The best for the last

sermon audio for “The best for the last” by Martin Malina
Looking Northwest over the frozen Ottawa River at Arnprior, photo by Martin Malina January 2021

“… you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10) 

Last Spring, I noticed we had bottles of wine stored in the altar care room cabinet. The bottles of wine had sat there unopened since the beginning of the pandemic. I recall mentioning this to the council at the time, wondering with them if the gathered community will ever drink communion wine together again during a service in the building. And would the wine we had stored even still be good whenever that will happen? Questions I thought I’d never ask.

I’m sure I’m not the only one asking these kinds of questions, and not just about sacramental practices. What will the church be when all is said and done with COVID? What will our gatherings look like? Will it even feel anywhere near the same it did before the pandemic struck almost two years ago now? Will people even want to gather again inside a building to worship and pray?

In the first of his signs, Jesus, attends a wedding at Cana.[1] And the good wine runs out near the beginning of the party. Normally the best wine is served at the beginning of the party when guests can still discriminate between the good stuff and the “inferior”, watered-down fare served later on.

In the first miracle that launches Jesus’ earthly ministry—when he turns water into wine—there is no turning back. What he does here sets the tone and direction for what he and God are all about. What Jesus does at Cana of Galilee introduces the way of God that extends through all his earthly ministry right up to the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb. 

In the first of his signs Jesus does the opposite of what is expected: He undermines social convention. The best wine for the party Jesus gives not at the beginning when guests are still in their right minds. He doesn’t give them the really good wine when they can still be impressed. 

It’s precisely when the guests are not at their best, when they are already drunk and their mental faculties are comprised, that the perfect gift is given. Jesus, right at the beginning of his earthly mission to bring the kingdom of God on earth, does exactly the opposite of what everyone would expect. 

Perhaps we expect that we would recognize what God is doing in this pandemic only if we can be at our best. Perhaps we expect that there should be no ambiguity with God, no ambivalence in God’s ways and in God’s truth, from our perspective. Perhaps in times of disruption and uncertainty we expect God to show us the way with conviction and clarity.

“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Now, as we set our hearts on hope that we will come to the end of the pandemic this year. Now, some two years into it when many of us our not at our best. Now when we feel near the end of a party that really hasn’t felt like a party in the least. 

Now, when many of us are exhausted and discouraged, fearful and anxious. Now, when so many are ill and frightened for the future. Now, when we live on the threshold between the losses of the past and prospects of an uncertain future.

“But you have kept the good wine until now.”

A beautiful gift lies before us now. Even though in our fatigue we might not at first be able to discern it, Jesus saves the best till last. Even though in our clouded COVID brains, we might not perceive it right before us, Jesus offers us something precious. 

As we slowly but surely near the end of a marathon season, we lean and live into the new normal. We acknowledge the awkwardness and discomforts of doing things a new way, a different way. Perhaps with all of that we feel like the weather outside—frozen, inert, lifeless. 

But perhaps there lies under all of that the seeds of renewal for us. Jesus doesn’t show us a clear answer to the problem so much as he is resetting our perspective on reality, and a new way of living that moves us, in the end, toward a more loving and more generous life than ever it was before.

Because God doesn’t wait until we are at our best to give us the gift of grace. In truth, perhaps it’s when we are not at our best when we are most receptive to receiving, to being open to, God’s forgiveness and love. Perhaps the Spirit of God can best enter in through the cracks of our broken, needy and longing hearts. And that’s when the Epiphany happens for us.


[1] John 2:1-11

Behold

Galilee Retreat Centre, Arnprior Ontario (photo by Martin Malina, 2021)
sermon audio for “Behold” by Martin Malina

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[1]

What are the voices that you have heard and inwardly digested this holiday season? What messages have you taken to heart? 

The song of the angels, the carols, the music? 

The voices of industry, the marketing experts telling you what you need to buy in order to be happy? 

The voices of politicians telling you to be afraid, and not to be afraid? 

The voice of your heart, the whisper of truth, languishing under the heavy weight of delusion and despair like a tiny candle’s flame flickering and grasping for oxygen?

Of all the disruption and renewed vigilance we have been called upon to observe during this Christmas, beleaguered by the Omicron-variant, whose voice have you listened to?

We have good examples from scripture, especially Mary mother of Jesus who had to pivot big-time dealing with the sudden news of the angel telling her what was in store for her. This is Mary who faced incredible change in her life in such short order. 

And she allowed for some reflection on this question in her life and amidst all the turmoil: Not once but twice — first when the shepherds visited the holy child at his birth and then again years later after Jesus was found conversing with the teachers in the temple — “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”.[2]

What words do you hear, do you ponder and treasure in your heart now that the seasons shift again? 

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

In this short verse, we witness an intimacy within the Trinity. We get a sense of the profound love between Father and Son. This dialogue is between two persons. And we are privileged to behold such a holy moment of love expressed in the Triune God who considers Jesus ‘the Beloved’.

Jesus’ baptism is the first time in the Gospels we hear a conversation — or part of one — between God and Jesus. This loving conversation will sustain and hold and animate all that Jesus does in the thirty years of his life on earth. God is about this interface between one and the other, the connecting point between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, between Creator and Redeemer through the Holy Spirit “that descended upon him … like a dove.” A dove.

I have missed the birds. Where have they gone? Just before Christmas we put all kinds of seeds and feed on our bird houses and stands in front of our house. Memories from summer of flocks of them descending upon our property filled us with joy and expectation before Christmas. But we really haven’t seen them besides the stray nibbler. Heck, not even the squirrels have come by! The dove represents the presence of God “in bodily form”. Well, this Christmas, it doesn’t seem like God visited.

Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered about whether God was missing-in-action this Christmas. I asked the cashier at my local grocery store a couple of days ago, “How was your Christmas?” Scanning my groceries, she kept her head down, shrugged, and said, “It was quiet”. And I took that to mean not particularly a good ‘quiet’. Has God missed the boat with us this Christmas, indeed this last year? We began and ended last year in this paralyzed state, and started this new year mired again under the threat of the pandemic.

We may need the Epiphany — the revelation of God. The season of Epiphany begins after the twelfth day of Christmas every year on January 6 according to our calendar. Epiphany means ‘revelation’. God is revealed to us anew, just as God was revealed in Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of God. We may very well need the Epiphany this year like no other before.

When you think about it, most of the Christmas crèches and manger scenes don’t show us much of the baby Jesus himself. At the birth, we may feel the wonder of it all, the spiritual tenderness of the scene. He is swaddled and cradled, his presence illuminated only by light. 

But we cannot really see the face of the Christ child. The Christ child’s face is not normally the dominant image. The Christmas vision of the newborn Jesus is often one of Mary kneeling by the improvised bed. We are like bystanders from a distance who see the baby’s face only through the actors, mother and father, animals and angels.[3]

We may need the Epiphany to behold the face of Jesus for ourselves! Ancient Celtic Christians believed that in gazing at a newborn’s face, we see the very image of God.[4] Perhaps that is why we, young and old, are drawn to babies. And you can hardly hold a baby in your arms without gazing upon their face. Infants give us a felt sense of God’s loving presence. Babies draw us to God’s love and grace. There is no other relationship to speak of that more accurately captures the truth of God’s love than our relationship with a new born. 

Conversely, through the infant’s eyes, in some mysterious way, God beholds you. When a baby’s eyes fix upon your gaze, when the infant looks at you with those small, penetrating, gentle, inquisitive eyes, God sees you. And loves you. Oh, yes, this year especially we need Epiphany.

And maybe, just maybe in the days to come, you shall hear the voice of Jesus say to your heart — “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And when we are God’s beloved, we begin to live and ‘see’ through God’s eyes.[5] The voices of the human crowd, even the negative ones, will have little power to hurt us. And we will begin to perceive the world around us through the sight of a holy child who looks with gentleness and love upon everyone we meet.

The ‘You’ is then not just for you. God turns to the whole of creation and says to all: “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


[1] Luke 3:21-22

[2] Luke 2:19,51

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “Mary and Jesus” in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie, cited in Diana Butler Bass “The Cottage – December 22: Advent Calendar” (substack.com, 2021)

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus, cited in “The Cottage – December 7: Advent Calendar” (substack.com, 2021)

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Mutually Loving Gaze” Week One: Nothing Stands Alone (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 3 January 2022)