Advent 3 – Zephaniah 3.14-20, Luke 3.7-18
This Sunday we have lit a candle for John the Baptist. Last Sunday when we were considering prophets in general we heard the first part of Luke’s description of John. He was a prophet who preached baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He was called to be in the wilderness (a reminder of the Exodus wanderings of the Israelites in the desert), preparing his people for the arrival of someone who would, like Moses, lead his people to a place of freedom. Now today we find out what John actually said in his preaching.
Earlier this week when I told someone I would be preaching today they said, ‘I hope it’ll be cheerful’. I made a non committal grunt, not having really looked at today’s passages. When I read our gospel, though, I remembered someone I used to work with. We would joke that he was good at giving tough encouragement. By that we meant that when we ventured to talk about something that bothered us he would say the equivalent of ‘tough!’ John the Baptist’s preaching would seem to be of that kind, whilst Zephaniah’s, usually doom ridden, turns out to be more cheerful in our OT reading this morning. And this Sunday is intended to be cheerful – it was given the name ‘Gaudete’, Latin for ‘Praise’.
Advent has this unsettling mixture of waiting in hope for something wonderful that is going to happen, but also in fearful anticipation because when it does all our weaknesses will be exposed. Or to use John’s language, trees that don’t bear good fruit will be cut down and destroyed and our chaff will be separated from our wheat, with short shrift being given to the chaff, and this, Luke says (v18) is the good news preached by John. So I want to consider what is this good news about judgement, repentance, sin?
To do this I’m going to draw on a recent visit to our link diocese of Växjö in Sweden. That diocese will be 850 years old in 2020 and I want to go back to a hundred or so years before that to events that led to its being founded.
Back in the 11th century the easiest way to travel around Europe was by sea, much of the country being covered by forests, and roads being little more than dirt tracks. In spite of these challenges there was good communication between different parts of Europe – letters were exchanged, as were beautifully illuminated books and manuscripts. One day in summer time a group of monks, including 3 nephews of the leader Sigfrid, set out probably from York across the North Sea in response to a request from a Viking ruler to their king, Aethelred, that he send missionaries to Sweden. He wanted to be baptized. This was in the early part of the 11th century. By then there had been a Christian presence in this country for at least 700 years. In Sweden, the country to which they were heading, less than a hundred.
When the group arrived they encountered a landscape much harsher than the one they had left. The forests were thicker and therefore darker than the ones at home. In fact they quickly learnt that the word ‘dark’ was invariably paired with the word ‘forest’ in the local language. Not only that but the forest floor and any clearings were scattered with stones and boulders, some of them huge. Growing crops was therefore backbreaking work. There appeared to be no towns, but scattered groups of huts, often near a well around which the trees had been cut down. It was to these newcomers a wilderness, not only geographically, but psychologically. Fear was everywhere. Fear of hunger – food was scarce; fear of what lurked in the forest – bears, wolves, or worse; in the dark the stones could take on strange shapes…, fear of the gods (it was said that in a cosmic battle way back the gods had hurled these huge stones at each other, thus covering the earth below), fear of other human beings.
Sigfrid and his group saw themselves rather like John the Baptist, called to cry out in this wilderness, to make a way through it and to declare the good news that Someone greater than them was already here and reaching out to them. They set up camp in a clearing near a well and continued as best they could the monastic routine they followed at home. We can assume that this would have been Benedictine and therefore have been a balance of work, study and prayer – the prayer being communal and including the singing of the psalms. Next to a well that survives to this day and is one of several named after Sigfrid, there is a boulder shaped rather like a lectern where it’s possible to imagine one of the monks standing, preaching to those who came to the well. What would they have been preaching? We don’t know. We can only hazard some guesses as we notice particular features of worship in the Swedish church today.
Handling darkness is one of the big challenges in northern Europe. Almost certainly Sigfrid and others would have announced Jesus as being the Light of the world. John’s gospel was a favourite with the monastic orders and they would have drawn on that first chapter describing Jesus as a light shining in the darkness, the arrival of which, like JB, they were announcing. The light shines in the dark forests, not only revealing the strange shapes for what they are – not trolls or evil spirits, but boulders and trees, but also challenging their power to generate fear. Jesus is a light more powerful than any source of darkness, enabling us not only to confront darkness, but also our fears. Confronting darkness with light is a big theme in Swedish churches during Advent. Even people who don’t usually attend church are likely to attend on Advent Sunday when there are special hymns and candles everywhere and then on Dec 13, St Lucy’s Day, the whole country takes part in celebration of a saint associated with light – what they call Santa Lucia – and there are candlelit processions in churches, schools, hospitals, all over the place.
At a time when few people could read or write the monks would have taught verses of scripture by getting their hearers to repeat them until they knew them by heart. When entering the forest they would then have those words about Jesus as the light to accompany them. They could have said them aloud – shouting them if they wished! Or, they could have sung them. As I said earlier, monks sang the Psalms and psalms are full of rejoicing and of not being afraid. Singing itself can be an antidote to fear. And singing is a big feature of Swedish Christianity to this day. When I was there a few weeks ago and Advent was mentioned in one of the meetings, the Swedish clergy spontaneously broke out into an Advent hymn that they had learnt from childhood! Singing challenges the darkness. Notice that Zephaniah tells his people to do just that in our OT reading. ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud O Israel…never again will you fear any harm’, he says.
Light, of course, does have its down side, as I thought last week when a particularly bright day highlighted the smears on our windows and dust almost everywhere. It shows us what’s wrong. But Luke, in his narrative about JB, calls this good news. It’s good news to see the smears and the dust because JB is saying that injustices are about to be put right by the one who is coming (hence Herod being so twitchy about him and putting him in prison), and that because he is there and is alerting us we have time to put our own house in order before he arrives. The areas that JB homes in on are still relevant to today.
First to religious people (those calling themselves the children of Abraham), the equivalent of churchgoers like us, not to assume that somehow we are exempt from calls to get ready; to those who, also like us, have plenty and enough, to share with those who haven’t; to those who would have been regarded as beyond redemption by Jesus’ religious contemporaries – the tax collector and the soldier (we can perhaps think of contemporary equivalents)-, to avoid dishonesty in their business practice, and bullying and bribery (a certain high level American lawyer comes to mind this week). It’s as though JB is saying that God’s scheme of things allows for time to put things right. The other bit of the good news that we might not notice is that this opportunity is for everyone, not just the chosen people. Who’d have expected tax collectors and Roman soldiers to be included in the new order that’s on its way? Luke is the only gospel writer to continue the quotation from Isaiah earlier in this chapter to include the words ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God’.
Like JB, Sigfrid and his companions would have given some basic ethical teaching as part of the preparation for baptism. It would have related to whatever was the local culture, one that seems to have been very violent. The good news was that there was now an invitation to adopt a new way of life and they were being offered the opportunity to prepare for it, to start turning towards the light and away from darkness, ready for baptism. However, given the emphasis in Swedish churches on moving towards darkness carrying light and singing God’s praises in the face of it I think we can assume that those new Christians were not being told to avoid darkness, or ignore it, or worse pretend that it doesn’t exist. Instead, like Sigfrid, like JB, they were to be light bearers in the darkness, to shine as lights in the darkness, moving into it, challenging it, emptying it of its power. ‘Shine as light in the world to the glory of God the Father’, we say in baptism.
Sigfrid was called on to do this in a very particular way. Once a Christian community was established in the Växjö area he moved on to other places to share the gospel. While he was away there was a violent uprising during which his 3 nephews were murdered. Reprisals were the order of the day and the local ruler ordered the perpetrators to pay a huge sum of money to the monks, guessing that they would be pleased to have enough to build a church. This would indeed have been the case, but Sigfrid refused, saying that he preferred to offer forgiveness instead. It’s on this kind of foundation that the current diocese of Växjö is built.
Time is running out for us to get ready for Jesus’ coming – less than 10 days! But the good news is that the offer still stands. We can ask how God might like us to prepare, and we can ask that he be specific, just as John was specific about what form repentance might take for different groups of people. And God doesn’t reply, ‘tough’ like that colleague of mine. Nor does he give us a deadline by which we have to respond. He gently works with our desire to turn towards the light. There is mercy. So perhaps this is a cheerful sermon!