Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
John 2: 1-11
I know what time is, said St. Augustine, but if someone asks me to explain it, I cannot. Well, how many of us could explain time? Though we have the benefit of 1600 years of scientific advancement, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, which says that as we approach the speed of light, time actually slows down and if we could exceed the speed of light, we could reverse the flow of time—go back to the future, nonetheless, the concept of time boggles our minds and imaginations. We don’t so much understand time as experience it. We know time not in theory, but in practice. We mark time by recalling the faces no longer among us. We look into the mirror, and notice the inevitable signs of ageing. We watch our children grow up and leave home, go to college, perhaps later marry and have children. And then our grandchildren arrive and grow up. Where does the time go? That was a question one of my kids asked me, when he was 3. Where does time go? He went through this phase, when he insisted on taking a loud ticking clock to bed every night. Mommy, he said with great excitement, now I can see time and hear it!
Time: there is something about it, which fascinates human beings, including a three year old. I remember as a college sophomore, taking a class in social psychology, where one of the psychologists we read was Abraham Maslow. Maslow was the psychologist of self-actualization, who said that the primary project of human beings is to discover their gifts and talents and then use them, actualize them for the benefit of the world as well as the self. But what I best remember was the comment he made about time. Time, he said, is what makes human love possible. Time is what makes our choices and decisions count for something. And then he gave the example of the Greek myths, the gods and goddesses whose love affairs among themselves were boring--- until one of them fell in love with a human being and time entered the picture. Since time means limits---not everything can be done--- the decision to do this and not that, to love this one and not that one means something. And so the immortal gods would learn from human beings that time has a meaning which cannot be found in eternity. Yes, time matters, and because it does, it should not surprise us that the theme of time finds its way into the Bible. The Bible is filled with human concerns and questions, and one of the big questions is how to tell time, how to tell the right time.
When I was a seminary student in Boston, I did some clinical training at Deaconess Hospital, where I met this crusty old Irish Catholic priest, who would come to visit patients. The first question he asked me was if I knew how to tell time. That is the most important lesson in life, he insisted, to learn how to tell what time it is in your life, because if your timing is off, you will be off. I learned a great deal from that man. One of my patients was a 32 year old woman, who had been battling cancer for 4 years, but was nearing the end. I’m done, she told her husband. No more treatment. I can’t do it anymore. The battle is over. You’re a coward, he screamed. A damned coward and a quitter. Charging out of his wife’s room, he ran straight into the priest, who was coming to visit his wife. Very calmly he placed his hands on Mark’s shoulders, and looking him squarely in the eyes, he asked him one question: Do you know how to tell time? There was a painful, protracted silence, followed by some sobs, and then Mark walked back into his wife’s room and gave her the permission she wanted and needed: the permission to die. The time had come.
Our scripture lessons for today present us with two different understandings of time. From the book of Ecclesiastes, we have the familiar words: To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born, a time to die. These words from the Preacher, who most likely was not a Jew, came from a world, where time was understood to be circular, a repetitious cycle of birth, death, decay, and rebirth. The seasons come and go; the earth brings forth its fruit, the plants wither and die, and new ones appear. The generations come, the generations go, and the earth endures. Admittedly, there is comfort in such a view; what has been will be again. But there is also a kind of ennui, a boredom and despair that sees nothing new under the sun. And indeed, the reading this morning from Ecclesiastes should not be read without remembering the refrain, which is repeated over and over again throughout the entire book: Vanity of vanity, all is vanity, a mere striving after the wind!
In a part of the world that understood time as an ever repeating cycle, how extraordinary that the Jews would develop another view of time! Time, they insisted, is not a repeating cycle, a mere striving after the wind. No, time moves toward a goal, and the goal is God's kingdom. Time is not simply chronos, ordinary time, clock time, but time is also kairos, divine time, when God breaks into ordinary time, breaks into human history, and transforms it into something new.
And this is what our text from John is about: the new thing God is doing in time and history. As I said, we human beings always want to know what time it is. Is it the right time----the right time to marry, to have a baby, to move or change jobs or retire, and Jesus, being fully human, was also concerned with this question. Is it the right time for him, the right time to begin his ministry, the time when God would transform the ordinary moment into an extraordinary one? Indeed, is it the right time? Notice that his mother seemed to think it was, but then mothers often do. They often push and prod their children to move. But when Jesus’ mother attempted to push him, he turned to her and said, “My hour has not yet come.” The time, in other words, is not yet right. What is going on here?
Well, a wedding is going on, and in ancient Israel a wedding lasted at least a week. It was a time of celebration and heavy drinking! And then the wine gave out. To be out of wine would be a deep embarrassment for the host. The rules of hospitality were such that the provision of food, drink and shelter was at the center of what it meant to be a good Jew. To fail in the rules of hospitality was to fail in one's religious obligation---no small matter.
Secondly, wine was at the center of Jewish religious life. Rituals in the home and the temple were conducted using wine, and so to be without wine was to lack an essential religious tool. It would be of grave concern not only to the host, but also to everyone present. And yet, when Jesus’ mother told him that the wine was gone, his response was, "What concern is that to you and me? My hour (my time) has not yet come." Now such a statement would be heard as not only uncivil, but also religiously insulting, tantamount to saying, "I don't care if we can be Jews." And what does his mother do? She doesn't scold him for his lack of civility, which is what we might expect. Turning to the disciples, she simply says: Do whatever he tells you. And the result was: the man who had just claimed that his hour had not yet come initiates his ministry by performing the very first miracle the Gospel of John records. Click. The time had come.
What happened? Why did Jesus change his mind? Why had his hour suddenly come? We don’t know. The writer doesn’t explain. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is always presented as one who is certain of his destiny---no doubts or hesitations. He even went to the cross with no fear or trembling, unlike the other Gospels in which he begs for the cup to pass from him. And indeed some people believe that this is how Jesus was---always confident of his path and his identity, a man so empowered by God he had no real struggles. But I don’t think that is how it always was for Jesus. Remember that the Gospel is written looking backward, from the perspective of the resurrection, but that is not how Jesus lived his life. He had to live it like you and me, moving forward into the unknown. He had to risk a decision, like you and me, without knowing for sure what the future would bring. He acted in faith, made a decision in faith that God would make of his time the right time.
And so we too are called to act in faith. We too wait and hope for the right time, the right moment. We want a sign, the assurance that things will work out. But such assurances are rarely given. Consider some of the important decisions you’ve had to make---marriage, career, children, moving, consenting to an operation that might save you or perhaps kill you. Did you ever know what the outcome would be? We ponder, think, consider and pray, and then we move ahead. We risk the hope that this is the right time. And sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not. We cannot know beforehand, and sometimes we cannot even know after the fact. As Jesus was dying did he really know how it all would turn out? Did he really know what God would make and continue to make of his magnificent defeat? I doubt it; all he could do was trust. Into your hands, I commend my spirit, he said.
And we can do no better than that. Trust---trust that something new may happen, trust that something good is in store for us, trust that the time is right. Our trust is not perfect, but even imperfect trust is trust. And so let us trust, trust one another, certainly, but even more importantly, let us trust God, the God who says that our time is not wasted; our time is not lost, because our time is in God’s time. God participates in time, and sometimes God pours down God’s blessings and makes our time the right time.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!