Sermon from Sunday
The Dove with Talons
First Sunday in Lent
(Click here to listen to this sermon.)
My wife, Maggie, and I have a special tradition for the Olympic games. As we watch the opening ceremonies, she and I eat food from the host country. Four years ago, when the summer Olympics were held in Beijing, Maggie and I pigged out on Lo Mein and egg rolls as we watched the opening ceremony. Two years ago, when the winter games opened in Vancouver, we didn’t know what Canadians ate, so we had pizza with Canadian bacon. This summer, you can be sure that Maggie and I will be parked on our sofa eating fish and chips with mushy peas as we watch the opening ceremonies for the Olympics in London.
The opening ceremonies are rich with symbols. The celebratory fireworks, the solemn lighting of the Olympic torch, and of course, the peaceful Olympic dove. A perfect, white, bird representing the world’s hopes for peace and tranquility. I remember watching the opening ceremonies in Beijing, with won ton soup dribbling down my chin, hoping the world could somehow be as peaceful as that innocent little bird.
In our minds, the dove symbolizes comfort and calmness. And we carry this image of the dove to our reading of the gospels. We could be lured into this picture: Jesus is baptized in a serene babbling brook, and as he is toweling off he sees a beautiful, white dove and he hears a voice: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
How peaceful. How calm. How hopeful. Jesus might just sit down in a grassy meadow with kittens and butterflies and rainbows. And that beautiful white dove might sing him a song as he dries off from his dip in the Jordan.
But be careful – this is not the picture our gospel passage paints. Be careful – this dove has talons.
Allow me to paint you another picture: After nearly drowning from his baptism, it is true, a dove descends from heaven. Think of that terror! The heavens are torn open, a messenger flies forth from the very throne of God, and God’s own voice booms from the sky. Then the Spirit leads Jesus away, literally driving him into the wilderness. And the wilderness is a scary place. People die in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted and tried by Satan. The wild beasts lurk and prowl about Jesus in the wilderness for forty long days.
Then the Spirit drives Jesus about Galilee, proclaiming the good news – that the Kingdom of God is near, and that all need to believe in the gospel. This is the very message that got Jesus nailed to a cross. All thanks to the Holy Spirit.
That dove which came down from heaven brought no peace or calm for Jesus. That dove had talons.
Many of the things that we do in church seem tame or peaceful. We share bread and wine. Such a basic meal must surely be harmless. But be careful – we pray that the Holy Spirit comes upon the bread and the wine. When we eat and drink this meal, you never know what the Spirit is going to do with us. The Spirit may drive us out of these church doors and into the wilderness of the world. The Spirit may drive us to feed others as we have been fed. Be careful – do not eat this meal unless you are ready, ready to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, ready to go about proclaiming the good news of God. It’s not a happy message, it’s a message that may bring death, your death. The death of your pride. This dove has talons.
Or take that most familiar of Christian prayers. Our Father, who art in heaven. We are so accustomed to it that we have lost its radical nature: we are praying for God’s will to be done. And that may not line up very neatly with our career paths or retirement plans. The Holy Spirit may just drive you to go do something silly – like flying off to Malawi to serve our needy brothers and sisters. Be careful what you pray for. Do not mutter those words unless you are ready, ready to be driven into the wilderness where the wild beasts prowl and lurk. This dove has talons.
For this holy season of Lent, I expect that many of you will be keeping some manner of discipline. Lenten disciplines are good ways to reconnect with God during these forty days. Many of you probably gave up chocolate for Lent, or coffee, or Diet Coke, or Facebook, or any number of other little creature comforts. This is holy work; self-denial and discipline during Lent will make our Easter celebration that much grander. But be careful – the Holy Spirit has talons.
The Holy Spirit may be calling you to take the money you spend on Starbucks and feed the poor. The Spirit may use the time you would be on Facebook for prayer and meditation on God’s holy word. Lent is not the Church’s version of a New Years’ resolution. Lent is a dedicated season in which we pray for the Holy Spirit to take our hearts of stone and turn them into hearts for faith. The Holy Spirit takes us from where we were and thrusts us into where God is calling us to be. Be careful what you do during Lent. The Holy Spirit may take you up on the offer to change your life.
This dove, the image of the Holy Spirit, is a wild, reckless bird. The Spirit goes where it chooses. And the Spirit chooses you, it chooses to send you into the wilderness. You may find yourself in some pretty scary places, some places that are uncomfortable. But then again, Jesus didn’t spend forty days with kittens and butterflies, he spent them dodging ravenous lions and carnivorous wolves. Lent, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not about finding peace and tranquility. In this season, this God whom we worship tears open our hearts and sends the Holy Spirit just as the heavens were torn open at our Lord’s baptism. Be careful – these forty long days will not be filled with calm and peace. They will be forty days of a reckless and wild Spirit.
But just as we ought to be careful in what we pray for, the Spirit too will be careful – careful not to leave us abandoned. Sure, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, but the Spirit didn’t leave him there alone. Angels waited on our Lord, and he was kept from the fangs and claws of the wild beasts. The wilderness is not a place without God. Perhaps, in a backwards sort of way, the wilderness is a place drenched with God’s presence. We meet God in our spiritual challenges, in the disciplines, and in the hard tasks that the Spirit lays before us. And the wild beasts are kept at bay. Sure, this Spirit has talons. But talons so strong that we cannot break their hold. As reckless and as wild as the Spirit may be, we are not left alone.
Therefore, in the name of the Church, I invite you again to the observance of a holy Lent. Be careful when you worship, be careful when you pray, be careful when you carry out your disciplines. The Spirit is listening. And the Spirit may just take you up on the offer. Be ready – be ready for the dove with talons.