Isaiah paints a vision of what the messiah and a world in which the messiah reigns as peaceful. If nothing else, the messiah ushers in peace. There is no lack of clarity about this vision of peace. This morning’s reading from Isaiah declares that, as a result of the messiah’s reign, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah declares that predators and prey will live with one another in peace, that carnivores will turn vegetarian, that the most vulnerable humans will play with and lead the deadliest of animals.
You see before you The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, a painting that depicts our text from Isaiah this morning. Hicks was a Quaker minister who did his work in the early nineteenth century.
I love this vision, this peaceable kingdom, yet it leads me to wonder: Will it ever come to pass? For despite the realm of God breaking into our world with the birth of Jesus, our world has not begun to look this way, has it? Violence is so routine in our culture, shootings are no longer a surprise. In the city of Chicago, one of the places I once called home, they just hit the sad and deadly milestone of 700 homicides for this year, and they will likely surpass the record of 704 by year’s end. We hear of bombings in other parts of the world, casualties of military personnel and civilians, if not casually then routinely, and we may not even think about the devastating effects of these deaths unless one of our loved ones is a service person in uniform somewhere in the world. We know that people throughout the world flee to the US as refugees because the places they call home are torn apart by war, natural disaster, political or religious discrimination, economic conditions, or persecution due to sexual orientation or gender identity. Violence in many forms is the norm, not the exception, yet during this season of Advent, we proclaim that a messiah is coming who puts an end to violence.
So, this leads me to wonder: Is a peaceable kingdom even possible? When will God implement this vision of peace? When will we turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks? When will the wolf live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid? When will a little child lead the deadliest of animals?
Isaiah 11 verse 2 tells us that the spirit of the Lord shall rest on the messiah, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. The Holy Spirit shall enliven the messiah, and thus enlivened, the messiah shall usher in a reign of peace, of equity, of justice.
That Holy Spirit came upon Jesus when he was baptized by John in the River Jordan, and the Spirit accompanied him through his ministry. Indeed, that spirit led him into and out of the wilderness where he was tempted. That spirit led him to preach love for enemies, to feed people who were hungry, and to heal people who were sick. That spirit brought him into relationship with tax collectors, fishermen, women, and Gentiles. In the spaces where Jesus lived and ministered, he did usher in peace, equity, justice. He did so in a way that took the disciples by surprise because, even then, people believed that violence could lead to peace. I wonder if the men—and women—who eventually followed Jesus were there with John the Baptist when he called people to repent. I wonder if they thought that perhaps John was the messiah because here was a person fiery enough to get the job done, a person with enough spit and vinegar to kick out the Romans and usher in God’s reign. But here’s the surprise of Jesus’ reign and the part we don’t quite understand as people who live in a world so saturated by violence that violence has become our norm: violence cannot usher in peace. Only love can.
The Holy Spirit that enlivened Jesus enlivens us. Indeed, at each and every baptism, we pray using the very words of Isaiah 11. We pray that the newly baptized would be sustained by the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence. Jesus’ reign on earth began with a baby born in a manger and continues in us: in our willingness to love and share our lives with one another, free from fear, aided and abetted, so to speak, by the Holy Spirit at work in us.
I wonder if we might partake in the work of the Spirit here in our neighborhood, not in a fanciful way but in a very practical one. Starting on January 11, I would like on the first Wednesday of each month to invite our neighbors from Roosevelt Row businesses, from the Evans Churchill Neighborhood Association, from the Hance Park Conservancy, from the new apartment buildings around us to come and share a meal with us at GLOW, just a meal and conversation with whoever shows up. With our changing neighborhood, now more than ever, we need to meet each other, to know each other, to care for each other. For some who share this neighborhood, there is a feeling that our community members who are experiencing homelessness are for some reason not fully members of our community. As the development of this neighborhood proceeds, there is, then, an urgency in developing not only buildings but relationships with one another. Developing relationships, more than anything, takes away fear and builds the peaceable kingdom Isaiah prophecies. I hope you too will join in these Wednesdays just for a meal and conversation.
When will this peaceable kingdom come to pass? My dear friends in Christ: now. It comes to pass now when we do not allow our own fear and assumptions, our own prejudices and bitterness, our own discomfort and smallness to shut us off from our neighbor. It would be easy to see our neighbor as wolf or leopard. It would be easy to discount our neighbor as scary or of ill intent.
And yes, there are times when things seem scary.
Yes, there are times when we have legitimate concerns about safety.
But I think that the two most significant barriers between us and a peaceful world is one, our lack of belief in its possibility and two, our unwillingness to move beyond our own fears and assumptions and uncomfortability. It is easy to say: well, if only this politician would do this… It is easy to say: well, if only this large institution would do this… It is far more difficult to look ourselves in the mirror and say: I can do something differently. I can meet and get to know my neighbor. I can see the humanity in others, and it’s not actually that hard. It means starting out: Hi, I’m ____. It’s good to meet you. It means asking a question like: Have you always lived in Phoenix? It means noticing something in particular about another person, perhaps their kindness or their humor, and just starting a conversation with a comment. In these small ways, and they are small ways, we begin to break down the walls between us. We, aided and abetted by the Holy Spirit, build the peaceable kingdom. We are not wolves and leopards, but people, people loved by God, each and every one of us. Thanks be to God! Amen.