What’s in a name? Well quite a lot actually. Only last week, I was working with others trying to come up with a name for a new occasional time of worship for very young children. Did we call it ‘New Beginnings’, ‘Tot’s and Co’ or ‘Toddler Church’? In the end we settled on ‘First Steps’. While we might think the name for something is far less important than the actual substance of the product or activity it is describing, the branding is very often the first thing people will see. If turns them off at that stage, they will not look much further. In the last series of ‘The Apprentice’, candidates were asked to come up with a name for new airline. The result was ‘Jet Pop’. Sounds good but industry experts were concerned that potential passengers would be put off by the idea that their aeroplane might go pop!
Today’s old testament reading from Isaiah talks of a change of names for God’s people. ‘No longer will they call you ‘Deserted’ or name your land ‘Desolate’. But you will be called ‘Hephzibah and you land ‘Beulah’ (Isaiah 62.4) Names for things often get changed. What was once the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff is now known as the Principality Stadium for no other good reason than it is now sponsored by the Principality Building Society. In the 1970’s, Fiat produced a car called ‘The Rustica’ which in Italian spoke of good country values. It was soon pointed out that you could not call a car ‘The Rustica’ in Britain without it becoming the butt of jokes. So, it was known over here simply as the Fiat 127.
A very good reason for changing names is because the old one has become tarnished; has gained an unenviable reputation. That is often understood to be the reason for renaming Queens Park Caia Park following the estate being compared to the dodgy areas of Marseille in a book by the sociologist Patricia Elton Mayo.
Of course, just changing the name does not make any difference. Arguably, the worst times for the estate came after the name change with the Caia Park riots of 2003. But the name changes in Isaiah go much deeper than the surface. They represent God’s promise of a radical joyous transformation of the life of Jerusalem. (Brueggemann, 1998) The people of Jerusalem had been well and truly broken. The city had been ransacked by the Babylonians and all the prominent people dragged into exile. As the prophets make clear, it was the people’s sin, their failure to trust God which had brought this sorry state of affairs upon them. Their reputation was in tatters, they had a rotten name. They were known as Azubah in Hebrew, the forsaken ones. As the beginning of Psalm 22 puts it: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’ words familiar to us from Jesus on the cross when he too felt utterly forsaken, deserted by God his father, as he carried to consequence of all our sin in his death. The other nations could now mock and tease Israel about the ineffectiveness of Yahweh, their God, just as the soldiers mocked Jesus as he died. They were ‘Shemamah’ utterly desolate. For their day they were ‘Le Misérables’, the miserable ones.
But through his prophet Isaiah, God is now declaring that that time is over. You will be called Hephzihah meaning in Hebrew Delight and Beulah meaning married. The word Beulah is interesting particularly for me having lived very close to a village called Beulah in Mid Wales. It took its name from the local chapel which like so many derived their names from the bible. In Hebrew, the word Beulah actually comes from the pagan fertility god Baal, meaning literally that your land is ‘baaled’ or made fertile. Hence, the new names God is giving his people are the very opposite to those which they had gained in exile. From being forsaken and left desolate, now their God takes great delight in them as groom does in his bride. He will turn and look lovingly as they walk up the aisle. The city and the land which had been left barren and fallow would now be fruitful and fertile.
As we have now arrived at a wedding, it is time to consider the gospel reading (John 2.1-11) Only John of the four gospel writers records this story of Jesus being a guest with his family at a wedding but it is very much in keeping with the Jesus we know from elsewhere. ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?’ (Mark 2.19) asks Jesus. His very presence is seen as an occasion of celebration like a wedding reception.
What is a wedding reception without wine? Psalm 104 verse 15 tells us that ‘wine gladdens the heart’. But the wine gives out and there is shame on the family, the threat of bad luck for the happy couple. What kind of name or reputation will they have in the future? ‘You remember that wedding party for Miriam, the Cohen’s daughter and there was not enough wine. What a skinflint!
The failure of the wine to last through to the end of the wedding feast can helpfully be seen as a metaphor of the pleasures and luxuries of life. They are valuable gifts of God to be enjoyed and to make us merry, but they will not last for ever. The time will come when we should not drive the car any more as even Prince Philip may be thinking. The truth is that the all the fiz, the happiness and joy brought by the material things of the world are only for a season. Their provision is uncertain and when they go, we may well feel shame, and desolation, forsaken by what we have held dear and relied upon.
Jesus is present in this situation. Just as he was present at the wedding at Cana, so is he present in your life and mine when the wine runs out. When the material things are taken away and repossessed; when Universal Credit is a long time coming. He is there when we become too ill, weak or frail to enjoy them anymore; when they become a burden to us. He is there when depression and anxiety rob us of the ability to enjoy them.
When the wine has gone, his mother tells him straight: ‘they have no more wine.’ Jesus puts her down: ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.’ But Jesus proceeds to act. It’s not the only time, he seems to refuse and then acts. In the desert, he repels the temptation to turn stones into bread but then feeds 5,000 hungry people. He rebuts the Syrophoenician women and then proceeds to heal her daughter. Jesus does not just do our bidding. Answers to prayer are not automatic. As Jesus says a little later in John’s gospel: ‘My Father is always at work…and I am working too.’ (John 5.17) His work is prompted by the perfect will of God.
God was at work centuries ago bringing ancient Israel back to Jerusalem and blessing them with new names, a new reputation, delighting in them as a groom beams at his bride. But of course, it was not forever. In time, the Maccabees and the Romans would oppress the nation again. The wine would run out.
But Jesus is the new wine of God which is poured out for all of us. The 30 gallons of wine he produced at the wedding feast would have ensured the families good name and reputation for generations! It was his first sign, a sign that his being poured out on the cross and the rich blessing and delight of the Holy Spirit will more than make good for each of us that seek him. His blessing is a real deep affair of the heart, not just a futile rebranding. It is the wine that will assure our good name and reputation, our joy and hope for eternity. As the old hymn has it:
O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land!
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea
Where mansions are prepared for me
And view the shining glory shore
My heaven, my home forever more. Edgar Page Stites (1836–1921)
Readings Epiphany 2, preached Epiphany 3 20.01.2019