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

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