SERMON: The Beginning of Miracles by John Keble

The Beginning of Miracles by John Keble

Thou hast kept the good wine until now. (John 2:10)

Epiphany means “manifestation,” the manifestation of God on Earth: the eternal Son showing himself in sundry ways when he had taken our nature upon him, and had been made true Man as we are, of the substance of the Virgin Mary, his Mother. To outward appearance, he generally seemed as any other man; but every now and then tokens of Godhead broke out through the veil of his flesh, as flashes of lightning from a dark cloud; and these were so many Epiphanies, so many manifestations of his true self. The day, which we call the Feast of the Epiphany, is remarkable for three of these manifestations, three of the most glorious and blessed and most exactly set down in scripture. On that day, our Lord being a child in his Virgin Mother’s arms, was visited and worshiped at Bethlehem by the Wise Men from the East. On that day, being thirty years old, he was baptized by Saint John in the river Jordan, when the heavens were opened, the Holy Ghost descended, and the voice of the Father proclaimed him the beloved Son. On that day again (so church tradition seems to say) he began his wonderful miracles by turning water into wine. This being one of the most remarkable Epiphanies, or manifestations of God Incarnate, is appointed to be read as the Gospel for today, as his visit to the Temple at twelve years’ old was last Sunday, and as some of his most remarkable miracles will be for the two next Sundays. They are all so many manifestations of our Lord, and are therefore suited to this time.

The miracle of Cana was remarkable, in the first place, because it was the beginning of miracles. Then the veil began to be drawn up, which had hitherto concealed the power of the Holy Jesus over this visible world. He made that world in the beginning: he was in it always, upholding it by the word of his power: but as yet it knew him not. As a holy bishop and Father of the church observes, “When our Lord turned the water into wine, he was but doing the very same thing which he does every year in every grape of every vintage: the waters from above nourish the vine-tree, and are taken up into the fruit, and turned by his secret power into that juice of the grape, which becomes to us wine,”(Augustine). But because this goes on regularly every year, we look for it of course, and do not call it a miracle; yet it is quite as much beyond our power, and quite as much Christ’s doing, as when he bade the servants at Cana draw out the water which they had poured into the vessels, and behold he had silently changed it into wine. The wonder, the Almightiness, is the same in both cases: the difference is, that at Cana and on like occasions the veil which hides his outstretched arm was for a season drawn up, and men were permitted to see him, as it were at work. For a little moment, and in respect of that particular action, their eyes were opened, and they might discern a little of what the angels always see, the Creator of the world ordering and moving his creatures. It is a good thing to bear this in mind, when we read of our Lord’s mighty works. We are apt to imagine that they belong to a state of things quite different from what we live in ourselves: but the difference is not in the state of things, but in us. We live in the midst of the same power, the same Presence; it is equally near to us: but we have not, the church in general has not, the same faith to behold it. He cannot do visible miracles among us, because of our unbelief. When we have the same constant universal self-denying faith that those first Christians had, then may we hope that the like signs will follow our faith, which were promised to theirs. Let us learn of our Lord’s miracles, especially of this one in Cana, to see his hand in the daily course of our lives, in the turns of our fortune, in the growth of our crops, in our joy and sorrow, in our health and sickness. Let us say continually to ourselves, It is Christ, who died for me, who sends me these blessings; Christ, who died for me, and rose again, and who is even now at the right hand of God, he lays on me this chastening for my good: my meat, drink and sleep, the comforts and conveniences of my life, my friends and relations, are all his immediate gift: he is near me at every moment: let me go on but a little while in faith, and the veil will be drawn up: “He will destroy in this mountain,” in his church, “the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations:” we shall see Him as he is, ordering all things, and we shall see all things as they are, ordered by him.

All our Lord’s miracles are, in this way, short glimpses of a power and mercy which is going on among us, just the same whether we perceive it or no. But the turning the water into wine shows itself to be of this kind more than many of the others, because it is not so much a miracle of mercy, as most of them. No great affliction or very pressing need called for it. The guests wanted wine; but it does not seem that, if they had gone without, anything worse would have happened to them than that little disappointment. Whereas most of the miracles, that came after, were for healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out evil spirits, or in some way or other removing great affliction. There is no such call in this case. Christ’s work here is in appearance a mere manifestation of power, as when strong persons do something wonderful merely to make a show of their strength, not because it does any great good at the time. We may be sure then that there is some deep mystery in it. God’s works are never intended simply to set us on wondering, but to teach us worthy thoughts and dutiful ways. So this work of turning water into wine teaches in the first place to remember Christ’s presence and power in all that we call the works of nature: and in the next place we may be certain that it was a kind of parable with a deep meaning, acted before people’s eyes, as other parables are told, like histories in their ears. Let us consider a few of its circumstances.

It took place at a wedding feast: and we know what is commonly likened to a wedding feast in Holy Scripture. Our own Prayer Book tells us. It is the mystical, the Heavenly and sacramental union between Christ and his church. By virtue of this blessed union, and the better to fulfill its divine purposes, a complete change has been made of all things; there is “a new Heaven and a new Earth:” “the old things are passed away, behold all things are become new:” (Revelation 21:1, 4, 5), the gold which had become dross is changed back again into fine gold: the garden of Eden, which had become a wilderness, is renewed and becomes Paradise again. By these and other like parables the Holy Scripture represents to us the great gift of our Almighty Savior, his uniting us to himself by taking our nature upon him, and by making us, each in our turn, in regeneration, members of himself. This is sometimes compared in the Prophets to the changing of water into wine: and this, no doubt, is what our Divine Master would give men a token of, when he changed water into wine at this marriage in Cana.

Observe, he did it not, until towards the end of the feast; for the governor of the feast, having tasted the water that was made wine, was surprised at the goodness of it, on this very account, because it was the end of the feast, whereas, he says, it was the custom generally to set forth the best wine first. Why did our Lord wait till the end of the feast? Most likely it was to represent to us his waiting till the last time before he entered on his great work of salvation, and began to make all things new. he waited till the world was grown old, and the latest age of it was come: and then in the fullness of time he came forth from the Father, “made of a woman, made under the law,” “that we might receive the adoption of sons.” (Galatians 4:4, 5) This is what seems to be represented by his keeping the good wine until now. God does not humor our impatience. he keeps his best till last, by a certain rule, to which all who would be happy must submit. He will have us bear chastening, imperfection, doubt, distress, here, that we may, by his mercy, come at last to be “satisfied with the plenteousness of his house, and to drink of his pleasures, as out of the river.” (Psalm 34:8) Thus our Lord’s waiting with his good wine till the end of the feast may encourage us in patient expectation, and charitable bearing with what cannot be helped.

Again, the water which was made wine was put there for the purifying of the Jews: that is, that the guests might have abundance to wash themselves when they sat down. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:3) The water then was for the purifying of the Jews, and our Lord turned it into wine. What are we to learn from this circumstance? Surely that the Jewish law and ceremonies, the saints and commandments and histories of the Old Testament, were now to be made known to men in their full and high meaning. “The darkness is past and the true Light now shineth.” (1 John 2:8) That which was glorious in Moses, hath now, in comparison of the glory which excelleth. The Passover is turned into the Holy Communion, circumcision into Baptism, the brazen serpent into the Cross, the cleansing of the leper into the Absolution and remission of sins, Moses and the Prophets into Christ and his Apostles, the glory of the Lord over the Mercy Seat into the inward Presence of God the Holy Ghost. Thus is the water, the poor mean element of this Earth, and of the law, turned by the touch and word of Christ into “wine that maketh glad the heart of man.”

Again, our Lord did this mighty work, upon mention being made to him of the want by his blessed Mother. She said unto him, “They have no wine,” and we know not how much of men’s good may depend on the prayers of good and holy Christians.

Again, Christ seems at this feast to take leave in a manner of his Mother, to prepare her to be separated from him: as at the last feast of his life, the Holy Supper, he takes leave of his disciples. He was now going to be without any regular home, not to have where to lay his head, to be far from her, who had thitherto so earnestly watched him: therefore he says, “What is there between me and thee? Mine hour is not come;” meaning, perhaps, “For a time we must part, to meet together again, and never part more: that will be, when mine hour of suffering is passed: but for the present we have nothing to do with each other.” May we not hereby understand, first, more and more of our most Holy Savior’s unspeakable love for us, in that he spared not his Mother’s grief when he was to give himself for us? And next, may we not learn this lesson, that Christ’s work on Earth cannot be done, nor the purpose of his coming answered, except some at least of those who believe on him will make up their minds to give up all for his sake: to hate father and mother and brothers and sisters, “yea and his own life also,” (Luke 14:26), in order to take up their cross? Did I say, some must do this? nay, all of us must do it, in our measure and proportion: we must all make sacrifices, use self-denial, give up our own will, as God shall call and enable us: else how can we be like Christ, Who gave up all? and if we be not like him, how can we help to do his work? We must say to our dearest friend on Earth, What have I to do with thee? We must part with them for a time, we must deny ourselves much, very much, of the joy which we may have promised ourselves in them, that we may the better tread in our Lord’s steps, and more powerfully promote his Kingdom. So doing, we shall by God’s mercy make both ourselves and our friends more sure to meet again in the Heavenly Kingdom, when our hour shall be full come.

By this time perhaps we may discern some part of the reason why this particular miracle, the turning water into wine at a marriage feast, came first among our Lord’s mighty works: why it was, as Saint John calls it, the beginning of miracles. It was so, because it was in an especial way a sample, a taste, a glimpse, of that power which is at the bottom of all miracles: the power which keeps up the ordinary course of the world, and works such astonishing changes in it. The turning water into wine was, as I said, a sample of this power, exercised as it is every year in the growth of the vine: and next, it was especially fitted to be the first miracle, because it was a type and figure of the great work, on which our Lord was now publicly to enter, the renewing of lost mankind: and it was so ordered in all its circumstances, as to give us all much instruction, how we should work under Christ, and follow his steps in that great work.

When we think of this marriage feast in Cana, let it put us in mind that Jesus Christ is in our feasts, is with us wherever we are, and in all that we do, turning our water into wine, our Earth into Heaven, if we prevent him not by our sins. “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it:” those were the words which his Mother spake unto the servants, and if they had not obeyed her voice, it does not seem as if the miracle would have been wrought. Never let us forget that our Christian privileges and blessings depend on the same condition. It depends on our sincerely trying to do whatever Christ hath said unto us, whether our blessings shall be blessings indeed, or that happen which sounds so fearful in the Prophet; “I will curse your blessings: yea I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart.” (Malachi 2:2) Alas, how sad it is to think how many of God’s best gifts to men are daily and hourly thrown away by our sins, and falling under this fearful sentence: how many marriages, how many feasts, nay how many solemn meetings and awful sacraments are turned from tokens of God’s favor into judgments and occasions of falling, because Christ’s servants will not even purpose and try to do whatever he saith unto them, and so make them blessings indeed!

And even when we have some such purpose, yet let us not reckon too positively upon the full sense of a present blessing at all times. The way of the gospel is to keep the good wine until the last. The clearest and most precious foretastes of God’s favor and eternal joy come rather after long waiting, sore trial, patient endurance of pain, care, and ill usage, than when we first seem to need them. In regard of these spiritual comforts, as of the other fruits of our Christian labor, “let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”

Again, if we would be perfect followers of Christ, we must be content to part with our friends now, as he at this feast with his blessed Mother, that we may meet them by-and-by with a holier welcome, when our and their hour is come; and that so we may keep them forever.

Finally, since we are all used, I hope, to begin and end our principal meals with a solemn offering of thanks to Almighty God, what if we try to do so hereafter with less hurry and more decency than most of us, I fear, are apt to do? What if we recollect this feast at Cana as a token that Christ is even now present, ready to bless and break our meat for us, and turn our water into the wine of angels, if we will not hinder his blessing! Christ is present in our daily refreshments, and in our more solemn feasts; let us try to do whatever he saith unto us; let our meals be pure, innocent, and thankful, and then fear not but they will be glad and joyful enough, true tokens of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

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