Thomas J Parlette
“When the Dove Descends”
Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
Every once in awhile, friends send me things that are circulating on Facebook or other social media – usually jokes, sometimes the latest Harry Potter quiz and occasionally funny videos. They know I’m not on social media, so they don’t want me to miss anything.
So awhile back I was forwarded a joke, maybe you got I too. It began: “We are all familiar with a herd of cows, a flock of chickens, a school of fish and a gaggle of geese. However less widely known is a pride of lions, a murder of crows, a bouquet of pheasants, an exaltation of doves, and presumably because they look so wise, a parliament of owls. Now consider a group of baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not… a Congress.”(1)
The problem is Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize winning fact checking service, ran the post through its data base and found that there were some problems with the joke. A group of baboons is not called a Congress. The proper term for a group of baboons is a troop. The other problem is that a group of doves is not an exaltation – that applies to a group of larks. A group of doves is actually called a “bevy” or a “dole”, or even a “flight” of doves. So don’t trust everything you read on social media – sometimes it’s not quite accurate.
In today’s Gospel, we don’t have a bevy of doves, we’ve just got the one, descending on Jesus at his baptism.
All four of our Gospels refer to Jesus’ baptism and all four take note of a dove descending. Mark and Luke are almost identical in how they relate the story – the dove descends and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” A very personal moment between God and Jesus.
Matthew is very similar, but in his version the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. More of an introduction for the crowd to hear rather than a private exchange between Father and Son.
John, of course, does his own thing, and never actually describes the moment of baptism itself, but does say he saw the Spirit of God, like a dove, descend upon Jesus and remain with him – that’s how he knew that Jesus was the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
These baptism stories are very important because these are the rare passages that depict the three Persons of the Trinity together at the same time. The person of Jesus, the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God all converging at Jesus’ baptism.
This scene ought to remind us how important baptism is. United Methodist bishop Will Willimon tells a wonderful story about a baptism he once conducted. It was at a small, rural church. A twelve-year-old boy wanted to baptized by immersion. The boy’s pastor conveyed the request to Willimon. Methodists rarely baptize by immersion, but Willimon was willing to do if it that was what the boy wanted.
The bishop arrived at the church early Sunday morning to find the pastor and the boy standing on the front steps. “Jeremy, this is the bishop. It’s quite an honor for you to be baptized by the bishop.”
Jeremy looked Bishop Willimon over and said, “They tell me you don’t do many of these. I’d feel better if we did a run-through beforehand.”
“Good idea,” said Willimon. “I was going to suggest the same thing.” They went into the church’s fellowship hall where the pastor showed them their newly purchased baptism font, which looked a lot like a small Jacuzzi.
Young Jeremy took the lead. “After you say the words, then you take my hand and lead me up these steps, and do you want me to take off my socks?”
“I don’t know, I guess you can leave them on if you want,” said Willimon. He obviously wasn’t an expert at these kinds of baptisms, and the young man had clearly thought this through pretty thoroughly. The service went well, the bishop preached a wonderful sermon, the choir sang a special baptism anthem and the whole congregation recessed into the fellowship hall and gathered around the baptismal font. Willimon went through the liturgy and then asked Jeremy if he had anything to say to the congregation before his baptism.
“Yes, I do,” said Jeremy. Then, addressing the congregation of that little church, Jeremy said, “I just want to say to all of you that I’m here today because of you. When my parents split up, I thought my world was over. But you stood by me. You told me the stories about Jesus. And I just want to say thanks for what you did for me. I intend to make you proud as I’m going to try to live my life the way Jesus wants.”
By this time Willimon had tears streaming down his face, and as he led Jeremy up the steps into the pool, Jeremy looked at him and said – “Are you going to be OK?”
“I baptized Jeremy, concludes Willimon, “and the church sang a great Hallelujah!”(2)
And so they should. They were acknowledging and accepting a fine young man into the family of God. It’s an important event, and Jeremy certainly understood that, more so than most. Baptism matters.
It matters for several reasons. For one thing it says something about the person being baptized. The person being baptized now belongs to God. We sometime hear people say things like, “It’s my life, I can do what I want.” And I suppose that’s true to an extent. We Americans certainly value our independence and personal liberties. But for those who have been baptized, we must acknowledge that we now belong to God. You may not be everything that God wants you to be yet – but you still belong to God.
Ben Helmer, an Episcopal priest in Arkansas, tells about a baptism of a 55-year-old man who had just started coming to his church. One day the man asked, “What do I need to do to be baptized?” As is the custom in the Episcopal church, a bishop was asked to be officiate the man’s baptism. On the day of his baptism, he stood at the small font, and bowed his head as the priest poured water on him. The bishop sealed his baptism by using consecrated oil to make the sign of the cross on his forehead – repeating the words “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Afterward, this man shared how moving the experience had been for him. He told how something had always been missing in his life. He had been a counselor until his retirement, and in that role he had often worked with people to help them find meaning and purpose in life. But in retirement, he had found that he now needed that sense of purpose. And in his baptism he had found it.
This man is now a servant of Christ, volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas day, offering to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. He spent Christmas weekend with his family, but Christmas day itself, he was at the clinic serving others. Did it matter to this 55-year-old man whether he had been baptized? Yes, it did! It marked a new chapter in his life. He now belonged to God. Baptism matters.
Baptism also matters because of what it says about the church. Christian baptism is a rite of the church. When you are baptized, you are baptized into a family. That family is the Christian family. There are far too many people who are under the delusion that they can live a Christian life apart from the church. It’s true that you may live a moral life, you may live a constructive and happy life, but the Christian life can only be properly lived as part of the body of Christ.
Now churches vary greatly. Not every church is a place where you can find God. But church is where you are most likely to find God. It may be our church or another one. It may be a large church or it might be a small one. But we were baptized into the body of Christ, and only within the body of Christ will our commitment to Christ be complete.
Stephen Montgomery tells about a young woman he once knew who was looking for a church in which to get married. She nearly drove her fiancé and her mother crazy, scouting out just about every sanctuary in the city, looking for just the right one – the one with the prettiest stain glass windows, the one with just the right length of center aisle, the one with the best access to hotel accommodations and interstate highways.
Finally, she made a decision. She ended up getting married in an old cinder block rectangular building with fluorescent lights and an old Wurlitzer electric organ. A few handmade felt banners that the youth group had made in the 60’s and 70’s were still up on the walls.
Why the change of heart? She finally realized something important – this was the church where she had been baptized, where she had been confirmed and met her husband to be. This was the church where her grandparents’ memorial services had been held. This was where she had come to know something of the love and grace of God. She realized that this building was a sacred center, but its importance was in being a means to an end and not an end in itself.(4)
We sometimes chuckle about people who simply use the church to be hatched, matched and dispatched. That is to say – to be baptized, married and then buried. The other side of that is that the church envelopes all the important events of our life. Baptism is an initiation into a special group, the church of Jesus Christ, of whatever denomination. We may baptize in different ways, but all churches are united in this one way – baptism is a requirement of acceptance into the body of Christ. Baptism is important because of what it says about the person being baptized and what it says about the church. Every baptized person is part of the church.
Even more important is what baptism says about the grace of God. God’s grace is available to all. We are not baptized because we are perfect. None of us is perfect. The use of water symbolizes that our sins have been washed away.
A lady tells about a baptism service that took place in her evangelical church. One hundred and two people were scheduled to be baptized during one special service. The men wore black robes and the women wore white.
During the baptism, the dye from the black robes began to make the water look dark and dirty, and this lady overheard two young boys behind her discussing the matter.
“How come the water is getting so dirty?”
“That’s their sins getting all washed away”
Maybe not really – but he certainly got the point.
Sam Houston was the first president of the Republic of Texas. It’s said that he was a rather nasty fellow with a checkered past. Later in life he made a commitment to Christ and was baptized in a river. The preacher said, “Sam, your sins are washed away.”
And Houston replied, “God help the fish.”(6)
God accepts us as we are. God would prefer that we be like Jeremy, the 12-year-old boy who vowed his intent to make his church family proud by the life he would lead. God would prefer that we would be like the 55-year-old who found his purpose through his baptism and become a servant of Christ. But God accepts us as we are. Baptism is important because of what it says about the person being baptized and what it says about the church. But most important is what it says about the grace of God.
When the dove descends and the Holy Spirit rests upon us in our baptism, God is pleased to welcome us into the fold.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p9.
2. Ibid… p10-11.
3. Ibid… p11.
4. Ibid… p12.
5. Ibid… p13.
6. Ibid… p13.