We are still early enough in our New Year to entertain platitudes and wise sayings to guide our journey into the months ahead. Consider this story:
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 search for and apply ourselves to: Heaven or stay stuck in the mundane matters of life: seeking snails. Here at Union there are great goals to accomplish – growing in faith, as a church community and finding a settled pastor. In each of our hearts are dreams, a 2017 bucket list. We need vision and encouragement to help us recall why we are here and what we are called to do.
Just last week, we read the story of the child Jesus receiving the affirmation and gifts of the wise men, as he began his life. Now, today we encounter Jesus as an adult ready to embark on a new phase of his life journey – 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 a members of the loved, but sinful human community in need of redemption.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying in the midst of his baptism, the heavens opened to affirm him as he embarks on his public ministry of preaching the good News and the gospel of reconciliation – to mark this time as sacred and significant. 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? And what does that message have for us as we begin our new year, and embark on deepening and exploring ministry here at Union Church?
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. Olives produced a thick yellow oil, which was used to anoint the national and spiritual leaders of Israel (Ex. 30:25, 31). 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.
Finally Noah waits another 7 days and sends the dove out a third time – and this time the dove doesn’t return - signifying it’s safe to leave the Ark. So it is the dove that signals when the journey to a renewed earth, cleansed of sin.
Doves bridged the peace between humanity and God in another way. Turtledoves or young pigeons, was 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.
When most birds hover in the air, their wing tips point toward the back, in the direction of their tail feathers. On a dove, however, the wing tips point toward the head. This is unique and not lost when how the anointing oil was poured upon the heads of the kings and priests and prophets of Israel. The oil was poured from one ear, across the front of the head, to the other ear. It was poured in the form of a Hebrew letter kuf, whose shape is similar to a dove’s wings when it is hovering and its wings are opened. Just as the oil descended upon the heads of priests, the Holy Spirit manifested as a dove at Christ’s baptism and descended upon him, anointing Jesus to service and sacrifice.
Those who really get into dove symbolism love to note that there are nine main feathers on the left and right wings of the dove – as there are also nine gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7-10) and nine fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23. So our lowly dove in its very body reminds us of the fullness of faith whose journey began in our baptism, and of the journey we embark on this day.
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 extoll 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 2017 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, through its common cousin, the pigeon, which is spread worldwide and everywhere in the city that God’s is also everywhere; and even when we fall, God is faithful. Today as we explore the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of Union Church, and by extension, of our own lives, the dove reminds us that God’s love and mercy are always present to us even minute of this year. God’s anointing is on us will accompany us wherever we do. The dove points to a vision that will safely guide us through the months ahead.
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. It is one of our most precious possessions. It is a gift from God, like time, 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. Seek out the fruits of the spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as the dove reminds us. 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. Like a dove. Amen.