Normanhurst Uniting Church, Epiphany 2, Sunday, 20th January, 2019 Sermon Summary
Text: John 2.1-11 Title: Stairway to Heaven
This time of the year, between Christmas and Australia Day is a time of reflection and stock-taking. A few days ago Swedish guests caused me to remember a tiny but tenacious and ageless widower who did children’s work based in a modest chapel in a village called Kungshult, out in the Scanian countryside. 25 years ago we ran a kids’ club together years after other congregations in the circuit I served had given up.
My friend was also tenacious in his beliefs as to how one lived as a Christian. From my point of view one of the problems of his evangelical expression of faith is that it lends itself to a kind of legalism that can misinterpret the very bible one holds dear. Like the English Methodists who strongly influenced the movement within the Lutheran State church I then worked for, they, and he, disapproved of dancing and of drinking. One day we got onto the subject of alcohol. He said that drinking alcohol was wrong. I asked why. His substantive argument was one that was commonly used in the movement: Alcohol is bad for you, and Christians should not set a bad example. There’s a good biblical precedent for this argument: Paul used it in Romans in his discussion about whether or not to eat meat that had been offered to idols. I replied that my understanding was that it was OK from a biblical perspective to drink alcohol, so long as you didn’t become drunk, and that I saw the example I was setting was in drinking in moderation. We could have had a good argument about that. Reformed alcoholics I’ve met don’t want to be tempted by any alcohol, and of course I think that should be respected. But my friend went in a different direction. He replied that the scriptures teach us that it is wrong to drink alcohol. I asked, “In that case, why did Jesus change water into wine? He said that Jesus turned the water not into wine but into non-alcoholic grape juice. I smiled, but a better response would have been to ask, “If that was the case, why did John report the steward in John 2 as saying ‘You have kept the good wine until now.” Is it likely that the steward was tricked, or that he didn’t know good wine from bad? And why did John the evangelist use this incident as the first of his 7 signs of John’s gospel, in and by which Jesus revealed His glory.
John’s gospel is designed as something like a treasure hunt with clever, sometimes cryptic clues to follow. The clues are called “semeia” in Greek, “signs”. This incident is the first semeion. Here are the others:
- Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4.46-54
- Healing the paralytic at Bethesda, John 5.1-15
- Feeding the 5,000 in John 6.5-14
- Walking on water in John 6.16-24
- Healing the man blind from birth in John 9.1-7
- Raising Lazarus from death in John 11.1-45.
The seven signs are seen by some scholars and theologians as evidence of "new creation theology" in the Gospel of John. If that is so the resurrection of Jesus is the implied eighth sign to which the first 7 point. That indicates a week of creation and then a new creation beginning with the resurrection. But it’s not clear which of Jesus’ signs John reported are the ones he wanted included in this list. There’s also cleansing the temple, the miraculous catch of fish, and most importantly the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, Whichever the signs are, they are all occasions on which Jesus did what he promised Nathanael that He would do. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the figtree? You will see greater things than these...Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” What’s he talking about? Where else in the bible do we have the description of angels ascending and descending to and from heaven? In Genesis 28, where Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending a great stairway to heaven. These signs are moments when, at least to people who watch with a little faith, angels go up and down where Jesus is, moments when heaven is opened, and the transforming power of God’s love breaks into our poor present world.
That’s why it’s not good enough to see the things that Jesus did and the stories written about them as pleasant but imaginary stories which illustrate some supposedly deeper, more spiritual truth. The whole point of the signs is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other. That’s what the Jews believed happened in the temple. They believed that the temple WAS the intersection between heaven and earth. One of the reasons that Jesus is so important is that Jesus superseded the temple. The temple was destroyed by the Romans some 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it didn’t matter. Though Jesus had died He had risen from death, and produced the ultimate staircase to heaven, to quote the title of the famous song! The point is not that these are the sorts of stories that couldn’t happen in real life, but which point away from earth to a heavenly reality. Whatever people today think what actually happened we should be in no doubt that the evangelist John badly wanted to tell people that with these events the life of heaven came down to earth. That’s why one motto texts for the whole gospel is that “the Word became flesh”.
This story, of the wedding in Cana, is about transformation - the different dimension of reality that comes about when Jesus is present and people do whatever He tells them. It is also one of only 2 occasions in John’s gospel in which Jesus’ mother Mary is present. The other is in chapter 19, at the foot of the cross. These 2 occasions, the first at which He says “My time has not come yet”, and the last, at which His time really has come, bookend the entire gospel. In between there’s a whole theme running about Jesus’ time. The cross, for John, is the ultimate moment when heaven and earth meet. Although it takes all the faith in the world to see, at the awful moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the point where God’s glory is most revealed - the creative Word is present as a weak, dying human being. It’s the ultimate “stairway to heaven”.
But events like this one point to the great events that lie ahead. At the beginning of a new year you might like to I pray through this story and bring your own failures and disappointments to God. Remember that help on came when the servants obeyed Mary’s words, “Do whatever he tells you. One final point. What do you think John is hinting at when he wrote that all of these things took place “on the third day”?