John 2:1-12 Nurturing Joy
I grew up with the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. When I was young I have vivid memories of my father reading a few pages of the Narnia stories to me and my older brother in bed before the lights were turned out. CS Lewis has often been described as one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century. But he was not always a Christian. When he first went to study at Oxford University in 1916, he was a recent convert to atheism. But it proved to be a dead-end for him. Fifteen years later —by then an Oxford scholar in English literature— he abandoned his atheism and re-embraced Christianity. He describes his conversion back to Christianity with the words: Surprised by Joy. His Christian faith brought a joy to his life that had clearly been missing. I find it interesting that a number of years later, when he finally married, the person he married was called Joy.
Now here in Northern Ireland and across these Isles, we are currently in Wedding Season. And so today we consider a text from John’s Gospel that might be appropriate for Northern Ireland’s Wedding Season and also appropriate as we consider the theme of joy.
John’s Gospel is a very different Gospel to Matthew, Mark and Luke which for anyone who has read them even fairly superficially will recognize they are clearly related. They are sometimes called the synoptic Gospels a word which means “to see together” because they have a lot in common. The biggest thing that they have in common is in fact Mark’s Gospel. Both Matthew and Luke have used large parts of Mark’s Gospel almost word for word, in some parts changing and editing it, and in other parts adding completely new material. Both Matthew and Luke are expanded versions of Mark’s Gospel.
But John’s Gospel has a very different structure to it. Although it is clear that he is writing about the same Jesus the whole structure and feel of John’s Gospel is different. John’s Gospel is quite poetic and symbolic. It’s structure is designed around what the author calls 7 Signs, miracle stories that are meant to point beyond themselves to a deeper symbolic meaning. John’s Gospel also contains what are called the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus... I am the bread of life... I am the light of the world... I am the good shepherd... I am the Resurrection and the life...
In John’s Gospel, the first of the signs is the story of the Wedding at Cana. Now just as a signpost on the road points beyond itself. A sign with the name Belfast on it points beyond it to the city of Belfast. In the same way, the story of the Wedding at Cana is meant to point beyond itself to something deeper. In other words, I believe that it is meant to be interpreted symbolically as pointing beyond itself. It is a Sign of something of greater and deeper significance.
The first thing to take note of is that this is a wedding banquet.
Wedding banquets play a significant role in the New Testament. Jesus tells a number of parables about wedding banquets. In addition, Jesus is also called the bridegroom in Mark’s Gospel. At the end of the book of Revelation, the return of Christ is pictured as a wedding. The promise of these passages is that when God brings history to it’s final conclusion, it will be like a wedding banquet. In other words, the whole goal and purpose of history is that it should culminate in a joyful wedding feast. The promise of the spiritual journey is the invitation to be part of a wedding celebration.
And so, the ancient writers, reflecting on the life of Christ, believed that God’s ultimate purpose for us as human beings is a life of joy. In this regard C.S. Lewis once wrote that Joy is the serious business of heaven.
This is reflected in another symbol in the story: the symbol of wine. In the symbolic world of the Hebrews, wine was a symbol of joy. And in this story, significantly, the wine has run out. The joy is gone. While God’s purpose for humanity is joy, this story suggests a situation in which the wine of life, or the joy is no longer there. The joy has somehow run dry.
Another significant detail in the story are the 6 stone water jars used for ritual washing. The number is significant. The number 7 in Jewish thinking was a symbol for completeness and wholeness. The number 6, a symbol for that which is incomplete or has something missing, also a symbol for humanity who were created on the 6th day.
In addition, these 6 stone water jars are the type used for Jewish ceremonial washing. In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, Jewish religion had become more and more rule based. It’s whole emphasis had come to revolve around ritual cleanliness and purity. It had become obsessed with ritual rule keeping. These six stone water jars represent what Jewish religion had become. A legalistic, rule based, purity obsessed religion. One could say, a religion emphasizing man made rules and ceremonies with something missing... with no joy.
Jesus comes to to a Jewish religion that had lost its way in man-made ceremonial laws and man-made rituals, and he comes to transform it. To breathe new life into it. To restore it to God’s original intention as something that should bring life and joy, turning the water of ceremonial purity laws into the wine of God’s joy.
How sad it is that where Jesus came to bring renewal, new life, new purpose, new joy, Christianity, the religion that bares Jesus name has not always been good at nurturing joy. Like the Judaism of Jesus day, Christianity has sometimes got so caught up in a legalism and rules that it has stifled any true joy.
This is vividly portrayed in the 1987 film Babette’s feast. The film is set in a Lutheran community in Denmark in 1800’s, a community, that much like 1st century Judaism, had become austere, legalistic, joyless. The film, portrays how a ‘blow-in’ to the town, begins to help the townsfolk to get in touch with a sense of joy again as she prepares a feast, and invites the whole town to come. It sounds a little bit like one of Jesus’ parables. There are some in the town who are suspicious, but as the feast unfolds, so this austere, rigid community of people begin to loosen up, and slowly but surely they begin to find themselves actually enjoying themselves for the first time, seemingly, in a long long time.
It is very easy for religion to lapse into joylessness.
My mom describes how she grew up in a church environment that at times was quite constrictive, where sometimes the joy of life was squeezed out. Within the Salvation Army that she grew up in, dancing was a sin, a real no-no. They also weren’t supposed to go to the cinema. But she and her sisters would sneak in hopefully undetected by anyone else from the Salvation Army corps seeing them.
I get the sense that there is a legalism that is creeping back into some sectors of church life and that there might be some denominations that continue to see it as part of their responsibility to limit peoples joy rather than nurturing it.
If Christianity is meant to be a religion of love, where love is at it’s heart, then it should also be a religion of joy, because where love is truly present, there will also be joy.
I remember watching a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. In it, one of the sisters in her order was interviewed. She says that on one occasion she had woken up feeling very down, like a cloud of depression had blown over her. Somehow for her the joy of life had left her. Mother Teresa told her on that day, she should not go out and serve the poor on the streets, because it was important in serving others, and especially in serving the poor, that she should be sharing her joy with them. If she wasn’t feeling joy, then it was better for her not to go and serve the poor. And so she was given some time off so that she could rest and so get back in touch with a sense of joy, before she would go out again to serve the poor.
It is a helpful little story to remind us how important joy is. Joy is important, not only for ourselves, but also that we might share it with others. If there is no joy in our lives, then it should be a little alarm bell that something is wrong, something important is missing.
When the joy of life has run out, it is an important moment to re-evaluate our lives, to make changes, to examine closely what it is that is sapping you of joy, and what is it that we need to do to help us to feel alive again, to help us connect again with a sense of joy.
May you bring to God those places in your life where it feels like the joy has begun to run out, those stone water jars of drudgery and joylessness may be touched with God’s grace and transformed into the wine of God’s joy.
Joy does not just happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every single day – Henri Nouwen
There are souls in this world who have the gift of finding joy everywhere, and leaving it behind them when they go - Frederick William Faber
What is the most courageous thing you have ever done?
Last week I spoke of my experience climbing up 5 chain ladders up a vertical slope to get to the top of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa and how it was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I guess it took some courage to do that? Maybe it was foolishness. I was helping on a school trip and so after seeing a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds climb up ahead of me I didn’t really feel as one of the adult leaders that I could back out at that point.
But perhaps even more than that experience, I think that stepping down as a Methodist minister and spending a year and a half at a Buddhist retreat centre was probably the most scary thing I have done. Giving up the financial security of being in the church. If meant stepping out into the unknown. It meant giving up a familiar role. Going beyond social expectations. It was extremely difficult to explain to previous congregation members and family why Wendy and I were doing what we were doing? For someone who likes to play within the rules and doesn’t like to rock the boat or colour out of the lines of life, it took an enormous amount of courage to do. And looking back, I am very grateful that I did. I learnt a lot about myself in those 18 months. If I hadn’t done it I am not so sure I would have been able to go back into full-time ministry a few years later with a greater depth of insight into myself and my own faith.
In our passage today we encounter a number of characters and each in their own way are engaged in a variety of acts of courage.
First we encounter Matthew. His act of courage comes as he responds to the call of Jesus to follow him. He leaves all that is familiar behind him, leaving a familiar comfortable life style. In leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, Matthew leaves behind also his wealth and financial security. He gives his up financial status as a wealthy tax collector, to embark on a journey into the unknown with a religious teacher who was already beginning to receive some opposition. For Matthew this was surely an act of enormous courage.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear."
To leave behind his life of financial comfort and security must have been a fearful thing for Matthew the Tax collector. But perhaps in that moment he realised that there was something more important going on here than his fear that gave him the courage to do it.
In the story, Matthew could symbolize for us the external self, the part of us entangled in the pursuits of material wealth and societal expectations. Like Matthew, we often find ourselves ensnared in the trappings of worldly desires, fixated on amassing possessions and seeking approval from others. But they don’t answer the deeper needs of the soul and of our deeper longing for meaning, purpose, belonging and inner fulfilment.
And so for Matthew it takes an act of courage to leave everything behind in order to pursue a life of deeper meaning and fulfilment. It was a risk, but perhaps a risk he thought was worth taking rather than sitting in the tax collectors booth for the rest of his life.
Next in the story we encounter the Synagogue Ruler. He is a man of status and good standing in the community, unlike Matthew who was despised. In the case of the Synagogue Ruler, it takes courage to humble himself to seek help from Jesus, a man who many of his fellow synagogue rulers were sceptical of. But the Synagogue ruler overcomes his fear because there is more at stake than his ego and his pride. He is desperate to see his daughter live. This desperation gives him the courage to do what under normal circumstances he would have failed to do.
It takes courage to humble oneself enough to say to anybody… I need your help.
Thirdly we encounter the women who is bleeding. She is a women who has been living in the shadows of life. Strictly speaking she was unclean and therefore shouldn’t have been out in a public place because according to the religious understanding she would make others unclean just by her presence. It takes courage for her to come out of the closet of her house and risk being seen in public, as well as risk being told off by those who may have known who she was. It takes courage for her to reach out and to touch the cloak of Jesus for what right did she have to do this. How presumptuous it must have seemed especially when she could be accused of making Jesus unclean by her touch.
Fourthly, we don’t generally consider the courage of Jesus. But if Jesus was fully human as we are human, as all Christians, both Unitaian and Trinitarian would affirm, then Jesus too must be seen to act with courage in this passage. It takes courage for Jesus to be willing to be seen and identified with Matthew, the despised traitor of his own people as a Tax collector for the Roman authorities. It takes courage for Jesus, as opposition is already growing from the religious elite, to stick to his convictions that his primary calling was not to serve the religious establishment and the respectable members of society, but to serve those who were regarded as sinners and outcasts. For Jesus it was the spiritually sick who needed him the most not those who considered themselves well.
Lastly I wonder if the lifeless little girl in this passage might be a symbol for us of what can happen to us when we live without courage. Is it possible that a life that is lived without taking risks and locked into fear leads to a death of the spirit. Is it possible that it might take courage to hear the voice of Christ saying, little girl arise.
What have been some of the greatest acts of courage in your life?
In what way might you be needing courage in your life today?
I close with a few quotes:
"Courage is the power to let go of the familiar." - Raymond Lindquist
Like Matthew in the passage, is courage calling you today to let go of something familiar, to ope yourself to something new?
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill
That is an interesting quote… we often think that standing up and speaking is what takes courage… and yet sometimes it might take even more courage to sit down and listen, because sitting down to listen may leave us feeling even more vulnerable than standing up and speaking.
And then a lovely quote by Mary Anne Radmacher:
Courage isn’t always the roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says
‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.
SERMON TEXT - Matthew 20:16-20
One of the coldest nights of my life was spent over-night in a tent on the top of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa. The Drakensberg is a range of mountains that range stretches approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) down the Eastern side of South Africa. It’s most majestic section forms the border between the small inland independent Kingdom of Lesotho and my home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The peak that we had to climb to get to the top was around 2400 meters above seal level (7874 feet). That’s not quite 3 times as high as Slieve Donnard above sea level.
To get to the top we had to climb a series of 5 chain ladders which amounted to a total of around 200m meters of vertical climbing (656 feet) with a hiking back-pack on one’s back. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done. My hands and feet were sweating and looking down as I was climbing those chain ladders was just not a good idea. I was just afraid that with all that sweat I would lose my grip.
On top, the mountain was covered with patches of snow, and once we had reached the actual summit, the view was absolutely spectacular.
That night we pitched our tents in between some of the patches of snow. And as I said, I have never been so cold in my life.
Our Gospel passage today takes us up a mountain top. It is the closing passage of Matthew’s Gospel. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first Resurrection experience of the Disciples, and also according to Matthew’s Gospel, seemingly the last moment the disciples see Jesus before his ascension? In this passage, Jesus gives them his final instructions in what is most often called the Great Commission.
The passage begins in verse 16 “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them”.
This encounter with the Risen Christ is what one might call a mountain top experience. The symbolism of meeting the Risen Christ on a mountain is significant. In the Bible, and across many different religions and cultures, mountains are often associated with spiritual experiences. In Cartoons you will find people climbing mountains to meet a spiritual guru at the top of the mountain.
One of my favourite is a Far Side Cartoon, which shows a Cow sitting in the Lotus Meditation Posture, giving wisdom that only a cow could give. In the caption, it reads… “In life, don’t forget to eat the flowers”.
Another that gave me a good chuckle is a picture of a spiritual seeker at the top of the mountain asking the question “What is the meaning of Life” and the Guru with his long white beard replying with the following caption: “You do the hokie-pokie and turn around, that’s what its all about”.
Why are mountain tops associated with spiritual awakening and gaining new spiritual insight. I guess for two reasons: Firstly mountain tops take you away from the hustle and bustle of life and enable one to touch the silence and the stillness. Secondly, mountain tops give you a much bigger perspective on life. Mountains tops give one what might be called a God’s eye view of the world. Ordinary life begins to seem so small and insignificant when viewed from the top of the mountain. It can help us to see just how petty and insignificant some of our personal concerns and worries and petty disagreements can be.
This passage reminds us that mountain top experiences are important, even if we are unable to climb an actual mountain. We all need to take time out to see life from a different perspective. One of Wendy’s favourite authors is Martha Beck. She invites her readers to get a new perspective on their lives, not by climbing a mountain but but the simple act of writing out one’s life story firstly from the perspective of a victim, which is often a default perspective for many people. I feel like I am a victim of life, hard-done by, unfairly treated… defeated. And then secondly she suggests writing one’s story from the perspective of a hero, one who has faced many obstacles, but who has faced them bravely and with courage and fortitude, over-coming many odds to be where one is today.
This simple activity of writing one’s life story as a victim or as a hero can provide a whole new perspective on one’s life that can be enlightening.
And so we find the disciples on top of a mountain. When they see Jesus, we read that they worship him, but some of them doubted. Even on the mountain top, we can be beset with doubts. It is part of the spiritual journey, being gentle with ourselves in the midst of our doubts and our questions. It was only a few weeks ago that we explored the question of doubt in another sermon in which we looked at the possibility that doubt is not always a bad thing. Sometimes doubts can be a necessary and even a helpful part of the journey. On our Church Facebook page I shared a quote by Rachel Evans which reads: “Those who say having a child-like faith means not asking questions haven't met too many children”. If Jesus said we need to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God, that shouldn’t mean that we have to shy away from raising our questions and expressing our doubts.
Then in verse 18 Jesus says these words: “All authority, in heaven and earth has been given me, go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age”.
I would like to make a few passing comments on some of these phrases.
Firstly the authority of Jesus was an inner authority that came from personal experience. He spoke with authority because he knew what he was talking about. He spoke from the place of a deep inner knowing. And that is ultimately the goal of the spiritual journey that we too should come to an inner knowing of the truth about the true nature of life, God and our human existence. We too should grow to discover an inner authority that comes not from second hand opinions, but from a direct experience of inner knowing.
Secondly, we see that the way of Jesus transcends questions of nationality and geographic boundaries. He tells them in verse 19 to make disciples of all nations. The Greek word for nation is ethne from which we get the word ethnic. It is a reminder that Churches or communities where Jesus is at the centre should never be identified with a single nationality or ethnic group. A Church or Christian group that has come to be overly identified with a single nationality or country is in danger of being not truly Christian because the way of Jesus is meant to transcend nationalistic boundaries. Make disciples of all nations says Jesus.
Thirdly, Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As I often point out, the word baptism means to immerse. In other words, Jesus is wishing for all people of all nations to be immersed in the Loving Way of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians would read those words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and think of the Doctrine of the Trinity which would mean for most Protestant and Catholic Christians that there is One God in Three Persons and that Jesus is the Unique Son, the Second person of the Trinity.
But there are other ways of interpreting those words that are different from the shared doctrine of the Trinity held by both Catholics and Protestants alike:
The word Father can be understood as metaphorical language referring to the loving Source of all that is. The word ‘Son’ does not necessarily have to refer to Jesus alone as the only unique Son of God. The word can also be interpreted as a reminder that there is a divine son and a divine daughter that dwells in each and everyone of us to which each of us must awaken. And the Phrase Holy Spirit doesn’t only have to be interpreted as being the so called 3rd person of the Trinity, but can also be interpreted as a way of speaking of the power and presence of God’s love and wisdom at work in the world and in our lives as the breathe and the wind of God’s love which animates all things and which opens us to living in the spirit of love. (Some would suggest that what I have just outlined is in fact the true meaning of the Trinity rather than the idea of 3 Big Persons above the sky).
Fourthly, the mission of the disciples is to teach people of all nations to observe all that Christ has commanded. In essence it is surely to teach others the way of Christ’s love, because that is the essence of what he taught for as Paul says, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law”. And as any parent will know the most powerful form of teaching is always by example. If we are to teach other people to observe all that Christ commanded, it will be best carried out by demonstrating that way of Christ’s love not just in our words but also in our actions.
And lastly, the Gospel of Matthew ends with that wonderful promise of Christ: Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. It is the promise that there are no God-forsaken places in the world or the Universe. The God, whose presence was made known in Christ is always with us, for the Divine Presence that was in Christ is also within each of our hearts. We carry the presence of God and the presence of Christ within us wherever find ourselves. Amen.
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