Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Isaiah 2:1-5+Psalm 57+(2 Peter 1:16-21)+Matthew 3:1-17

The dove is an interesting choice to represent the Holy Spirit. I mean, a dove is just a pigeon lucky enough to hatch with white feathers. They can be mean and nasty, and yet they have become a symbol of peace and reconciliation around the world.

All of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s baptism have that dove appearing as a stand-in for the Holy Spirit. There is only one other place in the bible where a dove appears, and that is in the story of Noah. While there may seem little connection between Jesus and the great flood, the dove might just tell us a different story.

I am sure you all remember the tale of Noah, of how God was fed up with the sinfulness of humankind and decided to wipe it all from the face of the earth. All, that is, except for one man and his family. And Noah was instructed to build an ark and to take his family and mating pairs of every kind of animal onto the ark. When the waters came, we read that  “every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth” (Genesis 7:23). How this became a story deemed suitable for children is baffling.

For forty days, the rains covered the earth until one day a dove appeared, carrying a freshly picked olive leaf in its beak. There was life out there. Noah and the other survivors just had to find it. When they did, they gave thanks to God and built an altar and made sacrifices, and all of this pleased God so much that God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants, placing the rainbow in the heavens as a reminder that God would never again destroy the earth.

And how is this connected with the dove at Jesus’s baptism, you ask? In the person of Jesus, God has made a new covenant. When we pass through the waters of baptism, we die, just as did every living thing in the flood, but ours is a death to sin and a rising to new life in Christ. No matter what happens – what we do or don’t do, how successful we are or not – God’s promise is true. Behold, I am making all things new. The dove is the symbol, the reminder to us that, in our baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own … forever. Nothing can ever remove that anointing.

Just as the Noah story is not exactly suitable for children, except for the part about the animals going in by twosies-twosies, baptism is not all about being washed clean. It’s about death. When I tell parents that, it’s amazing that they ever go through with it. Just as the waters destroyed everything during the flood, the waters of baptism represent our death – death to anything that draws us from the love of God. The blessing of the water we use for baptism recalls the waters that covered the earth in the beginning of time and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Hebrew people were delivered from Pharoah. Water can be scary and powerful and deadly. Sometimes I wish I could take those to be baptized down to the river to dunk them good, because it’s kind of hard to visualize that power with the little bit of water we will pour over Reid’s head in just a little while.

We don’t want to think about the death part, but it is unavoidable. How often in our own grown-up lives are we tempted to cry out like the psalmist does

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in the deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet

Have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me. (Psalm 69:1-3)

But God’s promise is true. God promises to never leave or forsake us. Just as God’s voice calls Jesus beloved, so we are beloved of God. God is not just well pleased with Jesus, either; God is well-pleased with you. There are a couple of translations that say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I delight.” The Message puts it this way, “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

 Reid is chosen and marked by God’s love.

 You – all y’all – are chosen and marked by God’s love.

 And God delights in us.

 So come to the waters of baptism. They may represent a kind of death, but we know that eternal life with a God who delights in us lies on the other side.

 And thanks be to God for that.

allsaintsadminSermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas