Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What do we see? Let’s make this gospel a painting, since St. Luke is the patron saint of painters. We’ll make it a clear day, with a bright sky. Across the center is a crowd of people in a clearing in a valley among some willow trees, and the ground is green. Behind the crowd is a river.
Left of center is one man standing in front of the crowd, and the people are turned towards him as if they are listening to him. He has very long hair and a cloak of shaggy brown fur. But he’s not looking back at the crowd, he’s looking to his right, and pointing with his right hand at another man beyond the crowd.
That man is standing off, turned half away from everyone, bending halfway over, and above him is a bird, descending upon him. Should we picture the bird diving down, like above our main front doors, or fluttering down to alight on him? The bird looks like a dove.
That first man is John the Baptist. We can tell by his hair and his cloak. He is already famous here, and for years to come he will have many followers throughout the Jewish world, even in Egypt and Asia Minor. He has ignited a revival movement among the Jews, both religious and political. He has no ambitions of his own nor any loyalties, but to every political and religious group he gives stern warning. But his warnings are also appealing, and the people have flocked to him.
He offers washing, cleansing, and through that cleansing, hope and expectation. Expectation of what? St. Luke tells us: Of God’s return to Israel along with a Messiah—who will come with fire! And if John cleansed them with water, the Messiah will cleanse them with fire and with the Holy Spirit, the fearsome purifying fire that is unquenchable becomes it comes from God.
When he says “Holy Spirit,” he does not intend what a modern Christian thinks! No one as yet believes in anything like one of the three persons of the Trinity. At this point, the term “Holy Spirit” implies the whole of God, the One God, the capital-S Spirit who is capital-H Holy, high and lifted up, Holy, Holy, Holy. But this One God had made visitations, like to Moses from a burning bush, and to the whole of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai in the column of fire and smoke with flashes of lightning.
A new visitation of God will be scary, and thrilling, and judgment, and purging, and it will be salvation. Fearsome as it is, the people hope for it—the Lord of Hosts returning to Israel like in the ancient days, and the Messiah as God’s representative upon the throne of David in victory and power. These people are gathered in expectation. They are hoping for God’s return.
In this picture the people are all done getting baptized. We don’t see Jesus getting baptized, nor talking with John, like in Matthew and Mark. We see him after he’s baptized, and not listening to John but praying, standing up, bending at the waist, head down. Like at synagogue? Is he praying the Eighteen Benedictions, is he praying the Amida? We are not told what his prayer is.
Shall we picture him with his hands on his chest, or lifted up, like in the Psalms? It makes a difference for how the dove lands. Does it land on his lifted hand, like a trained bird? Or on his head, or maybe on his shoulder, to be closer to his heart, as Riley once said in Sunday School with a child’s insight. How long will it rest on him? Will it fly off again? Or does it somehow merge into him, does it enter into his body? All that we are told is that this dove is the Holy Spirit taking on a form.
That’s weird. God as a dove? Is that even allowed, God as an animal? Isn’t that prohibited as leading to idolatry? God is never manifested as an animal, but only as fire. The closest God gets to a bird is in one of the possible translations of Genesis 1:2, before Creation, when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the Deep, or hovered, or brooded. But not a dove, because a dove is a sacrificial animal, like a calf, a dove is a poor man’s calf. But the Messiah was not for being sacrificed, the Messiah was to be mighty in battle and victorious over his enemies. Well then, maybe this was like the dove from Noah’s ark, that flew out over the Flood three times, until the waters had receded enough for her to make her nest. Does this dove manifest deliverance and peace?
We have pictured John the Baptist watching this dove come down on his cousin Jesus. But after all that he had preached about the Holy Spirit coming with fire, could he even imagine this dove to be the visitation of God? Can John the Baptist keep up with this brand new thing of God that he had not foreseen in his prophecies? Was he helped by the words that came from heaven? Could he even hear those words?
The words are addressed to Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What those words would have meant to Jesus for his own soul I preached about six years ago, but today I will just put those words in a word-balloon, to the horror of classical painters, a word-balloon coming down from heaven over Jesus’s head. If it’s only Jesus who can hear these words, at least he finally knows for sure that he is supposed to the Messiah.
So in what we see here what is manifest? These are the Sundays after Epiphany, and the word “epiphany” means manifestation, some revelation in what you can see. Well, if this dove is the sign of this guy is being anointed as the Messiah, then this Messiah was confirmed in choosing to identify with John’s repentance movement.
You see, he might have joined up with the Pharisees, who were the patriots of purity. Or with the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple, and were the heirs of the Maccabees, the last successful independence movement. Or he might have joined the Zealots, the revolutionaries who armed themselves for the resistance like the irregulars who had fought with David against the Philistines. No, the only group he joined was the whole people that was repentant.
But what did he have to repent of? I mean, he’s Jesus! Well, what do you think repentance is? Repentance is not just the penance for sin, and it’s not even really that. Repentance is an attitude, an attitude of vulnerability, a stance of openness, making space within your life, and keeping that space open before you. “The whole life of Christians is repentance,” is what Martin Luther wrote in his 95 Theses.
This guy Jesus had to repent in order to be anointed the Messiah. He had maybe nothing in particular to repent of but he had to share the stance, the attitude, the vulnerability, the opening, the bending, the offering your neck. Which is what lovers do when you make love. If repentance is the stance and angle of opening up yourself, than repentance is a stance towards love. The risk of love.
Now if we read the gospel in the light of the epistle reading, also written by St. Luke, what’s also manifest is the very first occurrence of the Baptism of the Spirit. The dove is the sign of a new thing, begun with Jesus himself and expanded to his followers. The dove has converted a Jewish ritual of repentance into a work of the Holy Spirit, the subtle miracle we call a sacrament. Just as the dove was the small sign of God visiting and inhabiting Jesus, so baptism is the sign that God inhabits you, God invests in you. You don’t just follow Jesus, God lands on you, enters you, merges into you, as certainly as the water of baptism was put upon your head. On children too, in whom the Holy Spirit delights to dwell.
So what I want to say about our painting is that the picture tells a story, and in this story you are included. I invite you this morning to believe that you are included in this story of the painting, not just among the crowd, but on the right, with the dove descending on you. And I invite you to believe that God also says to you, “With you I am well-pleased.”
Not, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great.” It’s not about you, it’s about God, and God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable attitude of God towards, which is the impact of God in your life. God does it this way in order to free you for your life of service in the world. When you serve God in the world, for justice and for peace and for mercy and healing, you will be resisted and opposed, but not by God.
Your attempts at the right thing will be ignored, or lack impact, or not be as good as you might wish, and you could always do better, but still you are free for action and creativity, because you cannot shake God’s pleasure in you, it’s unquenchable, it’s from God, “with you I am well-pleased.” Unconditionally? Yes, God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. Look at the dove and see that God is love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.