The Peaceable Kingdom

Advent II         December 4, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10         Matthew 3:1-12

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.

And so we hear once more one of those familiar passages, one of those promises that seem to be so closely woven into the Advent season, like so many from the prophet Isaiah, a passage that seems to name some of our deepest longings and hopes for this world.

One commentator I read suggested1)Paul Simpson Duke in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p 27 we think of this reading as a picture, or rather a linked pair of pictures. In one panel, on our left, we see a young king. He is part of the family tree of David, a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (who was of course David’s father). We see a regal figure, confident and strong; but more than that, we see a face aglow with the Spirit of God, a face that reflects wisdom, and courage, and kindness. Around him we see the poor, the ordinary people of the land, and especially those who have been oppressed and exploited, looking to him in hope and trust. They stand with a quiet dignity, standing tall, their chains and their burdens cast off. And behind him, on the mountain, the remains of the arrogant and the cruel, cast down from their thrones, scattered, lying slain on the ground.

And on the right, another tableau. Actually a picture we can easily imagine, because we have all seen it. “The Peaceable Kingdom”, a favourite theme of early American folk art, a lush garden full of all kinds of beasts, wild and ferocious bears and wolves and lions, lying gently next to lambs and calves and deer, and in their midst, a pudgy naked child carrying a sceptre. Under this picture we might read the title “Peace”; under the other “Justice”.

The Peaceable Kingdom, about 1833

So now that we picture this reading in our mind’s eye, what do we make of it? What thoughts and feelings does it call forth? Somewhat mixed, I dare say. Because there has to be a certain skepticism, when we are confronted with the picture of the peaceable kingdom. Wolves do not lie down with lambs, lions do not graze alongside calves; it’s not in their nature. They would starve, to begin with, their bodies have not evolved to eat grass. Oh, sure, it happens from time to time. There are unlikely stories of cross-species friendships: the mother cat who raises a brood of ducklings, or the wolf pup who meets and plays with a young fawn. Someone makes a video and posts it on Youtube. But these stories are interesting precisely because they are rare, they are not the norm.

If the picture of the Peaceable Kingdom seems so familiar, it is because there are a lot of copies around. The main artist was a Quaker by the name of Edward Hicks. He painted the garden with the gentle beasts, the pudgy child, and in the background a group of Quakers greeting a group of Native Americans in friendship – his vision, the Quaker vision, of the peaceful society they wished to found in America. He returned to this theme obsessively over his lifetime; apparently he painted it at least 62 times. And the interesting thing is, in the later versions the wild beasts are painted looking more and more savage. As time went on, as he witnessed around him the savage attitudes of his fellow settlers towards the indigenous people, he became more and more aware of the painful chasm between this vision of peace and the realities of nature – specifically human nature.2)Paul Simpson Duke in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p 31

And so these paintings, which at first glance seem so naive, are in reality anything but. They hold on to the biblical vision of a reconciled and gentle world, but they are also very aware of the brutal reality of the world around us, and they hold these two truths in a deep and almost unbearable tension. It is so easy, so tempting for us to give up the vision of peace and justice. Faced with the unrelenting violence and injustice of this world, the cynical option seems the more reliable one, just to give up that vision as a hopelessly romantic dream, to get real, to make our peace with the brutality of the world – and if possible, we might as well profit by it. Many people see that as part of growing up.

And the price of taking the cynical roots, of believing that the reality of power and brutality is the only reality? We abandon our faith; and not only our faith, but also some of our deepest longings. Because the longing for peace, for justice, for wholeness and integrity sits deep within each one of us. That’s why this vision has had such a powerful hold on the human imagination, from religion to art to music and literature, from Isaiah to Edward Hicks to John Lennon’s Imagine. If we embrace the cynical conclusion that this is all hopeless dreaming, then we end up with a neater, more consistent world, but at the cost of amputating a huge part of our own humanity. Far better, far more truthful, I believe, the path of Edward Hicks: even in the face of so much discouragement, to endure the tension, to cling to the vision. There is something heroic in going back one more time to paint The Peaceable Kingdom – for the 62nd time – even as the beasts of our imagination keep growing more and more savage.

I have been talking about the unreality of the right hand part of Isaiah’s picture, but the same thing could be said of the left hand part, the portrait of the righteous king. This longing for a righteous king, for a leader who would truly serve the cause of justice and the welfare of the common people, for another David, runs right through the Old Testament. And of course this vision runs up again and again against the reality that no king is like King David – not even David. Our leaders are human, and so, all of them, more or less liable to selfishness, or arrogance, or poor judgement.

Still today we seem to keep doing the same thing: to look for a political messiah, a leader who will set things right. We vote in a shiny new leader; and sure enough, in a few months or years the halo gets tarnished – just ask our Premier!

Now of course the Christian tradition has read this passage, and others like it, as a prophesy of the coming of Christ. One of the consequences of confessing that Jesus is the Messiah is the recognition that no one else is, that we should stop looking for a saviour in our politicians. Here again, it is easy to lapse into cynicism. There certainly is a lot of distrust of politicians around, much of it well deserved. The cynical option is to give up on the system entirely – which means, in effect, that we no longer hold our politicians accountable at all. The healthier option, surely, is that we continue to expect the best from them: we don’t expect them to be the messiah, to solve all our problems, but we do expect them to work hard and in good faith to try to be that righteous leader.

And finally, briefly, a third picture for you this morning: the familiar Advent figure of John the Baptist, the wild man camped by the river, calling a society to repent and seek the ways of God. With his rough appearance, his homemade clothes, his unusual diet, he is a figure of the wilderness, a voice calling out from that earlier, simpler time in Israel’s history, when they were a wilderness people living in close relationship to God. It is a voice from the margins, a voice free of the assumptions and compromises of life in the system, a voice that can offer a different, outside perspective. And sure, there is a freedom from responsibility there as well: John doesn’t have to keep the peace, and balance political interests, and keep the economy going – that is Pontius Pilate who has to do all that, and we need the Pilates of this world, and the work they do. But we also need the voices from the margins, voices free from the compromises of power: voices who can hold up to us the vision of a just and peaceful kingdom, and can show us what we have become.

I believe those voices are every bit as important today as they ever were. Where do we find them? Where are today’s John the Baptists? Among marginalized communities, for example – which is why it is so important to listen to Black Lives Matter without getting immediately defensive. Among the voices of those who work with the dispossessed, with those who have fallen through the cracks. Among those who are still in touch with the land: I believe the voices of first nations will be more and more important to our national health in years to come. And even now, today, there are those camped by a river in North Dakota, crying out with a voice in the wilderness, calling us to a renewed, responsible relationship with the land and with its people.

May we find the grace this Advent to hear some of these voices, and to find the answering echo in our own hearts, in our longing for peace and justice, for the vision and the promise of Isaiah. We live in dark times, and hopelessness and cynicism are both close at hand. Our call as people of faith is to continue to hold on to our longings, to insist on peace and justice, to bear the tension with the realities of this world, and to wait with eager longing for God’s Peaceable Kingdom.

References   [ + ]

1. Paul Simpson Duke in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p 27
2. Paul Simpson Duke in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p 31