Sunday, December 09, 2007

Something’s Coming—Peace

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, of the one from Jesse's Tree.
Tell us of his thirst for justice and His zeal for equity.
In his realm the wolf is harmless; calves with lions rest secure;
nursing children feel no danger; peace and amity now endure.
Used with permission of the author, John Thornburg

One of the more famous paintings in American Art was painted in 1834 by a Quaker minister and artist named Edward Hicks. He was born and was always based about 2 hours south of here, in Bucks County, PA.

The painting is that extra sheet that came with this morning’s bulletin. It’s called “The Peaceable Kingdom”, and its inspiration is this morning’s Isaiah passage. In the foreground, there are all the animals mentioned in the Bible passage, as well as the child whose hand lays over the snakes’ den. The landscape in the middle is pretty close to some of the scenes you see all down the Susquehanna and the Delaware, and on the left in the distance, you see Indians and other people dressed in colonial manner. That is a representation of William Penn’s signing of his treaty with the Lenni-Lenape tribe when he came to found what is now our state.

Hicks’ claim, through this painting, is that Pennsylvania was founded on peaceful and respectful principles, and that the Quaker commitment to peace was to be practiced and followed. And he chose, as his medium, Isaiah’s statement that peace looks as crazy to us as a baby putting her hand over a cobra’s den.

Crazy is sometimes what we think of peace. It just doesn’t seem realistic, does it? There’s just too many people who are against us, too many countries who seem to want to do us harm, people who are tying to take advantage of us. If we really believe in peace, peace of Christ, we have to care for these people, and their feelings about us are irrelevant. It really is the peace that passes understanding, sometime. As Isaiah shows us, it is a peace that goes against nature, at least the nature we think we understand. The nature that makes us nervous when children get around poisonous snakes, the nature that we observe when we see bears hunting salmon, or wolves hunting deer. That's what nature is, to us.

But Isaiah's vision is another kind of nature. It's the nature of God, the way God designed the world, originally. It's the nature of Eden, the time before Adam and Eve messed things up. You see, Christian theologians, those people who think about God, say that when Adam and Eve ate of the apple and were banished, they didn't just mess themselves up-- they unleashed their sin into the world, and it is that sin that now is in evidence in that natural world, just as it is in evidence in the world of humanity.

It is into that world that Jesus was born, where the negative reactions of some people to his preaching, his teaching, his existence, could have been explained by saying that people were relying on their "animal" instincts. The instinct to fight or to run away, to destroy whatever it is that is threatening you, this is animal instinct all right, but it is from a sort of animal that is "fallen", in a way, no less than humanity. Jesus was born into this way of life, and as a human being, struggled with that same life. Part of our lesson from Jesus is that he did overcome his "animal instinct". He loved those who persecuted him. He did not allow natural fear to guide his actions when he was challenged and threatened.

And I think his lesson for us here was that when you act not out of animal instincts, but instead out of the love of God, you can do things like walk unharmed through a crowd of people intent on hurting you, like he did when he visited Nazareth. When we as Christians say we want to be like Jesus, what I think we mean is to live as if the new world has already come, the new world of a new Eden. I said last week that we should live in the world as if it is already that shining city on a mountain. This story is the same lesson; it is Isaiah teaching the same idea a different way.

Life on earth as a Christian, then is a lifetime struggle between living a life as if Jesus has returned, and contending with the rest of a world that doesn't see it yet. We are caught between the instincts of the peaceable kingdom, a vision of God's will in the natural world, and the instincts of the fallen world we were born into, where wolves hunt and kill weak and young sheep, and are shot in turn by angry farmers. Where animals feel threatened and attack when cornered. Where human beings individually and as societies seek to hurt back when they are hurt, and sometimes we call it revenge, and sometimes we call it by fancier words, like pre-emptive strike or the penalty of death.

Jesus was born to us at Christmas so that we could understand, fully and finally, the idea that in God's world, there is no revenge. There is no food chain. There is no fight or flight. Jesus came as the most vulnerable thing we could think of, a baby, so that we might understand that a baby, with all of it's potential and possibility of growth, is the most powerful thing on the earth. The weakest thing we can see, the most vulnerable, is where God locates himself on earth. That is not "natural" thinking. That is peaceful thinking. It is the thinking of a God that knows the world he created, knows that this world isn't that, and is showing us what that other, original world, could be like.

It's a world that looks very different than ours. But nonetheless, it is the world we are called to live in, to grow into, in the name of God, who created it. Last week, we talked about living in the world with our hearts already living on that high mountain that God has raised up. Now, in another Isaiah passage, we see what the countryside looks like around that high mountain city, and we see that it is as changed as the city is. But even though it is different than what we see as our reality, we are told that in our walk as Christians, the Peaceable kingdom is a reality no less than the new Jerusalem.

In the real world, a little child can play over a nest of snakes, and animals are not food and predator, but live together. In the Peaceable kingdom, the history of Native Americans and whites in America is changed, and both parties stand as one people. Isaiah gave us the vision of what the world really is meant to be. The artist, Edward Hicks, painted what he believed to be true. He painted what he saw as the real world of God. Jesus was born to help bring it about in our hearts and in our lives. To bring the reality of God to our "natural" world.

And in Advent, we can almost see that it is true, by God's grace and peace.

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