- Advent 2.18 “How Many Coats…?” Luke 3:1-20
At first glance, the Law that John preaches doesn’t seem so very difficult to keep, does it? Rethink your life and admit it: you could have done better. Could have been kinder, gentler, lighter. Could have gone to church a few more times, read the bible a little better, trusted Jesus a little more. But hey: we can do that! We’re doing it right now(!) with that confession/absolution/worship thing, right? Right! And what’s John’s goal in the re-thinking? Baptism! Be baptized for the remission of sins! And check, right?—most all of us have done that, had it done for us when we were little babies. Thanks mom, dad! That wasn’t so difficult now, was it? John makes a big deal out of it, but we’re pretty much all good on this repentance, baptism deal, right?
And after baptism? Well, John says: “bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance”. Hmm… what do you have in mind, exactly, John? What shall we do then? And he says, “He that has two coats let him give to him who has none, and he who has food, likewise.” (I’m going to leave off the hedge fund managers and soldiers today since few of us have those vocations. We’re in the coat crowd all of us though, I think: even hedge funders and the military folks. OK? OK!). Now, you heard this and went: “Well, that’s not so bad! I clean out my closet every couple years and have given many coats to Goodwill. Sweaters and a couple nice suits as well. I’m good! This repentance and bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance thing is not so tough!”
But, uhm, hold on. Not so fast! I’d like you to rethink that answer. Because John doesn’t say give to Goodwill the things you have no use for anymore. No. He puts numbers on this repentance and worthy fruits thing. He says “He who has two coats, let him impart to him that has none…” Even I can do this math, but it brought me up short when I read the sentence last Tuesday. I have more than two coats(!!!). At least 10 or 12 I think, counting blazers and suits as well as outerwear…
But I have one coat that I hold especially dear. I’ve had it for about 25 years. My family hate this coat. It is known in our household as “The Hobo Jacket”. It’s a grey tweed blazer (I was going to wear it today, but, uh, snow). It has suede elbow patches (now; it didn’t earlier, but Bonnie sewed them on a decade ago to cover the rips in the elbows). The lining is mostly shredded. It’s fraying badly around the cuffs and hems. I trim it every month or so of excess thread, but it’s still pretty ragged. I’ve been forbidden to wear it outside of the house lest I be taken for a hobo. But I wear it a lot. I like the jacket. I like hobos.
I went up to visit Christopher in Charlottesville, VA last November—I was in Richmond for a conference and stopped over for the night. I was taking him to dinner and we were strolling down the pedestrian mall, main street, C’ville where there are nice shops, restaurants. It was a cold night, colder than I thought it would be, high 30’s. I only had a sweater and the hobo jacket. As we’re walking along, we hear a deep voice, “Hey, man! I like that jacket! That’s a nice jacket.” It’s a homeless dude huddled in a corner wearing an old army jacket, wrapped in a blanket with a mangy looking dog. “I really like that jacket. Can I have that jacket?”
Christopher is barely containing his mirth. Here’s an actual hobo(!) coveting my jacket, seeing it as the epitome of style! Proof this is a jacket fit only for hobos. He’s texting this to Bonnie and Bethany and mutters, “Give him the jacket, Dad.” I’m like: “No! It’s my favorite jacket and it’s cold. Besides, it’s custom tailored to fit me.” And Christopher’s like “Just give him the jacket, already!” I said I’d do it after dinner, on our way home. But when we came back an hour and a half later, the hobo was gone. No sign of him or his dog…
I felt bad about that then. I felt worse on Tuesday when I read “He that has two coats, let him impart to him that has none.” With 10 or 12 coats, I couldn’t give up my rattiest one, denying my family a moment that would have lived forever in joyfulness in the Martin household? Would have been a lovely moment, a beautiful way for my hobo jacket to go. But I couldn’t do it. What kind of a Christian am I? What kind of a pastor won’t give his hobo jacket to an actual hobo who needs it so much more?
A bad one. A sinful one! One who realized Tuesday morning that I have more than 2 coats and so basically am a terrible person, according to the Scriptures, according to St. John! (whose camel hair jacket I imagine rivaled my grey tweed for hobo-ness—if that’s a word?—with locust limbs and what-not hanging off his :-). For all my church going, baptism, bible reading, repenting, I can’t seem to bring forth even the basic fruits of repentance! 55 years at this Christian Thing, and I’m still stuck at square one with 10 times more coats than I should have, and one especially that rebukes me every time I wear it (I still like wearing it, which only makes it worse, I think).
So, what is the conclusion to this sermon? Well, I don’t think I have a conclusion, exactly. I just have one, simple question: how many coats do you have? And how do you feel about that number, now? I thought about mentioning that I know someone that I won’t name, but with whom I a share a bedroom closet, who has way more coats than I do, and sweaters beyond numbering, but John says he, not she, so ladies are exempt! A man with more than 1 coat, well it’s way more than a Christian gentleman should have. According to John…
I suppose we could go, “And who made John the sartorial authority on coats and how many is too many?” Uh, well… God! He’s the voice crying in the wilderness fulfilling ancient prophecy. He’s the Forerunner of the Messiah. Jesus says John is the greatest of all those born of women. But surely John doesn’t mean all this stuff literally right? Oh… listen to yourself, man! Once you divorce “says” from “means” like that, what will be left in Holy Writ? Once you fudge on coats, you’ll end up fudging on Jesus, His deity, His death, resurrection—the Faith Itself!
Well, OK: would cleaning out my closet this afternoon do the trick? I think not, actually! John’s point is not to stir us to closet cleaning goodness, but to make us rethink and see we are quite lost: even if we could cut down the coat count, could we worship God aright? Uh-huh!
John says the point is: there’s One coming, baptizing us with the Holy Ghost and fire, gathering the wheat, and burning all the chaff. That sounds bad. But given how many coats I have and how tightly I hold onto them, a fire sale sounds like just what I need! And I don’t know much but I do know this: Jesus has done this for me. He gave up His one coat, gladly(!), to the soldiers who crucified Him. By being burned up in our place, all that is left for us is the cool water of His Baptism. And I know: by Word and Sacrament, through faith in Jesus alone, we have just One Coat, that of Christ and His righteousness—sartorially splendid(!)—that wraps us up in Peace surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.