Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Chapter 2: Old and New, part 1"

Chapter 2: Old an New, part 1
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 25, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 2: 1-11
Hosea 2: 1-9

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. 3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.[1]

So we continue our journey through John's Gospel, and we have finally made it out of Chapter 1 and can look at Chapter 2. So far we have seen John's prologue, introducing us to the Word, that was with God and was God from before the beginning, going on and telling us to "Believe and Receive," for that Word is light and the light of all people, and we've seen John the Baptist introduced, telling us "Behold, the Lamb of God", and then we've seen the recruitment of some the disciples, by simply saying "Come and See." If you take just those four statements alone from Chapter  1, there is a lot that John has built up already. And Jesus really hasn't even done anything yet, that we have seen. All that he has done so far is just simply tell the disciples to Come See, and through his exchange with Nathaniel has shown that he can see, outside of the normal limits of time and distance, and said if you are amazed by that just wait, you will see Heaven Open and angels going up and down, and now in Chapter 2, as they say, it's on.
I decided to make the title for this Sunday, Chapter 2, Old and New, because that is one thing that holds the chapter together, Oldness and Newness, being juxtaposed with each other, again and again, all through two major events: Jesus turning Water into Wine at the Wedding at Cana and Jesus tossing the tables in the temple, both beautiful bountiful bouquets of alliteration, and finally we see some action. Jesus does some stuff. At first I was going to just depict these two stories as separate episodes, but the more I studied this week, and the more I thought about it, the more I noticed that just like much of Chapter 1 seems to be related and connected, so too do these stories from Chapter 2. And although I'm going to take them separately one at a time, this week and next week, I wanted to acknowledge that there is developing here a connected story, and these two events take on much greater meaning when they are seen together. So as we go through the Wedding this week, have the temple in  your mind, and when we go through the temple next week, do your best to remember what we discussed today, but I promise to do my best to review briefly next week as needed. Mostly I want to highlight this connection because I think next week is an important lesson, and this week's does much to put it into the right perspective.
I knew alot about this passage before I started. It is one of the more famous scenes in the Bible, and it is used to teach many many lessons and make a bunch of different points. Quite possibly my favorite, and maybe the first that I remember from my younger days, was that it shows that Jesus was not a prude when it came to having a drink. There's a great song called, "The Lord Loves the Drinking Man," it uses the line, I heard he changed water to wine, anyone who'll do that is a good friend of mine". . .  but though I think it is probably true that Jesus did not have as much trouble with wine as some may believe, I don't think that is the point of this story. Another aspect of the story I also knew was that according to John's Gospel, this is one of the first things that Jesus does. . .and I remembered that Mary, Jesus' mother plays a significant role in the story, getting Jesus to do the miracle, when Jesus didn't really seem want to. But beyond these details I have never really given this story that much thought, nor had I devoted all that much time to studying it. So I did this week and I found so much stuff, a real treasure of different takes and opinions.
One thing that I found that I'm not sure what to think about, but found fascinating was the claim that the numbers given throughout this beginning of John, the days of the week, that if you count them and put them in some kind of order that it corresponds to the days of the creation. The article I read went through it, and made a case for how it all corresponds, and if you look at it most of the big events happen after the seventh days, back at the first, highlighting the "let there be light", they said forecasting the resurrection on Easter. Though it was fascinating to think about, there was too much math involved, and it seemed too much like codes and numerology, which I always tend to be skeptical about, much like statistics, if you try hard enough and have enough creativity you can make the numbers show anything you want. But it was a good explanation for why in a gospel that doesn't seem to have much interest in telling a straight forward chronological historical narrative retelling of the events would include a detail like "3 days later" as this one does.

Another big idea that I came across this week was the dynamic between Jesus and Mary that goes on here. There is no real introduction to Mary in John's Gospel, no Magnificat, no Annunciation Scene with Gabriel, no journey to Bethlehem on the donkey, and no, no room at the end. Instead you have this scene and another at the cross, sandwiching the rest of the story, motherly bookends, and there is something so very real about this encounter at the wedding, in a mother son dynamic. Mary wants Jesus to help, Jesus resists, saying, what is it to us, and it's not my time yet, but Mary is sure that Jesus will do what he can. Without him even saying yes, she goes ahead and tells the servants, to "do whatever he tells you" and so Jesus ends up performing the miracle. This initial miracle of Jesus, this sign is paired with the heart wrenching vision of Mary watching her son going to die, "Woman behold your son. . .", where Jesus makes this disciple whom he loved a real member of his family. It is all powerful stuff.
But the most important and interesting aspect of this story that I found in my research was, like I said the connection of Old and New, and how it corresponds to the second half of this chapter becausein my research I came across some interesting facts about the ritual purification that this story talks about, which is what the water was originally for, and that changing it into wine had all kinds of symbolic meanings about purity, and foreshadowing. . . yes my favorite thing. . . why is it that everything in literature is foreshadowing?. . . Of course there is connection here to baptism and communion, and then also more foreshadowing, this time beyond communion,  crucifixion, the resurrection to the marriage supper of the Lamb. All of that was there, but also there is the imagery of a new covenant being set, and that is what I found most intriguing.
Obviously a wedding is a great setting for covenant imagery. Two people are coming together and pledging their lives to each other in love and service to one another. They are promising their mutual belonging and forsaking all others. So the scene is ripe for the beginning of a new covenant one that involves making a commitment to Christ. . . again we remember the importance of Believing and Receiving here in John's Gospel. So with the beginning of Jesus' ministry here at this wedding we see the beginning of more than miracles but as relationship. Jesus in this very public way invites us in, because we get to see, we've come and now we see, and Jesus at once delivers, in a very simple and symbolic way turning water into wine. One of the resources I've been using is  N.T. Wright's Study Questions, and he says that reading the gospel of John is like going on a treasure hunt, and that John places clue after clue, each telling us exactly who Jesus is, and this is the first clue, they are clues, but John calls them signs. . . and with each sign, the refrain occurs: "he did this sign, and the disciples believed." Again and again, these signs are clues letting the followers of Jesus come to know, and we the reader with them.
But it's not just that Jesus is making miracles, instead these miracles if looked into with more depth become more than just, he is a magic man, but that he is God, he is setting forth new covenant in himself, and he is inviting us to be a part of it. So where is this covenant imagery? One of the major metaphors used for the covenant relationship between God and the Chosen People of Israelites is that of Husband and Wife. God, the Husband has been faithful, but again and again the Israelites stray from the covenant relationship, and instead of forsaking all others fall into idolatry with the Baals. And so here, at this wedding, Jesus is renewing, making a new covenant. . . one sealed in his blood. It begins with water and it is then sealed in his blood, the very blood we take and drink in his remembrance. There is a sense that this water that was used for the ritual of purification according to the old Jewish Rituals is being replaced by the blood of the cross, that purifies, washing away our sins, and symbolically through the wine of communion. I don't know about you, but I found that imagery, that metaphor, that invitation of truth so interesting, so compelling, and so heart warming, and hope fulfilling. I've always been captivated by poetic truth coming through like that and this was really cool, much more than just Jesus filling a celebration with a little more spirit, but Jesus filling this world with a so much more hope, beyond what we had every expected, what people had expected. Because this new covenant surpasses the old. Look again at the details of the story, the wine that Jesus makes from the water is the best wine ever tasted, so much so that the people wonder what kind of a host saves the best for last, rather than blowing it all early. God is changing the rules, making new rules, a new path, a new way, a new truth, and a new life. One beyond comprehension.
There is one thing that we miss often when we study a passage so deeply that we get caught up in the weeds, we get so focused on the trees that we miss the forest. So I want to close this morning not thinking about symbols and poetic details, and foreshadowing, and just put ourselves at the wedding. Kahlil Gibran wrote a series of Prose Poems about encounters with Jesus in Gospel story. He writes imaginative fiction based from the characters point of view in the ancient tradition of Midrash. He wrote one on this scene from the perspective of the Bride. . . often fiction invites us in to the experiential truth we can miss. Here it is "Rafca: The Bride of Cana"
This happened before He was known to the people.
I was in my mother's garden tending the rose-bushes, when He stopped at our gate.
And He said, "I am thirsty. Will you give me water from your well?"
And I ran and brought the silver cup, and filled it with water; and I poured into it a few drops from the jasmine vial.
And He drank deep and was pleased.
Then He looked into my eyes and said, "My blessing shall be upon you."
When He said that I felt as it were a gust of wind rushing through my body. And I was no longer shy; and I said, "Sir, I am betrothed to a man of Cana in Galilee. And I shall be married on the fourth day of the coming week. Will you not come to my wedding and grace my marriage with your presence?"
And He answered, "I will come, my child."
Mind you, He said, "My child," yet He was but a youth, and I was nearly twenty.
Then He walked on down the road.
And I stood at the gate of our garden until my mother called me into the house.
On the fourth day of the following week I was taken to the house of my bridegroom and given in marriage.
And Jesus came, and with Him His mother and His brother James.
And they sat around the wedding-board with our guests whilst my maiden comrades sang the wedding-songs of Solomon the King. And Jesus ate our food and drank our wine and smiled upon me and upon the others.
And He heeded all the songs of the lover bringing his beloved into his tent; and of the young vineyard-keeper who loved the daughter of the lord of the vineyard and led her to his mother's house; and of the prince who met the beggar maiden and bore her to his realm and crowned her with the crown of his fathers.
And it seemed as if He were listening to yet other songs also, which I could not hear.
At sundown the father of my bridegroom came to the mother of Jesus and whispered saying, "We have no more wine for our guests. And the day is not yet over."
And Jesus heard the whispering, and He said, "The cup bearer knows that there is still more wine."
And so it was indeed—and as long as the guests remained there was fine wine for all who would drink.
Presently Jesus began to speak with us. He spoke of the wonders of earth and heaven; of sky flowers that bloom when night is upon the earth, and of earth flowers that blossom when the day hides the stars.
And He told us stories and parables, and His voice enchanted us so that we gazed upon Him as if seeing visions, and we forgot the cup and the plate.
And as I listened to Him it seemed as if I were in a land distant and unknown.
After a while one of the guests said to the father of my bridegroom, "You have kept the best wine till the end of the feast. Other hosts do not so."
And all believed that Jesus had wrought a miracle, that they should have more wine and better at the end of the wedding-feast than at the beginning.
I too thought that Jesus had poured the wine, but I was not astonished; for in His voice I had already listened to miracles.
And afterwards indeed, His voice remained close to my heart, even until I had been delivered of my first-born child.
And now even to this day in our village and in the villages near by, the word of our guest is still remembered. And they say, "The spirit of Jesus of Nazareth is the best and the oldest wine."[2]

Yes the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth is the best and oldest wine, because he is the wine that makes all things new, even that which is Old. Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 2:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2] “Son of Man” by Kahlil Gibran. The Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran. Everyman’s Library. IBSN :978-0-307-26707-8