“What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10). That’s the crowd’s response to John the Baptist when he stands along the river Jordan, calling the people to repentance.
“Even now,” he calls out, “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 people shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes at this street preacher, this one just like all the others, with their doomsday obsessions.
But some in the crowd do listen. They listen because they are tired. They’re exhausted with this world. 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.
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. They want to know how to repent of evil and give themselves to the way of salvation: to a new life, to a redeemed life, to a healed world.
“What then should we do?” they ask.
They’re ready. They’re ready for another world.
What should we do? 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 story of the incarnation doesn’t end with a swaddled baby in a manger. Instead, Jesus becomes a fire, a fire that burns through the dominion of sin. John said that Jesus would come with a baptism of fire — that his life, his ministry, would spark hope’s flame: the hope for a newness in our lives, newness in our world.
We remember Advent so that we can learn what to do now — to ask that same question, “What then should we do?”
We wonder what this gospel, this story, this Messiah, mean for us 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 of Luke’s story. We’re among the bystanders, the ordinary people who’ve heard John’s prophecies on the riverbanks, his talk of fire and hope, of judgment and peace.
We’re waiting for 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.
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 words and experience the ministry of Jesus: “What then should we do?”
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.
John and Jesus compel us to ask: 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, 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, “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 Christ’s peace.
Each Sunday of Advent narrows the focus of our hope. Week by week the Scriptures center us on a fragile life, born into poverty, in a backwater town, to a frightened teenager, afraid for her life.
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 gospel promises the warmth of God’s life among us.