A Dove-like Experience

On Day One—John the Baptist says, “There is the Lamb of God!” pointing to Jesus.

We are not sure exactly who he is talking to–then he tells his experience of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, when John baptized him in the River Jordan.  jesus-baptismLast Sunday’s Gospel told of Jesus’ baptism as portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew—that version narrated the event as if we were there, watching it happen.  What is different here, in the Gospel of John–is that John the Baptist testifies about his experience–not only what he saw and heard, but also what it meant to him. It is deeply personal testimony. The man who was out in the wilderness, baptizing for repentance, making straight the way for the LORD’s Anointed one, the Messiah, is saying: he is here! It is Jesus! I was waiting to see him and there he is!

On Day Two—again John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by.

He is with two of his own disciples one of whom is given a name—Andrew—the other is unnamed. Scholars believe that it was John himself—the John who wrote the Gospel, the one we know as John the Evangelist. John never referred to himself by name in the Gospel—which was not unusual for the time. He refers to the beloved disciple, which we also understand as a reference to John, himself. So, in this scene we have John the Baptist and two of his disciples: Andrew and John.  When Jesus walks by, John says to his two disciples: “Look, there is the Lamb of God! The Anointed one! The Messiah! The one for whom we have waited: the salvation of Israel.” I have seen and experienced how the Holy Spirit came like a dove and remained on him. HE is the MESSIAH! Then the two disciples followed Jesus.  Now they didn’t follow him in the sense that they instantly became his disciples; they literally followed him as he walked down the road. They wanted to see for themselves.

Jesus turned and said: “What are you looking for?”

These are the first words that Jesus spoke in the Fourth Gospel. The first time Jesus addressed anyone, he asked “What are you looking for?” Andrew and John stood there for a moment and said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” If you think about it, you realize that they didn’t actually answer his question.  We know what they were looking for: the Messiah. They wanted to discover whether their teacher, John the Baptist, was right. But as they encountered Jesus, they couldn’t find the words. They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying? They weren’t convinced, which we hear in the way they addressed him; Rabbi is a wholly inadequate way to address the Messiah.  In the next line we are given an odd piece of information about that second day: that it was four o’clock in the afternoon.

Four o’clock in the afternoon

fourThe time of day is a piece of information that is very easy to overlook—who cares what time it was? It actually matters a great deal. The scriptures are very tightly packed with information, and you might need to wrestle with them to discover the meaning. The Jewish day was divided into three times for prayer: morning, afternoon, and evening, which connected to the three times a day when there was sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. Four o’clock in the afternoon was the time for afternoon prayer. And so Andrew and John—hopeful, wondering if Jesus could really be the Messiah—thought if they followed him, and joined him for afternoon prayer, that they might have an experience of the Holy Spirit. They were hoping for a dove-like experience.

A dove-like experience

Andrew and John did have a dove-like experience, but there is not a word about it in the text. We know that they followed him, and remained with Jesus the rest of the day. We can guess that they prayed together. And we know that they had some kind of experience—something like a dove—because the next thing we hear is that Andrew went to find his brother and said: “We have found the Messiah! Come!” But we don’t know what it was! Perhaps it was too personal. Perhaps they didn’t know how to articulate it. Or they thought that what they had to say would not be convincing to anyone else. But they did have an experience.


What does it mean to us that the Holy Spirit came “like a dove?” What did a dove mean to them? Probably the greatest appearance of a dove in the Hebrew Scriptures was when Noah was on the Ark—lost at sea, far from land, far from help, in chaos—he sent out a dove, hoping for a sign, hoping for safety. And the dove returned with an olive sprig—a sign of peace, a sign of hope, a sign that he could leave the ark. Terra Firma is there. Land Ho! He is safe. The sign of the dove means safety, and hope, and the presence of God.  We have doves all over the place in this church—carved at the ends of pews, and a wonderful image in our west window with the ark, the dove with an olive branch, and a rainbow.


In this church, and in every church, we are hoping to have a dove-like experience ourselves. We want that vision of the Holy Spirit: that sense that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah present in the world. And even if we’ve experienced something like that—even for a moment—it is very hard to talk about it. It is hard to articulate how it is that you experience the Holy Spirit.

My dove-like experience

I had an experience, and it is hard to talk about…and it may not communicate to you what it did to me. I was a chaplain intern at the VA hospital in Sacramento, California. It was the very first time I went to visit someone in a hospital room. I had been prepared, and trained, but it was hard to face going in and identifying myself as a chaplain. What was I going to say? What did I have to offer? I think I was wondering if the Holy Spirit was going to show up—because I was very sure I wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel up to the job. Someone called and asked for a chaplain to come. I stood outside his room and said a prayer, and rubbed disinfectant gel on my hands, and walked in. The man in the room had just gotten a very serious diagnosis; he was in a really tough place. I identified myself and he said: “Well, I did ask for you to come, but I have to tell you I don’t believe in God. I’m not a religious person at all. I don’t want to offend you, or waste your time, but I need to be honest with you.” I said okay, honest is good. Then he told me about his life, what he had seen in Korea—terrible experiences—he told me how angry he was at God. I thought that was interesting because he had just told me he didn’t believe in God. I listened, and I waited, in the hope that there was something I could say to him that might help. He said that the only reason he had asked for a chaplain was because his son made him promise that he would. His son is a believer, and a church-goer, and he wanted his father to see a chaplain. He hoped that somehow God might be present for his father in this difficult time. The father was sure this was a pretty hypocritical idea since he had lived his whole life without God. Why would God pay any attention to him? And I listened. He talked a while longer, then he said, “I can’t believe. I can’t believe.” And then a pause, and he said, “Help me to believe.”

There was something, in that moment. Something changed. The air changed. The sounds of the hospital went away—it was silent. There was a presence. I felt that God was in the room. I felt that God had touched his heart; and the yearning he felt for God was the beginning of the transformation that was going to happen in his life. He moved into a different care facility after that; I never saw that man again. But I believe the Holy Spirit really showed up for him that day. And the Holy Spirit really showed up for me that day. I am sure that whatever I managed to say to him was completely inadequate, but I hope that my presence and my listening honored his gift of trust and openness.  That experience was a tremendous gift to me.  It was a dove-like experience.

Three key phrases

In the Gospel, three key phrases lift right out of their first century context and speak to us right now: “What are you looking for?” We are looking for that dove-like experience; that sense that God’s Anointed is here and alive, and present in our lives.  And so we say, “Where are you staying, Jesus?” The church is a pretty good place to look. It is the place where we try to find Jesus, and try to walk in his way, and where we experience Jesus in Communion. You are the only one who knows if you are having a ‘Day One’ experience—hearing people talk about Jesus; or if you are having a ‘Day Two’ experience—witnessing in your life that Jesus is present. “Come and see.” This is what Jesus says first, last and always. Come and see that the Anointed One has shown up, and that there is peace, and hope, and your feet are on solid ground.


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