+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 128 is one of a number of psalms and other Old Testament passages that present a particular theological difficulty. On the face of it, the message is pretty simple: walk in the ways of the Lord, and you will find that things work out well for you: your labours in the fields will bring you good food, your wife will give you children, you will be blessed.
Now it is true that there are often circumstances in which following some aspects of biblical moral teaching leads to blessings in this life. This was once one of the attractions of various forms of non-conformist and evangelical religion to working and lower middle class people in this country: sobriety and abstinence from gambling combined with sexual continence saves you from many painful and expensive problems. All things being equal this sort of moral discipline is likely to lead to a stable career and family life, more money in the bank, and the sunlit uplands of middle class respectability await.
And at a deeper level, this psalm and many others like it offer an integrated view of creation, with linkages easily drawn between following the ways of God and receiving the blessings of creation. This offers rich opportunities for reflection in our current context, when we are ever more aware of the damage wrought by humanity to the natural world on which we depend.
And yet the problems with the simple worldview of this psalm, read at a surface level, are obvious. The ancient Jewish people discovered for themselves that things would not always go well for them even if they were faithful to God. The biblical evidence suggests that the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587BC, and the deportation of the Jewish elite, were primarily explained by the sins of the people and their political and religious leaders. But the persecutions that followed under the rule of the Greeks and Roman puppet rulers often fell especially hard on precisely those who were faithful to the Lord and walked in His paths. And so it became increasingly difficult to believe that faithfulness to God would necessarily lead to material blessings in this life, and we find biblical writers wrestling with these problems in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, in the “suffering servant” prophecies of Isaiah, and in some of the Psalms.
The ancient Jews resolved the problem in two related ways.
First, the blessings that would flow from following the ways of the Lord were pushed further into the future. This was combined with an expectation of a more-or-less imminent visitation of the Lord to set things to rights. So for example in the prophecy of Ezekiel we find the promise that God Himself will come to be the shepherd of God’s people; and in the prophecy of Isaiah we find promises not only that God would restore Israel, but also that the gentile nations would come to worship God in Jerusalem. We also find promises of a great banquet, prophecies that God would feed God’s people with rich food filled with marrow, and with well-aged wines strained clear. Connected with these prophecies was a growing expectation of a coming Messiah, a leader in the line of David who would be the agent of this Divine setting-of-all-things-to-rights. In the same vein, there is also wedding imagery, with Israel described as an unfaithful wife, and God as the husband, who initially rejects and then forgives the erring wife; once again, there is the expectation of a restoration, of a setting-to-rights.
Secondly, suffering itself came to be associated with faithfulness, suffering became an expression of faithfulness. We find this in the “Suffering Servant” prophecies of Isaiah, in which Jews recognise the sufferings of the Jewish people in general, and which Christians associate especially with Jesus. And we also find it in some of the stories of the Maccabees, most especially in the appalling story of the Mother and her Seven Sons, tortured to death before Antiochus Epiphanes for refusing to renounce their Jewish faith. There is no question here of following the paths of the Lord resulting in earthly blessings.
Turning to today’s gospel, the favourite story of the wedding at Cana, we can see some clear connections with the Jewish prophetic tradition and the expectation of a coming restoration. Isaiah promises fine wine, and Jesus provides it, and in vast quantity. The parallel story of the feeding of the multitude will later develop the same theme. And not only that, it is also a wedding feast, and so that biblical tradition which uses the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between God and God’s people also comes into play, the promise of a restoration of the broken relationship between the bride Israel and God, her husband. The steward thinks that the bridegroom has provided the fine wine, and in a way the steward is right, because Jesus is here revealed as the true Bridegroom.
The details of Jesus’ suffering are less evident in John’s gospel than in the other three. In the other accounts of Jesus’ Passion and Death, there is a strong sense of Jesus’ anguish and pain, and even of His vulnerability and powerlessness. In John’s gospel the emphasis is different, and Jesus appears always to be in control of events. And yet, the tradition of faithfulness in suffering is also apparent in the story of the Wedding at Cana. It just requires a little decoding.
One of the distinctive features of John’s gospel is the language that is used to describe Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. Jesus refers to His approaching suffering and vindication as “my hour”, and He speaks of being “glorified”. We find in this first miracle story of John’s gospel, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus is already speaking of His hour, in the conversation He has with His Mother: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” And the evangelist speaks of “His glory” – both of these terms, “hour” and “glory”, are in John’s gospel particularly associated with the Cross.
So what on the face of it appears to be a rather fun story, everyone’s favourite miracle, the young Jesus who knows how to party, what on the face of it appears to be a fun story turns out to be loaded with profound significance. It pulls together a cluster of connected Old Testament traditions, of weddings and Divine banquets and a coming restoration and vindication of God’s people. And it also more subtly references the tradition of faithful suffering, and in doing so it points forward to the Cross.
So here today we sit like olive shoots around the table of the One who walks in the ways of the Lord. And although it is perhaps hard to believe in this particular moment, we who are His bride the Church are a fruitful vine in His house. Here in this Holy Sacrament we, like those unsuspecting guests at the Wedding at Cana, receive a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet, of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Here in this Holy Sacrament we share in that glorious self-offering in which He poured out His love and His life like wine. Here in this Holy Sacrament we come wonderfully close to His faithful suffering, in which His glory is revealed, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.