What’s a Mother To Do?
I want to note that both Ascension Sunday and Mother’s Day fall on the same Sunday this month and that next week we will observe both Pentecost and Graduation Recognition Sunday. This meshing requires a good bit of homiletic dexterity on the part of the preacher.
On these days between Ascension Day and Pentecost, I want to call your attention to an important passage of Scripture. What was happening during those in-between days in the early church of the first century? Jesus had told the disciples to wait, so they waited. He had gone back to heaven. They made the decision to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias, a disciple who is never mentioned again in the Bible. The disciples elected him to serve by casting lots. Maybe Morningside should roll the dice and see how our deacon election turns out sometime. The early church then waited until Pentecost for the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
We all find ourselves in these in-between times often in life.
Let me invite your attention to John 2:1-12, text that is perfectly suited for these in-between times. Hear now the Word of God.
1On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. 3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. 9When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” 11This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 12After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples; and there they stayed for a few days.
According to John’s Gospel, the first miracle that Jesus performs does not occur at a funeral. Neither does it occur in the temple or synagogue. Instead, the events presented in this passage take place at a wedding in a private home.
Weddings in current times are very different from weddings that occurred in the ancient Near East. The organist may play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” while the mothers are being seated and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” as the pastor and groom enter the sanctuary with the best man. Then the organist may play another selection as the attendants process. Finally the doors at the back of the sanctuary open to reveal the bride; and we hear Wagner’s “The Bridal Chorus,” more commonly known as “Here Comes the Bride.”
In our tradition, all attention is focused on the bride during a wedding. The groom is expected to stand still at the front of the church like the figurine on top of the wedding cake, doing nothing. In the weddings of the first century, however, the groom, not the bride, was the center of attention. The groom paid for everything, including all the wine drunk by those attending the celebration.
Today, depending on the number of musical selections the bride and her mother select, a wedding takes about forty minutes. Of course, we know that the marriage ought to last much longer than that. The actual marriage ceremony in ancient times probably did not last much longer, or even as long as, our ceremonies. The reception, however, was a different matter. The couple did not have a Baptist reception. It was more like an Episcopalian reception, lasting about a week with a lot of feasting and drinking wine.
Estimating how many people would attend and how much wine would be needed was difficult. A shortage in wine, according to some commentators, would have caused great embarrassment for the groom. I do not know if that was really the case, but I do know that Mary prevented any humiliation by reporting the problem to Jesus. Note that Mary never told her son what to do; she merely informed him of the need for more wine.
In addressing this passage, many commentators and preachers focus on the miracle of turning the water in six stone jars into wine. Each jar was capable of holding between twenty to thirty gallons, which means an additional 120-180 gallons of wine for the revelers. Jesus merely instructs the servants to draw out some liquid. He does not wave his arms over the water or speak any words of incantation. He simply tells the servants what to do, and the water becomes wine.
We look at this particular miracle and see that Jesus is concerned about matters that might otherwise be considered trivial. This issue is not as important as healing somebody with leprosy, not as important as raising a dead person to life, as in the case of Lazarus. This miracle is about non-essentials, but his response assures us of his concern with every detail of life. This response to Mary’s report is identified as the first of his “signs,” the word John uses for the miracles of Jesus. The use of “signs” occurs seventy-seven times in the New Testament, many in the Gospel of John.
Jesus has a way of making what seems ordinary into something extraordinary. He does not just turn water into wine; but he also turns Galilean fishermen into disciples who, by the seventeenth chapter of Acts, are referred to as “men who turned the world upside down” (Verse 6).
In this life, we all experience cups of bitterness. Being convicted of our sins is a bitter cup. Out of that bitterness we receive the cup of salvation. The cup of loneliness is difficult to drink, but out of that loneliness we receive the cup of God’s presence in our lives. The cup of failure can sting, hurt, and disappoint, but out of that failure comes a refocusing of our attention on what is most important – our relationship to Christ. The Apostle Paul writes about the suffering of this life in Romans 8:18. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed.” Paul is saying that God makes all things new and that God’s provision is always abundant. Jesus’ turning 120-180 gallons of water into wine is an abundance.
We could focus on the miracle of turning water to wine, but today on this Mother’s Day something else deserves our attention: the relationship between this mother and her son. Mary’s comment “They have no wine” shows that she clearly expects Jesus to react in some way. She really has an expectation that he can solve the bridegroom’s problem. Some have commented that Mary was not really suggesting that Jesus do a miracle; she was just proposing that he and the disciples leave, an option that would have meant fewer people and more wine. I doubt that.
Jesus’ response to his mother puzzles us. He asks, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
“Woman”? Should Jesus have addressed his mother in this manner? It sounds rude, even harsh, to our ears; but that was not the case in the first century. “Woman” was a typical way of addressing a female. Jesus uses this term for the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection. He uses this very term again for his own mother when she stands at the foot of the cross. That comment implies nothing insensitive, nothing offensive, nothing abrupt.
The next statement Jesus makes is more difficult to understand: “What does your concern have to do with me?” He is asking, “What makes you think that this problem is mine?” How many times have husbands or sons heard the women in their lives say something like, “The roof is leaking, and we need to fix it” or “The car is not running right, and we need to fix it”? That comment actually means, “We have a problem, and you need to fix it.”
Mary tells her son, “They are out of wine” but means, “They are out of wine, and you need to do something about it.” Basically Jesus asks, “What do you mean by ‘we’?” He is a grown man. By all accounts he is thirty years of age and no longer under the authority of his mother. Moreover, he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
What is happening here? I would submit to you that this account is a coming-of-age story in which Jesus redefines the perimeters of his relationship with his mother. He is telling her, “Listen. I am not the little boy who was running around the carpenter’s shop. I am not the little boy in the temple talking with the elders. The page has turned, and we are in a new chapter now.”
Catholics and Protestants relate to this story in a different way. In Catholic theology Mary is often seen as an intercessor, the conduit through which prayers are received and relayed to Jesus. Catholics believe that you pray to Mary who then prays to Jesus on your behalf. As I read the Scripture, I see something very different happening. Jesus is not abrupt. He does not immediately answer, “No way.” Neither does he say, “Yes, ma’me.” He clarifies the perimeters of their relationship.
Mary makes a request of Jesus only this one time in the Gospels. I know she must have made many other requests during his childhood and adolescence and maybe requests later in his life, but this is the only one recorded. You will notice that she backs off when he responds with the question. She directs the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Her reply puts Jesus in charge. He was in charge. You will notice that he does exactly what she wants him to do but first establishes boundaries.
I honestly have no idea about the meaning of Jesus’ next statement, “My hour has not yet come.” Does it mean that the host of the wedding is not completely out of wine, and Jesus wants to wait awhile? I do not believe that is the case. Does it mean, “This is not the time for my glory to be revealed”? If that is the case, Scripture clearly says that he is glorified through this miracle. His disciples believe in him. I do not know the exact meaning, but I do know that the tension created between the mother and son is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
This occasion occurs at one of those in-between times. Much of mothering happens at in-between times, with moments of tension. A child who is creeping and crawling suddenly stands on his own two feet and becomes a toddler. Parents move everything breakable to a notch higher. You can feel the tension. When a toddler gets on a tricycle and starts peddling, a parent has to set limits and say, “Not there. Not here. Not into the furniture.” A child begins school, and a mother realizes that someone else will have her child for more hours in the day than she does. We understand that tension.
Do I need to address the presence of tension when children become adolescents? With a driver’s license in hand, teenagers can go places and do things out of sight, but never out of mind. When dating begins, parents do not always get to choose the date. They attend college, which brings with it costs. Then we provide them with a soft place to land when they come back home. Tension comes with each step in their life, even once they leave the home and marry someone of their choosing. We continue to love them, but tension arises if we do not always agree with the way they rear their children. Mothers find that when a child dies far too soon the in-between time creates terrible tension.
Tension is always just around the corner for mothers, and we see stress and anxiety in every Gospel. Luke describes the pondering, the contemplative, heart of Mary when she learns of her pregnancy. We see Mary going to the temple to dedicate her infant son. The mysterious Simeon declares and Anna seems to confirm that this baby is the child of God. Mary watches him grow up on the hills of Nazareth in Joseph’s carpenter shop.
We see tension when she and the family journey to Jerusalem for Passover and Jesus goes missing for three days. After a frantic search Mary and Joseph find him in the temple, talking to the elders of the church. Mary asks, “Didn’t you know that we would be worried?” Is his answer, “Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?” the way a twelve-year-old should speak to his mother? The Scripture says something remarkable: “They did not understand.” How many times have I been there!
Scripture says that Jesus goes home and obeys them, and we hear nothing about him during the next eighteen years. Mark Twain proposed that is the way a parent should handle a teenager. He suggested, “When a boy becomes a teenager, we ought to put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns sixteen, we ought to plug up the knot hole.”
We also see tension in the Gospel of Mark. During his time of teaching and healing, reports begin circulating that Jesus is possessed by a demon. Mary and his brothers want to take him home, but Jesus refuses to go with them, asking, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” He answers his own question, saying, “Those who do the will of my Father.” That declaration, which seems like a rejection, must have hurt Mary.
The Gospel of John indicates that John has a special sensitivity to Mary. He never calls her by her name but instead identifies her as the mother of Jesus. You remember the scene at the cross when Jesus addresses his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” He is not asking her to look at John, nor is he asking John to look at Mary when he says, “Behold your mother.” Jesus connects the two, instructing John to take care of his mother, which John does. The tradition in the church is that John moved to Ephesus, taking Mary with him. There Mary lived and died. There she was buried.
Let’s look at the story in closer context. Chapter 1, Verse 14 affirms the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In Verses 32-34 when John talks about how he saw the vision of heaven and the Spirit coming down like a dove, he is referring to the baptism of Jesus. Then the rest of the chapter addresses the call of four disciples: Andrew, who introduces his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, and Phillip, who introduces Nathaniel to Jesus. Interestingly, neither John nor his brother James is mentioned in that first chapter.
When Chapter 2 begins with the words, “On the third day…” we question what happened three days earlier. Most commentators say this reference indicates the third day after the baptism of Jesus. Wait a minute. What did we skip? What has been omitted here? Immediately after the baptism in the other Gospels, Jesus goes into the wilderness where Satan tempts him for forty days in a contest. Does that account occur anywhere in John’s Gospel? Is Jesus tempted to turn stones to bread? Is he tempted to cast himself off a pillar of the temple so that angels can spectacularly rescue him? Is he tempted to sacrifice his authority by bowing down to worship Satan, hoping to become an expedient Messiah?
The temptations appear in John’s Gospel right here, not in the wilderness but at a wedding. He does not turn stones to bread; he turns water to wine. He does not demonstrate that he is spectacular by leaping from the temple; he gives the servants instructions in a very quiet manner behind the scenes. He does not sacrifice his authority, not even to his own mother but does exercise his authority at her prompting.
This coming-of-age story recounts Jesus beginning a ministry, prompted by Mary. Is Mary the tempter? I do not believe that. Some mothers are the ruin of their children, but not most and certainly not Mary. This account of the wedding is John’s take on the temptation, but both Mary and Jesus handle the situation with about as much grace and as much aplomb as possible.
What is a mother to do? Let me paraphrase a few lines from Romans 12:
What is a mother to do? Be joyful in hope. Be patient in affliction. Be faithful in prayer. What is a mother to do? Share with them when they are in need. Practice hospitality. What is a mother to do? Bless them when they persecute you. Bless and do not curse. What is a mother to do? Rejoice with them when they rejoice, and weep with them when they weep. What is a mother to do? Live in harmony with one another.
Motherhood does not have an easy job description. It is the hardest job in the world. I have known some people who have done it very well. You have too.
As I was preparing this sermon I could not help but think about the mothers in Sandy Hook. I also thought about the mothers in Boston on Patriot’s Day. Some were watching in joy as their children ran in the marathon; others were simply enjoying a day with their families. Then all joy turned to horror as terror raged. Those same mothers wept in grief at the maiming and loss of life, not just for their own children but also for others. We do not like one Chechen mother connected to that tragedy. Her own life has not been exemplary. She is experiencing anguish and anger because one son is dead and another wounded, consequences of their own acts of violence. That mother, in her suffering and rage, is in the pit of denial.
I enjoy Scott Simon’s commentary on NPR. Yesterday I listened to the article he had written for Mother’s Day, which I would like to share with you:
Mothers have eyes in the back of their heads. They may not show up on X-rays, but they’re there.
Like a lot of youngsters, I used to get my mother to turn her head so I could search through her hair for the eyeballs she claimed to have back there, telling her, “No you don’t! No you don’t!” But when I’d scamper off to another part of the apartment and pick up an ashtray or fiddle with the window blinds, I’d hear my mother’s voice ring out, “I can see you! I know what you’re up to!”
Mothers seem to see not only what we’re up to, but also what a pediatrician may have missed, or what a teacher doesn’t understand. I’m not sure that I believe in intuition, but I devoutly believe that mothers have eyes in the back of their heads.
Mothers possess singular vision. They can look at what the rest of the world may see as a sullen, snarling teenager and view them, through some other set of eyes, as the infant they used to carry and cuddle, the child who babbled on their lap and laughed, and the person they’re sure we’re struggling to become.
Mothers don’t always think we’re right. In fact, they know better — better than anyone. No one has heard more of our cunning excuses. But mothers are the ones who remember our tears and nightmares. Mothers can always see through to our innocence.
Lots of us look at a child’s finger painting and profess to recognize a burgeoning Picasso in the smears and thumbprints (maybe Picasso’s mother saw Renoir in young Pablo’s pictures). But mothers never stop seeing the Picasso in us — the promise of potential — even if we’ve disappointed or squandered it. Seeing that promise in their eyes can fortify us when we’re disheartened…
The eyes that mothers have in the back of their head see their children at all ages, all at once. It is the special vision of mothers, and I’ve never gotten a better bit of advice — about the news business, art or life — then when my mother would see someone panhandling on the street, or unshaven and mumbling on the subway, and tell me, “Remember: They were once a baby that a mother loved.”
That special vision makes mothers our advocates for life. Everyone should have one.
Mary is a mother who also had eyes in the back of her head. She can see things no one else can see except for Jesus’ heavenly Father, God.
Mothers have that special insight. A Christian mother’s heart has no greater desire than the one expressed by John in his third letter. Verse 4 says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth.”
Do you know Christ Jesus? Have you accepted the truth of the gospel? If not, we invite you to make a decision to acknowledge Christ as the Lord of your life. Perhaps you have another decision to make. You know what God has laid on your heart. We invite you to respond.Kirk H. Neely © May 2013