Timing is everything, they say. Being a good waiter, for example, is all about timing. How to bring the drinks and the food at the right time, not presenting the bill too soon, or people will feel rushed, but take too long, and they’ll feel neglected. Giving the right thing at the wrong time makes it not the right thing anymore—if you bring all of the courses at once, no matter how perfectly cooked, you will spoil the meal. This Gospel passage is all about timing. The story takes place just on the cusp of that time, when Jesus is about to move from privacy of his family, who knows who he is, into his public ministry, when each new disclosure of his identity and his teaching will bring suspicion and danger. This is the first sign, the first move, in that journey. We can see that he approaches it with a sense of the weight of this moment. His mother wants him to do something he has probably done before, in the safety of their home—some impressive act, an expression of his joy in being alive, or of his feeling for others—she must have witnessed healings in the family, a flower that bloomed as he held it out to her with his child’s hand. But now, the things he can do will take on a new meaning—are they all ready, for the consequences of this revelation?
The stories of the season of Epiphany take us though the revelation of Jesus’ life, and its meaning for us. The Gospel of Luke, in which we’re spending most of our time this year, is especially journalistic, an honest and colourful reporting, to convince us that we’ve had history presented to us, revealed to us, truthfully and accurately. Our storytellers ask the classic questions: who, what, when, where, how, why? They’re putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for us. Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ Baptism, and we talked about the What of Jesus’ work—what happens in Baptism—washing away sins, and bringing people into a new kind of community with each other and with God. This week, we have the account of Jesus’ first miracle, told in the Gospel of John, because it is the only place we find that story. That first miracle is all about the When of Jesus’ work in our lives.
So let’s go back, to when it all happened, the night of that wedding. Imagine that you are the steward. You’ve worked for this family for years, taking care of their needs, managing the farm, the servants. This is a high-pressure time, a big wedding, there are so many details to take care of, so many guests to welcome from out of town. There’s livestock to slaughter and dress, baking to coordinate, they’ve been working on the cleaning and the sewing for weeks. And now after all of the preparation, it’s the big night, the wedding dinner—you’ve been on your feet since dawn, giving dozens of orders, answering twice as many questions about what goes where and we can’t sit Joseph’s family next to Ezra’s, don’t you remember, they’re not speaking to each other, what will we do? You’ve reached the point in your day when, if one more person brings you a crisis you’re just going to yell, “Handle it!” So you just slip away to your office for a few minutes to take a breath, and take stock of the supplies. It’s late, they’re several hours into the party with now sign of letting up, the wine is running low and you just want to go home. You put your head in your hands. You might lose your job, if someone important complains. Just then, one of the servants comes in and asks you to taste something, a wine they didn’t even know they had, maybe the groom’s family brought it, but they could serve it, if he thinks it’s all right. Oh no, you think, this must be some old jar turned to vinegar by now, this is only going to make things worse. Well, it’s this or water—what have I got to lose? … and then, you taste the wine.
What is that like? What did it taste like, this vintage, grapes grown and ripened, crushed and aged in an instant, in the blink of God’s eye? What was it like, this tasting of eternity, for an ordinary man at the end of a long day, a day on which he has made mistakes, lost his temper, and failed—the kind of day that all of us have known? What is it like, to find hope, when you had given up, when you weren’t expecting much of yourself or of life, anymore? Many of us, at one time or other in life, have gotten to that point when hope has run out. When the good things in life seem to have dried up, for us.
Have you tasted water that has become wine? For the steward, it happened all at once, turned his day around in a flash, but for most of us, it happens with time. Have you had that experience of transformation, of a shift in the way you were able to think about something—some event or some person? With time, what had been only bitterness becomes more complicated. Griefs and angers don’t disappear, but new things grow up alongside them, as we are granted insight about ourselves and compassion for those around us. How has life surprised you, or how have you surprised yourself? Just when you thought you knew exactly what was in that jar, and it was only disappointing and flat, or even empty, when did you find out that there was something else there, something that could live, and even feed others?
The steward is astonished, by the generosity of this late-in-the-day revelation. He marvels at the bridegroom—“You have done what nobody does, you have kept the good wine until now.” Don’t we all expect the best of life to happen up front: the carefree days and beauty of youth inevitably giving way to responsibility and decay, the cars and computers that glitter so brightly in the showroom, and then break down as their warranties run out? The proverbial honeymoon, that dissolves into the reality of stress and boredom? That is the truth of the world, is it not: decline and fall, entropy, everything, eventually, is lost. But that is not God’s truth, that is not God’s way, as this miracle, this first, miracle, right at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, tells us, pointing all the way to its conclusion, to a death that will not be an end. When does Jesus come into history, and into our own experience? At the right time, now, after you had lost hope.
Contrary to our cynical, bruised expectations, God keeps a blessing for us until the right time. When you feel that your time for opportunity, for joy, has passed, what might be God be keeping for you, that don’t dare to hope for?