Prod, Hope, Pray

Kathedraal - Bruiloft van Cana - Maarten de Vos (1595 - 97)

John 2:1-11

What an outstanding passage from today’s Gospel, eh?

I mean, here’s Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, becoming known to the world—his epiphany, as it were—and where is he but at a party?  And it’s not just any old dinner party, but a wedding, a week-long festivity in the ancient world.

And what does he do for his very first sign, or miracle, but turn water into wine?  In one fell swoop, he both saves a host from social embarrassment and enables people to rejoice and be glad more than they already are.  In fact, if we read into this story just a little, in this miracle Jesus enables those who are already drunk to get drunker still.

Oh, how our Baptist friends have trouble with this one!  Have you ever heard the argument that when the term “good wine” appears in the scriptures—as it does in this passage—it actually means wine that hasn’t yet fermented?  Good wine in the Bible, they argue, is actually grape juice and not what we would consider wine at all.

But, oh, that argument can’t get around this story: because the steward explains that usually the host brings out the good wine first; and that only after the guests have drunk their fill—or, rather, as the steward puts it, only after the guests have become drunk—that’s when the host brings out the inferior wine.  Point being, for the moment, that even in the Bible people got drunk off good wine.

Oh, Baptist friend, this ain’t grape juice!

And, by the way, if you know anything about music history, I’m pretty sure that it was here at this party where the hymn was written, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”

But, aside from all the wonderful lessons on everyday joy and gladness we could learn from this passage, I want instead to focus our time this morning on two vexing questions that come to the surface in this account.  These questions may seem unrelated at first.  But hear me out: I’ll attempt to weave them together before we conclude.

The first question, then, is this: But why pray at all?

Last week we found Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel according to St. Luke.  He went out to the Jordan River and was baptized by John along with all the other people.  And we saw a bodily form, like a dove, descend and alight on Jesus; and we heard a voice from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

But we heard about something else in Luke too: something that took place right after Jesus was baptized and right before the Trinity showed up; something that doesn’t make it into the other three Gospels.  Do you remember?

Jesus prayed.  Along with all the other people, Jesus prayed.  Like you and me, Jesus prayed.

But why pray at all?

If God is indeed sovereign—if God is the absolute creator, ruler, and sustainer of the universe—then God is going to do whatever God wants.  Really, will one little, insignificant prayer from me make any difference?

On the other hand, maybe God isn’t so sovereign.  Maybe this doctrine of sovereignty is wrong, a sort of theological hangover from the Middle Ages, still giving us a headache in our modern day.  Maybe, instead, God sits up in the heavens and casts divine influence this or that way—key word being influence, not sovereignty.  Maybe God doesn’t really rule over everything after all, but sits in his administrative office orchestrating great Rube Goldberg-like systems of cause and effect upon our world, hoping, just hoping, that everything will turn out right, wringing his cosmic hands together.

Well, if this were the case, yes, we’d certainly have an answer to our question, “But why pray at all?”  But this case just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the scriptures.  We don’t worship a cosmic good guy at continuous odds with a cosmic bad guy, hoping that all will turn out right—hoping that the force will awaken and our cosmic good guy will win—in the end.

Maybe you’re like me.  Maybe you’ve wrestled with this question time and again and still haven’t found a completely satisfactory answer.  Deadlines won’t change.  Bills won’t stop coming in.  Poverty won’t end.  Wars won’t cease.  So why pray at all?

But what else happens at this wedding party?  Jesus turns the water into wine, sure.  But what happens just before the miracle?

Just this: Jesus’ own mother prods him.

Now, Jesus hems and haws a little—a response I’ll address shortly.  Nevertheless, he then performs the miracle.  And we are left with the distinct impression that he would not have acted without his mother prodding first.

Are you like Jesus’ mother here?  Do you ever prod Jesus in prayer?

Now, remember, my main question here is, “But why pray at all?”  I’m not attempting to answer those tough questions that follow, about whether or not God is sovereign.  In fact, if you can, put those other questions aside for right now.  Today’s passage suggests that we, like Jesus’ mother, can actually prod him in prayer.

That’s a startling notion.  And it answers our question, “But why pray at all?”

Now to address the hemming and hawing through a second vexing question: In his response to his mother, why does Jesus seem reluctant?

His mother comes to him and points out, “They have no wine.”  Now, St. John could have gone straight from here to the part where his mother says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  John could have skipped over Jesus’ response to his mother.  But he didn’t.  He includes it.  “Woman,” Jesus says, “what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”

Why does Jesus respond this way?

Why the apparent reluctance?  The host has run out of wine; social embarrassment is imminent.  And Jesus doesn’t seem to want to do anything to help.

But maybe even more of a concern to some of you: Is Jesus being disrespectful when he calls his mother woman?  To his mother, of all people!  Is Jesus somehow giving teenagers everywhere a green light to act like, well, teenagers?

There’s been a lot of debate over this very question from very early on in the church’s history.  Some say it’s a language issue, that when Jesus addresses his mother with the word “woman,” it didn’t come across back then as abrasive as it does now.  But others say, no, it still would have been fairly abrasive.  One thing is for sure: St. John wanted to get our attention.

But why?

The answer, I think, relates to our first question’s answer.  We seem to be able to prod Jesus through prayer—at least to some extent.  But here, in Jesus’ response, St. John is letting us know that Jesus is bound to no earthly authority whatsoever—not even to the authority of his own mother!

Now it’s time to weave these two ideas together.  There’s Jesus’ mother: she prods.  And there’s Jesus’ response: he will not be manipulated.

Nevertheless, Jesus performs his first miracle, of turning water into wine; and we are left with the distinct impression that he would not have performed it without his mother’s initial prodding.

Put these two ideas together and we learn about the twofold nature of prayer.

On the one hand, prayer can be a catalyst for divine action.

But, on the other hand, we should never think of prayer as formulaic—like, “If only I pray the right way, then _____ will surely happen.”

Prayer is not about aligning God to our will.  Rather, prayer aligns us to God’s will.

Jesus’ mother thought Jesus should act.  So she prodded him.  But he responded not in the way that she expected.

Does that ever happen to you?  You pray, asking God to do something in particular.  But how often does God answer in the way you expect?

Notice, the story continues.  Jesus’ mother doesn’t give up when Jesus doesn’t answer as expected.  Instead, she goes and finds servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”

She didn’t know if or how, exactly, Jesus would act.  But she didn’t give up hope.  Most importantly, she continued to prod.

In your own prayers, do the same.  Don’t give up when God doesn’t answer you as you expect.

Keep prodding.  Keep hoping.  Keep praying.


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