“What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10). That’s what the crowds say. That’s their response to John the Baptist, when he stands along the banks of the river Jordan, calling the people to repentance, to cleanse themselves of their sins. “You brood of vipers!” John shouts at the people, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:7).
The crowds are stunned. I’m sure they are a bit shocked by this wild prophet—his intensity, his zeal, his devotion to God’s righteousness. John calls the people, gathered there on the riverbank—John calls all of them a brood of vipers, snakes, those cursed creatures destined for judgment. And, as if that’s not clear enough, he adds another metaphor, another image for God’s looming judgment. “Even now,” John calls out, “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9).
The people are bewildered. I imagine that some of them scared—shook, as we say these days. Others shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes at this street preacher, this one just like all the others, with their apocalyptic obsessions, with doomsday, with fire and brimstone.
But some of them do listen. They listen because they are tired. They listen because they are tired of this world, the injustice of it all. They listen because they want something else: a new world breaking into this one. They listen because they long for redemption, their liberation from the world that has become like a prison, from their own complicity in the sins of this world. They listen because they dream of salvation from evil.
So when John tells them that even now, an ax is lying at the root, ready to strike through their lives, to cut down the structures of society, they want to know what to do, how to repent of evil and give themselves to the way of salvation.
“What then should we do?” they ask. This question becomes something like a theme in Luke’s Gospel. We hear it three times in this passage: first the crowds ask it, then the tax collectors, and even the soldiers—“And we, what should we do?” they say, with their swords hanging at their waist (3:14).
But they aren’t the last ones to wonder what all of this means for their lives—these prophecies of fire. We get the same question again from a religious professional, an authority on the religious law: “Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “what must I do?” (10:25). Then, several chapters later, a political leader, when he finds Jesus, asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do?” (18:18). It’s the same question, from one person to another—a response to the shock of the gospel, the sense of one world ending and another about to begin.
The question keeps coming back throughout Luke’s Gospel, even continuing into the second part of the story, the book of Acts. The crowds at Pentecost, after the fire from heaven and the whirlwind of languages in the streets—the people ask the same question, the same words they asked John the Baptist: “What should we do?” (Acts 2:37).
Saul says the same thing when, on his way to the city of Damascus, a blinding light from heaven overwhelmed his senses as the resurrected Jesus spoke to him. And Saul who became Paul asks, “What am I do to, Lord?” (22:10). Several chapters later, when Paul and Silas were thrown in prison for preaching the gospel, there was an earthquake, shaking open the cell doors, setting the captives free. And the terrified prison guard, trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, asks that same question: “What must I do to be saved?” (16:30).
Advent is a time of preparation for Christ, to remember what happened when Jesus was born into our world, a world that rejected him, a world that couldn’t bear his love for all, a love that threatened to shake the structures of power, to topple the thronerooms and boardrooms, where the rulers amass power and wealth and religious authority on the backs of common people.
The Christmas story doesn’t end with a swaddled baby in a manger. Instead, Jesus is a fire, a fire that burns through a world of sin that has imprisoned us. John said that Jesus would come with a baptism of fire—that his life, his ministry, would spark the flames of hope.
We remember that first advent so that we can learn what to do now—to ask that same question running throughout the Gospel of Luke, “What then should we do?” To wonder what this gospel, this story, this advent of the Messiah, means for us today, as we live out our lives as a form of waiting, waiting for another kind of Advent, the coming of Christ’s peace: the renewal of creation, the restoration of God’s goodness.
We can’t save this world. Things are far too gone for that. Only God can save us now.
The Bible invites us to find ourselves in the stories we read, to ask where we are in the scene—who puts into words the question all of us would be asking, who says the sort of thing we might blurt out?
During Advent, I think we find ourselves in the crowds, the bystanders to event, the ordinary people who have heard John’s bewildering prophecies on the riverbanks, this talk of fire and hope, of judgment and peace, of a future where the powerful are thrown down and the oppressed are lifted up, as Mary sang in her magnificat—and we’re waiting for all of it to happen, longing for this new world, and we want to make sure we get to be part of it, to make sure we belong with this Messiah. So, along with the soldiers and tax collectors, we ask, “And we, what should we do?” What about us? Where do we belong? Will there be room for us in this new world?
When John and Jesus respond to these questions, all of what they say centers on money, on redistributing wealth and property, on the economics of grace. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” John says to the crowd. “Don’t extort money from anyone,” he says to the solders. “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor,” Jesus says to the ruler.
Advent gets us back to the basics of our faith, the fundamentals of our lives—we ask ourselves what we’re doing here, with this life we’ve been given. We wonder what’s going to last of all our labor, all our struggle. That’s what everyone is asking in the story when they hear John’s prophecies and experience the ministry of Jesus: “What then should we do?”
And the gospel answers the question by asking another one, turning us back to ourselves, to who we are, to what we do with our lives—John and Jesus turn to us, asking us to take stock of our lives, to wrestle with our desires, to contemplate ourselves, to ask ourselves this: What do we think will last?—in this world and in our lives, what will last and what will be burned away like chaff?
God’s fire is a purifying fire — affirming what is good, and burning away all the corruption that disfigures this world, the goodness of life. Jesus came to burn away all the systems and structures, all of our attitudes and ways of life that set up walls and fences and borders, obstructing God’s love for the world. “His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John says of Jesus at the end of our passage, “to clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his granary, and to burn the chaff with fire” (3:17).
There’s so much in this world that needs to be burned away, an unquenchable fire to melt ICE, that system of brutal policing of immigrants, and those detention centers and internment camps in the borderlands. None of it will last, when the end comes—the fire next time, as James Baldwin once called the judgment of the world we’ve made.
During Advent we ask ourselves what needs to be burned away, what needs to change: what parts of our lives, of us, of our world, need God’s restoration—the dismantling of our violences as God reforms our world with the peace of Christ.
For now, as we wait for God, each Sunday of Advent narrows us to the nature of hope—week by week the Scriptures center us on what we’re looking for in the midst of it all. A fragile life, born into poverty, in a backwater town, to a frightened teenager, afraid for her life.
Salvation happens in the unremarkable places of this world—a hope that comes to us where we’d least expect it. Our hope looks like a defenseless life, vulnerable to a whirlwind of wars and imperial decrees—God’s fire of love made flesh, an ember glowing in a feeding trough for animals.