What can you expect from Jesus?

Do you remember the first wedding reception you ever went to? I can just about remember mine. I was about three and a much older cousin of mine was getting married. My father would tell the story of how, when the waiters came around with champagne for the toasts towards the end of the meal, he allowed just a small amount to be poured into my glass. As the assembled guests quietened down in anticipation of the speeches, I tasted the champagne and declared in a loud clear voice audible to all the guests: ‘Daddy, it’s nearly as strong as brandy!’ My parents were mortified that all would leave the wedding thinking that their infant son regularly drank brandy.
The rituals may change with time. Many of the weddings I have been involved in over recent years have been quite different from that first one in the early sixties. Outrageous stag and hen dos have become an established part of scene as has the evening party with the first dance of the newly married couple. Yet we still go along with certain expectations of what will happen: the ceremony, the photographs, the drinks seemingly lasting forever before the meal. Then the speeches, the cutting of the cake, yet more waiting around and the evening do.
It was no different for the wedding guests in Jesus’ day. Some of the traditions were different. They had to wait for the bride groom to come rather than the bride! But still there was the party and that might go on over several days and involve even more hanging around. Just like today, it was important that the bar should never run dry. In middle eastern culture then, just as for many eastern cultures today, there was a huge fear of being shamed. The wine giving out was not just an inconvenience, it was a matter of bringing shame on the family which potentially would cast them in a bad light in their community for years to come.
So, when the wine runs out, there is panic and extreme embarrassment. Jesus’ mother, who presumably knew the family who were staging the wedding, thought not unreasonably that she should do something about it. Her special son was there along with his mates. Surely, he could sort it out. As many people still had wine in their cups, it was not yet apparent to all that wine had finished. Mary went across to Jesus and whispered in his ear: ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus whispers back: ‘Woman, what concern of that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.’ (John 2. 3-4)
At this point, we may well feel that Jesus treats his mother a little shabbily. She was only trying to do her best after all. It would have been perfectly reasonable for her to expect her son, who in all probability she had already seen work miracles would do something in this critical situation and save the face of the family disgraced by the lack of wine. For some kind of an explanation of Jesus’ behaviour, we must go back to that time when Jesus had dallied around in the temple in Jerusalem listening to the teachers of the law instead of making his way back to Nazareth with family group. When Mary and Joseph eventually found him, and asked him with much frustration why he had treated them like that, he had responded: ‘Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business.’ (Luke 2.49) Jesus was always about his Father’s business. As he explains to the Jews in the temple after he has cured a blind man on the Sabbath: ‘…the Son can do nothing on his own, only what he sees the Father doing.’ (John 5.19)
Jesus must look only to his father. It is his will that he serves. He cannot be at the service of his mother, even though she is in human terms closest to him. How does Mary react? Does she strop off or create a scene. No way. Her response is an act of faith. She tells the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ (John 2.5) Whatever might have been her expectation of the way Jesus might rescue the situation, she now simply places it in his hands. After all that she had been through bringing him into the world, she knew that he was God’s son and she is prepared to trust him.
This is not the only time in the gospels where we read about Jesus apparently refusing to do a miraculous work and then proceeding to do it. In the temptations, he will not turn stones into loaves of bread yet when confronted with a crowd of five thousand hungry people, he feeds them. He is initially cool towards the royal official’s son in Cana (John 4.46ff) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7. 24-30) but in the end, he heals both his son and her daughter. So, in this story, Jesus rebuffs his mother but then goes on to provide one of the most memorable miracles of the bible which meant far from being shamed, the wedding hosts became the toast of the town.
Jesus will not act on anyone’s say so except his father. In his father’s time and in his father’s way, he acts in the gospels to convince his disciples and others around him that he is the Lord in order that they might believe in him. As we read at the end of the passage: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2.11)
Like Mary and others in the gospels, we might find that our prayers are not immediately answered in the way in which we expect, but if we are prepared to walk humbly along a path of trust and obedience, there are many times when we can find ourselves surprized by joy as he manifests his glory to us.
The wedding in Cana reveals another expectation of the wedding guests and especially the steward of the feast…that the best wine will be served first and then the rough stuff when the guests were too drunk to notice the difference. Because of Jesus’ intervention, that expectation was turned on it’s head. No one could have been more surprized than the bride groom himself. He was clueless as to what had happened. Only Jesus and the stewards knew although no doubt, Mary had a good idea too. What it meant for the bride groom was that instead of facing shame, he is commended for over turning convention and saving the best to last.
These events can also gently challenge us about our expectations of the material world around us: our homes, cars leisure activities, food and drink. We expect these things to satisfy us and to make us happy. We expect the best wine first and for that to satisfy us. That’s so often the assumption of the world around us, the message of the advertisers and salesman, magazine writers and TV presenters. It’s nothing new, but it’s amazing how easily it slips into our subconscious and we end absorbing it even though we declare ourselves followers of Jesus and in our best moments we have higher thoughts. Next time you hear and advert on TV or radio, next time you are chatting with the hair dresser, overhear a conversation in the shop or the pub, or just are just talking with friends or family members, just try to listen to what is actually being said. What is it that people look for, what to they expect will make them happy? How quickly to they want that satisfaction? How often can you hear yourself saying, thinking the same things?
It is not that material things are in themselves bad. They are gifts from God and there to be valued and enjoyed. But Jesus in this ‘first sign’ at the wedding is teaching us to use the material as a parable of the spiritual; to understand that the physical things we enjoy are not an end in themselves but can help us appreciate the immeasurable riches we have through faith in him and will enjoy for eternity. The best wine is a metaphor, a picture of the new wine which Jesus pours out for in the wedding feast of heaven which will be beyond every possible expectation.
Epiphany 3 21st January 2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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