Time for the Best
Scripture: Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Oct 22, 2017
You at Westminster Presbyterian Church are beginning the third chapter in your almost 50 year history with your pastors/heads of staff ministry: Bob Bos, your founding minister of 26 years, Richard Thompson serving here 19 years, and next month a young 36 year old Dave Rohde starting, by God's grace, a long a fruitful pastorate. Interim pastors are, alas, forgotten! Except if they tell "good jokes," which I don't, but I keep trying, and pastors like to tell pastor jokes like the story of a pastor who was visiting an elderly woman in her home. And during the visit, the pastor got so hungry that when the woman left her living room to get something, the hungry pastor spied a bowl of peanuts on the coffee table, and he proceeded to eat the entire bowl of nuts. When the elderly woman returned, the pastor confessed, "I'm sorry, I was so hungry I ate all your peanuts," and the woman said, "That's all right, you see Pastor, ever since I lost my false teeth I haven't been able to chew, so every night I take my peanut M&Ms, suck all the chocolate off, and put the nuts into that bowl."
Since you are beginning this new chapter in your church life (not soon enough many say!) I've chosen two Epiphany lessons this morning. Epiphany means "manifestation, revelation, new dawning. The Epiphany season, of course, comes after Advent and Christmas: the day of the Gospel reaching across and beyond Israel's borders bringing the reign of Christ to the nations. These two Epiphany texts: Isaiah 62:1-5 and John 2:1-16, the story of our Lord's first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee which will not appear next in the preaching lectionary until January of 2020.
The common thread of these Scriptures is simply, yet profoundly, "the incredible generosity of God." We sing week by week in worship "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." So these Scriptures eloquently speak of the generous God from flow all the blessings of heaven and earth. If those scholars are correct who view the last few chapters of Isaiah as a third distinct section of the book, this Isaiah 62 is a continuation of the Epiphany text in Isaiah 60: "Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." The exiles have now returned to Judea from captivity in Babylon. They have begun to reweave the fabric of their personal lives and restore the glories of the nation's life in a devastated homeland. The text in Isaiah for these exiles in coming home is full of exuberant joy as it portrays the new deeds and the astonishing mercy of a generous God. The writer of Isaiah 63 is so brimming with "I can't wait to tell you" enthusiasm that he or she cannot hold it in! "For Zion's sake (for Jerusalem's sake) I will not keep silent and for Jerusalem's sake (for Zion's sake) I will not rest." No silence, no rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn and Israel's salvation breaks forth like a burning torch.
Once Judah was an embarrassment, the people of pity from surrounding nations: captivity of 70 years, Jerusalem destroyed, the people distraught. In last Summer's psalms, a year ago, we looked at a song of lament from Israel's imprisonment, "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." (Psalm 137)
Now in Isaiah 62 the prophet sings out because she or he will burst if they don't (like a child who comes home from school with an incredible story or a person who gets offered an amazing opportunity: "Why, nations shall see Zion's (Jerusalem's) vindication, and all the kings shall recognize your glory."
If it is true that Israel as a nation could go from devastation in exile to, 100 years later, exuberant joy in freedom, that same "turnaround" can come to us as well! Some of us, probably most of us, have gone through dark, dark times in life -- job loss, a loved one's death or departure, a physical limitation, or a missed chance at what we had dreamed to do or be. The good news of Isaiah 62 is that the same "incredibly generous God" who surprised Israel by leading them from utter sadness in Babylon to an astonishing delight in their return to Jerusalem, that same generous God is our God too. That God can find us in complete sorrow and bring us in mercy to overflowing happiness. That makes us most optimistic for WPC's future!
I am not a diary person, some of you keep diaries. The closest I have are old sermons, but I can read my former sermons and you your diaries or memories and we remember our past difficult years. Yet here I am, here you are. The same people who once said, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" now sings in Isaiah 62: "And you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give you. And you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God." If in 100 years God's astonishing generosity can turn a nation around, that God can, and has, "brought us out of darkness into God's marvelous light," said the Apostle Peter.
What I like about the Bible and our Christian faith is that darkness and sadness are real. Evil is not a pretense. Israel lived in real difficult days, and so at times in life do we. But it's this real darkness that makes the light all the more brilliant. And how are we to be a "crown of beauty?" How do we know it's true that we are a "royal diadem?" How did Israel know? Did you hear that little phrase that the writer used - twice! We are crowns of beauty and royal diadems because we are in the "hand of God."
That's an important prayer for us as a community in 2017-2018 and personally, at Westminster. "May I be your hands this week, O God." That was Jesus' last prayer and last words before his death, wasn't it? "Into your hands I commend my spirit." We are in God's hands. That's good news from Isaiah.
What's the good news from John? In short, a miracle. It's water into wine and a whole lot of it. Our story begins, "On the third day, that is the third day after Philip was called to be a disciple, Jesus was attending a wedding in the village of Cana." Cana was, and still is, a small community nine miles northwest of Nazareth. The disciples were also invited to this festive event that may have lasted seven joyous days. An ancient wedding began with a procession in which the bridegroom's friend would bring the bride to the groom's house and then would begin the wedding supper. Interestingly, Cana was disciple Nathaniel's home town. Could the wedding invitation have come through Nathaniel?
After hours, maybe days, the wine ran short. The text says, "gave out." None left. Then Mary, no mention of her name by John, simply "the mother of Jesus," said to her son, "They have no wine." Much debated response by Jesus, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" Literally, Jesus said, "What to me and to you, woman?" No dishonor, just clear "My hour has not yet come." Mary takes no offense, rather maybe anticipating something she said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
John describes six stone jars, water jars, each capable of holding 20 or 30 gallons of water to be used for religious purification ceremonies. Jesus ordered the servants to fill them with water "to the brim." Now we have 30 gallons each - 180 gallons of wine!. When they did so, he said, "draw some out and take them to the chief steward" (a chief steward may have been a friend of the bridegroom who had been chosen to direct the wedding ceremonies). When the headwaiter tasted the water, it had become wine, fine wine. The steward calls the bridegroom, "Bad wine comes out last for obvious reasons. But you have saved the best for now." So, concludes John, Jesus did this, the first of his miracles in Cana of Galilee, had he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed him.
So what about this story of water to wine? Many a conservative interpreter has written that this story of "wine making" is symbolic, can't be real wine. It would offend their tea totaling life. Many a liberal commentator has written water to wine? A supernatural physical miracle? Can't be done. So conservatives say "he wouldn't do it," and the liberals say "he couldn't do it."
Another thing. All of Jesus' other miracles are done in plain sight, except this first miracle. A blind person is given seeing eyes. A sick child is healed and given back to astonished parents. A storm is stilled and disciples are rescued. All publicly witnessed! But this miracle at Cana is done off stage. And it unfolds in such a convoluted way, doesn't it? At no point is the reader ever told that Jesus had turned the water into wine. The steward knows he is sampling good wine, but he doesn't know where it came from. The servants do know where it came from, but they do not know it's wine. Possibly the wedding guests did not even know a miracle had taken place. Only the disciples and, of course, Jesus knew.
May I suggest that if we remember two words from this story of Jesus' first miracle, this story will come to life. Both words are about time. The first word is "then." The "then" of this story is a time in history, a day water was changed to wine, a beginning of a three year earthly ministry, that city was the beginning of God's "redemptive then." In that day, the ministry and the place of Jesus... God's glory was revealed, and the redemption of those who believed in him would be inaugurated.
We look back to this miracle, this ministry, this village of Cana, and we say that it is the "then" of our salvation. Our "redemptive then" was then. Then was God reconciling us, "you and me," to God. "Then."
The second word is "now." If this story of Jesus' first miracle is only about "then," then it's just a delightful story about a merry party in a quaint middle eastern village. But this story of Cana is really about "now," about you now and me now. Why? Because the Apostle Paul wrote that the grace of God in 2 Corinthians 6:2 is now. "Now is acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation." People ask me of the 24 interim churches I have served, what is my favorite? And I always say "the one I am in now." The now is the only time that we can act. We can change the now, and now is the only time for you and me to receive the grace of God too. Then and now. Jesus said one day at Cana, "It's time for the best." And the same spirit of Christ speaks to us at Westminster. "It's time for the best" for you. The Gospel is good news for the world, for the church, for me, and it's good news for you. Then and now.
The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church