By Julia Gatta
“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’” (Luke 3:10)
He wasted his time at the university, more intent on his social life than on his studies. He partied constantly, was indifferent toward religion, and thought mostly about serving himself. When he was 21, several of his friends moved toward political life, and he too ran for a seat in Parliament. Because he had family money to support a costly political campaign, he managed to win.
One autumn when Parliament was in recess, he traveled though Europe with a former tutor, whom he thought would make an interesting conversation partner. Indeed he did. It turned out that his onetime teacher, a young man only nine years older than himself, a brilliant scientist elected to the Royal Society, and a warm and steadfast friend, was also a committed Christian. The two men spent their long carriage rides discussing and debating the Christian faith. In the end, his intellectual problems with Christianity dissolved, and at the age of 25 William Wilberforce was converted to Christ.
Yet this “great change” (as he called it) did not bring him peace — at least not for a while. He returned to England in 1785 in a full-blown spiritual crisis: what would he do — what should he do now? His good friend, the 26-year-old Prime Minister William Pitt, feared this turn of events would spell the end of Wilberforce’s bright political future — and urged him to remain in Parliament. Wilberforce had second thoughts. Could he really continue in the messy world of politics?
He wondered whether he should change careers and considered the ordained ministry. In great inner turmoil and distress, he wrote to a family friend — known to us principally as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” — the clergyman John Newton, pleading for a secret meeting, where he finally laid before him all his misgivings. What, then, should he do? Newton persuaded him to remain in politics and to use his eloquence, influence, and affluence for the glory of God and the alleviation of human misery.
Newton, the reformed former slave ship captain, directed his attention to the horrors of the slave trade. The rest, as we know, is history. Abolition of the slave trade and of slavery became Wilberforce’s consuming political passion. It took 20 years and 11 failed votes in Parliament before the slave trade was abolished in England; and 26 more years for slavery to be outlawed in 1833, just three days before Wilberforce’s death.
When John the Baptist emerged from the Judean desert preaching repentance, we find the same wrenching question that tore Wilberforce apart on the lips of those who heard the Baptist’s message: What then should we do? It is also perhaps a question that is emerging for us in the aftermath of yet another random shooting spree: What then should we do?
John the Baptist had made it painfully clear that God expected profound and costly change. John was adamant that baptism be no empty gesture: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he insists. Feeling bad about things was not enough. Regret was not enough. Even submitting to a baptism that meant you were soiled and needed purification was not enough; repentance required following through: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” So the question remained: What next? What then should we do?
Just as the quiet conversation Wilberforce had with his former teacher pierced Wilberforce through and through, so the truth of John’s fiery words struck home to the crowds gathered by the Jordan. Conversion is frequently unsettling; plans we thought we had in place might get thrown to the winds. For Americans, it might mean reexamining cherished assumptions or risking a look beyond our borders to see how other countries disempower evil and deranged people.
When might you or I confront that risky question — “What then should we do?” — for ourselves? How much would we have to trust someone to throw ourselves wide open to who knows what response? It’s the question the crowd asked John: “What then should we do?”
John does not hesitate to tell them exactly what to do. Like John Newton and William Wilberforce 19 centuries later, he looks around him and sees a world of gross injustice, and the prophetic word inhabiting him compels him to speak God’s truth, to say that this state of things deeply offends God.
John the Baptist repeats what the prophets of Israel said over and over: take the poor to heart, stop being greedy, share what you have. No pampering yourself while others lack necessities: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” And we’re to keep on giving until we approach something like fairness.
Then two distinct groups come forward because these folks found themselves in real binds: the tax collectors who were working for the occupying Romans, and soldiers — in this case, Jewish soldiers under Herod’s authority. How could tax collectors or soldiers ever be at peace with God when they were engaged in professions that encouraged moral compromises and expected you to turn a blind eye to flagrant abuses?
So these men turn to John, asking with pressing urgency: “What should we do?” Once again, John is bracingly direct. The tax collectors had to pass up the singular opportunity their position offered to wheedle more money out of vulnerable people to line their own pockets. Similarly, soldiers must refrain from using their muscle to strong-arm people to ante up or suffer the consequences.
It’s worth noting what John doesn’t do. He doesn’t encourage anyone to be like himself. He doesn’t suggest that the path to salvation must lead you to withdraw to the desert to become an ascetic. He tells no one to give up his job or make drastic changes in his personal circumstances.
Centuries later, John Newton would take a similar tack, when he advised Wilberforce against becoming a priest like himself, encouraging him rather to stay in the political realm for which he had great talent, and where the largest opportunities to improve society would lie. He didn’t need to change his outward terms of employment, but rather his inward disposition and way of life. He could do the most good by staying right where he was.
Well, we might say, that’s a relief, isn’t it? I really didn’t fancy a complete overhaul of my personal or social situation. Only the problem with having someone point out that our salvation really is “near at hand” is that we run out of excuses. There is grace waiting to burst into our present state of affairs, whatever they may be. We have to stop telling ourselves we could be so much better if only this or that were different about our situation — whether that situation is our family, our dorm, our friends, our work load, our health, you name it.
John the Baptist takes the excuses we hide behind and flattens them. The real changes we need to make have to come from within. God can only sanctify us in the life we’re actually living — not in some dreamland we imagine would be easier. There is a set of opportunities that God has entrusted uniquely to us. Every person counts in this great work of redemption.
The Word of God came to John the Baptist so he could prepare God’s people for the coming — the advent — of Christ. He is sent to us today for the same reason. Advent stretches our souls to prepare for all the ways Christ comes to us: at the end of time as our judge and our savior, at the Feast of Christmas, and in the everyday events that make up our ordinary lives.
Christ comes to us — not in some life other than the one we have, but in this life where we really are with all its problems, complications, and messes. Here Christ eagerly reaches out to meet us and through us brings his saving grace to that corner of the world that we — and only we — can touch.