A favorite childhood board game is “chutes and Ladders.” It’s a game simple enough for the very young. Roll the dice, advance the playing piece. If you land on a ladder, you immediately move up to the top. Slow progress is made toward the finish, but the folks who hit the ladders can really leap ahead.
But if you land on the Chute? Ah, it is a slippery slide that takes you back to where you started or worse.
It is a game of contrasts.
Players would sense elation at the prospect of progressing up the ladder, taunting their fellow players when they got the chance to leap ahead.
Frustration would come out at hitting a chute and having to go back.
Sorrow comes at seeing how far behind you could get, with little hope of ever getting back in the game except by the misfortune of your opponent, so you would root for them to hit a slide and fail.
The lessons for the second Sunday of Advent is a little like that, only here in the bible we are playing “Shoots and Axes.”
We hear Isaiah give us a vision of new growth, restoration, a “reaching up to the sky” kind of promise. “A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse…”
What was once thought long dead and gone now shows signs of life.
Visions are given of a peaceable kingdom where old foes are able to live together, not compete or taunt.
We long for such a day, and wonder why it is delayed? Why does God not usher in this vision?
We have waited since the days of Isaiah.
We wait still.
John the Baptist comes swinging the Ax. “Already the ax is laid to the root of the trees….”
If Isaiah gave us visions of reaching to the sky, John gives us visions of how such growth is achieved.
Here is the hard truth. New visions can come only when old ones are cut away. The Kingdom of Heaven comes via repentance of what we have built for ourselves, or with the clearing away of what “used to be.” It comes when you no longer appeal to the privilege of who you are based on ancestry or privilege. It comes by not going back, much as it may still be longed for.
The one who brings in the new has some winnowing to do, and some pruning.
The way must be prepared, and the worthless disposed of in the unquenchable fire.
So, this is the game that we find ourselves caught up in. This game of life is one of trying to figure out what exactly our time is, and what must be done?
Is this a time of Shoots, or a time of Axes?
Are we making easy progress toward a desired future? Is what we see now new growth from cut off promises?
Or, are we living in a time of pruning and cutting back when the ax will fall upon perhaps many of our hopes, and there will be much sorting and winnowing before the Kingdom comes?
How do we play this game God? This game of life that seems to be filled with ups and downs; hard progress that is won at great cost by some, while for others life seem to be an easy rush toward their desired goal?
This game of waiting and watching for your return, how do we play it well?
So much of life seems to be just a dice roll these days.
Sometimes it feels like we are just one dice roll away from disaster.
First of all, it might be good to note that the game has not changed much through the centuries.
Isaiah’s longings are still our longings.
We still long for a leader who will have a spirit of wisdom and knowledge.
We (as Isaiah did so long ago) still look for one who “will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness…”
We long to be known for our whole selves, not just our outward appearances, or the sum of our mistakes, or the glitter of the façade we can erect or project.
Oh, to have leader who sees the heart and knows the intent, and can cut through the clutter to bring justice for the poor and the oppressed!
We (as John did long ago) are still looking for someone who will bring near that promised Kingdom. We long for one who will come to winnow in the best of ways. We would like someone to sort out and get rid of the worthless that passes for the way things “simply are” or “have always been” in our world so that a new “Kingdom” that has been promised by God can emerge.
So, not much about the game of life has changed in the way of our hopes and longings.
The game of life may seem more complicated now, or so we are led to think.
We may have different pressures, different complications than those who watched and waited so long ago, but curiously we still seem to have the same players.
The meek and the poor, still have no power and no chance to achieve on their own. The ladder is blocked to them at every turn.
The powerful and those who exploit still seem to flourish. They seem to always land on the coveted “ladder square” as the rules of this world favor their dice rolls. They gain and rise in the eyes of this world paying little or no regard to those who slip and fall, often laughing cruelly as if they were like children delighting in the downfall of their playground friends.
No, the players really haven’t changed, not from Isaiah or John’s time up to now.
So what has changed? Are we doomed to play the same silly game over and over for as long as humans persist?
This is what Isaiah is confident about, why the prophecy is spoken out loud and written down. The day is coming, promised by God, and it’s not like the way we might work it out.
See, you and I, we get so frustrated at the game of life that what we want to do is role reversal. That’s really all that we can think of to do.
We want to see the poor and the meek come out on top for a change.
We’d like to see the rich and powerful brought down and watch them slide back behind us for a change.
No, if I were to proclaim the proper end to the “Shoots and Axes” game, I’d have the lambs enjoying some Lion B-B-Q, maybe a little wolf stew, while the cows reclined on bear skin rugs contentedly chewing their cud.
Oh, and that little child would be whomping the ground with the snake, using it like a whip in the same way that big cave woman in the cartoon “B.C.” does.
I’d want to see the folks who get the chutes in life all the time leapfrogging over the ladder folks and dishing out some appropriate retributive justice against them!
But that’s not Isaiah’s vision.
No, the one who wears the belt of righteousness gets to do the striking if it’s needed, but the former predators? They are redeemed! Now we live together, not in competition!
And John’s vision? Oh, he can get plenty upset in the here and now with those who come out hoping to get in on the goods. Like the good “ladder climbers” they are, expecting to find favor because of their ancestry.
John has sharps words for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but he’s only John, and he’s only pointing the way, preparing the way for the one who is to come who will truly sort and winnow, and it’s a darn good thing it’s not up to John because he’d do a lot more burning than gathering I’m sure.
But the one is coming who will gather the wheat.
The One who is coming who will look for the fruit that you bear.
The One is coming who will sort things out, and this one whom we meet in Jesus turns out to be pretty good at that sorting thing! He sees things that we would miss.
We find out that he’s even better at the gathering thing. He welcomes and makes disciples of the most unlikely candidates. He makes them of Tax collectors, fishermen, women who become able to teach and minister, those of scurious and curiosity backgrounds…Jesus sees something of value, something fruitful in them all. He gathers them all at the table together.
Tables in their homes.
Tables in the homes of those who question him.
Eventually at the table where he offers himself as True Bread and True Wine, giving himself body and blood and all to those in whom he finds value.
This is not a feast of vindictive triumph at winning the game and reveling in the spoils.
This is truly a feast where we taste what it will be like when old opponents are brought together, when hatchets are buried instead of swung at one another, and where old rivalries are brought to an end.
Jesus, you see, ends up being the game changer.
He always has been.
He always will be.
And it is Jesus who we wait and watch for in these days of Advent.
We remember his first coming, and how he lived and taught and showed us how to follow and to live, and we strive to follow in his way.
But we also look for his promised return, not to make people pay for their sins, but to forgive them once again.
His return, not to turn the tables, but to set one in our midst where all will be welcome and all will be satisfied, and all will find a peaceable place together with him.
This is the promise of Advent.
This is what Isaiah, and John, and really we all longing for.
A savior who will sort and winnow, yes… but who sees the fruitfulness in us as well, and who helps us see that in one another.
Shoots and axes, that’s the game of Advent, and it has much less to do with who wins, than how we play this game of life in the time that is given to us.
Does the world still set the rules and dictate how we play?
Or in Advent do we dare to do and to dream with Isaiah and John, and follow the game changer?