Getting Ahead of Jesus

The Wedding at Cana, by Paolo Veronese (1562). Public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s face it:

Parents just don’t understand.

I’m only 32, so it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a teenager bemoaning this very fact to my friends at school.  All through those years, my elders kept on telling me, “You’ll understand when you have kids of your own.”

Well, you know what?  I do have kids of my own now and guess what:

Parents still don’t understand!

For the life of me, I cannot comprehend even a fraction of what goes on in my four year old daughter’s mind.  I admit that I’m still pretty new to the parenting game, but somehow, I get the impression that me not understanding her is only going to get worse as she gets older.

She has this incredibly vibrant and active imagination that can create entire worlds with their own cast of characters and plotlines.  Once in a while, she’ll poke her head out of her fantasy play world and update us on what everybody in there is doing.  Naturally, she just assumes that we’ve been in there with her all along and therefore know exactly what she’s talking about.  We don’t, of course.  But whatever she’s telling us is obviously important to her, so my wife and I usually just nod, smile, and say, “Okay!”

Parents just don’t understand.

But, as a parent, there certainly are things that you do understand.

For instance, there are things we know about our kids that no one else will ever know (with the possible exception of their future partners/spouses).  Sometimes, we know them even better than they know themselves.  We know what they’re capable of, even if they don’t.

I imagine that such was the case between Jesus and his mother as well.  On one occasion, around the time that Jesus began his ministry, he and his mother attended a wedding together in a tiny little village called Cana.  This village was so small and remote, in fact, that archaeologists today aren’t entirely sure where it was located.  During the celebration, the unthinkable happened: the host family ran out of wine.

If that happened at a wedding today, we would probably say something like, “Gosh!  That’s a bummer!” but then quickly get back to entertaining ourselves in other ways.  Generally speaking, we would get over it.  But in the ancient world, where social capital was just as valuable as money, this would have been a supreme humiliation.  The family’s reputation would be ruined for all time.  They would never live it down in the eyes of the community.  The shadow of this event would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

With that in mind, you might be able to imagine the very real concern in Jesus’ mother’s voice when she tells him, “They have no wine.”  At this point in the story, it’s not entirely clear what Jesus’ mother was trying to accomplish by telling Jesus this.  According to the narrative text in John’s gospel, Jesus had never done anything particularly amazing or miraculous before this point.  Even Jesus himself seems standoffish and dismissive when his mother first approaches him.  He says, “Woman (which was a term of respect back then, like ma’am or madam is today), what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Now, I just wish that the narrator had described the look on her face in that moment.  In my imagination, I see her with her head cocked to one side and her hands on her hips, looking her son right in the eye.  Then, without another word, she turns around, grabs a panicked staff member as he rushes by, and almost shoves him in Jesus’ direction, saying, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Jesus, visibly annoyed, clenches his jaw and furrows his brow at his mother.  She simply raises her eyebrows and walks back to the party, smiling knowingly.

Jesus says it isn’t time yet, but his mother knows: it’s time.  It’s time for Jesus to become the person he was always meant to be.  It’s time for the potential hidden in his life to break out into the open.  He may not have even seen it in himself, but his mother saw it.  And in order to actualize that potential, she had to get ahead of Jesus.  She had to take that leap of faith and push him into something that even Jesus didn’t think he was ready for.

What happens next is the famous incident of Jesus miraculously turning water into wine.  According to the narrator of the text, it was Jesus’ first miracle… and it never would have happened if his mother hadn’t pushed him into it.

Now, this whole scene might strike some of us as strange.  We’re used to thinking of Jesus as our guru: the all-knowing, all-wise Son of God.  He teaches and people listen.  After all, he’s Jesus Christ, right?  But in this story, he’s the one being pushed.  The situation feels a little upside down.

To be honest, the more I think about this disturbing idea, the more I like it.  In a metaphorical sense, it’s almost as if Jesus’ mother is reaching out across two thousand years of time just to mess with our heads.  But if you let yourself sit with this ironic image of Jesus being pushed into his first miracle, some interesting thoughts start to develop.

Here’s what struck me about this story: Jesus’ mother is getting ahead of Jesus.

When I think about some of the most heroic people in history, I can’t escape the observation that most of them had to push back against the forces of cultural inertia in order to achieve greatness.  In a sense, they too were getting ahead of Jesus, so long as we understand “Jesus” as a cultural icon whose name is invoked by the powerful in order to legitimate the social status quo.

For example: 150 years ago, a large number of preachers invoked the name of Jesus and even quoted the Bible in order to justify the practice of slavery in this country.  And you know what?  They were right… technically speaking.  Numerous passages in both the Old and New Testaments talk about slavery as an accepted part of life.  Pro-slavery advocates had the text of the Bible on their side.

Nevertheless, abolitionist movements, beginning with the Quakers in the 1600s, gradually built up steam and generated support among the people.  They argued that the ownership of another human being as property violates the spirit of Christianity, even though it’s not expressly forbidden in the text of the Bible.

We take this line of reasoning for granted in the 21st century, but it was still a hotly contested issue in the 19th century.  It was not socially advantageous to be an abolitionist in those days.  Those who called out in the name of conscience were often beaten back by well-respected citizens carrying Bibles.  These early heroes of freedom and equality, like Jesus’ mother in the story of the wedding at Cana, had to get ahead of Jesus in order to stand up for what is truly right and good: not the historical person named Jesus of Nazareth or the Spirit of the risen Christ that lived in their hearts, but the image of Jesus that was constructed and corrupted by the prejudice of the slave-owners.

When I talk about “getting ahead of Jesus”, I mean to say that people need to challenge their ideas about Jesus, not Jesus himself.  We need to cultivate enough self-awareness to question our own assumptions about reality.  When well-dressed and well-paid preachers go on TV, quote the Bible, and use it to justify the exclusion of gay & lesbian people, we to get ahead of that Jesus.  When someone sends you an email with a painting of Jesus wrapped in an American flag and carrying an assault rifle, you need to get ahead of that Jesus.  When politicians use Christian rhetoric to turn our diverse society into a religiously monolithic nation, we need to get ahead of that Jesus.

Whenever we take a controversial stand for what we believe is right, there will always be people who can quote the Bible against us.  On the surface, many of these folks will appear to be more knowledgeable and more dedicated believers than some of us, but I’m telling you now that you don’t have to buy into their ideas.  The real measure of your faith is not the church you attend, the Bible you read, or the check you write.  The real measure of your faith is the life you live.

When people call you a hell-bound heretic, just remember Jesus’ mother, who made a miracle happen by getting ahead of Jesus.  Remember the abolitionists and Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.  They all got ahead of Jesus, going beyond the text of the Bible in order to honor the spirit of the Bible and so they worked their own kind of miracle: a living miracle of freedom and equality that has yet to be completed in our day.

It falls to us to keep this miracle going, to question our own assumptions and challenge deeply-established injustice, to get ahead of our ideas about Jesus and come to know, love, and follow the real Jesus, the Jesus whose Spirit lives within us, working miracles in us and through us that we cannot even begin to imagine.

3 thoughts on “Getting Ahead of Jesus

  1. Jan Niemeyer

    Thank you doe this spiritual and practical encouragement to “get ahead” of our mistaken or shortsighted ideas about Jesus.


  2. Thanks Barrett. This is an excellent, well-developed sermon. It has enriched my devotions today. I’m preparing a sermon on the Beattitudes, and some of these same concepts apply there too.

    1. I’m preaching on the Beatitudes this week as well! I’m going with ‘Redefining Success’ as my title. Preaching at North Church is a different animal from any other church I’ve preached in. Way more interaction and dialogue.

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