Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany – 21st January 2024


One of the joys in England which takes place in the long, dark period between Christmas and early February is the pantomime.  It is a quintessentially English style of play, usually based on one of the classic fairy stores such as Little Red Riding Hood or Jack and the Beanstalk, and characterised with its own very particular style of humour which often leads people to conclude that the English are very strange indeed!

A particular feature of most pantomimes is that there is often a moment of transformation, for example when the hero is transformed into a super hero or the wicked villain is turned into a toad.  Of these, perhaps the most famous is when in Cinderella, her fairy godmother finds her sitting sadly in the kitchen whilst her wicked step mother and stepsisters are at the ball and with a swish of her magic wand, transforms her rags to a beautiful ball gown, the pumpkin into a coach and her companion rats in the kitchen into fine horses so that she too can attend the ball and win her prince.

It is something that in our heart of hearts, most of us long for. Faced, as we all are, at certain points in our lives with what feel like insurmountable problems and difficulties, we long for someone to wave a magic wand – to transform the situation and make it better. This is true both for situations we face in our daily lives – at work in our relationships, even sometimes at church, and more widely when we look at the many disastrous things which are taking place all around us in the world today.

The flaw in our dreams, which we can find it hard to acknowledge is that magic wands don’t exist. There isn’t a cost-free solution either to our own problems or those of the world which a fairy godmother is going to bring about with a flick of her wand.

But today we are going to hear of a very different form of transformation which is possible.  It’s possible because God has chosen it and it is possible because He is inviting us to be part of the change we long to see.  And we are going to glimpse this and what it means through the lens of our Gospel account of the miracle or sign which Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana.

To do this, we need to do three things.  To look with very careful eyes at what Jesus is doing at this wedding – what Cana is pointing us to within the wider context of Jesus’ ministry.  Next, we need to ponder on the significance of this – what is Jesus showing us about the nature of God, his relationship with us and how Jesus is making that visible to us through his actions and ministry? And finally, we need to consider how we are being called to respond – to take part in God’s ministry of transformation and healing in the world. So this is what we are going to do in this sermon today.

I’ll start with a word about St John’s gospel. It is a gospel, rather like a very good detective story, in which its author gives us lots of signs.  Just as a good detective story writer such as Agatha Christie provides several clues which build up through the story so we begin to guess who might have committed the crime, so St John helps us, through highlighting the signs which Jesus performed, to begin to grasp who Jesus is and what he is going.

But to do this, we need to listen to and read his gospel attentively – to keep our antennae open for these signs and what they mean. And John’s account of Jesus’ miracle at Cana is all about those who noticed and those who did not.  Jesus’ mother notices, quietly but with grave concern that the wine is running out and the young couple face an embarrassing and sudden end to their wedding celebrations. The servants whom Jesus instructs to fill the great stone storage jars with water, notice the amazing transformation which Jesus has brought about. And his disciples who are with him at this feast, also notice – they see his glory and believe in him.

So what is Jesus doing at this wedding feast and what is the wider context to which his actions point in terms of his own ministry? He is showing, that although in his own eyes, ‘His hour has not yet come’, that he is aware of his special calling. Near the start of St John’s Gospel, John the Baptist has alerted the disciples and us, the reader, to this truth when he proclaims that Jesus is the one on whom God’s holy spirit has descended and remained at this Baptism – John was the witness to this – Jesus has been anointed by God for his ministry here on earth.

Then, as we see from his actions as he instructs the servants to fill the jars with water and then draw some out to give to the steward of the feast, he reveals he indeed has power to transform – to take what is simple and humble and change it radically in a life-giving way.

And Jesus’ actions at Cana, this ‘sign’ which he performs, points to what will lie ahead as the culmination of his ministry. Just as St John always refers to the ‘signs’ which Jesus performed, rather than ‘the miracles’, so St John always describes the Cross of Jesus in terms of his glory.  Cana points us to what lies ahead – to the glory which Jesus will bring about through his death on the Cross which will bring the opportunity of transformation and healing for the whole world.

So now, we need to ponder on the significance of all this.  What is Jesus showing us about the nature of God, his relationship with us and how Jesus is making that visible to us through his actions and ministry?

Jesus is showing us a great deal about the nature of God and his relationship with Him. First of all, Cana shows us the implications of the incarnation – that through Jesus taking our flesh, God is with us and committed to be with us throughout the minutiae of our daily lives as well as in big moments and key events in the world.

Next, he shows us that God works through us and through the very basic elements of the world as it is, not apart from it. Jesus tells the servants to bring water- the most basic element of life and one of the humblest substances and transforms it.  In the same way, in another of his ‘signs as recorded by St John later in his gospel, Jesus will take a little boy’s simple lunch of a few loaves and fish and transform them to feed a crowd of thousands with plenty to spare.

Then we learn that God through whom Jesus is accomplishing these signs is a God who offers himself with nothing held back, to bring about our salvation and transformation. Both the sign at Cana and the sign of the feeding of the five thousand point us to the reality of God who offers himself sacrificially for us. It is not like the fairy godmother, a cost –free act – instead it will God cost everything.

And he is offering himself for us so that we in turn may be transformed.  Transformed from being trapped in our sin, our despair, our helplessness and instead, empowered by Christ to live freely and joyfully and generously as were created to be.

Cana also points us to the glorious truth that with God, the best always lies ahead, As the steward, tasting the new wine exclaimed in delight that the bridegroom had kept the best wine till the end, so God is always at work brining transformation and new hope.

The disciples saw what Jesus had done at Cana.  It was only the beginning and they had a great deal ahead to experience and to learn from him. But they glimpsed his glory, they believed him and from that day onwards, they remained with him, so that where he, as their master or rabbi was, they too were there, watching, learning, beginning to experience what it means to serve.

Today as we reflect on the wedding feast at Cana, we too are being asked by God to think about our response. And perhaps a helpful first step we can take is to trust that God can and will take us just as we are and can transform us. This truth is wonderfully expressed in the collect which we had last week for the Second Sunday of Epiphany in which we pray to God that he will:

‘Transform the poverty of our nature

By the riches of your grace’

And it goes on to say:

And in the renewal of our lives

Make known your heavenly glory’.

The Eucharist is the point where we can make that act of profound trust and commitment to God. For the Eucharist is both a meeting point and a bridge. It is the meeting point in which we encounter Christ and through Christ, God himself, who offers himself to us as bread and wine. But it is also a bridge because from the Eucharist, as we receive Christ, so He sends us out to be bread and wine ourselves – agents of Christ’s transforming love in the world. The transformation to which Cana points isn’t cost-free for us either. We are not being sent out with magic wands to wave nor will it necessarily be easy. But we know that as God promises us through Jesus to transform the poverty of our natures through the riches of his grace, so He will equip us to be agents of healing and transformation.

This week – we’ve had a couple of examples of transformation which have struck me. The first is looking at the history of the Week of Prayer for Christians Unity which we are celebrating this week and brings Christians throughout the world together. Yet it started, over a hundred years ago with the simple suggestion of an American Franciscan called Fr Paul Wattson for a season of prayer within the Roman Catholic Church for church unity. From that simple beginning, it has grown and flourished as too has the far closer ecumenical links with our Christian brothers and sisters which we enjoy today.  

We also commemorated this week the life and ministry of Amy Carmichael, an English missionary of Scottish ancestry who served first in Japan and Ceylon in the late 19th century, before dedicating herself to her life’s work in South India, rescuing girls and boys from the abuse of being temple prostitutes and empowering them to lead a different life. She founded the Dohnavur Fellowship which is still rescuing children today.  

Both these things started simply through the initiative and dedication of these two people yet the ways they grew and transformed lives were astounding. Today as we encounter Christ as we come forward to receive the Eucharist or a blessing, let’s offer our lives to Christ in the faith that he will transform us and equip us for His service.

Almighty God,

in Christ you make all things new:

transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,

and in the renewal of our lives

make known your heavenly glory;

through 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.