Sunday, 22 January 2012

Epiphany 3: Water, wine and real life

I sometimes wonder, when I stand up here to preach or as we join in prayer together, whether we aren’t getting a bit above ourselves. This isn’t any reflection on you or me, or the sincerity of our faith or our understanding of it. Nor is it just a case of January blues, a wobble in self-confidence in the dark days of winter.
It’s just that sometimes the words we say and the things we talk about in church seem so lofty, so far above the reality of day to day existence that it’s hard to see how they relate to our real lives at all.

Already this morning, for example, we’ve prayed that God would give us “the wonder of his saving presence”. We’ve heard about great heavenly visions and sung about ranks of angels.  It’s stirring stuff but what is it all about in practical terms?
Even when we are talking of earthly matters, praying for the world and its needs, we can sound as if we have a rather inflated idea of our own importance. “Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,” we pray at the end of the service, “so that we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name.” The whole earth? … no pressure there, then! Are we supposed to be getting all that sorted today, or will tomorrow do?

Of course, it is good to have a goal, and to be reminded of it in prayer and song, but the fact is that most of us don’t spend our lives thinking about the redemption of the cosmos. I wonder what was on your mind as you came to church today. Have the children done their homework? When can I squeeze in that shopping trip before we run out of food? I must remember to phone mum to find out what the doctor said? How will I meet that deadline for work?
For me this week has consisted of excitements like writing service sheets, planning the next Messy Church, and wondering what to do about the fact that the oven door won’t close any more…

Even those of you who do genuine life-or-death jobs – nurses, doctors, police officers – probably find that a ridiculous amount of time is spent on things that seem very trivial – box ticking and form-filling and having meetings that don’t really go anywhere. Perhaps it has to be done, but it doesn’t seem like the stuff of divine revelation and cosmic redemption.

That’s why our Gospel reading today is such an important one. It’s a miracle, of course, so not exactly mundane, but it is a miracle which happens in very ordinary circumstances, to very ordinary people, and doesn’t seem to make any real difference to the world in the long run. Indeed most of those present don’t even know it has happened. “The steward tasted the water that had become wine and did not know where it came from” says John. Neither the newly-weds, nor their families, nor the vast majority of the guests have a clue that a miracle has taken place in their midst. If they were aware that there was a problem with the wine they probably just assume someone has found an extra barrel hidden somewhere.

Apart from Jesus and his immediate circle it’s only the servants who know what is going on. “The servants who had drawn the water knew” John tells us. He puts it in brackets. It sounds like an aside, but actually it’s not. It’s one of the most important points in the story because it sets the tone not only for what Jesus does here, but for his whole ministry, which is primarily going to be focussed on people like these servants, the poor and overlooked.

Paintings of this story make this very clear. I’ve put one, by Hieronymus Bosch on the pew leaflets and it is typical. The bride and groom are there, and Mary and Jesus, but it is the servant in the foreground who the artist wants us to notice, the servant who most of the guests ignore as if he is invisible, but who is witnessing a miracle at this very moment as he pours out the wine that shouldn’t be there. God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of time and eternity, the giver of all good things is at work in this wedding, but most people don’t notice, and Jesus doesn’t seem to suggest that they should.

And what is this miracle for? What does it achieve? World peace? The overthrow of Roman rule? No, it just saves a family from the shame of having their wedding go down in village memory as the one where the wine ran out. In the grand scheme of things, to us, to history it doesn’t seem to matter at all. But to that family at that moment it mattered completely. Their happiness, their ability to hold up their heads in front of their neighbours hinged on it.

This miracle is absolutely characteristic of the miracles of the New Testament. In the Old Testament miracles are usually done on a grand scale and a very public stage, in the interests of national survival; the parting of the Red Sea, the Manna in the Wilderness, the fall of Jericho. That’s because the Old Testament was written by and for a nation trying to establish its identity. Its stories are mostly about kings and the prophets who challenge them, wars and alliances, national victories and defeats. There are domestic and small scale stories too, like those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but even then the point is that these are people who become highly significant in the history of the nation.

In the New Testament, though, the focus is completely different. It is written by and for a persecuted minority – the early Christians – a tiny group of people, and one which was disproportionately made up of the poor and powerless, servants and slaves like those at this wedding feast. They weren’t people who thought their lives mattered much and it probably didn’t occur to them that anyone would ever notice them beyond their own immediate sphere. Who would pay attention to people like them? But Jesus’ message, in words and actions, was that whoever you were, you mattered to God and your concerns were his concerns too. Jesus’ miracles are almost all done for people who are anonymous and without influence. A deaf man hears, a blind man sees, a woman with a haemorrhage which has kept her from being part of her society is healed, another who is bent double is enabled to stand upright and talk to her neighbours face to face again. He doesn’t heal the rich and famous so that they will bring their influence to bear on his behalf; he doesn’t provide wine for emperors and kings in the hope that they will support his mission. In fact he doesn’t even meet with or talk to anyone of any status until the last week of his life when he finds himself hauled before the Jewish authorities and the Roman Governor. He heals and helps people because they need it, in the way that they need it. Never mind if they will follow him afterwards. Never mind if they will help to further his wider mission. Never mind if they understand what has happened at all.

There are grand themes in his preaching; the kingdom of God and the healing of humanity, but the emphasis is very much on the way these things grow from small and humble beginnings and are to do with ordinary people and their ordinary lives. A tiny speck of yeast, a mustard seed, a grain of wheat, says Jesus; God’s work in us starts in things as small as this, things you hardly notice at all.

And of course that brings us full circle. I started by asking whether we sometimes get a bit above ourselves in worship, spouting grand ideas about heavenly things which have little to do with our real lives. The answer to that, I’d like to suggest is yes, and no. Of course we are sometimes so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use, but actually heaven is all around us, and in us too. It is there in the stuff of our lives, those mundane worries you brought with you this morning. The small things are the big things. Those apparently trivial concerns – wedding plans, family issues, work dilemmas – are holy places, because they are the things that make a real difference to our lives, and through us affect the lives of others too. They are the places where hurts are healed, relationships repaired, wrongs righted, good foundations laid for the future, and that’s what the kingdom of God is about.

I’d like to finish with a favourite poem by David Scott. It’s called “Letters from Baron Von Hugel to a Niece”. To understand it you need to know that Baron Von Hugel was a very much respected late 19th Century spiritual writer and guide. He is probably best known, though, for a series of letters he wrote to his beloved niece, a young woman who struggled with her health and died young.

His day was not really complete until
he sealed with a gentle middle finger
a letter to his niece, heralding the arrival
of books. It smelt of camphor. The advice
was a comfort to her: “Give up Evensong,
and even if dying never strain.”
It was surprising counsel from one so scrupulous;
whose sharp pencil noted on both margins of a page,
and hovered, like a teacher’s, over spelling.
Walking into Kensington with the letter,
his muffler tight against the frost,
he reassures himself that directing a soul
is not only a matter of angel’s talk, it is
also the knack of catching the evening post.

“Catching the evening post” – a small thing but one which mattered. The small things are the big things, because in them we find God at work. Whatever concerns you  brought to church with you today, if they matter to you they matter to God and if you pay attention to them, who knows, you might find that they are the places where God is turning water into wine in your life, making it rich in love which can overflow to others too.

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