Isaiah 11:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
May God add a blessing to our understanding of these words.
Asked what he had learned at Sunday School, the ten-year old began, “Well, our teacher told us about when God sent Moses behind the enemy lines to rescue the Israelites from the Egyptians. When they came to the sea, Moses called for the engineers to build a pontoon bridge. After they had all crossed, they looked back and saw the Egyptians coming. Quick as a flash, Moses radioed headquarters on his walkie-talkie to send bombers to blow up the bridge and saved the Israelites.”
“Bobby!” exclaimed his startled mother, “is that really the way your Sunday School Teacher told that story?” Well, no,” said Bobby, “but if I told it her way, you would never believe it.”
And how true that is of this Isaiah passage. This image of a peaceable kingdom. An image that some may believe is a fairytale, pie in the sky, a far-fetched romantic notion, an idealized moment as captured by Edward Hicks in his famous painting entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom. This passage, however, is a broad stroke of an image of hope that empowers us to walk into the future in the midst of our present reality. Even in the midst of troubled lives and troubled times we are called to hold that image of a peaceable kingdom. This is a passage often heard during Advent but one we should not lose sight of even before the Christmas season ends. So we spend some time today with this as our focus.
In a reflection by Kate Huey she notes that “the prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of Israel when their political situation is in disarray (not much has changed):just when things appear hopeless and the future looks bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a leader who will rule with justice toward all and mercy toward the most vulnerable in society. The little ones, the defenseless ones, the innocent ones will be protected and cared for. Isaiah urges the people to remember who they are as the people of God, reminding them that their power, their life, comes from goodness, not greed. The promises are astounding and perhaps unbelievable: ‘the order of nature’ that we all learned about in school, the violence of predators that we accept as natural, will be overturned. The rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace, not just any peace, but ‘shalom’ [a deeper more sacred sense of peace]. We read this beautiful text in the season of Advent and hear it with our minds on Jesus as One promised and longed for, One who was full of power and yet brought peace, One who was humble even so. We read it in Advent to connect the promises of God with the reality of Jesus.” (UCC.com, Sermon Seeds)
Walking into the future in hope is what faithful living is about. Regardless of the muck and the mire we are in right now, we are called to be faithful to the present moment and to walk into that future in hope.
It is, however, easy to lose sight of that vision. It is hard to uphold this image during these dark days of violence. During these dark and troubling days we need the image of the peaceable kingdom more than ever. Ours is a violent world. People murder each other over ridiculous things, sneakers and cell phones and other goodies. Often road rage is out of hand and turns deadly. And it seems we hear daily of war as well as threat of war: bomb threats and mass shootings. As we know, violence does not beget peace. Violence begets only more violence. Violence is all around us and takes on a variety of forms and none of them are good for us.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of violence that glorifies domination and might. So how is it then that the lamb can come to trust enough to lay with the wolf? Why should the cow believe the bear will do no harm? Why should the calf trust the lion? How can the poor trust the rich? How can the powerless believe the powerful will do them no harm? Certainly, it is not up to the less powerful to prove the other trustworthy, but trust must be shown again and again from those who truly desire to share their power and privilege. There are those, perhaps only a few, who desire this vision.
We live in a time where nations lift up sword against nations. No wonder it is so difficult to faithfully live into this image Isaiah portrays. These are dark days indeed. Yet, to overcome violence, those who profess to follow the Prince of Peace must begin to imagine that a new world is possible. A new world order must take place where our towns, villages, cities and countries are places that welcome all, that nurture life and community fully, that empower each other rather than separate the powerful from the powerless, or separate those who have from those who have not.
In many ways today’s passage cuts through our unfaithfulness and goes right to the point. In this Isaiah passage there is a declaration made that although Israel and Judah will be cut down totally, like a tree, that that is not the end. It is not the end because a shoot will come from the stump – a new leader will come from the line of David. Hope is born anew. This king will not be like those unfaithful leaders of Israel and Judah, but will rule with wisdom and integrity, bringing peace and justice for all people. There is a light burning in the darkness. Can you see it?
This vision of Isaiah’s is a beautiful vision of harmony between people and creation. Central to this vision is peace, justice, and the integrity of creation. What we think of as natural enemies now eat and play together – wolves and sheep, cows and bears, children and poisonous snakes. Can that image include conservatives and progressives; ecologists and developers, blacks and whites, fundamentalists and progressive protestants, poor and rich, Israelis and Palestinians, radical Muslims and faithful Muslims, second, third and fourth generation Americans and Immigrants, the powerful and powerless?
Can we imagine a time of peace – a peaceable kingdom and work in our own lives to help make it happen? Getting ready for the future means being faithful in and to the present. The vision of Isaiah is, hopefully, a vision we all share for the future. It is this vision that keeps the human race going – the hope that somewhere, somehow, we can get it together. But to help make that future become a reality, we must be faithful now – in this present moment – this particular time in the history of the world. We must work for peace and justice now – we cannot put it off one more minute, or one more Christmas.
We become empowered when we speak out, when we stand up for and with the marginalized, the oppressed, the forgotten. We are empowered when we are moved to action, to send a letter in protest, or make a phone call on behalf of an individual or group experiencing an injustice. We are not powerless even when we feel the powerful try to edge us out of the picture. Our fear often immobilizes us, so we gate our homes as well as our hearts.
But we are not powerless. We begin to live the vision when we take action as well as when we stop and pray, not only for our enemies, but also the co-worker who is a constant pain in the neck; the cousin who is a nag; the neighbor who knows better than anyone else how things are to be done.
We pray for our enemies – not only on the large and detached scale, but on the home front too. The prayer does not need to be long or elaborate. We do not need to tell God how we believe the other should behave or speak up or keep silent. The prayer may be as simple as asking God to surround the other with God’s love and light, and also humbly asking the same for ourselves. Praying for our enemies may not make us like them anymore, but there is a subtle shift in us toward them when we pray for them, and that is a good thing.
In a UCC Daily Devotion, by Emily Heath, entitled “When Love Sticks Around” (UCC.com) Heath speaks of the small kindnesses we experience during Advent and especially the days leading to Christmas. Doors open, people greet each other, there is even a bit more courtesy on the roads. It is often a time of gentleness and kindness we do not experience at any other time of year and too often it feels that by December 26th all those good feelings and tidings are gone – poof.
Walking into the future in hope is not a particularly easy task for many people during the holiday season – often we approach Christmas feeling a bit tired and cranky, perhaps disillusioned, maybe a bit blue if we are grieving the loss of a loved on this season. But it is in holding that image of the peaceable kingdom as well as thoughtful action and intentional prayer that helps us be faithful to the present moment as we walk to the future in hope.
I share with you “A Blessing of Hope” by Jan Richardson. “So may we know the hope that is not just for someday but for this day here, now, in this moment that opens to us; hope not made of wishes but of substance; hope made of sinew and muscle and bone; hope that has breath and a beating heart; hope that will not keep quiet and be polite; hope that knows how to holler when it is called for; hope that know how to sing when there seems little cause; hope that raises us from the dead; not someday, but this day, every day, again and again and again.” Beautiful words that lead us from hope to joy.
May God continue to bless this image for our present generation as we work for peace and justice and the integrity of creation. May God bless all the generations to come until that kingdom is a reality. Yes, there is a light burning in the darkness and may that light shine in and through our very beings every day. Amen.
Copyright Donna Cavedon, 2018