Activating Transformation

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Isaiah 62:1-5, John 2:1-11, and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

On an autumn afternoon once, I was out enjoying a trail in southern Minnesota. It was the peak of the fall color season; but that day was cloudy and gray and gloomy, and the colors were not showing off to their greatest effect. Until one moment when a hole opened up in the clouds, and a shaft of sunlight fell on a hillside across the river, and everything lit up. The reds and the oranges and the yellows of the foliage were blazing, radiant, as if they were on fire. The whole scene, the whole day, was transformed.

Transformation is the word for today. Our scriptures on this Second Sunday after Epiphany are all about how the showing-forth of God’s light, the epiphany of God’s grace, transforms the broken and makes it whole, transforms the empty and makes it full, transforms the ordinary and makes it a sign of God’s extraordinary love.

We see it in the first lesson, in this passage from the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” The shining of the light signals a time when Jerusalem will be vindicated and her land will be saved.

In order to understand just how important this promise is, we need to know a little about the history of Jerusalem and its territory. In the year 586 BCE  Jerusalem and its surrounding kingdom of Judah were conquered by the neo-Babylonians. The ruling family, the priestly class, and all the upper classes of the population were taken away to Babylon and held in captivity, in exile. The city of Jerusalem itself was destroyed: the city wall was broken down, the Temple was burned and razed to the ground, the buildings and homes and public places of Jerusalem were laid waste. The surrounding villages and farming areas were allowed to remain; but with no central authority and no central worship in Jerusalem, they rapidly dwindled away, or were absorbed into other kingdoms, like Philistia and Edom and Moab, that for generations had been Judah’s enemies. The land was desolate, the land was forsaken, the land was a ruined monument to the failure of God’s people to keep their holy covenant.

That Exile, that Forsakenness of the Promised Land, lasted for seventy years. For seventy years Jerusalem was a pile of rubble and Judah was an almost forgotten name. But then Cyrus and his armies of the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians; and Cyrus declared that the people of Jerusalem could return home. Cyrus returned the sacred vessels that had been stolen from the Temple, and he gave orders allowing Jerusalem’s wall, and Jerusalem’s Temple, and Jerusalem’s city to be rebuilt. So the people returned, filled with joy, and filled with the sense of promise that God was with them once more.

But when they got back to Jerusalem, they found the task of rebuilding harder than they’d expected. Almost at once they ran into political problems, resistance and rivalry from the surrounding kingdoms. They ran into social problems, with tensions and factions between the people who’d gone to Babylon and the people who’d stayed behind. There were economic and logistical problems with doing the construction work to rebuild the Temple and the city wall. There were religious problems with reconstituting the priesthood and starting up again the system of worship in the central sanctuary. There were so many problems, that some of the people began to doubt that God was really with them, that God was really going to see them through this time.

And it was to that situation that these prophecies were directed. The prophet proclaims that God is indeed with the people; the prophet promises that God will create a new relationship with the people, a relationship of love and faithfulness and intimacy and tender togetherness that is like the relationship between a husband and a wife – and that in this new relationship the people, the city, the land itself will be transformed: “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.” Imagine how that must have sounded to people returning from long exile: “the Lord delights in you.”

The glory of God is made manifest, it is shown forth, in the transformation of Jerusalem from a pile of rubble into a living city; the glory of God is made manifest, it is shown forth, in the transformation of the people from forsaken exiles into a community of the Covenant. From now on, the prophet promises, the ordinary lives of the people of Jerusalem – going about their business, treating each other with justice and peace, worshiping in the Temple and keeping their promises and vows – their ordinary lives will serve as signs of God’s extraordinary love. That is the transformation that God gives to be an epiphany of grace.

That same transformation to be a sign of God’s love is shown in our Gospel lesson today. As John tells the story, Jesus’ transformation of water into wine is the first of Jesus’ signs, the first miracle that Jesus performs as a manifestation of God’s presence and God’s power that is with him. But the whole story is about a good deal more than just the miracle of water becoming wine. The transformation that Jesus brings about as an epiphany of God’s grace is not just the activation of certain enzymes and sugars and alcohols in jars of water where they weren’t to be found before – the transformation that Jesus brings about is a change in the whole wedding party, a transformation of the entire assembly of people gathered there, to be a living sign of the abundance of God’s love.

That’s why it’s so important that this miracle, this sign, this epiphany, is given at a wedding feast.  We’ve already seen in Isaiah that marriage was a powerful symbol of the relationship between God and the faithful people. And the wedding banquet was one of Jesus’ own favorite images for the messianic kingdom: the gospels record several parables that Jesus tells in which the image of the wedding feast serves to describe the joy and celebration and sharing that is God’s ultimate will for all people. Now John, in telling the story, doesn’t come right out and say that this wedding at Cana of Galilee was like the weddings in Jesus’ parables; but it was an association that John would have expected his readers to make, it was a connection that John would have expected to be an “aha!” experience for all the people who read or heard his gospel. It’s as if, in hearing this story, we are meant to hear the echoes and overtones of Jesus’ teaching about what God’s kingdom is meant to be for us all.

And I think that is the key to understanding the whole meaning of this miracle, the whole message of this sign. Jesus transforms water into wine, and in so doing, he transforms the wedding party into an image of God’s kingdom, he transforms the earthly celebration into a glimpse, a foretaste, a hint-of-an-experience, of the celebration of all things in heaven. Jesus’ gift of the very best wine – 180 gallons of the very best wine! – transforms an ordinary social occasion into an extraordinary experience of the abundance of God’s love. And that is a transformation God gives to be an epiphany of grace.

And we hear that same theme in the Epistle reading today. Paul says “there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” And that means that all of our human actions, all of our efforts and attempts to be wise and knowledgeable and faithful and generous and strong, all the ordinary little things we do – all of them have the capacity to be activated by the Holy Spirit of God, and to be transformed into activities of God’s grace in the world. Like the rubble actively built up into a city; like the water activated to become wine; we can be activated by the Spirit to be active participants in the transformative work of God in the world. And that is a transformation God gives to us to be an epiphany of grace.

Where is that transformation at work for you today? In what part of your life is the Spirit activating you to take part in the activities of God? Is there some part of your life that was broken, in pieces, but now is being rebuilt? Is there some celebration in your life that you can share as a sign of God’s abundant joy? Is there some place in the city, the community, where you might help build up right-relationships for justice and peace? Is there someone to whom you can reach out, with tenderness and care, to help them know the quality of God’s love? What ordinary things in your experience might be just ready to catch the light and shine forth as extraordinary epiphanies of God’s grace?

The word for today is transformation. May the Spirit activate transformation in you, so that you may shine forth as a sign of God’s love. Amen.