Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Third Sunday of Epiphany (24th January 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today’s Gospel reading reminds us of Jesus’ first miracle, performed at the wedding feast in Cana. As a revelation of Jesus’ glory it is a traditional reading for the Epiphany season, when we think of the revealing of Jesus to the Wise Men, and to the public at his baptism by John in the river Jordan. Weddings are a familiar and enjoyable part of normal life and so it is not surprising that they feature in the New Testament. Jesus makes reference to them as, for example, in his parables of the king’s wedding feast or the wise and foolish virgins awaiting the bridegroom. On this occasion, however, we have Jesus actually attending a wedding.

It is a wedding to which Jesus’ mother has been invited, and also Jesus and his disciples. It is also a wedding that is potentially facing crisis. The wine has run out! We may be satisfied with a wedding service and reception which last for a few hours, but Jewish wedding parties in the time of Jesus could last for seven days. Samaritan weddings still do. So there would be plenty of time for celebrating and drinking…and now the wine has run out.

Wine was very important in the time of Jesus. It was the normal drink at meals and certainly was essential at festivals. It was a symbol of joy. Indeed one rabbi observed “Without wine there is no joy!” In recent centuries the temperance movement has understandably grown out of the evil of alcohol abuse, but the movement is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In late 19th century Edinburgh leading Evangelical preachers were teetotal and certainly would not drink alcohol at the Saturday night dinners before preaching the following morning. One hundred years earlier, in the days of Robert Burns, the same type of Evangelical minister would have preached the same type of sermon on a Sunday morning. The only difference was that he would have drunk plenty of wine at his dinner the night before. In the Bible wine as such was always regarded as a good thing, though there are passages illustrating the dangers of drunkenness. There was once a debate on Temperance at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and a minister stood up and made a short but powerful speech. “May I quote from Holy Scripture, Mr Moderator,” he asked, and proceeded to do so. “Asses slake their thirst with water,” he quoted. “It is wine that maketh glad the heart of man.” 

So to run out of wine in the middle of the wedding was a disaster! Mary realised what had happened and asked Jesus to help. He replied that his time had not yet come. (Incidentally, for him to address Mary as “woman” was not all derogatory.) Mary did not argue with Jesus but spoke to the servants and told them to do whatever he told them. Her response is instructive. She wanted Jesus to act but was prepared to give him the freedom to choose to do so. When we pray to God we often expect him to do what we want. We need, like Mary, to have the faith and confidence that Jesus has the power to act and to give him the freedom to act however he chooses. We may suppose that Mary knew her son well enough to guess what he would do, and so spoke to the servants with a pretty good idea of what he would say, but it was still for Jesus to decide what to do. We too know God as revealed in Jesus, and so can make our own preparations to act as God wishes, and not as we would like him to wish. 

Jesus had six large containers filled up to the brim. These contained up to thirty gallons each, so we are talking about 180 gallons of wine. This is a lavish supply, even if the wedding still had a while to run. The amount is intended to indicate God’s bountiful generosity, just as in the Feeding of the Five Thousand there were twelve basket-loads of bread collected afterwards. God does not give the bare minimum. He is lavish in his generosity.

The water-jars used were those used for the rite of purification. Now they are filled with fresh water which turns into wine. In this element of the story we see how something new is put into old containers. John the evangelist was doubtless thinking of the new Revelation of Christ taking place within the traditional framework of Jewish religion. We may think of how the Gospel is preached afresh within the familiar and traditional shape of our Liturgy. We may even think of ourselves transformed afresh for God’s service within our old, or at least sometimes not so young, bodies!

The new wine is brought to the chief steward, the Master of Ceremonies at the wedding feast. There is an interesting contrast in the reactions of the chief steward and the disciples of Jesus, who encounter the same phenomenon. The chief steward assumes a natural explanation and tells the bridegroom that he has kept the good wine until last, whereas folk normally serve the good wine while the guests are still sober and able to tell the difference between wine of different quality! We cannot know whether the words convey admiration for a brilliant new idea or criticism of a novice’s bad planning. Probably the latter! Symbolically, of course, we realise that Jesus himself is the Good News, the Good Wine far superior to what has come before.  

The chief steward assumes that the new wine has arrived naturally, but the disciples know differently and recognise the sign as revealing Jesus’ glory. The disciples then believed in him. Miracles are described as signs by John because for him the significance lies not only in the actual miracle but in that to which the miracle points. In this case the sign of the water turned to wine points to the coming of the Kingdom of God through Jesus. In the Old Testament the abundance of good wine was seen as a sign of the joyous arrival of God’s new age. So the prophet Isaiah speaks of a feast of well-aged wines on the mountain of the Lord (25.6) and the prophets Amos (9.13) and Joel (3.18) speak of mountains dripping sweet wine. 

Some people reject all miracles. Others accept them but only as supernatural events. God the almighty, however, can act in both ways, both through supernatural and through natural events. So with the eye of faith, that the disciples shared, we may see God’s glory revealed both in dramatic and spectacular and supernatural events, and through the more mundane but nevertheless significant events that punctuate our lives with the signature of God. May we follow the disciples’ example and look out for God’s action in the world, see his glory revealed in our midst, and believe in him.