This morning, those worshiping with us in person are invited to stay and help us trim the tree.
John the Baptist, meanwhile, is talking about cutting it down.
That is Advent in a nutshell: a season of contradictions, with the world ratcheting up the speed and glitter and cheery pressure while the church turns blue, sings in a minor key, and trot out John the Baptist, who insults his audience, thunders about wrath, then encourages the poor to give away half their sidewalk tent and the working class to jeopardize their lifestyles with dangerous honesty before spewing more destruction and fire.
With these and other exhortations he preached the good news to the people.
Because tree-trimming isn't news, and it isn't good enough.
That doesn't stop us from trying.
Church attendance is down because the world has fundamentally changed?
Let's start a youth choir!
Climate change threatens the future of the planet?
Let's tweak a few policies without changing anyone's lifestyle too drastically.
Let's smile more and post something supportive on Facebook.
The budget is six figures into the red?
Well, trim a little here, cut a hundred there, plug in some new income and hope for the best...
I'm guilty of it.
Just this week I went, very reluctantly, to urgent care.
I have been fighting what's now bronchitis for over a month—with tea, honey, cough drops, a breathing device, anything but slicing open my ego by admitting the need for help and rest—but the cough and the wheezing got worse.
Sometimes trimming the tree isn't enough.
Treating the symptoms is not solving the problem.
That's why John carries no hedge clippers; he has an ax aimed at the root.
Salvation is not a quick, technical fix, even though we tend to look at the cross that way.
Salvation, God's insistence on fully healing all of creation, requires major surgery, and that
includes some painfully deep cuts.
People in recovery know that being saved involves cuts too deep for us to perform on ourselves.
The first three steps result in surrender to a higher power, who is willing and able to use ax, fuller's soap, fire, whatever it takes.
The terrifying good news that John proclaims is that the one who is coming is a surgeon who
knows what he is doing and is coming not to destroy us—even though it sounds and feels that way—but to save us from comfortably destroying ourselves.
Both individually and collectively, that involves deep cuts, real pain, short-term despair, long
stretches of fear, and ultimately lasting hope, which is why Luke names it good news.
The hands on the ax handle are trustworthy and true, far more so than our own.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis writes about Eustace Clarence Scrubb, a boy who turns into a dragon without anyone really noticing, since he had no friends and his new persona matched his personality.
Alone and throbbing in pain, he was approached by Aslan, the lion.
It came nearer and nearer, Eustace reported to Edmund later.
I was terribly afraid of it.
You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough.
But it wasn't that kind of fear.
I wasn't afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it—if you can understand.
Well, it came up closer to me and looked straight into my eyes.
And I shut my eyes tight.
But that wasn't any good because it told me to follow it.".... I knew I'd have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it.
And it led me a long way into the mountains....
So at last we came to the top of a mountain I'd never seen before and on the top of this
mountain there was a garden....In the middle of it there was a well...—like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it.
The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg.
But the lion told me I must undress first...
So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place.
And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my
whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana.
In a minute or two I just stepped out of it.
I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty.
It was a most lovely feeling.
So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
But just as I was going to put my foot into the water I looked down and saw that it was all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as it had been before.
Oh, hat's all right, said I, it only means had another smaller suit on underneath the first one,
and I'll have to get out of it too.
So I scratched and tore again and this under skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
Well, exactly the same thing happened again....
So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin ... But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
Then the lion said ... You will have to let me undress you.
I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty near desperate now.
So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.
And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt....
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been.
And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.
Then he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on—and threw me into the water.
It smarted like anything but only for a moment.
After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing
I found that all the pain had gone from my arm.
And then I saw why.
I'd turned into a boy again.
One who is more powerful than I is coming, John promises.
When he baptizes you, you will finally be who you truly are.