There are some great magic tricks. The best ones leave us baffled as to how they do them. We know that they are illusions, tricks of hand and distraction, but when skillfully executed they draw us into a suspension of belief and take us into a world where strange things can happen. The magician who can put an assistant into a box, which we think we can see all the way round and yet with the wave of a wand, the box falls flat and the assistant has gone. Then, with no sign of moving, the assistant appears from the back of the audience. It’s impressive as a stage trick and we know deep down that there is something very clever at work, but nonetheless that no laws of nature have been bent really. It’s still fun to think they might just be able to collapse matter, transmit it and reassemble it somewhere else. And its more fun when you don’t know how it’s done.
We have no idea whether or not Jesus really did change water into wine at a badly prepared wedding reception, as described in that Gospel reading (John 2:1-11). Who runs out of wine at a wedding? To pull this off would make Jesus quite an impressive magician. Not only does the water change but it becomes really good wine at that. The best wine matures, is allowed to age in barrels, so this is even more remarkable. The quantities involved are enormous. Six jars, each holding 30 gallons, is the equivalent of around 1,000 bottles – red or white anyone? I don’t know how many people were at this reception, but that is likely to one massive hangover the next day – if you survive it. Chief Medical Officer health advice is that men drink no more than about 14 units a week and this is way beyond that. Is this a conjuring trick with grapes? Is this Jesus being able to manipulate the normal laws of nature so that the chemical structure of water becomes significantly more complex – H2O acquires something between 800 and 1000 more compounds, so complex that I can’t give you the chemical equation: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen elements in mind-bending bonds and polymers.
It does seem to stretch credibility quite a long way, but then so does the resurrection and creation for that matter, and life is pretty remarkable given the ingredients. So there is a miraculous aspect to existence and this story can highlight that. As ever, though, with John’s gospel there is a much deeper level to this than a mere conjuring trick with the Periodic Table. Wine is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of flourishing and rejoicing. It goes with good times and God’s favour being shown. So more is being said here than Jesus saving them a trip to the off licence. There are so many references to drinking wine in the kingdom in the bible, the famous phrase in Psalm 23 about cups overflowing and vineyards producing an abundant crop. These are a sign that God has redeemed his people. If we carry on with the section of Isaiah, from which the first reading was taken (Isaiah 62:1-5), down to verses 8 and 9, we find that their vindication is shown in being able to drink the produce of the vineyard. There will be sufficient stability and security that they will see their vines produce a decent harvest and then have time to mature into wine they can enjoy. God’s salvation is being announced in this amazing story.
And the quantity tells its own tale. This is wine in far greater abundance than they could possibly want or need for the party. Remember those 1,000 bottles. God is generous and provides from a bounty far more plentiful than we need, can imagine or comprehend. There is more than enough to go around. When Jesus is in charge of the catering no one goes hungry or remains thirsty. Five thousand are fed with meagre provisions and there is plenty left over. Do not worry about there being enough because with God we have more than we need, we just might need to think a little differently about how it is distributed and shared. In a world where many are hungry and some are over fed this story shames us into being hospitable, generous and making sure that everyone has enough. That may bring some sharp challenges, which brings us to the next aspect of this story.
The stone jars which were used for the water now wine are the ones for Jewish rites of purification, for ritual washing. By using these and showing God’s bounty through their transformation John has Jesus saying there is no longer any need for the old rites. Jesus is the one who makes us acceptable to stand before God. We don’t need to make ourselves pure, in fact we can’t. We need God’s generous, bountiful gift to bring us in his grace to that place where blessing brings life and hope. Jesus is showing in this story that he fulfills the hopes and aspirations of the ages. In him the better wine has come.
The miracle stories in John’s gospel are described as being signs. This is the first one and God’s glory in Jesus Christ is revealed through it. That is the point of miracles, marvelous occurrences, they are no mere magic tricks, but signs and moments of revelation where who Jesus is, is shown to us. They are visual aids that show the purpose and the point. God blesses in far greater abundance than we can ever hope or dream. Salvation is his gift and is here in Jesus Christ. And we are challenged to see that when we think there is not enough or no way out of a bind, God brings salvation to life.
I don’t know where you are with Brexit – bored, frustrated, despairing, longing for… well, who knows what. There doesn’t seem to be a clear way forward that has agreement, despite the cries of ‘the people have spoken’. Actually they haven’t, at least not with a clear voice. If they had parliament would be able to say this is the will and this is what we should deliver. On Question Time on BBC1 on Thursday the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, spelt out just how parliament is split and the majority is unclear what they want. I suspect this is how the nation is split too – some wanting a second referendum and some for Brexit to be scrapped. Some wanting the hard option and not being bothered about a deal at all. Some, having voted for the deal that was on the table, possibly wanting that, but now it’s collapsed who knows. And the larger group not declaring where they are or what they want. Without some agreement we are in a party where the wine has run out. It’s easy to despair and for tempers to flare.
Our calling as Christians together in this city is to be people of hope, people who trust in God’s abundance and salvation. Our cup is neither half full nor half empty, but overflowing with God’s goodness. There are differences of focus and style between us, that is why our different churches exist. But the direction of travel over the last few decades has been one much more focused on the more we have in common than that which divides us, our sharing in the name of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in him. This gift is something that can make us generous to a world deeply divided by so many conflicts and different approaches. In our own country, which is deeply divided at the moment, we can remind in how we live and in what we say that our hope lies in delighting in the rich blessing and diversity of God. And I think we are going to need to be people of hope for our city, for our communities and for our nation.
So today Jesus brings salvation, generosity and hope to a wedding feast. As well as the wine, a wedding is also a sign of God’s kingdom, bringing two together into a covenant. Life is gift and in God’s grace it is transformed with an abundance beyond our comprehension.
Sermon for Christian Unity Week at Westgate New Church, Sunday 20th January 2019