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Commentary and Reflections For Advent 3 - Year C
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
"In A Rapture of Distress"
Barry Robinson

This week we are featuring, as we do from time to time, "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).

Keeping The Faith in Babylon: is a high quality lectionary based pastoral resource for "Christians in and out of the institutional church". Barry writes: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way." This resource features a full sermon text, biblical resource materials, study questions and suggestions for further reflection and devotion. Samples and pricing information are available on the Web Page (linked above) or directly from Barry at

A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

December 17 2000 - The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
'In A Rapture of Distress'
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter, Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you...

One of my favourite stories to tell is the legend of How St. Francis Taught The People of Gubbio To Feed Their Wolf. It is a strangely humorous story with layer upon layer of meaning. In a nutshell, the people of Gubbio have a problem. The bloody remains of some of their townsfolk start showing up on the streets of their beautiful city when people awake in the morning. Since the people of Gubbio are very proud people, they are convinced that "a stranger" passing through must be responsible for the terrible crime. Nevertheless, they begin to "lock" their doors at night. When more deaths follow, the same denial "that anyone in Gubbio could be responsible for such a thing" is expressed over and over again.

And then, someone sees a wolf wandering the streets of Gubbio one night after everyone has retired; and the people of Gubbio realize that there is a wolf living in the dark woods on one side of Gubbio. Of course, this could not be their wolf; because they never asked this wolf to come to Gubbio. Immediately, they begin to find ways to dispatch this wolf.

After a number of futile attempts, the people get desperate enough to approach the holy man of Assisi who has a reputation for being able "to talk to animals". St. Francis "speaks" to the wolf and gives the people what appears to be some strange and, not entirely, welcome advice. He tells the people of Gubbio that they must "feed" their wolf. At the first, the people are not impressed with this suggestion and begin to wonder why they ever approached the holy man in the first place. And, then, something miraculous happens. Bit by bit, people begin to leave food out for the wolf as he prowls the streets of Gubbio. The violent deaths cease and it is not long before every man, woman and child has learned how to "feed their wolf." As a result, the people of Gubbio are transformed. They become more easy-going, less arrogant human beings.

Not surprisingly, people in churches and seminars where I have told this story exhibit a veritable biblical variety of reactions - a case of real life mirroring parable. Some are immediately amused by the story and immediately identify with the proud people of Gubbio. They recognize that haughtiness that has to "blame it on strangers" when something goes wrong. The denial and avoidance of the townsfolk are all too familiar. In laughing at the people of Gubbio as they come to terms with their wolf, they realize that they themselves can find healing and freedom by embracing the negative aspects of themselves, their community and their church, that part of the story that is symbolized by the wonderfully vague image of "the wolf."

Other people, however, just don't get it. Or worse, they are offended by the suggestion of a self-identity that incorporates rather than excludes "their" wolf. They decline the invitation to befriend and feed that which they fear most in themselves and each other and miss the opportunity to come to a new and healthier understanding of themselves.


On this third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called gaudete (Joy) Sunday, the church asks us to consider some equally strange advice from scripture. On the one hand Paul tells the folks at Philippi to

Rejoice in the Lord always . . .

And Zephaniah's message is

Rejoice and exult with all your heart.

Now that sounds like what this season of Yuletide is supposed to be about - good cheer and holiday exuberance and all that. But, when we get to the gospel for this week, John the Baptist is doing what John the Baptist does best - lambasting the tar out of us:

Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not
bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

And once again we are reminded that the God who is coming is not Santa Claus "who knows whether you are naughty or nice" but Jesus, God with us, the one who demands that we "turn around" and "follow" him.

You see, that's the trouble with listening to the Bible. Instead of finding "joy" through a "positive" psychological assessment of ourselves or the mindless advice to "Be Happy" no matter what is happening, we are told that "joy" is what happens when we respond to that which God demands of us; and what God demands, in the words of John the Baptist, is "repentance" or a change of heart. What the gospel is trying to do for you today is release you from the counterfeit "joy" of popping another pill or turning up the Muzak. Real "joy" is what happens when we "confront" our sin, "face up" to what keeps us unhappy, and "turn toward" God's redeeming love.


When I was in high-school many years ago (I think it was grade twelve), there was this guy in our music class named Normie Holden. Played second trumpet. I liked Normie. He was one of my buddies.

Now, one of the worst things that could happen to you in music class was to get caught not taking proper care of your instrument. Trying to play it when you knew it was out of tune or with a broken reed.

One day, our music teacher, George McRae, an imposing man who didn't kid around, could tell from the first notes that Normie blew on his horn that it was out of tune and he asked him to slide his tuning valve. But when Normie tried to do it, he couldn't because the valve was stuck; and everybody knew in an instant why it was stuck. Normie had neglected to oil his valves. There was no way to hide it. So when old Mr. McRae stopped the band and asked Normie what was wrong with his trumpet, we all knew that he knew what was wrong and we knew from the look on Normie's face that Normie knew that he knew. He had caught Normie red-handed. Pure guilt was written all over Normie's face.

But Normie was a bit of a character, known for using his wits to get out of tight situations; and we all were waiting to see what he was going to do to get out of this one.

Normie just sat there for a moment with a kind of stupid look on his face. Then he looked Mr. McRae straight in the eye and said something we never expected him to say: "Sir, I forgot to oil my trumpet this week. It was very stupid of me. I'm very sorry. Please forgive me." And he said it with a straight face. Cool as a cucumber. Butter wouldn't have melted on his tongue.

I can still remember the look on Mr. McRae's face. He had had a lot of years under his belt catching students dead-to-rights; and his withering looks and angry chastisements were the stuff of legend around old Malvern C.I. But, it was obvious that he had been completely thrown by Normie's response. He just sat there on his stool, apparently too stunned to speak. Then, he turned away from Normie and looked at the rest of us and said with half a grin on his face, "How do you get mad at somebody who says something like that!?"

W. H. Auden once wrote,

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of our days
Teach the free man how to praise.
  --- "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"

The Good News of advent is that God is coming to us, not to destroy us but to refine us, to help us to become what we were meant to be. It is God's great gift to us: to own up to what we have been and done, express our sorrow and be relieved of the terrible burden of having to think that we are "right" all of the time. May you be filled with "the freedom" of knowing that you are not and "the joy" of knowing that you don't have to be! Praise God!


Zephaniah 3.14-20 - Most of the prophesies of Zephaniah, which took place during the reign of Josiah during the seventh century, are angry denouncements about corrupt religious practices. This week's reading, however, is different in tone and content from the rest of the book. Instead of predictions of judgment and doom, the prophet predicts a kind of amnesty for his people, a return to the land and the temple, the removal of guilt, the freedom of salvation. The Lord who is coming intends good things for his people.

  1. What reasons does Zephaniah give to declare that people are now able to rejoice?
  2. How does this compare to the "artificial" kind of joy our culture tries to induce at this time of the year?
  3. What gift of "joy" could you give to someone this Christmas who needs to be "released" from judgment?

Philippians 4.(1-3) 4-7 - Even in churches about which Paul was justifiably proud, there was conflict and we would do well to consider the verses that precede this week's Lectionary selection. Two leading women in the church at Philippi have been fighting about something. They are notable figures and their feud might well have cause irreparable damage to the church. Paul reminds them and everyone else that such behaviour is not appropriate and urges everyone to "wait" for the Lord in a manner that reflects the spirit of Christ.

  1. With whom do you have the most difficulty agreeing? In your family? In your church? At this time of year? Why?
  2. What will happen if you let such disagreements continue?
  3. In what practical ways could you apply Paul's advice to these situations?

Luke 3.7-18 - One of Luke's favourite words is "repentance". His message during Advent is that we must come "clean" and come "empty" before we can receive God's gift. John the Baptist was a clear voice of truth that robbed people of the illusion of innocence. Life and deeds are what count before God, not ancestry or religious pedigree. John's purpose in preaching such a stern message was to lead people into a better way of living with each other. In spite of the severity of the message, it was essentially "good" news: an invitation to "save" what God cherishes: human goodness.

  1. Why did John's words cause some people to repent and others to resent him?
  2. How have you responded to people who made a legitimate demand upon you to change your ways?
  3. What might you change about your own lifestyle or attitudes to make your life in particular and the lives of other people around you "more human"?

A PRAYER FOR THE SAINTS: Now, O God, make us ready to receive the gift we need to become and nourish such longing in us for your coming into our lives that we may grow into more humble and joyful people, in thanks and praise for your gracious love. Amen.

HYMN: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (Voices United 2)

Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551

copyright Rev. Barry Robinson and Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2000, 2003
use only with proper acknowledgement

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