A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Octave of Epiphany
January 21, 2024 at Holy Communion
Isaiah 61:10-62:4, Romans 12:6–16, John 2:1–11
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
On Monday evening I saw a vision of the kingdom of God. But I didn’t fall into a trance, but with my eyes open I saw a sign of what it will be like when heaven is wedded to earth.
Katy and I went into the city Sunday afternoon after the service to attend a day a two-day theological conference which was celebrating the posthumous publication of sermons and retreat addresses by a much-loved priest from the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Fr Robert Crouse taught and mentored a generation of priests and laypeople while a professor in Halifax before passing away twelve years ago, and many of those students had returned from around the world to honour him. The speakers gave lectures on art, and theology, and philosophy. We worshipped at two Choral Evensongs, one of them “high” and the other “low.” And finally, Monday evening after Evensong, we feasted.
The banquet was the consummation of everything that had gone before. Everyone was gathered at the table. All together, because everyone knew the same prayers, we blessed the food. We toasted Fr Crouse and those who had spoken. The toastmasters reminded us how beautiful it was that we—a group of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all together—could celebrate Fr Crouse’s spiritual legacy as one, because its importance exceeded narrow denominationalism. There was food and wine, and then we sang in spontaneous harmonies, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
We Christians are people waiting for the kingdom of God to appear. And it will appear—in fact, it does appear—among us (Luke 17:21). And when the kingdom comes, what will it be like? Scripture gives us an image: the kingdom will come like a wedding.
The point of our Gospel reading is not simply that Jesus demonstrated his divine power by transforming common water into heavenly wine. Choosing to perform his first miracle at a wedding, Jesus showed that he comes as a bringer of joy. He invites humanity to a wedding, at which the ordinary water of their daily routine is elevated and transfigured into a means of participation in the joy of heaven. Jesus is the bringer of a good wine, a new spiritual drink which, once we have tasted it, we wonder why we were satisfied so long with the ordinary stuff.
In the book of John, the evangelist identifies the miracle of the wine as the first of seven “signs” which Jesus performed, not because Jesus performed only seven miracles—he performed many more than seven—but because seven in particular demonstrate the purposes for which the Word of God came into the world. And the very first is to invite us to the wedding-feast of the kingdom.
But this imagery is not novel in the New Testament. The Prophet Isaiah, as we have heard, also spoke about the reversal of his people’s fortunes as a spiritual wedding. Isaiah has spent much of his career as a prophet denouncing Israel for its unfaithfulness to the Lord God, and predicting that God will remove them from their land for a time as a punishment which will purify and refocus them. But what will happen on the other side of their exile? A wedding. “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isaiah 62:4).
This is a story of reversal even more stark than the wedding at Cana. There, it was already a joyful occasion, perhaps marred a little bit because the wine had run out, but already celebratory. Jesus’ miracle elevates their ordinary joy by the provision of spiritual drink so that it becomes a sign of the kingdom. But here, to present Israel as the spouse of the Lord God, as a “fallen woman” whom the King nonetheless takes to himself and restores to the dignity of a bride, is a total reversal.
God comes to marry himself not only to joyful and celebratory, but also to desolate and the forsaken. We are not God’s beloved just when we feel close to him, but when we are very far away and cry out in the hope that he hear and rescue us from our own disgrace. When our ordinary life is no wedding feast: perhaps then better than at any other time we understand the scandal and the generosity of the King of Heaven taking us for his own.
Our Epistle has everything to do with this, even though it doesn’t refer at all to wedding feasts. In fact, our Epistle reading is where understanding the kingdom of God as a wedding feast becomes a teaching that we can take home with us. The wedding feast of the kingdom is not something that we simply have to wait for, at the end of time or at the end of our lives, but something that will appear in our midst as we exercise the care toward one another to which God has called us.
Every word of the Epistle is worth quoting again, but especially the middle section: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:9–13).
We will never see the wedding feast of the kingdom appear among us like a heavenly vision if we are “slothful in zeal,” but only if we are “fervent in spirit.” Those who are satisfied with the plain water of ordinary life do not pray that God would satisfy them with a stronger drink of the heavenly Spirit. Those who are unwilling to show hospitality will never entertain angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2).
Seeing the heavenly banquet depends a lot on us, on whether we are willing to do what we can to make that banquet happen. When friends gather to serve one another, bringing the best of all their gifts, not succumbing to the many temptations to despair, but rejoicing in the opportunity to gather with one another, then Jesus will make himself present as the heavenly bridegroom.