Sermon for Epiphany II by the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs, Director of Christian Formation, St Martin’s, Providence.
They have no wine.
This is a declaration of a crisis. For the groom’s family to run out of wine during a multi-day wedding reception was no small matter. Hospitality was a crucial aspect of first-century Palestinian culture, and an oversight of this nature was no mere faux pas to be resolved by a quick run to the liquor store. The groom’s family’s reputation was on the line. The urgent whispers of people aware of the impending crisis were dangerously close to becoming voluble accusations–in short, a disaster loomed.
And the mother of Jesus knew it. They have no wine.
Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?
This account of the wedding at Cana is one of the most well-known theophanies—or God-showings, as the Bishop described them last week, revealing Jesus’ glory as God’s Beloved, and it appears only in John’s Gospel. We hear this exchange between Mary and Jesus, and immediately our own voices, or those of our children or parents, are projected upon the narrative. It is an introductory dialogue that reaches out and grabs us well before the main event; the actual transformation of over 120 gallons of water into a more-than-passable quality wine. We find ourselves caught in a web of wondering about the nature of the family dynamic: Was Mary too pushy? Why did Jesus rebuke her? What did he mean when he said his hour had not come? What made Mary choose to ignore his wishes? This conversation draws us in because it sounds so much like our own families arguing around the kitchen table.
But there is more to this than a snippy exchange between the Virgin Mary and the Son of God, and to see it we need to extricate ourselves from the web that John seems to have caught us in. Maybe, just maybe, all is not as it seems. Maybe it is MORE than it seems. But to see this we need to look more broadly at the context of this story.
John’s Gospel is unique from those of Mark, Matthew and Luke, which are known as the synoptic Gospels—they have a common content and historical structure. John’s Gospel differs in order, content and overall tone—You can hear it from the first verse. It doesn’t begin with Jesus’ birth; it begins with the Creation, and with Jesus’ place in it as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is crucial—John wants us to understand not just that Jesus is the Word but that the Word became human. So the entire Gospel is a dance between the elevated imagery of Jesus’ closeness to his Father (“…God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart…” 1:18) and his Incarnation as one of us: Woman, what concern is that to you and me?
The structure of the narrative around today’s story is not about chronology—it is all about establishing Jesus’ identity as the Word made flesh. In the first chapter we have moved from “In the beginning was the Word”, through the testimony of John the baptizer who tells the Pharisees that the one whom he proclaims is one whom they do not know, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, and upon whom the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. John the baptizer not once, but twice declares Jesus to be The Lamb of God.
The narrative of the Wedding comes just after the calling of the disciples, and just before the cleansing of the Temple, which in the other Gospels happens much later in Jesus’ ministry. John wants us to see early on that Jesus’ ministry is going to turn everything upside-down—and that following him will not be ‘business as usual.’
John’s Gospel is all about Jesus’ identity as the beloved of God who shared our humanity.
And it is from this context that this story calls us. It is not just a story of family dynamics and miracles meant simply to astound witnesses. What does it tell us about Jesus’ identity, and our identity as well?
“They have no wine.” A statement of crisis.
“What is that to you or me? My hour has not yet come.” Reluctance? Rebellion? Uncertainty? This has the marks of being a pivotal decisive moment in the life of God’s Beloved.
Theologian Carol Lakey Hess describes this as the Scandal of Divine Hesitation—the idea that God would delay acting in the world until being nudged by humanity to do something—humanity in this case being personified by Jesus’ allegedly pushy mother. Seen in a broader sense this Scandal of Divine Hesitation might help to explain issues of theodicy—why bad things happen in the presence of a loving God. Hess postulates that God is waiting for us. My concern here is that it puts the onus on humanity to be a prime mover in any kind of transformative action in the world. It takes God out of the equation, relegating God to a position of divine flunky awaiting instructions from us. You could say that the Scandal of Divine Hesitation is best exemplified in the words of St. Teresa of Avila who wrote, “Christ has…no hands, no feet on earth but yours…Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” ”** But it is not as simple as that—as simply that our action alone makes the difference. A God who created the world doesn’t need humanity to point out what needs to be done. There is something more here; something richer and deeper to this relationship than simply giving God instructions. Rather it is our identity as the Body of Christ—Created by God, living in Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, which can accomplish transformation in the world.
So if Jesus wasn’t waiting for Mary to spur him to action, what was happening in that breath of a millisecond of God’s Time?
John offers us a portrait of God’s Beloved who was one of us. God was present in him, yet he was completely human. What if Jesus was doing what any of us might do when presented with an opportunity? Listen to the exchange again:
“They have no wine”
“What is that to you? And to me?” Hear, instead of grumbling and rebellion, a genuine question of discernment. A willingness to listen, ponder and evaluate; to be alert for the moving of the Spirit.
“What is that to us?” What is needed? How can we serve? What gifts can we offer?”
When we hear Jesus and his mother’s dialogue this way, the Scandal of Divine Hesitation is transformed into the Blessing of Divine/Human Partnership. It becomes a way for us to look at our own moments of hesitation when confronted by questions that have the potential to plumb the depths of our identity as Beloved Children of God; They have no food. They have no shelter. They have no peace. They have no comfort…no safety…no beauty…no justice.
What are these things to us?
Let us pray.
Transform us, loving God, by your Spirit, that we may hear your call to partner in the healing of the world. Help us to discern where our greatest joy meets the world’s deepest need*, to see that we have been filled to the brim with your gifts and to expend them abundantly and joyfully in your service. In the name of the Beloved One, your Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.
**“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” St. Teresa of Avila
*paraphrased from Frederick Buechner: Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC