The Promise of Beginning

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So there you are, sitting in a church—halfway back on the right side. It’s the third Saturday in June, and you’re sitting there because you were invited to a wedding. As you sit there in the early summer warmth, looking at the couple, bride and bridegroom standing before the altar, your mind begins to wander—as it often does for people at weddings—it begins to wander back to your own wedding day. And maybe you’re sitting next to your spouse of many years: 30, 40, 50 years. And all you can do is shake your head and wonder, “How did we get here from there?” How many things you’ve been through in so many years, both good and bad. Or maybe you’re sitting there by yourself, because you’re separated from the person you married. And you can only shake your head and say, “How did we get here from there?” Or maybe you’re sitting there by yourself because you’re divorced from the person you married. You think about your wedding day, all the emotions and thoughts and expectations, and you wonder, “How in the world did we get here from there?”

Your mind comes back around to that couple before the altar of God, and you think about how much promise there is in a wedding, in the beginning of life together. Isn’t that part of the joy? How much promise there is yet to be unfolded? And how much more promise and joy for a man and a woman who begin their life together under the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? How much joy to begin with the blessing of God’s Word and prayer? How much joy to begin not on the unsteady foundation of our fickle emotions, and how we feel from day to day, and our happiness that waxes and wanes—but, instead, to begin on the firm foundation of the mercy of Jesus Christ, which He has given to us and which we now give to each other. In Him there is the full joy of His promise, also at the beginning of a marriage.

Jesus sits there, at a wedding; He sits there with His disciples, and His mother is there also. And she comes to Him and says, “They have no wine.” And isn’t that also a mark of life in this world? Even at a wedding, the joy doesn’t simply go on and on and on, unending. The wine runs out.

Wine is an image of joy and gladness, as in Psalm 104, where it says that God gives man plants to cultivate, so that there is food to eat and wine to gladden the heart of man. As with wine, so with all God’s good, creation gifts. They are meant for our blessing. And yet we know from our own experience and from the Scriptures as well, that sinners have trouble simply receiving good gifts from God. We almost can’t help ourselves from abusing God’s good gifts, from using them for purposes for which they were never intended. We take these gifts and we look for joy in the things, rather than in the God who gives them. Isn’t this why we are so often unhappy, unfulfilled, discontent? Because we take these things too seriously; we put too much weight on them; expect too much from them. And then they fail us, again and again and again. We do this not only wine, but with all God’s gifts. We do it with husband and wife and children, with jobs, with hobbies, with football…even with congregations. None of these can sustain the importance we give to them, and they aren’t meant to. Our joy will never last, as long as we look for it in the gifts of God, rather than in the God who gives it.

They have no wine. We don’t know whether the bridegroom and his family perhaps didn’t plan well enough, and this is going to be an embarrassment and a scandal to the family; or whether, perhaps, the party just went on too long. Either way, they have no wine. There is a lack; the celebration doesn’t just go on forever. Jesus says to His mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus knows that this is not the point at which He will restore all things. This is not the point at which joy and gladness will go on without end. This is not the point at which creation will be restored. But what a picture of faith Mary is for us. In spite of what sounds to us like a harsh and distancing answer, Mary says to the servants: Do whatever He tells you. Jesus’ word is good, whatever we might think of it. Even if the word sounds strange or is beyond our understanding, do whatever He tells you. And what Jesus tells the servants is, “Fill up the jars.” Six stone jars for purification, ritual hand washing for the guests at the wedding. And so they do, all the way to the top, no more room. And then Jesus says something that must have seemed strange to them: “Draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” Draw it out, like it’s from a well? Draw out water from stone hand-washing jars to drink? No one’s drinking out of those. But that’s what Jesus says, and they do it. And when the master of the feast tastes the water-become-wine, he is amazed. He says to the bridegroom, “Most people serve the good wine first, and then when the guests are drunk, you serve the lesser wine.” Because you don’t waste good wine on people who can’t appreciate it. You serve the good wine before people’s taste-buds are dulled by too much wine, and they can’t really taste it. “But,” he says to the bridegroom, “you have saved the good wine until now.” It’s not clear whether this is simply a little surprise, as in, no one else does this, but you have; or maybe it’s a bit of a rebuke: we were drinking the lesser wine, and we even ran out, and you had this good wine sitting around? The bridegroom doesn’t answer, but John tells us, “This was the first—the beginning—of Jesus’ signs, which He did at Cana in Galilee; He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” At this wedding, Jesus begins His signs; He opens up a promise that is going to be unfolded over Jesus’ entire life. Everything that Jesus has come to do is wrapped up in this sign. From this moment until His hour does come, He shows His disciples what He is going to do.

The jars of the old ritual purification are filled up to the top, and Jesus did not come to add more water to that. He has come to transform a ritual purification into a real purification. He washes His disciples and they are clean. You enter the eternal Kingdom of God by water and the Spirit, He tells Nicodemus. And when His hour does come, John makes sure we see what happens at the cross: when Jesus is crucified, water and blood come from the hole in His side, and it is an eternal cleansing. Jesus is making His creation new, making a bride for Himself, a new Eve from the side of the new Adam, flesh of His flesh and blood of His blood. He is making a new Paradise for His bride, one that encompasses the entire creation, where joy and gladness have no end. On this mountain, Isaiah says in chapter 25, death will be swallowed up; on this mountain a feast will be prepared for all nations, a feast of rich food and well-aged wine. A wedding feast, at which He seats His bride: holy and blameless, washed clean and purified, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. From His side flows blood and water, mingled together in the font. There is joy in your baptism: it is a purification by water, but not a ritual one: it is a real purification by the Word of God there in the water. There is joy in the Word of Jesus, whether it fits with our rational understanding or not: because it is the promise of Jesus repeated again. He betrothed you to Himself and He always keeps His promises. He says, I am My beloved’s and My beloved is Mine. His banner over you is Love. He says, no longer will you be called desolate or forsaken; you will be called, instead, My Delight Is In Her, and your land will be called Married. As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so Yahweh, your God, rejoices over you. There is joy at the altar of God, where He brings you for the feast. And it’s only the beginning, only a hint, of the eternal feast. But it is Jesus’ own flesh and blood, given freely to His bride, the Church. Here is joy that covers all our sin, all our broken promises, all our failures. Here is joy that goes out into the world: your righteousness who is Christ that goes out as brightness, and your salvation who is Christ, as a burning torch: the bride radiant with the glory of her Bridegroom.

And on the day when you finally see the bride in her full glory, you will not have any time to wonder how you got there from here. It is all Christ: His mercy, His purification, His fulfillment of all things. He is the faithful one. And what we will see on that day begins again today, as Christ repeats His promise to you. Here you sit, in a church on the third Sunday in January, and there is promise in this beginning. Today there is joy, because your Lord rejoices over you, and He calls you again today to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/16/16

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