01/14/18 – The Spirited Dove

THE SPIRITED DOVE

January 14, 2018
Baptism of Our Lord
Gen.1:1-5; Ps.29; Acts:19: 1-7; Mk. 1:4-11
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Today we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord. We almost missed it. You see, the special day in our Christian calendar is a moveable feast. It does not occur on a specific day like Christmas and Epiphany, which means you would have to come to Church on a day other than Sunday to celebrate the day on the day. For most Christians in the affluent Western world, this is too much worship. If we really want to be honest about it, in this country, more than an hour once a week is deemed excessive and now regular church attendance is recorded in surveys as being at least twice a month. For observances not specifically falling on a Sunday, we usually celebrate on the nearest Sunday. But, since this year Epiphany fell on Saturday, the calendar got squeezed so that, worshipping only on Sunday, we would have had to celebrate Epiphany on Dec.31, thus ending the Christmas season pretty quickly. Not wanting to shortchange either, I put us a little off-schedule.

We began our scripture readings at the beginning of the Bible – the creation story. These verses are very appropriate for the day and the season of light, Epiphany. The earth began when God gave the Word, which caused “ruach” to pass over the chaos of deep, dark water. The Hebrew word “ruach” can mean either wind or spirit; or, as many who study the scriptures believe, both. God spoke and an action occurred. Any scientist will tell you action is caused by energy. All the various scientific theories about the beginning of the universe agree that it began with a burst of energy. According to the author of Genesis, the next step was light, another form of energy, which separated the darkness and began the ordering of the world from its chaotic state. In the Epiphany season, light is used as a symbol of revelation. God’s light shines the light of revelation on the divine mysteries.

The Psalmist has written an ode to God’s power over the elements of the earth. He or she was making a strong, polemic statement of God’s power over the pagan gods worshipped by non-Jewish neighbors. Evidence supports that this psalmist took an ode to the Canaanite god, Baal, who was the god of, among other things, storms, wind, and thunder and then replaced the word Baal with Yahweh, one of the Hebrew words for God. The Psalmist asserts that it is only God who rules the earth, human efforts will always be subject to God’s will.

So, what do these Old Testament texts have to do with baptism? Well, for starters, Jesus’ baptism heralded a new beginning for the world. The catalyst for this new beginning was God. In baptism, Jesus was given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit and began his ministry to announce the kingdom of God on earth.

For the author of Mark’s gospel, who I will refer to as Mark for the sake of simplicity, the story of Jesus begins with the story of the start of his ministry. There is no birth narrative or any account of Jesus’ earthly life before the beginning of his ministry. Mark cuts right to the chase.

Mark provides the context for the action taking place in our gospel passage. John the Baptizer was baptizing people as an act of repentance. It was a common Jewish practice to wash oneself in flowing water when one wanted to beg God’s forgiveness. The movement of the water symbolically washed away the sin, rendering the sinner spiritually pure and ready to repent and start a ‘new life.’ When Jesus arrived on the scene, John made it clear to his followers that Jesus offered a different baptism, one of the Holy Spirit.

What did John know? Well, for one thing, a baptism in Jesus’ name was no soft lights, pretty clothes, Hallmark card affair. Mark, the first of the gospel writers, described Jesus’ baptism as full of force as the Psalmist described God’s power. The psalmist describes God as being as powerful as a storm that wrenches trees from the ground. Mark tells us the heavens were torn apart, with divine holiness pouring out upon this man on earth.

Mark tells us the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. We think of doves as gentle creatures and the image we have is a white bird floating down, gently resting upon Jesus. Well, you know another name for doves is a pigeon. When they are after something, they don’t float, they dive bomb down to it. I’ve watched doves in urban outdoor eating areas and they can be pretty aggressive. This particular dove must have been a force to be reckoned with because, after God’s pronouncement that Jesus is God’s son, Mark tells us that dove forced Jesus into the wilderness where he was faced with hunger, thirst and that greatest of challenges, the devil himself.

God intended Jesus’ baptism to be more than a photo op and an excuse for a party. As Mark describes it, Jesus’ baptism takes us back to the beginning. As in our reading from Genesis 1 describes the beginning of creation, we are back to just water and the voice of God. In the Greek of Mark’s time, “beloved” is used here, not as an adjective, but as a name.  As God gave a new name to Abraham and Jacob, God gave Jesus a new name, “The Beloved One,” to indicate his new status and purpose. God also affirmed that Jesus was pleasing to his Father. Jesus proclaimed that we are beloved children of God. How arrogant and presumptuous of us to judge others not to be as “beloved” of God as ourselves. The gospels just do not support the delusion that we are more valuable than others because of the color of our skin, our land of origin, our wealth or social class. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we celebrate tomorrow, took his messages of justice and peace straight out of the bible.

Mark tells us that no matter how many times John the Baptizer’s followers were immersed in the waters of the Jordan, they could not earn God’s love or forgiveness by their actions. With baptism in Jesus’ name, God has already acted for us and these actions need not be repeated. In baptism, we respond to the gift of adoption and the Holy Spirit, which God has already bestowed upon us. Whether or not we fulfill our vows to live as beloved children and to be open to the not so gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit, the gift has already been given.

When we are baptized, whether as children or adults, each of us is publicly declared to be God’s child. This means we are promised that regardless of our past, we always have a future and a purpose in God’s kingdom. As God’s beloved children, no matter how far we wander away, God will always follow and stick with us.

Will evil tempt us away from God? Most assuredly, yes. But, this is what makes a Jesus baptism different from a John baptism, with the gift of the Holy Spirit God has given us the power, not just to renounce evil, but to transcend it. This power is given with the expectation that we will use it. We have been given the power to act like Christians when others around us – even other Christians – do not.

Today we will install church officers. They have chosen to answer God’s call to this particular service; but, that does not absolve us from service. They are not being Christian for us, they are accepting the call to be Christian with us. These officers serve to help us serve. May you, as a God’s beloved child, find your own way of living a life pleasing to the Lord.

Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois