A sermon on Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10 & John 2.1-11 by Garry Deverell
The Psalm we read just now speaks about the ‘steadfast love of Yahweh.’ In Hebrew the term is chesed Yahweh, a deeply loyal kind of love which is able to persevere and endure even when the loved one chooses to spurn and trample the lover’s careful attentions underfoot. It is important to note that the chesed Yahweh is a strictly divine kind of love. The Psalmist never once uses the term to speak about the love of human beings, probably because he believes that human beings are incapable of performing such love. To his mind, God alone is capable of chesed love, yet it is human beings who are most in need of it’s healing and transforming powers. This because we tend, as human beings, to be so very inconstant in the covenants and promises we make—whether to God or to one another. So tonight I would like us to contemplate chesed love for a little while, this strong and constant love that we each of us need so very much. And I should like us to do so by fixing our attention on four evocative images, which the lections conveniently provide for us.
In the first image, the chesed love of God is likened to that of a mother bird who gathers her chicks under the shelter of her wings when a storm is at hand. The Psalmist writes “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” What a wonderful picture! The Psalmist, like many of us, is riding out some storms in his life. He is being mocked for his religious faith, and there are apparently wicked people nearby who would very much like to remove him from the place and work to which God has appointed him. He is afraid, and he feels alone, so he calls out to the one who has promised his protective presence and love, no matter what. The Psalmist believes that God’s love for him is far more constant and reliable than the machinations of a royal court, where people are only valued for as long as they are politically useful. So he cries out to God as the one who will shelter him from the cyclone of inconstancy to which he is being subjected. He looks to God to be a kind of still-point for him, a loving gaze of reliable compassion at the eye of a very scary storm.
A second image comes from the same pen, in the same Psalm, where God’s chesed love is likened to the hospitality of a generous host. Again, I quote. “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! [All people] feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” Here the refuge of God is not merely a tiny corner to hide from the wind, but God’s own homestead, a wide and spacious place of welcome and delightful refreshment, freely available to all who ask. Of course, the Psalmist has a very specific place in mind, when he imagines God’s homestead. It is the temple where he worships and prays each day. For him, the temple is precisely that place in which he experiences God presence, a place of beauty and peace which continually draws him into God’s embrace. There, in the sacred liturgy, God reaches out to feed him with sacred words that are sweeter than honey, and with the water of from the sacred vessels, a veritable draught of Holy Spirit to sustain the worshippers. We Christians have taken exactly this meal-imagery of Jewish worship into our own liturgy. For us, Jesus is the great host who feeds us with himself in the bread, the water and the wine. He is the bread of heaven and the cup of life, offered to sustain us on the long and weary journey towards healing. For that reason, the desire of Christians for the eucharistic presence of Christ is not all that very different from the Jewish desire for Torah and for the ritual meals of the Synagogue. For all of us desire the healing touch of God’s chesed love. And for all of us, Christian or Jew, it is worship which is able to show us what that love is like.
A third image is found in the reading from Isaiah. There the chesed love of God is compared to that of a bridegroom who delights in his bride. I quote: “As a young man marries a young woman, so shall your Maker marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Now, lest you get the impression that God’s love is only as good as the starry-eyed infatuation of the newly-married—which (let’s be honest) is largely blind, and lasts only for a short while—please take note of the context in which that image is invoked! The wider passage speaks about God’s continuing concern and loyalty toward a people which has completely deserted God’s ways, becoming both morally and spiritually desolate in the process. This is a lover who is able to delight in his bride even though he knows what she is really like, ‘warts and all,’ as they say. God, we are told, is like the bridegroom in his delight towards the bride. Yet he is very unlike the typical bridegroom in that he delights in his bride even as she runs after other lovers.
Now, there is good news here, is there not? For we are not so very different from the chosen people of old. We are people who swell with love and devotion for God when it suits us, when we want to fill our empty lives with a little spirituality and pretend we have risen above the mediocrity all around us. But we are so easily distracted, so easily lured away from our devotion. All it takes is the prospect of a little more cash, or a little romantic attention from an attractive somebody. Sometimes all it takes for us to abandon God’s ways is the prospect of relaxing into some television. This is who we are. This is the pathos of our inconstancy. Thank Christ, then, that God is not like us! Thank Christ that God is chesed love, loyal and steadfast even where we ourselves fail. For without that love, we would all fade into the nothingness and desolation of beings who have no anchor, no centre out of which to be anything at all. We would exist only as clouds exist—accidentally and ephemerally, for only a moment. In the end, it is only God’s loving attention which holds us in being and gives us a future which is of more worth than that of a cloud’s. In the end, we are what we are only because God holds and purposes us according to the horizon of his gift. In God, we become who we are only as we receive ourselves from God.
Which brings me to the final image I wanted to speak about this evening: God’s chesed love as the primal power of transformation or alchemy. We read in Isaiah of a love which is realistic about who we are in our sin, and yet looks and hopes for our transformation into people of substance. I quote. “You shall receive a new name from the mouth of the Lord. No longer shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ and your land ‘Desolate’; instead, you will be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘Beloved’.” There is an additional claim being made, here, for God’s love. Not only does it continue to regard us with delight, even as we sin. It is also able to change us, to change our deepest motivations and desires so that we begin, however slowly, to desire what God desires and become the people Gods desires that we be. How does this happen, how is love able to change a human heart? It is a mystery! Yet I believe that the apostle John had an unusual insight into such things, and that the first hint of an answer may be found in his story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee.
Now, I’ll be up front with you. For many years I really didn’t ‘get’ this story where Jesus turns the water into wine. Even when I learned that the Gospel of John was built around seven ‘signs,’ of which this miracle was the first—even when I learned that the signs were supposed to tell us who Jesus really is—I still didn’t entirely get it. I mean, turning water into wine. What that’s all about? How does it show us who Jesus is? Doesn’t it show only that Jesus was a conjurer, a magician, an alchemist? What have any of those things to do with the deeper theology of the Gospel—Jesus as the Word of God and the Bread of Life; Jesus as the great ‘I Am’ who repeats only that which he had already heard from his Father; Jesus, whose miserable, dark cross is the very place where the light and glory of God is made known? But then it hit me. The alchemist’s trick of turning water to wine is exactly the right thing for the Word of God to be doing. For the message it conveys is one of transformation: the Word of God crucified, a word and pledge of sacrificial love, is precisely that reality which is finally able to transform the sinful-ridden self into a self redeemed and made new. For John has a very sacramental imagination. The water is us, my friends. We begin the transformation journey at the waters of our baptism, the most ordinary water in the world. But when Christ dies for us, when he signs for us the chesed love of God through the sacrificial spilling of his blood, we become extraordinary, we rise from the waters to receive the eucharistic wine. At that point, Christ himself becomes our life—our lifeblood, our joy, our future. The water of our humanity is changed into the wine of Christ, as it were, that substance which we imbibe in order to envision a happiness, and a cause for celebration, we could never have generated for ourselves.
Now, I know this reading makes for a rather radical re-reading of the significance of wine for Christians. It has often been said amongst evangelicals that drinking wine is a sin primarily because it causes the drinker to lose control. But that is exactly why wine is such a great symbol for the transformation which Christ would forge for us! It is only in ceding control of our lives, it is only by giving ourselves over to the intoxicating effects of Christ on our hearts and minds, that we shall ever be transformed into his image and likeness. For the chesed love of God transforms us by intoxification. It reaches into the places where we are afraid and ashamed, and displaces those powers with something far more deeply interfused: the certainty of a divine mercy which is outrageous in its audacity and totally unreasonable in the sheer size of its vision. Let me read to you from another of John’s writings: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . . we love because first loved us.” (1 Jn 4.18, 19). How does God’s chesed love transform our desire? By driving away the fear of karma that is harboured so deeply in our hearts—the fear that we shall have to reap what we sow. It is the intoxicating joy of being forgiven that changes us into people who are able to forgive others. If God is for us, who can stand against us?
So there you have it. Four images of the steadfast chesed love of God. (And the simplest, most straightforward sermon you’ve heard from me in some time!) God’s love is like a refuge from the storm and the hospitality of a generous host. It is like the continuing delight of a bridegroom for his bride, even though the bridegroom has learned what the bride is really like through harsh experience! Finally, the love of God is like the alchemical power of the miracle-worker. It can transform even our fear and inconstancy into the power to love, forgive, and cherish. Even to love, forgive and cherish ourselves. Imagine that! So as you receive this love from your host tonight, in the form of sacred words and a sacred meal, be mindful of the enormous power of the gift you are being offered. May God give you power to receive the gift with thankfulness, and faith enough to submit yourselves to the intoxicating joy it promises.