Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Luke 3:7-18
Two weeks ago Veronica preached our first Advent sermon. Peter and I weren’t here - we were at his mother’s Anglican church for the dedication of an altar frontal which she had made in memory of Peter’s father. It’s a beautiful purple cloth and the Anglican tradition of “liturgical colours” meant that its first use was on the first Sunday in Advent. It’s instructive to note the other occasions when purple can be used in Anglican churches: Lent and funerals.
Because, as Veronica reminded us, Advent is a time of mourning and fasting as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation. That’s hard for us to remember, as even those who protest against the appearance of Christmas decorations, Christmas merchandise and canned Christmas carols in September have, by the end of November, usually begun the trail of Christmas parties and mince-pie eating themselves. So Advent often feels like a time of indulgence and too many invitations. Quite a few non-church goers give up something for Lent but whoever heard of giving up something for Advent? So it’s easy to neglect the mourning, fasting and waiting of Advent but at the very least we can give attention to those aspects of the season when we meet for worship.
And our two Old Testament readings today help us with that, particularly if we try to take them in context.
The book of Zephaniah is a sustained prophecy of doom, for Judah’s enemies who have scorned God and oppressed and mocked God’s people. Chapter one tells us (1:14a, 15-16)
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast… That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.
And by the beginning of chapter three Zephaniah is still in full flow, but now it’s not just Judah’s neighbours and enemies who are in trouble, Judah herself is in the firing line:
Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God… Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed.
This is a dark and sobering vision, fitting for a time of mourning and fasting. Right now you may be wondering where our reading from Zephaniah, full of comfort and hope, fits into this dark picture. And that’s where we come to one of my favourite Advent themes. Judah is in darkness, ripe for disaster as she turns her back on God, and living in fear of enemies on her borders who look poised to execute God’s judgement. But quite unexpectedly God is going to turn it all around, turn away Judah’s enemies and create a people who live in safety and serve God.
At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord… On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me… I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord - the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.
This is a powerful promise in the midst of uncertainty and danger. God will put things right in spite of Judah’s faithlessness and corruption: “On that day,” God says, “you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me.”
Some commentators credit Zephaniah with prompting king Josiah's reforms which for a while did indeed encourage the people of Judah to turn back to God, although this faded away again under successive kings until the people were taken into exile. But as with many of the Old Testament prophecies I think we are invited to see a second fulfilment of this prophecy in the coming of Jesus which we long for as we wait expectantly through Advent to celebrate the incarnation at Christmas. And perhaps we can also look for a third fulfilment in the future as we long for God’s kingdom to come fully and for disasters and fear to be banished.
The Isaiah reading is similar. It follows a mixture of warnings of punishment for Judah’s wayward behaviour and beautiful promises: of light coming into the darkness, of a child who will establish justice and righteousness and of an age to come in which “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The verse just before our reading reflects thankfulness that in bringing about this vision God is choosing not to act on anger but to restore and purify: (Isaiah 12:1) “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”
So in both passages God appears on the point of leaving Judah to her fate but relents, deciding to transform her situation, to rescue her and lift her graciously into safety and light. These passages reassure us in the darkness and waiting of Advent that God will turn things around in spite of us. Veronica reminded us two weeks ago that although in Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus as if for an honoured guest, “the guest turns out to be the host” and “Jesus invites us to take part in his new, overflowing life”. And our passages from Zephaniah and Isaiah make a similar point. Although Judah has turned away from God and made herself vulnerable to her enemies, God plans to rescue her. God will establish a peaceable way of life with service and worship at its heart and will graciously invite Judah into that. I think that gives us a hope to hang on to, for ourselves when we fail time and time again to follow Jesus faithfully and for our world when it seems such a mess.
But the passage from Luke shows us the other side of the coin. It majors on people turning themselves around. It’s pretty strong stuff. “You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist castigates his hearers. Yet they flock out to hear him preach. What is that all about? Did they just like being harangued for some kind of catharsis, rather like the congregation in a book some of you may know, Cold Comfort Farm? They turned out Sunday after Sunday to “quiver” as Amos Starkadder preached fire and brimstone. Of course we all know that butter is disastrous treatment for burns, but for his audience which still swore by it, Amos Starkadder had a warning for anyone who thinks they’ll survive hell-fire by slapping butter on their scorched bodies: “there’ll be no butter in hell”.
Well, maybe that was the attraction for some but I think we can guess at some other reasons. John came into a time of fevered anticipation among the Jews in Palestine. As some of the elite collaborated with Rome, many struggled under the yoke of Roman occupation. Some longed to get back to the golden age of Israel’s power under David and Solomon and were willing to resort to violence to do so. They were hoping for a Messiah who would come in power and restore the Davidic tradition of kingship. Maybe this was in the minds of those who, verse 15 tells us, “were filled with expectation, and… questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah”.
In this turbulent time, maybe others who knew their bibles had a sense of déja vu. Although they were in their own land, surely the misery of living under occupation was much like the misery of living in exile six or seven hundred years earlier? And what had brought about the exile? The people’s own failure to live the way God wanted.
So for this group, the best response to Roman occupation was for the Jewish people to turn back to God and live holy lives. John’s call to repentance may have been music to their ears: at last another prophet (who even dressed in iconic prophet clothing of “camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist” and ate authentic prophet food, “locusts and wild honey” (Matt 3)), had come to call the people back to God and thus to open up the hope of return from exile. So perhaps for both groups John gave hope that a new age was dawning.
And we too can have that hope as we wait through Advent for Christmas. In fact we have the benefit of knowing the next few chapters in the story and knowing that with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus a new age does indeed dawn. So Advent is a time of preparation, not just for a special guest as we thought about two weeks ago but also for a whole new age. It’s also a time to remember particularly that although the new age has begun to dawn with the coming of Jesus, it is not yet fully come. So in Advent we wait not only for Christmas but also for the second coming of Jesus to fully inaugurate that new age.
So perhaps this is a time of preparation for the future kingdom too. In thinking about that preparation, I am struck by John the Baptist’s practical challenge to his listeners to live honestly and generously. He told tax collectors "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you" and soldiers "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
And for those who are comfortably off he had those stern words about sharing excess: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
As I read these words on Monday I was struck by their resemblance to a passage from the writings of Dorothy Day, founder of Catholic Worker, which we heard read at the end of Urban Table where five of us helped out this time last Sunday.
Love of brother means voluntary poverty, stripping one’s self, putting off the old man, denying one’s self, etc. It also means non-participation in those comforts and luxuries which have been manufactured by the exploitation of others. While our brothers suffer, we must… suffer with them. While our brothers suffer from lack of necessities, we will refuse to enjoy comforts. These resolutions, no matter how hard they are to live up to, no matter how often we fall and have to begin over again, are part of the vision and the long-range view… And we must keep this vision in mind, recognize the truth of it, the necessity for it, even though we do not, can not, live up to it. Like perfection. We are ordered to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and we aim at it, in our intention, though in our execution we may fall short of the mark over and over.
This sounds like a tall order. Maybe that’s why none of us has decided to embrace voluntary poverty. But I think there are at least some principles to draw from John the Baptist and Dorothy Day, about living and working honestly, not trying to exploit any privileged position or loophole to our advantage, not profiting at the expense of others, and about reflecting on where and how our comfortable life is really paid for and being generous with our plenty. This week we may be particularly aware of that as we reflect on who is responsible for climate change and who suffers most from it.
As I say, this is a tall order, but we have the comfort of knowing that God’s grace is there for us when we fail. Our reading from Luke sets us a high target, calling us in Advent to prepare ourselves with great seriousness, striving for perfection. But our readings from Isaiah and Zephaniah remind us that in Advent we also wait for God’s intervention against the odds and in spite of all our failings.