Scripture readings: Isaiah 62:1-5, I Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
The scene is a wedding reception. The bride and the groom are dancing, families and friends are celebrating, tables are piled high with food, cups are full of drink, music is playing, people are laughing, children and servants are running in every direction At one of the tables Jesus and his mother Mary sit with the disciples joining in the festivities.
All of a sudden Mary notices something’s not quite right. The servants are whispering among each other. Mary overhears one of them and turns to Jesus and says, “they’re out of wine”.
Even in our own day, running out of beverages at a wedding is not a good thing. But in Jesus’ day, it would have been scandalous. Hospitality was a way of life. You may remember stories from the Bible about Abraham entertaining people who just walked up the road past his tent; or the disciples traveling from town to town preaching, and staying with total strangers. Hospitality was expected in that culture, and to fall short would have been a public disgrace for the whole family.
So Mary mentions it to Jesus. I’m not sure what she had in mind for him to do. He couldn’r really nip down to the state store. But Jesus answers, “what is that to you and me?” which almost sounds like he’s saying, “not our wedding, not our problem” except he follows up with the comment: “my hour has not yet come”.
There will be a time, a few years in the future, when Jesus will hold up another cup of wine and say, “this is the new covenant in my blood.” But that hour has not yet come. And Mary probably has no clue what he’s talking about. But she knows something’s up. So Mary turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Most of us here today, myself included, were raised in churches that don’t talk a lot about Mary. Unlike our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we don’t usually have pictures of Mary in the church, for example. And I wouldn’t want to change that. But Mary was the human mother of Jesus, the Lord and Saviour we love, and she had some unique insights that are worth spending some time with.
Mary is the one who had the trust and the courage to say ‘yes’ to the angel who said ‘you’re going to have a baby’. Mary is the one who, as a teenager, understood that God choosing a peasant girl to give birth to the Messiah would by definition turn the world’s values upside down. Mary is the one who said to her relative Elizabeth, “[The Lord] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53} Mary is the one who without fear and without hesitation married Joseph and then left her home and everything she knew to travel to Bethlehem (where she gave birth) and then to Jerusalem (where Jesus was presented in the temple), and then to Egypt to keep the baby Jesus safe from Herod. Imagine what it was like moving around that much, first pregnant and then with an infant. Many women in that season of life have an overwhelming desire to ‘nest’, to make a safe place for their child, but Mary had no permanent home during those first couple of years. Mary was a woman of amazing faith.
And now as we visit this wedding, we hear Mary giving the servants a piece of rich wisdom. “Do whatever he tells you.”
I double-checked the Greek here to be sure I had the meaning right. The Greek phrase is translated exactly into our English Bibles, it’s a very simple phrase. The words imply action. It’s not ‘whatever he tells you, agree with it’ but ‘whatever he says to you, do it’.
This advice can be both liberating and frightening. Liberating, because Somebody wiser than us is calling the shots. But frightening because we like to think of ourselves as the masters of our own destinies. Frank Sinatra sang about ‘I did it my way’. And this past week when David Bowie passed, his record producer eulogized him by saying “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way…”
The world hears these words as high praise. But as a Christian, these words haunt me, because they speak of a profound existential loneliness. The life of faith, by contrast, is a life lived in community with other believers and with God. As Christians we are never alone, and we are assured that our lives have meaning and purpose and direction, because we are designed by a God who is far greater, and wiser, and more loving than we are.
Jesus said to his disciples a few chapters later, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15) and Jesus promises when we do this, our lives will be guided by the Holy Spirit of God. The question then becomes, how can we hear God’s voice? How can we hear what the Spirit is saying?
For general knowledge we have God’s word, the Bible. We have the Ten Commandments, and we have Jesus’ command to ‘love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love others as we love ourselves’. Other parts of scripture tell us that God wants us to help the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, to speak for those who have no voice, and to take care of God’s creation. And we sense God’s pleasure when we do these things.
We can hear God’s voice through prayer: either on our own, or praying together. When we go to God in prayer we are open to God’s Spirit. There are moments in prayer when questions become answers and seeking becomes finding.
We can hear God’s voice is by looking at the gifts and talents God has given us. God creates each one of us with a purpose in mind, and we have been designed to fulfill that purpose, so it makes sense if we look at the design in us it will tell us something about what the designer had in mind.
In a similar way what God is saying to a congregation can be discovered by looking at the gifts and talents within the congregation. Some church families are gifted at hospitality, for example; or at outreach; or working with children; or teaching or coaching. When we are working within God’s design the Holy Spirit guides and provides.
We may hear God’s voice in the advice of long-time Christians: people who have been living lives of faith longer than we have, and have been listening for God’s voice longer than we have. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a long-time Christian in his late 70s. When I came to him for career counseling, one of the things he said was: “whatever the Lord has put on your heart to do, begin where you are with whatever you’ve got, and get started doing it.” In other words, don’t wait till everything looks perfect, till all the ducks are in a row. If God has put something on your heart, get started doing it. He almost sounds like Mary doesn’t he? “Whatever he tells you, do it.”
Another way we can hear God’s voice is through odd things that happen – that seem like coincidences – except you know whatever it is couldn’t happen by chance. An old friend of mine used to call these ‘God-incidences’. So watch for God-incidences in your life, especially if you’ve been praying recently.
A couple other things I should mention. First, it’s impossible for imperfect human beings to do God’s will perfectly. Hearing God’s voice and doing what God says to do takes persistance and practice. We need to keep trying and not get discouraged, and remember that we are God’s children, and we’re still learning.
The second is to stay focused on who it is we’re listening to. There are a lot of distracting voices in the world, voices that tempt us to anger and fear. Sometimes there are people in our lives who don’t treat us the way they should, who bully us or abuse us. We are under no obligation to listen to these voices. We listen instead for God’s voice. We need to take direction from the voice that says to us (in the words of Isaiah) “you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord…”. This is the voice that reveals God’s glory in our lives.
Doing things God’s way is not always easy. But it is worth it. At the end of it all, we will hear Jesus saying, “well done, good and faithful servant”. So I want to encourage all of us on our faith journey with the words of Jesus’ mother: “Do whatever he tells you.” AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/17/16