We finished up the season of creation with reflections on St. Francis and Isaiah 11. Isaiah 11 is the source material for Edward Hicks’s painting, The Peaceable Kingdom which is above. It didn’t fit into the sermon, but I ran across a note in my prep work that mentioned that every time Hicks painted the scene, and he painted it dozens of times, the predators steadily got more vicious. They had longer teeth and meaner eyes. Perhaps he was struggling with how hard peacemaking is–within our own hearts, between friends and family, and between enemies. He never could let this passage go, though, and kept longing for this peaceable kingdom.
Audio from Sunday is below and the text of the sermon is after the jump.
Is this a prophecy or a fairytale? That’s how one commenter framed her response to this text.*
Prophecy or a fairytale?
It looks like a fairytale. There’s a hero who might as well be Prince Charming. Animals are playing together and might as well be talking. There’s danger along the way—scary snakes, a little violence, but when it’s all said and done, everyone lives happily ever after. What could this possibly have to do with the real world?
Because that’s what prophecy’s about. Prophecy, maybe contrary to popular thought, is definitely about the real world. Prophecy is the gift of seeing and sharing what God is up to and what God intends for a group of people. It’s as much about the here and now as the later and elsewhere. Prophets may use figurative language, metaphors, analogies, but they’re always trying to get across what reality is like or could be like with God.
All of which makes this a lot more provocative. It means this is about what God wants for our real, everyday, here and now lives. And that just doesn’t seem possible.
Let’s pause and get a little context. In Isaiah’s time things weren’t going well. For one, the king was worshipping other gods. That never makes God happy. For another thing, he was forming alliances with other nations—that also made God angry. This sounds strange to our modern ears. The UN’s not so bad, right? What seems to have been so offensive to God about these alliances is that they were done out of fear that God wasn’t enough, and so they’d better shore things up by finding somebody with bigger guns to protect them. Acting out of fear never sits well with God. And finally, the king was growing more oppressive. Warfare is expensive, as are palaces and such, and to fund those things the kings levied huge taxes on the poorer members of society, took farmland away from small farmers, and supported the practice of charging outrageous interest on loans. The proceeds from all of this went to line the pockets of their rich friends and prop up their power.
These three things—worshipping other gods, failing to trust in God, and beating up on poor people—really didn’t sit well with God. In addition, they weren’t working. Society was falling apart. In Isaiah’s lifetime, the entire monarchy collapsed and he witnessed the complete failure of this way of life.
I think we can relate to Isaiah’s world. We know what it is to live in a society that worships countless other gods. From the moment we wake to the moment we shut our eyes at night there are invitations to worship the gods of money, status, prestige, comfort, and security.
We know what it is to seek safety somewhere other than God—especially in this last decade. We’ve sought to defeat fear by waging war on it, as if fear could ever be cast out by anything but love.
And, maybe most of all, we know what it is to live in a society that does not, as Isaiah put it, decide with equity for the meek. We don’t use the word usury, but we sure know what a high interest loan looks like. We know what it means to live in a society where there are four unemployed people for every job, and the poor get poorer while the rich get richer. We know what it feels like to live in a society that seems to be stumbling, faltering, falling even.
This is the context in which Isaiah hears our God saying this is not how things will always be. Instead, says the Lord, the world I intend will be run with wisdom and righteousness, and justice for the most vulnerable among us. And there will be peace like we’ve never dreamed. Crazy, impossible peace. Peace where the wild animals—lions, and tigers, and bears, lie down with the gentlest farm animals. We’ll be led by the youngest, weakest members, and the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth the way the waters cover the sea. Can you imagine? I have a hard time imagining it.
And yet, and yet Isaiah’s claim is that this isn’t just a pipe dream. This is the very will of God. What if it is? What if it still is? What if this word of the Lord still comes to us today?
What if this understanding of God’s will shaped our thinking, our voting, our conversation, our prayer, our organizing, our advocacy, our financial giving, our politics, our lives together? What if this vision and the countless like it throughout the Bible defined what the common good means to us? And then spurred us on to work for it?
The way our society is organized, we have far more responsibility than if we lived in a monarchy. A lot more is asked of us. And so if we are to take Isaiah’s prophecy seriously, we’ll have to shoulder some of the burden that’s placed on this king’s shoulders.
This passage calls us to pray for the spirit of the Lord to rest on us, to give us wisdom and understanding, strength, and fear of the Lord. This prophecy tells us that God asks us to judge not by appearances—what is prettiest, or shiniest, or apparently best, but by God’s standards. We are called to get in line with God’s justice which puts the meek, the poor, the most vulnerable members of our society first. And if we are not among the most vulnerable, that means putting others’ welfare ahead of our own—literally, in our tax structure, our social programs, our personal budget, and our civic discourse.
There’s more. As Christians we can’t hear this passage without also seeing Jesus. We can’t read these lines without seeing Jesus among the poor, the hungry, the pariahs and outcasts. We can’t hear these verses without remembering Jesus confronting the Roman authorities and the religious rulers of his day. We can’t see this vision without seeing Jesus healing both body and spirit, and his promise that God’s kingdom is at here, at hand.
That means we can’t read this passage and imagine that it is only about our social lives. It is about that, but it’s also about our hearts. The prophecy Isaiah bears into our midst today says nothing less than the Lord desires “a deep, radical, virtually limitless transformation in which we—like lion, wolf, and leopard”** will no longer have a hunger to hurt others, to control, to dominate.
This is how God longs for both our world and our hearts to be. And, not only that, but asks us to take the first steps along the road to transformation, both personally and socially. We take those first steps trusting that God will step in a multiply our meager efforts. Prophecy asks us to live as if God’s ultimate reality is already here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Francis of Assisi this week. His feast day was Tuesday, and we’ll be blessing the animals this afternoon because of him. Francis gets pretty domesticated in our common imagination. He’s become something of a hippy flower child who makes a really good statue for the garden.
But in thinking about Francis this week, it seems to me he offers one example of what it looked like, in his time, to live as if this prophecy from Isaiah was already at work in his life. He gave away more or less everything he owned. He served those who had less than he did. And he sought reconciliation with enemies of his day.
Many of us aren’t going to be like Francis—giving away all of our clothes, living off of what we can beg from others, traveling to other countries to make peace with enemies.
But we can, in the same spirit, seek to live in accord with this vision. We can seek God’s wisdom, and as much as we are able, try to live our lives with God’s priorities rather than our own. When we find ourselves in situations of power, over our children, over employees, over volunteers, customers, friends, over those who have less than we do, we can take seriously the vision of leadership here which suggests curbing our love of power and letting the more vulnerable set the course.
We can let this word from the Lord define our desire, shape our longings, and remind us of where our deepest hopes lie. That’s the reason for the stirring language and the moving poetry here. Isaiah seeks not only to convince, but to pull our hearts into the vision as well. God wants us to want this, too.
And longing for a world that looks like this, desiring it will change us. It will transform us. Walter Brueggemann writes, “This transformation is vastly public and intimately personal. It is a gift and then a vocation. It is, of course, not possible—except that the sprout comes from the stump by the spirit!”***
Except the sprout comes from the stump by the spirit. There’s the hope, isn’t it?
When we’re tempted to throw up our hands and say our society could never be like that. My heart can’t even be like that. That’s impossible. When “reason” or “common sense” slips in, whispering that this dream is as impossible as a tree sprouting from a stump, well, we know better don’t we?
Because that’s how our God works. Only when all is lost, when the tree’s been cut down, when all that remains is death, only then does the tendril of new life sprout. Only when we throw up our hands and say, Lord, I can’t do it, does our God begin to sow seeds of new life in our hearts. Only when our ways have failed, our cherished dreams fallen flat, when we’ve given up our ideas of how things should be, only then does new life emerge.
So, if you find yourself today feeling like that stump—be on guard. God’s not done with you yet. If you feel hopeless, dried up, as good as done, well, the spirit of the Lord just might be on the move, hovering over the chaos you face, getting ready to begin a new creation.
If you feel like this could never be, this is all a pipe dream and no better than a fairytale, that we’d have a better chance getting water from a stone, or bread from heaven, or life from a tomb, well, as you count the odds and make predictions don’t forget that this seems to be the way our God works. We see time and again, in our most sacred stories, both in the Bible in and our own lives, that this is exactly how our God works. Love emerges in spite of us, life springs anew where all seemed dead, and we who are blind and broken can see and walk.
So we press on. We dare to have hope. We dare to dream, to believe in this dream from Isaiah. We even dare to order our lives around that dream—to trust just a little more, say you first, I’ve got plenty, here you have some.
We dare because we are longing, desiring, groaning in anticipation of the peace that God promises. We are people who stake our lives on the foolish, outlandish, and yet, for us, inescapable promise that the kingdom of God is at hand.
One day, one day very soon, perhaps this very afternoon, our God promises that the lion will lie down with the lamb, but even more astonishing than that, love will cast out fear, in our hearts, in our neighbors’ hearts, in our enemies’ hearts.
And in that moment, in that twinkling of an eye, we’ll catch sight of, for a moment, the peaceable kingdom God desires, intends, and even now is bringing into being.
May we get on board with that kingdom, may longing for it shape our lives and our love, may it so be. Amen.
* Stacey Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word, vol. A.1, 26
** Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah, vol. 1, 103.
*** Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah, vol. 1, 104.
by Sarah W. Wiles October 9, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA