From Columbia Theological Seminary chapel service, December 7, 2004.
Text: Isaiah 11:1-10
This is a much beloved story, it's been written about over and over, and painted many more times, a quick Google image search for the phrase "Peaceable Kingdom" returns more than 1200 results, the American primitive painter and Quaker preacher, Edward Hicks painted images of it more than a hundred times just himself. People cling to this text for the hope that it brings the hope that in the future things will be better, things will be the way they should be.
It's always kind of scary to preach a very familiar text, especially one that people have such an emotional attachment to. As if preaching here in the chapel in front of you all for the first time wasn't scary enough.
In some ways fear has been a theme for me this semester, not really fear about my classes, although I am rather anxious about how Hebrew will turn out. No, the thing is, early this semester I learned something about myself, about who I really am, and while I'm happy to have a better understanding of who I am, to be moving down the path toward becoming what a friend of mine referred to as a "complete Jim," a lot of my reaction to it has been fear. Fear of people finding out, fear of talking about it, fear of people knowing too much about me. And especially, I have been afraid of what will mean for the future of my ministry.
So, I guess it should be no surprise to me that when I read this text that so many people look to for hope, which was chosen for the Sunday in Advent on which we celebrate hope, I saw fear. I looked at the Peaceable Kingdom and I saw fear.
I saw the fear of the lambs, the fear of the weak and the powerless, the fear of those who are preyed upon, people who are devoured by those who see them not as the valuable beings that they are, but as laborers for their sweatshops, as harvesters for their crops, as cannon fodder or worst of all as having no value or use at all.
I also see the fear of the wolves. It might seem that the wolves and the lions and all are fearless. I mean, if you asked them, they would probably be all for laying down with the lambs, after all who doesn’t like breakfast in bed? But I think their behavior is based on fear as much as the lamb’s behavior is.
What is a predator afraid of? That there won’t be anymore prey. I have to eat this lamb because I don’t know if I’ll see another one. In human terms, this means not letting go of our power and wealth, for fear that we will lose it. It is a depressing fact of human nature that it doesn’t take very much to change a persons viewpoint from prey to predator. We see this right here in America, both in the behavior of the very rich protecting their turf and just getting richer and richer, and in the behavior of the very poorest, in our inner cities, where it only takes the addition of a gun or a knife to turn someone from prey into a predator, robbing those who are only a little bit lower than them.
I had the opportunity this summer to do some research into the lives of homeless youth, and it was sad to hear that youth will go to great lengths to avoid going to an adult homeless shelter, because when they do, they feel like prey. Homeless adults, who we are used to thinking of as being as powerless as anyone in our society, have enough power, and enough fear that they feel they need to prey on homeless youth.
Most people look to this passage for hope:
— hope of justice that judges neither by appearances or by hearsay
— hope for safety and security
— hope for plenty
and above all, hope for peace, for shalom.
I look and see fear,
— the fear of the lambs
— the fear of the wolves
— the fears of the powerless
and the fears of the slightly more powerful
But I think that fear and hope are closely related, our hopes help us to overcome our fears and our fears are what kill our hopes. As Paul said, “we hope for things unseen.” I would add that because those things are unseen, we fear that they won’t be.
So, here I was, wanting to find hope, wanting to see what so many had before me.
Then I recalled a conversation that I had the other day at breakfast: I had just learned the day before that I was going to be preaching on this text today. I was not yet at the point of doing any heavy thought on the text, I was just living with it for a while, waiting to see what bubbled up, waiting to see where the spirit would lead.
I was talking with a classmate, (if you’re a regular at breakfast you can probably figure out who) about this text and doing the work to write this sermon, and I commented that one of the things that I remembered from Old Testament Survey was that we Christians, when doing exegesis on Old Testament texts, needed to be careful not to jump to the back of the book and just say that it was about Jesus.
My friend responded that that was true but that as a Christian he did know the end of the story, he did know that one way to interpret the text was through the lens of Christ.
Our conversation moved on to other things and we went about our lives.
It was only later, when I got to thinking about fear, that the conversation returned to me. It occurred to me that the cure for all this fear was knowledge.
When we as Christians look at this part of Isaiah’s prophecy, not only do we know that it can refer to Christ, we know that it will come true.
John the Baptist knew, he was the first of his generation to know. That knowledge drove him out of the city, drove him into the wilderness, drove him away from comfort and ease. That knowledge forced him to cry out for justice.
We don’t have hope for the coming of the Peaceable Kingdom, we don’t have to fear that it won’t come because we know that it will. We know that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has done what needs to be done. We know it will happen.
And that’s what Advent is about, it’s about waiting, but it’s about waiting for things that we know will happen.