Worship Together Online 24th January 2021
Details and Glory
John 2. 1 - 11
Epiphany 3, Year B
I’ve come to realise that when I look at a work of art like a painting I start with the general impression, the big picture, and that I am often all too satisfied with that initial view. That might be a consequence of wanting best value out of the couple of hours allotted for a whole gallery. But it may also be the way I look at things. It takes a discipline, and often another pair of eyes, to make me took with a more specific gaze and to spot the details which will deepen – and perhaps change - the meaning.
I’ve also come to realise that I can approach the bible in that way too. I am more than capable of thinking I know what I’m looking at, and therefore missing the details. My general impression of John’s Gospel, for example, is that it’s about the cosmic Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the Logos who brings all life into being, Jesus the Way, Truth, Life, Light, Resurrection, Good Shepherd, Love, the one beyond our imaginings.
And John’s Gospel is all these things. But to stop there would be for me to treat it like I know I shouldn’t treat a painting. The story of the Wedding at Cana is a big picture, mind blowing revelation that Jesus is the Christ, but when John says that this is a ‘sign’ of God’s glory it’s the details that make this the more plain, the more challenging and the more hopeful.
There’s a time detail. We are told this happens “on the third day”. The chronology of Chapters 1 and 2 isn’t always obvious. But let’s make a simple assumption that this is the third day of the week. Sunday was the first, so this is Tuesday. In the Jewish interpretation of Genesis, this is the day of double blessing, because the phrase “and God saw that it was good” is used twice about the third day. Look it up! In Jewish custom the third day of the week is an auspicious day to get married, so the couple in Cana were doing the best thing. We need all the blessing we can get, and God pronounces a double blessing when the ground of creation is complete, with seas and the land in their right places. We have all we need to be fruitful, and a good earth on which to live.
And, if you listen to the whole of John’s Gospel, and to the other Gospels too, there’s another “third day”: the third day after the death of Jesus, the day of resurrection. This “third day” is when the glory of God in the new creation is fully revealed, looking to the promised fulfilment of all things, which the book Revelation describes as a wedding banquet. The detail points to the glory, the brush stroke contributes to the whole painting, the familiarity of a wedding taking place as expected is broken open to reveal the timeless love of God.
There’s a detail about objects too. There are “six stone water jars”. There is immense significance here. I have generally let my eyes rest on the amount of liquid they could contain, and many a wedding couple has heard me say that Jesus brought an extra 180 gallons of wine to the wedding, and wishing them a happy reception. But six is important too. It could be that there were simply six jars there, but many have pointed out that six was an incomplete number, anticipating the perfection of the seven day creation. The imperfect here is transformed by glory.
They are “stone” jars, and that’s important too. Clay jars were easier to make, but easier to break, and could be made ritually unclean if they came into contact with the wrong thing. Stone was not such a vector for impurity, and did not need such cleansing. So, although stone vessels were expensive and difficult to manufacture, houses which were strict about purity would have them. Some suggest that this house was the house of a priestly family, who would take their turns in the Temple rota in Jerusalem. In this simple detail there is a profound connection between Galilee and Judea, between a regular occurrence in a community and the worship of God, between feasting and purity. God is all in all here.
They are jars for “water”. Human beings are mainly made up of water. It is the stuff of life, and totally familiar, if not always available in the quantities human beings need. There is danger and healing in this most basic of needs. And this water is transformed into the richness of the new creation by the one who brought it into being in the first place. Not only that, but the jars are filled with water “up to up”, full to overflowing. You can hear the liquid splashing on the ground as the wine is drawn out. The new life of Christ is about abundance, prodigality, generosity.
“You have kept the good wine until now,” says the Chief Steward. The detail I had missed is that he says this not to Jesus, but to the bridegroom, who has not been involved in any way except to under-cater for the feast. It is generally held that wine was the groom’s responsibility, and it “gave out” too early in the celebrations (which were measured in days rather than hours). The Greek word can refer both to quantity and quality: it could have run out, or what was left might not have been worth drinking. The Chief Steward simply knows that more wine has arrived, and credits the person who should have been responsible.
I like this detail. The Bridegroom survives a potentially embarrassing crisis with his honour intact. Almost everyone who is there has every reason to think well of him. But who knows it was Jesus? His mother, his disciples, and – another beautiful detail which John insists on telling us – the catering staff, the servant slaves. Who sees, and believes in, the overarching unimaginable love and power and glory of God? The staff, and those who know Jesus well, not the honoured guests. I often have to tell myself that the job of a Vicar at a wedding is to be forgettable. It is not your day. But ministering well at it means that all are blessed. At the wedding in Cana, who drinks the wine? Everybody. All are touched by the love of God. For some of them it leads to immediate faith. For all there is joy and love and grace. I wonder if the servant slaves became evangelists simply by telling people later what they had seen?
Many sermons, and indeed most of mine, would seek to wrap things up at this point and put a frame round the painting. I won’t do that now. You have what you need, I hope: the story of a familiar event in which glory is revealed. You have the details: the words, objects, sounds and atmosphere. You have glimpses of the new creation. You can now paint your picture about how the now becomes what will be, the ordinary is filled with the extraordinary. In the detail and the challenges of these complex times may we know how water becomes vintage, how life overflows, and how servants who do what Jesus says become bearers of the wine of heaven.Print This Page