Almost 3,000 years ago Isaiah of Jerusalem was called to prophesy by a stunning vision of Yahweh, who instructed him to announce the unmitigated destruction of the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The basis of the announcement was their ruler’s rampant violation of the rights of the common people and their headlong rush to amass quick wealth and political power at any cost. Sound familiar?
Isaiah saw no prospect of a change of heart among the leaders, and no meaningful reforms, so he announced total national destruction. You can only imagine how that went over. He wasn’t sent to win any popularity contests.
Leading up to our reading today he prophesied the Assyrian invasion, the judgement on Israel, and the demise of Assyria. He counseled them not to fear Assyria and promised that a remnant of Israel would once again “lean on Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel” - that the devastation will prepare the way for new life to emerge.
In the reading today, Isaiah assures his people of the continuation of the Davidic dynasty beyond the Assyrian crisis, which has destroyed Samaria and Northern Israel, and that did come to pass. In this oracle he speaks of a future king coming out of the lineage of Jesse, the simple farmer who was the father of King David. This would be a ruler who trusts in God to lead him. He then envisions, in symbolic form, a peaceable kingdom where all creatures will live together without fear.
As you listen, keep in mind that the word ‘fear’ used in these ancient texts actually means ‘awe’.
A shoot shall come out from the stock 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.
It’s a beautiful vision. In researching this sermon I was introduced to a famous painting based on this passage by a Quaker named Edward Hicks. Between 1820, and 1849 when he died, he painted over 100 versions. Sixty-two have survived. It’s called The Peaceable Kingdom. I’ve put it up on the screen.
Hicks lived at a turbulent time, when the Society of Friends, those peaceable Quakers, had a devastating internal rift. On one side was the orthodox faction, largely urban and prosperous, promoting a rational religious hierarchy and reformist causes like abolition.
On the other side was a conservative, primarily rural faction, with which Hicks was fiercely aligned. It advocated an older version of the religion based on individual revelation. It surprised me that even the Quakers struggled with their divisions, as many parts of Christianity do today.
This painting is filled with symbolism. He tried to capture the essence of what Isaiah was describing in the second part of this oracle, while at the same time depicting his own struggles within his religion.
In the foreground you see the animals described by Isaiah, the wolf lying down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, animals that we think of as natural enemies, living in peace with each other - children with a hand on dangerous animals, unafraid. All living peaceably together.
They are separated by a ravine from a group of Native Americans, and several Anglo settlers. They represent William Penn, the founder of Quakerism in America, and his group, as they negotiated with the Lenape tribe in the Great Treaty of 1682. It would endure for almost a century, until the Penn’s Creek Massacre of 1755.
The symbolism here lies in that ravine, or chasm, between our world and the peaceable kingdom. On one side are the warring people of the world, who even when they espouse peaceful beliefs, often fall short.
On the other side is the Kingdom of God, promised to us by Isaiah, and later by Jesus, where little children never have to live in danger, where all God’s creatures live peacefully together, striving for justice and equality for all, where no one preys upon the rights or wellbeing of another.
And then in the middle is a broken tree, probably hit by lightning - one side dying and the other still alive with leaves reaching up to the heavens; a symbol of us and our brokenness - how we so often break off from God, going our own way, and where did that lead?
For the next couple of minutes I’d like you to close your eyes, if you’re comfortable doing so, and think about these questions:
Who are the warring factions in our world today, in our country, in your own life, among family and friends, or even within yourself?
And then: What would a peaceable kingdom look like today? Where have you seen even glimpses of one?
Then I will ring the singing bowl to bring you back and ask you to turn to the person or persons next to you and briefly share what came to you as you thought about our world today.
(after period of silence)
Jesus was born into a world of extreme poverty, with a huge division between the 2% and the rest of the population, living under Roman occupation. People were hoping and waiting once again for a leader to show them the way to a peaceable kingdom. That’s why writers of the New Testament drew from the words of these ancient prophesies.
We too are living in a violent and troubled world. During this Advent season we wait for the birth of Christ in our hearts. Today we know that no one person, King, President, or spiritual leader, no matter how enlightened, can lead us single-handed to that peaceable Kingdom of God that Jesus so often spoke of. He tried, and it led him to a cross. But in trying he showed us the way. Now it’s up to us.
Advent is the time of year when we are inspired by CNN Heroes, and a young boy I read about in the Globe, making and delivering sack lunches to hundreds of homeless people on the streets of Cambridge - a time when Christ comes into our hearts if we open them, and fills us with compassion and generosity towards others, when a simple act of kindness can fill another with peace. We can’t change the world, but we can change lives one at a time.
What one thing will you do this Advent, or maybe each week or day, to bring about a peaceable kingdom - in your own life? in our country? in our world? We have lots of work ahead of us.