by Pastor Sarah Stadler
As we expectantly wait for Christmas, one persona dominates the church world, another persona our culture at large. These two prominent figures both speak of how we should act, what we should do—and the consequences if we do not.
The persona of our culture at large? Who can we find everywhere at malls and on cards and sung about in songs during the month of December? Santa Claus. A jolly, generous, and kind man who travels the globe on a sleigh pulled by reindeer in order to bring joy to the children of the world. Legend has it that his list of children and their deeds determine what children receive in their stocking on Christmas morning. If they’ve been good, their heart’s desire. If they’ve been bad, a lump of coal. Songs have been written about him, and feel free to sing along: Making a list, checkin’ it twice. Goin’ find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
How about the persona of the church world? Who is it who dominates our Advent stories? Right. John the Baptist. John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, promised one who points to the messiah. He too calls on people to do good—and announces a disturbing consequence for those who fail to bear fruit worthy of repentance, namely that the tree, us, would be cut down. Hearing John’s words, the people ask: What then should we do? John’s preaching convicts them, compels them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. But what does this mean, to bear fruit worthy of repentance?
The easy answer to this question is to do good instead of bad, to be nice instead of naughty. But this Advent, I am finding the answer to this question much more nuanced than in past years. How do we know what is good? Nearly every ethical question includes complexity. And as much as I would like for the good to be obvious, easily identified, it is not. For it is perfectly possible for two people of goodwill, people of the same faith to disagree about what is good.
When John cries out: Bear fruit worthy of repentance! The people who listen to him need clarity, need to know what is good.
So, first, the crowds ask him: What then should we do?
Then, the tax collectors ask him: Teacher, what should we do?
Finally, the soldiers ask him: And we, what should we do?
John the Baptist responds to the crowds: Share your clothing and food.
He responds to the tax collectors: Don’t cheat people.
He responds to the soldiers: Don’t exploit people for your own benefit, and be satisfied with your wages.
At first glance, John’s responses may seem as simple as good and bad, right and wrong, nice and naughty. He directs them towards generosity, honesty, and respect. But if we consider the people who ask these questions in their historical context, we realize their life situations are as complex as ours are. Of course, we should be generous, honest, and respectful. But what does that mean in the messy situations in which we find ourselves today and tomorrow and the day after that?
Notice that John the Baptist does not supply a long list of dos and don’ts for the crowd who ask him what they should do. He does not tell them what to think about issues like hunger or poverty. He does not advocate a radical abandonment of their present lives the way Jesus will later. Instead, he directs the crowd to share, to be generous, to take one of their coats and give it to someone who has no coat. John’s command begs the question of us: Do we have an extra coat? To whom will we give it?
Notice that John the Baptist does not tell the tax collectors to stop serving as tax collectors even though tax collectors had a horrible reputation in the first century Mediterranean world. Nearly universally, tax collectors skimmed profits off the top of the taxes they collected by charging people more than the Roman Empire demanded. What’s more, these were Jewish people working for the Roman Empire, traitors among the Jewish people. Still, John does not tell them to stop serving the Roman Empire as tax collectors. He calls them to do their job with integrity even though every other tax collector exploits the people. John’s command begs the question of us: Are there any dishonest practices in our lives that everybody does that we could rethink?
And notice that John the Baptist does not tell the soldiers to stop being soldiers even though, as we know, the soldier is sometimes ordered to physically harm other people, sometimes ordered to kill other people. Instead, John directs the soldiers to seek truth in their duties, to avoid needless harm, to be at peace with their compensation. Even though Jesus will teach his disciples three chapters later to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek, John does not command the soldiers to abandon their posts, to quit their jobs, and to thus make vulnerable their family’s welfare. Instead, he calls them to do their job with integrity. John’s command begs the question of us: Are there ethical situations in our work lives that maybe aren’t the best—but that we could fulfill with greater integrity?
To bear fruit worthy of repentance is not simple but requires a complex look at a complex world. I would really have liked for John the Baptist to declare: End the military and all state-sponsored violence, especially in that time and place with little oversight or discretion! Don’t make impoverished people pay taxes!
Maybe if the crowds had asked a different question, maybe if they had asked how to create a just system or a just world, John’s answer would have been different. But they asked: What then should we do?
Living in the midst of unjust systems, feeling caught in a web bigger than us, we often ask this question. What then should we do? What then should I do? The good is not always obvious because the world is complex with so many different factors at play in our jobs, in our families, in our church, in our community. We don’t live in the world as it should be. We live in the world as it is. When we see the world as it is, we see amazing, beautiful people and also a culture of violence and scarcity and disconnection, broken family systems, materialism and greed, prejudice and hatred, when we see the world as it is, discerning the good is not simple. It’s not as simple as do good, you’ll get Christmas presents. Do bad, you’ll get coal. It’s not. It’s okay, then, to be confused, to not know what to do, to talk over our mundane struggles with people we trust. My boss told me to do this. What should I do? I can’t forgive my family. What should I do? I care about people caught in webs of injustice. What should I do?
The grace I see in today’s gospel is the space granted by asking the question. We who live in an ideologically divided nation, in families so often broken by past hurts, we often feel justified in our view of the story, in our opinions of right and wrong, good and bad. If we are asking questions at all, many of us, myself included, don’t really want to hear the answers. But what if we truly asked with open hearts: What then should I do? That is an Advent space, a space where we expect God to show up and reveal Godself. When we open our hearts to seek, to seek the good, to let go of preconceived notions of good and bad, right and wrong, in the space created, we may be able for the first time to hear how God responds. What then should we do?