The Baptism of Christ - from darkness to light

A sermon preached on 12 January at St George's Campden Hill by Fr James Heard, on the occasion of the baptism of Jemima Watson

I wonder what your view is on the devil/ demons. Some of us find it difficult enough believing in God, so to start talking about believing in a devil… that’s a tall order. We often lump this sort of thing together with phenomena like ghosts. I was surprised to discover this week, having lunch at the Windsor Castle pub, that they, so the bar staff told me, have a ghost. I told her that he/ she was most welcome to join my friend and myself for a spot of lunch, but apparently he is a little shy. Never mind.

I don’t know whether you have been attuned to the discussion going on during the last week about the Church of England considering revising its baptismal liturgy. In every era the church faces the challenge of adapting the Christian faith – making it accessible, relevant, of presenting the ‘vulgar tongue’ or everyday language of the people in a way that is understandable, in a way that makes sense. One of the features of the potential revision is a removal of the reference to the devil.

Many Christians still defend the belief in a personal devil. Anne Aitkens on Thought for the Day this week did so, referring to CS Lewis’ famous Screwtape Letters.

“If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the patient’s mind,” Screwtape advises his diabolical pupil Wormwood, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights.” As he observes, nobody could believe in that, so it will throw him off the scent. “An old text book method,” he says dismissively. If there is a personal good God behind the good in the universe, there must also be, so the argument goes, a personal devil behind the evil.

Incidentally, the exorcism part of the baptism service – when the priest asks God to deliver the person being baptized from the powers of darkness – was a hugely significant factor in people in the early church converting to the Christian faith. That’s because there was much fear around about roaming devils and baptism, being Christian, was protection against them.

Other Christians suggest that references to the devil or to demons is a way of describing the bad choices we all make and of the evil we find in the world – not just bad actions of a few individual people, but systems of power, like Nazism, that has a much bigger dimension than that of one or two people. It’s something, like a force, that can captivate and almost control an entire group of people.  Ordinary people have ended up doing the most horrific unimaginable things.

When the baptism liturgy asks parents and godparents to turn away from sin, the devil and all rebellion against God, many Christians, however, feel that these words are rather alien. And so the question is, how we make the words speak as powerfully as we can? For example, we might understanding this as turning away from all that alienates us from God, from each other and from our deepest selves. It’s a turning from darkness to light. The early converts to Christianity did this in a rather dramatic way – after a long period of preparation, in Lent, they would face west and literally spit… in the devil’s face, as it were, and turn to face east, the place of light. And then they were given a candle and told to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God.

Whatever your particular understanding is on the retention of omission of devils, today is a very exciting for Jemima, who is being baptized. And it’s important to understand, as she’s baptised, that this turning from darkness to light isn’t something that happens all at once. Jemima isn’t suddenly going to become perfect (not that she’s been engaged in that much criminal evil activity quite yet!). This turning from darkness to light is a life long vocation – a lifelong conversion – to which we are all invited to journey.

It’s a particularly good day for Jemima to be baptised because the gospel account today has Jesus being baptised. This is part of the season of epiphany, of revelations or manifestations about Jesus. We are told that Jesus appears among the crowd and is also baptised. We are told in pictorial language that ‘the heaven opened’. In other words, something incredibly significant was happening.

Before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry has actually started he hears the voice of God the Father, made visible by the Holy Spirit descending like a dove in bodily form. Words of the Father’s affirming love for his Son are spoken:
You are my son, my beloved, I am pleased with you, I delight in you.

So, as Jesus is about to embark on his mission, the Holy Spirit gives him confirmation that he is indeed loved by his Father. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his engaging interview about Prince George's christening, baptism is not just for future kings: the great thing is that God does not care who we are. And what the Father says to Jesus, he says also to us (and not just future kings), we who are children that have been adopted into God’s family. You are my dear precious son/ daughter, you are my beloved, I delight in you.

It’s impossible to know what sort of live lies ahead for Jemima, what sort of person she will become. Being brought into being will be full of events for Jemima. Exiting, sad, joyful, disappointing, thrilling. Choices to make. She will be happy and she will be sad. She will succeed and she will fail. She will be good and she will be bad… and yet, regarding of what she experiences in life, she will never be alone.

She will know the love and care of a generous God who will love her for what she is and not despite what she is. She will walk with a God who affirms her humanity as something which is celebrated and not perpetually in need of correction. She will find God in all things… not just religious things. She will have the love of different people in his biological family and in her God family, the church community.

It’s time for Jemima to start her journey of faith… to look for and affirm life and life in abundance. A life in which we live and learn; give and take. Love and be loved. My prayer for her is that she might become a human being fully alive, knowing deep, deep down God’s unconditional love for her.
Holland Park Benefice