The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit – Really?

Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

1547_10206713678093841_5564746448190544_nThis morning, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism; so our readings have been awash, if you will pardon the pun, with the theme of cleansing water. Starting with the Gospel reading specifically about Jesus’ baptism, we have also had the reading from Acts where the baptised of Samaria are mentioned; and then from Isaiah we read of “when (we) cross deep rivers.” Finally, today’s Psalm refers to God as “king of the flood forever”.

However, more powerful than the water motif in the readings is the connection with God through the Holy Spirit. In Acts we read of Peter and John praying that Samaritan believers would receive the Holy Spirit; and we also read that those believers received the Holy Spirit after the laying on of hands.

The Old Testament references don’t refer to the Holy Spirit as such, but do speak clearly of God with His people. Twice in the Isaiah reading today we heard this – “I will be with you, and you won’t drown” and “Don’t be afraid! I am with you.” And today’s Psalm speaks of the voice of God upon all the earth – “his voice is mighty and marvellous”.

But it is in today’s Gospel reading that this union of God with His people through the coming of the Holy Spirit is most wonderfully stated:

… and the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus in the form of a dove. A voice from heaven said: “You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you.”

It is a beautiful image but perhaps its beauty may distract us from its symbolic power. We might lose the question: “Why does the incarnate God need to be baptised?” Wasn’t the baptism that John was offering the baptism of Repentance – why would the sinless Son of God need to repent? And a further question: “Why a dove?” Wouldn’t an eagle have been more appropriate for the King of kings, the Lord of all?

As to the anachronism of a sinful person baptising a sinless one – in Matthew we read how John the Baptist very quickly picked up on this point himself when we said:

I ought to be baptised by you. Why have you come to me?

Jesus’ answer spoke about fulfilling what God wanted. What did God want from this odd symbolic act of the sinless one being cleansed through a repentance act presided over by a sinful one? The answer is that the actual act of water baptism of Jesus was an opening act on three counts.

Firstly, it marked the start of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of his journey to the Cross. Secondly, it brought into tangible focus the Holy Trinity – the only time reported when the Three in One could be witnessed by others present. The Son, in real flesh standing in the Jordan, the Father, His voice coming from beyond, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove descending. So at this beautiful moment of his baptism, there was also a moment of triune transcendence and immanence such as had never been seen before nor would again.

And following on from this triune appearance, would come a greater understanding of Jesus’ later promise that a comforter would be sent. In Luke 24:49, we read:

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.

A promise that would be kept, as we know from Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which itself had been the fulfilment of a similar divine promise as Peter quoted from the Book of Joel:

When the last days come, I will give my Spirit to everyone. [2:17]

Now to the question of why a dove and not an eagle. Doves are frequently referred to in the Bible from the first reference at the time of the Great Flood; then, most significantly, to their use as a sacrificial offering. Along with turtle doves, doves were the only birds permitted to be used in sacrificial worship.

So there is very powerful symbolism in a dove being chosen rather than a bird of might and power such as an eagle. In the shallows of the Jordan on that day, God manifested himself in body and spirit through symbols of simplicity and sacrifice – a human being without rank as His incarnation in flesh, and a dove as His Holy Spirit. These two would come together at the Cross. In the days before this coming together, God would again speak:

A voice from heaven then said: “I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again!” [John 12:28]

My point is that today as we focus on the Baptism of Jesus, we really focus on the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives and in our world and how that focus may bring glory to God.

You may have heard of the song “This is the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit” It was written by Geoff Bullock who has written many wonderful pieces of religious music. This is how the song ends:

This is the Great Southland
of the Holy Spirit.
A land of red dust plains
and summer rains,
And in this sunburnt land we have seen his love,
And to this Great Southland
His Spirit comes.

Geoff Bullock’s reference to the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit has its historic origins in the name given to this continent when in 1606 the Portuguese explorer, Fernando de Queiros, thought he had encountered Terra Australis Incognita, the undiscovered continent thought by the ancients in Europe to have existed. Putting aside that, like Columbus, de Queiros had not encountered what he thought he had – he actually saw one of the larger islands of the New Hebrides rather than Australia; the Portuguese navigator, acting for the Spanish Crown, renamed the supposed continent Tierra de Austrialia del Espiritu Santo – the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit.

Calling ourselves the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit has that wonderfully warm feel like saying Shalom to one another. With such words and phrases we can bask in a sacred comfort zone.

But just how great is this Southland of the Holy Spirit? In this first full week of the New Year we have heard some terrible reports. An apparently loving father murders his two young sons, a grandfather stabs his baby granddaughter to death and then asks to be executed; a 38 year old homeless woman is found dead in the South Parklands. And customs authorities uncover 60kgs of methamphetamine; this haul, worth $40m was destined for sale on the streets of Adelaide and regional centres.

A study from Monash University has found that, nationally, there is on average a case of filocide (the killing of one’s children) every fortnight. The homeless in our midst continue to rise in number and their social isolation echoes that of so many others who live pigeon-holed existences. While on the drugs front the University of NSW reported that deaths from ‘ice’ doubled between 2010 and 2013; other reports indicate that Press that ‘ice’ has now become the drug of choice amongst many young people.

The Great Southland of the Holy Spirit – Really? Where was the holy spirit in the brief lives of these murdered children, or in the incomprehensibly tortured lives of their elders? Where was it in the life of the woman without a home? Where was it in the malign spirit of the people who would seek wealth through drugging large numbers of young people? Where was it in the lives of those very same young people who feel that drugs offer them a sense of life in all its fullness.

Life in all its fullness – that comes from John 10:10. Jesus said these words giving them as the reason for his ministry, the reason he came; it comes after a verse where he said he was not like the thief that comes to steal our lives. Yet how else can we describe what has happened to those I have mentioned before? Their lives have been stolen.

But, don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that this is Jesus’ fault that these lives have been stolen. Nor is it the fault of the Holy Spirit for not getting its role as Comforter right. The Holy Spirit descended as a dove on Jesus so that we might understand our triune God and His love for humanity; and the Holy Spirit descended on those gathered together all those years ago at Pentecost so that they might reach out to a weary and broken world. My intention is to speak into our understanding of the Holy Spirit in our world not question God’s purpose in sending the Comforter to us.

We will shortly take communion together. During this sacred moment we will, as the Book of Common Prayer states, “take to our comfort” the body and blood of Christ. How will we take the body and blood of Christ, the resurrected Christ, not just the crucified Christ to our comfort?

How will we take communion this morning? Of course to our comfort – but just to our comfort? Or are we challenged to aspire to something greater?

Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese Christian who wrote some very powerful works in the 1930s, warns us of the danger of taking the sacred for granted. In his little book, “The Practising Christian” he wrote:

We must not forget that there is a vast difference in making holiness commonplace and in making common things holy. To drink deeply of God’s plan and the mystery hidden in the common tasks of daily life is indeed blessed; but to confuse that with the making of holy and sacred things common, and thus taking for granted God’s grace, is something to be feared.

By this I take it to mean that Kagawa would say of the ritual of Communion, are we taking it as some kind of personal, spiritual analgesic or do we sit at the Communion table with the triune God and rise from it empowered by the Holy Spirit to look at our world differently than when we sat down?

And if we are to rise from that table differently from when we sat down, or knelt or stood before the altar as in our practice of Communion, how would we see the personal and collective tragedies I spoke of before? Will our prayers reach out to God asking Him not only that His love be known by all those for whom life has become so tragic? Will our prayers also seek to understand how our faith can be a part of making common things sacred rather than sacred things commonplace?

What had been God’s intent from the odd symbolic act that was John’s baptism of Jesus at the River Jordan? The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as testimony to its integral role in the sacred. The Holy Spirit then descended upon those gathered at Pentecost as an incentive to faith in all its power, not just faith in its passivity. I believe the key point for us is that while Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism, sealed as it was by the descent of the dove of the Holy Spirit upon him, and continued with the Holy Spirit in the shape of tongues descending upon the faithful at Pentecost, it must be renewed in us as the dove of Jordan becomes the fire in our own faith to serve Jesus in his ministry. May the beauty of Jesus’ baptism and the descent of  the Holy Spirit, as well as the beauty of our sharing of Communion in his name this morning not only comfort us, but also disturb us as we reflect upon the weary and broken world in which we live and to that service which Jesus calls us.

If so, may these other words from Geoff Bullock’s song become real:

This is Your nation, This is Your land,

This “lucky country” of dreams gone dry.
And to all peoples there is a harvest
And to this land His Spirit comes.