Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
I wonder what a voice from heaven sounds like. Forty-three years into this life, I can’t say for sure I’ve ever heard one. I’ve known things in my bones without anyone needing to tell me – things like love and peace and joy. I’ve received guidance too wise to ever come from me, but an audible, unmistakably divine voice? Not so much. Apparently, this voice spoke back in the beginning, on the very first evening, but there was no one there to hear it. The ancient Israelites tried to imagine God’s voice in today’s psalm, and for them at least it sounded like thunder. They heard it in earthquakes, tornados, fires – it was a voice of sheer power, power to destroy as well as create. To paraphrase an old Bill Cosby line, the voice that brought us into this world could take us out. Nothing tame here, none of this shrinking down the Almighty into someone we can master or control. It’s a voice that reveals our mortality and vulnerability. If it doesn’t bring us to our knees, maybe it should. There’s a reason our Muslim brothers and sisters refuse to depict the One who speaks with this voice; any picture is bound to be limiting.
So imagine the surprise of our Gospel’s first readers to have the Spirit of the Almighty depicted like a dove. How did our image of the divine become so puny, so slight, so small? We’re not told what the accompanying voice from heaven sounded like. In Mark’s version of the story, it’s not clear if anyone besides Jesus even hears it. Other writers spend more time pondering why Jesus chose to be baptized; if it’s only about repentance and confessing sin, one wonders why a sinless Jesus bothered. Matthew at least has John the Baptist raise the question. But Mark’s not so interested in that, or in Jesus’ score sheet of sin prior to this moment. For Mark, this is where Jesus’ story begins. Either he doesn’t know about the manger and the wise men and everything we know about Christmas, or he doesn’t care. The new beginning starts now. Whatever baptism may have meant before, it means something more now that Jesus is involved. The Spirit of God is revealed in a new way. It’s not just about the threat of unquenchable fire anymore. The new face of God’s Spirit is a dove.
I’ve been sitting with this dove image for a while now. If God is going to bother tearing the heavens apart and finally “come down” as the prophet Isaiah pleaded so many centuries before, why show up this way? Why not make a bigger show of it? Scholars point out that for Mark, the Spirit descended “like” a dove – not necessarily as a dove. So how does a dove descend? Quietly, I’d think, at least when compared to a thunderstorm or earthquake. In Sunday School, we talk about the Spirit of God being like a dove, riding the invisible wind, coming to us whenever we need strength or power. But presumably, there’s a reason it’s a dove. As you can tell already, Mark doesn’t waste words. So why a dove?
Well, the last time a dove made a grand appearance in Scripture, it was back at the flood. In this story, Noah had already made it through the storm. He had witnessed God’s destructive powers firsthand; he presumably knew everything that could be taught by thunder. It was after the rain had stopped; the waters were slowly returning to their places. Noah already knew that his life would never be the same again; it wouldn’t return to whatever he knew before as normal.
That life was gone. But he did wonder where and when he’d land once the sea change was over.
So he sent out a dove - to see if it would come back or if the waters had receded enough for it to make a new nest. At first, the dove comes back. Noah waits seven days to send it out again, and this time – the dove returns with an olive leaf in its beak. New life is starting to emerge again. He sends out the dove a third time a week later, and this time it doesn’t return. It’s found a new home. This is the sign that Noah can finally start over again. The dove is a sign of hope – that a new and different future is possible, that life will continue after the storm – even if we can’t say what that life will look like just yet.
What does any of this have to do with us? In our increasingly fire and fury world, don’t we need a God who responds in kind? How useful is a God who comes quietly, like a dove? Later this morning, we’ll be baptizing two new members into the body of Christ. It’s worth pondering what we’re doing here. Baptism, particularly with infants, isn’t so much about confession of sin; they don’t have anything to confess yet. It may give the rest of us a chance to repent and return, but surely that’s not the only point. What are we doing then?
If we’re trying to protect these children from every possible threat, if we think that the waters of baptism will magically seal them from all harm, then we might as well be selling snake oil. We talk about being reborn by the Spirit of God in baptism, about being given the strength and power to love others in that Spirit. For these children, baptism is the first of many new beginnings in their lives. Among other things, it’s a promise that new beginnings are possible – not only that repentance is possible when we mess up, but that there’s new life on the other side of those losses we can neither prevent nor control. It’s not that we’ll never experience storms or that we’ll never lose a job or a home or people we love; it’s that we have this dove-like Spirit within us now to know that there’s so much more waiting for all of us. We can know that resurrection hope now in a new way without always having to be told.
Baptism gives us ears to hear all the different ways that God speaks. Sometimes, it’s through the words of Scripture that have seeped into us by years of reading and showing up here. – in the words and example of Jesus. Other times, it’s the wisdom of our loved ones that God uses to get us back on track. There have been times when I’ve found words of direction in what I’d call my conscience, and other times when the truth God wants me to hear can’t be contained by any words. It’s not a voice at all. It’s a taste, a touch, a vision. I know it in my body or my spirit before it ever reaches my mind. The Spirit of God is always with us, whether we know it or not; what baptism does, in part, is open us up to all our ways of knowing again. The seeds planted today, when nurtured and given time and commitment and a real chance to grow, can help us tap into our true sources of strength and power.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to think about a new beginning you might need in your life – whether it’s in a job or a relationship or in how you treat your own body maybe. Maybe you need to think about your country in a new way, or your role in making justice or peace happen. Let the dove-like Spirit be a sign of hope that such new beginnings are possible – and trust that the Spirit of God who brought you here will bring you through. In the Name of the One who loves us too much to speak to us in just one way, Amen.