The Next Right Thing

“What then should we do?”

That’s the question in today’s Gospel lesson.

And I bet each of us have had times in our life when that was our question.

I don’t mean simply deciding what to do or figuring out what is on the to-do list for the day. The question in today’s gospel is more of an existential question, one that strikes at the very core of our being.

It comes to us in many different ways.

Sometimes we realize something about ourselves or our life and know we need to make a change. Or we recognize a particular behavior or pattern. We do the same thing over and over and nothing seems to change. 

Perhaps for the first time we acknowledge the reality of addiction. Or maybe we have lived with a deep sense of unhappiness or restlessness.

And we are left wondering, “What then should I do?”

Other times, whether or not we want them or are ready, life brings us changes. The loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a dream, the loss of ourselves.

And we are left wondering, “What then should we do?”

What then should we do?

That question brings us to a crossroads. A place of decision. A place of discernment.

Ultimately a place of repentance.

Repentance just means turning away from something and turning toward a new direction. And when we are confronted with that question, “What then should we do?”, we must begin looking for a new direction for our life.

Last week we read about John the Baptist in the wilderness proclaiming repentance, echoing the Prophet Isaiah’s words “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and reminding us that all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord.

Last week’s Gospel lesson was a call to repentance. Today’s gospel demands action.

Repentance requires action.

In today’s Gospel, the question, “What then should we do?” is asked three times: by the crowds, by the tax collectors, and the soldiers.

And each time, a response is required.

The Word of God always seeks from us a response. And that is exactly what John the Baptist demands of those who come to him. “You brood of vipers, you sons of snakes – what are you doing here? Don’t tell me who you are. I don’t care who your family is. Show me who you are. Show me your repentance. Show me your changed life.”

John has challenged them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

His words have left them at the crossroads of repentance. They have heard a new truth in John’s preaching, they have recognized a need to change, and they want to know what to do.

It is a legitimate question.

Even when we recognize the need and desire to turn our life in a new direction, that whole process can seem so big, so overwhelming, that it seems impossible.

Not too long ago, a dear friend pointed out some hard truths about my life. This friend also introduced me to the writer and podcaster Emily P. Freeman.

Emily P. Freeman writes about helping people make decisions, and what she calls “creating space for your soul to breathe, so that you can discern your next right thing.”

That’s the name of her book and podcast. The Next Right Thing.

That idea… “the next right thing,” isn’t about having everything all figured out. It isn’t about knowing how everything is going to turn out.

It’s about taking the first step in a new direction.

It’s about repentance.

And once we’ve done the next right thing, what should we do after that? The next next right thing.

That is the path of repentance. These small and simple, though not necessarily easy, steps become life changing behavior.

That is exactly what John the Baptist tells those who ask him, “What should we do?”

He tells the crowd to share their food with those who are hungry and have none. If they have two coats they are to give one to someone who has no coat.

It is the next right thing to do.

To the tax collectors he says act fairly, be honest in your dealings with other people, do not take more than owed you.

It is the next right thing to do.

To the soldiers he says not to abuse their power, to not manipulate others, and to not create more victims.

It is the next right thing to do.

John didn’t tell any of them to go and be something radically different. Instead he called them to be who they are in a different way.

He didn’t tell the tax collectors to go find a better or different career. He asked them to be honest tax collectors.

He didn’t tell the soldiers to stop being soldiers. He asked them to respect others and understand the danger of power.

He called the crowds to remember that their life is bound up in their neighbor’s life and there is no room for indifference, complacency, or miserly giving.

Repentance isn’t a magical escape from the circumstances of our life. It is about engaging those circumstances in a new and different way – God’s way.

So I wonder, at what crossroads are you finding yourself this Advent season?

At what places of decision…of discernment…of repentance…are you finding yourselves?

And in those moments and places, what is the next right thing for your life?

Identify that and you will have discovered a place of repentance, a place of expectation, a place of good news, and ultimately the place where the Messiah is coming to you.

It is Advent. We’re waiting for the world to change. We’re waiting for our world to change.

And that usually starts by us making a change. So go and do the next right thing.