Sermon: Wedding banquets
Preached on 22nd January 2006
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
John 2:1-11, Revelation 19:6-10
I'm ashamed to admit that my memories of the wedding at which I was bridesmaid for the first time have nothing to do with the service itself but are all about the reception. I was given a glass of orange, took a large sip and was disgusted as it was fizzy and I disliked anything sparkling. Consternation: there were no still drinks to be found anywhere in the hall. So I sulked, as seven year olds do, went thirsty for a while and then drank tap water, and all these years later the memory of the lack ordinary orange squash at a wedding is lodged in my mind.
Food and drink are an essential part of celebrations and, as I discovered at an early age, can make or break the experience. Perhaps that explains why Jesus performed what on the face of it is a non-essential miracle - wedding parties in those times lasted several days during which people went to work in the day and returned to party at night, so the guests had already had a lot to drink. Also, the family were clearly wealthy since they had servants and large stone water jars for purification, the point being that stone reduced the transmission of impurities but was something only the wealthy could afford. To run out of wine at a wedding was not a matter of life and death, but it was major social faux-pas and would subject the family to social disgrace that would long be remembered. Apparently it might even be cause for a lawsuit by a disgruntled guest if he didn't get hospitality appropriate to the value of his wedding gift: fathers of the bride beware!
John tells us that this was the first of Jesus' signs and that through it he revealed his glory. John doesn't have any parables in his gospel, and he only records seven miracles which he calls signs. They function both as miracles and as parables, because by calling them signs, John alerts us that we need to probe more deeply than face value. So this isn't just a miracle in which, out of the goodness of his heart, Jesus rescues an embarrassed wedding host. John intends us to probe deeper. The signs are not just supernatural acts but significant acts, they don't just have an effect but they have meaning.
We need a bit more help here because we are not immersed in the Jewish mindset which, on hearing the word ‘marriage feast' or ‘wedding banquet' would immediately think also of the anticipated messianic banquet which heralded the long awaited Messiah. That meaning was second nature to Jews of the time, and we encounter it in several places in the Old Testament: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with jewels. For as a young man marries a young woman, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. ... And Jesus told a parable about the ten virgins or bridesmaids that is all about the coming of the heavenly bridegroom, and another about wedding guests who made excuses at what we are to understand is the wedding banquet God provides, and our reading in Revelation gives us the foretaste of the joy at the marriage feast of the Lamb of God.
And weddings have wine, and God has the best wine cellar of all: Isaiah tells us that ‘on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear'. That last little detail - strained clear - was very important in an age when most wine was pretty rough in more ways than one and needed to be diluted with water to make it palatable. But God offers only the best, hence the headwaiter's punch line when he says to the bridegroom ‘most hosts serve the best wine first and the poorer stuff when the guests are drunk, but you have saved the best until the end.'
So, we have a sign performed in the backwater village of Cana that points us to the lavish extravagance of the God's messianic banquet. And just as Jesus produces the best wine of the lot at the end, so God has saved his very best gift to Israel and the world to the last: something better than the law, which was prized so dearly as God's gift to the people, is given in Jesus Christ. John prefaces his gospel with the statement we heard at Christmas, ‘from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace': not just the grace of the law, but now grace and truth that come through Jesus Christ. So no wonder John begins his gospel with a wedding banquet, he's telling us that this sign indicates the dawn of the messianic age that comes in Jesus Christ. It is not just grace, but grace upon grace, not just life but abundant life, as Jesus himself said later, ‘I am come that they might have life, and have it abundantly'.
And for one of Jesus' disciples, Nathanael, this sign was particularly startling. Our gospel reading started ‘on the third day' so we can reasonably asked what happened three days ago. John tells us that Nathanael had met Jesus for the first time and been amazed when Jesus saw him under a fig tree and knew him. Jesus had said, ‘don't be surprised at that, you're going see much greater things, you'll see heaven opened.' And almost immediately this miracle happened. But what John doesn't tell us here, but does at the very end of his gospel, is that Nathanael came from Cana, so this miracle, this revelation of Jesus' glory, happened in his own home town.
Sometimes it is easier to expect miracles to happen elsewhere, in fact anywhere but on our doorstep. But this sign challenges us to believe that God will reveal his glory in our daily lives, on our doorsteps. And this story is particularly appropriate for us this week since we are in the season of Epiphany which is all about the revelation of Jesus Christ. We began Epiphany with the revelation of God's glory in the baby Jesus to the Gentile magi, then the revelation of Jesus Christ in his baptism when the voice from heaven said ‘this is my beloved Son', and now the revelation of Jesus' glory in his first miracle. The pre-Lent season culminates with the revelation of Jesus' glory in the transfiguration. We are in the season of epiphanies, of the revelation of God's glory, and Nathanael's experience reminds us to be open to signs in our midst.
But there's another connection we need to make before we leave this story. Week by week, even day by day, we celebrate a foretaste of the wedding banquet of heaven which Revelation described for us. We take bread and wine and celebrate the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise of God's coming kingdom. John's gospel does not have a last supper story, but instead gives us this sign in the wine, and later, when Jesus fed the 5,000, he gives us a sign in the bread. Two of Jesus' seven signs in John's gospel point us to the feast of heaven. And in both cases there is lavish abundance: not just wine but the best wine, not just enough bread but 12 baskets left over. There is nothing frugal or stingy about God's banquet, and it is to this banquet that we are invited today. We may only receive a small piece of bread and a sip of wine, but it is not the physical quantity that matters but what they point us to and open up for us. So as we share the bread and wine in a few minutes, remember not just the Last Supper but remember the wedding feast at Cana and the feeding of the 5000, and let their oversupply of food and drink be to you a revelation of the glory of God seen in Jesus Christ and a reminder to look forward to the banquet in heaven at the marriage feast of the Lamb. In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, that is an important perspective to keep, one which challenges our complacency about our lack of Eucharistic unity on earth. And the day after this cathedral was packed for the Make Poverty History service when we heard of a boy in Zambia who couldn't concentrate at school because the previous day it was his brother's turn to eat, not his, it is a challenge to our complacency about world poverty, debt and hunger.
Then let that revelation of God's glory and generosity stay with you during the week, particularly when you run into situations where the world's shortages and needs, whether of food, medical supplies, justice or peace, tempt you to despair. And ask yourself, if the God we love and serve is that generous, and enjoys a celebration enough to keep the party going even longer, and has plans for the ultimate wedding banquet in heaven, what can we do to express that generosity to others?