“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. “You brood of vipers!… Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:7).
The crowds are stunned, 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 them snakes. And as if that’s not clear enough, he adds 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).
I imagine some in the crowd were scared. Others probably shrugged their shoulders and rolled 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 in the crowd do listen. They listen because they are tired. They listen because they are tired of this world, the injustice all around. They listen because they want something else—a new world to break into this one. They listen because they long for redemption, for liberation from a world that seems like a prison. 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 society, to cut into their lives, they want to know what to do, how to repent of evil and give themselves to the way of salvation, to a new life, to redeemed life, a healed world.
“What then should we do?” they ask. They’re ready. They’re ready for another world.
What should we do? This question becomes something like a theme in Luke’s Gospel, for the story Luke is telling about Jesus. We hear the question three times in this passage: first the crowds ask it, then the tax collectors, and even the soldiers repeat the question—“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—what this Jesus will mean for their lives. Later in Luke’s story, in chapter 10, a religious professional, an authority on religious law, asks Jesus the same question again: “Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “what must I do?” (10:25). Then, several chapters later, in chapter 18, a political leader asks Jesus, “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).
Advent is a time of preparation, a season to remember what happened when Jesus was born into our world, a world that rejected him, a world that couldn’t bear his love, a love that has threatened to undo the violence and injustice and sin that structure our lives.
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 imprisons us. John said that Jesus would come with a baptism of fire—that his life, his ministry, would spark the flames of hope: the hope for a newness in our lives, newness in our world.
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 long for another kind of Advent, as we await the arrival of Christ’s peace: the healing of creation, the restoration of God’s goodness, the reconciliation of all things.
During Advent, we find ourselves in the crowds in Luke’s story. We’re among the bystanders, the ordinary people who have heard John’s prophecies on the riverbanks, his talk of fire and hope, of judgment and peace—and we’re waiting for all of it to happen, we’re waiting for this new world, we want to be part of that redemption, that justice, that peace, we want to belong with this Messiah, to be his people. So, along with the soldiers and tax collectors, we ask, “And we, what should we do?” What should we be doing?
Advent returns us to the basics of our faith, to 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, of 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 question, by 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 condemning what is evil. The presence of Jesus burns away all the systems and structures, all of our attitudes and ways of life that set up walls and fences and borders that obstruct 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).
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 undoing of our violences as God heals the world with the peace of Christ.
For now, as we wait for God, each Sunday of Advent narrows the focus of our hope—week by week the Scriptures center us 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, a glowing ember, in a manger, in a feeding trough for animals, the warmth of God’s life among us.