Friday, December 2, 2016

Waiting for the Peaceable Kingdom: Reflections on Isaiah 11.1-10 (RCL Advent 2A, 4 December 2016)

Waiting for the Peaceable Kingdom
Reflections on Isaiah 11.1-10

RCL Advent 2A
4 December 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

'The Peaceable Kingdom' by Edward Hicks (circa 1828)
        More than seven hundred years before the advent of Jesus of Nazareth a priest and prophet living in the southern kingdom of Judah received a series of revelations from the God of Israel.  These revelations came at a time of political and social disintegration as both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were slowly and surely absorbed into the Assyrian Empire.  We know this priest and prophet as Isaiah, son of Amoz, a name which can mean ‘Yahweh has saved’ or ‘Yahweh may save’.  Perhaps his parents, keenly aware of the crisis into which their son was being born, chose a name to express their deepest hope that Yahweh, the God of Israel, would bring the two kingdoms safely out of the crisis just as surely as God had brought the people out of Egypt.

         The kings of Judah, David’s successors, were weak and inconsequential when compared to the kings of the neighbouring nations; they were, as Isaiah describes them, ‘the stump of Jesse’.  Yet Isaiah believed that the kings of Judah reigning in Jerusalem were a divine institution and that any future messianic kingdom would be led by a descendant of David.  But this future messianic kingdom would not be perfect because ‘some people will still be poor, others ruthless or wicked.  The difference from the current age will lie, rather, in the king’s response to these problems:  He will always render accurate and fair judgments” (The Jewish Study Bible).  Isaiah shared the common view of Near Eastern peoples of this time that “the mark of a truly righteous king is his willingness to protect the poor and his nation’s other marginalized groups, especially widows and orphans” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible).  As Isaiah speaks, “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 . . . . Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Isaiah 11.3b-4a, 5)

         When we set this beautiful vision of an ideal kingdom of justice and equity in context, a world in which even the natural order reflects a new harmony between predator and prey, we realize that this is a message predicated on the ending of one world before the new world can begin.  It is an acknowledgement that we inhabit a world that is not just, where inequity flourishes and the natural world suffers the consequences of human greed and selfishness.

         Let us jump forward many centuries.  The final decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth were times of considerable religious fervour in North America.  Not only were the so-called ‘mainline’ traditions establishing themselves in the changed political environment following the American Revolution, but there was a strong ‘end of times’ spirituality that burned on the frontier of European settlements, both in Canada and in the United States.  The Shakers, a break-away sect from the Quakers, established communes in which celibacy was maintained and Mother Anne, the founder of the movement, was considered the incarnation of the feminine dimension of Jesus Christ.  A young man in western New York by the name of Joseph Smith would experience a revelation that led him to discover what he called ‘another testament of Jesus Christ’ and to start a movement we now know as the Mormons.

         During these decades a young Quaker minister and artist by the name of Edward Hicks began to paint.  Among his works is a scene he would paint some sixty-one times in his life and which he called ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’.  His inspiration came from today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah with its proclamation of an ideal world in which ‘(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.’ (Isaiah 11.6)  Often his paintings of this theme included, in the background, a scene of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania Colony, signing a landmark treaty with the native people of the Colony.

         Hicks was concerned by what he saw as a growing worldliness on the part of his contemporaries as well as by the growing number of divisive sects and splits within the various religious communities of the time.  His reverence for William Penn did not blind Hicks to the fact that the native people of the United States were not treated with the respect and justice that Penn had shown to them in the early days of Pennsylvania.  In some versions of ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ it is possible to sense some of Hicks’ growing despair:  the colours are darker and the scene of Penn with the native people is omitted.  One senses that Hicks is holding on to Isaiah’s vision even as that vision seems to slip further and further into a very distant future.

         Isaiah and his interpreter, Edward Hicks, hold before us what I believe is God’s most urgent task in the world today:  the bringing into being of a genuine peaceable kingdom where justice and equity for all people, regardless of any of the natural or imagined distinctions we identify, and where the resources of our world are used responsibly and fairly so that every human being has fullness of life and the creation itself flourishes.

         But how does God achieve this mission?  While there are many ways in which God accomplishes the divine purposes in creation, I want to focus on one means that God uses --- you and I,  the community of the baptized believers who follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  Throughout the biblical witness God consistently employs human agents to achieve the divine purposes and, in these last days, my sisters and brothers, we, the church, are called to be agents of God.  One of Isaiah’s contemporaries, the prophet Micah, gives us the agenda for how we are to participate in this mission:  “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).

         We are called to be ‘the peaceable kingdom’ for which we wait, to offer to those in whose midst we live and work a foretaste of what is to come.  When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, no human being shall be treated as a means to someone else’s end.  When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, we shall all live in that covenant love and faithfulness that God offers to every human being.   When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, every human being shall be as fully alive as Jesus of Nazareth has shown us such fullness of life. 

         But you and I know all too well that this kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness.  Even in countries that are committed to the dignity of every citizen, injustice and indignity still exist.  Even in countries that are ‘developed’ and prosperous, the gap between rich and poor grows every year. 

         But as we wait for that kingdom to come, we can each, with the means God has given us and the opportunities that present themselves to us, act in such a way that others may catch a glimpse of the promised kingdom.  And sometimes just a glimpse of the beauty that awaits all us is enough to fuel the hope that it is us that the day shall come when ‘. . . we and all God’s children shall be free and the whole earth [shall live] to praise [God’s holy] name’.

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