Monday, December 10, 2007

Dec. 9 Sermon, An Un-natural peace

Sermon Texts:
Matthew 3: 1-12
Isaiah 11: 1-10

“And a little child shall lead them….” This is perhaps one of our favorite images of the Kingdom of God—the Peaceable Kingdom. Isaiah casts his vision of what the world could be like, what the world will be like, when the Messiah comes. He uses the first few verses of our reading to describe the traits of the Messiah, then he spends the last few verses describing how the whole creation will respond to the leadership of the Messiah. It’s a beautiful vision, and one that has certainly made an imprint on our collective imaginations.
In this painting, made in 1820 by Edward Hicks, you see what is described by Isaiah, but you also see in the background the circumstances that caused this Quaker artist to portray such a thing. Here over the shoulders of the animals living in harmony, we see William Penn and the Indians arriving at a treaty for the settlement of Pennsylvania, which was accomplished in one of the more humane arrangements of the British colonies. Hicks painting is the perfect example of American optimism, a trait that would characterize us as a nation for the next century and beyond.
In this next portrayal of the peaceable kingdom, by John August Swanson, a contemporary artist, you see the focus of the painting on the child leading the animals, and the vivid colors and depth of the painting conveys especially well for me the wonder and mystery that is embedded in this scripture by Isaiah. So, because this is the image that I always see when I read this text, I’ll leave it here for you to focus on too as we delve into this prophecy a little more.
One of the first records that I owned was the Michael Jackson “Thriller” album. I remember being entranced with the fold out picture of Michael in his white suit, lounging on the floor, and then perched up on his knee was a Tiger cub. I used to envy Michael Jackson’s personal zoo of wild animals, all tamed and willing to play around with him.
One thing that strikes me about this passage from Isaiah, what jumps out to us all at first, is the bit about the animals co-existing peaceably, without any need to kill and devour each other. It is perhaps most striking because it is so un-natural.
But, perhaps peace is un-natural. When we are attacked, it is fairly instinctual for us to fight back, and yet, Jesus tells us “when someone slaps your face, offer the other cheek also.” Isaiah re-organizes the food chain in his vision of the kingdom. Babies are free to stick their hands into snake dens without any fear of being bitten. Cattle and lions munch straw together. Though this may be an ideal for Isaiah, I don’t think it would be for the fans and producers of “Animal Planet.” Seems like boring television to me!
Isaiah hits something on the head though when he reverses the natural order of things in this portrayal of the kingdom. He is symbolizing that many of those traits that come instinctually to us, war, reprisal, vengeance, violence, will be transcended with the coming of the Messiah. We will receive a new birth into a new world where humans have no fear of violence and bloodshed because the creation will be restored to its original blueprints.
In Genesis, Isaiah no doubt noticed that the Garden of Eden didn’t contain any predatory behavior. He probably read in Genesis 1:30, "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food"; and it was so.” And so Isaiah probably believed that a restoration to the natural order of things meant that creation didn’t inflict pain and suffering on itself in the quest for nourishment. The wolf lays with the lamb! The lion and the ox eat side by side?! The leopard and the kid?! What un-natural behavior! These are carnivores acting counter to their instincts. Or, are they transformed creatures? Are they “new creations” as Paul calls Christians in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5?
Isaiah also portrays some other un-natural behavior displayed by this “root of Jesse.” He says this leader will “not judge by what his eyes see, or by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Hmm. That doesn’t seem very natural either. Maybe Isaiah is cluing us into the seismic changes this kind of socio-economic change would have on the world by also speaking about the animal kingdom. If we expect that this kind of generosity and charity shown toward those who are poor and meek will just “naturally” come about as our society becomes more enlightened and compassionate, we are sorely mistaken.
Someone will always step in to stamp out the progress of the poor. There will always be those who view the power of the powerful resting on the firm foundation of the meekness of the meek. We must strive for the justice and peace of the world, but it won’t come if we discard God and prayer for technology and rationality. Technology and rationality are wonderful things, they are gifts of the living God, but when we abandon our hope and our faith in the power and grace of God for the solid and seemingly substantial power of technology and rationality, we are on a fool’s errand.
Isaiah told of the Messiah bearing the “Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might.” These virtues don’t come naturally to us. They must be bestowed on us by our creator. They are as unnatural to us as straw is to a lion. Yet, they are virtues we have the capacity for when we walk in the light of God. They are qualities that can change the world for the better through us if we open our minds and hearts to the fire of the Spirit.
So, how can we mirror this un-natural proclamation in our lives? First of all, we can pray consistently and regularly for the Spirit’s guidance, especially when it comes to acting on the behalf of justice for the poor and the meek. If we think we will just “naturally” arrive at a passion for helping those in need, we will probably go through our whole lives without ever helping those who are less fortunate. It isn’t natural for us to show concern for and expend our time and resources helping those who are on the down and out. If Darwin is right, and natural selection of the fittest is the evolution of ours and all other species, then it is far from natural for those of us of power to be concerned with the well-being of the poor and meek.
It is God’s pervasive and persuasive compassion that spills over into our own hearts and souls that stirs compassion in us, not some kind of natural response to suffering. The natural response to suffering is to turn our backs on it and run away. But God has made us more than simple slaves to our instinct. Even when our gut sometimes says “turn away,” and “run away,” our God speaks to us through our hearts and says “turn not thy face from me,” “abide here with me.”
We need God’s inspiration to be God’s people and servants in the world. It’s not just going to come to us because we find our rear end in a pew a couple Sundays a month. We need to be on our knees praying for God to mold us and make us the instruments of this branch of Jesse. We need to put to use those gifts which we call “fruit of the Spirit,” which spring from this very branch. We need to follow our Master’s lead in not judging by what we see and hear, but instead on the guidance of God.
If we want the peace that is pictured in these beautiful verses of Isaiah, then we need to recognize that peace isn’t accomplished without justice. If we want peace, we must pray and work for justice. This isn’t just a socio-economic reality. If you want peace in your family, then you must address the difficult things that we might rather sweep under the rug. If you want peace within yourself, then you must rectify the wrongs you may have wrought on yourself. For some this may come in the act of forgiving yourself. For others, it may come in holding yourself accountable for some buried sin.
Another way that we can open our hearts and minds to the life changing Spirit who makes us “supernatural,” is by consciously gravitating to the opposite of the way we “normally” or “naturally” do things. We bury ourselves in the comforting pillows of what comes “naturally” to us sometimes to the extent that we muffle out the voice of the Spirit. This season, As a way to prepare for the Christ child who turns the world upside down, try turning your own world upside down in little ways.
Do you more naturally seek comfort in the fellowship of others? Try withdrawing from others so that the Spirit can speak to you in the silence. Do you more often retreat from the world when the going gets tough? Look for solace in conversation or in the vibrancy of being surrounded by others.
Do you cherish the image that some may have of you as one who “tells it like it is,” or “always speaks his mind?” Try being more indirect. Are you one who shrinks from giving your opinion? Try speaking up.
Are you one who takes the initiative all the time? Try restraining your power. Or, perhaps you feel more comfortable “following the leader.” Maybe it is time for you to step out on a new path and lead people in a new direction.
I’m not saying this to discredit your self-understanding. I’m suggesting this as an exercise that may bring us to greater self-understanding. What we may think of as our “natural” inclination, our instinct, may simply be a barrier to the Spirit’s movement through us. Our Bible is full of stories of people who were asked by God to do things that made them very uncomfortable—for God to achieve justice and peace on this earth, it is going to take us behaving in ways that seem very unnatural. So don’t let your faith be lulled to sleep with the false notion that God will never ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable with. Sometimes grace strips us of the natural, and clothes us with something mysterious and supernatural!

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