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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=108


 

Proper 2 Year C (January 17, 2016)                                St James', Peace River

 

It's not often that I use a psalm as a starting point for a sermon, but today's psalm really caught my attention in a couple of places. It includes a verse that is very popular as a motto for educational institutions – two of the colleges I attended use it, and when out of interest I searched online for others I found there were many more. The verse is “For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.” The second half in particular speaks to the purpose and method of human learning and discovery. In your light we see light – all that enables us to see ourselves and our world more clearly, comes from looking at ourselves and our world in the light of God. God's light shows us what we see, and it also shines inside of us to enable us to light up what is all around us. We don't always recognize it as God's light – but it is there, illuminating the human search for knowledge, science and understanding.

It's the verse right before that, though, that especially draws me in. In fact if I were ever in a situation where I needed a motto myself, I would probably choose this one – I've had other favourite psalm verses over my life, but this is the one that has always stuck with me. “They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights.” Now, if you know me you know I'm not a party animal, but I do like a good feast – and I'm a sucker for any metaphor that involves plenty of food and drink! It's actually the metaphor here that really appeals to me: to see all of life as an enjoyment of the abundance that God provides. And even more, to see ourselves as being nourished by a “river of delights” - something that is always fresh, always new, always good, and always delightful. On my best days, I grasp a little of the sense that is what life is supposed to be, what it sometimes actually is, and what in God's design and purpose it eventually will be for everyone.

As we read the beginning chapters of Genesis in our “Essential 100” Bible challenge this week, I hope you caught a glimpse of that same vision of creation at the very beginning. Everything that God made, and still makes, is very good in its essence, and at least one dimension of the call of human beings is to enjoy and appreciate it. In the Garden of Eden story there is even a river to water the garden, which I sometimes think might be what that favourite psalm verse of mine was alluding to. The picture of the universe, from cosmic light to watered garden, invites us to get to know it better and with greater understanding and more detail, not just for the sake of knowledge, but because it is all so beautiful, fitting, delightful, and satisfying. Not just light in which to see light, but a river of delights.

Now that is not the end of the story; not at all – it is just chapters 1 & 2. All too soon, in the Bible as in life, we are taken to a place where we wonder about what we know to be all too true: that our existence is not delightful for everyone or all the time, that the world is actually wrong, unjust, hurting and sinful. Why that might be is the subject for long pondering, but that it is so isn't really up for debate. We are much more aware of misery than of delight in our world. Where there is starvation, disease, violence, and oppression, we would be culpably blind not to see it. Even when we are in a position to enjoy wealthy, peaceful and beautiful lives, delight doesn't necessarily come into the picture – instead there is anxiety, tiredness, acquisitiveness, disconnection, and all those other modern diseases.

Which (I think) is why, when Jesus comes into the picture, beginning his ministry in the gospel accounts, the first thing he does is to set about restoring delight. He heals people, feeds them, teaches them, makes good company for them, attends their parties, makes them smile, gives them what they most need whether they realized it or not. I have this picture of the crowd of disciples following Jesus around Galilee with this big, fat, silly grin on their faces, because nothing could make them happier than to be wearing the dust from the sandals of this man who knows what life is for.

Today's gospel is an illustration of that, and in the gospel of John it takes pride of place as the very first illustration. Jesus is at a wedding – which, for the bride and groom, but also for their guests, should be a place to come very close to that original delight of the Garden of Eden. But it is marred by anxiety and insufficiency – whether due to poor planning or more likely just poverty, there isn't enough wine. The river of delights has dried up. But then, out of nowhere, and for no reason at all other than sheer celebration, Jesus works his first “sign”, and there is suddenly more wine than anyone could possibly need, and not the cheap stuff either. The river of delights is flowing again: drink deeply.

I think that's a true picture of what God is up to in Jesus. And it's not just in the pages of the Bible, but in life as we experience it too. Before anything else, God tries to remind us in a host of ways that life is good, and that our “job” is to delight in it. (What a job description that would be!) That is not the end of the story by any means, but it is the beginning of where God tries to get our attention. So I want to ask you to look out for the river of delights, because I don't think it is very far away from you. That's not to say that there's something wrong if life isn't delightful all the time. We don't live in that world, at least not yet.

But even when life doesn't feel so very good – or perhaps especially then – I believe God reaches out to us with something that can make us see things differently. Something that gives joy even in the midst of despair, delight even in the midst of horror. We may even put the name of “miracle” on that kind of act of God, because it stands out so much against the background of a world that has lost what it offers. A miracle of new life; a miracle of comfort or healing; a miracle of achievement; a miracle of beauty, or of peace. Keep a sharp eye out for miracles, you just never know when one might come along!

To drink from the river of delights is not the beginning of discipleship, though, let's be clear about that. We don't know if the couple getting married in Cana became disciples of Jesus, or just told stories about him when they reminisced about their wedding day. We do know that Jesus made life better for many other people, before they ever tried to follow him – and some of them he actually told to go home and not to join him! But there were some who saw life with new eyes because of the things Jesus showed them, and who then went along with him. For them the river of delights was something more than a happy surprise: it was a reason to want to be part of what Jesus was doing, to commit to being with him and working for what he was working for.

I want to be clear about that because it counteracts a feeling that we sometimes have, that we need to be balanced in the way we look at the world: there are miracles, but there are also horrors; the world is sometimes a good place, sometimes bad; we shouldn't just look for the delights that God offers, because that may blind us to the serious wrongs that we also have to acknowledge and mourn. Now, it's not that I think we should ignore what is wrong in the world and just enjoy the good things God gives us, not at all! But if we believe in a God who made all things and saw that they were very good – it's not good enough to say we just have to take the rough with the smooth. If we experience anything wonderful in this world, we have to know it's not just to balance things out and make life on the whole worth living – it's actually God getting our attention, like Jesus did in the wine cellar, giving us a glimpse of how everything is supposed to be, and can be, not just for us but for everyone.

And that vision, that possibility, is worth dedicating our lives to. That's discipleship. The first ones to follow Jesus walked with him through a terrible injustice and even death, but when they came out the other side he was still with them, which was a miracle on a whole new scale. And ever since then, real Christianity has been about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in the places where delight most seems to be missing – accompanying the ones who suffer, struggling with injustice, hoping to see light in our places of darkness. We can do that because that's exactly where we expect God's river of delights to surface once again, and we believe that because we have experienced it ourselves, in Christ and in his presence in our lives.

God's goodness to us, wherever we have felt it, is real and it is nourishing; but it is also a promise, even a guarantee, that it is worth dedicating our lives to God's cause. So don't just look for the “river of delights” in your past and in what God has given you – look for it as well in the future, in the most unlikely place, in the place where God is asking you to go even though you don't see any purpose or hope or potential there. You know that's where God is going to break through once again, in a miracle that will delight you once again, not just for what it means to you but because you will get the chance to see others discovering the wonder of what God can do.