Like a Dove

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.

Continue reading “Like a Dove”

God’s Dazzling Truth

Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2016 || Epiphany 1C || Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Godsdazzlingtruth“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whenever I read this beautiful verse of Scripture, my lungs expand with more air than normal. I take a deep, cleansing breath, and I remember the truth of these words, and I lament how easy it is to forget them.

“You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God’s truth embedded in this verse expands out from Jesus and touches each precious life. Jesus did not hoard God’s love and pleasure; no, he gave himself freely so that we might share God’s love and pleasure.

“You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Can you feel power and the promise in these words? Drink them in now. Close your eyes and whisper them to yourselves. Feel the weight of their truth. Feel the freedom they bring. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.

As you let these words sink in, I guarantee you will start to feel a conflict forming inside yourself. The conflict pits God’s dazzling truth against our natural wariness to believe anything that seems to have no strings attached, that seems too good to be true. Our suspicion arms itself with several arguments, so let’s take them in turn.

The first argument coming to the plate is swinging the bat of literalism: “God was talking to Jesus. Of course, God would say all that about the person who is literally God’s own Son. Let’s not get delusions of grandeur now. We’re taking too great a leap to include ourselves in the conversation.”

Well, we are taking a great leap: a leap of faith. We have faith that Paul’s words written to the church in Rome are true: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17). We are children of God. Thus, God’s words, spoken from heaven as the dove descends, are for us, too.

“But wait,” says our suspicion, which now comes to bat with a little more nuance: “Maybe the first bit is for everyone because you are God’s children, but the second half has got to be for Jesus alone. Of course God would be well pleased in him. He’s Jesus. Look at everything he did!”

Well, that is true. And if this beautiful verse were spoken at the end of the Gospel rather than at the beginning, I might be swayed by that argument. But within Luke’s narrative, Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t said anything yet. He has completed no healings, spoken no parables, gathered no disciples, performed no miracles. All he has done is take a swim with his cousin John in the River Jordan. Therefore, God’s love and pleasure are not predicated on what Jesus does, but on who he is. And he is God’s child, just like us.

But now the heavy hitters are coming to the plate, the guys who swing for the fences. “What’s so beautiful about these words about being God’s children? Your own parents never lived up to your expectations. What makes you think God will?”

Yes, this is the sticking point. How could we believe God’s promise of love and pleasure when promises around us are routinely broken? (And not usually with malicious intent, but because things just fall apart sometimes.) There’s a whole other sermon waiting right here, so I’ll try not to get too diverted. Basically, one of the biggest challenges in our life of faith is resisting the urge to remake God in our own image. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not the other way around. The moment we start comparing God to our own parents or our own meager ability to be parents, we are no longer talking about God. God is the One who keeps promises, who tells the truth, whose steadfast love lasts forever. If our natural urge to compare God to ourselves or our parents ever waters down these fundamental stanchions of God’s own self, then we are no longer contemplated God for who God truly is.

The trouble is, it’s really hard to contemplate perfection using our own imperfect hardware. But the closer we get to believing that God really is who God claims to be, then the beauty of God’s words to Jesus at the River Jordan gain even more dazzling vibrancy. “You are my child, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”

But now the cleanup hitter comes up to bat, and our suspicion hits the ball right into our guts: “What have you ever done to deserve such love?”

You might think we covered this one when I mentioned that fact that Jesus’ ministry hadn’t even started yet. But no, our pernicious feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness will not let us off the hook that easily. Perhaps you lived in fear of your parents finding out you made a “C” on your report card. Perhaps you grew up with an alcoholic father and everything had to be just so, or else. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you’d be more popular or more successful if you just had…something…more.

Whatever the case, it’s all a lie, a smokescreen. We have never, ever done anything to deserve such love. And we never will. The love of God is a pure gift. No strings attached. It’s too be good to be true, and yet it is true.

And so the conflict rages within us, our natural wariness pitted against God’s dazzling truth. Our arguments scream and howl and stamp and claw, but God only whispers again and again the same words, because the truth needs no bluster. Close your eyes again and listen for God whispering these words in the depths of your being. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.

Now open your eyes again and look around. God speaks this same truth not just to you alone, not just to us sitting here this morning, not just to people who look like us or think like us or believe like us, not just to people in the same type of family unit or the same income bracket. Everyone you meet and everyone you avoid meeting has this same truth stitched on their hearts. Treat them as beloved children of God, with no arguments or reservations. Treat all people as beloved children of God, and we will change the world.

You are my Beloved

 (Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2013 || Epiphany 1C || Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

tide2013Last Monday evening, I sat down to watch a very entertaining football game. Now, I know up here is Pats’ country, so many of you probably didn’t even realize the college football championship game was going on. But I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so I was ready for my Crimson Tide to take it to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Which they did, by the way.) Because I was watching a live sporting event, I didn’t have the opportunity to fast forward through the commercials. One commercial aired several times, and I became more and more uncomfortable every time I watched it.

The commercial is for a new smartphone, the “Droid DNA.” The thirty-second spot begins with a man being strapped to a chair. A lab-coated technician secures the phone to the man’s chest, and over the thirty seconds of the commercial, the phone “rewrites” the man’s DNA. A mechanical voice announces that the man’s “neural speeds” are increasing and his brain is upgrading to a “quad-core processor.” At the end of the commercial, a voiceover says, “Introducing Droid DNA by HTC. It’s not an upgrade to your phone, it’s an upgrade to yourself.”

Now, perhaps I was uncomfortable with the idea of a phone taking the place of my brain because ever since I wrote Digital Disciple I have been fighting this tendency tooth-and-nail. Or perhaps I was uncomfortable because by the end of the commercial, the man looked like one of the Borg on Star Trek. These two surely played a part. But I think I was uncomfortable mostly because the commercial let me know something about myself that I didn’t know before. According to the commercial, I am due for an upgrade. I am deficient in some way, and only the Droid DNA smartphone will make up for that deficiency.

This is how marketing campaigns work. They tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.

All this must be true, right? I mean, we are bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn: the TV, magazines, Internet ads, the sides of buses. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. At one point or another, our society as a whole started believing in our supposed deficiencies, hence why Americans aren’t very happy people.

But we have been deceived.

Today’s Gospel reading uncovers the deception and offers the supreme truth that has the potential to scrub away all the battering our self-esteem has taken over our supposed deficiencies.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is baptized. After he rises from the water, he prays, Luke tells us, and the heavens open. And the “Holy Spirit descends” on Jesus in “bodily form like a dove.” The voice of God speaks from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Now, you might be wondering what these words have to do with counteracting our supposed deficiencies. After all, God is talking to Jesus, not to us, right? Of course, God would be well pleased in Jesus, who has no deficiencies.

Ah, yes, we who have been programmed to think of ourselves as hopelessly deficient beings wouldn’t possibly presume to think that God might be talking to us as much as God is talking to Jesus. But we would be wrong.

Remember that the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. This same Spirit dwells within each one of us, animating us and speaking life into our souls. Thus, we are connected to the God who spoke those words to Jesus. But we are not just connected to God. Hear what Paul says to the church on Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).

Not only are we connected to God, we are God’s children, and not only God’s children, but heirs right alongside Jesus. So God’s words at Jesus’ baptism are not just for Jesus. They are for us, as well. You are my son. You are my daughter. You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.

With you I am well pleased. Notice that God loves Jesus, God is pleased with Jesus, even though Jesus has done nothing yet to earn God’s love and pleasure. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. All of his miracles, his sermons, his death and resurrection – they are all ahead of him. Before any of that happens, God showers upon him God’s love and pleasure.

Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are.

At Jesus’ baptism, God took the opportunity once for all time to tell all of God’s children that we are loved and that we are a delight to God. We can ignore these fundamental truths. We can choose to think they don’t apply to us. But we cannot undo them, no matter what.

That God chose Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan as the opportunity to reveal these truths to us is simply wonderful. What is the one thing in this world that is more prevalent than advertising targeted at our supposed deficiencies? That’s right. Water.

So the next time you take a shower, the next time you wash your hands, the next time you take a drink or get stuck in the rain, I invite you to feel the water touch your skin. Remember your own baptism. Remember that all of our supposed deficiencies, which teach us to think we are defective or substandard, are no match for the fundamental truth that God has built into the fabric of life. You are God’s children. You are God’s beloved. And with you, God is well pleased.