Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 20 January 2019.
Many of us will remember school reports in which we were routinely abused. In my case no doubt the insults were deserved, but on other occasions perhaps there was something of a barely hidden delight in ridiculing and humiliating pupils who could not answer back.
I was once called ‘A failure’ by a history teacher even though I then went on to study economic history at university. The story is also told of a geography teacher who wrote that his pupil ‘did well to find his way home.’ Well, that must have been fun.
But our lesson from Isaiah, written to a problem people and in difficult times has a very different kind of outlook. Writing when the people were in exile for their disobedience, there were messages of the deepest love and hope. They were full of promise and expectation.
And so they abounded with terms like ‘A Crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.’
They would no longer be forsaken or desolate but a delight and married. God was looking for the best for His people at the time when they were in exile and morale had almost collapsed. Yet the words are with us today, 2500 years later and they are there to enrich us and to bless us.
The only thing restricting God in blessing His people is their ability to receive and their willingness to do so.
And yet this was at a cost – not to us but to God. In the story of the wedding at Cana, Jesus and His disciples were there as guests and spectators – at least, that is what they thought. A relatively quiet family party, with good food, good drink and good company. What could go wrong?
When the wine gave out, Jesus’ mother pointed it out to Him and received a very sharp reply. Not quite ‘So what?’ or even ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ but something else.
To demonstrate His power to bless, Jesus was going to expose Himself and so set Himself on the road to Jerusalem and to the cross.
If He started here and now, there would be no going back. What might start with replenishing the wine at the wedding party would end with drugged wine being offered to Him as they nailed Him to the cross – and a relief of pain that He would make a point of refusing.
Jesus would suffer the physical torture and the spiritual desolation of the cross to the full, for that was why He was there.
So perhaps His sharp words to His mother – who would also be there at the cross – had some kind of context.
The next thing to happen was an instruction to fill up jars kept for ceremonial washing. Each about the size of an oil drum and intended to maintain ceremonial purity especially at mealtimes.
These indeed represented the law under which Jesus would be condemned by the temple authorities, and yet they also offered the perfect opportunity to do something else.
The very hardware that represented legalism and harsh judgment would be turned around. Jesus had come to fulfil the law and the prophets and would start by giving a wholly new kind of blessing as He changed the water into wine, and according to the master of ceremonies, the best wine ever tasted.
Even when it pointed to His Last Supper with the disciples the wine was not only of excellent quality but it was there in unprecedented quantity. Maybe some 1500 bottles’ worth. If there was going to be a party, then it might be let down by the colour of some of the jokes but definitely not the taste of the wine.
Only the best would do and in such quantities that it would be spoken of for years – indeed centuries to come. But then when we present God with an open goal, this is the nature and the measure of what He does with it.
But this sense of God’s gifts is also shown in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. The gifts of the Spirit, which came from the Day of Pentecost, were definitely there in Corinth, and often not understood or not used properly.
They might certainly be dramatic – and have continued in the church down the centuries, but the essential point is that they were gifts.
They were received and not earned – indeed they were wholly unearnable. If they were not, they would not be gifts but wages. But being gifts they were to be received joyfully and used responsibly.
They were not there for boasting and certainly not proof of personal merit. But they were there to build up one another and to edify the church.
Everything in today’s lessons is about receiving from God and the extravagance with which He seeks to bless us. The limits are not in His desire to give but in our desire, vision, expectation and willingness to receive.
The cost was still there but paid by Jesus on the cross, for each of us and all of us.
But God desires us, like the ancient Israelites, to be His delight and part of the bride of Christ. Certainly not forsaken or desolate.
As Psalms 81:10 says: ‘Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.’ And God means it.