Friday, January 18, 2013

“Timing Is Everything” - January 20, 2013

Text: John 2:1-11
3rd Sunday After Epiphany, MLK Sunday

You know what they say: timing is everything. Whether it’s telling a joke, making a dramatic entrance, throwing a pass to your wide receiver, or buying stocks, timing is everything. When the timing is right, people crack up at the joke, they are wowed by the entrance, the pass is completed for a big gain, and you double your money.  Mess it up with poor timing, and the joke falls flat, the entrance is clumsy, the pass is intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and you lose your shirt.

Which is what makes this wedding at Cana such a scene. The timing is all wrong.  The ceremony is not a disaster; nobody stands up and objects to the marriage; the bride is not arrested for assault, which happened earlier this year according to a news report.  The problem is with the wine – it runs out too soon.

This doesn’t sound to us like such a big deal. When Susan and I were married many years ago, the reception was held in the fellowship hall at the Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville. We got along just fine without any wine at all. Of course, we were Baptists and there wasn’t any expectation of wine, especially with the reception at the church. (If we had run out of mixed nuts or those little mints they have on the serving table, it wouldn’t have had quite the same impact.) At any rate, running out of wine in the midst of a big wedding celebration may sound slightly embarrassing, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that calls for a miracle. If the wine starts to run out, you can always send somebody out to get some more. 

So, it’s a little bit embarrassing. Big deal. Well, in thi
s culture, running out of wine too early isn’t just a little embarrassing, it’s a disaster. A wedding was basically a party that went on for several days. Eating and drinking and dancing and visiting. The wedding was all about joyous celebration with family and friends.

The poor, which included most of the population, had cheese and bread and olive oil for their daily fare, with water to drink. Of course, the water was often of poor quality, but that is what they had most of the time. Wine was a cash crop and while many worked in the production of wine, the poor had little wine to drink, just as they had little meat to eat. But a wedding was different. A wedding was a time for extravagance. Marriages were often arranged years in advance, and a family might scrimp and save and plan literally for years ahead of a wedding. Sheep and calves and every delicacy would be served, and there would be wine in profusion.

Wine was more than just a drink. Wine had been vitally important throughout Israel’s history. Solomon exported wine to Lebanon in return for timber. Legal fines were sometimes paid with wine and it was often used as a medicine. The Good Samaritan poured oil and wine upon the wounds of the traveler who had fallen among thieves. Roman soldiers offered Jesus wine mixed with gall as he was dying on the cross. Even Paul instructs Timothy to take a little wine for his ailment.

Wine was so vital to the culture and economy of Israel that it took on theological significance. Isaiah used the lack of wine as an image of the desolation of Israel; an abundance of good wine was a sign of the arrival of God’s new age. Both Amos and Joel used the image of the hills dripping with new wine to describe God’s favor. Wine was not simply a beverage, but a powerful symbol of joy and gladness and God’s favor and blessing that everyone understood. And so, to run out of wine at a wedding celebration really was to run out of blessing.

I was in a wedding party once where the bride dropped the candle she as using to light the unity candle.  She dropped it on the Bible.  I could just imagine the Bible going up in flames at the wedding.  That would not be a good symbol for beginning a life together.

It was kind of like that with running out of wine.  This was not the way to start out your life together – running out of God’s blessing.  For the family, it really was a disaster.

The text does not tell us how long this wedding had been going on, but in mid-course, far before the festivities are to be over, the wine runs out.  Mary, apparently a close friend of the bride’s family, gets wind of this and reports it to Jesus.

Now to Jesus’ way of thinking, Mary doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of timing either. “They have no wine,” she says to her son.  And she clearly expects him to do something about it.

But Jesus seems to think this is another instance of bad timing: “Woman,” he responds, taking an oddly formal tone with his mother. “Woman, what concern is that to you or me?  My hour – my time – has not yet come.”

But Mary knows better.  She doesn’t raise an eyebrow at his tone or argue with him about timing.  She simply turns to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It could be that, like a good Jewish mother, Mary knew her son would come around.  He might protest, but eventually he’ll listen to his mother.  Or maybe, Mary knew how to tell time better than Jesus thought.  She was, after all, the one who brought him into the world, the one who watched him grow, the one who dried his tears as a child and followed him when he became an adult.  Perhaps Mary recognized that whenever her son was on the scene, it was no ordinary time.

Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, Jesus acts.  There were six very large stone jars used to hold water for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants to fill them with water, all the way to the brim, and then draw some out and give it to the chief steward.      
When they did, the water had become wine.  Not just any wine, but fine wine, far better than what had been served up until that point.  The steward was amazed.  And again, it is about timing.  Everybody serves the good stuff first, and then when people’s senses are a little, shall we say dulled, they bring out inferior wine, the $2.99 Aldi stuff.  But the steward says to the bridegroom, “You have saved the good wine until now!”  Of course, the groom didn’t know what he was talking about, but he wasn’t arguing.

Did you catch how much wine we are talking about?  Something like 150 gallons.  Something like 1000 standard size bottles of wine.  A lot of wine has already been served, and now they break out 1000 bottles of fine wine for this village wedding.  When Jesus supplies a need, he really supplies a need.  No one would be able to leave this wedding thirsty; abundance and blessing overflowed.

It’s all about timing.  C.S. Lewis commented that the miracle of changing water into wine is a miracle of the compression of time.  God is always changing water into wine.  No wine exists that didn’t start out as water.  It’s all of the intermediary steps that take time--the root of the vine taking the water, the bloom, the maturation of the fruit, the gathering, the fermentation, the aging and finally the wine.

Timing is everything, and not just in this scene at the wedding in Cana but across John’s Gospel.  In fact, there are two kinds of time.  One is chronos time, the kind of time with which we track the everyday events of our lives.  It is measured in seconds and minutes and hours, in days and weeks and months.  You have an appointment with the dentist on Tuesday at 9:30.  We generally watch the evening news at 5:30.  The mortgage is due the 5th of the month.  This is the 3rd Sunday, so we are going out to lunch.  Chronos time is the everyday kind of time that we spend waiting in line or sitting in class or driving to work – mundane, ordinary time.

But that is not all there is.  There is another kind of time, kairos time, a time filled with possibility and grace.  This is God’s time, and it breaks into our ordinary lives at unexpected times and in unexpected ways to reveal a glimpse of the divine.  So when Jesus speaks of his “hour” he isn’t talking about looking at his Timex; he is talking about the time when God’s glory will be revealed.  He is talking about the cross and resurrection and the time when God’s glory will be known and God’s mercy and grace will be available to all.  That time, that hour, Jesus says, has not yet come.

But maybe it has.  Mary seems to know what time it is better than we might expect.  For Mary seems to believe that Jesus can not only do something about this disastrous loss of blessing, but that he will.  

John reports tha this happened "on the third day."  Timing is everything.  This third day is a sign of the ultimate third day to come.

Whenever there is need and Jesus is on the scene, resurrection and abundance are right around the corner.  When Jesus is there, anything is possible.

It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle, or sign as John calls it, is not some big splashy pyrotechnic kind of event.  He is not raising someone from the dead, it is not a public healing, he doesn’t feed the 5000 or calm the storm or walk on water.  In fact, hardly anyone even knows about it.  Mary and the servants and Jesus’ disciples are the only ones in on it.  The bride and groom don’t know, the guests don’t know, the chief steward who discovers that the good wine has been saved for later does not know.  The miracle is not for public consumption.  Jesus simply sees a need and responds.  Or more accurately, a need is pointed out to him and he responds.

And maybe that is for the best.  Miracles are not just for those extraordinary moments.  Miracles are not just for the holiest persons among us.  Perhaps, each day is filled with miracles if only we will look and listen.  How many times a day are we blessed in ways we don’t even realize?  Albert Einstein once commented, “There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.” How many miracles are there around us of which we are unaware?

And how often, right in the middle of what seems to be mundane, everyday chronos time, does God step in, and it becomes holy time, kairos time.

This past Tuesday was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  He would have been 84 years old.  In his life and ministry, Dr. King was often criticized for poor timing.  He needed to slow down, he needed to wait.  His response essentially was that we cannot simply live by chronos time.  This is kairos time, God’s time, and it is always the right time to do the right thing.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King answered the published statement of eight white clergymen, moderate church leaders who claimed they were not necessarily against King’s aims but that his actions in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.”  King penned a response from his jail cell.  In response to being called an “outside agitator,” he wrote:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.  Like Paul, I must respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of our interrelatedness.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. 
And then in response to being called an extremist, he wrote:
Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”  And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”  And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?  In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified.  We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism.  Two were extremists for immorality.  The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.  Perhaps (we) are in dire need of creative extremists.
It’s all a matter of timing.  And maybe the question for us today is, “Do we know how to tell time?”

Maybe it’s 8:45 on a Monday morning and it’s time to wake up for your 9:00 class.  Maybe it’s 9:30 on a Tuesday morning and all that’s in front of you is a pile of invoices.  Or maybe it’s 6:30 on a Thursday evening and time for the weekly card game.  Or it’s 7:30 Saturday morning and time, finally, to sleep in.  This is all true but it is only part of the story.  The other part is that God is at work - in our occupations, relationships, our involvements, our family life - to bring about redemption and hope and healing.

How would we look at all the ordinary, mundane elements of our lives if we believed God was with us, working through us to care for God’s people?  Because whatever time we think it may be, it is also God’s time, and when God is around all things are possible.  Amen.

Thanks to David Lose for his fine article on the Working Preacher blog, which helped shape this sermon.

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