Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Water Into Wine

1 The next day Jesus' mother was a guest at a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. 2 Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. 3 The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus' mother spoke to him about the problem. "They have no more wine," she told him. 4 "How does that concern you and me?" Jesus asked. "My time has not yet come." 5 But his mother told the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." 6 Six stone waterpots were standing there; they were used for Jewish ceremonial purposes and held twenty to thirty gallons each. 7 Jesus told the servants, "Fill the jars with water." When the jars had been filled to the brim, 8 he said, "Dip some out and take it to the master of ceremonies." So they followed his instructions. 9 When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. 10 "Usually a host serves the best wine first," he said. "Then, when everyone is full and doesn't care, he brings out the less expensive wines. But you have kept the best until now!" 11 This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was Jesus' first display of his glory. And his disciples believed in him.      (John 2:1-11 NLT)

As a pastor I have no idea how many weddings I've conducted over the years. More than a hundred, at least. I've done all kinds of weddings. The youngest couples I ever married were teenagers. The oldest couple I ever married stopped by the church one evening looking for a pastor to conduct their ceremony as they were traveling to Florida for the winter. They were in their eighties. I've organized large wedding parties (12 bridesmaids and 12 groomsman, 30 people total) and tiny wedding parties. I did a wedding once where the bride and groom asked specifically I complete the service before the kickoff of a Penn State/OSU game (and they were from Indiana... go figure). The service lasted 11 minutes.  I've married couples in hotels, boats, camp grounds, retreat centers, and even on motorcycles.

I'm no Las Vegas Elvis, but I've done a lot of weddings.

Weddings are mostly exciting and joyful. Everyone gets caught up in the hoopla and excitement of a couple making a new life together. But their also stressful. There's a lot of planning and expense.  A lot of unwritten rules and expectations. Family members, or ex-family members, who don't like one another are in the same room together. I've never had a bridezilla like the ones you see on TV, but often the stress of all the expectations just kinda overwhelms people.

I'll never forget a wedding I had ten or so years ago in Goshen. The bride had made a ton of plans for what she wanted at her wedding and reception, and her mother seemed to disagree with every choice she'd made. This had been a topic of much discussion during our premarital counseling sessions, but nothing could have prepared me for the battle royal that was the wedding rehearsal. The mother was trying to change the processional music, the flowers, the solos, the scripture..... it didn't take long before I had a weeping, hysterical bride. Her "dream day" was going to be ruined by her own mother.  No amount of reasoning from any party involved it seemed was going to bring a resolution to the situation.

To pull the service off, I finally had to tell the mother of the bride I'd do the whole ceremony in a tie-dyed t-shirt and shorts, with my mid-back length hair pulled into two huge side-ponytails, while I did the vows in pig latin if she didn't take a seat and just let things be. I remember taking her aside and asking if she really wanted a ceremony that included:

"Do u-bey ake-tey is-they an-mey to be your awlful-ley edded-wey usband-hey."

She gave me the stinkeye until the final kiss, but at least we got through the service. 

Those same kinds of stress and expectations are at work at a wedding where Jesus turns the water into wine. All the careful planning and preparation are proving to be inadequate as the wine at the reception runs out. Scholars and historians have tried to give us insight into what a big deal this was in Jesus' Israel. I've read that the lack of wine reflected a lack of hospitality, which in an honor and shame culture would bring great shame on the family. I've read that the lack of wine could be reflected by the father of the groom as expressing his dissatisfaction with the bride-price that had been paid as being too high, threatening his relationship with both the young couple and the bride's family. I've read a lot of possible reasons why this was a potential disaster.

But whatever the cultural issue might have been in that time and place, we can all relate to the problem of throwing a party, a suare', and running out of stuff before it ends. 

Whenever I grill for a large number of people my wife will tell you I have a pathological fear of running out of food. Years ago I bought a four-burner grill with an attached side burner and a top holding rack because it was the largest one I could afford. I don't just grill the whole cow. I grill the herd. I never want anyone to leave the Bucher house complaining we ran out of hamburgers. Ain't gonna happen.

So you might imagine that the last thing in the world the couple wants to do at the reception - which in a world where you can't just run down to Sam's Club to buy another flatbed of food or drink - is run out of something as essential as wine. I mean there are probably two drink choices: water and wine.  They'd be down to one.

It's in this this scenario, I think, we can learn a thing or two about how God works when we are facing the stress of unmet expectations. Substitute whatever you want for a wedding not going to plan. Could be a career choice (or lack thereof) that's gone awry. Could be financial goals being upset by unexpected expenses. Parents who children realize aren't panning out to be all that great of parents, or children who aren't meeting the hopes and dreams that parents had for them. A spouse or significant other who doesn't turn out to be who you thought they'd be.

Whatever it may be, we all face circumstances where that which we hoped for, longed for, prayed for, didn't come to fruition. Sometimes comically. Sometimes tragically.

First and foremost, looking at this scripture, the first thing I observed was that even though it wasn't their problem, Mary goes to Jesus on behalf of the family.

I can't tell you how important I have found it is when people who have put their faith in Jesus have been willing to go to him with the needs of others. The single most important thing we can do for a person in a time of crisis and disappointment is pray for them. 

We have a lady in the congregation who when somebody is in real-life-and-death-life-altering need, I call her and ask her to pray for them. I do it partly because I know she welcomes the opportunity to pray, partly because her faith in the Lord is rock-solid, and partly because she is a big believer in prayer after coming through trials in her own life where she felt, in part, delivered by the prayers of others. She prays because of how much it meant when others prayed for her. She's become here, a praying legend. I have people, many people, who make sure I ask her to pray for them. When I tell them I have I always sense in them relief and hope.

You could do a lot worse than being recognized as someone who is quick to pray in all things and for all people. These folks are game changers for others to be sure. Through our prayers others find hope and strength. Maybe it's just the thought someone else thought enough to say something on your behalf to the Lord. More likely it's an invitation for the Holy Spirit to his his thing. In both cases, prayer done in an attitude of humility and love creates change.

Second, God keeps His own day-planner with schedules and instructions. The timing of God is beyond our understanding. Why the answer to some prayers seems to be "yes" and others "no" or "not yet" is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. But Jesus seems to indicate that there is a meaning and purpose in what He does and when He does it.  It's not his time at that time, but soon his time is coming. Why not now as opposed to later is known for reasons only by him.

The problem for us is that we can't see the big picture. Our own worlds are so limited that gaining some other greater understanding for why things happen, or don't happen, is beyond us. All we're left with in the midst of the mystery is trust and faith in Lord if we that's where we put our trust and faith. Otherwise, we're just kinda hanging on.

Mary gets this. Not only does she turn to the only person she knows can properly address this situation, but even as he publicly expresses his sense that it's not the right time for him to do anything, she gives instructions to others to do what Jesus says. The Spirit moves when the Spirit moves. Our part is expect to work on God's time and do as he instructs.

So, in times of unmet expectations we should be quick to pray not just for ourselves but others facing this challenge, and we need to be obedient to the Lord's schedule and instruction. Two fairly obvious observations, I think from John 2. But there's one more thing I think we should be aware of as we seek guidance from this scripture. Let me see if I can explain it.

I don't think we can understand the centrality of marriage in that culture at that time. There's a reason you celebrate a marriage with large amounts of wine sometimes for multiple days. Marriage is the key to holding society together. The next generation existing as well as previous ones being taken care of are at the center of the institution. In marriage is your past, your present, and your future. Marriage strengthens bonds not just between a man and woman, but a family across the generations and families within a community. 

The Old Testament Law, as well as the Books of Wisdom had a lot to say about marriage. How to do it. How to end it. When ending it was ok. What should happen after a marriage ends for the man and woman. The Law has plenty to say about what is appropriate and inappropriate for every relationship, not just marriage, but about marriage it has much to say. The rituals and rules were meant to keep the institution structured and solid, even as it served as part of the backbone for the people of Israel.

The wedding Jesus attended that day, and every wedding in that time and place, was designed to put the Law and appropriate rituals at the center of the marriage from the beginning. The wedding hadn't happened until the groom fulfilled all his responsibilities to set up a home for his family and bride learned what was necessary to serve husband and family. All of the various rituals of the day had to be followed to the letter, hence the presence of those big casks for purification purposes. Ritual washing to keep things "pure" was just one part of the foundation the marriage was supposed to be built on: strict adherence to the letter of the law that day and every day thereafter.
In John 1:17, John the Baptist, as he is announcing the beginning of Jesus ministry, makes a curious statement. He says that the law is delivered by God through Moses, but that his unfailing love and faithfulness was delivered through his son, Jesus. So while the Law had become a hard taskmaster, a never-ending litany of rules and rituals meant to build walls that insulated people from the craziness of the world, in Jesus we find that which the Law was supposed to make manifest.... God's love and grace in every circumstance.

So there's a little metaphor going on in John 2. The rules and rituals where they have fallen short, Jesus is delivering God's abundant blessing. Law and Ritual has the power to make things look good on the outside, but the love and faithfulness of the Living God has the power to make things good on the inside, where it matters. In the relationship between that man and woman, their relationships with their eventual kids, their family, friends, and the world at large, it will be God's love that will make those things right. 

All that to say this... I think the third thing we have to remember when our expectations of what life should hold are dashed is that Jesus wants to re-calibrate those expectations. He wants to take the old failed expectations of what we thought would make us happy or fulfilled which have now failed us, out to the trash. To take all the outward stuff, the chrome finish we struggle to present to the world, and discard it as the chrome peels away. So it's no accident that Jesus literally filled the empty vessels of a Law that couldn't bring peace, with a symbol of overflowing grace and love.  

That's living out the spirit of the law in this imperfect world leads to, as opposed to trying to chase it down to the letter. Peace in the midst of the ambiguous roller coaster ride in what we know as this life.

As I was writing this I couldn't help but think of my friend, Stan "The Man" Weller. Stan was someone I'd describe as an angel whose halo was a little bit crooked. He was a good, good man but he definitely had a bit of a devilish side. Nothing evil or anything but let's just say from Stan I heard more than one joke I wouldn't re-tell on Sunday morning. He was a dude's dude.

I never knew Stan in any other capacity than as a retired teacher/administrator. He invested well and was able to retire early. As a result he was the type of guy who'd just pop up at the office or your house. I never knew when the invite was coming, but often he'd just waltz in and sweep me off for a bowl of his homemade chili or a Kewpee for lunch. .Even after we moved from Lima in 1997 (we moved back in 2004) he'd still come around. He and his wife Betty came and visited us in Toledo, Goshen, and even clear over in Bloomington, Illinois right after Max was born.   He was a lot of fun to be around, and despite the gap in our ages (forty years, at least?) we became good friends.

Many might have thought Stan had a charmed life, and certainly he would have described it as blessed, but he had his trials. As long as I knew him he had health issues. Betty slowly started losing her short-term memory and eventually she suffered full-on dementia. He loved his two sons and their families, and was always concerned about their welfare. The trials and triumphs, when we'd talk he always had a running account of what was going on his family, with various names going up and down the top of his prayer list. Always he was measuring where he should intervene, or just take a step back and patiently watched what was going to happen.

As long as I knew the man he was as obedient to the Lord as he could be, taking both the lumps with victories with grace and class. He could be curmudgeonly at times, but there was a timelessness about his faith. An expectation that his exceptions could be met or dashed, but in all things God would stay faithful. And in even the face of the death of his beloved wife, the loss of his driver's license (can't tell you how much he hated that), and even in the decline of his own health, the lasting legacy Stan left to me was measuring God by God's promises and faithfulness, not what was happening in that particular moment.

Stan's comfort came in not what God had done for him lately. It came rather in the steadfastness that in an ever-changing world, God never abandons us, always acting on our behalf in his own way and own time. That expectation, I think, became the bedrock of Stan's faith more than anything else. And somehow, someway, that faith was renewed and strengthened in each triumph and dark night of the soul. Maybe Stan had "been there and done that", or maybe he hadn't, but he knew no one could throw a surprise at God.

A steady God steadied Stan.

Surely we set goals. We outline and pursue visions. We dream dreams, not just for us, but those we love and for the community we live in. We live under the weight to meet the expectations of others and society. But counting on God to do what you want, and feeling let down when what you want doesn't happen when you want it in the way you want it is just plain selfish. That's the Lord living for us, not us living for the Lord. Just like failure to meet those expectations aren't the end of the world, but often the next step toward a place where peace isn't a commodity, but a certainty. And so sometimes those old expectations are like paint on a tomb. It might look pretty but on the inside it's just cold and dark.

God wants us to get off the roller coaster of constantly swinging between disappointment and elation. To get outside of the tunnel vision on the next, latest, greatest thing, and take a step back to see the whole picture. A picture the Lord is painting that has a place in it for each of us. Maybe if we take that step back the promise will be a new way of seeing blessing even in moments where maybe we felt cursed a little, and new challenges being offered to climb the next mountain, even as we stand on the one just conquered.