John 2:1 – 11

3rd Sunday of Epiphany

St Barbara’s; 21.01.2024

Rev Jeremy Bevan

The selective attention test is a psychology experiment where participants have to count the number of times players on a basketball court pass the ball among themselves. At the end of the test, a researcher asks, “Did you notice the person in a gorilla suit?” Half the participants vehemently deny the great ape’s appearance – until the researcher shows them the footage they’ve just watched. And there is the gorilla, unmissable, striding nonchalantly among the players, even stopping to beat its chest before walking off court. We are, it seems, easily distracted, missing what’s most important, right before our eyes.

Compelling though the changing of water into wine undoubtedly is in today’s gospel reading, it’s maybe not the most important feature of the wedding at Cana. It’s easy for our minds to wander as we wonder “how did Jesus do that?”; or ponder what state the guests might be in after drinking the equivalent of the entire contents of the Coop wine aisle. But John calls what Jesus did ‘a sign’. What’s a sign? Well, isn’t it something that points beyond itself and to something else: “City centre 3 miles that way”? So what’s this sign pointing to?

Firstly, I think it’s pointing to the true bridegroom, Jesus. When the catering team discovers that the water in the six stone jars has been transformed into wine, it’s the bridegroom they seek out to congratulate: “you have kept the good wine until now.” He’s undoubtedly just as mystified as they are. We of course know this is the work of Jesus. Beyond the water and the wine, John tells us, is Jesus the true bridegroom, the true host of this celebration.

God as bridegroom is an image we’ve met recently. Our last service of 2023 had these words from Isaiah 62: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” God loves us and our world enough to be with us, become one of us. God seeks the closeness of relationship with us that marriage symbolises.

Notice how Jesus doesn’t pray or gesture to heaven before the water becomes wine. Perhaps John means to suggest it’s simply his presence amid the created order that’s enough: enough to transform reality, to make the kingdom real. So how do we make sure we don’t miss his transforming presence amid the distractions? In often very simple ways: taking a moment (as I know some of you do) before our service to settle ourselves, come with open hearts, open minds, expecting to meet with God. A short prayer does it. Do you remember Samuel’s prayer last week? “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I can testify that works, even in the midst of a busy day at work, volunteering in the community, even in tricky situations of conflict or uncertainty.

The sign of the wedding at Cana points us to the bridegroom. It also points to something else: the heavenly banquet that will take place in God’s time and space beyond our earthly time, when all who love God will enjoy the wine of the kingdom with God, celebrating the arrival of the kingdom in all its fulness. The heavenly banquet is a frequent Old Testament image of a party in full swing, with the wine in overflowing, joy-giving abundance, just as it was at Cana. The guests would have understood those Bible references, would have grasped Jesus’s point: the kingdom is not just in the distant future – it’s here, now.

But even so, there were probably a few sore heads after all that wine, as they readied themselves for the sober, and sobering, reality of the week ahead. For us, cold and stormy January can make it difficult to simply get going again after the celebrations of Christmas and New Year, let alone ready ourselves to get on with building the kingdom in our individual lives and together, to “do whatever he tells you”, as Mary instructed the stewards; to reveal his glory.

How, then, do we keep the coming kingdom before our eyes and in our minds amid the mundane realities of our week? Well, one thing our communion prayer always does is to give us glimpses of it: think of the words as signs, pointing the way further ahead. Why not listen out for those words pointing to the coming kingdom today? Take heart from them, let them lift your spirit with a glimpse of what’s coming, even in tough, cold January? 

The bridegroom. The heavenly banquet. One more thing the sign points us to is celebration. Only when the true bridegroom is here does the best wine come out. And notice how Jesus doesn’t party alone: the invitation is to him and his disciples. Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ stories are full of times of celebration. He rarely misses a chance to enjoy a good meal with his friends. Should we as his disciples be any different?

The final chapter of Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline covers the spiritual discipline of celebration. Yes, you heard that right: celebrating regularly is important for your spiritual life. It’s something human beings are seemingly hard-wired to do, even in the toughest circumstances. Irina Ratushinskaya was a poet and Christian prisoner of conscience in communist Russia. Her writing celebrated the beauty of small things: a meal of meagre rations shared with a fellow-prisoner, or a frost-covered window hinting at blue sky and forest beyond the prison camp walls.

As Tulo’s mentioned, we at St. Barbara’s have a social committee working hard to help us celebrate together as the body of Christ here. As Jesus and his disciples partied and celebrated while working to bring in the kingdom, don’t we, working on the same task, owe it to ourselves to celebrate together. Over refreshments after the service, then, why not let your celebratory imagination run riot: how would you like us to celebrate and have fun together? By his Spirit, Christ is with us, in us, and for us, as he was at Cana: these are great reasons to celebrate in hope and joy, aren’t they?

As far as I know, nobody’s walked across the nave behind me in a gorilla suit this morning. I hope, though, that through the sign of water and wine at Cana this morning, you’ve caught glimpses of Jesus the bridegroom, giving his enthusiastic backing to celebration, who leads us on towards the best of parties in God’s good time.