The man at the front desk told me that someone would be right with us. I smiled and thanked him, and my daughter and I shifted awkwardly to the left and wondered if we were waiting in the right place. The room was filled with homeless people waiting for healthcare. Some held duffle bags, some slept, some talked to no one in particular. Hannah clutched a few of the blankets we were donating and quietly watched, wondering aloud a couple of times if we should sit down somewhere. Finally, a woman approached and asked if we were the ones with the donations. We nodded, and she told us where we should meet her with our car. Hannah handed her the blankets and we quickly left the building.
Hannah’s class at school had collected blankets and made over 100 bags filled with non-perishable items to share with the homeless. Hannah was thrilled by the response of her class and was excited to think that they might be making a difference for some people.
And then Hannah had the privilege of being the one in the group who delivered the donations. The woman shared that they had given out a box of these earlier in the week and that people were asking if they had more. She knew our gift would be really helpful and thanked us several times.
As we drove back to school, I squeezed Hannah’s arm and told her I was glad we got to deliver the bags together. She smiled, but turned to look out the window, much quieter than her normal talkative self. We rode in silence and I finally asked if she was ok.
She wished she hadn’t carried the blankets inside.
She said she kept waiting for someone to stand up and start yelling, “I need a lot more than your blankets!”
She lamented and wondered how she has no connection with any of those people, doesn’t even think about them in her day to day life most days; she didn’t even know there was a room full of people, homeless and in need of healthcare as she goes about her days without a real care in the world. Did she really think a few bags of food would make a difference?
I tried to make her feel better. Tried to reassure her that she did make a difference and that she organized a good thing.
“Stop trying to make me feel better. I don’t think I should feel better right now. It isn’t going to change things for those people just because I start feeling better.”
In the silence I knew she was right. As much as I wanted to make her comfortable, I knew the best thing she could do was wrestle.
Maybe John the Baptist knew that too.
In the Lectionary this week in Luke 3, we see John confronting the people as they come to be baptized.
If this were a modern day story, everyone might have been tweeting about it. John the Baptist was definitely trending at the time, even though he had no interest in trending.
In fact, he called the group a brood of vipers. The Message version is especially confrontational: “Brood of Snakes! Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”
As he exhorts the crowd, the people plead, “What can we do then?”
All week I have been reading this, wondering why in the world John the Baptist listed things these people could do. It didn’t make sense to me. I thought he was preparing the way of the Lord. Pointing people away from the Law and to Jesus, the Lamb of God who was coming to save them from their sins.
I always want a “to do list.” Just tell me three things to do this week that will help me be a better person.
But driving back with Hannah today, I heard these instructions in a new way. I am not a theologian but here is what I think.
In verse 11, John instructs, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
He didn’t tell the people to give a bag to Goodwill or send a check to some far away place, even though both of those are helpful and good things. Hannah’s experience making the bags of food for the homeless was completely different before she delivered the bags in person to the shelter. At school, in her classroom, she knew she wanted to help and worked to organize the project, but she didn’t experience any of the inner conflict until she was in the presence of those she was sharing with.
In their presence, she was confronted with her own inadequacy, her own defensiveness, her own fear. She was forced to wrestle with her own lifestyle and wonder if she was being insensitive holding two blankets as if that might help somehow. She was forced to examine her motives, her anger, her indifference. She was forced to examine her heart.
And that, I believe, was John’s goal all along.
First he wanted people to understand their own hearts and then he wanted them to meet Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ask us to fix everything. He asks us to follow Him. It doesn’t mean it will be easy or comfortable, but it does mean He will lead us in truth and grace. He will be faithful to transform us with His love so that we can love others like He does.
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation.” Isaiah 12:2