The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Mawwage… marriage is what brings our readings together today. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
In this season of Epiphany, when we celebrate the light of Christ come into the world, and on Martin Luther King Jr weekend, marriage seems a strange idea to wrestle with in light of these occasions. But these are the assigned readings for today, so wrestle with them we must… and you may be surprised at what they offer when you dig a little deeper.
The reading from Isaiah comes from final section of the book of Isaiah, which was written after the people of Israel have returned to their homeland following their exile in Babylon. They have been freed from captivity, but they’ve had to come home empty-handed, to a land has been ransacked, their sacred places desecrated, their livelihoods demolished. No reparations paid by their captors, starting over with little more than what they carried with them, the absence of their homes and houses of worship, places of stability and identity, suggesting that God might be absent too.
In this desolate, forsaken setting, the prophet proclaims, “I will not keep silent, I will not rest, until Jerusalem’s vindication shines out like the dawn.” The prophet promises a future glory for this desolate land and these forsaken people. A future so glorious that they will even be known by different names. “You shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” The prophet promises the unsurpassed delight of a bridegroom and bride. It’s probably fair to say that the people listening would have had a hard time believing that could ever be possible.
And at the wedding in Cana, there is a different kind of desperate situation: the host of the wedding has run out of wine. SUPER embarrassing. After a bit of strong-arming from his mother, a slightly whiny, rather annoyed Jesus turns somewhere between 120-180 gallons of water into the finest wine these guests have ever tasted. This is the first of seven “signs” – which is the word that John’s gospel uses instead of “miracles” – the first of seven “signs” that Jesus gives to show us who he is and who and what he is pointing to.
This all comes together when you know a little about biblical symbolism. Throughout Scripture, the wedding banquet is a metaphor and image of God’s restoration of Israel. For the promised land to be renamed “marriage” is to say with certainty that God’s promise of restoration has come to fruition. For Jesus’ first sign to take place at the celebration of a marriage is no accident.
And wine is used as a symbol of the joy associated with salvation. The abundance of fine wine that Jesus produces at a wedding feast symbolizes the abundance of joy in the restoration and salvation he brings, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to bring good news to the poor, to set the captives free, to proclaim the Lord’s favor.
So perhaps it isn’t so strange, after all, that we read today about marriage feasts and overflowing wine, with their somewhat hidden but extremely powerful message of the promise of God’s abundant restoration of the holy reign of justice and peace. The wedding banquet is a setting for rejoicing, for a new and restored identity — even for miracles.
We need that hope now more than ever. In a country where we would rather disdain than discuss, undermine rather than understand, where divisions have become defining, where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, where racism infects every social good from health care to education to policing, we stand among our own political, social, and economic wreckage. In some ways, better, and in some ways, worse, than the wreckage Martin Luther King Jr. stood at, almost 60 years ago.
Dr. King had the persistent hope of Isaiah — the trust in God’s promise not yet realized — and also believed the fulfillment of Jesus, the assurance of God’s restoration here and now. We need the faith, the hope, and the love that Martin Luther King, Jr. had, both in the now and in the not yet.
And we must not sanitize or sentimentalize his memory. Dr. King was popular, yes, but he was threatening to the establishment, to the religious and political and economic and social systems that did not want to be disrupted. He was hated by many for his message of justice and equality for all, despite his revolutionary nonviolent way of love. And ultimately he was killed for that message. So let’s not be too quick to soften the edges of his mission and his message that still, today, remains radical.
Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King launched the Poor People’s Campaign, wanting the organization, commitment, and leadership of the poor across all lines of division to end systemic racism, poverty, and a war economy. That mantle has been taken up today by the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who has revived the Poor People’s Campaign (https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/). Dr. King’s legacy lives on, in the continued fight for voting rights, the eradication of poverty, fair housing, safe and equitable public education, quality health care, and more. These are lofty goals, but they are holy, biblical, and Christ-like goals. And they might also seem nearly impossible.
But Dr. Barber has said, “The only way you can truly, truly, truly remember [Martin Luther King Jr’s values], is to reach in that blood, pick up the baton, do your part in your age to carry it on.”
That is a striking and uncomfortable image. Certainly a far cry from the image of a marriage banquet.
Continuing Dr. King’s work is not easy, and it is not popular. But it means standing in the rubble of our desolate, forsaken land, believing that its vindication will one day shine like the dawn, that it will one day have a new identity that is only recognized by the abundance of joy that flows from it, where justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Hold onto that image for a moment — the image of a mighty river flowing. If you’re in NYC, take a stroll past the Hudson at some point today, and take in the beauty and force of a mighty river. We do not worry about the Hudson River running out of water – it’s a river, it always has water. Right? Now just ruminate on that belief, that faith, that trust, in abundance, for a moment. That is the kind of abundance God promises. Not just glasses of the best red wine, but the kind of abundance where the thought of scarcity just… isn’t there. Where we never worry about others having more, because we know there is enough for everyone.
THAT is the divine wedding feast. Justice and equality is not a zero-sum game. It’s not the case that if you get more, somehow I get less. If you get more money, somehow I won’t have as much. If you have fairer access to voting and education and health care, somehow I won’t have as much of an advantage. If you are given an advantage in your college or mortgage application, somehow that’ll freeze me out. That is simply not the case… but I think we need to be reminded of it. Because there does seems to be such a scarcity of everything these days, from patience to covid tests to common human decency. But God is not in the scarcity game. What God makes real – what we experience in Jesus – is abundance, more than enough for everyone, a grace and mercy and love that never runs out.
So do not keep silent. Do not rest. Don’t be the frozen chosen (though the temperatures today might render that literally true). Without God’s faithful people doing the work, justice and equality for all will remain just a dream. Speak out in the variety of spiritual gifts God has given you until no one is ever called forsaken. The divine wedding banquet awaits. Amen.