1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
This time of year I love the birdsong. I sit in my study first thing in the morning and as the first glimmers of the daylight wash the sleep out of my eyes it is to the accompaniment of the world being woken up by the birds’ greeting of the new day. It’s not quite a dawn chorus yet, after all it’s still only February, but it is one of the most special moments of the day.
The trouble with nature, though, is that we can get all gushy about it and use it as unhealthy overly romantic metaphors for God. We love the sound of the sweet little bird song, but what about the unearthly racket a drake makes when it’s chasing a duck in the mating season. That’s birdsong to raise the dead by!
And that brings me to the vision of the Holy Spirit that we have of a white dove, a vision which is birthed in the accounts of the baptism of Jesus. Mark has a particular writing style which is to just give us the bare bones of the story. Matthew and Luke fill in with a lot more detail. Whilst they build the story slowly, Mark’s account, particularly in the first few chapters, is full of, ‘and immediately’, ‘and then’, and so on. You can get quite breathless reading it.
So it is with today’s account of the baptism and temptation of Jesus. There’s no extra detail to get lost in, just a simple account of Jesus coming to his cousin John to be baptised. As he comes up out of the water he hears the voice of God saying to him, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’, and he sees the Holy Spirit coming and descending on him like a dove.
And there’s our problem. From here on in we forever imagine the Holy Spirit as being like a pure white dove, all soft and fluffy, a bird with an accepting and loving smile on its face, and I’m sorry but that image is nonsense!
So why did the Holy Spirit manifest like a dove? Our first inclination is to think of the dove as a sign of peace. This probably comes from the image of Noah sending out a dove after the violent storm and flood. When it returns with an olive branch it is to show that the flood is receding, and that the wrath of God has passed. We still talk of offering an olive branch to someone as a way of describing trying to make peace with them.
Our first inclination may therefore be to think that this is the Holy Spirit showing that there is peace between us and God. God is offering us an olive branch. Well maybe that is a part of it. But the dove has other meanings in the Bible, some of which have nothing to do with peace. The dove was also a bird used for sacrifice in a ritual described at the beginning of Leviticus in which the priest wrings the dove’s neck, drains it of blood and tears off its wings.
That’s not such a nice cutesy image for us. Yet maybe it is closer to the truth, with the Holy Spirit offering a prophetic image of what was to come because this could be a description of what Christ went through. If we think of his life in sacrificial terms, the violence a priest did to the dove offering bears strong metaphorical similarities to what was done to Jesus at the instigation of the priests.
Far from Jesus getting a dose of feeling all warm and fuzzy when the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove, he might instead have felt a cold shiver of fear at the reminder from his heavenly Father of what he must accomplish.
There is also a reference in Isaiah 38 of moaning like a dove, with the dove being a symbol of human lament. And then at the other end of the scale the Song of Songs is littered with references to the lover as being like a dove. Again there we have potential symbols for what the Father was saying to the Son with this symbol; calling him the Beloved with a dove.
And then there is one more image, perhaps the most potent of all, which is from the beginning of the universe, when everything remains without form and still languishing in the primordial chaos, and the writer of the first chapter of Genesis describes the Spirit hovering, bird-like, over the waters, over the chaos, brooding about what may yet be but is still only dreamt of and unformed, like a pregnant mother with her hand over her swelling belly, pondering what is to come.
Can you see that with all this symbolic richness we should not simply imagine the Spirit of God as a soft white downy lovey white dove. The Holy Spirit is not safe, and that is proved by what happens next. Jesus scarcely has time to breathe before Mark tells us that the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.
That’s pretty intense imagery. The other Gospel writers smooth the edges off this rather a lot, saying that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. But Mark, the earliest writer, is quite emphatic. Jesus wasn’t led, he was driven.
The Celts have a very different symbol for the Holy Spirit. Have you ever had the misfortune to come up against a wild goose? Actually I’m not sure there is such a thing as a tame goose. And the worst of all is a wild mother goose who thinks you may be a threat. If you’re lucky you might get a hiss to warn you that you’re too close, but then you’re in trouble as she chases you, as she drives you off.
And with that imagery in mind the Celts refer to the Holy Spirit as the Wild Goose. Those of you who have read or used any of the resources from the Iona Community may have noticed that they call their publishing company the ‘Wild Goose’, and that’s why.
So let’s stay with this idea of being driven into the desert to face the temptations that the devil was about to throw at him, because that was the action of the Holy Spirit. We usually imagine the Holy Spirit as keeping us safe, and again it’s because of that lovely white dove image. But that is so very far from the truth. One of the first things I ever said to you is that a ship is safe in a harbour, but ships weren’t built for harbours.
Those of you were here on Ash Wednesday will remember me talking about how Lent has the potential to be a forest fire, burning up the deadwood if we give the Holy Spirit the space to light the first spark. Well the same kind of thing is going on here. We know the stories of what Jesus faced in the wilderness, but he didn’t. He had no idea what was coming.
He had to live with being driven by the Holy Spirit into a very vulnerable place. And that’s what I’m asking you to do for Lent. If we are to grow and move on as a church it will be because we are willing to take risks. Some of you have already come back to me about the choice of study leave that I’m taking later on this year. I’ve been asked what I’m expecting to accomplish.
The truth is that although I have some hopes and ideas, I don’t actually know. But one truth that I do feel is that it is the Holy Spirit of God driving me into the encounters I’m hoping to have. All that I ask of you is that you be willing to be driven out of your comfort zones. I am so heartened that I have had people come to see me over the last year or so ready to step out into the scary world beyond the harbour. And remember, the harbour is always here when some of need to come in for a rest.
So that’s what I think we should all be preparing to do. I sometimes look around our congregation and I wonder at the breadth of latent and not so latent giftings. I wonder at what you might accomplish in the community in God’s name. And then I wonder whether you will.
I’m sorry if that’s an uncomfortable question, but Lent is a time for asking uncomfortable questions. You see unlike what we may think of Lent as a time of trying to be extra disciplined and extra good, I feel that all that usually accomplishes is to make us feel like even worse sinners when we fail. Or perhaps we get cocky if we manage to keep our discipline.
But what if instead we looked at how willing we are to be driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, to take risks and see what we might become? You all have so much to give, but will you take the risk? I wonder....
I want you to close your eyes now and imagine you are on a canal towpath with water to one side, forest to the other, and trees surrounding you in the quietness. You’ve been walking for some time, maybe several hours, and now you’re beginning to feel tired.
Up ahead the path is beginning to become overgrown. It’s a beautiful path, but the canal is nearing a bend and you can’t see what’s around it because of the way the greening trees are bending closer and closer to the water.
You look over your shoulder, back the way you came. That’s a familiar path to you, but you have never walked any further than this - so now you are faced with a decision. You can go on or you can turn back to the familiar places. It seems like a fairly easy decision to make.
And then off to the side of the towpath, behind you, you hear a disturbance in the forest. You stand stock-still, wondering what new wonder may walk into your presence. And then you hear the hissing. Walking through the undergrowth and on to the path behind you comes a large white goose.
Her head is down and her neck stretched out in your direction, aiming down the path ahead. She’s hissing at you, and now you have a choice. She clearly wants you to go on, but you sense that if you try and go back the way you came she will reluctantly let you pass.
The choice of what to do is yours.
So in the silence, ask yourself, what may God be asking you to do now.