Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 20 January 2013: Year C, Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Text: John 2:1-11 (Revised English Bible)- see end of the sermon
All in good time…?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We preachers are worriers. We worry about what we’re going to say to you every Sunday. It’s our job to worry- on your behalf- about the Bible readings. All this week, I’ve especially been worrying about verse 4 and verse 5 of today’s Gospel reading. Or rather, not so much those verses, as what is in between them. Because there is nothing in between them. And that’s what’s been worrying me. Because you get verse 4, and right after it comes verse 5, with nothing in between. And I think there should be something in between, and that’s what’s been worrying me.
You see, otherwise, this is a well-told story, the story of the wedding at Cana. There is not a word wasted. We hear of a wedding, of Jesus and his disciples attending it, of how the wine ran out, and of how Jesus saved the day. All told in a few terse sentences. But near the beginning, there is a point where I do wish that John the gospel-writer had added a word or two more. Listen to the beginning of the story again, where John sets the scene for us:
Two days later there was a wedding at Cana-in-Galilee.
The mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples
were also among the guests. The wine gave out, so Jesus’s mother said to him, ‘They have no wine left.’ He answered, ‘That is no concern of mine. My hour has not yet come.’
That’s the bit that worries me. His mother asks Jesus to help, and he says to her, ”That is no concern of mine. My hour has not yet come.’ That’s verse 4. But then we are told, in verse 5, ‘His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you'”‘. Why does Mary seem to ignore Jesus here. He seems to imply that he cannot, will not, help: ‘My hour has not yet come’. But she goes off and tells the servants to do as he tells them. That worries me. Why should Mary do that, when Jesus has told her ‘My time is not yet come’?
I wonder if something is missing here, between verse 4 and verse 5, between Jesus giving his mum the brush-off and Mary bossing the servants around. Perhaps Mary protested, and Jesus changed her mind. Maybe Jesus said, ‘My hour is not yet come- but just for you mum, I’ll do a wee miracle for you’.
But that’s all complete speculation. None of the expert Biblical scholars I looked up suggested that there was anything missing. And so I read the story again- and I still tripped up between verse 4 and verse 5- and yet I wondered whether there might be something else going on here.
Maybe Mary just didn’t understand him. Maybe she didn’t wait to hear his answer. These things could have happened, in the heat of the moment. For there was a practical crisis at hand. The parents of the groom would be responsible for all the arrangements at a wedding. Remember, this is the East, where hospitality- then and now- is a sacred duty. And so Mary would have been distressed by the embarrassment of her hosts, her friends who’d invited her, who’d run out of wine. And so, in a crisis, Mary instinctively turns to her son for help. ‘There’s no wine left’ Mary tells Jesus. ‘That’s no concern of mine’, says Jesus- which sounds like a very offhand comment. And then he adds, ‘My hour has not yet come (or ‘my time has not yet come’)- but Mary is already rushing off to the kitchen. There’s a crisis, and there’s no time for discussion.
The comment about his time not yet having come is very typical of John’s Gospel. Think of the words of Ecclesiastes (chapter 3) in the Old Testament- that there is a time for everything, a time to live and to die, a time for rejoicing and weeping, a time for war and a time for peace. In John’s Gospel there is this sense that Jesus has come at a particular time- God’s time. If Jesus is going to perform miracles- well, his hour has not yet come- that time is not yet here. He’s on God’s time. And he thinks the time for miracles, the time for a sign from God, has not yet arrived.
But Mary can’t wait, and she drops him in it. Here comes the head waiter, asking Jesus what to do- ‘Your mum says you can help us out! Here’s the empty jars’. And so Jesus is forced to help- he has no choice. The jars of water are turned into wine, and the celebrations can continue. In fact, it’s even better now- the new wine is better than the other stuff! To his surprise, the bridegroom finds himself being complimented on the quality of his wine by the head waiter.
Well, perhaps that’s how it happened. Maybe Mary had such faith in Jesus that she had learned that he wouldn’t let her down. Perhaps even against his will, she made Jesus perform a miracle before he was quite ready for it. It was a miracle that not only saved a family’s blushes. And it was also, says John the gospel writer- a sign- the first sign of just who Jesus was. It made some people believe in him. It kick-started his ministry- he began to collect even more disciples after this. And so probably he didn’t complain too much.
But this interpretation of mine relies on us thinking a wee bit differently about Mary than we are usually accustomed to. When you think about Mary, what sort of a woman do you think of? Probably your image of Mary is as much influenced by art as by Scripture, for Mary is one of the great subjects of western art. We see her meekly accepting the message of the angel that she is to give birth to a son. We see her kneeling at the manger, or delicately carrying her new born- and so often the face is of one who is worshipping. Or we see her as the mother of sorrows, weeping for her son at the foot of his cross, unable to be comforted. In much art, and in much theology, Mary is meek, mild- a bit helpless really.
But I think that Mary might have been a bit more feisty. But in my retelling of this story, Mary does something most remarkable. Unintentionally- or perhaps even intentionally- Mary pushes the story forward. Before Jesus is quite ready, his mother is saying- ‘We need a miracle here, son. My friends are about to have a social faux pas. So get off your dreamy high horse and so something about it!’ And before Jesus can stop her, and without really listening to his comment that the time isn’t quite right yet, Mary is off organising things with the waiter. Jesus thinks it’s not time yet- but Mary has given the divine timetable a bit of a shove!
You might think that it’s a bit presumptuous to interfere with God’s plans like this. Who are we to argue with God, to try to make God do things differently from what he’d planned? There is an amazing story in the Old Testament in which Abraham does just that. God has heard of the sins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and tells of Abraham that he will destroy them. But Abraham pleads for the cities, and argues with God that they should not be destroyed if there are even just a few innocent people in them1. Abraham is praised in the Bible for was his faith. Today, many people think that faith is just blind obedience. But Abraham, the great man of faith, argued with God, pleaded with God.
And people often complain to and argue with God throughout the Bible. It’s what makes it such an interesting book. There was a moment later in Jesus’ ministry when another determined woman made him change his mind. She was a Canaanite- not a Jew- but she’s heard about Jesus, and she wanted him to heal her daughter. Jesus didn’t think he should be involved with Gentiles (non-Jews), but she persisted, and Jesus saw the depth of her faith. She made Jesus change his mind, and understand that his ministry is to all people, not just his Jewish countrymen2.
Is it strange to think of Jesus changing his mind? He was, after all, human. He may have been God as well- that’s the paradox of Christianity!- but if he was human he could be wrong, and he had to learn, he could be pushed into new ways of thinking and doing. So I hope you don’t think I’m irreverent for suggesting that his mother, Mary, she pushed the divine timetable forward a bit at that wedding.
For how often have you had people saying to you, ‘This isn’t the right time’. You might think that this is the right time- but someone who’s supposedly wiser urges caution. They give you all kinds of excuses about why this isn’t the right time. The time’s not ripe. We need to wait until everyone’s ready. We still need to convince people. And sometimes people even spiritualize it- they’ll claim that God doesn’t want us to do this yet. Quite often we even talk like that in the church. But if we do that too often, nothing will ever happen!
There was a situation- no wine for the wedding guests- and Mary saw that something had to be done about it. In our congregation have a situation- we’re concerned about our life together, and where we will go in the future. We’ve been trying to do something about it. But our Future Focus meetings are taking place almost a year later than we’d expected. Due to illness- things outside of our control- we’ve been unable to move as fast as we wanted to. Maybe it wasn’t quite God’s time yet. But now, when we’ve been so patient for so long, I don’t think God will complain if we push his timetable on a bit! For as Jesus was a sign of God’s presence at that wedding, so we want to be a sign og God’s presence and love in our community.
At the beginning of this story, Jesus says to his mother, ‘My hour, my time has not yet come’. But Mary gives the divine timetable a push! And at the end of the story, we read that Cana in Galilee was the scene of his first miracle. John the Gospel writer says ‘Jesus performed at Cana-in-Galilee the first of the signs which revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him’. Cana in Galilee, at a humble village wedding. Perhaps it was the wrong place, maybe it was too early. But God works with eternity. Better, surely, to be ahead of time- even to be ahead of God’s time- than to be too late!
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo
Quotations from the Revised English Bible
Text: John 2:1-11 (Revised English Bible)- see end of the sermon
Two days later there was a wedding at Cana-in-Galilee. The mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also among the guests.
The wine gave out, so Jesus’s mother said to him, ‘They have no wine left.’ He answered, ‘That is no concern of mine. My hour has not yet come.’
His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
There were six stone water-jars standing near, of the kind used for Jewish rites of purification; each held from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water,’ and they filled them to the brim. ‘Now draw some off,’ he ordered, ‘and take it to the master of the feast’; and they did so.
The master tasted the water now turned into wine, not knowing its source, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. He hailed the bridegroom and said, ‘Everyone else serves the best wine first, and the poorer only when the guests have drunk freely; but you have kept the best wine till now.’
So Jesus performed at Cana-in-Galilee the first of the signs which revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.