Monday, 11 November 2013

The Peaceable Kingdom (a sermon: Isaiah 65:17-25)

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, 
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy 
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

In the nineteenth century, the American artist Edward Hicks painted a series of pictures with the same title:  “The Peaceable Kingdom”.  Edward Hicks was a Quaker and he saw his art as his way of sharing the Quaker community’s convictions about peace and non-violence.

The paintings are landscapes, with some animals in the foreground and a child in their midst.  The animals are painted in what the art world calls a na├»ve style, in other words not very realistically, even though the landscapes are very realistic.  In each of the pictures, we find a group of animals of different species: fierce predators resting alongside defenseless grass-eaters. 

All the animals have a look of calm about them. 
·        The carnivores are not agitated by the presence of their prey. 
·        The herbivores are not worried by the presence of their hunters. 

All the creatures have a wise, almost philosophical, look on their faces.
·        The child has the expression of a mature adult.
·        The animals have almost human expressions on their faces.

Edward Hicks’s paintings picked up themes we hear in our Old Testament lesson today.  In the 65th chapter of Isaiah, we hear an image of peace at the climax of human history:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

This image echoes a theme found earlier in the book of Isaiah, in the eleventh chapter; in a passage we’ll hear in three weeks’ time on the Second Sunday of Advent:

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,
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 shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

As some background to why this theme is found twice within Isaiah, most Old Testament scholars – whether Christian or Jewish – most Old Testament scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was actually three different books, written by three different people, at three different times in history.
·        The first part of Isaiah, chapters 1 to 39, was from a time before the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon.  Isaiah the prophet attempted to warn the community of the crisis that was to come.
·        The second part of Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, was from the time of the Exile.  A later prophet, following in Isaiah’s tradition, sought to provide comfort and encouragement for the community struggling to maintain its life together during the crisis.
·        The third section, chapters 56 to 66, was from a time after the Exile, as a third prophet in the tradition of the first two intended to provide guidance to the Jews as they rebuilt their national life.  Along with the books of Ruth and Jonah, also from this time, this third section of Isaiah was an encouragement to the Jews to rebuild their community on a far more inclusive basis.

In today’s passage, from what we can call “Third Isaiah”, we find an image of God’s future expressed in terms of wholeness and well-being for humanity.  People live to a ripe old age.  People can enjoy the fruit of their own labour in safety and security.

The sense of security seen in this passage extends from the world of humanity to the wider world of nature.  We see this in the image of animals at different positions on the food chain eating together without eating each other.  This is the dramatic, yet peaceful image found in Edward Hicks’ paintings.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

As well, there's another dramatic image of peace from the book of Isaiah – in a passage we’ll hear in two weeks’ time on the first Sunday of Advent - an image of swords being beaten into ploughshares.  This other dramatic image is given visual expression in a statue found on the grounds of the United Nations building in New York, a statue that was a gift to the UN from the old Soviet Union.  In this statue, a muscular, athletic-looking bloke (possibly even one of Karl Marx’s “workers of the world”) is busily engaged in beating a dangerous-looking sword into a useable-looking plough.

They shall beat their bayonets into tractors,
and their Kalishnikovs into combine harvesters.

Back to our lesson, the images of peace and well-being we find in our lesson are affirmed as God’s initiative:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating; . . . .

While this is God’s initiative, however, we are not let off the hook.  With any of God’s activities, God calls humanity as a partner in the task of creation.  Now as always, God calls us to be partners in peacemaking.

As Christians, we celebrate God-as-Trinity.  In the love of Father, Son, and Spirit for one another, the living God whom we worship lives in community.  The profound love of God-as-Trinity spills over into profound love for the whole creation.  Thus, we affirm that God always takes the initiative in making peace and creating community, among humanity and among the whole created universe.

God calls us to join in the task of building community, of helping in God’s task of building the peaceable kingdom. 

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

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