Sunday, January 17, 2010

Second Sunday of Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

How precious is thy lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings.

When Bruce and I got married, the minister used today’s Gospel story for the message of the day. He talked about how odd it was for Jesus to choose such a ordinary moment in the life of the community for his first miracle. Now, weddings aren’t an every day occurrence, but they are a normal part of our lives. Turn to the women’s television networks at almost any time of day and you’ll find a reality show about weddings, “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Bridezillas,” or “Platinum Weddings” are just a few examples. In those shows we see that the wedding ceremony and party are a unique and special moment for that particular couple and their family, but there are weddings somewhere almost every day. I imagine it must be boring to be a minister in Las Vegas, where couples can even drive their cars up to a window and get hitched.

The other thing that amazed the minister at our wedding is that Jesus did not make his first miracle something extraordinary that would get the attention of the world. As a matter of fact, he was surprised that Jesus would even come at that period of history. Why not now? Why not come when He could change water into wine on International television? CNN would surely cover it, and then He’d be known around the world instantly. After two thousand years, there are still people who have not heard about the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

But God is not looking for fame or the power that comes with celebrity. He isn’t looking to make one single grand move to change the world. God is bigger than everything we can imagine, but he’s a micromanager. He wants to be involved in the small things. His hand is in the ordinary moments. The wedding at Cana shows us that God, and Jesus, is in the midst of our lives.

Now, the psalmist sings a song proclaiming the greatness of God. His love extends to the heavens, His faithfulness to the clouds. His righeousness is firmer than the mountains and His judgments are right. He rules over all of creation, gives life and breath to all that breathes.

Yet, in the midst of this song of the greatness of God, we are reminded that we are welcome into His presence. The psalmist sings, “And the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings.” Now, we can see this verse in light of Jesus’ wish that He could be like a mother hen covering her chicks with her wings, but there is an even deeper understanding.

The psalmist sings, “How precious is thy lovingkindness, O God!” The Hebrew word “chesed” here translated as “lovingkindness” is difficult to translate into English. None of our words fully encompass the depth of its meaning. It is sometimes translated “steadfast love” or “mercy.” This word, especially when it is used in reference to God, is about the divine love that reliably loves and forgives His chosen people even though it is undeserved because of their sinfulness. In other words, this lovingkindness is the heart of grace, it is about the loving God doing what only God can do.

For the Jews, the center of God’s mercy was found on the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, a specially designed box which held the most important artifacts of the Jewish faith, was held in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of God. The Ark had seemingly magical powers when the Israelites were on the move before they settled in Jerusalem: armies fell, water stood still, the people found safety and provision in its presence. The box, made of acacia wood and covered with gold leaf. Statues of cherubim are located at both ends of the box, with their wings touching over the top. The cover is known as the mercy seat of God, it is His throne on earth. It is the place where the blood was sprinkled each year for the atonement of Israel. It is the center of forgiveness.

And we are invited to sit there. We are invited to climb on the lap of God our Father, to hug Him as a child loves Daddy. The mercy seat is the place of judgment, but our God has promised to be merciful. We need not be afraid to approach the throne of grace because it is there that we find our salvation. Under the wings of God’s cherubims, on the mercy seat of God, we experience the lovingkindness that is the center of God’s nature. A mother hen protects her children, but God does far more. He not only gives us life and love, but He saves us from our sinfulness.

The people of Israel were definitely sinners, in the sense that they turned from God at every opportunity. They were drawn into the ways of the world, following the paths of other nations and turning to them for help. They often forgot their God and suffered the consequences of doing so. Isaiah speaks to the people during a time of exile, when they fell to the power of Babylon. It might have seemed like God was not present with His people when their city was destroyed and the people were taken to Babylon. But the reality is that they were no longer sitting on the mercy seat of God, under the wings of the cherubim. But even when we fail to live up to our end of the covenant, God is always near. The exile was followed by the promise: you will go home.

In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah repeats the promise: though you are Forsaken and Desolate today, your name will be changed to Hepzibah which means My Delight is in Her. God delights in His people and He is faithful, even when we are not. Jerusalem will be vindicated and restored. She will be like a crown of beauty or a royal jewel in the hand of the King. God will rejoice over her. This passage also includes the image of marriage: the restoration that God has promised will be like a bridegroom marrying a bride. The relationship between God and His people is not that of a far off famous powerful person, but like a family: intimate, close, real.

The miracle that Jesus performed at Cana was very personal. As a matter of fact, the only ones who knew what happened were Jesus, Mary, the servants who filled the jars with water and the disciples. Even the steward was left out; he was surprised when the good wine was held until the guests were already drunk. The bride and groom and their families may have never even known how the problem was solved.

It is interesting that Jesus asks Mary what it has to do with them. She answers by telling the servants to obey His command. He might have been hesitant, but He submitted to her request. We don’t know about the relationship between Mary and the family who was giving the wedding, but she must have been close to someone to know that there was a problem with the wine. It may have been a relative or a close friend. She did not need to answer Jesus’ question, because He knew what it had to do with them. She would not let him ignore the needs of the people who mattered to them because He was just beginning this new life.

It is, perhaps, tempting for us to be reluctant to do for our own family members. We are afraid that the things they are asking of us will interfere with the work we have to do. Or we do not have the time or resources that we think are necessary. We can’t take the risk because it might disrupt our own lives in some way. We also think that we can’t do enough. We think we either have to make a grand gesture or do nothing. We feel the same way when it comes to doing God’s work in the world. We don’t think we can make a difference, so we don’t bother.

But our lessons for this week show us differently. I’m reading a book called “The Great Permission: An Asset-Based Field Guide for Congregations.” In the book, this can’t do attitude is called “tiny-mindedness.” The writer says, “Tiny-mindedness appears every time you think you’re weaker, dumber, less powerful or less capable than you really are. Or when all you think about is what’s not good about you or your congregations.” Elsewhere he writes, “A sure sign you’re measuring yourself or your congregation with a tiny mind: overuse of ‘just’ and ‘only’ when describing who you are or what you do. A sure solution: stop talking that way!”

We don’t have to make a grand gesture or do something that will bring fame or power. We simply need to do what God has gifted us to do. The next time we look at someone who seems to have it all, who seems to be able to do it all, let’s remember that God didn’t mean for any of us to do it all. He meant for each of us to do what we can do. Jesus’ first miracle was a behind the scenes gift of mercy. He gave the family the wine they needed to continue the wedding banquet. Few people even knew it happened. Jesus didn’t need to do something big on CNN in the twenty-first century because the work He came to do was not given for the whole world. It was given for you: every one of you. God’s grace does change the world, His light and love makes it new. The psalmist even says that God saves humans and animals alike. But God’s lovingkindness which we receive through our Lord Jesus Christ is for each individual child of God, given for YOU.

Paul writes, “Now there are diversities of gifts.” He lists nine gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. These gifts come from the Holy Spirit, are activated by the same Spirit and He chooses which gifts go to whom. None of us have it all. None of us can do it all. We are given a portion to be used as part of the whole. The Spirit draws us together to do the work of God together. The little things we can do are joined together by the Holy Spirit to make transform the world. Just because I can only do one thing doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do anything. I’m called to do that one thing, and with the Spirit’s help it will be part of God’s greater scheme. Each of us is saved and gifted for the glory of God.

We begin the work of living in God’s amazing grace by climbing onto His lap on the mercy seat, experiencing the love and the grace He promises to each of us. We are protected by His wings when we stay on that mercy seat. But even when we fail, and we will fail, God is waiting to draw us back into His presence. We might have to suffer the consequences of our failure, but God’s lovingkindness is greater. He delights in each of us. He delights in you. The next time someone makes us aware of a need, like Mary brought to Jesus, instead of asking, “What is that to me?” we can respond with lovingkindness because God is with us. He will provide all we need to make a difference in that one life, in that one moment. He has changed our name, it is now Hepzibah, “My Delight is in Her.” Let’s live in the faith that comes with that name, glorifying God in all we do even when it seems very ordinary.

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