Luke 3:7-18, 21-22
Disney and the Gospels: The Circle of Life
“From the day we arrive on the planet And blinking, step into the sun. There's more to see than can ever be seen, More to do than can ever be done. There's far too much to take in here, More to find than can ever be found. But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky Keeps great and small on the endless round. It's the circle of life And it moves us all Through despair and hope, Through faith and love, Till we find our place, On the path unwinding In the circle. The circle of life.”
How many of you have seen the movie or the stage production of The Lion King? The stage version is really stunning, and if you get the chance to see it, you really should go. (It’s coming to Syracuse again this fall, maybe we’ll have to make a group trip.) “The Circle of Life” is the very first song in The Lion King, and these words open the whole story. As we hear them, we find lions Mufasa, who is the king of the animals, and Sarabi his wife presenting their child to all the animals - the baby lion Simba. We’re celebrating the baptism of Jesus today, and there are a lot of baptism-like symbols in this opening scene of The Lion King. Simba is born. He’s marked by the priest-figure of the community, Rafiki. He’s recognized and welcomed by the whole community as part of them. He’s too little to know the significance of this ritual himself, but that’s ok. Everyone is celebrating who he is, who is parents are, and what they think his role will one day be. It’s a beautiful, hopeful beginning, as Simba is initiated into the community and marked as a future leader.
But things don’t stay beautiful for long. When Simba is a child, a series of events, including the actions of an Uncle Scar who wishes he were the king in the place of his brother Mufasa, result in Mufasa’s death and Simba’s exile from the community. Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death, and he believes that his actions are completely unforgivable. He believes that his mother and the rest of his family, his friends, his community - there is no way they could possibly still love him or want him around if they knew that he was the reason Mufasa had died, even if it was an accident. And so despite the way his community welcomed him into their midst just because he was born, just because he existed, Simba spends most of his formative life away from all these people, trying to forget who he was supposed to be. It isn’t until years later when Simba is an adult that he finally discovers that he’s been wrong about a lot of things, and takes the chance to reconcile with his family and his community. Most of all, he learns to forgive himself, and learns that he has never been without the love of the people who matter most to him, despite the mistakes he’s made. The end of Lion King mirrors the beginning, only now instead of being the newborn, Simba is the father. He’s a parent, he’s the leader of his community, and he’s ready to have his child recognized and welcomed just as he had been so long ago.
As I said, there are a lot of symbols in that opening scene of The Lion King that remind me of the themes of baptism - initiation into the community, who is gathered to watch, even the making a sign on the forehead, the claiming of an identity of who the baptized one is and will be. Today, it is Jesus’ baptism in particular that we remember, and in studying his baptism, we find the meaning of ours. Although all of the gospels include Jesus’ baptism, telling us it is important, none of them spend an awfully long time on the details. And that’s too bad, because over the millennia since then, people have had a lot of questions about Jesus being baptized. It seems easy to understand why we are baptized. John talks about baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and we know we need that - we need to turn away from all paths but God’s path, and be forgiven for our sins, our failures to live as God calls us to. But why would Jesus need to participate in the ritual of baptism?
Although Luke doesn’t give us many verses of detail about Jesus’ baptism, he does give us lots of context for it in our reading for today. John, who we know as John the baptizer, has appeared in the wilderness, and he’s been traveling all around the region telling folks they should be baptized as a sign of their repentance so that their sins might be forgiven. To repent means to change direction from whatever way you’re going in your heart and mind and life that’s not God’s direction, and turn around so that you’re back on God’s way. Baptism - which (as my college Greek professor loved reminding me) literally means “to be dipped” in water - was a symbol, a ritual that folks participated in when they wanted to make a fresh start. It was a symbol of newness, new life, a clean slate, a new beginning. Such water rituals were practiced in many cultures, many religious traditions. But beginning with John, the meaning of baptism starts to shift and take on specific meanings.
John tells folks that they have to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In other words, they have to show that they’ve repented with their actions. It isn’t enough to say that you’ve turned your life back to God’s path, if all the while you are still traveling just as fast down your own road as you ever were. You have to have fruit, the results of your claim of repentance. Hearing this, the crowds who have come to hear John preach wonder to him, “What then should we do?” They want to make sure they’re showing their work. I think of all the times you have to show your work in school, especially in subjects like math. It isn’t enough just to get the right answer. Teachers want to see that students actually know how to end up with the right answer, beyond a lucky guess or some convoluted method that ended up with the right result. Having to show my work was always frustrating to me - sometimes I just knew the answer but explaining how I knew was harder.
John, in response, gives them ways to demonstrate their repentance: If you have two coats, share one. If you have more food than you need, give the rest away. If you are a tax-collector, take only what you’re supposed to. If you’re a soldier, don’t threaten folks and falsely accuse them from your position of power. What John suggests isn’t earth shattering, but it does require consistently making sure to put the needs of others first, to put love of neighbor into action, to match the desire for repentance with acts of repentance.
So, the context of Jesus’s baptism is this expectation, anticipation that something is happening. Something is changing. People are longing to turn their lives around. They’re ready to start new, to start fresh, to get a clean slate and a chance to try again to follow God. John has them so filled with hope people even start to think he might be the messiah, but John says he’s just the messenger. He baptizes with water, but someone is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. In John’s vision, the messiah will come with a winnowing-fork, ready to separate wheat and chaff, good fruit, and stuff that doesn’t measure up.
Instead, Jesus seems to slip into the picture without announcement or fanfare, without explanation. People were coming to be baptized, and Jesus came too. And after John dips him into the water, the heavens open up, and the Holy Spirit that John mentions comes not with fire, not now, but as a dove, and with it, God’s voices: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And with that, Luke moves on from the baptism to other things.
So why is Jesus baptized? I wonder if we get the order of things a little bit wrong, if John the baptizer gets the order a little bit wrong. In baptism, we celebrate that we are claimed by God. That’s what God says to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s beloved child, and that is confirmed at his baptism, even though it is already true. His baptism is the celebration, the demonstration of what is already so. Because sometimes we need reminding, don’t we? Certainly, this reminder gives Jesus strength for his work, and knowing, deeply knowing we belong to God and God loves us can change our whole lives. So I think either John misunderstands who Jesus is and how God works, or we misunderstand what John is saying if we conclude that we have to repent before God will claim us as belonging to God in baptism. We are already claimed by God. We already belong to God. God already loves us without measure, without condition. We repent, we turn back toward God and toward forgiveness when we’re ready to acknowledge, accept, receive, and be assured of what is already true. So when John tells us to “show our work” and bear fruit, we can’t earn God’s love - we already have that. Instead, our fruit is the result of God’s love, the result of the soil and water and sun that God’s love is in our lives. Because we’re claimed by God, we’re forgiven. Because we are beloved of God.
When we watch a story like The Lion King, we know, children know that Simba doesn’t need to run away after Mufasa dies. We find ourselves wishing that Simba had instead found his mother and told her everything. We find ourselves wishing the truth would be revealed. We know when everything comes to light, Simba will be welcomed home with rejoicing, not punished. Simba is the one punishing himself, but we know that he’s always loved. Of course, it would make a pretty short story if Simba didn’t have to learn those truths for himself. But even as we know these things when we watch the story of The Lion King unfold, I wonder if we know them in our own lives. Sometimes, we’re pretty sure we’ve screwed up in a way that means we are no longer welcome in our community or congregation. Sometimes, we’re sure we’ve messed up in a way that means we no longer belong to God. Sometimes, we believe that we’ve done something that can’t be forgiven. Sometimes, we’re positive that no matter how much fruit we try to produce, it will never be enough to bring about reconciliation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, that’s why we don’t “rebaptize” in The United Methodist Church: we don’t need to. We baptize once, our way of celebrating that we’re accepting God’s gift of grace, and then we spend the left of our lives renewing the vows of our baptism, remembering and reaffirming that we’ve been claimed as God’s beloved. Because we already belong to God, and God has already made promises to us, and God never wavers - never - in calling us beloved. And so we don’t ever need to redo something that for God has never stopped, never failed, never faltered. And as we learn that - that we are God’s beloved - as we trust that - that God is well-pleased to call us God’s own - that sure foundation is what transforms our lives. Resting in God’s love is what will allow us to bear the fruit of repentance, as we continually turn our lives to God, always finding a welcome there. Friends, you are God’s children. You are beloved. With you, God is well-pleased. Amen.