Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2019 || Epiphany 1C || Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:21-22
I don’t normally do traditional three-point sermons, but one’s coming at you right now. Are you ready? Something caught my eye in today’s Gospel reading that I’ve never noticed before. Luke tells us: “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.” All four accounts of the Gospel mention the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, but Luke is the only one to go so far as to say “in bodily form” like a dove. Could it be that an actual, physical dove flew down from the sky as Jesus was coming up out of the waters of Baptism and alighted on his outstretched hand? Could it be that Jesus’ followers interpreted the descent of this dove as an encounter with the Holy Spirit? I think this is very possible. I’ve known too many people who have lost loved ones, only to have their own hearts uplifted by the odd actions of birds that I’m convinced the Holy Spirit has a special avian connection. Indeed, the dove is the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. There it is at the top of that window.
The question is: why a dove? What are the spiritual and biblical resonances that make the dove the best creature for us to imagine the coming of the Holy Spirit at Baptism? Here’s where the three points come in, obviously. I went back to the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians call the Old Testament, and three appearances of the dove jumped out at me. These three appearances help us move toward our own special encounters with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Of the three, the first one gets the most press, and I’m sure it will be familiar. Does anyone know what I’m about to talk about?
Yes, Noah’s ark. Noah and his family endure forty days and forty nights in the turbulence of the storm and the open water. We all remember that part of the story. But we forget how long Noah and his family and all the animals remained in the ark once the rain stopped – at least two more weeks. Can you imagine if Noah’s sons had been kids: “Are we there yet?” No. “But the rain stopped.” Just a few more weeks, then we can leave. The next day. “Are we there yet?”
First Noah sends out a raven, but the raven doesn’t help him determine anything conclusive. So Noah sends out a dove. Genesis tell us: “The dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to [Noah] to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth.” A week goes by. Noah sends out the dove a second time. “The dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” Then for some reason he waits another week. And he sends out the dove a third time. This time the dove does not return because the dove has found a place to nest.
The dove in the story of Noah is the vehicle for Noah’s patient waiting and hopeful expectation. So too the Holy Spirit of God. The Bible is chock full of people waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. And the main promise of God throughout Holy Scripture is this: “Do not be afraid, for I will be with you.” As God says through the Prophet Isaiah this morning,
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
I will be with you – through the close and intimate presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s point number two. One of the strangest and most beautiful pieces of the Bible is the Song of Solomon, also called the Song of Songs. This romantic poem has been interpreted in so many ways over the course of history, but at its primary level, it is a love story between two people. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the affectionate nicknames one lover has for the other is “my dove.” Not only that but three times this lover compares the beloved’s eyes to doves. I’m not really sure what to make of that except that in the beloved’s eyes, the lover sees promise – the fulfillment of the promises of God.
A common spiritual interpretation of the Song of Solomon is that the lover is God and the beloved is us. In our Baptism, we can hear for ourselves God’s word to Jesus as he holds the dove: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” You are my child. And you. And you. And you. I love you and delight in you. The close and intimate presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives brings us into deeper loving relationship with God. The deeper our commitment to God, the more we will trust the Holy Spirit to lead us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
This is what Jesus’ apostles do after encountering the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Until then they were afraid to go outside: but the Spirit kicked them out and the world was never the same again. Imagine how we could partner with God if we let the Holy Spirit set us afire with the mission of God! John the Baptist says Jesus will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That’s fire in the belly, the fire of passion like the lovers in the Song of Solomon. The baptismal promises we will state once again in a few minutes are the fuel for this fire: with God’s help we seek and serve Christ in all persons, we love our neighbor as ourselves, we proclaim the good news of God, we strive for justice and peace, and we respect the dignity of all people. I’ve got a fire in my belly for all these promises, and I’m pretty sure you do too.
And that’s a good thing because our broken world needs people of passion who are working with God through the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and reconcile. Here’s point number three: The brokenness of our world can overwhelm us and extinguish that fire to serve. The third appearance of the dove comes from the prophets, who speak of the moaning of the doves to describe the plight of the people of God. Jesus knows that there are difficult days ahead for his followers so he promises them the Holy Spirit, calling it the Comforter – the one who will hold your hand in times of fear– and the Advocate – the one who will speak for you when no words will come.
When we imagine the dove alighting on Jesus’ outstretched hand, all of these biblical resonances descend with the dove and help us locate ourselves within the great and mysterious presence of God’s Holy Spirit: The dove of hopeful expectation. The dove of passionate relationship. And the dove of lamentation, moaning over the world’s systemic brokenness. Taken together, we see the Holy Spirit moving through our baptismal lives in varied ways, always ready to alight on us and set us on fire for the mission of God.
Banner Art: A picture we took on out honeymoon in South Africa of a morning dove sitting on her nest in the rain.