Monday, 21 January 2019

Water into Wine

In the Gospel of John, I love that Jesus’ ministry starts at a wedding. Isn’t it great to imagine Jesus at this huge celebration, laughing with friends and relatives, dancing, and drinking wine? And this wasn’t like a modern wedding which is usually the good part of an afternoon and evening. This was a huge event. It was a celebration that involved the whole town. Family traveled from other places. Jesus and his mother travelled from Nazareth, which was about 3 miles away. That part isn’t hard to grasp- we understand big weddings. But this wedding would have lasted for several days. People would come and go, and new people would arrive, friends and family, neighbours, all to celebrate the new couple.

Hospitality was a huge issue in the Middle East. It still is. Your honour can be bound to your ability to be hospitable and welcoming. The preparation for this party fell on the shoulders of the groom. It was his job to talk to all his family and friends and neighbours and people who owed him favours to provide food and drink for all his wedding guests.

In our Gospel reading today we learn that the wedding runs out of wine. This isn’t just embarrassing. This is socially disastrous. It brought shame on one’s self and one’s family. It implied a lack of helpful friends, or even untrustworthiness. It might even be considered a bad omen regarding the marriage. How will he take care of a family if he can't pull off a wedding? This was a disaster for the couple as they begin their life together.

Mary, being sensitive to the impending disaster, comes to Jesus and says, “They have no wine”. Jesus’ mother knows the potential Jesus has. … Some have even seen Mary in this moment as the new Eve- the mother of humanity expressing humanity’s need to Jesus.

We then have this awkward moment. … Mary says” Jesus, they have no wine” To which Jesus replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not come.” I should say that calling his mother “woman” is not being hostile. It is somewhat distancing. Jesus will act in God’s time not anyone else’s. He can’t be manipulated into acting. 
But... maybe that is too strong.
Here we can feel the pause as Jesus and Mary look at each other.
I would love to see the look on their faces. What was said through their eye contact?
 Then Mary turns to the servants and says, “do whatever he tells you”. It is an odd moment. Is he going to act? In that moment some have seen Mary as standing with the prophets declaring to the people, “do whatever God tells you”. 

We stand with Mary saying, “Jesus, they have no wine.” Many have seen in this statement the universal declaration of human need. All of us have times when we have run out of wine. We balance on the edge of social disaster, or mental breakdown, or bankruptcy, or whatever- in those moments we are letting Jesus know we have no wine. We say it on behalf of others as we prayerfully come to Jesus declaring “they have to wine”. They are in need. We stand tugging on His sleeve, “Jesus, people are hurting. When will you act? When will you do something about this broken world?” We tug on his sleeve and he answers with surprising reluctance. “My hour has not yet come”. And we are left waiting. And we seem to hear him say, “My hour is not yet.”

When we face the suffering of the world and deal with God’s delay in supernaturally interceding we have to be careful how we interpret the suffering. Some have declared that the suffering of life is caused by God for some great purpose. It is part of the divine plan, but I think that is a mistake. We can’t say that God causes such disasters to bring about some greater good. The world is broken and people suffer because of it. When we look at a disaster we do not see the mysterious plan of God, we see the brokenness of the world. We see Eve’s children struggling to live East of Eden.

Mary points to the need of the couple. They have run out of wine. They are on the verge of disaster. Mary trusts Jesus’ timing and his word. She turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he says”. As instructed, the servants take six large pots. They fill them, and Jesus turns the water into wine- A huge amount of wine- 120-180 gallons of wine. But, this wasn’t some pointless miracle. No, this miracle was a sign- it points to something beyond itself.

The water pots were used for ceremonial washing. The pots represent the Old Law- the Law that seeks to manage and control Sin. In a sense, the old Law didn’t give life- it just attempted to keep Sin under control. Jesus uses those old pots and fills them with the wine that represents blessing and abundance and life. This is way beyond controlling Sin. This is about abundant life. The old order of things is replaced by the new.

We are a people in need. We stand in a broken world, and the cracks in creation run straight through our hearts as much as anywhere else. The creation is broken and we are broken with it. … We don’t need someone to pat us on the head and say that it really isn’t all that bad. We don’t need someone to look at our personal sin and say, “well nobody’s perfect”. What we need is transformation. What we need is life poured into us. What we need is God.

We need a God to break into our lives and save us from the mess we are in. We need a God who will break into our lives and give us Himself. The wine Jesus made from the water is a sign. It points beyond itself. We read that this was the “first” of his signs. But it is deeper than that. It is not just the ‘first’ in a list of seven. This is the word arche, and can mean foundation, or form. This is the foundation of all that Jesus is about to do. This sign is not just about wine. It is bigger than that.

Wine in the Old Testament is often a symbol of abundant life and of the messianic age to come. This isn’t just about saving a groom from social embarrassment and dishonour. Through the Old Testament We hear about the stormy marriage between God and God’s people. The prophets often talk about the people as an adulterous spouse who turns against God. Here we see the marriage perfected in Jesus. The perfectly faithful human is united perfectly in love to their faithful God. Finally, the longing of God’s heart since the Fall, in the humanity of Jesus, humanity is reconciled to God. The cracks in Creation have begun the process of healing. And so it is time to celebrate. That wine is a symbol of this new age, the messianic age.

This wine never runs out. It overflows into Christian churches throughout the world. Christians meet and drink into themselves the God that they need so desperately. As St Augustine said, “my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”. We have a void in us that can only be filled by God pouring Himself into us- filling the cracks in our souls. Even now that brokenness continues to be overtaken by the Kingdom where Jesus will raise up the victims, wipe away all tears from their eyes- “and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say ‘behold I make all things new’. Amen.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Epiphany- follow that star!

It is a very interesting passage we have here before us in the Gospel of Matthew. Men came to Jerusalem from somewhere in the East. We don’t know from where- perhaps Persia, or Arabia, or somewhere else, we don’t know.

The song we often sing on this day proclaims “three kings”, but Matthew doesn’t actually indicate that they were kings. Though, perhaps someone could have mistaken them for kings based on the gifts they carried. In the story of the magi later Christians heard an echo of Isaiah 60:3,6b 

“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn ... They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD".
 Likewise, in Psalm 72:10-11 
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”.
 In the magi, they saw the gentile nations coming to bow to the Jewish Messiah. 

They are called “Magi” in the plural, but “Magus” in the singular. It is a word that that has a few definitions and can refer to a practitioner of occult magic, to someone who divines the future, to an interpreter of dreams (like the prophet Daniel), or to those who study the night sky. A magus was a mysterious person, with mysterious knowledge of things hidden to ordinary people. It is from the Greek word "magus" that we get the word “magician”. Magus can also be correctly translated as ‘sorcerer’, or as ‘wise man’. In the world of the Magi the cosmos was an interconnected whole. If something important was happening on earth, that would be reflected in the heavens. If an important king died or was born, they would expect to see some sign of it in the stars (if you know where to look). Adding to the mystery, the Bible warns about consulting astrologers, diviners, and magicians. Dream interpreters seem to be the exception.

The star itself is also mysterious. We really don’t know what the Magi were looking at when they saw the star. Craig Chester, an astronomer for the Montaray Institute of Geophysics and Astrophysics, has stated that every astrophysical event between 7 and 1 BC has been proposed to be the Bethlehem star (source: Darrel Johnson). We don’t know if they were looking at a supernova, or a comet, or at some configuration of the planet Jupiter and Saturn. The star seems to move and then stops. This led some early church commentators to say that it was actually an angel that led the Magi.

The Magi are out to find the one born King of the Jews. Such visits by Magi from the East have been recorded. For example, the ancient historian, Pliny, records that the Roman Emperor Nero received such guests in 66 AD. So, such an event is not unheard of. …. When looking for a Jewish king, they would naturally be led to Jerusalem and the cruel King Herod, who was actually a descendant from Edom and was placed in power by the Romans (hardly the rightful heir to the throne). He was so paranoid about protecting his throne that near the end of his days he had three of his own children executed for treason. … The Magi found no newly born king in the palaces of Jerusalem. Instead, 6 miles away, in the town of Bethlehem, in humble conditions, Matthew says they found the child they were looking for.

When reading this passage, many preachers have used their imaginations to fill in the gaps. “Three” Magi have been imagined because there were three gifts, but Matthew says nothing about how many there were except that there was more than one. The three Magi were even given names by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. One was “Melchior” and was an old man with white hair and long beard. “Gaspar” was young and beardless with a ruddy complexion. “Balthasar” had dark colored skin and a big beard. The multi-ethnic group was believed to represent the Gentile world that would also benefit from Jesus’ saving action, along with the Jews.

Early commentators also put theological weight on the gifts given to the baby Jesus. Gold, they said, was a gift worthy of a king. Frankincense was a kind of incense offered in worship and so was a gift worthy of a god. Myrrh was a spice used to anoint a dead body and prophetically points to Jesus’ death on the cross. This isn’t wrong, but, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, were also valuable gifts that might be given to any king, especially if the Magi were from Arabia where the gifts would be more easily obtained.

Here we have these mysterious strangers drawn to the baby Jesus by something they called a star. After meeting the cruel and paranoid Herod greedily clutching at his throne, they are led by the scriptures to an unexpected place to meet the child born king of the Jews. With exceedingly great joy they recognize him as the one they are looking for, and worship him (an action not unusual for polytheistic gentiles meeting an important king). They then open their treasure chests to give little Jesus gifts fit for a king. They are warned by a dream to avoid Herod on their return journey.

I have to say that I find this passage mystifying, but I think it touches me on level that makes it hard for me not to see myself in the story. Like many teenagers, I had rejected Christianity. Like the magi, I was searching for some sort of spiritual truth. I imagined that there was some sort of power in the moon, sun, and stars. I was never quite satisfied. This meant that I drifted. I was always looking for another path. Another theory. Another philosophy. Another something that would bring me some hint of hope that I would find what would satisfy my soul- that would make me feel at home on this planet, and in my own skin.

Like the Magi, I once saw a star. It was an experience I had in a bar. I had just arrived with a few friends when I was overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as love, but it was of a different order entirely. I felt it rush over me from out of nowhere- it rushed out to everyone I could see. It was a love that was equal towards everyone, and it was intense towards everyone.

That experience was my star. Somehow, I knew that that love was the meaning of life. To live in that love would be heaven on earth. I chased that star trying to understand it. I wanted to experience it again. I had other experiences, but that particular experience began a journey for me.

Like the Magi I continued chasing the star, but it was leading me to unexpected places. Like the Magi I was led to Scripture. I picked up the Bible and opened it to Matthew. … King Herod was there in my mind as well. There was a suspicious, arrogant voice within me that would have been happy to do away with the child- I was not seeking Christ, but that is where my star was leading me. … But, Herod didn’t have his way. I read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and I saw the beautiful world Jesus wanted to build. I looked at the face of Jesus and I saw the Incarnate God of love. Jesus spoke about loving enemies. I read about Jesus forgiving those who were unlovable, and even loving those who were killing him by asking God to forgive them. Then I reached the first letter of John chapter 4 where it says, 
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 Jn 4:7-8)

The star I was chasing was my unexplainable and overwhelming experience of love- and Jesus made sense of that love. Like the magi I had followed the star and it led me to a little child in his mother’s arms. Love incarnate.

This room is filled with magi. You have been called from strange places. You have sought happiness and when the pursuit of happiness failed perhaps you turned to dulling the pain or boredom. But, there was something that pulled at you- telling you that there is meaning to life. You have felt the pull of the star. Perhaps it was late at night and you had the overwhelming urge to pray. It might have been joy that overwhelmed you and filled your eyes with tears while you watched the sun set. You might have been walking somewhere, or reading a book, or listening to music, when suddenly that something swept over you from out of nowhere. Suddenly, all is okay with the universe. You rest assured that you are loved and are held in the powerful hands of One who will never ever let you go. There is meaning. There is truth. And words can barely touch it.

Maybe you have been feeling that tug lately. Don’t ignore it. Don’t resist it. Follow it. Do anything you possibly can to follow it. Be drawn to that calm place, where you can be still with that child. Leave the work that has to be done, leave the ‘just one more thing’ that has to be done, Leave your comfort zone, leave your homeland and travel to the baby. Find peace there.

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