01/13/2019: A Dove Quietly Fluttering


A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
January 13, 2019

He’s like some famous mega-church pastor—this John the Baptist. While synagogues all over Judea are struggling with attendance and budgets, John the Baptist is out on the Jordan River attracting what the scripture describes as the people of Jerusalem and all Judea coming out to hear him.


This John the Baptist looking, I imagine, somewhat like Robert Redford with rugged creases in his face and sunburn on his neck, has been wildly successful in his attempts to revitalize the religious fervor of his contemporaries. The drama unfolds in this story as his cousin Jesus presents himself for baptism. And suddenly the self-confidence seems to drain from John’s face! I imagine John turning his back to the large crowd on the shore of the river and whispering to Jesus, I need to be baptized by you….

It’s like a little crack in that well-rehearsed confidence of John. He knew he had the crowds around him virtually swooning over his every word, thinking that he, John, was nothing less than the Messiah himself. He is like the TV evangelist who begins to believe all the hype his publicist pushes about how great he is. But here is that little crack of doubt: I need to be baptized by you.

What we have here is a little insight into what happens in the lives of many people who began their profession with the enthusiasm and reckless abandon of youth, but in their middle years they begin to feel the doubts. The going gets tough, the reality of human ugliness and deceitfulness sinks in, and gradually the flame of enthusiasm diminishes to a flicker, the flicker diminishes to a spark, and the spark is just barely hanging on. It’s too early to retire and too late to change. The kids are in college, the mother-in-law has moved in, and the mortgage is due.

I need to be baptized by you is another way of saying, “I need the old flame to return. I need the old enthusiasm for my life to return. All this outer success leaves me empty and I need nothing less than spiritual renewal. I need to be baptized by you!” I consider it a courageous decision for John to crack that window to Jesus, to open his inner self to his cousin. You have to have real confidence in a person to open up that way. But I know that many good folks, successful on the outside, feel something lacking on the inside. That feeling for some is pervasive and overshadows everything else. For others, it is an occasional attack.


Along with John the Baptist, of course, is the figure of Jesus. He walks onto the stage of this drama after nothing has been said about him in the gospels for nearly 20 years of his life—years in which he grew from a child to a young man to full adulthood. He had presumably begun his adult life as a carpenter, but now he was on the cusp of a religious calling. Maybe he had already shared that feeling with his cousin John, but now he waded into the water to ask his friend to baptize him. He wanted to have a deeper experience of God, a clearer understanding of his calling, and a more profound sense of assurance that God really was calling him to something new.

I should pause here to underscore the fact that a host of people enter their twenties in one profession, but by their thirties something has changed; they feel another calling, a religious calling, and they come to church seeking some kind of guidance. Seminaries are used to receiving applications from people who are successful in other professions, people who have felt another calling, a yearning that they can only attribute to the divine. There is nothing to be embarrassed about or ashamed if you find yourself seeking to discern the will of God even if it means a dramatic change.

What happens when Jesus asks John for baptism is the final resolution of this little drama. A third character enters the scene. It is not a human character, but a symbol of the divine Spirit. The biblical text describes it this way: When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

We should pause here and read this text very closely. What we are reading is an account of a private, powerful, life-changing religious experience. We are not reading about a literal dove flying down and perching on the shoulder of Jesus: ..suddenly the heavens were opened TO HIM AND HE SAW…–no one else saw it. If you and I had been standing on the riverbank, we would have seen just another candidate for baptism coming up out of the river water dripping wet and wading to the shore. But to this young man Jesus, something life-changing had happened! He experienced the presence of the Spirit of God, and he heard the voice of God affirming his new calling: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

I urge you never to take lightly the power of a worship experience! Even in an otherwise ordinary Sunday service in this sacred place, there are people who are looking for something that they dare not reveal to anyone else. The dove, the symbol of the Spirit of God, still flutters its way into this sanctuary and onto the shoulder of many a person here, and the voice that we hear in this text still speaks its deathless message to those who are sensitive to it: You [yes, YOU of all people] are my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. In that moment, what was thought to be a very ordinary worship service becomes extraordinary, and nothing is ever the same again!


When you live and work out there in this challenging world; when you invest your time and energy into the important operation of an institution like this church, there are times when the flame begins to flicker and almost goes out. There are times when from the depths of your soul you echo the words that John the Baptist whispered to Jesus: I need to be baptized by you! I need the renewal of spirit and the restoration of hope and the revival of excitement and healing of wounds and the mending of relationships and the power of the gospel that comes on the quietly fluttering wings of God’s Spirit!

When the curtain falls on the biblical drama of his baptism, Jesus and John the Baptist continue their lives, but they are forever changed. When the curtain falls on this day: Sunday, January 13, 2019, you and I will continue on with our lives, but I hope you will look back on this day and remember…a dove quietly fluttering, and a voice affirming your faith and calling you to a life-changing, heart-pounding, spirit-renewing, energy-fueling, confidence-building, love-drenched commitment to the important work and fellowship and ministries of this congregation!