Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11; I Cor. 12:1-11
Gather us in….the new hymn says. Gather us in…the lost and forsaken, the rich and the haughty, the proud and the strong…Gather us in and hold us forever. It’s one of my favorite new hymns in our new hymnal. It appeals to that piece of me that always feels like a chick in need of a mother hen, the vulnerable self that wants to be brought home.
Gather us in—-give us a heart so meek and so lowly; give us the courage to enter the song….Gather us in. I think it is the human condition to feel an exile, a separation, to know the loneliness of change. I read an article last week about Adam Lanza, the young man who killed the hard drive on his computer, then killed 27 people beginning with his mother, and lastly turned his gun on himself. The article wrote of how Adam Lanza lived in the world of his computer, rarely needing to leave the house. Several lines in the article jumped out at me: “Our lives are becoming more transmitted than lived.” “Technology enables us to live alone together.” And social networking may give the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
As far away as the time of the writer of the last chapters of Isaiah might seem, they are nonetheless quite relevant to our modern anomie, a condition of social instability and personal, even spiritual alienation—that feeling that there isn’t enough love, and there isn’t enough experience of God’s presence and support to sustain a person or a community.. The people of Israel had seen their city sacked, their temple burned, their leaders expelled from Jerusalem, and many of the best tradespeople and artisans hauled to a foreign country to do slave labor for the victors. While we may not feel that our city is sacked, we do have our days of looking at our beloved towns and cities and bemoaning their change, and in some ways to us, their degradation.
With the historical background of the Babylonian exile giving metaphorical shape to realities in our own lives, or at least in the lives of people we read about in the newspapers, if not people we know rather more intimately, the words of this third prophet of the school of Isaiah, penetrate to that vulnerable place in all our souls:
“You shall no more be termed Forsaken; and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called “My delight is in Her, and your land, “Married”; for the Lord delights in you.”
There in the wasteland and insufficiency, a prophetic voice asked them—and asks us—to see beyond misery and all the ruin at their feet to a new day. They were given a new identity—one chosen by God, who would call them “My delight is in Her” and they were to discover that they had far more than the past to give them meaning. From this point on, they also had a future contained in the promise God would marry them.
In the prophecy of Isaiah, God is the actor—the people of Israel are the object of the action. Marriage is the verb. This is not like marriage on the human plane where two equal parties fall in love. This is another kind of marriage, with God actively choosing a people who seem most unlovable and unlikely.
The poet George Herbert captures some sense of this side of God in his poem: “Love Bade Me Welcome.” It begins this way:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
God as quick-eyed love! Isn’t that a marvelous way to put it? No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, God is looking out for you. No matter how reluctant and unworthy you might feel, the quick-eyed loving nature of God asks if you lack anything.
It is not surprising therefore that the creators of the lectionary linked this passage from Isaiah about God’s extravagant love and marriage to an unlikely people to the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana. The Gospel lesson for today is not really about changing water into wine in any literal sense. It is a report of a SIGN. It is not a miracle story. John’s gospel – the most theological of the four Gospels, and the least connected to the actual life and actual words of Jesus–does not portray Jesus as performing miracles, as in the other gospels, so much as providing “signs”, indications of the “glory” which is to come and which is breaking in on the world at the time of their occurrence. There are, in John’s gospel, seven such signs…seven being the perfect number. The events at the wedding in Cana of Galilee are the first sign, verse 11 tells us, revealing his glory, and his disciples believed in him. The sixth sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The seventh sign, of course, is the resurrection, on the third day. All of them illustrate a holy extravagance, that goes beyond any reasonable limits. Religion often tries to box in and limit God’s love to only those who conform to some way of thinking, believing, worshipping, or acting, limited to those whose past is clean of any sins. At its core, John’s gospel is the gospel of holy extravagance that knows no limits.
In the Old Testament the word “glory” is shekinah. Rich in meaning and overtones, “glory” can mean “the dwelling place of God.” These key words: “third day”; “wedding feast”; “my hour has not yet come” – a phrase recast at the very last when Jesus prays with the disciples before his arrest, “Now is my hour come”; “wine”; “signs”; “revealed his glory”; and “believed in him”–these words and phrases are indicators that we are dealing with far more than an interesting little event in the ministry of Jesus.
For John, these words hold deep symbolic meaning and point from the beginning of the ministry of Jesus to its end. Each sign indicates God’s extravagant grace, mercy, love and capacity to fill empty vessels with the best wine of celebratory joy.
Remember, Jesus describes himself as a bridegroom, and his life with his disciples as one long wedding celebration. The author of this Gospel may also have been the author of the Book of Revelation who speaks of the bridegroom coming down from heaven. A wedding is a joining, a uniting. Here it clearly stands for the wedding of the human and divine–in Jesus, but also in the everyday affairs of humankind, the mundane business of familial formation and celebrations.
John has Jesus at the most ordinary of locations, not in the synagogue as with Mark, not in his home town synagogue in Nazareth as does Luke and as we shall hear next week, not on a figurative Mt. Sinai giving a new set of teachings in beatitudes as does Matthew—but amid ordinary life at a wedding reception–which in those times would be an event that lasted about a week. Behind the story is a theological affirmation: Jesus is Lord/Messiah. He is Lord wherever he intrudes among us, bringing extravagance into our empty places, into the places where it seems we have run out of the juices of life that spur our joy in it. His presence there inaugurates, for John, a new family, a new group “gathered in”, as our opening hymn this morning said.
Jesus becomes, in this story, on the “third” day of his ministry (evoking the thought of the “third” day after his death), the new path to God. The story serves to illustrate the theme set forth in the prologue: the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth. Or, as I kept saying throughout Advent and Christmas, God became one of us so that we might become like God.
Once I saw a banner that said: “The sign of God’s presence with you is that your feet are where you did not expect them to be.”
Tomorrow is the celebration of the birthday of a modern day hero, martyr…Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite all the changes, ours is still a world of racism that none of us really experience. Ours is increasingly a world of violence, when non-violence might be a more effective means of solving some of the world’s most vicious hatreds. Maybe the sign for today points our feet to take us to that worship service tonight at Central Christian Church at 6:00; or to march in that parade tomorrow. Maybe the sign for today invites us take up the last cause of Dr. King, from the last sermon he gave at Riverside Church in April, 1967, 40 years ago, of the need for our nation not to be the military force that uses violence to suppresses violence in the world but the peaceful friend that builds a new humanity through diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. Perhaps the more important application right now would be engagement with our leaders at all branches of government about the culture of guns and fear of others to create once more in America a model of a nation of neighborliness.
The call of God is made to a community of people to be a communion with God—and with one another. “Gather us in—not just in buildings, small and confining;… not in some heaven, light years away…Gather us in and hold us forever; gather us in and make us your own; gather us in, all peoples together…fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”