King of the Jews. In retrospect, “wise” might not quite be the right word for these astrologers. In any case, at this point, they knew about Jesus—from their study of the Scriptures, no less—but this does not quite count as “epiphany”. Epiphany requires encounter, requires meeting Jesus in the flesh, even in a manger. This is, of course, entirely unsurprising, given the central Christian confession of the Incarnation. The Church is nothing if not obsessed with physical, material reality. In that way, she is like God: John 3:16, and all that. And so it is that two Sundays ago we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, during which we remembered the visitation of the Magi, which in turn marks the revelation of Christ to all the world, even to the Gentiles.

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Epiphanytide is one of those liturgically contentious seasons in the Church’s year: the Roman Catholics no longer really keep it, whereas Anglicans officially still do. Good Catholics that we are here at All Saints’, we’re with Rome, but it must be said that this move loses something from the ancient tradition that keeps together at one go the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at the wedding at Cana. In all three, Christ is in some sense revealed to us, made known and real and present.

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This time last week, we remembered and celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John. Just like that, thirty years have flown by. The infant boy to whom the Magi brought their precious gifts is now all grown up, and we are unworthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. “Behold”, his eccentric cousin exclaims, “The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. Jesus is, like the rest of us, baptised, after which—unlike for the rest of us—the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Thus, Jesus’s identity—crucially, his relationship to the Father—is made known, even by the voice of God.

And then, as we have just heard, Jesus turned water into wine at the weeding at Cana, at the beginning of his ministry. John’s gospel asserts that this was the first of his signs, which revealed his glory, and led his disciples to believe in him. Serious stuff, to be sure. And yet, if the account of the wedding at Cana counts among the best-known miracle stories in the New Testament, it is at least in part thanks to Rowan Atkinson’s sketch from the 1980s. You may recall that, in this piece of comedic genius, Jesus also produced a white rabbit, sawed a woman in half (and renamed her Sharon), and cracked puns about being sick of the palsy. The crowd thus proclaimed, “Thou art indeed an all-round family entertainer”. The joke is only as ridiculous as it is representative of how many, many people—including Christians; especially Christians, perhaps—think about Jesus and his miracles. Despite knowing better, we often fall into the trap of believing that Jesus is a sort of conjurer of parlour tricks, whose power is best used for our comfort and convenience, if not quite our entertainment. It is tragicomically ironic that this story, meant to reveal some truth about Jesus—his glory, as St John puts it—now represents one of our crassest and most common theological failures.

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If our celebration of the visitation of the Magi points to the kingship of Christ, and our celebration of his baptism points to his divine sonship, what does it mean to remember the wedding at Cana?

In the water made wine, the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast. Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.

So it goes in one of the Extended Prefaces for Epiphanytide. In other words, what is revealed is the world in which the Son of God is King, not only of the Jews, but of all people, and every time and place. In this new creation, things are turned on their heads. The best wine is served last, rather than first; plain water in pots for purity is made into that heady substance that moralists have in every age cautioned against. This is not to say that Jesus is some kind of weird contrarian, violating expectations just for kicks. Rather, it is to recall the absurdity of grace, the unbounded generosity of God. The central event of this absurd grace is, of course, not this miracle itself nor the wedding during which it occurs. The water and the wine point beyond themselves. There is, for Christians, no thinking about the conjunction of Jesus and wine that does not immediately lead us through the Eucharist to the Cross, the paradigmatic locus of grace. St John writes of this first sign that it reveals Christ’s glory, and we can see why. In John’s gospel, the glorification of Christ is his crucifixion: this first sign thus foreshadows and makes known that final event, which is the very beginning of the new creation.

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Finally, there is, I think, something fitting about the way in which Epiphanytide and Ordinary time bleed into one another in the confused way that it does. After all, the revelations we claim for all three events—visitation, baptism, and wedding miracle—are also to be found in the every day and the apparently unremarkable. It is, after all, to water and wine—not just to timely conversions of the former to the latter—that we come to encounter God. The waters of baptism and the Eucharistic wine are for us portals to the new creation that is not a different place but this very place transformed by self-giving love, even the love that dares to die for the sake of thieves and traitors.

By the mystery of this water and wine        

may we come to share in Christ’s divinity         

who humbled himself to share in our humanity. 

Amen.