A Dove Descends To Light A Fire

Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 43: 1-4; Luke 3: 15-22)

It is an odd phenomenon that happens every January in the church year.  One Sunday it is Epiphany, where the infant Jesus and his parents are visited by wise men from the east, bearing gifts.  And then, the very next Sunday – this Sunday – Jesus is a 30-year old man, waiting in line with the others to be baptized by John the Baptist in the wilderness. 

You might call it a “liturgical time warp.”  Whatever it is, it kind of feels like whiplash, doesn’t it?

Jesus is waiting with the crowd to be baptized by John.  A ritual act of preparation – for what, the people do not fully know.  But it is made clear that they are expecting something.  They’ve been waiting a long time; and the longer they wait, the greater their expectation. 

In fact, some in the crowds have been wondering if John himself might be the one they’re waiting for.  And who can blame them, really, because this is what we tend to do with charismatic, visionary, inspiring people – we mold and shape them into what we hope and expect them to be.

Perhaps John heard the musings in passing, the murmurings of an expectant crowd; or maybe he was just smart enough to know the way of the human heart.  Whatever the case, John makes a point of clearing up any misunderstanding, saying:  I am NOT the man you’re looking for. After which he explains to them what – or who – they are looking for.  And in doing so, John introduces the crowd to something they may not have heard before, but – for those of us reading along in the gospel of Luke – something we’re quite familiar with: and that is the Holy Spirit.

It’s another liturgical time warp of sorts, because most of us confine the Holy Spirit to a few years down the road, right after Jesus ascends and the disciples gather in another expectant moment.  It is here in Acts 2, we are told, that the Holy Spirit comes to them like a mighty wind and tongues of fire.  

But in Luke, we actually find the Holy Spirit sprinkled throughout the gospel.  It is there when Mary sings her song and Zechariah hears the unbelievable news.  It is there when Jesus heads into the wilderness to be tempted, and countless other junctures as his ministry unfolds.  The Holy Spirit is there on the cross as Jesus gives his life to God.

And it is here as well.  John the Baptist tells the crowd, I baptize with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Wait.  With what?  With fire??

If John’s aim is to draw a clear distinction between his baptism and the One to come, he has done just that.  John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with fire.  Water cools and cleanses.  Fire burns and stings.  Water nourishes and helps things to grow.  Fire destroys and lays things barren. 

Is this, we wonder, what the people were expecting? 

Were they expecting the other things John tells them is coming – winnowing forks and threshing floors?  Common farming tools in their day and time, used to separate the rich wheat from the useless chaff – chaff which, John goes on to say, would then be thrown into an unquenchable fire? 

Is this what the people were expecting?  Is it what we expect?  When we think of Jesus – do we think about winnowing forks and threshing floors and an unquenchable fire?

It’s understandable if we don’t – if for no other reason because of what happens next.  Jesus, we are told, is waiting in line with the others to be baptized.  No Fast Pass for the Son of God.  No special baptismal ritual for the fully human/fully divine.  Jesus waits there with everyone else, waiting his turn.

And when Jesus is finally baptized, we are told this:

 Now when Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Like a dove.

It goes without saying that doves and unquenchable fires don’t seem go together all that much.  And yet, that is what we have here in the span of eight verses.  Kind of feels like whiplash, doesn’t it? 

What, pray tell, is going on here?

You know, it is striking to me John’s message of fiery repentance – as clear an indication as any that change is coming – it is striking that when that change comes, when the time everyone’s been waiting for expectantly finally arrives, it comes like a dove.

A dove that rests on this man Jesus, and a voice from above that makes it abundantly clear not only who he is, but whose he is: my son.  Described for all to hear not by what he’s done or will do, not by what he has to offer or who he one day will be, but by who he is right now.   Jesus hasn’t done anything “messiah-like” yet, and already God is pleased with him, because of who he is.  Because he is God’s son.  Because, ultimately, of the love.

I must tell you, I struggled with this sermon this past week.  Sometimes the development of a sermons flows naturally throughout the week; this was not one of those.  I just couldn’t reconcile this “dove Jesus” who’d wind up putting winnowing forks and threshing floors to use.  It didn’t make any sense to me.

Until I took a look at the passage Grace read earlier – made a switch from the one I had before, actually – and really listened to the words of the prophet Isaiah spoken in turbulent times.  Listen again, and listen through the lens of Luke:

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 should not consume you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
     and honored, and I love you.

Indeed, these are turbulent times we are living in.  Sometimes it feels like we’re drowning in endless waters.  Sometimes it seems as if the very world is on fire.  And our tendency, I’ve found, is not to run toward the grace of God, but run away from it.   

Well-known Presbyterian preacher Joanna Adams tells the story of Max, a five-year old boy she once baptized.  Max’s parents wanted to wait to have him baptized until he was old enough to remember it.  So one day a week before the baptism, Max, his mom and dad, and Joanna met in the sanctuary and gathered around the font, as she did with all families before the baptism.  Joanna quickly sensed that Max was a little dubious about the whole affair, but she dove in anyway.  She took the top off the baptismal font, reached her hand down into the dry bowl, and pretended to scoop up a palm full of water.  Joanna placed her dry hand on Max’s dry head and said enthusiastically, “Next week, we’ll be doing this with real water!”  But Max folded his arms across his chest, looked her straight in the eye, and announced, “No way, lady. No way.”[1] 

Now Max eventually relented, and it turned out to be a wonderful baptism the following Sunday.  But that initial resistance – I think that’s how you and I tend to respond to grace extended as we are maneuvering through the uncertainty in which we live, the turbulent fiery chaos of it all.  This goodness seems too good to be true.  No way, lady.  No way.

The way forward for us, friends – the way John the Baptist was preparing for – is the way forward with Jesus and with each other, and with love.  Especially with love.  Love that comes down to Jesus like a dove, love that claims relationship with Jesus, love that voices, whether from above or through the words a prophet, I am pleased with you. I love you.  Those words, those powerful words, spoken to Jesus, spoken to each one of us.  For we, too, are sons and daughters.  We, too, are called by name.  We are God’s.  And we are loved.

Theologian Henri Nouwen once shared a terrible dream that plagued him night after night.  In his dream he was traveling in some distant city, and there he ran into an old high school friend.  And every time this friend would say to him, “Henri!  Haven’t seen you in years. What have you done with your life?”  And the question always felt like judgment to Henri, like getting singed a little bit. He’d done some good things for sure, but there had also been troubles and struggles, fiery ordeals. So when the old classmate would ask, “What have you done with your life?” Henri would say nothing.  

Then one night the dream changed. He dreamed he had died and went to heaven. He was waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear, because of what he might ask. He just knew God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, “Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?” But, then, in the dream, when the door to God’s throne room opened, the room was filled with light. And from the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, “Henri, it’s good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I’d love to see the slides.”[2]

You are my beloved son and daughter, in whom I am well pleased, God says to us.  I have called you by name, you are mine.  You are precious and honored in my sight.  And I love you. 

And that, my friends, that is enough to get you through any fire.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] http://day1.org/1678-god_believes_in_you
[2] http://day1.org/481-called_by_name