Epiphany 2 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.
We come now to the second Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is the season in which we recall how Jesus showed himself forth, how he revealed himself to be who he was— as “God in man made manifest” — manifestation being a fair translation of Epiphany. This year the season is a bit short because Lent starts so early, but we did have the advantage of the Feast of the Epiphany itself falling on a Sunday two weeks ago, and so we got to celebrate the first great manifestation of the son of God: the revelation to the Magi, or Three Kings, as custom calls them.
Then last Sunday, as on every First Sunday after the Epiphany, we took note of the Baptism of Jesus — another revelation or manifestation of his true nature, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove in bodily form, and a voice spoke from heaven proclaiming him to be God’s beloved son.
And today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, which the evangelist John describes at the end of the reading as the first sign by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him. But isn’t it striking how different this episode is from the two previous events. At first glance it seems a bit like a parlor trick, or perhaps a little bigger than that, like a stage-show magic act. Why, Jesus even treats the servants in the same way a magician treats his assistants, instructing them to fill the stone water jars and then to draw some off to take to the chief steward.
Yet surely there is more going on here than simply a magic act, a bit of presto change-o. This is the Son of God, not a Las Vegas stage performance, however spectacular. So what is going on in this miraculous change of water into wine?
The editors who assembled the readings today knew what they were up to: for both the reading from Isaiah and the one from the First Corinthians have to do with transformation; and what is more, transformation as a sign and a revelation, a manifestation of the presence of God: an Epiphany.
Isaiah speaks of God coming to redeem Zion and Jerusalem, vindicating them and releasing them from their captivity — raising them up literally like Cinderella, to be taken from the dust and ashes and to become a crown of beauty and a royal diadem. Holy Zion would even be given new names; no longer Forsaken or Desolate, but now Hephzibah and Beulah — well, yes, the translators were probably right to give those names in translation; and their meaning is beautiful — “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married” — I think today very few young women would like to be named Hephzibah or Beulah.
But a change this is, what a transformation, what a wonderful manifestation of the power of God! Lifted from the dust to be set on the throne — no glass slipper, but a royal diadem — all by the power of God.
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And the transformation that Saint Paul describes in First Corinthians is no less wonderful — no less a manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit. It is a result of the action of God upon those people. God has taken these ordinary Greeks — some of them slaves, a few of them craftspeople, merchants, mostly working class, a few of them perhaps well-to-do, but none of them likely of the “1 percent” — God has taken these ordinary people and poured out upon them an abundance of spiritual gifts, each of them given as a manifestation of the spirit for the common good: the ability to speak with wisdom or knowledge or faith; the gifts of healing or the working of miracles; to prophesy or discern spirits, or to speak in tongues or to interpret tongues — and all of this not as a result of classes at Monroe College or the University of Phoenix, or even at the local philosophers’ school, but suddenly and miraculously and from above — a sure sign that this is the work of God and not merely human learning.
So when we arrive at the wedding feast at Cana, we are prepared — and called — to see the transformation of the water into wine as more than Jesus simply acting as a miraculous caterer. There is something deeply important, deeply significant, about this change, and John the evangelist is careful to alert us by placing important details in his account.
First of all note those opening words: “On the third day...” What else happened on a “third day?” Another great manifestation? Yes! And so John starts off right from the beginning, by mentioning a “third day” — we’re up to something important here.
So then notice how he mentions where the water comes from: this is not drinking water. This is water that has been set aside for rituals of purification — John even includes the important detail that the water is in jars made of stone; for under Jewish law stone vessels could never become ritually impure — if you put pure water into them, pure it will remain, until you draw it out and use it. And what did they use it for? This water was set aside for people to wash their hands, which one would do many times in the course of a ritual Jewish meal.
This is the water that Jesus chooses to transform— and the second thing to note is that there is a lot of it; each of those jars holds over 8 gallons — about what you would need for a large wedding party to be able to wash its hands several times during each meal in the course of a seven-day wedding festival, but also obviously much more than enough wine, particularly late in the celebration, as the steward notes - another detail to pay attention to. So Jesus takes water intended for rites of purification, and transforms it into wine for celebration — and not just any wine, but good wine, and not just a cup or a flagon or two, but 48 gallons — that’s about 240 bottles of wine.
So this isn’t just a simple magic trick, something to impress the disciples; but a sign, a manifestation to teach them something about the very nature of who Christ is. Just as Zion is not simply transformed into a free city, but into a royal diadem; just as the Corinthians are not just made into good pew-sitters and member of their local congregation, but are given powerful gifts as leaders; so too Jesus transforms water that had a merely earthly purpose — something as prosaic as washing your hands — into a sign of his kingdom and its coming: wine in abundance to gladden the heart of those invited to drink of its goodness.
All of these things reveal and manifest the glory of God: the restoration of the city once forsaken, transformed into the crown jewel of the kingdom; the astonishing gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon the people of that newly formed Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth; and the transformation of washing-up water into gallons of the finest wine. These are transformations and manifestations far and away more important than the most spectacular magic act, more than a presto change-o or an abracadabra. These are the kinds of things that happen when the power of God sets to work. And God is working still — right here, right now, in your hearts, when you invite him in.
Let us pray. O Lord of transformation, you lifted up the forsaken city from the dust, you poured out gifts upon the people of your church, and you revealed yourself to your disciples by changing the water of purification into the wine of celebration: So send your mighty power and restore, and grace, and change us too, that we may bear forth your message of hope and joy to a world in need of change; through Jesus Christ our Lord.