Do you recall a few years ago the politician Corey Bernardi arguing against marriage equality on the grounds that it would lead to beastiality, with people marrying their animals? Tony Abbott sacked him as a parliamentary secretary for such nonsense. Look at what Isaiah says however: ‘your land shall be married’. Poor old Corey hadn’t even begun to think about that! Of course, the book of Isaiah is using that image figuratively, and not for the crass purposes of offensive political ridicule. Yet it is seeking to re-shape marriage in far more profound ways than we usually imagine.
Marriage for Isaiah, is about the redemption of God’s people and God’s creation. Set within the book of Isaiah as a whole, and the wider biblical prophetic literature, it is about the renewal of just relationships, especially for those who have been forsaken, not for those who are lucky or privileged. Do you recall Hosea’s similar extraordinary use of the vehicle of marriage to speak, and act out, salvation and love for the forsaken? Like Isaiah, marriage elsewhere in the Bible is intimately related to the restoration of the covenant between God and all things. For this covenant, affirmed in the earlier stories of the people of Israel, is the model, yardstick and energy of grace for all human relationships.
I wonder therefore what difference such holistic conceptions about marriage might have for our church and world today if we were truly to take seriously what is said, as here, in the Bible. If we stopped obsessing about a tiny number of isolated, linguistically and contextually ambiguous texts, what would happen, do you think? Might we then start to transcend what have become stale struggles in churches? Could we offer something powerfully redemptive beyond modern human conventions? Is it possible, like Isaiah, that through the figure of marriage, we might help re-imagine the nature and quality of all our relationships as sacraments of social and ecological, as well as personal transformation, rather than as signs of political and/or moral correctness? This is certainly the way of Jesus - isn’t it?! – as we see in today’s Gospel…
water into wine - Jesus-style marriage
Jesus and the wedding at Cana; it is a remarkably powerful story. We can of course, as the Anglican marriage liturgy does, mainly use it as legitimation of wedding rites, on the somewhat leaden basis that Jesus went to a wedding once, so it must be ok. Or we can enter into the miracle of the water becoming wine, which is the real heart of the story. For the point is, surely, not that Jesus may or may not have been enthusiastic about particular forms of marriage between two individuals. The point is that Jesus shows us the divine purpose of marriage: namely transformation.
Actually, whenever we have a biblical reference relating Jesus to some aspect of marriage, it is always about encouraging us to God’s loving transformation. Think about it: all those wedding references and parables Jesus uses are linked to the coming of God’s Kingdom of peace and justice, and the celebration, with feasting, of generous hospitality, including the marginalised. For even when Jesus speaks about divorce, it is not to commend a particular line on marriage, but, in answer to a hostile question, it is to challenge powerful men to uphold justice and their commitment to vulnerable women. Marriage is not to be viewed as a possession with varying degrees of rights, but as a means and symbol of transforming attitudes and lives.
What a gorgeous image of transformation turning water into wine is! It has a touch of eucharistic transformation about it, and it resonates with the same themes we find in Isaiah – the call to delight, to joy, to celebration. All these are powerful images of weddings which, following Isaiah and Jesus, we are to see reflected in all our relationships, including our relationships with the marginalised, the land and all of God’s creation. That is what biblical marriage call us to. No longer, in Isaiah’s vision, fulfilled in Christ, are any to remain ‘forsaken’. Rather, as signs of the renewal of God’s covenant, we are given a new name – for new names in the Bible are always signs of God’s new creation – and that name is God's Delight.
a metaphor of delight, especially for the forsaken
Now, in these days of civil marriage equality, we have to be honest, we are also presented by Isaiah with an arguably clear heteronormative image of this renewal of the divine covenant: in verse 5, where the text reads ‘for as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride so shall your God rejoice over you.’ No doubt we can become hung up over that if we want. However, surely Isaiah is simply offering us this image as a beautiful metaphor – for who would not want to celebrate the joy of a young man marrying a young woman where love is present? The metaphor can hardly be determinative of every application of Isaiah’s hugely holistic vision of marriage, for it would then collapse within its own contradictions. To follow that text literally, God would then not only have to be limited to being a builder, but all God’s people, men and women and non-binary people, would, as the bride, become female – which might, or might not, be a lovely image to play around with if you are a transgender female, but which is really crass, and maddening for others. As elsewhere, when we get too tied up with sexed or gendered expressions of our God, we can too easily lose the vitally central biblical plot: which is liberation and the fullness of life, above all for the outcast and shamed. Our God both encompasses and profoundly transcends all our human differences, and seeks to enable even the most ‘forsaken’ to know themselves, and to live, as God’s ‘delight’. That, not safeguarding passing human norms, is the purpose of marriage.
the call to be married to God
So it is over to us: will we allow ourselves to be married to God? Will we know ourselves, and others, as God’s ‘Delight’? Will we allow ourselves to be transformed from water into wine? Will we make our own relationships signs and vehicles of transformation for others, full of joy and delight? Will we marry our land, and God’s wider creation, enabling God’s renewal of all things? Whatever our legal or worldly status, whatever our sexuality or gender, will we become married in the deepest biblical sense, becoming a ‘new creation’, including and redeeming the forsaken? And, like Isaiah, ‘for Zion’s sake’, will we ensure we will ‘not keep silent’ or ‘rest’ in this, God’s covenant together?
In the name of the one who turned water into wine, who delights in us, and who is married to us all, in Christ’s Name, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Epiphany 3 Year C, Sunday 20 January 2019