Sermon: Descended Like a Dove
St. Pau’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15; Psalm 25.1-9
The Gospel of Mark begins with the words, ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1; NRSV). We have heard these words numerous times; imagine hearing them for the first time apart from any knowledge of Jesus Christ. Who is this Jesus Messiah? What do you mean by “the Son of God”? And what is this ‘good news’? Mark would surely have had our attention.
Mark then reminds his reader of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy – that a messenger, the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” would come to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Mark identifies that messenger as John the Baptist, one who is baptizing in the wilderness on the banks of the River Jordan. Mark quotes John, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8; NRSV).
With this as the background to today’s gospel reading, Mark ever so briefly tells us of Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news.
According to Mark, when Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove,” and he heard a voice from heaven which said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.10-11; NRSV). The account is ever so brief. We are left wanting to know more. Nonetheless, what a revelation! What an affirmation! Had Jesus any doubts concerning his identity and mission, this experience likely would have removed them.
As I have noted before, the predominant ethos of Middle Eastern culture is honor and shame. John Pilch, an authority on Middle Eastern culture, observes, “From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, the temptation of Jesus by Satan is inevitable after the honorable tribute by the voice from heaven…Every claim to honor is sure to be tested. Someone will try to prove that the compliment was false” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentB021818/theword_cultural.html). Mark does not tell us whether anyone else heard this voice; for that matter, neither do Matthew and Luke. But Satan must have felt the sting and heard the voice. Satan was ready to test Jesus’ honor and to prove the compliment false.
Following Jesus’ baptism, there was no special time with the family, no celebration with the congregation and friends, not even a special time of fellowship with his cousin John the Baptist, for Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1.12-13; NRSV). Again, the account omits the details; we are left wanting to know more.
Mark then tells us, “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’” (1.14-15; NRSV). John’s ministry was ended; Jesus’ time had come.
Even though Mark’s account is ever so brief, we can still derive several lessons or insights. First, when God calls us into ministry, we should expect confirmation of our call. We are unlikely to see the heavens torn asunder and the descent of a dove, and we are unlikely to hear God’s affirming voice. Yet one may experience God’s affirmation through the voices of friends, through the feeling of a deep peace, a calm assurance that this is indeed the right direction for one’s life.
Second, despite the affirmation, the deep peace, or a calm assurance, we can be certain of the testing which will follow whether we have just surrendered our life to Christ as a new Christian or whether we are being called into some form of ministry. This testing is part of our preparation for a deeper walk in the Spirit. How did Mark put it? “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Note that Satan was not the one who drove Jesus into the wilderness – it was none other than the Spirit. Further note this was not a momentary test in pleasant conditions – it lasted forty days and it took place among the wild beasts. And Jesus was alone – no family or friends were present.
As John Justus Landsberg, a 16th century Bavarian priest wrote: “Jesus left his kinship network in Nazareth of Galilee…Jesus subsequently finds himself alone with Satan…The Mediterranean reader realizes that without his kinship network, Jesus is particularly vulnerable to attack by anyone and everyone” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentB021818/theword_journey.html). One’s kinship network is important, and as we know, the kinship need not be immediate family – it is extended to include like-minded friends. Withstanding temptation is easier when you have the support of a like-minded brother or sister. There’s strength in numbers! I suspect Paul and Silas knew it was easier to sing in prison when one had company. I am not sure if they ever got enough company to sing four-part harmony – although they may have been joined by angel choirs.
Concerning testing, Landsburg states: “Human life on earth is a life of warfare, and the first things Christians must expect is to be tempted by the devil. As scripture tells us, we have to be prepared for temptation, for it is written, ‘When you enter God’s service, prepare your soul for an ordeal’” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentB021818/theword_journey.html). Here he quotes Ecclesiasticus 2.1: “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”
Third, Mark’s account testifies to the presence of heavenly aid amidst our testing: “And the angels waited on him.” God’s love also comes to us. As we read in 1 Peter 3.18-22, God, in and through the love of Jesus Christ, “suffered for sins once for all…in order to bring us to God” (NRSV). In the days of Noah, God delivered eight persons through the water; in like manner, we are delivered through the waters of baptism.
It has been a thoroughly unsettling week. In many respects, Wednesday was an emotional roller coaster. Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, for many of us brought forth the remembrance of our love, the call to a Holy Lent and the imposition of ashes. As the day wore on we watched the numbers of schoolchildren and staff killed in Parkland, Florida, slowly rise to seventeen. I have experienced my own anger and frustration, and I have heard the same anger and frustration expressed by many others. We can quickly spend billions to implement a Department of Homeland Security in response to foreign terrorists, but we cannot forego the payments from lobbyists and implement reasonable legislation related to the possession of assault weapons. Admittedly, banning assault weapons in and of itself will not stop school shootings, but it may reduce the number of victims.
I earlier referenced the Middle Eastern culture of honor and shame. Might our culture suffer from the lack of both, especially as relates to our elected officials? While working on this sermon, I was reminded of another portion of 1 Peter’s message to the Christian church: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (5.6-8, NRSV). I will be the first to admit, I find it hard to cast all my anxiety on him, yet I know that I am called to do so, and to bear witness for having done so.
In light of these events, in light of being tested that we might proclaim the good news that the kingdom is near, I can say with the psalmist:
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; * let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; * let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
3 Show me your ways, O Lord, * and teach me your paths.
4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, * for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.
5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, * for they are from everlasting.
6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; * remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
And once again, the words of the collect ring so true: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” Amen.