St. John 2:1-11
The season of Epiphany presents a series of Gospel lessons in which the true identity of our Lord Jesus is made manifest. The season begins with the narrative of the wise men who come to pay the Lord Jesus homage, to give him gifts and to worship him. In this his true identity is manifest. He is true man and true God, the union of divine and human natures in one divine person. To Epiphany season belongs not only the proclamation of Christ’s true divinity but also his true humanity for he is true God veiled in human flesh. His two natures are evident in today’s Gospel lesson. As human, Jesus with his disciples is invited to a marriage feast; as divine he foresees that the time of his passion has not yet come. As human, he meets his mother, the root and source of his humanity. As divine, his mission transcends even the relationship of mother and son so that he can address his mother as “woman”. As human, he speaks the audible command to the servants to fill the six water pots. As divine, he alters water into wine, showing himself to be the Word of God through whom “all things were made.” In Cana, we witness true man and true God manifesting forth his glory.
Careful students of Holy Scripture might ask why our Lord turns water into wine, when in his temptation in the wilderness, Satan bids our Lord to turn stones into bread, and he refuses to do so? Outwardly the miracles would be very similar, turning one physical thing into something else. However, the purpose for these miracles is quite different. Our Lord is tempted to turn stones into bread in an appeal to his hunger from a forty day fast. He rejects the act because as humans we are not to live in order to eat; we are to eat in order to live. Blindly serving our appetites often will put us in conflict with the command to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. At the wedding feast the purpose of the miracle is not to satisfy the appetite for wine. Some sermons I have heard on this passage make it sound as if the point of the miracle is to show that Jesus is a nice guy, someone who brings more than his share to the party. The manifestation of his glory here is that he is powerful over material elements, altering water into wine. Later signs in John’s Gospel will show him to be powerful in similar but amplified ways: in chapter four Jesus is shown to be powerful over entrenched religious and social barriers in his restoration of the Samaritan woman; in chapter five he is shown to be powerful over acquired disease when he heals the paralytic; in chapter six he is shown to be powerful in filling human hunger in the feeding of the five thousand; in chapter nine he is shown to be powerful over congenital defects when he heals the man born blind; finally in chapter eleven, the climax of his signs, he is shown to be powerful over death, in raising Lazarus from the dead. In these signs, there is an ascending intensity as his power becomes more manifest. Each answers the question of who is Jesus. What is his true identity? It is a question each of us must answer.
Two weeks ago Fr. Bright in his Epiphany sermon stressed the importance of the statement that the wise men returned home a different way than the way they came. They did this, we are told, because they were warned not to return to Herod. Fr. Bright suggested that there is also a spiritual metaphor in this different route. The human encounter with Jesus always brings about an alteration, a change in heart and disposition, a new creature in the language of the New Testament. If we truly encounter the Word, there is no going back to the old way of living. Again, an encounter with the Word, as Fr. Petley said last week, means leaving behind many things, including our own self-understanding, in order to receive a new self-understanding, that of a child of God. There is a spiritual application in today’s lesson as well, in the words of the ruler of the feast: “thou hast kept the good wine until now.” You see, this is just the opposite of the way the world works or at least appears to work. From the perspective of the ruler of the feast, the best wine is brought out when everyone is sober and only when their senses are numbed is that of lesser quality presented. Many things in life seem to be the best wine first. The pleasure, for example, derived from material objects is often like this. The enjoyment of the sought after object peaks just after its acquisition; then begins its gradual, yet sure decline in our thoughts and affections. Surely you know what I am speaking about. There is an object that you pine away for and secretly tell yourself that it will bring happiness if only you had it. Once had, its glimmer quickly fads. The thrill is in the hunt. Again, think now of your favorite dessert. Rich, creamy or sweet. Imagine if you had to eat it every day. That might be okay, you say, but now imagine that you have to eat it at every meal. It would only be a matter of time before the whole thing would grow rather wearisome. And the last dessert, though identical with the first, would certainly be worse, less enjoyed than the first.
But this is not the only example in which we say life presents us with the best wine first. Something similar can be said about the shape of our natural lives. You see, we live in a world of change and decay. We treat the world as if it were constant, but in fact, it is in nearly constant motion. And we are too. Youth and strength seem to be like the best wine first. There is an ease and a pleasure in youth and strength. But we know for certain that youth and strength will fade and decay, despite the best attempts at preserving the illusion of youth. It is only a matter of time. Perhaps you remember that old French proverb, “if youth knew, if age could.” I have heard the regrets of those who said that while young they did not drink deeply enough of youth’s pleasures. Apparently, the cup with the best wine passed them by years ago.
It is obvious that this attitude inevitably leads to cynicism and resignation. If the best wine is somewhere in the past, the best one can hope for is a draught of tasteless wine that is vaguely evocative of that wine of yesteryear. But the good news is that it is just the opposite in our Lord Jesus. The best wine is kept for last. An image of this is found in the best of marriages and long-standing friendships. The world might cynically say that the honeymoon is the peak from which the marriage gradually declines, but experience shows the contrary. Time and experience in a marriage with two committed partners make the love and devotion deeper and more grounded. And do I really need to say anything about the pleasure of an old friend versus that of a new? A good marriage and a devoted friendship are instances in which the best wine is for last. This is true because the fellowship and friendship in these cases is a reflection of the apex of all friendship, that is, friendship with God. Humans were created to be in communion and fellowship with God, and the Bible speaks of those particularly holy men of God, like Abraham, as friends of God. The Bible also says that eternal life is to know the Father, in other words, it is about a relationship. The more we open ourselves to God, the more he will unfold his love and mercy before us to our ever-increasing awe. You see, my friends, in God the best wine is always last. That is why Christianity is a religion of hope, not a naïve superstition in progress, but an assurance of our final end in and with God. The pleasure and enjoyment we get from knowing God is never wearied so that the Psalmist can write “the fullness of joy is in thy presence.” Even in the midst of this world of change and decay we may have the confidence of St. Paul: “Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). It is to this contemplation and this good life that we are called as those who know that the best wine is always last in our Lord Jesus.