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4th Sunday of Epiphany

26 January 2017


1 Kings 17.8-16; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 1.18-end; John 2.1-11


God our creator, who in the beginning commanded the light to shine out of darkness: we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, shine into the hearts of all your people, and reveal the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


SOME parishes will be keeping Sunday as the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. Others will be marking the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. I have chosen to write about the Epiphany 4 readings for two reasons.

First, they are too interesting in their own right to be passed over. Second, they work out another aspect of presentation — the revelation of God’s power in the world in unexpected forms, and from unexpected sources. That power is always there to be recognised, acknowledged, and responded to in wonder and praise, but it does not force itself upon its witnesses.

Presented as a baby in the Temple at the end of his mother’s time of purification, Jesus fulfils the Law (Luke 2.22-40; Leviticus 12). At the end of the first week of his emergence in a public role, according to John’s chronology, he transforms the water meant for specified domestic purification rites at a wedding feast into the outstanding wine that looks forward to the Kingdom (Luke 22.17-18; John 15.1-11).

Simeon’s words as he blesses the child and his parents look ahead to suffering and division (Luke 2.34), as well as the renewed glory of God’s people (Luke 2.32). John’s Jesus speaks in his own right of his death, when his mother alerts him to the imminent embarrassment of insufficient wine supplies: “My hour is not yet come” (John 2.4). And yet he is persuaded to give a glimpse of future glory in the miracle that follows.

What kind of miracle is it? The lectionary approaches the question by inviting us to read it alongside the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Mary asks Jesus to do something for which he does not seem quite ready (John 2.3). Elijah asks for food from someone who is starving.

Both narratives pause for a tense moment, in the face of apparent impossibility, before revealing a resolution. The Jerusalem Bible’s rendition of events in Zarephath is illuminating at this point. Besides its delightful cultural translation of a Middle Eastern flatbread into “a little scone” (1 Kings 17.13), it sets out the prophet’s words as an incantation or spell:


Jar of meal shall not be spent,
jug of oil shall not be emptied,
before the day when Yahweh sends
rain on the face of the earth.

(1 Kings 17.14)


Miracle is distinguished from magic here by the signature of a faithful God, as the events that follow the spell prove. The widow obeyed, not necessarily because she followed Elijah’s God (Zarephath lay in an area where the cult of Baal flourished), but because she trusted the integrity of the prophet’s assurance. Her obedience was vindicated.

The servants at the wedding feast knew little or nothing about Jesus — or, at least, nothing about him as a worker of miracles. And yet something about him commanded assent to an instruction with the potential to make all parties look immensely foolish (John 2.7-8). It is easy to imagine the servants’ trepidation as they invited the steward to taste the contents of the jars, and their relief at his response (John 2.9).

Unlikely sources are an idea exploited by Paul, as he writes to the Corinthians about the meaning of the cross. This paradox-laden account comes after a discussion about loyalty to particular evangelising leaders. Paul had insisted that all leadership in the Christian community was only a vehicle to make Christ and his redeeming death visible (1 Corinthians 1.17). And yet how is this message to be driven home in the face of the evidence of Christ silenced and humiliated on the cross?

For those who claimed intellectual sophistication, or insisted on authentic signs of God’s activity, the cross could be only a “stumbling-block” (1 Corinthians 1.22-25). A different kind of wisdom is required for its interpretation, one that grasps the essential point of the cross: that it gets in the way; it interferes with the way we would like the story of our Saviour King to turn out; it promises glory, but along a route of suffering.

So, back to the steward at the feast, made gloriously ridiculous by servants who know more than they will tell, and ridiculously glorious in the eyes of the bridegroom and those guests still sober enough to discern quality (John 2.9-10). Joy was restored after crisis, and order was recreated out of the most unorthodox actions.

By worldly standards, folly had triumphed over wisdom — except that the standards were no longer those of the world. In beginning to make himself known to the world, Jesus had inaugurated the new measures and standards that would challenge everyone he encountered as his ministry unfolded.

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