What Then Shall We Do?
In school assemblies and high school choir programs at Christmas, "Christmas is a special time of the year, where the spirit is the spirit of peace and joy and happiness." Of course, there can no longer be any explanation of why this time of the year is a special time of the year. Just accept the fact and sing the songs.
I suppose that there have always been different attempts to define what Advent and Christmas are all about. Back in the early part of this century in London the Chief Constable issued an order declaring that carol singing in the streets by children would be illegal, because it was morally and physically injurious. He invited the public to support his effort to stop the singing and to discourage the children. G.K. Chesterton responded with a rather sarcastic poem
God rest you merry gentlemen God rest you merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay; May nothing you dismay
The Herald Angels cannot sing On your reposeful cities lie
The cops arrest them on the wing, Deep silence, broken only by
And warn them of the docketing The motor's horn's melodious cry
Of Anything they say. The hooter's happy bray.
Everybody has a definition of what is appropriate for this time of year. The Daily Dispatch runs a happy story about a couple who fills their yard with hundreds and hundreds of lights. More and More and more lights. It grows each year. It brings such joy. It is such stories like these that are the essence of Christmas.
The Life Little Instruction Calendar on my desk knows what is appropriate behavior. It tells me. Christmas is the only time of the year when bigger is always better and gaudy is beautiful.
So perhaps it is not really surprising that we find such a strange combination of expectations even in the preaching of John the Baptist in preparation of the coming of God's revelation. "John was an austere man with a religion of high moral earnestness, and he could not conceive of greatness except in terms of a severity excelling his own. The coming crisis would see the mighty overthrow of ancient wrong, the settling of accounts on the basis of strict justice. Before such a prospect, the Jews must not claim preferential treatment on the grounds of their ancestry. Trees are not judged by their roots but by their fruits." There was a harsh and frightening time of judgment coming. John had come to warn them. And yet when the people who heard his preaching were convicted, convinced, and converted, got baptized and redeemed and asked John now "What then shall we do?" John seems so unconcerned and unprepared to give the answer. Just like Robert Capon brought us to the farm with God the father inviting the elder brother to come inside and enjoy the party, the younger brother already welcomed home and celebrating with the servants, and left us there, with no hint at how life on the farm goes on the next day, with no suggestions as to how the younger brother is to treat the older brother, with no discussion about whether the elder brother gives the younger brother a job to do, so John seems unprepared to talk ethics and morality with those who are repentant. When the multitude comes and asks John, "Now that we have repented and been baptized, now what are we to do?" The answer seems so spur of the moment, so pathetic in comparison to his demands, so anticlimactic in size. As if he had not taken much time to think through the ethical consequences of his preaching. What are we to do? Huh, well, “if you have two coats, you could give one to one who has none. And he who has food, let him do likewise." When the hated tax collectors asked what they are to do, he says, “Well, you could collect no more than is appropriate.” When the Roman soldiers got converted, they asked for instructions and John says, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation. Be content with your wages."
Advent is our time of waiting and preparing for the coming of the revelation of God, we are baptized, converted and waiting, What then shall we do?
"He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none." Seems so innocent and simple. But like drops of water on sandy ground, the water just keeps penetrating the ground. What if John is suggesting that we need to give away all that we have that is more than we need. Surely there are more than two coats in my closet, am I supposed to give away all but one of them? What about the cars, T.V., radios, tools? He who has two give one to him who has none? If John is suggesting that somehow our possessions keep growing in importance in our lives, clogging up our time and our energy, somehow getting all tied up in our identity, we are somebody because we have so much, our sense of selfworth, our meaning and motive for living becomes what we have and what we can acquire. The one who dies with the most toys wins. To the ordinary people who have become so blinded by their own concern for their own stuff that they cannot see the needs of others, John says, you need to get rid of the stuff. Only by the stripping of ourselves back to what is really required for living, by looking at the needs of the others in the community, by focusing on the deep reality of God that we do live in one small global village, that the second, third, and fourth coat I have is really the coat of my brother and sister in the family of God—only by such a chopping away of the branches can we prepare for the coming encounter with the presence of God.
When the tax collectors asked the same question, they are given the simple answer: do not take more than you are supposed to. The tax law and enforcement of tax laws was oppressive at that time, and according to lots of people before Launch Faircloth's hearings they are still confusing, and oppressive and intimidating. The use of the law, interpretations of the law, the power of the laws being twisted and extended to rob those who do not know the law and do not have the power to make interpretations of the law. John points us to the age old temptation of those who make the laws to make the laws in their favor. The tax collectors made the rulings and benefited from the rulings. The News and Observer keeps asking the question: “Why do those who have so many real estate and development interest always end up on the Department of Transportation Board when they make the decisions about highways and roads which will effect their interests?” John says to those who have the power to make and interpret the rules of taxation do not abuse that power by making them in your favor.
The woman came into the office needing help with her electricity bill. It was over $600 and she said that she had gotten it down to $600 during the winter by doing what the power company had suggested and put plastic over the windows. But she rented the house, which was old and lacked any insulation, the windows all leaked, and the doors had major gaps between the frame. The furnace was old and very inefficient, and the landlord did not care how big her bill for electricity was. She was legally responsible for the utilities. It wasn't the landlord's problem. The use of the law to rob from another?
Tax collectors do not use the law and your interpretation of the law to rob others. Sue Grafton made as the subject of one of her alphabet mysteries the growing problem of staged automobile accidents for the purpose of using the law and the rules to defraud the insurance companies and other people. People pulling in front of others, stopping suddenly and being rearended and because the law tends to blame the one in the rear for hitting the one in the front, people use the law and its interpretation to rob and to steal. John says in order to get ready for the coming of God's moment, renounce the exploitation of the law for your own benefit. Give justice.
Even the Roman soldiers come wanting to be advised on what they are to do now that they are converted and baptized. John says: renounce the use of fear and intimidation as weapons. Live within your means. John says that those who are preparing for the coming of God are not interested in winning by intimidation. Those who are preparing for the new kingdom do not seek to keep order by fear and force. Rule by coercion. Obedience by force. Parents who keep discipline by physical abuse. The imposition of our will upon another by threat and fear. Child abuse, sexual harassment. The demands of Microsoft that computer makers have to include Microsoft’s web server to be able to use its operating system. Trash talking and taunting in athletics. The whole notion of might makes right, John says to the soldiers, turn that loose, let it go. Give up that special clout you swagger around town with because of your military authority.
Because what is coming, for John, is like a toothache being fixed. It is a hurting which will heal. It is the ending of a long friendship with "good old drinking buddies." It may leave you lonely and friendless for a while, but to continue the friendship would have lead to your death. The day of judgment is like the coming day of retirement from the rat race, for a long time it is tough because you do not know what you are supposed to do, but slowly you find yourself no longer a rat but a human being, and there are lots of places you can go, lots of places that need you, lots of opportunities for joy and friendships. And you wonder how you ever had time to work. It is the emptying of your life of all the things that clutter up your life so that you might indeed discover that which is of eternal importance to you. It is the choosing of the right and fair and discovering that deep sense of satisfaction that comes in not having to be embarrassed to look at the mirror.
What then should we do? Give a coat to one who has none, collect what is appropriate and fair, treat with dignity and respect those whom you have authority over. They sound so simply and such a let down after all John's ranting and threatening. But John doesn't want to spoil our excitement, take all the fun out of the season, John isn't pouring the cold water of Scrooge on our parties. John says the best way to get ready for the great joy to come is for us to throw away everything else that we have expected in the past to save us, and make ready for the coming of the Lord's anointed.
First Presbyterian Church