Advent: on making paths straight and not having coats

It seems my accompanying text for this Advent is the beginning of Luke 3. I said something about it in Meeting for Worship the other Sunday, and have gone on thinking about it.Especially what John the Baptist says after the crowd ask him what they’re supposed to do…

[3:10] And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

The bit that struck me a couple of weeks ago was the advice to soldiers and tax collectors – which I used to think let them off remarkably lightly, but I now realise does nothing of the kind. I suspect they wanted John the Baptist to tell them to quit their horrible jobs, and escape the daily struggle of trying to make and walk a straight path where everything’s built crooked. They’d rather stay in the desert, but it’s not an option; things are never going to be that simple for them, but they are still supposed to prepare the way of the Lord.

Then today I was at the drop-in for destitute refugees and asylum seekers again, and the issue of the day was coats. It’s chilly in Leeds at the moment. Not nearly as cold as it often is in winter, but chilly. Today it was getting noticeably colder as the day wore on. You can be pretty sure, on a day like today, that if somebody walks into a church hall off the street without a coat on, he or she doesn’t actually own a coat. There were quite a few men, and one or two women, without coats on. We had a mountain of donated clothing, and we rummaged and rummaged for coats. There weren’t enough, of course. Coats are expensive. People don’t generally feel they have spare ones, not even if they have two. (I do have two, still). And it’s not like food, which you can easily divide up, make slightly smaller portions, feed an extra person at the cost of leaving everyone slightly less full. Coats are either/or, much harder to share or divide. But in the weather that’s coming, they’re almost as urgent a need as food. Especially for folk who have nowhere in particular to go during the day.

Nobody complained about leaving coatless; how could they, when the coats are a handout to people outwith the law, only possible because of uncoordinated donations from people all over the city who have a few more clothes than they need? How could they, or we, even complain if some others (perhaps) took things they didn’t urgently need, when nobody there is rich? Still and all – I lost my temper with the mountain of clothes, swore at it, kicked it. Actually I lost my temper with the crazy non-moral dilemmas that arise and the crazy mess that they arise from – distributing too few coats among people who’ve got nothing in the first place. In winter in Leeds. Stuff is wrong, I thought incoherently. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do here. Preach it, John. We need some mountains levelled and some valleys raised; or, failing that, a few more coats.

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