A message on John 1:29-42
Several years ago, a dove started hanging out under the awning over our back porch. I’d look out my kitchen window, right next to the back porch, and see the bird flying in and out.
At one point, I turned to Katie, and asked “What’s with the dove? It really seems to like to perch on our porch.”
Katie said “hmm,” as she walked outside to investigate. Sure enough, on the porch she found the beginnings of a nest in a hanging basket we’d left outside for the winter. Apparently our porch seemed like a safe place to build a nest.
Last week, we looked at the story of Jesus being baptized by John in Matthew’s Gospel. That story was told from Jesus’ perspective. It said that when he came up out of the water, one of the things that happened was that “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove.” In today’s reading, John the Baptist recounts the event, so we actually get John’s perspective and interpretation of what happened. John says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
When I first noticed this imagery of “the dove,” I asked the same question that I did that day when I saw the dove fluttering around my porch. “What’s with the dove?”
So what is with the dove? The Holy Spirit is frequently depicted as a dove on church banners, bulletins, and other places, and so it would be understandable if you thought that the Dove was a common image for the Holy Spirit in the Bible.
As it turns out, though, this story of Jesus’ baptism in the four Gospels is, in fact, the only place in the whole Bible where the Spirit is explicitly described as a Dove. The precursors are there in other places though.
The Dove Broods
In Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Bible, it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
The word that was used for “hovered” in the original Hebrew is also used to speak of a bird brooding, or hovering, over its eggs. Around the time of Jesus some Rabbi’s expanded this image, and when they told the story of Genesis 1, they’d say that “the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters like a dove.”
The Dove Brings New Creation
The next time we see a dove in the scriptures, Noah has sent one out to hover over the face of the flood waters. When the waters subside, the dove returns to Noah with a fresh olive leaf in its beak. The dove carries new life with him. And when the Dove, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, he brings new life. A new beginning. New creation. It’s a fitting metaphor.
The Dove Brings Purification
Doves were also a sign of purity and innocence in the ancient world. That’s one reason that, when Jesus sends his disciples out, he tells them to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. And within the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, doves are frequently used for offerings made for the purpose of purification. This aspect of the Holy Dove’s work continues in the New Testament, where purification and sanctification are often attributed to the Holy Spirit.
The Dove Perches in a suitable place
In the Old Testament, the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, only came into the Temple once everything about the Temple had been cleansed with blood. In the same way, the Holy Spirit only comes to rest upon a person who has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. In the case of Jesus, he was never tainted by sin, and so the Spirit was pleased to come and rest on him.
The Dove Remains
John’s Gospel has a striking little detail about the dove as it recounts Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist says “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
It remained on him. Isn’t that a strange little detail? Why was it worth mentioning?
The Dove is Sensitive
Well, back to the dove on my back porch. As much as I enjoyed the presence of the dove, it wasn’t constantly on my mind. And so from time to time, without thinking, I’d bang some pots around in my kitchen, and out of the corner of my eye I’d see the dove flutter away. The same thing would happen when I walked out my back door quickly and the latch on the storm door would make a loud *snap* sound.
Doves are quite sensitive, apparently. And so I learned to remember the dove. When I walked out the door, I’d do it carefully, and if I didn’t mess it up, the dove would stay brooding in her nest and we’d have a good look at each other.
The Dove descended on Jesus and remained. Think about what that must mean. It means that Jesus lived in such a way that the dove, the Holy Spirit, just wanted to stay put on him. He was never startled away. He was never offended, so that he would leave.
Jesus: A Spirit-empowered human
Let’s step back for a second and remind ourselves that Jesus is 100% human. Part of the miracle of Christmas is that the Eternal Son of God limited himself to operate as a human. Jesus frequently refers to himself as the Son of Man, or “the Human One.” Jesus is God in the flesh, yes, we understand that. But on earth Jesus operates as a human empowered by the Holy Spirit.
I’ll probably have to speak a full message about this sometime, because it’s actually a really big deal. If we jump right to, “well Jesus is God,” true as that is, we see what Jesus does and we turn into interested spectators.
But if Jesus is a human empowered by the Holy Spirit, now I’m really interested. Here’s an example that I can follow. Jesus models for us what human life looks like for someone who 1) is clean from sin and 2) is continuously empowered by the Holy Spirit. By the shedding of his blood on the cross, Jesus’ can cleanse you from sin, in order that the Spirit can come and you can have an intimate relationship with the Father and the Son.
Visualize a Dove
The Dove descended on Jesus and remained. Pastor Bill Johnson, at Bethel Church has this great image. Imagine if I had a literal dove sitting on my shoulder. How would I move around so that I wouldn’t frighten the dove away? Carefully. Or to put it another way, I’d take every step with the dove in mind. If I really valued the presence of the dove, every move I made, every word I spoke– they’d all be aimed at protecting the presence of what I value most.
I love when he’s resting on me. I love when he’s near me. I want to know him more. It’s not primarily so that I can do great things, fun as that is. But I want to know him. That is what I long for as a Christian.
It also helps that experiencing the presence of God resting upon you is truly the best feeling in the world.
Better than Drugs
A few years ago, I met a guy named Chris who’d been a Christian for about a year. He said to me, “I’ve been with lots of women, and I’ve done all kinds of drugs, but none of it even remotely compares to what I’m experiencing now.” That’s what I’m talking about. This isn’t just some heady theology that I’m talking about here. I’m talking about an experience that this guy says is better than drugs.
Value the Dove. Don’t startle him. Don’t give him a reason not to remain.
Someone who follows Jesus’ example says “I want the Spirit to descend on me and remain.” I want to be a place that the dove loves to perch. And not only that, I want the Dove to come and brood and continue to bring about new creation in me.
What startles the Dove?
Before I close, I just want to try to answer this question: what startles the Dove? What is the spiritual equivalent of banging pots around or slamming the door?
Perhaps the best window into this is Ephesians chapter 4, verses 30 through 32. Paul says, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” Okay, don’t grieve the Spirit of God. Don’t startle the Dove. Paul continues, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice”
That’s the stuff that the Holy Spirit won’t hang around for. Bitterness: it grieves the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit sees bitterness in someone’s heart, he says, “Actually, I think I’ll just go somewhere else.”
And bitterness never wants to keep to itself. It poisons those around it, as well. It spreads like a virus. It wants to fill the space and push out the presence of God. We need to guard ourselves against any bitterness if we want to host the Spirit of God, both as individuals, and as a church.
Bitterness is first on Paul’s list, but he also talks about wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. The Spirit does not bless people or churches who are clinging to these things. They’re not loving emotions. They don’t come from God. God does not bless them.
So what does Paul encourage us to do instead? What is the opposite of grieving the Holy Spirit? He continues, saying “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
When the Spirit sees a body of believers who is kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving of one another, it’s as if the Spirit says, “This looks like a nice place for me to land. They’re striving to be like Jesus. I think I’ll come rest there.”
Is the Holy Spirit resting upon you and remaining? You’ll know if he is… the same way that you could tell if a dove were on your shoulder in the dark. You feel it. You smell it.
One final thought. [In a moment we’ll sing Spirit Song,] which was written by a pastor named John Wimber in 1979. He was very interesting character, to put it mildly. He had been a keyboard player for the band The Righteous Brothers in the 1960s. He got into all the bad things that rock musicians tend to get into. But then he met Jesus. He had a radical conversion and became a pastor.
His song, “Spirit Song” continues to be one of the more popular songs in the United Methodist Hymnal. He wrote:
“O let the Son of God enfold you with his Spirit and his love. Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul. O let him have the things that hold you, and his Spirit like a dove will descend upon your life and make you whole.”
What is it that’s holding you today? Grief? Pain? Bitterness? Anger? Let Jesus have the things that hold you. They’re not worth holding on it. They’re killing you. And they’re keeping the Dove from coming to rest on you. Let him have the things that hold you. Because when you give Jesus the things that hold you– whatever sin you’re carrying– whatever you can’t get out from under — his Spirit like a dove will descend upon your life… and make you whole.