“Call Me Beulah”
One fine day in Cana, God interrupted a perfectly decent wedding. He must have had a good reason for doing so; after all, he invented the wedding and took delight in such things. It appears, however, that he was reluctant to interrupt as he says it was not yet his hour. Nevertheless, when his mother gave him no rest, interrupt he certainly did.
About the wedding that day in Cana we know almost nothing. We don’t know what the bride wore. We don’t know how many groomsmen there were. We don’t know the rabbi’s name. We don’t know if the child ring bearer stole the show. We don’t know if they sang “We’ve Only Just Begun.” We don’t know if they made their own sappy vows. But we can be sure of one thing: whatever the vows were, they had to conclude with one form or another of “till death do us part.”
We also know that God did a remarkable thing that day by interrupting this wedding. He was creating faith in his Son where there was none. He was planting hope that was not bound even by death. He was under way to make real lovers of people who had barely scratched the surface. There at Cana, God was consummating his marriage with Israel, and finding a way through to Gentile sinners by giving himself in the Son. He was finding a way to give all that he had and all that he is to an undeserving bride. And that is a remarkable thing: To love the unlovable. For that, God must do a strange work. In John 2:10, the steward at the wedding points it out for us: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.” The steward is not amazed at a magic trick. No doubt, he’s been to plenty of bar mitzvahs with a magician. He is interested and perplexed, however, by Jesus playing the fool. Who serves good wine to people who have already been drinking quite a bit? It’s like taking your finest Chardonnay to a college spring-break party. Who does that? It is wasteful, if you’re a home economist. It is casting pearls before swine, if you’re a connoisseur. The steward is not amazed by magic; he is nonplussed by the economy of mercy. “But you have kept the good wine until now.” A sinner always does this—looks right through the things given for something more. It’s like staring at the gift Jesus is offering of his own self as groom, while wondering what trick he must have up his sleeve. What secret purpose must he be concealing? What does he want from me after all? But John says it right out: He is not hiding; he is revealing glory.
Augustine once said, “We are more where we love than where we live.” We are people who sit on the edge of our seat in tense hope, like a coiled spring; and this God is always ready to interrupt—like when the prophet Isaiah promised Israel that they would have new names. The world would no longer call them names such as “Shemamah,” which roughly translates as “bachelor farmer” or “old maid.” No, they had better names coming, such as “Hephzibah” (which means “My delight is in her”) and “Beulah” (“The land shall be married”). What beautiful names these are! It’s worth studying Hebrew just to be able to say these words from God. These names are names you will be called: Hephzibah (“my delight is in you”) and Beulah (“married”). These are the names you will have (Isa. 62:4).
God was making himself a bride of Israel again. She may not in good conscience have been able to wear white for the wedding, but a bride she would be. Imagine my feeling. A Gentile, like a Ninevite, who doesn’t know his right hand from his left, who is not worthy of so much as a little word from this God, who has stood outside the dance all these years, hit on by every sleazy Baal in the juke joint, but no Yahweh. Yet I can’t keep silent, because I’ve been claimed out of the “House of the Rising Sun” (a place of ill repute) by one Jesus Christ. I can’t keep silent about that. I know the difference between Minnesota and Israel. I’m aware of this. I’ve been to Jerusalem, and St. Paul is no Jerusalem. I understand that. I know something about this twenty-first century, and I know it’s not the first century. But I know something else. My Jesus keeps whispering sweet nothings in my ear—“You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased”—and I can’t keep silent about this one. I cannot not keep silent about Jesus Christ.
The church, too, has Christ as a loving husband—but not because she is so lovely in herself. The church is wed to Christ, not when she is displaying her splendor to the world, but when she is sitting at the feet of her Savior, listening to his word until she can’t keep silent any longer, finally convinced in her faith’s heart that she is—that you and I are—Christ’s “Beulah.”
It was for this purpose that a perfectly good wedding was interrupted for what John called “a sign.” Now a sign reveals glory. And glory has to be revealed, because God’s glory in this old world is hidden—whether in the ruined streets of Jerusalem or the little hills of Cana—it is hidden and needs to be revealed. But there, that day, the Holy Spirit was revealing the Son of Righteousness to us, preparing to make Israel (and those afterthoughts grafted into the vine, such as you and me) into his bride once and for all. But to get us to the altar for such a wedding is hard work, and only God himself is capable of such patience, such love, and finally, the dying it takes.
God’s search for a bride seems infinitely problematic. After all, what is God to do when no one finds him appealing or when all go looking for better Baals? What is God to do when his lovers look right past him, occupied by the simplest nonsense? Meanwhile, the glory of the Lord passes by without notice. What do you do with people to whom you have plighted your eternal troth, and they look at you as if you have handed them a dead fish? Such a marriage seems infinitely troubled from the start. At the end of our lesson, however, is the real miracle of Cana: His disciples believed in him, and faith was made where there was none.
But what happens when this word found its hearers in the disciples and they believed in him? What does our new groom do? The very next thing we find is Jesus running off, dragging his bride with him to Passover, overturning tables and whipping out the moneychangers from the temple. Some honeymoon this is going to be! For the glory of the Lord appears as a cross in this old world—and the cross appears as anything but glory—so that what God is up to in this wedding is going to be a strange ride.
How did we find ourselves in this situation, puzzling over a Jesus who does things backward and plays the fool? Who gives out the best wine when the partygoers have already had plenty? The Father giving away his Son in a marriage to a bride who must be the last choice anyone could want—no good job, no good prospects, a loser in every way; carefully having stored up a dowry of sin, death, and the devil and offering it up as if it were sweet perfume; in love with a law that she never once kept? How did we get here?
He interrupted with a promise. That’s how we got here.
In the strange economy of mercy, he takes Israel as his bride and finds a way to the nations through her. And how does he do it? Many have noted that Jesus deals harshly or strangely with his mother. But she is not exempt from faith—she needs a word too, and she knows how to wring it out of him. Take no rest, give him no rest until you get this word and this promise. She obviously has been around him enough to know that when he says something, so it is. She therefore leans over to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” And there’s your promise, to the Gentiles and to the Jews, in the form of a mother’s advice. He may be unpredictable but do what he says. If he says, “Take the jars and fill them with water,” go ahead and do what he says. If he says, “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will rebuild it”—I wouldn’t bet against it. If he tells you to “take up your cot and walk,” I would advise doing so. If he tells you to go down “to the pool and wash,” it’s worth your time. If he says, “Feed my sheep,” then feed them. If he says, “Your sins are forgiven”—take him at his word. And, finally one day when you find yourself in the grave, stinking and rotten—and you hear Jesus Christ tell you to come out—I would advise you to do as he says. Sleeper, awake, for the bridegroom has come!
He has called you his Beulah—“married”—and when he calls you Beulah, so you are! Write it on your name tag and send it out to the world. “Call me Beulah, for my name is given by this God in Jesus Christ, and I take him at his word.” If he wants to say with this word, “I thee wed,” then send for no prenuptial agreement. Take the estate and run! Give him yours, take his, and go! He has called you Beulah, and so you are. Do what he says. You can’t keep silent with this name. And if you are befuddled, if you are shy, if you are retiring or uncertain about the world and this mission that Christ has sent you on, we have given you your opening line to the world: “Call me Beulah.” Amen.
Steven D. Paulson (ThD, Lutheran School of Theology) is professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.