I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.
Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:
He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.
I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.
How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.
I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism.
This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God.
Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.
And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent.
But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.
And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us.
So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God.
We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly.
It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace. Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.
Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”
For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity.
Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.
How much more peaceful it might be when we do.