[Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you all seen The Lion King? Not the Broadway musical; the animated Disney movie that came out in 1994. You know, Simba and Nala, Timon and Pumbaa, and that wildebeest scene that scarred my entire generation for life?
I’m a big fan of The Lion King. Sure, The Lion King II was kind of a disappointment, and The Lion King 1.5 was just plain stupid, but the original movie was awesome. The music was great, the animation was gorgeous, and there was a whole slew of memorable characters.
Anyway, if you don’t remember the story, there’s a scene where the main character, Simba, suffers an incredibly traumatic event: he witnesses the very violent death of his father, King Mufasa.
Although Simba is the heir apparent to the throne, and previously expressed a strong desire to be king someday, he feels responsible for his father’s death and therefore thinks himself unworthy to inherit the title of king. (Unbeknownst to Simba, his uncle Scar is actually responsible for Mufasa’s death.)
So, Simba runs away. He is presumed dead, which puts Scar next in the line of succession.
Having journeyed far from home, an exhausted Simba is found by Timon and Pumbaa, who take him in and raise him as their own. They’re a little eccentric to say the least, but they turn out to be pretty good parents, and Simba obviously loves them. He grows to adulthood while living in the wilderness with his two adoptive dads.
In the meantime, Simba’s homeland is in big trouble. Scar, Simba’s uncle who killed Mufasa and then crowned himself king, has established a government that’s as horrible as he is. He is wasteful and extravagant with the kingdom’s resources and uses his army of hyena goons to enforce all of his unreasonable demands.
Simba’s childhood best friend, a lioness named Nala, finds out that Simba is actually alive and well. She tries to convince him to come and take his place as the rightful king, but he declines, afraid to face his past and still wracked with guilt over his father’s death.
Simba then encounters Rafiki, a very wise but also fairly senile mandrill, who claims to have known Simba’s father. He leads Simba into a clearing where there’s a pool of water. When he parts the reeds, Simba is able to see an image on the face of the water. It startles him at first– it sure looks a lot like Mufasa– but then Simba realizes he’s only looking at his own reflection. Rafiki tells him to look closer, and the face Simba sees is both his own and Mufasa’s. “See?” Rafiki says. “He lives in you.” Simba then is emboldened to go forth and reclaim his rightful place as king.
That reminds me of another story– one I learned when I was about seven years old, when I first became a Girl Scout. This particular bit of Scouting lore is taught to Brownie Scouts– second and third grade girls– upon becoming Brownies. It’s been almost fifteen years since I was a Brownie Scout, but I’m going to tell you the story the best I can remember it.
Two little girls are staying with their grandmother, who tells them the story of the Brownies: little elf-like creatures who were kind and helpful, and made everyone happy when they were around, but have since disappeared.
The little girls wanted to know where the Brownies had gone, and how to bring them back. Their grandmother advises them to consult a wise old owl.
The girls head out to the magic forest to find the owl, who tells them that the Brownies are not gone; in fact, two live in the girls’ house! They beg the owl to tell them how to find the Brownies. He teaches them an incomplete rhyme: “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf; I looked in the water and saw…” If they can complete the rhyme, the owl tells them, they will find the Brownies.
So, they go to the pond and look in the water, but they only see their own reflections. Disappointed, they head home, telling the owl on their way back that they didn’t see any Brownies, only themselves.
Then they realize that’s the point: “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf; I looked in the water and saw … MYSELF!” That was the rest of the rhyme! The little girls are the Brownies! This inspires them to try to live by the same ideals as the Brownies their grandmother told them about: being helpful, making friends, and always trying to learn something new.
In both of these stories– The Lion King and the legend of the Brownies– someone is seeking something greater and nobler than themselves. Led to a pool of water with the promise of having that person revealed to them, they look in the water and are disappointed to see only themselves. Then they figure out that that’s exactly the point: the thing they seek dwells within them.
We hear a lot about water in today’s scripture readings. Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord– the day on which we commemorate the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist. After being lifted out of the water, Jesus (and everyone else present) is reminded of who Jesus is: the Son of the Father, with whom the Father is well-pleased. Just like Simba and the Brownies, Jesus’s true identity is revealed in the presence of water.
The Psalmist also references water– he describes God as being “enthroned over the flood”, in the context of declaring the glory and majesty of God.
Then we have the Prophet Isaiah. He talks about water, too, but in a different way than St. Luke did in the Gospel reading. God, speaking through Isaiah, comforts the people of Israel, saying:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Water, at first glance, seems to be a metaphor for suffering. And, in this context, I think it’s safe to say that it is being used that way. Water has a strong connection to tears. I’m reminded of the image of the Hebrews weeping by the waters of Babylon as they remember their homeland in one of the Psalms of lament.
This verse from the book of Isaiah that we read today inspired one of the verses of the famous hymn “How Firm a Foundation”, in which God says to us:
When through the deep waters I call thee to go
The river of sorrow shall not overflow
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress
God is with us when we suffer– that is almost definitely the point that Isaiah is trying to make. God the Father is our hiding place, our calm in the midst of the storm. Or as my friend Dan explains it, the “serene center” that exists in the midst of what’s going on around us. God the Son suffers alongside us, and God the Spirit is the Holy Wisdom that guides us. God is always with us, all the time.
Fire, by the way, could be (rightly) read as being a metaphor for suffering in this passage, too. But fire is also used throughout both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures as a sign of God’s presence. Remember Moses and the burning bush? How about the pillar of fire that led the Hebrews through the wilderness at night? Or the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit took the form of fire?
Water is often used as a way for God to reveal his power and might. God parted the sea in Exodus, and later made water gush forth from a rock in order to sustain the Hebrews in the wilderness. Jesus– God the Son– calmed the sea in one miracle story, and walked on water in another. Not to mention, God’s breath moved over the waters during one of the Creation narratives in Genesis.
Water, like fire, can be used to purify. The purifying power of fire is referenced in our Gospel story, burning away the chaff so that only the good wheat is left, but water also has cleansing properties, which is part of the symbolism of baptism.
Water is life-giving. Think about what happens just before a baby is born: there is a gush of water, signifying that a new life is about to begin. Water is life-sustaining. Think of how devastating droughts can be, and what a relief a long-awaited rainfall is when it finally comes. Water signified the end of life when it ran out of Jesus’s side after it was pierced with a spear.
And today we heard three different stories– one from a children’s movie, one from Scouting lore, and one from the Gospel of St. Luke– in which water serves as a vehicle through which God reveals who we truly are, and in so doing, reveals himself in us. (Remember that Epiphany is all about God’s self-revelation.)
Water– the water of baptism– reveals the truth of who we are, pointing out the image of God in one of God’s children. Baptism doesn’t cause us to bear God’s image– we were created that way. The act of baptism is simply the outward sign that affirms what we already know to be true about who we are and whose we are.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of that truth. Guilt, shame, sorrow, self-doubt, fear, anger, sin, addiction, trauma… all of those and many other things can make it very difficult to remember who we truly are.
It is part of our job as Christians to keep returning to the water: to keep coming back to that reality, affirmed in baptism, of who we are and whose image we bear.
It is also our responsibility– like Rafiki, like the wise old owl in the magic forest, like St. John the Baptist– to keep leading one another back to the water, and helping others to see the face of God looking back at them from within their reflection.
Following Christ cannot be done in a vacuum, nor is it meant to be. No one is meant to make this journey alone. We are all called to bear one another’s burdens and to care for one another as brothers and sisters. We are all called to bring one another back to the water and challenge each other to look more closely, more prayerfully, with open hearts, at the face reflected back at us.
So, with that said, I invite you to approach the water.
What do you see?