There is an old legend of a swan and a crane. A beautiful swan alighted by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired: "Where do you come from?"
"I come from heaven!" replied the swan. "And where is heaven?" asked the crane.
"Heaven!" said the swan, "Heaven! have you never heard of heaven?" And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of the Eternal City. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones; of the river of life, pure as crystal, upon whose banks is the tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane.
Finally the crane asked: "Are there any snails there?" "Snails!" repeated the swan; "no! Of course, there are not." "Then," said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, "you can have your heaven. I want snails!"
Besides the debate about snails in heaven, our story reminds us that it is a new year, a new beginning, the start of new possibilities. We are reminded of the potential that lies ahead for us. We are asked, what do we apply ourselves to: Heaven or stay stuck in the mundane matters of life: like seeking snails. Filling our belly. \\\\ Here at Freeport and Merrick there are great goals to accomplish in 2019 – to grow in faith, reach out into the community, fill our pews and the spaces in the church. In each of our hearts are dreams, a 2019 bucket list. What’s on that list: the vision of heaven or snails?
Today we encounter Jesus as an adult ready to embark on his step into public ministry. In an account captured by all four gospel writers, Jesus enters public life through baptism at the hands of his cousin John. As he enters the Jordan River, and allows himself to be immersed, Jesus identifies as one of us – as members of the loved, but sinful human community in need of redemption.
A Heavenly voice affirms Jesus: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Powerful words to mark Jesus as he begins his work. These are Words to carry him through the trials and joys as he lives out the ministry of healing, teaching preaching, serving, confronting, forgiving and restoration. Jesus is given one more precious gift to mark the beginning of his public life. That gift is the Holy Spirit who descends upon him in bodily form like a dove. (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).
Why a dove? Out of all the birds whose shape the Holy Spirit could have assumed, why a dove? Why not an eagle, the king of birds and ruler of the sky? Why not hawks or falcons, which vigilantly criss-cross the length of the Holy Land many times a day? Why not an owl for wisdom? A pelican as symbol of sacrifice? An ostrich whose eggs were placed in tombs and graves, as symbols of resurrection or immortality? Or a swan which symbolizes grace and purity? Or even the common sparrow for that matter – all birds people would have recognized? Why a dove?
If you recall, the dove is one of the two birds mentioned in the story of Noah’s flood, which begins in Genesis 6. As the waters began to slowly recede, Noah first sent a raven from the window in the ark, and the raven flew back and forth until the waters were dried up, and it did not return. Next Noah sent a dove, but the dove returned to the ark after finding no place to rest its feet (Gen. 8:7-9). What’s worth noting here is that a raven will eat the bodies of dead animals, but a dove will not. When the dove went forth from the ark, it returned because doves will not rest on a carcass or eat decaying flesh.
Noah sent the dove out a second time and the dove and the dove returned to the ark with an olive leaf in its mouth. Of the hundreds of possible tree leaves to reappear after the earth was covered with water, the dove found the leaf of a tree created by God to produce olives. The olive branch in the ancient world has long been a symbol of peace, so the dove is the conveyor of the symbol of peace, a new start in a sin-ravaged world.
Doves bridged the peace between humanity and God in another way. Turtledoves or young pigeons, were the sacrifice for sin in the Old Testament within the reach of the poor, who could not afford a lamb, or a ram or bull to sacrifice (Lev.1:14). Doves were a special offering for purification after a woman gave birth to a child (Lev. 12:5-6), a law about which Luke makes a point to detail that Mary and Joseph complied (Luke 2:22-24).
There are other traits about doves that give us insight why the Holy Spirit chose to identify with this specific bird. Doves are not predatory. They do not attack other birds as hawks and many other birds do. A dove will withdraw from a fight if at all possible. Doves will not steal from other birds as ravens and other birds do.
Doves are faithful creatures: they mate for life. Baby doves get their milk from both its’ mother and father. Both genders create milk to nurture babies. The dove is the only male bird that creates milk. The cooing of turtledoves has been translated as the language of love, and not surprising the Song of Songs mentions doves seven times. The image of two doves has become a standard symbol for love, commitment and fidelity in marriage ceremonies.
It is not surprising that the Holy Spirit chose to take the form of a dove to affirm Jesus of the ministry that lay ahead. It was a symbol to all who witnessed Jesus’ baptism, and is a witness to us, that Jesus too comes to bring peace & reconciliation in the midst of the floodwaters of sin. It is a symbol that Jesus is loving, faithful, lowly, non-predatory, as Jesus himself would extol when he said: (Matt. 11: 28-29)"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS." Yet like the dove, Jesus would be the anointed sin-offering accessible to all humankind.
Though one of the lowliest and most common of birds, the dove reminds us that the Holy Spirit loves us, is committed to us and anoints us for service – just like Jesus was. In our walk of faith in 2019, the dove reminds us to seek out opportunities to serve, and to be harbingers of peace and reconciliation. The dove reminds us of our forgiveness found in Jesus Christ, so too we can start over and bring the olive branch of good news of forgiveness to others.
The dove reminds us we are called, anointed and equipped for ministry. We are capable and we have work to do – that only we can do. What will we seek, heaven here on earth, or dig for snails? This gift of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the Dove, is a part of our life. So be peaceful, like the dove. Be faithful and loving, like the dove. Be a conveyor of forgiveness, like the dove. Be an anointer and enabler of good works, as the dove symbolizes. Use time well, so that the Holy Spirit may descend upon you in all you do, in every minute, every hour, every day every week every month. and create a year of service, love and peace. Create a haven like heaven, here on earth. Yes, like a dove. Amen.