First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 11, 2004
The Gospel: Luke 3: 15-16,21-22 The Baptism of Jesus
Sermon: "Signs of God's Love"

The Rev. William D. Oldland

The Gospel:

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Luke 3: 15-16,21-22 The Baptism of Jesus

Signs of God's Love 

First Sunday after the Epiphany - January 11, 2004

Have you. and I ever asked God for a sign? Have we ever wondered if God was real or If something came from God? I know I have had times m my life when I wanted to know if God was real and if God heard my prayers. One time I remember well was when I was in eighth grade. I was at summer camp and I had experienced a pretty bad day. Oh, nothing was really horribly wrong. I was just in one of those eighth grade, pitiful me, nothing is going right funks. I could not do anything right. I could not say anything right. Furthermore, no one could say or do anything to make me feel any better. So, I went for a short walk on the beach all by myself. I sat down to think and started to talk to God. I remember wondering if God was really out there. I remember wondering if God ever heard what I was saying. But, I asked God for help with my problem. It was so important that I don't remember what it was. I also remember, asking God for a sign. Please let me know if you have heard this prayer. I looked out over the ocean in front of me and a dolphin appeared right off the shore. I took the dolphin's appearance as a sign. I wanted to take the appearance as a sign. I knew that there were lots of dolphins in the water around the camp. This one I believed was just for me. Now, I don't know if that dolphin was sent in response to my request for a prayer, but it did lift me out of my funk. It also bolstered my faith in God. Maybe God was really there and maybe, just maybe, God heard our prayers. 

Now, I know this story sounds kind of simplistic. I would say it is. After all I was only twelve at the time. Look at the reading in today's Gospel. John the Baptist had been preaching and baptizing the people who came to him in the wilderness. The people heard his words and we are told they are filled with expectation. They are expecting that God is about to do something. They are looking for a sign. More than that, they are looking for the Messiah. They are wondering if John is the one. Is John the promised Messiah? John tells them he is not. They are to look for one more powerful than John. John baptizes with water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. 

Don't we wonder how that word may have been received? I would have wondered what John meant by baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Fire would sure get my attention. Fire would be an incredible sign. After all, God led the people out of Egypt into the promised land with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Fire would definitely get my attention. Fire is powerful. Fire is a sign I can understand and fire is something I will follow. Yet, when Jesus is baptized there is no mention of fire. 

Fire, however, is not the only sign in scripture for the Holy Spirit. The breath of God that moved over the waters in creation is seen as a symbol of God's Holy Spirit. Water has been interpreted as a symbol of the power of the Holy Spirit by the church. We are baptized with water as the outward sign of God's grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, none of these symbols of the Holy Spirit appear in the story of Jesus' Baptism. There is no rushing wind. There is no flame of fire over Jesus' head. There is no special activity of water for Jesus compared to the rest of the people. The typical signs of power are not present for the people to see.

Yet, there is a sign. When Jesus is baptized and is praying the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove. Do the people see the sign, the dove? If they saw the sign would they have understood it? Some people today question whether there even was a dove as Luke seems to record. 

However, this part of Jesus' life was not written for the people who were there. This story of Jesus' life was written for Luke's community. For this community the dove and the voice become symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus is critically important. 

By the time of Jesus the rabbis had taught the people of Israel that the Spirit of God had departed from the earth with the last of the prophets. The presence of God had been absent to them for so long that the rabbis honestly began teaching this concept. However, they also taught that on occasion God would cause a voice to come from heaven. Yet, even though this voice was from God it was not to be seen as a continuation of God's revelation in the Torah, the prophets or as a substitute for the Holy Spirit. Luke knows the history. He is aware of these teachings. 

In Luke we see the Spirit of God descending in bodily form like a dove. There can be no disputing the fact that the Holy Spirit is present. God's Spirit descends upon Jesus empowering him and commissioning him for his ministry to the world. The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus to make the blind see, the lame walk, and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. The dove is an interesting symbol. The dove is not a symbol found in scripture of God's Holy Spirit. The dove in scripture is associated with the end of the flood. The dove comes back to Noah with an olive branch. The flood is over. The threat is past. A new day with God begins. Here we see Jesus baptized. The Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. A new day has begun. God walks among us with great wisdom and power. The power to restore all of humanity in a right relationship with God the Father. The symbol of God's power is not burning fire, but the peaceful presence of a dove. The dove is a symbol to Luke's community and to us that God comes to us in love and peace. God's desire is for us to respond with love and peace. 

In addition to the dove there is a voice. The voice in Luke is only heard by Jesus. The presence of the voice to Luke's community confirms the identity of Jesus. Jesus is the one whom John promised would arrive. Jesus is the Messiah who follows the will of God and is God's beloved. The community of Luke has two signs of the identity of Jesus Christ, the dove and the voice.

We, too, are recipients of these signs. Like the community of Luke we read and we hear of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus. We too hear the report of the voice proclaiming Jesus' identity. These signs are given to us to strengthen us in our faith. These signs are given to us to encourage us in our walk with Jesus. These signs are given to us to show us the presence of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is alive and well in this world in which we live. God is alive. God is present. God is here. 

Do we look for signs of God's presence today? Sure we do. Whether they are rainbows in the sky, dolphins in the ocean, or direct answers to prayer, we look for signs. The greatest sign we could have of God's incredible love for us is found in the Son, Jesus Christ. Through Him and through his offering of himself for us, we see the love God has for each one of us. AMEN

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