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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Sermon: The moment of transformation

This was my sermon for the Eucharist at St Vedast-alias-Foster this morning:

The writer of John’s Gospel says that this miracle is the first that Jesus performed but the word used for first also means that it is the key miracle, the one that unlocks and explains all the others (John 2: 1 – 11). So we need to ask ourselves what it is that we learn from this miracle that helps us to understand more fully what Jesus was doing through his ministry, death and resurrection.

The miracle is one of transformation; water being transformed into wine with this transformation bringing joy to the wedding guests. Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamasov, sees this miracle’s significance in the joy that Jesus brings to ordinary people: “It was not grief but men’s gladness that Jesus extolled when he worked his first miracle – he helped people to be happy … his heart was open … to the simple and artless joys of ignorant human beings, ignorant but not cunning, who had warmly bidden him to their poor wedding.” Later in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks himself about having come to bring life in all its fullness which must include this sense of joy and gladness in life. The filling of the water jars to the full also speaks of this sense of life being filled with goodness and gladness.

In Luke 6: 38 Jesus speaks again about fullness. Here he links our fullness to our giving: “Give to others, and God will give to you. Indeed, you will receive a full measure, a generous helping, poured out into your hands – all that you can hold.” This emphasis is important because the transformation of water into wine suggests that Jesus does not simply bless human life as it is but comes to transform it.

Water is essential to life. The human body is 75% water and needs a constant supply of water to function. The average person can only survive for about three days without any water at all. So, water is a basic need for all of us and speaks to us of the basic needs that we all need to be fulfilled in order that we can live and live comfortably.

But God wants something better for us than a life based just on the meeting of our basic needs and the turning of water into wine gives us a clue as to what that better thing is. Wine reminds us of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. That moment when, out of love for all people, he lays down his own life in order to save us from all that is wrong with our lives and our world. So, wine is a reminder to us of the fact that the greatest love is shown through sacrifice.

This is the transformation that Jesus seeks to bring to human life. It is a change from human existence to human life; a change from the selfish experience of meeting our own basic needs to the spiritual experience of sharing what we have will others; a change from the evolutionary imperative of the survival of the fittest to the Christian imperative of sacrificial love.

This transformation is also symbolised in the pouring out of the wine from the water jars. It may even be that this is the moment of transformation just as what is drawn from the water jars to be shared with others is wine so as we give to others we are transformed from selfish to sacrificial. It may be that it is in the act of giving that our transformation comes.

There is also significance in the reference to the role of the water jars in ritual washing. The water jars can be seen as signifying the Jewish faith that require such ritual cleansing but from those jars and from that faith comes a new wine that must be poured out and shared with others. The new wine is for all; not just for the first but kept for the last as well. Wine symbolises the blood of Christ which is shed for all. God’s grace is no longer contained solely within the confine of the Jewish faith; coming to God no longer requires the meeting of the standards of the Law. This new wine bursts the old skins and is shared with all people of every nation, race, gender, age and sexuality.

So we see depicted a change from the old order, the old covenant, to the new. And this change extends the transformation to all. What is depicted then is not solely a change for us as individuals but a societal change no longer affecting one nation but all nations. What is depicted is a new way of life, a new way of being human, which can, perhaps, be summed up in the words of John 15: 13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends”. He looks at all of us, at all human beings, and says, “You are my friends”. Jesus allowed his own life to end so that all people could know what it is like to really live.

In 21st century Britain we live in a culture that is parched and dry and desperately in need of the water of life. I still remember a Guardian article outlining reasons why kindness has gone out of fashion in the age of the free market and the selfish gene. The writers noted that “for most of western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity” which “functioned as a cultural cement, binding individuals into society” until “the Christian rule ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ came under increasing attack from competitive individualism.” Our society is parched of kindness and we need Jesus to bring transformation.

In Isaiah we read: “The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” (Isaiah 41. 17 & 18)

Our Psalm promised that we shall be satisfied with the abundance of God’s house; we shall drink from the river of God’s delights. For with God is the well of life and in his light shall we see light (Psalm 36).

Jesus is the river that flows in the desert of our selfish, self-centred existence because he shows us how to live in his new way of being human, loving God with all our being and loving our neighbours as ourselves. God wants us to look at Jesus and see how human life was originally intended to be lived before we chose the path of self-centredness. It is when we look at Jesus and begin to live life his way that transformation comes in our lives and our world. The water of our lives and our communities can become wine.

When that is so for us as individuals, as communities and even as a nation then, as we heard in our reading from Isaiah, we shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate (Isaiah 62. 1 – 5).


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