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And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” John 2:4
My three year old son has come to that age where trouble seems to find him all too easily. OR maybe he goes seeking after it. Either way the results are not pretty. And along with getting into trouble on a fairly regular basis, he’s been learning, slowly, how to say he’s sorry. Occasionally, that’s just a way to try to avoid consequences, but he is actually learning, and beginning to feel remorse. It’s interesting to me, however, that it tends to be when he is the most truly remorseful that he is also least inclined to apologize for his actions. He’s embarrassed, and I get that. There’s a certain odd dynamic in being told to do what you already know is the right thing, in being called out for something you haven’t quite gotten to yet yourself.
No matter how old you get there are inevitably going to be family dynamics at play. It’s very amusing to watch a whole bunch of adult siblings get together with their parents; and everyone suddenly reverts to being seven. And so I find this particular gospel passage fascinating. In it, we find the adult Jesus, he’s about thirty at his point, with his mother and his brothers. It’s a wedding – a huge family gathering. And the family dynamics just come pouring out. In this very human moment of stubbornness, really, where Jesus turns ot Mary and says, “Mooooooooommm… don’t tell me what to do…” She called him out in front of others – in front of the servants, at any rate, and probably in front of some family members, and he’s embarrassed. It’s a very familiar scene to most of us – Mary and Jesus, not as depicted in Renaissance paintings with their glowing halos and serene, all-is-right-with-the-world expressions, but as any mother and son. All that glitz and glory stripped away, and it’s a woman and her son dealing with dynamics.
Jesus in this moment is very human, uncomfortably like us. This is a rarity in the Gospel of John, and it’s worth noting. And he’s making excuses.
Mary says to him, “Hey, they’re out of wine. You should really do something about that. yOu know you can.” But what does he say back to her?
“Hey, that’s not my problem, really. That’s not our concern. It’s not convenient.”
“This is not what I had planned,” he said to her. We see here in Jesus that very human desire to plan, to control a situation, to think about what the reaction is going to be to the things that we do. These are excuses that we make on a regular basis, this reaction is uncomfortably familiar. These are excuses that we make to keep from doing what we know we should, what we know is right. Even when the timing feels off. Even when the reaction might no be the one that we wanted or expected. We can understand that Jesus might be thinking, “This would be my first miracle, and I wasn’t thinking I would do that in front of a bunch of drunk people at a wedding… really, Mom, this isn’t what I was going for.”
It’s especially awkward: these are the excuses we make when we feel like we are alone in our actions, like what we’re doing might be unpopular, or merely a drop in the bucket or less. These are the excuses we give when we really want accolades for our actions – or at least not unwanted, undesired attention. And so it’s very easy for us to set aside what we know needs to be done, to say “My hour is not yet upon me. The timing is not right. Let’s wait for a more opportune moment, shall we?”
As I was preparing this sermon, I found myself drawn more and more, not just because of the day but because of the text, to Dr. King. And in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, maybe one of his most famous pieces of writing, he addressed this exact question:“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisting and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness towards while people; when you have to concoct and answer for a five-year-old son who is asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”*
This, in a letter to clergy: “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
The language seems a little antiquated, and we can give thanks for that, but the emotion is not. We could substitute in this day and age, any number of groups and examples that would turn this into a very modern document.
The cry rings out, “Wait!” and the answer immediately forms, “Wait for what, exactly?” Wait until it’s convenient? Wait until it’s popular? Wait until we get the reaction we’re seeking? Wait until we can use our gifts? What are we waiting for?
We all have gifts. Whether or not we know it, whether or not we’re ready to use them, we all have them. They’re not all the same; I very much doubt there’s anyone reading this who can change water into wine (if there is, leave a comment); but we know there are people in our lives who have the gift of hospitality; the very gift that Mary was trying to encourage in her son. We know there are people in our lives who have the gift of organizing and delegating, people who can see what needs to be done, and know how to do it – people who can be like Mary. We cannot all be preachers and teachers, cannot all speak words that will continue to resonate, as Dr. King could, but we can still march, and we can still protest, and we can still write letters and we can still boycott that which needs to be changed. We can still stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed and mistreated. And we can still educate ourselves, because there are those who have the gift of teaching. There are those who have the gifts of storytelling, and we can listen with open hearts and open minds, recognizing our own reactions and our own prejudices.
If there is one thing that we do all share it is that we can recognize that we all do have gifts, and we all do have life and that it is all Spirit-given and God-given. What we do have is not of our creation, it is not merit-based or somehow within our own control. The gifts we have are not things that we can use as we desire, or that we can take for granted if we so choose, or that we can manipulate for a reaction. Because even when the desired reaction is “Wow, isn’t God amazing? Water into wine? WOW!” producing our reaction is not up to us. OR to our fallible sense of timing.
Opportunities are going to present themselves, they do so every single day, and all we can do is be ready. Whether or not it is convenient, whether the response will be good or popular or any of those things that we want, whether we feel like our hour has come, that the time is right, even that we will be safe or accepted in our choices. Because when we do, finally, allow ourselves to give rein to the gifts that God has given to us; when we cease to fear, that is when we receive abundance.
So imagine it for a moment. You’re standing at the wedding feast, the revelry is ongoing – heaven knows, they’ve already run out of wine! – and Mary turns to Jesus and mentions that little fact to him. And then she goes on to ignore the dynamic. To ignore his reaction, his reluctance; she turns to the servants and says, “Do what he tells you to.” She may have glared at him first, in good maternal fashion; possibly she even rolled her eyes, and he may well have rolled his. It’s a mother-son relationship, after all.
But she made him act. She made him do the right thing. Despite his initial protest, despite the dynamics, despite the embarrassment of being called out in front of the servants and possibly his brothers (who knows?), he accedes to her request. And there is abundance in that gift: that was 180 gallons of wine that he made. A lot of wine, even for then.
But it’s not just the abundance of liquid in a jar. It’s the abundance of good wine. Of the best wine. Of the kind of wine that the steward comments on to the bridegroom. It’s the abundance of the sort that God reserves for those who use their gifts willingly, and selflessly. It is the sweetness and the abundance of love for those who give of themselves in the service of others, who give of their gifts without counting the cost, who recognize and encourage the gifts of others, as Mary did for her son. Who do not make excuses, but who recognize that with God-given gifts comes God-given responsibility. The responsibility to strive in all of our days for the oppressed, the needy, the unloved. The responsibility of discipleship, to bear the light of God’s Kingdom – we are still in the season of Epiphany, we are still talking about light! To overcome human dynamics; to overcome human embarrassment, and reluctance, for the sake of doing what is right; for doing what we know is right.
That we might never again say “wait.” That we might never again put off the rights, the equality, or the dignity of anyone; but that we may strive for a dream too long deferred; for justice too often and too long denied. That we might take upon ourselves this very Gospel, this very Good News that we are here to hear and to follow. That we might be able to say, with our heads held high and with certainty in our voice that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
That is our call. That is our gift. That is the gift that God has given to each and every one of us.
Several years ago, there was a popular song by Joan Osbourne; the chorus started, “What if God was one of us?” It wasn’t the greatest song from a theological point of view – it didn’t really say much beyond that one line – except that it pointed us back to one overarching, rather wonderful, theological truth. It’s one we don’t often see, that can be rather hard for us to remember, but that is present within today’s reading, this moment right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Because we find ourselves, in this story, in a moment of transition. Transition between John and Jesus, between expectation and reality, between humanity and divinity. We find ourselves in a moment in which prophecy comes true: when the “one who is to come” is actually present, actually listening to the words being spoken about him; when the hopes and dreams of a become actions for and towards that people. We find ourselves in a moment when God is, in fact, just one of us: just another face in the crowd there by the Jordan, awaiting the plunge into the swirling, muddy trickle, right there on the edge of the Promised Land.
Because we know who this Jesus person is, we recognize the face in the crowd, but for us, it’s only been a matter of a few Bible verses: we’re only one fairly short chapter removed from the shepherds and angels heralding the messiah’s birth. But for those other faces in the crowd; for those who had come out from Jerusalem in the desperate hope of hearing Good News, of hearing a word of hope from John – was he a prophet, or perhaps the Messiah himself? – for these people, it has been a long time since they’ve heard the old tale about a bunch of shepherds in Bethlehem, telling some tale about angels as an excuse for leaving the sheep out on the hillside… and who would recognize the adult Jesus, from old tales of a swaddled babe? He’s just another man, out to hear the fiery preaching, to seek after the possibility of a renewed relationship with God.
Just like one of us.
How startling must it have been, for all those gathered there, to see this moment of revelation, the dove and the voice descending upon this one, otherwise rather nondescript, man? Can you imagine the whispers of everyone present, comparing Jesus to the one John has just described, the one who shall separate wheat from chaff, the one of fire and spirit, of power and status? It’s hard to think that he would be what the people expected, standing among them, still wet and muddy from his trip into the river. Yet such is the power of God, to upend our expectations, to use a human being for God’s own purposes, rather than for our own, to work God’s own will through human hands. Such is God’s love, to be willing to take on human form, human weakness, human discomfort – even to the point of being wet and muddy – to guide us along the way.
Jesus, fully human, fully one of us, went out in one of his last moments of anonymity, to be baptized by John. He went to fulfill the scriptures, maybe to support this ministry of his cousin’s, whose political and religious tendencies really were close to his own. Jesus’ own ministry would, after all, pick up cleanly where John would leave off, with the question of repentance. Repentance; in Greek, “metanoia”, or literally, a change of mind. Repentance is more than regret, more than apology; it is quite simply a turning point, a movement of mind and spirit back to the correct path, back to God. It’s really no wonder that John preached his message there, by the water; that he incorporated the Jewish tradition of the mikvah, the ritual bath, into his call to change and rededication. It is no wonder that he expected that those who would come out to hear him would take the plunge – literally; would understand this to be more than a physical cleansing. Perhaps that’s why he chose the Jordan, a shallow, muddy little waterway that wouldn’t do much towards physical cleanliness. The repentance that John preached didn’t depend on physical manifestations or outward appearance, but on a setting aside of human conditions and human concerns, of all that keeps us within ourselves, rather than in relationship with one another or with God. The baptism that John performed would not remove the dirt from our skin, but would immerse us in that which is so necessary to life, yet so conducive to death, so that when we emerged we might find ourselves renewed, restored, changed.
For baptism, even to John, was less about cleansing than about purification, rendering ourselves ready to seek God. The plunge into the Jordan was the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, of the repentance and change of mind that were so needed.
And so Jesus, ready at last to begin his ministry, preparing himself for the great change he was soon to experience – the move from carpenter’s son to God’s son – finds himself in the Jordan River. Jesus: fully divine and yet fully human, joins so many others in the embodiment of change, of renewal. Jesus was submerged into the water so that he could begin his ministry of fire, so that he could call us all to repentance, so that he could begin the work of burning away our outer, protective shells – our chaff – and reducing us down to our essence. Jesus, the first one to receive the Holy Spirit, came up out of the water to lead us in God’s path, through the fire in which we will not burn, through the flames that will not consume us. Jesus accompanies us through the waters of baptism, through the fires of purification, through the flight of the Holy Spirit to bring us – fully human though we are – to the divine.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ Matthew 2:1-2
It must have been an awesome sight, this star that heralded the birth of the Messiah. More than just a new star in the already shining heavens, more than something that only a trained astronomer could have noticed. It’s been suggested that what we called a “star” – the bright, blazing light that led the Wise Men out of Babylon and all the way to Jerusalem – was actually a supernova, visible in the western sky even during the day. It would have been a truly remarkable, awe-inspiring sight; a brand-new feature in a supposedly-unchanging heaven.
In other words, it must have been pretty shocking. Miraculous. Terrifying, even.
Because new things, even when they are explainable, can inspire fear, simply because of their very newness. New things are things that we haven’t fully explored, haven’t learned to control; they are things that can catch us off-guard and force us to see the world from a different, unexpected perspective. The new can break us open, rip away our defenses, expose our vulnerabilities and our fears. Imagine, for a moment, that such a thing were to happen tomorrow – a huge new light in the sky – and it probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that a scant five minutes later, there would be hysterical predictions of the end of the world. There would certainly be voices crying out from various forms of media that this new light was a sign from God, but it strikes me as highly unlikely that many of these voices would see it as a positive sign, as the light of God entering the world anew.
Perhaps it is because we don’t do so well even with the light that we have been given, the light that we consistently focus on the places that are already pretty, the places that are easy to look at. Perhaps it is because we feel such a sense of control over the light that we have been given – the illumination that we can give to human-made structures, increasing our fear of natural and spiritual darkness. A new light might throw our deepest fears into stark relief: might show us more about our similarities than about our differences, might expose the fears that we prefer to keep hidden – fear of one another, fear of not actually being better than our neighbors, fear of actually being an integral and integrated part of God’s creation. A new light might illuminate more than we want to see.
Yet such were the Magi, these wise Babylonians and Persians, that they could see this new heavenly body as a sign of love and hope. They could see this explosion of light in the sky, and load up their camels with the most precious treasure of their time, not to squirrel it away for the coming apocalypse, but to find and worship the incarnate God. This new phenomenon, this miraculous vision, was to the Magi a call to seek something greater than themselves, and to make God known throughout the world.
In our house, at this season, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a tremendous favorite. The little book gets brought out and re-read. Videos ranging from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart (with a detour over to the Muppets) make their appearances regularly, and in the car we listen to Patrick Stewart’s one-man show. There is something about the story that never really gets old – whether it is the promise of Scrooge’s redemption or the tender love of the Cratchit family, I don’t know. Usually, it all gets put away after Christmas day, but today I wonder if that is a mistake. Because in both the original story and the two Patrick Stewart versions, the ghost of Christmas Past is a being of almost blinding brightness. Whereas the other two ghosts present Scrooge from the point of view of others, it is this being of light who allows Scrooge to really look inside himself, to know and understand his own heart. It is this being who cuts Scrooge most deeply, who exposes the old wounds kept hidden, who banishes the shadows of time and distance so that all things, both good and bad, may be clearly seen. Scrooge experiences his past as though it were new. In the book, it almost seems as though the appearances of the other two ghosts will not be necessary, as Scrooge feels remorse for his treatment of his nephew, of Bob Cratchit, and even of the little boy who came caroling to his office door. The epiphany light seems strong and hopeful until the spirit returns him home, and begins to glow ever more brightly. And we begin to see this ghost of Christmas past not only as a light to bring clarity to the things that have been, but a call to live from then on with open eyes and an open heart. And Scrooge, overwhelmed by all that he has seen and felt; despite Marley’s warning and the ghost’s own claim to be working for Scrooge’s redemption snatches the ghost’s cap like a candle snuffer and forces it down over the ghost, trying to shut out the light, trying to ignore both the hope that the light offers and the opportunity it affords him.
Matthew’s gospel is very Jewish-centric. He tends to focus on Jesus’ re-interpretation of Jewish law, emphasizes Jesus’ status as a Jew and a reformer of Judaism. So it was interesting to hear Garrison Keillor, quoted in the Christian Century a week or so ago, remarking upon the strange birth narrative in this gospel. Matthew does not speak of shepherds and angels; it is not to the local Jewish community that the birth of the Messiah is announced, but to foreigners. It is the Wise Men from the East who tell the Jews that their savior is at hand; it is these Magi who correctly interpret scriptures that are not their own, who see the sign in the sky as heralding that appearance that the Jews had been waiting for. It is the Magi who offer homage and hospitality to the Christ-child, who see him as the light of the world and the child of God, while the authorities in Jerusalem, in the same bright light, see only a threat to their power and status. It is the Magi who leave their homes, the courts of Persia and Babylon where their own status is located, and go to the small Judean village of Nazareth, to kneel in the house of a carpenter and share his hospitality, to greet as an equal not a man, but a little child.
Because the epiphany of the Magi is not merely that this miraculous light might be a sign of hope to an oppressed people, but that it is as sign that God is moving, God is changing the status-quo, God is upending all of our human understandings of who is important and who is not; who is “in” and who is “out”; who is in the light, and who is not. The epiphany of the Magi is a sign of interest to these Eastern astrologers, but it is also a call that they need to follow. They do not sit back and say, “See, we may hope and trust in God, who has sent us this omen that all will be well.” God’s promise in the light of this star requires a response, requires an action on the part of these wise men; it requires a vulnerability beyond just that of accepting the new without fear. The Magi set out on a perilous trip across the Arabian desert, their camels laden with precious cargo – probably any robber’s dream come true. They set out without fully understanding where they were going, or what they would find, ending up not where the star was, but in Jerusalem, because they figured that one would be more likely to find the promised king in the holy city, rather than in one of the surrounding villages. They made mistakes. They made an enemy in Herod. They made themselves horrendously vulnerable, all for the sake of following God’s call.
What is our epiphany, then? We who know the story of the Christ child, we who know that the Magi made it safely, that the baby grew up strong and healthy, that God indeed love us enough to send his son to walk among us, we have known the light of the star over Bethlehem and we have followed it without much risk to ourselves. It is not new anymore, we need not fear it. Yet we do. The light comes into the world, as acts of kindness and people of great love, and we “like” them on facebook or retweet them on twitter. But the light is calling us, too – we who should know to keep our eyes and ears open, we who should know how to hear the call to follow; we who should no longer need a supernova to recognize God at work in our world. The light is coming into our lives. I wonder where that light might lead us, if we are willing to relinquish our power, our status? Might we be broken open and exposed to God, if we are willing to live in hope rather than in fear? I wonder what God is saying to us right now, and whether we are willing to accept God’s call. This is Epiphany Sunday, not just for those long-ago wise men, but for us as well. We have seen the light of God at its rising; may we not fear to embrace it.