The dove, the waters, and the solid ground

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

I talked to a Christian guy recently who was nervous that God might be mad at him. It’s an understandable enough sentiment, but from a rational perspective, it’s odd. It’s like fearing you might fail a math test after you’ve already received your diploma, or fearing you might be burned by a fire that has already been extinguished. Christians have little reason to fear the thing from which they’ve already been saved. It reminded me of something that happens at Jesus’ baptism.

At the baptism of Jesus, a dove descends and lands on Jesus as he arises out of the waters. I’m wondering if we’re talking about something that was visually bird-like or if it was like a dove in its peaceful nature? Regardless, Matthew and Mark say that Jesus saw something like a dove. Luke states, from a narrator’s third-person perspective, that it was a dove in bodily form. John records it from the mouth of John the Baptist, who says he saw something like a dove.

The first place a dove appears in the Bible is in the story of Noah. God sends floodwaters to eradicate a corrupt and violent human species, saving only Noah, his family, and a boat-load of animals. After 40 days of floating, Noah sends out a dove. Eventually, it returns with an olive branch, signifying that it had found solid ground.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that in both stories a dove goes out and finds solid ground amidst waters sent to wash away sinfulness.

The baptismal waters of the River Jordan, like the floodwaters of the ancient flood epic, were there to wash away sins. The floodwaters were sent to destroy the evil of humankind. The baptismal waters captured symbolically the washing away of sin.

We, as a species and as individuals, deserve the punishment of the flood. We have lived corrupt lives, or conspired to do so, and we cannot by our own merit survive. Only when God provided solid ground could Noah endure the flood. At the baptism of Jesus, the dove again settles on the solid ground, which is Jesus Christ. He is the only thing on which we can stand in the midst of the waters that have been sent for the sinful. If we try to stand on our own goodness, we are standing on sinking sand.

When the dove, the Holy Spirit, comes to us today, it is to call us to return to the only solid ground on which we can stand – to Jesus. When we believe he died for us, we are spared the punishment of the flood. There is no longer anything for which we can be held accountable, because his death consumed our sin. We ourselves arise out of baptismal waters to stand on him.

Without solid ground, we have every reason to fear we will be rowing forever. But once you believe in him, there’s nothing left of which to be afraid.


Getting our Teeth


The little church that I pastor just passed it’s 6 month anniversary.  We are a church b0rn out of a painful labor that has relaxed into the joy of new life.  There are abundant signs that God is blessing our experiment – new guests, growing resources, fifteen small group Bible studies, and a general ethos that fluctuates between an appropriately modest joy and just outright, childish fun.

Now something happening – the thing that usually happens to 6 month olds.  We’re getting our teeth.  We’re starting to grow into a thing that’s going to be able to influence the world, shape things, have a voice.  The evidence – there are 18 baptisms coming to Real Life between now and Easter.  This means that people are making life-changing decisions to follow Jesus, from young kids to grown ups.  We’re seeing people change direction in a life-changing way.  This is what growing churches are supposed to do.

Most churches in America go months, or even years, without baptisms.  The passion to reach lost people for Jesus passed long ago, and they’ve settled into routines that keep the already converted happy.  You would think a clear reading of the life of Jesus would cure this, but they keep reading it and nothing changes.

A church should look like a ship that’s just weathered a storm at sea – the entire crew is tired, everyone’s telling the story of how it happened, and the floor is soaking wet.  Join us in setting sail at Real Life…we’re gaining steam.

On the baptism of my son


Today I baptized you.  You were more excited about the party afterwards than the duty itself, but you had a particular interest in the proceedings.  You wanted it to happen in church instead of the pool next door – strange for an introvert – and for a moment you seemed to like the crowd.  We had rehearsed all the details.  It’s about Jesus forgiving your sins, and new life, and don’t goof around just because everyone is watching, and Papa might cry, and it doesn’t magically forgive you, it’s just a symbol, and hold your nose when you go backwards so you don’t get water in there.  It’s sort of a strange mix of cosmic theological truths and nitty gritty pragmatics.

Faith is kind of that way.  You can only imagine what the sovereign creator of the universe must want to say to us when we’re born.  “Now remember, I’ve already died for you for your forgiveness, stay close to me, look both ways before you cross the street, live by faith not by sight, say your prayers, and don’t swim right after you eat.” God has made us these fleshy spirits, and his will for us is a messy mix of cosmic truth and daily hygiene.

Part of the reason baptism is so beautiful because it is, as Augustine said it and no one has improved on his description since, a visible sign of an invisible grace.  It is the tangible washing of dirt mixed with the holy confirmation of cleansed sin.  It’s exactly what flesh and spirit need to speak the same language at the same time.  Sacraments are like phone wires from our bodies to our souls.

Fatherhood is a fleshy-spiritual kind of thing.  My deepest longings for you are that you would know Jesus, and that you would get married, that you would walk in peace, and that you would have good friends, that you would pray hard and that you would run fast.  I hope we learn to pray for each other as surely as we play catch.  And I’m touched that even if we weren’t related, we would still be best friends.  I have deep hopes for you, body and soul, and I’m thankful today that God came up with this amalgam of flesh-spirits that we are.  I wouldn’t want to miss out on either one.

Your dad can’t control all that happens to your body in a jagged world.  I can’t control Imageyour soul – because certain things can only happen in the conversation that you and God will have together, with me listening in through the door.  But I can drop you beneath the waters, accepting the reality that there is a part of all of us that must die, and then pull you back up to the life that I hope you will find.  I can raise you in a house where we pray, read the book, worship, and believe.  And I can point you in the direction of Jesus, who joined us in the messy package for spirit and flesh.



“Remember to fan into flame the gift that God gave you at the laying on of my hands.  God hasn’t given you a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love, and self-disciple.  And don’t ever be ashamed of Jesus, or of his servants.  Instead, join me in enduring all things for the gospel, by the power of God.” -2 Timothy 1:6-8