Epiphany in the Hambleden Valley

My first Sunday in the new parish on the edge of the Epiphany Season.

This was my 1st sermon as Priest in Charge of the Hambleden Valley on January 24, 2021.

Revelation 19:6-10 John 2:1-11

I think it is somehow fitting that the first Gospel reading on my first Sunday in the Hambleden Valley is about wine & hospitality! I have been told, on good authority, that both flow freely in the convivial villages and pubs of the valley! I so look forward to meeting everyone in the flesh as soon as we possibly can.

It is also fitting that I begin this new season of ministry with you on the edge of the Epiphany season. I love the readings over these Sundays as they show us the different Epiphany experiences of various people – the Wise Men, Samuel, Mary, Joseph and young Jesus, grown up Jesus and John the Baptist and today – Mary and the disciples.

An Epiphany is to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realization.’ I am not sure if you have ever had an epiphany moment – but they are quite extraordinary! Those moments when something new blows through your mind – you see the world, people, a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life. They are not always dramatic affairs – they are simply a moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart. The circumstances might be dramatic – but it not a requirement.

The Epiphany stories of the people in these scripture readings tell of their revelations and realizations of God the Father and Jesus the Son. This is what, we as Christians, should be seeking for ourselves. Religion and even faith can become very dull if we are not watching and waiting for epiphany moments ourselves.

We are going to spend a few minutes unpacking the epiphanies of the wedding at Cana.

‘Epiphany of Invitation’

Mary was the first one invited to this wedding; it is amusing that Jesus and the disciples had also been invited to the wedding. Was Jesus on the B list – surely not? Maybe that is why he is resistant to changing the water into wine?!

There are times when we may have been invited to an event or gathering that we were not top of the list for maybe invited to fill a gap left by someone else. It’s happened to me. It is not the most comfortable of situations to be in. I think that many people feel this way about the invitation to come to church; they are somehow on the B list, everyone around them is a better Christian or ‘in the club’ and there is no place for new members. The Revelation reading speaks of the blessing for those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. That is one invitation we do not want to miss; we are part of that great multitude.

At my licensing service this past week, I chose Isaiah 55 as the first reading. There were many reasons for this; largely for the opening verses and the very simple invitation to come. ‘Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!’ Everyone is welcome.

Jesus was invited to the wedding and he turned up. He accepted the invitation and something amazing happened at that wedding. When we invite Jesus into our lives, He does amazing things, beyond what we could ever ask or imagine. My hope is that we as followers of Jesus would want to extend that invitation to others. Simply and lovingly.

The Epiphany of Expectation

The second example of Epiphany is the realization of the expectation that God will act. Mary is expecting Jesus to do something about the lack of wine at the wedding in Cana.

Imagine being at a wedding that runs out of wine. Imagine if you are the one hosting the wedding that has run out of wine! How embarrassing! What will everyone think?! In Jesus’ time hospitality was everything; to run out of a wine was a huge social faux pas.

The exchange between Mary and Jesus is somewhat amusing: Mary is concerned for the lack of wine and Jesus is saying ‘Oh Mother – mind your business!’ Mary is having none of this; and she involves the servants to do ‘whatever he tells you to’. It seemingly doesn’t take Jesus much convincing to ‘do something’.

This is good news! We do not have to negotiate or beg or plead with Jesus to act on our behalf. We may have to persist, there are often many other factors at play that we do not know about or see. Again, Isaiah 55, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

The position of Interim Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group was the 21st application I made for job over 18 months of looking. I had some really challenging moments of wondering if Jesus was going to do something. Many times of prayer became weepy, sniffly, pleading sessions. My levels of expectation fluctuated widely – of myself, of the church and its structures and of God.

At the end of it, I am so glad that His ways are not my ways. I know that Jesus will do something, even if I need to be reminded repeatedly.

The disciples are the ones who have the biggest ‘Epiphany of Expectation’ at the wedding of Cana. They are new friends of Jesus, he has just gathered them, so it is early days. What were their expectations of Jesus? They had left their families, homes and livelihoods to follow this man. We could assume that expectations were running high.

What are your expectations of Jesus like in your current situation? High – middling – low? What are your expectations of the Church? I would really like to know – if you’d care to share that with me at some point. Sometimes expectations need to be realistically adjusted. Low ones to be raised to avoid despondency. Overly high expectations need to be lowered to avoid continual disappointment.

The Epiphany of Covering

The wedding of Cana is incredibly rich in meaning and symbolism and we could be here all day digging around. Yes, Jesus starts his ministry here on the third day (reference to the resurrection). He takes what is common, weddings and water, and make them extraordinary. Mary’s high expectations and belief in her son and what she knows about him. The disciples who go from unbelief to belief and then circle back repeatedly as they follow Jesus.

At the heart of what Jesus is doing at the wedding of Cana is protecting the bride & groom and their families from shame. Hospitality is at the heart Middle Eastern culture and always has been. To run out of a wine at a wedding would be beyond humiliation, it would bring disgrace on a family. There were few things worse than failing to provide for one’s guests.

Jesus, by providing wine for them, he fulfils the need they have in that very moment. Jesus protected them from shame and disgrace in front of their community. He does the very same for us, Jesus covers our shame, our sins. He covers us in his love. Jesus also covers us in the very moment we need him too. He can change your life, He can change your day and He can also change that very moment you find yourself in.

Many people are struggling right now in lockdown, maybe even more this time around. People are losing jobs and relationships; some are unable to feed their children and themselves. Many medical staff feel they cannot provide the care that they desperately want to for the sick and the dying in front of them. My suspicions are that high levels of shame and embarrassment abound for many people.

Jesus covers that shame and embarrassment, when we let him. Whatever situation you are facing that you find shameful or embarrassing, please know that you are covered in the love of God. Please seek help if you need it – there are people in the churches that can help you. I want to help you if I can.

The ending of the Epiphany season does not mean that epiphanies stop happening. We need to watch and wait for them. The Epiphany of Invitation when we realize that Jesus is waiting for us to accept his invitation to join him. The Epiphany of Expectation reminds us that Jesus is at work even when there seems to be a delay, or He is somehow slow to act. Expectations may need to be adjusted. The Epiphany of Covering shows us the love and protection of Jesus. We are loved beyond what we can comprehend. He covers us in love and protects us from shame and embarrassment. We are in this together even though we have to keep apart.

Bless you my friends. I look forward to sharing this new season with you and look with expectation for what epiphanies are in store for us.

Epiphany 2: What Are You Looking For?

Happy New Year one and all! It might feel like a long time ago – but I hope that you had a nice holiday.

We are on the tail end of the Christmas season depending on who you talk to. In the Epiphany season we have the opportunity to consider and study what happened after Jesus was born: the Wisemen coming to visit, the family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod and their return.

The Gospel jumps around a bit as we have a few weeks of Jesus in the early days of his ministry featuring John the Baptist and the gathering and calling of the first disciples. The season ends with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple when he was a baby.

Through these readings runs the theme of new beginnings and the changes and challenges that beginnings can present us with. Not every new beginning, as many of us know, is welcome or wanted.

It can take time to adjust to a ‘new normal’. I think that a lot of the difficulty stems from the changes that are forced upon us and we either lose or have no control over them. Change ultimately requires us to adjust our behaviours, attitudes and expectations; which – if we are honest – we don’t want to do unless we must because it is hard work!

Change can initially bring uncertainty, confusion and can take away our confidence until we learn new ways of living and being.

However, we are not alone in the changes of this life!

In all three of our readings today we see various changes and challenges faced by the people in them. The great comfort is that God is with them and with us!

It is well into the book of Isaiah before the prophet tells the story of his calling. Most of the other OT prophets usually start by giving their credentials: who they are, usually some family information and how they came to be called by God.

Isaiah seems to save his story until he needs to tell it. Isaiah needs to convince the Israelites that God is faithful and has chosen them; so he uses his story, his testimony.

It is not always easy to talk about our faith. We can get awkward about it, make excuses, feel embarrassed or under-prepared. Most people want to know our story though. Who doesn’t like talking about themselves?!
Sharing our stories is an effective way to talk about faith and what it means to us as people can’t argue with personal experience.

Isaiah knows that he has been called by God. This wasn’t easy, he had his challenges, doubts, frustrations and wanted to give up on the people more than once. But he knew, in that deep-down knowing way, that God was faithful and had chosen him before he was born. He wanted the people to know that too.

Corinth was one of the most important cities in Greece with a population estimated at 500,000 people. It was a leading seaport and centre of commerce. Paul had evangelized the city on his third missionary journey.

The church that Paul founded was growing and they needed guidance and reminding on the central themes of the gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthians to correct and encourage the newly established church.

It wasn’t going to be easy as there were many outside influences – not always positive ones clamouring for attention. Again, God would be faithful and had called and would strengthen the Corinthians to follow him. Paul was speaking to patterns of behaviour in church and at home, dietary issues, sexual issues, how to handle arguments and issues around death.

Sometimes we need correction and guidance that lead to changes in lifestyle or habits. We can need correction and guidance as a church too. God will be with us in the trials and changes.

Paul, in this letter to the Corinthians, wanted them to know that too. God is faithful and that he (God) had called them into fellowship with Jesus.

I was able to get to Canada for 2 weeks of vacation which was great. While I was there, I was able to do some shopping. Compared to shop assistants in the UK, the Canadians are a bit more polite. I was asked numerous times (sometimes in the same shop) ‘can I help you?’ ‘did you find what you are looking for?’ ‘is there anything else I can help you with?’. This is all very normal of course.

I didn’t think much of it, until I read the Gospel reading for this morning. What caught me was Jesus’ asking the disciples of John the Baptist (who happened to follow him), ‘What are you looking for?’ This is the first ever question Jesus ever asks. I think it is a good one – especially at the start of this new year.

It made me think of being in the Canadian shops and being asked that question. ‘What are you looking for?’ Sometimes I had no idea what I was looking for. Other times, I thought I knew but then couldn’t find it or if I did find whatever it was, I thought I was looking for – it wasn’t right.
On rare occasions I did find what I was looking for. Happy day! A rare event indeed!

Here is the third challenge we might be facing this morning and my first question to you this year – what are you looking for? This year, in life, in a situation – whatever it might be.

In order to finding something that we are looking for – as in a shop – we need to look and see what is going on around us. John the Baptist saw Jesus coming and knew immediately who it was and tells his disciples the story of how John knows this.

John had experienced Jesus, they were cousins, born within a few months of each other. I don’t want to speculate how much time they spent together growing up; that information is not known to us. John’s life had a purpose and there was a calling which he fulfilled – ‘to come baptizing with water, that Jesus might be revealed to Israel.’

With the appearance of Jesus, John’s ministry begins to shrink. His calling had been fulfilled. John’s disciples (including Andrew – brother of Peter) are pointed in the direction of Jesus and they follow him. It is at this point when Jesus asks them the question ‘what are you looking for?’

Andrew and the other unnamed disciple obviously found what they were looking for in Jesus. I am not sure they even knew that they were looking for anything. After a few hours with Jesus, they knew they had found something. And a new beginning was begun.

We will find everything we need in Jesus. I am saying that to you as much as I say it to myself. Everything we need will be found in him. I can’t say that enough. Even when it doesn’t feel like it or we can’t see it. Jesus is enough.

I know that many of us are facing change and challenges at the start of this new year. Know that God is faithful and has called you – even if you don’t know to what yet. He was faithful in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and to us today. There is a calling on your life; we are never too or too young to be called. We might have to go looking for it – rest assured it is never that far away. So whatever it is that you are looking for this year – let’s start looking for it and let’s start with the Lord.