There are many challenges to churches today: Some are small and struggling, hoping to grow and not finding their numbers increasing. Others have problems finding qualified clergy or raising enough money in pledges to balance the budget. Others have significant repairs to do on their buildings and lack the funds for the project. And some are in conflict with broken relationships in need of healing.
The lessons for today address the conditions in which so many churches find themselves. In the Isaiah passage, for example, the community had been in exile and lost its vision and focus. The promise of God's restoration spoken by the prophet in those majestic phrases could well be for today's struggling churches: "You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate" (Isaiah 62:4). The theme of hope when there seems to be nothing but a failing future is strong in these passages, and it is a stirring piece of prophecy for all who lose hope.
Paul, in Corinthians, takes another tack that is a hopeful sign to churches feeling bereft. He says there are a variety of gifts for building up the Body (the Church) distributed by the Spirit. And, while Paul doesn't specifically say so in this passage, the implication is that all gifts are needed, and every person is gifted for service.
In the Gospel, Jesus goes to a country wedding and takes the ordinary (water) and transforms it into very good wine. When things seemed to be running out, when there was scarcity about to spoil a very good time, abundance took its place and the feasting went on.
In our churches we are plagued by scarcity. There is never enough, and another church often seems to have all the blessings while ours has the leftovers. This is truly blasphemy if we use it to excuse our lack of vitality. It is blasphemy because it denies the work of the Holy Spirit, a work that fills these Scriptures today. If God can take a group of exiles and restore them to greatness, and if ordinary people are gifted by the Holy Spirit with what it takes to be the Church, then how can we dare say we do not have enough without insulting God's promise?
Throughout the Christian world people are building faith communities with nothing in terms of wealth. And they succeed because these people have caught the spirit of the Gospel, that God desires God's work to continue, and God will use what appears to be the lowly and unimportant to accomplish it.
So, if you are waiting for better days in the church know that they have come. If you are waiting until the right leader appears know that the time is now. If you are feeling low because of the things you don't have, take an inventory of the assets you have. Most people are surprised when they discover the talent that is there and the resources that are at their disposal.
The transformation of the lives of women and men is not expensive in terms of the world; and in God's economy, it is free. Our task is to lay aside the things that daunt us, make us afraid and captive to scarcity. Putting on the garment of light in Epiphany means moving into mission - NOW.
So, rejoice with Isaiah that God finds your church worthy of delight. Celebrate the gifts given you by the Spirit to move forward in mission. Vow to be part of the work of the Gospel which transforms water into wine and God's people into a holy communion of faithful folk.
[Note to the Reader: You may end the sermon here or conclude it with the story about a church that follows.]
Once there was a church that began to say it was dying. Some of its members had moved away in a very short time. Other members had become unhappy and quit coming. There was a faithful core, but they were burned out from assuming the many duties of running the church with fewer folk to help. One woman spoke for many at the annual meeting when she said, "If we don't do something there's going to be a funeral -- mine!"
Three people in the congregation decided to pray daily for renewal and growth. They did it for a year. At the end of the year they discovered at their next annual meeting that (1) there were six more people in church than a year ago; (2) they had a vision about starting a day care for poor people and a person who had agreed to run it and (3) there was a new sense of energy among them.
At a diocesan meeting they asked to speak to the assembly and told the people not to give up hope. They believed God was waiting for them to realize they had to be dependent on God's grace alone before they could be renewed, and they testified that their faithful prayer had been answered.
"When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said, 'They have no wine.' Jesus said to them, 'Fill the jars with water.' " If the Lord can take what we have as abundance to make what is needed all we need to do is ask, and abundance is ours to behold and taste.