Where’s the Joy?

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36; John 2:1-11

Whenever I hear the Gospel lesson containing the story of the wedding feast at Cana, I am reminded of one of my favorite Russell family stories. The setting is this: my older sister was visiting my brother’s family in Stafford some years ago, and like a good aunt would do she decided to read some bedtime Bible stories to my brother’s two daughters. Now, my brother and his family have been committed churchgoers, for most of their married life, as Southern Baptists. My sister on the other hand has struggled with her faith probably since high school and has remained largely “unchurched” for most of her life.

So picture my sister sitting with her two young nieces, probably 8 and 10, in their bedroom and reading these stories which she knew pretty well herself. When she got to the wedding at Cana, my sister added a little commentary. She read, “And Jesus turned the water into wine,” and then added loudly, “Party on, Jesus!” Needless to say, she wasn’t asked to read to them again…

But in reality, I think my sister was on to something. I believe she captured in one funny and throwaway moment a central aspect of the character of God. God likes parties. And more pertinent to our readings today, God loves weddings. Jesus was no different. From the earliest writings about God’s relationship with his people, the metaphors used have often included the language of wedding, of covenant, of courtship and of self-sacrificial love. After all, our sacred stories tell us that marriage was God’s idea to begin with. Even before the Fall, God celebrated the union of Adam and Eve. God’s earliest advice to himself and to humanity was, “it is not good for man to be alone.”

Thus began the dance, the relationship between God and humans that, much like marriage, was born in love and commitment but has faced some incredibly bad times, times that test the strength of the love and the depth of the commitment. When it was said that God was disciplining Israel for worshipping other gods, the language often used was that of infidelity. Do you recall the story of Hosea? He is torn with heartbreak because his wife Gomer is repeatedly unfaithful. From his experiences of what we would call a bad marriage, Hosea learns how God’s heart breaks, but he also learns what it means to be merciful in taking Gomer back again and again.

When we hear of the reconciliation of the strained relationship between God and an adulterous Israel we hear language like that in the lesson from Isaiah this morning.God vindicates his beloved in front of the other nations who may have thought that God had abandoned his bride. But God does not take back his unfaithful wife begrudgingly or exile her to a guest bedroom. He gives her a new name and displays her as a king would a crown. He rejoices over her as a bridegroom would his bride. Despite all her unfaithfulness God loves her as when they first were married.

To this day we pray prayers of forgiveness and though we have been unfaithful, with the things we have done and left undone, there is no question that God is ready to forgive. We do not have to wait and see if God will forgive. We don’t have to wonder whether or not we will celebrate the Eucharist or not. It is part of God’s character, God’s nature to forgive, again not begrudgingly, but with joy and feasting. It is this faithfulness that the psalmist celebrates in Psalm 36. The imagery of feasting and abundance recurs here. It is from God that we draw the water of life and it is in God that we even find light. This is a picture of the blessings of God’s relationship to God’s people at its best. Would that we might stay in this place just for a little while.The wedding at Cana says much about both the character of God and the nature of Christ’s ministry. Many depictions of the wedding that I’ve seen in film or art have Jesus standing stoically off to the side at the wedding, just waiting to do this stupendous trick of creating wine before their very eyes, his halo glowing even brighter! And you see the freeze frame moment of shock and delight when the water is discovered to be wine. What we don’t see is Jesus enjoying himself at the party. This was a wedding feast, and he was celebrating with everyone else, not hanging back, waiting for the right moment to astound the crowd.

What does it say about Jesus and his future ministry that this is his first miracle – not a healing, not a prophetic oracle, but gladdening the hearts and filling the cups of revelers. But there are nuances here we might miss. Note what the gospel writer says about the water itself – these weren’t just some jars of water that happened to be sitting around – it was the water that was supposed to be used for the purification ritual. John the Baptist didn’t invent baptism. Jews had and still have some rather elaborate cleansing ceremonies that involve lots of water. No doubt these water jars were to be used at some point during the night. But it is this sacred water that Jesus turns into wine. Can you hear the gasps and the whispers of those who were appalled? “But Jesus, we were supposed to use that water for something else!” It is from jars set aside for purification that they draw the best wine. Jesus intervened in an unexpected way and in doing so said something I think rather important about which was more important – ritual purity or celebration.

Jesus repeatedly confounded the rites and rituals of the Jews of his day. They had forgotten the true purpose of the Law and they had forgotten the joy that characterizes God’s own heart. For many in Israel, their eyes were on the Law and their hearts were held captive by it. The Law was not an end in itself – it was the pathway to joy. The Law was a marriage covenant between God and his people. But God’s bride had become more interested in housekeeping and keeping the unruly children in line that the joy had gone out of the marriage.

Think about how many times Jesus uses wedding feasts as the setting for some of his most memorable parables. Remember the parable of the wedding feast when no one would come. Everyone had excuses. So the host of the banquet invited those who were on no one’s guest list. God was ready to celebrate and invited everyone, but like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, the regular partygoers resented those who had gotten in without a proper invitation. Remember the foolish virgins – they were waiting for the bridegroom to come, waiting for the party to begin.

Even outside the parables, Jesus would often stir up controversy by stirring up social order at dinner parties and celebrations. For many in their culture, dinner parties had become events full of status seeking – a chance to see and be seen. At parties where Jesus was invited, however, women, often women with questionable reputations, are shown honor and respect. Even at the last supper with his disciples, Jesus confounds convention by acting as a servant. It is on the stage of celebration that we learn much about who Jesus was and what his ministry was like.

So, of course we Christians have learned well the lesson about God’s love of celebration, of Jesus’ deference to party going. Unlike the Jews of Jesus’ day, we are always full of joy, especially when confronting difficult social situations. Who can accuse Jerry Falwell of not being the life of the party? I don’t know if you have seen the movie Borat but I found it quite interesting that when the prostitute Borat has invited to the dinner party shows up, it is the pastor and his wife who are the first to leave. No doubt he was setting a good example. Did it ever cross this pastor’s mind “What would Jesus do?” Would he storm out in a huff or invite the prostitute to join them at the table. Many Christian today in their mission to determine what is “right” and to force-feed it to the rest of the world around them have lost our joy. In an attempt to “fix” the world around us, it is easy to forget how much God enjoys that same world and the people in it.

Historically speaking, the church has often had an uneasy relationship with celebration through the centuries. In her new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich details the early days of the church when festival and celebration were an integral part of the life of Christian communities. But as the church gained power and became the authority, unrestrained celebrations became suspect. Too much revelry, it seems, can threaten the established order. Revelry inside the church soon was at first controlled, and then discouraged and ultimately banned. Dances and parties didn’t end, however. People still partied! When the medieval church drove dancing and revelry out of the church community, it became Carnival. The people were going to celebrate, no matter whether the church endorsed it or not. In Puritan New England, it wasn’t long before even public feasting and revelry was outlawed. It would seem the more civilized and “godly” a society was to be, the more restrained its celebrations must become. As one writer puts it the Protestant work ethic “descended like a frost on the life of ‘Merrie Old England.’” Revelry and partying became something that only the godless did. Restraint became the virtue. Unbridled merriment could lead to people getting, and note the expression, “out of control.”

No matter how authorities over the centuries have tried to quash revelry, it has remained an integral part of our experience as people. Christmas was once banned, as was Halloween. Both now serve as high points of cultural revelry. This time of year, millions gather in front of TV screens and in stadiums for our annual orgy of football. Throngs still crowd Times Square on New Years Eve.

In the end, I believe, with Barbara Ehrenreich, that there is something within us, something in our cultural DNA as it were that drives us to celebrate, to express joy, to party. Ultimately, again, I believe this is no accident, it is part of God’s nature, and it is part of God’s image expressed in us. I wish I could believe that the bigger crowds we see in church at Christmas time were there because of their belief that the church was a place to find the purest expression of joy and the best place to party. Instead I fear the crowds come out of some sense of nostalgia and duty. But we of all people have the greatest cause to party. Our story gives us the greatest reason to celebrate. And we do celebrate. Think about the language we use in this morning’s service. We are about to celebrate the Eucharist. The priest in charge is called the celebrant. We must never forget that it is a feast we are being invited to. Reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli relegated the Eucharist to a more sedate and restrained “memorial meal.” All sense of celebration quickly dies away, at least for this worshipper, when the sense of feasting is stripped away.

We do not celebrate with no sense of history or hope. Our celebrations as Christians, whether it be Shrove Tuesday, or our great Easter Vigil breakfast, or a Twelfth Night dinner, are done with vision and purpose. It is my hope that we do know why we are celebrating, and that God celebrates too.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that not only prohibited the drinking of any alcohol, but also dancing of any kind. When time came for my senior prom, our youth group had a bonfire instead. I remember in my mid 20’s one of the first times I went to a dinner party with Episcopalians and the first bottle of wine was opened. There was a sense of joy as the wine flowed. I ask you, who understands the nature of God better – those who tout sobriety as the godliest of all virtues or those who know full well that wine gladdens the heart. Now no one has ever accused Christ Church (or other Episcopalians for that matter) of not knowing how to party, but do we truly celebrate, and do we celebrate enough? I can imagine a student phoning home saying, “Fr. Scott says we should party more.” Of course, anyone who knows how to party well can tell you that there is more to joy and celebration than a little wine and good conversation. Can we even begin to understand the joy that is at the center of God’s heart? Do we forget how important celebrating is to God?

We’ve just come out of the time of the year when our culture parties the most. But now the world seems more interested in keeping New Year’s resolutions and preparing their taxes than in celebrating. But church, we are still in Epiphany. Dieting and taxes can wait for Lent. This morning we continue our celebration of the coming of the light of the gospel to all the nations. Three kings come and kneel before the Christ-child. These pagan, gentile kings are witnessing the birth of the king. Not only did they show up, but they brought gifts to the party! Epiphany is still a time to celebrate. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning. God has invited the entire world to the party.

This morning, just as on every morning that we gather here, we are invited to celebrate at God’s table. And what do we celebrate? God has restored the fortunes of his people in an unexpected way. Though we have been unfaithful, God spreads his table before us. Though we look for God and often times not see him for our blindness, he shows us the way to himself. This is a peace meal, a thanksgiving meal. All is forgiven – eat and be satisfied. Rejoice in the abundance. It was through Jesus, the unexpected figure, the outcast, radical preacher that this meal could take place. Just as he used the water meant for another purpose to provide wine for his friends enjoyment, so also he himself confounded human conventions by making himself the sacrifice, the meal for our enjoyment and for our home-coming, truly sharing of his nature to bring us joy.

Though we have been unfaithful, we need not fear God’s wrath or reprisal. God’s light has come to all the world, and God is ready to celebrate. May we join in with the celebration and share this joy with lives full of purpose and hearts full of hope. Amen.

Other past sermons can be found at: http://www.christchurchblacksburg.org/sermons

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