The Best Wine
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2019
“Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.”
WHAT A PITY IT IS, I imagine, not to see our need for the unexplained elements of existence, the mysterious, the numinous phantasms that runs beneath the surface, behind the curtain, and fill us with awe, or terror, and certainly wonder at the physical beauties we see every day. Look at a sunset, a high mountain, our state’s northern coastline, or the night sky and you have to compliment the artist that set that glacier so, at that angle, or the Pleiades set just by itself in the heavens. What makes us take every wristwatch apart and think, when we’ve reassembled it, that we understand it, or even that we’re the master of watches? What do we know of time? How foolish we are to say of water that two H’s and one O makes up your molecule, and there’s not much more to say. Do you not realize the wonder, the miracle this most ordinary compound represents to this world?
The surface of this planet might instead have been covered with liquid mercury, or ammonia, or naphtha, turpentine or nail polish. And life would be impossible. We’re made up mostly of water, and all our body systems work in this watery bath. The oceans have their own lungs that give life to their inhabitants, and let loose tons of water vapor that bathes the land in rain bringing life. If water’s solid state wasn’t so extraordinary that it expands when it solidifies, all the oceans would freeze solid at the bottom, and gradually freeze upward until they were frozen solid. So, ice floats and melts, though no other liquid on earth does that. An accident? Just normal everyday water? How lucky we are that water is the common substance it is.
Water is our first drink and it’s essential to our lives. It’s also essential to every plant form, like vines, that draw the water up from their roots in the ground. The vines that give us fruit to eat must drink their nourishment from the earth, and bask in the rays of sunshine, converting nutrients into sweetness. God made the grapes that utilize our California sunshine to advantage. Today, even the greatest and oldest vineyards of Europe struggle to compare with California wines.
What makes for good wine? Terroir (Tear-wah) is a vintner’s term for all factors of the growing environment: the soil, rain, sun, winds, slope and drainage and such. The vineyard must also be tended and the grapes handled with care, harvested at their peak, and pressed, holding the skins and seeds only so long. Fermentation happens by itself, every grape having thousands of yeast spores naturally with it. How it is aged, in what kind of casks, and how long, keeping oxygen out, when to bottle: all add to the quality of the wine. It is an art as old as humankind. To that add the art of tasting, and knowing what is good and what is good only for making vinegar or loosening nuts on rusted bolts.
But if you reduce wine to a quantity sugar, so much tannin, this element or that, a quantity of alcohol so that a machine with chemicals loaded in it could render a passable ‘wine,’ then science thinks it understands the mystic quality of life itself and human enjoyment explained merely in digital terms. It’s like calling Velveeta ‘cheese.’
C.S. Lewis, as always, saw the mystery of wine and called it what it is. “God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine [but] men fail to see. …When Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off.” C.S. Lewis, Miracles If our eyes are open, we can see the miracle in both directions: when Christ turned water into wine, as well as the wine we drink today: that it was also made from water by God’s process, still a miracle, still the product of the same God who attended a wedding at Cana.
Weddings are wonderful, though the work involved in any wedding is daunting. Everything must be perfect, or its failures will be all that everyone remembers. Just have the caterer lose the address, or the fondue fountain catch fire. Just such an emergency brought Jesus’ mother Mary to Him with that look on her face—DO something! They have no wine.
His exchange with her is something for another time, but His term “Woman” was respectful, and His questioning her timing was only to have her not presume authority with his life that she didn’t have. Nevertheless, something in His gestures made her think this miracle was still to be, and she admonished the servants to obey Him.
He is the Master. And we are tied back through Him to His Father, and to life itself. He made us all a vineyard and Himself the true vine. His Father tends the vines, pruning productive branches and cutting away the dead, woody canes. We have no fruit unless we are connected to Jesus, for we draw our life from Him. “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who live in me while I live in them will produce a lot of fruit. But you can't produce anything without me.” John 15:5
The daily, usual manner of producing wine is a gradual process of watering, pruning, feeding and tying vines to trellises that keep the fruit off wet ground. Sun and gentle weather have their way, and bees fertilize the flowers. Time passes. The grapes grow heavy and fat, sweeten in the autumn weather, beckoning the vintner to harvest. It must be done quickly and the grapes come in.
If you’ve gone wine tasting in the Napa Valley, you can feel the mystique of the art of wine. Every wine demands a different kind of glass, the longer stem, the wider bowl, decanting the wine and letting it breathe. We judge a good wine by many things, but price can only tell you what snobs think of an exclusive estate-grown vintage. Some cheap wines actually taste great. Some vastly expensive wines are harsh, but no one dares to say so.
So it is with us. The label says nothing of importance and the money we have or flash around doesn’t define a person’s character. You have to experience and see if you can enjoy him or her. How much did the host pay for that wine Jesus transformed from mere water in an instant? And the festal governor was fooled completely, thinking this was some special wine that had been long laid up for another time. But then he identified the truth of it: “You have saved the best wine until now.”
Electro-spectrographic analysis cannot tell anyone why a wine is good, and why this wine is the best of all. I remember when the basic vitamins with so much protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber were all you needed for optimum health, the food pyramid, the four essential food groups. Now we know of many Phytochemical factors essential as well for good health. We will never understand great wine or fine cheese or gourmet bread in any scientific manner either. This is art, it is spiritual, it is the miracle that runs every day beneath the surface and tells us that life itself is the miracle. God’s hand is at work in the grocery store, in our kitchens, in a loaf of whole grain bread, in a bottle of wine.
Life is good. It’s more than a tee shirt logo. They didn’t invent that slogan. Your life is a gift that goes on giving to you and through you from the day of your conception to the end of your days, and beyond. You don’t know what you are. Your life in Christ will bear fruit, and the quality and quantity of that fruit will be determined by your close and vital connection with our Lord on a daily basis. Religion is not something added that seasons the mix. A living relationship with the Lord of Life is essential to living with a cause, with the joy of knowing the mystery, with a purpose, and with eternal fruit to prove your relationship.
Nothing else gives life, though you may look for His streams in many things that have nothing to do with religion. Times of worship are life-giving, but so are days in nature, reading a good book, holding hands on a walk, kneeling before a child. Chocolate is good too, in moderation. Sunsets, tending a garden, building a playhouse, putting a ring on her finger, “With this ring I thee wed…”
If I didn’t believe, this world would be so dead, completely without meaning. But I know, not only do I believe, there is more to all this than our eyes can see or our words explain. He is saving the best wine. You will never have tasted anything like it. A feast is planned, and is already in preparation. We experience just a whiff of it now, but will have the full meal then, and our cup shall indeed run over.
Living in expectation of that, and letting our spiritual senses detect His hand in all things, we drink the cup of this world with its sweetness and its bitterness as well. It all has meaning, all has a purpose, and will prove to us at last the greatness and the goodness of our God.