First Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Christ Church, Tracy City

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Matt. 3:16).

We begin today with the dove, and an old story from Genesis about Noah and the flood. You know how it goes: In the days of Noah and his sons, “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Yet “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Wickedness had increased so much that God decided to destroy the world and start over again, but for the sake of his own purpose he decided to preserve Noah and his family from destruction.

God sent a great flood upon the earth, but only after commanding Noah to build an ark to preserve life. The rain and water came for forty days, but Noah and his family were safe within the ark. Inside the ark were animals, male and female, to replenish the earth. After a long time on the floodwaters the ark came to rest, and Noah began to look for a sign that the waters were receding. He sent out a dove that returned with an olive branch in its beak: a sign of dry land and of new life.

In the story of Noah, early Christian writers saw the dove holding the olive branch as a symbol of peace. In other words, after the breech in relationship between God and humanity, and the destruction of the flood, there came a time for reconciliation and the repair of relationship. God extended the olive branch of renewed friendship to Noah and his family. “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:12-13).

The Old Testament story of the dove returning with the olive branch foreshadows the dove in our Gospel today, and reveals the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. The floodwaters in the story of Noah were destructive, but the waters of the Jordan in our Gospel today are employed in a baptism of repentance: that is, a turning away from an old way of life and a turning toward a new life. In the story of Noah, God gives a new lease on life to the world, while in the baptism of Jesus God shows that he will renew his relationship with humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Matt. 3:16). As Jesus is baptized the voice is heard from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). The dove descending and the voice from heaven are a sign that God is making a covenant of peace with humanity through the ministry of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s his olive branch extended to us.

All of this comes home to us as we celebrate baptism and confirmation today. Consider our liturgy for a moment. This too is a moment of turning, of return, for humanity to God. In this liturgy we too will renounce our sins and turn back to God. Through faith, by grace, we will seek a new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. We will bless the water of baptism and invoke the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may be cleansed from sin and be born again.

Today God will demonstrate his power in the sacrament of baptism. Just as his showed his righteousness and justice in the time of Noah, and in the time of Moses at the Red Sea, so will he do here in this church today. In the water of baptism, he will destroy sin and death, and give us new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God will renew his covenant with those being baptized and confirmed, just as he did with Noah and his family. All of us in this church have a chance to join in the renewal of vows made here today, and to renew our own Baptismal Covenant. God has given us a new life through baptism and now is the moment to remind ourselves of this powerful truth. It’s a moment for us to remember what God has done in the past, and to enlist ourselves again under the banner of the Prince of peace. The power of the Holy Spirit is at work in us, giving us the gifts that we need for living the Christian life. God is extending his olive branch, his covenant of peace, and inviting us to claim this reality as our own.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee