The Peaceable, Impossible Kingdom, and we who hope in it

The other day Jeanne (our music director) pointed out to me that all these passages we have lately seem to say the same things. And she’s right. That’s part of Advent. We have artificially broken out these ideas into four weeks – hope, peace, joy and love-  but all of them are nestled in the darkness of Advent speaking out a reality that embodies the kingdom of God in full hope, and peace that floods the earth like water in the sea, and joy that springs neverending from the souls of all the people on earth, and love that defines and defends everyone.  They all have these grand and sweeping prophetic promises of God’s coming future. 
Reading these things, week after week, can potentially begin to feel mocking if we actually listen to their words because they speak about things that are completely impossible, visions of peace beyond anything we could begin to fathom.

“The peaceable kingdom” we call this vision in Isaiah 11.  In this vision a “a shoot springs from the stump of Jesse” – new promise from the line of David – (Jesse was King David’s father), life where things seemed over and done with, and such life it is! Where fierce predators lie down next to their vulnerable prey and they eat peacefully side by side and a young child leads the way – utter fantasy.  And we continue to read these various visions week after week in Advent in the midst of a world that seems farther and farther from anything resembling true peace.
And yet we keep going with this, as though somehow saying that God came to the world to save us at Christmas, and then talking about this beautiful and peaceful world God promises makes any difference at all in our day to day lives.  
So do we really believe in this idea put out there by scripture that seems utterly disconnected from reality?  Advent can send us into a real quandary if we allow it to.

But week after week, for a while anyway, we keep reading these things, and every week we put ourselves in that uncomfortable place of waiting for God.  
We read these Old Testament texts that seem to anticipate Jesus, God with us, as the promise of peace and hope.  We say, and sometimes even believe, that God has come and joined us even in this waiting, giving us in blood and flesh the promise of the future for which we wait, but nevertheless, we still wait.
Whenever we feel the horror that cancer still claims the ones we love and so does alcoholism, and anger, we are still waiting. 
Whenever we feel that disconnect between the love we know ties us to each other profoundly and the terrible things that come out of our mouths instead, or the petty things that come between us, we are still waiting.
Broken hearts and broken bodies and broken promises and the general breakdown of just about everything and everyone around us means we are waiting waiting waiting and it’s only so long you can wait before you start to ask, where are you God?

And the temptation with Advent and Christmas is to want to avoid this question and the deep and fearsome places it takes us, so we loiter in the shallows and stay surface, cheerful and strained, and we act like we’re basically satisfied with how things are, and so thankful for the good old fashioned religion that Christmas gives us - it’s just enough to dull the pain.
Or we widen the gap between the honest and the “faithful” by somehow believing that because we have Jesus we should be feeling more peaceful and hopeful and joyful and loving than we are. Or telling ourselves in the midst of some darkness or another that if we just prayed hard enough a miracle would happen, or that if we only had more faith we wouldn’t BE suffering or feeling so lost or confused.  And we might even say to other people in the midst of their own darkness that if they just believed in God, everything will be ok even if we don’t really believe that ourselves, or even if we do.

The truth is, Advent is the biggest joke around if every single year we say, Yay! Jesus is coming into the world to save us! and then we say it again the next year and again the year after that and in the meantime people still die and life is still hard and nothing at all ever changes, but we pretend every 12 months that somehow Christmas is supposed to be some big thing.  
But when we turn from the darkness in favor of a cheap, flickering lightbulb then we are about as from Advent’s true intent or the real meaning of Christmas as one can get.
So how do we keep waiting faithfully?
Or more to the point, how in faith, do we keep waiting?

However, the kingdom of God that is coming is also already here, we say. So, year after year, on behalf of a world that is mostly without hope we wait for hope, and live like it’s real.  And for a people nearly devoid of peace we wait for peace, and live like its real. And for a culture that is rarely truly joyful and very often unloving, we wait for joy and love, and live into the joy and celebrate the love we’ve sampled. 

We wait for those who don’t know there is something to be waiting for, and we wait for ourselves too because we need hope as much as the next person and peace is just as scarce in our own homes as it is anywhere else. 

Because God has come, we wait as those with whom God waits. We wait as the community in which the Spirit of the living Christ dwells, and we long for the fullness of God because we have tasted it from time to time and we know it is good.  As the people of the kingdom of God, waiting is something we must do.

Advent is the gift that rouses us from our complacency, when we start to accept the darkness as status quo, when we stop seeing the light or looking for it, and settle instead for a twilight existence.  Advent’s gift is that it reminds us to keep waiting.

So we wait as those impatient, urgent, saying, Come Lord Jesus! because we know God has come and is coming. We know that cancer isn’t the final word and disease and despair are not what defines people.  And so we, of all people, have a reason to cry out about the world’s pain and darkness. We, of all people, have eyes to see that the darkness does not belong and so to rage against it even as we trust in the one who is the light whom the darkness can never overcome.

A few weeks ago I preached about eschatological imagination. We were reading from a similar text in Isaiah, where the writer imagines the new heaven and new earth, and even mentions “the wolf and the lamb feeding together, the lion eating straw like an ox” along with all sorts of other descriptions of a people cared for and secure.  I said that it was the vivid and specific imagining of a reality that comes from God’s future and not from our own hands that gives us the courage to see and live into the kingdom of God now.
And I shared a story about Owen living from his eschatological imagination, being able to talk honestly with a boy who had been teasing him, and to reach out in friendship to this child even though Owen had felt so belittled by him. He had let himself be so taken with the vision of a way of living where people could be strong without making others weak, gotten so grounded in that view of the world through the lens of God’s future, that he lived from that place even though it wasn’t what he had been experiencing.  I posted the sermon on my blog and a few days later, I got this response:

Bronwen said...
hi Kara,
I'm in Adelaide, Australia. Thanks for this - my family was burgled last week, including surprising the intruder inside our kitchen at 3am when I'd just re-settled the baby I'd been up feeding... One of the things I've been struggling with since is how to manage my jangled nerve endings and concern for the safety of my son and partner - and to balance this "rational" fear with our desire to live open and welcoming lives. We don't want to put bars on our windows and huge "keep-out" fences around our yard. We want to engage with the community in which we live - we've been inviting neighbours and passers-by to pick and eat the vegies we grow just outside our fence line, for instance. So, your story about Owen hit a spot for me - in our eschatological imagination, we want our neighbourhood to be a place where people can sleep safely at night - where there aren't people so desperate for quick cash (for drugs, or whatever) that they will invade someone else's home... where we can engage with each other with interest, and care, rather than fear. I guess I'm in the middle of "wrestling" with just how to do this at the moment... thanks for the encouragement!

In this cycle-  me sharing my little boy’s story here in this little church in Minnesota, Bronwen sharing her story from Australia, me sharing hers with you, we are all seeing the darkness and living from the light, we are letting the vision of peace and harmony speak into a reality where it is often sorely absent.  It is not easy to live from this place; I am awed by Bronwen’s courage to wrestle with how to do that.  But sharing our stories, welcoming each other in our struggles and struggling together is living the kingdom of God, and sharing our stories, welcoming each other in our struggles and struggling together gives us strength to live, and wait, faithfully.

Throughout this season in our church, our big question has been What is church? And we’ve asked it each week.

When we recalled the story about the Israelites rebuilding the temple after returning from exile we said that the church is where God resides – that we are the people who retell and remember God’s faithfulness in the past and share the stories of God’s presence with us now.  This is living in the kingdom of God.

When we encountered these visions in Isaiah the first time around We said the church is a people with eschatological imagination – that we live from the future reality instead of what we can see, we let ourselves be guided by visions of hope, wholeness, respect, mutuality and love – which are promised to the world when God’s fullness is all in all, and shared in the world now.  This is living in the kingdom of God.

When we saw on Christ the King Sunday our king hanging on a cross and dying, we saw that God’s kingdom is the kind of kingdom that is best revealed in the person of a crucified God, and so we recognize that suffering is part of the human story and that God shares it with us.  We said that the church is the people who see and hear that God’s kingdom is breaking in all around is and so we watch for and join in its unfolding.
And we saw that God reveals God’s kingdom in the daily stuff of life, so we seek ways to actively participate in its coming in all sorts of ordinary ways, listening, praying, helping, caring, singing and sharing.  This is living the kingdom of God.

Today, with another vision of God’s future, and the words of promise and blessing to the community of faith, we see the church as the people who wait together and hope together, guided by a vision of peace. We share our stories of struggling and welcome everyone and their own stories of struggling.  We hope with and for each other, and for the world when there seems to be no hope of peace. We are the community of shared hope who struggle, and wait, together.  This is living the kingdom of God.

May we, with all the collective courage and conviction of a people who have glimpsed the future’s peace in the person of Christ, again wait faithfully for the coming of our Lord.

The famous painting by 19th century Quaker Edward Hicks' comes to mind, which went through 61 versions, with the preditors' faces becoming progressively more ferocious.

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