|Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom|
This week I saw a heartwrenching video that began like a typical nature show, a cheetah hunting in the wild, stalking its prey, finally dashing out and snatching a baboon by the throat and dragging it off. When she drops it, blood on her mouth, she suddenly notices there is an infant clinging to the dead baboon mother.
The cheetah approaches it, teeth bared, mouth open and sniffs the tiny creature. Then she picks it up in her mouth and eventually takes it into a tree. She sets it carefully down on a limb and lays down next to it. The baby slips, and she tries to snatch it back up with her paw, finally climbing down and boosting it back up from below.
For five minutes this minute attention goes on, and all the while, you are aware that the cheetah could eat this miniature animal with one gulp. That, in fact, she had already hunted and killed its mother, and left that meal behind to focus on this tiny creature. Here she is, with a defenseless and weak prey in her giant paws. All laws of nature say she should kill it, she is its predator, she is hungry, there is nothing at all to stop her. But instead, she licks its head an face, and then she curves her paw around it cradling it against her chest, and lays down to sleep holding this the baby of her prey, and the clip ends.
I watched this whole thing with my heart pounding, scarcely daring to breathe.
Everything about it was wrong. It was terrifying – any second things could go wrong – or right? – again.
And there is no reason to think this would, or even could last.
How would the cheetah feed the baby baboon?
What would happen if it grew bigger?
That kind of order is not sustainable on this side of eternity – predators need to be predators to survive; prey will never be safe sleeping in the arms of predators. Babies can’t go sticking their arms in snakes’ holes, and nursing infants can’t be laid down right next to serpents. Wolves can’t live in dens with lambs, lions and calves can’t lie down together and sleep, and little children don’t lead us all. Not yet anyway.
And it is foolish, dangerous, even, to act as if these things are possible.
We are raised to fear. Fear things; fear each other. Fear keeps us safe; it keeps us from driving too fast, ingesting things that could kill us, balancing on high narrow ledges, leaving our baby in harm’s way unattended. Fear keeps us alive.
Our bodies are wired for fight or flight, we knew how to react when the saber tooth tiger approached, and we’ve honed that reaction in every traffic jam, frozen computer screen incident, infuriating argument, and long line at the grocery store, not to mention things like undergoing surgery, sending your kids away from home when they’re supposedly “grown up,” losing your job or wrapping your head around a terminal diagnosis.
Our lives are lived in a perpetual state of constant alert and carefully subdued terror, exhaustingly cued in to whatever disaster may be looming just ahead.
Our text tonight is written to people living in exile, who see no other way of life than captivity. Their fight or flight is honed in, they know the enemies and the predators, and they’ve learned the ways of self-protection. Aware of their own participation in bringing themselves to this point, the prophets warnings had come to pass, and any hope for the future has been obliterated. Now they would live under the oppressive rule indefinitely, and they were adjusting their lives and expectations to that reality. No point in wasting energy on foolish hope; today has enough worries of its own. There is no reason for God to intervene, we’ve turned away from God and God has turned away from us. The end.
Into this malaise comes this message from Isaiah, a message of strange, unafraid peace, brave, heart-stopping hope.
The third graders down at the Elementary School have just started a unit on poetry. This week they tromped up the hill three blocks in the - 4 degree weather to the neighborhood library to hear about poetry and pick out a poem book for the month. They’ll spend the month learning and reading and sharing about it. I kind of wish I could be a fly on the wall.
I don’t really get poetry. Until recently, I’ve assumed that means I don’t like it. But those delightful times when I do get it, it’s only because it gives me pictures. It makes me feel things by describing scenes, and while I may not get what the poet is trying to say, I can feel what the pictures evoke in me.
Isaiah’s picture-filled, poetic message to a people in exile imagines a new beginning, it opens up hope, like a tender green shoot from the dead edges from what had seemed over. The rule of David’s line was wiped out and the story ended. And yet, there’s more.
A whisper, a stirring movement, an unfolding seedling, and a savior comes.
And this savior brings God’s true justice, not swayed by the things that sway the rest of us, what we can see and hear, the natural order of things, but in wisdom and gentleness, with the Spirit of the Holy upon him, he will uphold the weak and strike down the wicked.
And this new beginning, ushered in by this savior, becomes a vivid scene of fearless, even contented, total creation harmony –radical, status-quo obliterating peace.
The "natural order" that demands we distrust one another, that we live in constant fear of predators, disease, disaster and death, will be so upset by the coming of Jesus that we will have nothing to fear.
No need to hunt and hide, to defend and protect. No need to educate about and arm against. No danger, no threat, no need to compete and struggle, to hoard and hunker.
Instead of division and striving, self-protection and fear, peace is right relationship with God and one another – the whole world and all its inhabitants is connection, interdependence, fully and trustingly living out their authentic purpose alongside all else doing the same.
In the reign of God, all people, all creatures in all the world will live freely, fully, unafraid, in Peace.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Last week Advent began byzooming us way way out, to the big picture. We looked at the prophet’s vision of hope, and the warning/promise that it could come at any moment –interrupting ordinary life with justice and rightness that would be shared by all; it’s coming, we said. And hope pointed us to the future and told us to live like that’s true.
Hope points us to God’s future. Peace IS God’s future.
Hope is what propels us forward; Peace is where we arrive.
Hope is temporary, a vehicle from here to there, perhaps even no longer needed when the reign of God comes in all its fullness.
Peace is the reign of God in all its fullness.
And again, now, we are invited to sit in Advent with the picture the prophet give us.
The peace the vision promises, the longing it evokes.
And also to know what he didn’t know at the time: that it has begun. The savior who comes, who shares life with us, invites us to live in hope, to anticipate peace. And while it is temporary, fleeting, felt now in glimpses and gasps, it nevertheless participates in the reign of God that is unfolding and one day will be all in all.
So, the times when things go against the “natural order”, when a lion does lay down with a lamb (or the cheetah with the baby baboon), when our courage rises past apprehension, when strangers reach out to help each other, when enemies sit down to a meal, when people stand up for each other and see each other and choose to share one another's place, the times we feel in sync with the beauty of the world and at rest, when we taste briefly that all is well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, we get a glimpse of what is coming, and we share in what is coming.
Those moments we refuse to adjust our lives and expectations to the captivity of perpetual fear, we join in the course-altering power of God’s peace. We're oriented to God's future again and told to live like it's true. And it is foolish, dangerous, even, to act as if these things are possible.
O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
Your people from despair and apathy;
Forge justice for the poor and the meek,
Grant safety for the young ones and the weak.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.
(Verse for O Come O Come Emmanual by Barbara Lundblad, shared on Working Preacher).