A sermon for the Baptism of our Lord
Today isn’t the first time Jeanne Person’s dove kite, which led the procession this morning, has been at Epiphany… the first time was maybe five years ago, also on the Sunday we were observing the Baptism of Jesus, and I was giving a children’s sermon about how the Spirit had descended in the form of a dove… and Andrew Mullins basically divebombed some of the kids with the dove in a very artistic and dramatic and professional swoop. Several children were terrified, which was not what I was going for in the sermon.
But. Close encounters with the Spirit can be very frightening.
The Spirit can lead us where we do not want to go—as it will in the next event of Jesus’ life when he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit.
The Spirit can bring us good news of the rebirth of creation, as when the dove brings the olive leaf back to Noah in the ark, showing that the planet is renewing itself after the flood.
The Spirit can herald clarity of call, as into today’s gospel: First the dove, then the voice from Heaven: You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.
The season of Epiphany is a series of stories about how God is manifestly present in the Gospel and in our own lives—close encounters of the Holy Spirit if you will. Last week it was the Magi, this week the baptism, next week the wedding in Cana, and on until the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany when we hear the story of Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop. All of them moments when something beyond the human beings in the story has an effect on the narrative. A baby is worshipped as a king; a voice comes from heaven proclaiming Jesus as God’s son; water turns to wine; a rabbi is transfigured into something supernatural.
And be ready for more talk of the Spirit this next year—the Gospel of Luke thrives on the Holy Spirit. Luke understands the Spirit at work in Jesus’ life, and continuing through the first generation of the church in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, far more so than the other Gospel writers. Every Sunday, this will be a year of the Spirit in our lectionary.
Where has the Holy Spirit touched your life? Is it leading you somewhere you don’t want to go? Is it bringing you good news? Is it providing you clarity of calling? Of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit might be the most mysterious, but possibly also the most accessible. The Spirit is what answers the questions about who we are, and what we’re supposed to be doing. The Spirit guides us, inspires us, and occasionally whacks us over the head by a two-by-four when we’re really in need of an epiphany.
We can probably all name some big times when we experienced the Holy Spirit. Big life events—weddings, births, baptisms, deaths, illnesses… I’ve just been celebrating the anniversary of one of those this week. 10 years ago last Friday I was ordained a priest. I remember that very much as a Holy-Spirit-Filled weekend—on Saturday the ordination, with all the prayers and the firm hands of Jonathan and my other ordination sponsor, Hank Mitchel, on my shoulders as the Bishop (who had played Center for the Denver Broncos, and had HUGE hands on my head with the full weight of the church running through them) prayed, “Therefore Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Jennifer; fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your church.” And then the next day, celebrating the Eucharist for the first time, and suddenly hearing the words as if for the first time and being brought to tears at the altar.
But the Spirit is ordinary, too, and not just something for special occasions. A perfectly ordinary example of the Holy Spirit happened this week in my life. Having heard some tough health news from a parishioner, I didn’t know what to say, so I decided to do something else for a bit. I looked up the texts for this Sunday and saw the following from Isaiah:
“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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Here were the words of comfort I wanted to offer. The Spirit spoke—just from opening the bible. Here was the hope… the confidence in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that God calls us by name, loves us intimately, and is with us through every struggle, redeeming it even as it feels like were are being consumed.
I wanted to look up some things about doves this week; this frequent stand-in for the Holy Spirit. I wondered why they’re known as peaceful creatures. Maybe there was something there I could preach on. I was distressed to discover, after a quick google search, that doves and pigeons belong to the same family called columbidae and that—at least according to Wikipedia—the terms “dove” and “pigeon” can be used somewhat interchangeably.
“…the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a… pigeon?”
I do not like the idea of a pigeon being the sign of the Holy Spirit, the manifest presence of God. I’m not anti-pigeon, mind you—I had the pro-pigeon riot act read to me a few years ago by a woman who concluded, (and I quote): “Were it not for pigeons’ heroic service carrying messages in World War I, we’d all be speaking German and we should feed their descendants on the streets of New York in honor of pigeon patriotism.” I kid you not—New York has all kinds of people. But I have no deep affection for pigeons. They are dirty. They leave messes. They’re not very bright. They don’t sing beautiful songs. They’re not particularly pretty or graceful. There is nothing in a pigeon that makes me contemplate the divine…
But in talking this over with Jonathan, he used the phrase, “The Urban Holy Spirit.” On the banks of the Jordan River, the Spirit takes the form of a dove. On the banks of the East River, maybe the Spirit takes the form of a pigeon. God takes the common and makes it holy—that’s the whole point of the incarnation. Maybe the purpose of having a dove—or a pigeon—represent the Holy Spirit is not because it is pure or innocent or something but because it is ubiquitous. Imagine, if very time you saw a pigeon, you remembered that you have received the Holy Spirit and that you are God’s beloved child. How many times a day do we see pigeons? All the time. A constant reminder of our blessed status as children of God. A flock of the Urban Holy Spirit surrounds us every day to remind us that we are God’s beloved children, loved and loving, and precious.