January 20, 2019

“Time to show God’s glory”

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Time is a precious commodity in our lives today. I appreciate that all of you have set aside this hour or two for worship, and fellowship, and service in the Christian community. I know that there are many demands on your time day-by-day, and it means something when you choose to use your time in this way.

When you are deciding how to use your precious time, I wonder how you choose your activities. I wonder how you set your priorities.

Sometimes we just prioritize what seems most urgent. We work towards the deadlines that are looming largest, and leave future planning and projects until later when they too become urgent. Things get done in a hurry, but at least they get done, and we keep our heads above water as we manage our hectic lives, families, and work.

When taken to the extreme, time-crunched lives like this mean that the basics get done, but there is never any time for the extras.

Decorations go up for Christmas, but little time is spent enjoying them. Children’s food and clothing are provided, but squeezing in time to just hang out with and enjoy your kids happens rarely. You go to the clinic when you get sick, but time to consider and take up healthier practices in life doesn’t become urgent enough to be done. The church’s worship and programs keep running, but we may not take the time to plan for the future, or think creatively, or dream big.

Today’s Gospel story comes from the very beginning of John’s account of Jesus’ ministry. This is before Jesus’ schedule gets filled up with preaching engagements, and before the crowds start lining up at his door for healing and help.

No one knew, at this point, about all the wonders Jesus would accomplish through his ministry, or that he had gifts to share that would transform the lives of people and indeed, the whole world.

So, he’s at a wedding with his family and friends, and there’s a problem. The wine runs out, which really is quite a big deal. Wedding celebrations would often last a week, and wine was considered an essential mark of hospitality, not to mention a key social lubricant for the joy of the occasion. Running out of wine would be a major embarrassment for the host family.

What’s more, the shortage may also indicate that both the family and the attendees lacked resources, since wedding guests often brought wine as a contribution to the festivities. In other words, as John tells it, this is a relatively modest wedding of ordinary folk.

So, the wedding is out of wine, and Jesus might be able to help. Although no one else is likely aware that Jesus is the guy to ask, his mother knows.

How many of you, as parents or teachers, have recognized the giftedness of a child or student or young person? And haven’t you said to them, “Hey! YOU could help with that. You’ll do great at that! Go on, give it a try. Help them out.”

I suppose as a parent, you give that push with some confidence in your child’s ability, and with a measure of fear that they might not be successful. But you do push them a bit… knowing that their gifts will grow and develop when they are used; knowing that God has good plans for the difference your child can make; knowing that your love and support will be a soft place to land if it doesn’t turn out as well as you hoped.

Jesus initially dismisses his mother’s suggestion. “How is this our problem?” he asks her. But Mary dismisses his dismissal. The moment goes by in an instant, but it’s nonetheless striking (and funny!): Mary sees something Jesus doesn’t, and rather than argue with him, she simply presumes victory and turns to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

But what is it that Mary sees? Is she concerned about the success of the wedding celebration and the enjoyment of the people? Is she worried about the host family’s reputation and feels like he could help?

Clearly, this is an urgent situation, and Jesus could choose to use his time and energy and spiritual resources to solve the problem. Later he’ll have time to plan and prepare for how he will show the world God’s love in word and deed, signs and wonders. But for now, this young couple just needs some more wine for their wedding.

But I think Mary sees something more than just an urgent problem to be solved. I think she sees an opportunity for Jesus to inaugurate his ministry, a peculiar challenge which, if resolved, would gracefully emphasize all the right themes in all the right ways.

Jesus says, in effect, “The time isn’t right.” But Mary knows better: “This is the perfect time – the moment has arrived! Seize the day! You’ve got to do this now, kid!… not just because this couple urgently needs it and you have the ability, but because it’s time to show the world who you are. It’s time to demonstrate God’s power and love to all the people. It’s time to show God’s glory by a first sign – – turning water into wine.

I don’t know how much of the symbolism Mary had in mind, but for the ancient Hebrew prophets, wine often functioned as an ancient symbol for restoration, and in particular, for the ultimate restoration in the new era to come, the eschatological feast of joy and gladness. And so for Mary, perhaps, and certainly for the author of John’s Gospel, turning water into wine is the perfect sign for the arrival of that new era.

And second, the overwhelming theme in this story is abundance: a wedding is already an archetype of joyous celebration, and the custom in those days was to serve the best wine first – but here, an overwhelming amount of the finest wine (six stone jars, 20-30 gallons each!) appears midway through the wedding, sloshing over the brims.

It’s as vivid a picture of abundance-for-the-sake-of-joyful-community that one could hope for in the ancient world – and that picture, in turn, is also a window through which we can glimpse the abundant life at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

What’s more, as anyone who’s been to a wedding knows, such celebrations are often status-driven affairs – but Jesus’ work is revealed not to the groom or the bride or the host family, but rather to the servants, the “nobodies” working behind the scenes. Yes, Jesus “goes public” here – but only to the lowly servants at the party, working away in the kitchen!

Finally, there is the choice of vessel, and it is surely no accident. Jesus chooses water jars used for purification rites, such as washing hands and containers for worship. Following the prophets, his whole ministry will go on to emphasize joy and abundant life over against the common religious temptation to over-focus on purity, whether physical or doctrinal.

Not that purification is always a bad idea; the point is that abundant, joyful life is the most important thing. These 25-gallon jars of fine wine are a sacramental glimpse of what Jesus later puts this way: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Or again, as John puts it in his first chapter about the Word made flesh: “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

It’s a wonderful story, isn’t it? Jesus’ mother says, “Son, it’s time to start using your gifts, not only to deal with this immediate problem, but to begin showing God’s glory to the world.” And he does. And we all get a sneak peak at the wonder and joy and abundance of the Kingdom of God on earth.

So I’m thinking about the gifts that we have been given by God… gifts of preaching, teaching, praying, making music, administration, generosity, hospitality, healing, prophecy, wisdom, service, peace-making, and so many more.

All these gifts are given by God to each one of us, and activated by the same Holy Spirit so that we can use them together for God’s good purposes.

Sometimes, we begin to think of our service in the church as simply responding to needs, sometimes urgent needs. We need someone to fix the leaking walls and crumbling foundation. We need someone to give so that we can make our budget. We need someone to take minutes so we can accomplish our meeting in order. We need someone to visit a sick person because they are in hospital or on their death-bed. We need someone to fill a spot on a committee or take on a task to keep things running. And certainly, I am grateful when so many of you do step up when called upon to respond to an urgent need.

But I wonder if we can think about using our gifts in the way Jesus did when he turned water into wine. Because he knew that if people saw him doing it, they would see God too. He knew that if he enacted the love and grace and provision of God, they would get a glimpse of God’s glory in the world and in their lives.

I think that’s why he hesitated… because he wasn’t sure that he was ready for all that would follow when people began to see God at work in him.

And people will see God at work in us also, when we use our time to respond to the needs of our community, and when we make intentional decisions to love, and serve, and give in the ministries of the church, putting our Spirit-given gifts to good use.

Through his mother’s prompting, Jesus discovered at that wedding at Cana that is was time to show God’s glory to the world. And I believe it’s time for us to do the same.