John said, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” - Luke 3:9-10 (NRSV)
Why in the world did so many people show up to be abused by John? He was so mean.
Maybe it was because he actually had answers to the questions people asked. “What should we do?” they asked. And get this: he actually told them what to do. Give away your extra coat and your extra food. If you’re a tax collector, don’t take more than you should. If you’re a soldier, don’t lie, don’t extort money, don’t threaten. Clear answers, with clear measures of success.
People come to church with that same question: What should I do? And because life is complicated, we usually give smart, nuanced answers: “It depends,” we say. “What do you think?” “Let’s pray on it to discern God’s will.” “It’s not about what you do, it’s about what you are.”
All of which is fine. But the problem is that there’s no way to know if you’ve actually succeeded. When have you done enough justice? How do you know if you’ve managed to walk humbly? Acted beloved enough? There is no answer to these questions. Which means you have to rely on God’s grace, which is good, I guess. But still: frustrating.
It’s nice to get a straight answer once in a while. If you’re looking for one this Advent, why not just do what John said, and for once, don’t stress about the nuances? Be honest in your work. Don’t steal stuff. If you have extra, give it away. If there was formerly a second coat in your closet, and now it’s at Goodwill or on the back of someone who needs it, then consider today a success worth celebrating. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
Look, God, you and I both know there’s a whole lot more to this. But sometimes I just need a little success, you know? So today I offer you one check mark next to one item, one small victory that I hope you can make the start of something huge. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.