Timing is Everything

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January 20, 2019. The gospel story today is the Wedding at Cana, and Pastor Stephanie talks about chronos time versus kairos time in Jesus’ response to his mother’s request when the wine gave out.


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You know what they say: timing is everything. Whether you’re telling a joke, making a dramatic entrance, or popping the question, timing is everything. When the timing is right, people erupt with laughter at your punchline. When the timing is off you might hear a deafening silence just when you get to that part. When timing is right, your entrance on the stage makes a statement. When your timing is off people barely notice. When timing is right, someone smiles radiantly in response to your proposal. But if your timing would be off you might get a laugh and a wave of the hand and a comment that says, “You must be joking.” Ouch, that would hurt.


Timing is everything, which is what makes this wedding story at Cana such a scene. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are all guests, and are probably having a pretty good time. Weddings in that day were quite the occasion. Many times they lasted up to seven days in duration. But at this particular wedding, something happens three days in that could turn the tide from celebration to awkward embarrassment of the hosts. No, it’s not the toasts that were given by the maid of honor or the best man that might be in bad taste. We’ve all experienced those awkward moments. And it’s not that the wedding officiant mispronounced the names of the bride and groom or confused the vows, such as happens many times in a romantic comedy movie. It’s just that the wine ran out too early. When wedding celebrations last seven days, running out of wine on day three signifies that something in the planning and the timing of the whole process went terribly wrong. Whatever the host had imagined would be needed for each of the days of celebration was off by a long shot.


Now if it were us, we might whisper nervously to some friends and ask them to please make a run to the local wine shop and pick up some more. But in this time and place, that was obviously not an option. Running out of wine too early wasn’t just a little embarrassing in this case, it was a social disaster. Those of you who especially enjoy a glass of fine wine will be happy to learn or be reminded that in the Bible, wine isn’t just a social drink. It is much, much more than that. It’s a sign of harvest. It’s a sign of God’s abundance. It’s a sign of joy and celebration and gladness. So, to run short on wine meant experiencing a shortage of blessing. Worse than ruining a joke by messing up the punchline, poor planning on the quantity of wine needed would seem like awful timing. The wine has run out before the wedding has, and it’s a potential catastrophe if it becomes widely known.


Now, Jesus’ mother doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of timing either, at first glance. At least that’s what Jesus seems to think by his comments. They have no wine, she says to her son. We don’t know whether she was close to the families of the bride or groom and so eager to help, or whether she was just particularly sensitive and horrified at this kind of social faux pas. Because however much we appreciate hospitality today, the people of Jesus’ time and culture practiced it as more than that. It was practiced as a survival skill, a way of looking after one another in a hostile and perilous environment, and an assurance of being looked after in return. No wonder it became a matter of honor as well.


So, Mary expected Jesus to do something about this grave matter. But Jesus seems to think that 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 to me? My hour, my time has not come.” But Mary continues to act as though it is time for action. Rather than raise an eyebrow at his tone, or offer a counterpoint to his assertion, she turns to the servants and tells them simply “do whatever he tells you.” Now it could be that, like a good Jewish mother, Mary knew her son would come around. Protest he might, but eventually he’ll listen to his mother. Or, it could be that 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 heard the promises about him, who cared for him as a baby and watched him grow. The one who dried his tears as a child, and followed him herself when he became an adult. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if Mary recognized that wherever her son was on the scene, it was no ordinary time.


Well, you know the rest of the story. Jesus instructs the servants to fill six large stone basins with water, to draw some of that water out, now turned to wine, and take it to the chief steward. Once again, timing is an issue. Most hosts, you see, serve the very best wine upfront (wanting to make a good impression) and save the cheap wine for later when the palates of the guests have been, shall we say, sufficiently dulled so as to not recognize the drop in quality. But this host, the steward assumes, has bucked that traditional timing and saved the best wine for last. And suddenly this wedding celebration has six huge basins, up to 180 gallons, of fantastic wine — more than enough for the remaining days of the celebration. No one could now leave this wedding thirsty, for abundance and blessing overflowed.


Timing is everything, and not just in this scene but across John’s gospel. In fact, there are two kinds of time that animate John’s imagination as he writes. One is the kind of time with which we count and track everyday events, the seconds and minutes, the hours and days of our lives. It’s the time we spend standing in line, or clocking in at work, or waiting at the stop sign, or waiting for a birthday party to begin. Yes, the primary way that we think of keeping time this way is called “chronos,” related to our word “chronology.”


But there is another kind of time at play, the kind of time that transcends chronos, or ordinary time. It is called “kairos” time, time of opportunity. In kairos time, all that is predictable fades, and what emerges in its place is sheer possibility. This is God’s time, and it punctures through the ordinary canvas and clocks of our lives, at unexpected intervals, to reveal a glimpse of the divine. So, when Jesus speaks of “his hour,” he isn’t speaking of a particular date or time on his calendar. He’s talking about the time when God will reveal his glory through his cross, resurrection, and ascension. The time when God will be accessible to all, once and for all. That time, that hour, Jesus says, has not yet come.


Now in the coming months, our gospel readings will be coming from Luke. But, if we were to spend more time in the Gospel of John, you would see how frequently John records Jesus as saying something about whether the hour has come for him to do something, or whether it was not the hour. Something like seven or eight times he uses such phrases. Timing was everything for Jesus. And his apostle John took note. After all, even though he wrote this gospel many, many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, he was still mindful, after all that time, of the significance of timing in Jesus’ ministry.


The gospel story begins by noting that what is about to be related occurred on the third day. That doesn’t often occur in our gospel story, so it calls attention to itself. It makes you wonder whether John is wanting to grab our attention here in a particular way. Maybe he wants us to think, Hey wait a minute, did you just say the “third day” as in “on the third day he was raised from the dead?” Maybe it’s his rhetorical way of reminding us what can happen whenever there is need and Jesus is on the scene. Could be he’s setting us up for this story to see that in such cases, resurrection and abundance are right around the corner. He might even be inviting us to think of this story as a resurrection story.


I wish I had thought of this, but here instead I need to give credit to a friend of mine who noted that maybe this is John’s hint at what resurrection is like. What if the life that we live after this life is the most excellent improvement on every one of the best things that we experience in this life? What if what we’ve been experiencing in this life is like drinking acceptable enough table wine, but resurrection is something like being given the finest of the fine wines in abundance and in community and in fine quality? It makes some sense, since the “life to come” is described often as a table of great abundance and joy.


You know, I have to admit: with all this emphasis on hospitality and joy, as I was working through the readings this week I realized that emphasizing the theme of abundance, joy, celebration at what God’s presence brings to our lives wasn’t completely sitting well with me. Maybe it’s because of the nature of this weekend and what we observe with Martin Luther King weekend. I wasn’t sure why though, until I read some articles and thought of others whose biblical work I admire, who express their own sense that it can be hard to dwell on the abundance and joy that we experience, when we feel burdened by knowing that life is so very difficult for so many people. Can we honestly celebrate when others are struggling so? I will get back to this. But first I want to acknowledge that this is of course the weekend that we especially honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and really so many others who have sacrificed and pressed on in the march toward a society of greater dignity and equality for all.


One of those key civil rights leaders who continues to advocate for justice and mercy is Representative John Lewis. I was able to hear Congressman Lewis speak several years ago at a conference on Christian discipleship. If you know much about his life story, you know that he endured beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday in 1965, and on several other occasions. He continues to serve to the best of his ability, even as the decades have passed. John Lewis knows the cost of discipleship, yet he presses on. I remember hearing him speak on the powerful influence of deep joy in his life. Apparently, he speaks of this quite often, because it was easy to find several quotes that he shared on many occasions. This joy, he says, comes directly from his faith in God who is still active, and who has not given up on any of us. Even when Congressman Lewis acknowledges that we as a nation still have much work to do in our quest for racial justice, he also exhorts us to in the meantime continue to celebrate God’s abundance and goodness, and to regularly root ourselves in the joy that comes from our faith. “We serve a god of love, mercy, and grace,” he preached. “So don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. Keep the faith, and keep on continuing the story. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never become bitter. Do not give in to hate. Continue to look for and celebrate the signs of God’s abundant kindness, which are everywhere.”


Congressman Lewis’ tenacious joy mirrors the character, the joy we see bubble up in this text from John. It’s the kind of joy we hear in Mary’s voice when she expresses a deep trust that Jesus will do what needs to be done. Even if she has no idea how or what or when, she knows that Jesus will take care of it. That is the joy that comes from deep trust and an assurance that God is in the middle of circumstances of life with us. With Jesus’ mother, his disciples, and his servants who were the only ones at the wedding who knew where this extraordinary wine had come from, we too can celebrate.


Jesus is in the midst of us. He is with us always, whether or not it is the right time for him to do what we hope he would do right now. It is always the time to stop, notice his grace among us, and celebrate his abundant goodness. Just as we acknowledge in our prayers of intercession, we weep with those who weep, even as we rejoice with those who rejoice. And we remember the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance.


May our worship continue with an awareness of the god whose presence we celebrate. Timing is everything. And for us, worship is the time for thanks, for praise, for adoration, for recognition of God’s great abundance in our lives.


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2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Marriage at Cana, Wedding at Cana, John 2:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, MLK