January 12, 2003
Isaiah 55:1-11; Mark 1: 7 – 11
What do you get for nothing? Not much. At least that would be our immediate response. We live in a materialistic culture and it is almost impossible to remain unaffected by finances and marketing. We intuitively assume that “everything has a price” and “you get what you pay for.”
Therefore there may be a shock when we hear the words of God given to us by Isaiah in today’s first reading. God says “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You that have no money, come buy food and eat. Buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
What then, are these things that God is giving and how good can they be if they come to us for free? The short answer is, very good. I stand here today to say that the most valuable things in our lives come without a price. The things that we could not imagine living without come to us for nothing.
This truth is focused in today’s Gospel. When Jesus comes out of the waters of the Jordan after his baptism, there is a voice from the heavens that says, “You are my beloved Son.” God freely chooses Jesus as a Son. This was no financial interaction. No money exchanged hands. It was a free choice by God to claim Jesus as God’s own. God chooses you and me in a very similar way. God chooses us to be beloved sons and daughters and then surrounds us with an amazing variety of free gifts.
How much did you pay for the breath you just took and the thirty that came before it? Where would you be if those breaths had not been freely given? How expensive are the relationships in your life, your family, the people that you depend upon? Do you pay an annual fee for relating to them? What is the price per minute that you are charged for the conversations that you have with the people that you love, those conversations that allow your life to be shared together. Have you ever been billed for the wisdom that guides your life, the advice of family and friends, the ideas that God inspires in your mind that direct you upon a certain course? What did you pay for your last laugh, for the last time that you felt the joy of living, for the warmth that comes from the people that you love? All of these things are spiritual gifts and they come without a price, without cost. They come from a God who has freely chosen us to be God’s own.
Now in saying this, I am not negating the value of material things, those things for which we have to pay a price. The material possessions of our life do, in fact, contribute to a full life. Mae West in a famous statement said, “I’ve been happy poor, and I’ve been happy rich. Rich is better.” I would not argue with her. Financial security, material possessions, can give us a certain amount of comfort and satisfaction. But, the truth is, to have these things without the spiritual gift of happiness is not enough.
There are many very wealthy people who are not as happy as you and I, because happiness is a spiritual gift. It comes without a price. You cannot buy it. You can only accept it from a God who loves you. Therefore, the secret of a full life is thankfulness, thankfulness for those things that have been freely given to us without any price, thankfulness for our health, for our abilities, for our relationships.
Never take any of these spiritual gifts for granted. Never think that they are secondary to the material things that absorb so much of our thoughts and energies. God has made us God’s own. God has chosen us as sons and daughters and God continually surrounds us with gifts that bring us life and joy. I do not know whether the author of that famous song from the forties was a person of faith, but the words of that song certainly conform to the truth of the Gospel. We who have been chosen to be God’s sons and daughters, we who claim God’s love and recognize God’s blessings, are the people who can say without hesitation that “the best things in life are free.”
A Dove at Jesus’ Baptism
January 11, 2009
Today’s gospel recounts the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It is a very familiar scene. All of us know it. Many of us have seen multiple artistic depictions of what has been described. But what many of us might not know is that there is a perplexing problem in this gospel which vexes biblical scholars, a detail that they find difficult to explain. It is said that as Jesus comes out of the water, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. It is from this passage that the Spirit has become associated with a dove. But scholars cannot figure out what is the significance of the dove. There are other images of the Holy Spirit that would be much easier to explain. The Spirit is often associated with the wind. Wind would indicate that the Spirit is unseen and is difficult to direct. The Spirit is sometimes said to be like fire. That significance is clear. It represents the burning love of God. But what does it mean to say that the Spirit is like a dove?
Confused by this problem, scholars turn to where they usually turn: the Old Testament. They know that the gospel writers often pulled their imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. They know that if they could find references to doves in the Old Testament, the contexts of those passages might provide the reason that Spirit is said to be like a dove. This is a good strategy, but the problem is that there are very few references to doves in the Old Testament. Noah releases a dove from the ark, and the Israelites are required to offer two turtle doves in the temple. But neither of these contexts provides a clearer meaning about Jesus’ baptism. So, scripture scholars remain confused. They are not sure why the Spirit is like a dove.
But there is one small passage in an ancient Jewish commentary on the Bible, which does mention a dove. I like to think that this passage reveals to us what the dove is doing at Jesus’ baptism. The ancient Jewish commentator says, “The divine voice comes to us cooing like a dove.” The implication is that God speaks to us quiet and gentle ways, like the cooing of a dove. What is so effective about this particular interpretation of the dove is the way that it shifts the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. Normally, as we picture Jesus’ baptism, we do so in dramatic terms. We imagine the skies opening with thunder, or the voice coming from heaven booming with grandeur. But when we consider that the dove represents God’s gentleness and quietness, it implies that Jesus’ baptism was not like that at all. Perhaps, as he came out of the waters of the Jordan, he experienced a quiet sense in his heart, a gentle but certain assertion, “You are my son, whom I love. And I have a mission for you.” It could have been very ordinary, very common. No lightening or cymbals, just the gentle whisper of God’s love.
When we look at Jesus’ baptism this way, it reminds us that there are many miracles in our lives which are not dramatic. God touches us in many ways which are both ordinary and gentle. We might be watching our children or our grandchildren play and are suddenly struck with the realization, “How blessed I am, and how thankful I should be.” We might simply witness a friend who shows generosity or forgiveness to someone else and be moved by the thought, “I should reconcile myself to someone who has hurt me.” We might be struggling with sickness or depression and then receive an unexpected phone call of support. Suddenly it is in our heart that things will be okay, that there is reason for hope. We might be sitting in church or watching the snow fall, and suddenly feel a prompt, “It is time to make a change, to try something new, to commit to a new direction.”
It is important for us not to miss the ordinary and gentle ways that God speaks to us in our lives. Our God is not committed only to thunder and drama. God is certainly capable of pulling us up by the nape of our neck, but usually God works in more subtle ways. That is why we should listen and be attentive. We do not want to miss the gentle breeze of God’s Spirit. That is why we must attune our ears, so that we will be able to hear the cooing of God’s love.
The Dove in the Heavens
January 11, 2015
Today’s gospel presents Jesus’ baptism by John. All four of the gospels agree that Jesus’ ministry begins with an event at the Jordan. In this event Jesus knows and claims his status as God’s beloved son. In this moment Jesus knows without a doubt that God is with him. This is what you and I want in our lives. We want to know that God loves us. We want to know that we are not alone. But how do we open ourselves to this truth. Where do we look to find the assurance of God’s presence?
Today’s gospel offers us two images to guide us. The first is the image of the Holy Spirit. The text says, “The spirit, like a dove, descended on Jesus.” The dove is the most common image of the Holy Spirit. The dove is a sign of peace, of comfort, of God’s presence. This is what we want in our relationship with God. We want to know that God is close, that God is compassionate, and that God is tender with us in our needs.
But the second image in the gospel is a very different one. The second image in the gospel is “the heavens.” This gospel makes clear that at Jesus’ baptism the sky above him was not serene. The text says that “Jesus looked up and saw the heavens being torn open.” If the dove is a sign of peace, the heavens are a sign of violence. If the dove is all about cooing and comfort, the heavens are about thunder and fear.
The power of this gospel is that it takes these two very different images and joins them together. It does this to tell us that God’s comforting presence, the dove, is not limited to tranquil situations. In fact it is in the midst of upheaval and turmoil that we should expect the spirit of God to arrive. When there is trouble in our lives, when our children or our parents disappoint us, when our health fails, when people we trust turn away from us, we should not conclude that God has forgotten us. Instead we should expect that God will find a way to reach us even in the midst of pain and loss.
When there is trouble in our world—terrorists in France, Ebola in Africa, war in the Middle East—we should not conclude that God is absent. Instead, we should look for signs of the Holy Spirit, signs of hope, opportunities to co-operate with others so that people can be brought together rather than be kept apart.
God’s comforting presence is not limited to happy situations. God knows that we need help and support in difficult circumstances. Therefore, when our life collapses or turns bad, we must trust that God will find a way to comfort us. We are, after all, God’s beloved daughters and sons. So when the thunder roars and the heavens are ripped apart, it is then that we should watch for the Holy Spirit to come, descending through the turmoil like a dove.