Timing is everything. That’s not just true in comedy, it is a fact about much of life. The gospel reading is about water and wine and Jesus and his mother, but it is also about timing. Jesus hesitated to act when the wine ran out, and he said, “My hour has not yet come.” It’s not time yet.
Timing is pretty important at a wedding. Years ago, I officiated at a marriage and was waiting in the back of the church with the organ playing when someone told me that the groom and all of his attendants were going to be late. It wasn’t the end of the world, and not unusual, but then I was informed that of them was given the wrong size pants and all of the men decided to drive back to the tuxedo shop, forty minutes away. Their timing was not good, and the guests waited and waited while the same wedding songs were played over and over again. The bride was livid, but eventually the marriage took place and the wine flowed at the reception.
Jesus was with his mother at the wedding in Cana. I’m not sure if the invitation said “Jesus and guest” or if Jesus was Mary’s “plus one,” but they were both there to celebrate with friends. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ Mom orchestrated the first miracle recorded in the Gospel of John. This is the Scripture reading that Leroy and I chose for our own wedding. I told the story here on the Sunday following how after everyone at the wedding had heard about the embarrassment of running out of wine in Cana, the exact thing happened less than an hour later at our reception. Despite calculating how much of the carefully chosen wines each of our guests might be expected to drink, they did not indulge according to our plan and we almost immediately ran out of Chardonnay. The server delivered the bad news and then served up a mediocre substitute that was found in the basement. We also ran out of brisket, but that’s another story.
A social faux pas is one thing, but in first century Palestine, such an embarrassment was considered a bad omen regarding the marriage itself. The wine ran out. Uh oh: this marriage will never last. It’s no wonder Jesus’ mother decided something needed to be done to save the fate of the newlyweds. Something had to be done.
The writer of Ecclesiastes said that there is a time for everything.
Jesus said, “It’s not yet my hour.” Jesus’ mother apparently didn’t take “no” for an answer. I think it’s pretty interesting that the Gospel of John never mention’s Jesus’ mother by name. There are several references to her, but she is never “Mary.” Even here, when Jesus is confronted about the wine shortage, he says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Would you talk to your mother that way? Of course, the real gist of it might be lost in translation. Some have said that the use of the word “woman” here might be like someone else using the terms “Seniora,” or “Ma’am,” or “Milady.” Either way, Jesus’ mother didn’t slap him for back talk, and the next thing we know, Mary is instructing the dining room staff to do whatever Jesus tells them. It sounds like she had a better sense of timing than even Jesus.
When do we know the right time to do the right thing?
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in what was referred to as the “colored section.” When the white section was filled, she was told to move toward the back of the bus to make room for white passengers. She moved over one seat, but did not join the others who stood and moved back. Her arrest led to the 381 day Montgomery Bus Boycott which resulted in the desegregation of Alabama buses by Supreme Court Ruling. Martin Luther King, Jr., at that time a young and mostly unknown local preacher in Montgomery, was inspired by the bravery of Rosa Parks. Later he wrote that Rosa Parks was the catalyst, rather than the cause of the boycott, saying “"The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices. Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks without realizing that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'” The time was right. Justice couldn’t wait.
Imagine if Jesus had not been nudged by his mother at that wedding. The guests would have had to drink water, the bride and groom’s future would have been in jeopardy, the party would have ended early, and the sign, which is John’s word for a miracle, would never have been given or remembered.
John’s Gospel is all about signs. There are seven signs in all, beginning with water becoming wine and ending with Lazarus being raised from the dead. All speak about the power of God demonstrated through Jesus, and some of them, like the feeding of the 5,000, point to the abundance that characterizes the realm of God.
Scarcity and abundance are a good summary of the story of the wedding feast. There was an utter scarcity of wine after the last drop had been consumed by the party guests. Then there was wine in abundance after the water in six thirty-gallon jars was converted into a fine Merlot or Cab Sauv. The wine saved the day, and for the newly married couple it was a sign of abundance and a promise of future blessing.
I wonder if Jesus had to say to himself afterward, “I guess my mother was right”?!
Sometimes it’s prudent to wait. Sometimes it’s better to stop waiting and just do something.
I think that’s what MLK Jr. was saying in the excerpt that was read before the gospel story. The book “Stride Toward Freedom” was written three years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott to describes the conditions of African Americans living in Alabama during that era, and to chronicle the events of the boycott and to reflect on its aftermath. In that reflection, he said that if we don’t use time for good purposes, it becomes a tool and an advantage for those seeking to harm others and to inhibit the common good. He wrote, “This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."
Rosa Parks’ vigorous and positive action provided the inspiration and opportunity for Martin Luther King to come forward into a position of leadership that made an incredible and long-lasting impact for justice in our nation.
Jesus’ mother’s vigorous and positive action in over-riding her son’s objection and giving a few orders of her own seemed to provide the inspiration and opportunity for Jesus to enact the first of many signs of the abundant life God desires for all of creation.
Timing is everything.
I like foreign films, though I’m not a big fan of subtitles. I figure if I wanted to read, I’d just stay home with a good book. One of my favorites, though is a Danish film that won Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards in 1988. The title is “Babette’s Feast” and I imagine many of you have seen it. It’s the story of a group of Puritan Christians in the late 19th century on the coast of Denmark. Two sisters had given up their own ambitions in life to care for their elderly father, the pastor of very stern, very tiny church. All of them are exceedingly dour and seemingly joyless. Their days are long and dark as they perform their religious routines and refrain from any forms of enjoyment. When a French refugee named Babette comes to their community, they take her in, but look on her with suspicion. She becomes their housekeeper and prepares them simple, tasteless meals according to their requirements. After years in their village, Babette wins a lottery. She had been a famous chef in Paris, and decides to show her appreciation by cooking a sumptuous meal.The church members want to be polite, but are determined not to enjoy anything too much. However, as they feast on turtle soup and quail in puff pastry with truffle sauce and lots and lots of fine French Wine, they begin shedding their inhibitions and start to dance together. Mistrust melts, old wrongs are forgiven, ancient loves are rekindled, and spirits are elevated. It is a sign. In a place of grim and joyless obligation, a meal becomes a sign of abundance.
I’ve been twice to the town of Cana in Galilee to visit the sites that celebrate the wedding feast. There are a lot of gift shops there that sell really bad wine. I took a photo of a small hand painted sign outside of a shrine that says “no drinking wine on premises.” So different from the sign of abundance and grace that Jesus demonstrated at the wedding itself!
Is it time yet? Is it time to stop waiting for the perfect moment, like Jesus, and take bold action to begin something new? Is it time to stand up or sit down for justice like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she inspired? Is it time to create something beautiful, like Babette, and remind yourself and those around you of the abundance that is already here?
“This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”