Sunday, January 18, 2009

Epiphany 2

Sermon on John 2:1-11
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
January 18, 2009 (The Second Sunday after the Epiphany)

God does not always give you everything you pray for. He knows better than you do what is best for you at any given time in your life. Yes, He does hear every prayer that we pray to Him for the sake of Jesus Christ in whom we believe, but He doesn’t always answer those prayers the way we might want Him to. Sometimes His answer to a specific prayer might be, “Not yet,” and sometimes the answer might be, “No.” Of course, the fact that God answers prayer according to His will and not our own is one of the basic teachings of our Church. But it is a teaching that is easily forgotten in the midst of the trials and troubles of life in this fallen world. After all, not everything we pray for is selfish and superficial. Some of the things for which we pray are very serious and dear to our hearts. We pray that a loved one would be healed of a life-threatening illness. We pray that we would be able to make it through a financial crunch and not lose our car or our house. We pray that a broken or strained relationship with our loved ones might be healed. It’s hard for us to imagine, often, how God’s will in situations like these could be different from our own, and so if God answers “No” or “Not yet” to these types of prayers, it can be tempting to doubt that God really has in mind what’s best for us, or even whether or not God exists and is able to hear and answer our prayers at all.

In today’s text, those who were catering this wedding feast ran out of wine. This is a more serious problem than it appears at first, since wine was more of a necessity than a luxury back in those days. Modern sanitation methods hadn’t been invented yet, and so the best way to get a disease-free, healthy drink was to drink an alcoholic beverage, since alcohol kills germs. Of course, people back then didn’t know what germs were, but they knew that alcoholic beverages, when used in moderation, didn’t cause the kinds of health problems that the unsanitary water that was available in those days did. For this wedding feast to run out of wine was a serious problem, since it meant that the guests would have nothing sanitary to drink. It would be as if, at a modern wedding reception, there were no drinks at all, alcoholic or otherwise, and that the water lines to the building were shut off besides. It was probably pretty hard to imagine, especially for those who were involved in this wedding feast, how God’s will in this situation could be other than simply to say “Yes” to a prayer for help.


But that is exactly what Christ does in response to His mother Mary’s prayer for help here. He doesn’t immediately say “Yes” to her prayer, but His first answer is, “Not yet,” and along with the “Not yet” is a rebuke besides. It doesn’t seem fair or right, does it? Here is Jesus’ own mother, asking Him, who is also the Lord of heaven and earth, to resolve a serious difficulty with the wedding feast of this couple, who were probably themselves related to Him in some way. And Jesus tells her that it has nothing to do with Him, and that His time has not yet come. How rude! Especially since it’s His own mother doing the asking! And how callous toward those who had run into this serious problem with their wedding feast! That doesn’t seem like a proper response for the God who claims to love us.


Jesus was teaching a very important lesson by his answer to Mary, however. No human being has any claim on God’s blessings. God will bless us and resolve our difficulties in the way that He thinks is best, which is not necessarily the way we think is best. And we can’t claim any special favors by any relationship to Him, either. We can’t try to bribe Him into doing what we want by being “pretty good people,” or by being members of the Church. People sometimes become angry with God if He doesn’t give them what they want or what they think they need for this life, as if God owed them something. Well, I’ve got news for you. He doesn’t. We can’t claim any special favor. He will help us when and how He determines is best, not when and how we think is best.


Mary accepted this. She knew that He has in mind what is best, so even though Jesus rebuked her for her presumption, she still ordered the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions. In this she is a good example for us. Just because God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we think He should, doesn’t mean He isn’t watching out for us or taking care of us. He is. Just as Mary did, we trust Him to provide for our needs in the way that is most truly and eternally helpful to us, not just in whatever way looks to our limited human reason like what He should do.


Jesus did, then, provide wine for the wedding feast. But even there He did it in a way that is unexpected. He could just simply wave His hand and cause more wine to appear in the storeroom, or cause the wineskins that were currently running out simply to never actually run out; He had done that before in the case of the widow that the prophet Elijah knew whose jars of oil and flour never ran out. But here he uses a means which is not all that impressive; some might even say it’s disgusting. He uses the jars of water that were used for washing the feet of the guests. Not exactly the most appetizing containers to use for something you’re going to drink. But that’s what He uses. And despite the rather disgusting container, the wine that Jesus makes from the water in those jars is the best wine that the master of the feast has ever tasted.


As I said before God helps us in His way, not the way we think He should. He has treasures to give each one of you that are greater than even what Bill Gates enjoys. He has the treasure of eternal life and fellowship with Himself to give you, the treasure that your sins are forgiven and the slate is wiped clean, that you can live before God in righteousness and purity forever. As He gives us these, His most precious blessings, namely the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, He does so not in the way that seems appropriate to human reason or human emotion. He doesn’t necessarily give us particularly good feelings or emotions to reassure us that we are forgiven. That’s where many Christians look for evidence that God loves and forgives them. They look inside their own hearts to see if they can feel God’s love. But that’s not how God has promised to work with us. Emotions, if they happen, are the result of faith; we should never let them become the cause of it, because then we will have built faith on an uncertain and shaky foundation, like the man who built his house on the sand. Many Christians seem to think that the appropriate way for God to work is totally detached from physical, touchable things, because they think of the physical world as evil and misleading. But it is precisely the real, the physical that God uses to give us His greatest spiritual and eternal blessings, just as He used the somewhat disgusting means of bathing jars to give the guests at the wedding feast the best wine they had ever tasted.


The advantage of using physical means to give us His spiritual blessings is that they are certain and sure. You can see the water being poured on the child. You can hear the words that come out of my mouth telling you that your sins are forgiven. You can see the words on the page of the Bible. You can see, touch, smell, and taste the bread and wine, and hear the Words of Institution which make that bread and wine also the body and blood of our Lord. God works through things that are real and touchable, even though those things may seem to our human way of thinking as somewhat ordinary or even disgusting and inappropriate. But He works in His way, and not in our own. Feelings can change and be misinterpreted, and you can’t directly share them with anyone. But the objective Means of Grace can be seen and witnessed to by everyone. You can remind each other of what has been preached to you and what you have received in water, bread, and wine. The blessings that He gives us here are real. Your sins are no more. You will live forever with God and His Son Jesus Christ in eternal life. All of the suffering and pain and sorrow that you endure in this life will be taken away. In this way all your prayers will be answered, in God’s time, and in God’s way. All of these great blessings are given you right here, right now, through the Word and the Sacraments. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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